(Sermon for Sunday, August 22, 2010 || Proper 16, Year C, RCL || Jeremiah 1:4-10)
Human nature urges us to shy away from thing we aren’t too good at. Boys at the middle-school dance tend to add their support to the structural integrity of the gymnasium rather than venturing out onto the dance floor. Folks who don’t have the best singing voices often lament the fact that they are “tone-deaf,” which, statistically speaking, is unlikely. I’ve never been a strong swimmer, so I keep to the shallows, or more often, the shore. We all nurse feelings of inadequacy – whether in dancing, singing, swimming, or whatever might be your particular constellation of shortcomings.
These inadequacies define as just as much as our strengths do. But while strengths define us positively, like an artist drawing shapes on a canvas, inadequacies fill up the negative space around those shapes. Our discomforts, our shortcomings, our inadequacies press in from outside of us, telling us that, no matter our strengths, we are failures. We are failures before we even try because we know we’ll never be any good, and therefore, we never try new things, we never step out of comfort zones. And when we never step out of comfort zones, they never have the chance to expand. As such, the feeling of inadequacy greatly impedes growth of all sorts: physical, emotional, spiritual.
But God, I think, sees our inadequacies from a different perspective than we do. To us, our inadequacy is an impediment. To God, our inadequacy is an opportunity for God to display God’s glory. This morning’s lesson from Hebrew Scripture demonstrates this perspective.
Jeremiah’s feelings of inadequacy prompt him to attempt to dissuade God from calling him to be a prophet. But God has no inclination to heed Jeremiah’s argument. Rather, God seems to call Jeremiah specifically because of the boy’s feelings of inadequacy, not in spite of them. Notice how God answers Jeremiah’s single piece of dialogue in the passage. After God informs Jeremiah that God has appointed him to be a prophet to the nations, Jeremiah says, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
God hears these words and keys in on the second half. “Do no say, “I am only a boy,” God says. Your youth doesn’t matter because I am with you to deliver you. You can’t help being your age. If I wanted someone older I’d call someone else. But no similar assurance addresses Jeremiah’s inadequacy in speaking. God never tries to assure Jeremiah by saying, “Do not say, ‘I do not know how to speak.’” Rather, God uses Jeremiah’s inadequacy in speaking as an opportunity to put God’s own words in Jeremiah’s mouth. God sees room for growth in Jeremiah, and God fills that room with God’s own words.
For his part, Jeremiah knows he is an inadequate speaker. But when he points this out to God, his argument backfires. What Jeremiah doesn’t realize is that God picks him precisely because of his inadequacy. This is a pattern throughout the Hebrew Scripture. Moses has a speech impediment, but God still calls him to stand up before Pharaoh. David wears no armor and carries only a sling and stones when he challenges Goliath, the Philistine champion. Gideon drastically reduces the numbers of his army – from 22,000 to three hundred – when he contends with the Midianites. In each of these cases, the human vessel called to work God’s purpose is laughably inadequate to the task at hand. And every time, God’s purpose succeeds.
God works through human inadequacy to display God’s own glory. In a sense, God is showing off. But this is not vanity, because God shows off for our sakes. I’ve mentioned before in sermons that we humans are a pretty thick lot. We often have trouble attributing our giftedness to God, which allows the sin of pride to creep in at ground level and start rotting out our appreciation for God’s blessing. This trouble magnifies greatly for gifts that we perceive we’ve always had. The constancy of our strengths makes us less apt to remember to thank God for them.
But we have a much easier time thanking God for abilities we’ve had to work hard to obtain. God cultivates growth in us by targeting our inadequacies. We remember what the inadequacy felt like when we didn’t have certain abilities, and so we thank God for helping us to step outside of our comfort zones and try new things. This is my experience with learning how to sing, and I’m willing to bet each of you can think of a similar example in your own lives.
God knows our trouble at offering thanks for our strengths, and so God insists on working through our inadequacies to remind us that God is the giver of all gifts. Rather than viewing inadequacy as an impediment, we can see it as God sees it. Our inadequacies are opportunities for us to invite God to work through us in new ways.
Think about your own most recent shortcoming. How can you invite God to work through this inadequacy? Perhaps God might say something like this:
“Do not worry that you don’t know how to speak. I do. I’ve been speaking creation into existence since time began. Borrow my speech and soon it will become yours.”
“Do not worry that you can’t turn down a fight. I did. My son went to the cross in order to show that violence does not have to beget violence. Borrow my courage and soon it will become yours.”
“Do not worry that you can’t sustain a relationship. I can. I have been the husband and the parent of my people for as long as anyone can remember, and I have never broken my promise to them. Borrow my love and soon it will become yours.”
Whatever our shortcomings, whatever our inadequacies, God can work through them to display God’s glory. God uses the inadequacy of Jeremiah to put God’s words in his mouth. God uses the inadequacies of Moses, David, and Gideon. And not just them: Jacob was a cheat. Joseph was a prima donna. Jonah hightailed it in the opposite direction. Rahab was a prostitute. Ruth was a stranger in a strange land. Rachel had trouble conceiving a child. Paul was a persecutor. Ehud was left-handed. Aaron built an idol five minutes after he heard the commandment not to. And not to mention, the disciples fled.
So why not us? Thousands of years may have passed, but our shortcomings, our inadequacies are the same. (Well, being left-handed isn’t so bad anymore.) Our strengths are opportunities for us to thank God for how God has always worked through us. But we thick humans have never been so great at that. And so God works through our inadequacies, granting us the ability to grow in God’s grace and praise God for all of God’s good gifts.
This week, I invite you to ask God to work in you, to work through your deficiencies. Pray to God for the courage to take a step outside of your comfort zone. Pray for the hospitality to welcome a stranger into your midst. Pray for the trust to give up some of your resources toward the work of God in the world. Pray for the peace necessary to stop in the midst of this swirling world and find God in the middle of your day. Pray to God to work through your inadequacy, and soon you will discover new strengths, which you can use to serve God in your lives.