SERMON OF AUGUST 22, 2010
M. Bruce McKay
Pilgrim-St. Luke’s United Church of Christ
“Yada, Yada, Yada”
Psalm 139:1-17, Jeremiah 1:4-10; I John 4:7-8, 16-21
My parents finished the basement in our home when I was very young. They made it into a family room with comfortable furniture and our first television set.
One afternoon I was down there playing.
Coming down the basement stairs to check on me, my mother was surprised to hear me carrying on an animated conversation. She was sure I was by myself.
“Who are you talking to?” she asked.
“Oh, I’m talking to God” I told her.
Now I wasn’t the first child to have a friend who others didn’t know was there.
“Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, `Before I formed you in the womb I knew you…’” (Jeremiah 1:5a)
Whenever the Bible says, “the word of the Lord came to me,” I can’t help but wonder how in the world that happened.
Did God send someone to tell Jeremiah about his call to be a prophet?
Did he hear it from his father Hilkiah who was a priest in Anatoth in the land of Benjamin?
Or maybe it was his mother who brought him this word – or another family member or friend.
Was he sitting in worship? Walking through town? Eating a meal?
The Bible doesn’t tell us. Like so many things it leaves it to our imagination to wonder about how this word of the Lord came to Jeremiah.
What it doesn’t leave to our imagination is the message the word conveyed.
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.”
One way or another Jeremiah knew that God knew him. Not in the sense of knowing about him or knowing who he was, but in the sense of having a relationship with him, an intimate, loving, life-giving relationship.
The word in Hebrew is yada. It’s the same word that is used when Adam “knew” Eve…and she conceived Cain. (Genesis 4:1)
It’s the same word popularized by Jerry Seinfeld in the 1997 “Yada” episode of his TV show. “Since its pop-culture debut, we’ve been saying `yada, yada, yada’ when we want to gloss over sexual encounters, avoid incriminating details, or (when) cut out parts of a story to get to the punch line.” (http://yadadrop.com/about/what-does-yada-mean)
Given the stormy relationship between Jeremiah and God it’s not difficult to see the prophet saying to God, “yada, yada, yada” when it came to him responding to God’s constant communication.
Having been in this pulpit more than 20 years and having to share something about my faith journey this morning with people who’ve head me preach throughout those years, you too may be thinking, if not saying, “yada, yada, yada” at this very moment.
“Get to the point already! What’s all this got to do with your faith journey or mine?”
The first question is, what did it have to do with Jeremiah’s faith journey.
At the heart of Jeremiah’s call by God was the conviction that he was known intimately by God – in a loving, life-giving relationship.
The Hebrew word for womb in its plural form means compassion. Knowing that he was known by the compassion of God, the womb-like love of God was where it all began for Jeremiah and where it all begins for us.
At the heart of his call was the conviction that he was known by God – loved by God – not for what he’d done or for what he would do but for who he was.
“God is love,” we hear in another of today’s texts. And “in this is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us…” (I John 4:8,10).
I grew up in a house that became a home because I knew that I was loved from a very early age.
I don’t remember talking to God as a child. My mother told me that story years later, when it became safe to do so – long after I’d responded to what I understood to be God’s call and God’s claim on my life.
While I don’t remember talking to God, I do remember knowing as fully as I knew anything at all that I was loved – by family members, friends and neighbors.
The struggle for me wasn’t knowing that I was loved, it was knowing that I was loved for who I was not what I did – knowing that the love in my life that mattered most wasn’t conditioned on my getting good grades, minding my manners or keeping my nose clean.
When I was a teenager, about the age of Jeremiah when his call came, I was particularly aware of the difference between the person I presented myself to be and the person I knew myself to be. Whether it was due to teenage angst or my prior life experience, I can’t say for sure. But I was very sure of one thing - if anyone really knew me they wouldn’t love me.
Do you know what I mean?
Does anyone here know what I mean?
Can I get an amen?
That’s why we can’t just say, “yada, yada, yada” without somehow getting to a place on our journey where the word of the Lord that comes to us, as it came to Jeremiah, convinces us that we are known and loved by God based on who we are not what we do.
“Before I formed you in your mother’s womb I knew you. I loved you then and I’ve been loving you ever since – not for what you’ve done, but for who you are as a child of mine!”
I was sitting in a back pew of the Center Church in Harford, CT. Having been underwriting casualty and property insurance for large accounts with the Travelers Insurance Company for over 2 years after college, I was clear that this wasn’t my life’s calling.
I was clear that I was enjoying coaching a pee wee football team more than I enjoyed underwriting insurance.
I was clear that I didn’t particularly like, let alone love, the person I was becoming as I climbed the corporate ladder.
What wasn’t clear was who I was or what it meant for me to live my own life.
I started sitting in that back pew on Sunday mornings because something or someone told me that doing this might help me figure that out.
Sitting in that back pew one Sunday, physically present but not fully there, I was going over in my mind the Pee Wee Patriot practice the day before. I was intent on making my point to the starting quarterback and was leaning over talking to him through his face mask.
“Coach McKay,” he said, “Your breath kills,”
Thinking about that in church, I ruled out a career in coaching, but still wasn’t at all clear on what I was called to do.
Not long after that, sitting in that same back pew, I heard the preacher preface the day’s reading by saying that this passage presents the heart of the Gospel – the heart of the Good News about who God is and who we are.
And he began to read John 3:16 - “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have eternal life.”
Hearing “for God so loved the world…” I knew in my mind, as I’d always known, that I was part of the world and I somehow knew in my heart, in a way that I’d never known before, that God knew me. I knew that I was known by God and I knew that I wanted to know God, the same way God knew me.
I knew that I wanted to love God, the same way God loved me in Jesus Christ.
In the weeks and months that followed this experience I realized that for me this meant going to seminary. I suspected that I was being called to be a pastor – even though all I’d done was sit in a back pew. I’d never taught Sunday School, worked with young people, served on a committee or said a word in church.
Jeremiah at first thought God surely had the wrong number when the call came for him to be a prophet: “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” (Jeremiah 1:6)
Jeremiah was afraid that he was too young, and afraid that he didn't know how to speak well enough to be a prophet. And there was more that he was afraid of, for God went on to say, "Do not be afraid of them..." - those who may reject your leadership, make fun of you, or persecute you in some way - "Do not be afraid of them..."
Knowing that we are known by God brings with it the desire to know God more fully, to love God more faithfully. This can’t help but lead us to doing things we’ve never done before – perhaps things we’ve never even dreamed of doing before.
The chances are pretty good that we, like Jeremiah, will think God must have had the wrong number when our call comes.
Chances are that we, like Jeremiah, will find ourselves on anything but a safe ride or a smooth journey.
I remember well my first preaching class. Terror would not be too strong a word to describe how I felt delivering a sermon to the other students and teacher for the first time.
My heart was pounding, making it a struggle to breath. As I stumbled over words and lost my train of thought, I kept thinking, "This can't possibly be what I'm called to do. There's got to be some other line of work that the Lord has in mind for me."
The other students felt so bad seeing me struggle that rather than offer any verbal critique when I finished red-faced and sweating, they burst into applause.
My trials were nothing compared to those of Jeremiah.
Jeremiah’s call came during the reign of King Josiah in the year 627 BCE. God called him to be a prophet to the nations. In responding to God’s call Jeremiah preached against worshipping idols, relying on military strength as a source of security, and forgetting the needs of the poor.
His preaching would land him in prison and confine him to the bottom of a well.
He would lose his family and his friends. His eyes would become, in his own words, a fountain of tears.
The English word “jeremiad” means “lamentation or mournful complaint.” It comes from the name Jeremiah.
And yet he would remain faithful to his call because he knew the One who knew him was with him on his journey, every step of the way.
Speaking the word of the Lord that came to him, Jeremiah would go on to say to Jehoiakim, the son of Josiah who replaced his father as king, “…a beautiful cedar palace does not make a great king! Your father, Josiah, also had plenty to eat and drink. But he was just and right in all his dealings. That is why God blessed him. He gave justice and help to the poor and needy, and everything went well for him. Isn’t that what it means to know me? says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 22:15-16 - As quoted on the yada web page cited above)
“Isn’t that what it means to yada me?” says the Lord.
“Isn’t that what it means to know me? Doing justice, serving the poor?”
We are all known by the God who is love, whether we know it or not.
We are all created and called by the Love in which we all “live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)
We are all known by God whether we know it or not, accept it or not, believe it or not, like it or not.
This is as true for the person who shot 8 people last weekend, killing 4 of them, as it is true for you and me.
The tragedy is that this person and so many people have no idea that they are known and loved by God – or anyone else in many cases.
The tragedy is that so many young people and people of all ages have no idea how precious they are to the One who knit them together in their mother’s womb.
And the tragedy is that many of those who know this continue to be led by fear and not by faith – not by the Love that is able to cast out fear.
I heard a story this week that is every bit as tragic as the killings last weekend. A 12 year old girl in our community went to ECMC complaining of severe abdominal pain. A friend of her family took her, worried that she might have appendicitis. It turned out that she was pregnant and beginning to give birth. Neither she nor anyone else realized she was pregnant.
Her father had been abusing her since she was 9 years old.
Her name is Destiny.
In her young life Destiny hasn’t known what it means to be known by God in an intimate, loving, life-giving way.
She has been brutalized almost beyond belief.
And yet the God I’ve come to know on my faith journey – the God who is Love – the God who knows and loves each of us as if there was only 1 of us to love – knows and loves Destiny and Destiny’s child as fully as God knows and loves you and me.
On my office wall at the house is a poster showing Colonel Joshua Chamberlain leading his troops in the Civil War battle at Gettysburg.
As the commander of the 20th Maine Regiment Chamberlain was charge with defending Little Round Top, on the left flank of the Union Army. He had been told to defend Little Round Top at all costs. When his troops ran out of ammunition and the Confederate forces kept coming up the hill, Chamberlain ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge.
This strategy startled the Confederates so much that they fled in fear.
I have this poster on my wall not to glorify violence or to sanction the use of military force.
I have it there to remind me that some things are worth fighting for.
Putting on the whole armor of God, the armor of peace and passion for justice, the armor of compassion and commitment to community, it’s worth fighting for the dignity of every human being.
As surely as we each are a child of God, we each are Destiny’s child as well.
For we are all tied, as Martin Luther King, Jr. understood, in a single garment of destiny.
For me to know God as God knows me, I can’t help but live as faithfully as I can the life God created me to live.
I can’t help but love others as Jesus loves me.
I can’t help but do justice and love kindness in my daily walk with God.
And I can’t help but walk with others who know that they are known by God and are determined to know God as fully and as faithfully as they can.
The Good News, believe it or not, is simply this “yada, yada. yada!”
“Known, known, known!”
God knows and loves each of us with a Love that is stronger even than death!
God created and called each of us to proclaim and practice this Good News – this Gospel of peace and passionate love for the world and all that is in it.
At the end of his written account of the battle at Gettysburg Joshua Chamber writes:
“The inspiration of a noble cause … enables people to do things they did not dream themselves capable of before, and which they were not capable of alone.” (Blood and Fire at Gettysburg, last page)
There is no more noble cause than knowing and loving God with the same love with which God knows and loves us - all!
Praise be to God!