One of the most important things in writing is to know the voice of your audience so you can write to it. This is true in screenwriting, copywriting, and of course, sermon writing.
The difficulty I struggle with here in Greenville is the fact that I did not grow up on a farm or work on an assembly line. I have no idea what its like to be a C & C operator or to win first place at a 4H fair. Even though I was raised in a town smaller than Carson City, I would come of age in a city with a population larger than the state of Michigan. Our worlds sometimes seem worlds apart.
If I am going to speak your language, I have to keep my eyes and ears open, and observe the world around me. I now know when people talk about the “sax” Dan Eagles wears I know they aren’t talking about the musical instrument. As much as I have learned so far, it’s hard to speak of these observations with confidence or authority without some fear that I might offend the cultural norms of rural Michigan.
As I looked at this week’s scriptures, I couldn’t shake the feeling that God has called us, in a sense, to be offensive. That is to say, we have been called to offend the status quo, and do so by defending what God intended. As the prophetic voices of their generation. Both Jeremiah and Jesus did this very well.
This summer, Hollywood released a movie called “Straight Outta Compton” that gives us a biographical look at the rise of a different kind of prophecy: Gangsta Rap. With it’s gritty and violent lyrics, gangsta rap is often seen as a threat to our decency and morality. As such, politicians and parental groups fought hard to censor it. But failed to do so. The film opens with these prophetic and poetic words, “You are about to witness the strength of street knowledge.”
Looking through the lens of five young black teenagers, we see the story of the rise and fall of the band N.W.A. come to life. Five street poets, whose prophetic voices and profound prose would created the most lucrative commercial music in American history. They did this simply by speaking truth to the various emotions that were boiling over in the ghettos and barrios of the world.
With a tough and righteous attitude, the band comes of age in the gang-infested streets of Compton, where poverty and drug violence live in tension with racial profiling and police brutality. At a press conference one of the members, Dr. Dre, tells the reporters, “Our art is a reflection of our reality.” Then he asks, “What do you see when you walk out your door?”
Poetry was their weapon to survive life. By connecting the raw language of the streets to hip hop music N.W.A. became the prophetic voice that empowered a new generation to stand up against the socio-political status quo that had literally imprisoned them their entire life.
There is something to be said about poets and prophets being one in the same.
Through the use of powerful and imaginative words, they can disrupt a seemingly secure economic system simply by calling it out, and making it public. While they can put the words to music, or pen to a page, it’s up to us to see and hear…and react accordingly. God has called each of us by name to stand against every violation of God’s righteousness and love, even if we have to speak words that offend others.
Perhaps that’s the reason why calls from God are scary.
Jeremiah was just a kid when God calls him to do something really big. Grown up big. In fact it is so big that it takes the guts of a young child with…little understanding of the ramifications…of what God is calling him to do…to get it done. Jeremiah was singled out by God to cast judgment upon those who were exploiting their political power in the name of God.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that God chose a child to do an adult’s job. After all, justice is one of the first things we learn as children. Kids have no problem throwing a fit when it’s out of balance. But something happens when we come of age. We change. We no longer throw temper-tantrums. Instead, we become afraid, or complacent. We make excuses when we should be making a difference.
This is nothing new. Making excuses goes back all the way to Adam and Eve. Jeremiah tried to wriggle out of what God was calling him to do by using Moses’ famous excuse, “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
It’s easy to shrug off our responsibility to God by stating, “I can’t do that because I didn’t go to seminary.” Or “I don’t have the time or anything worth giving.” Or “I’m too new to the church to be of any help.” Jeremiah speaks to us, in our language, to show us that fear, anxiety, resistance, inadequacy, and even resentment is an understandable reaction to doing what God has called us to do. Still it’s no excuse.
It’s true that most of us are not trained for these tasks. Or if we are trained we feel ill prepared. Yet if God’s call is about experience or skills, God does not tell this to Jeremiah. God doesn’t tell him, “Don’t worry because I have a trade school for prophets.” Instead he hears God utter that wonderful and angelic phrase, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”
Through these words, God gives us all an offer of salvation and a promise of protection. No matter how far we may go from the call of God, no matter how many reasonable excuses we may offer, God is there watching out for us, and giving us the words to say.
Think about it. The Holy Scriptures, if read correctly, is an offensive book, purposely and purposefully. It is offensive because its very message stands in opposition to the power of culture and politics. It’s a dynamic force that’s impossible to silence. This is why it is imperative that we read it daily. And get to know it intimately. We might not always understand the words written in it but remember, God gives us the words. And so God will give us a way to hear it and understand it so it may touch our heart and transform our life.
The Word of God cannot be silence.
Jesus discovers this when he is invited to preach at his home church. Luke tells us that the people who had watched him come of age were amazed by his gracious words, and yet sought to throw him off a cliff for proclaiming them.
Jesus brought them hope; an end to oppression, injustice and exploitation. They tried to censor him. He told them their faith was no longer wishful thinking, but now realized and fulfilled. And so they killed him. But not even death could silence God’s power.
Jesus offended his own religious system, because he challenged their old and familiar routine, an imbalance of power that dominated the worship of the God of Israel. In essence, they feared the truth because they feared change.
As followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to change the world. Christ transforms us, empowers us by the Spirit and commissions us to offend…with great purpose…any system that violates the steadfast love and righteousness of God.
“God anointed us to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, and to recover of sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free.” If we love our neighbors as God intended, then we have no need for any enterprise that exploits such love.
God has given us the voice to use poetic words to speak of judgment and of good news. We may feel too young, too stupid, too afraid, or too whatever to do what God has called us to do. But if we are to be mature in our faith, we must give over these fears and feelings to God. We can no longer ignore the music, the words, and the feelings we have.
Our call to serve God demands that we speak God’s words of truth in daily life, in a language that wakes people up. And with actions that get their attention. God’s word teaches us how to live in a way that respects the dignity of every human being, balances the distribution of justice, and lets the face of Christ emerge in the love of our neighbors.
Each of us has a poetic voice, and a prophetic call to mature our faith in our Creator God, who like a child, longs to see the world set right.
Bible, NRSV. Jeremiah 1:4-9; Luke 4:16-30.
Bartlett, David L, Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word, Year C, . Vol. 1. 4 vols. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Brueggemann, Walter. “The Earth Awakens.” Sojourners, January 2016: 17-19.