Two Texts At a Gathering

Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, 
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” … 
But the LORD said to me,
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you, 
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” 
Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me,
“Now I have put my words in your mouth. 
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”  Jeremiah 1:4-10

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. …  [Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. …  And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.  1 Cor 13:1-2, 7-10, 13

texts for Sunday Feb. 3, 2019

Which route to take through the thicket this week?  The reprise of silence and speech, as from Isaiah 62?  The continuation of Paul’s writing the Corinthians about gifts?  Which passage speaks more strongly?  Or do they speak to each other.  I know the text-connection is just a trick of the lectionary, which lists both passages this same week, but I wonder all the same. I imagine the texts as two guests at the same gathering.  What do they share beyond acquaintance with the host?  

Maybe they engage with the classic, ‘What do you do?’  Or maybe ‘When …?’  After all, the words of each arise out of the particular time and place in which he worked:  Jeremiah prophesying at the end of the kingdom of Judah, in the shadow of the crisis of exile; Paul instructing the Corinthians, a church in the crisis of its growing pains.  Each spoke in a different world. Which does not mean their words cannot speak to each other.  

Imagine overhearing these two texts, standing at that gathering, glasses in hand, surrounded by the buzz and movement of others also there, talking towards their own particular connection.  

A dialogue on speech:  ‘You shall speak whatever I command you… ’; ’If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels….’  A dialogue on prophecy:  ‘I appointed you a prophet …’; ‘And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries….’  Does it seem each overture of Jeremiah’s is undermined by a retort from Paul — ‘I am a noisy gong’; ‘as for prophecies they will come to an end…’?   Listen again, and closely.

‘The word of the LORD came to me,’ Jeremiah tells, as the conversation swirls around them both.  The LORD said, ‘I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’  Only in Jeremiah’s speech, what the LORD says is ‘I have given* you …’, a giving which recurs towards the end of the encounter, as the LORD stretches out his hand and touches Jeremiah’s mouth and says ‘See, I have given* my words in your mouth.’  Giving.  Gifts.

‘Gifts!’  Paul exclaims, in delight at the connection.  ‘That’s what I am talking about: the gifts God gives in and through and for the body.  And the greatest of these is love.’

‘Of course love,’ Jeremiah replies.  Did the command to pluck up and pull down cloud the issue?  It is love that connects God and prophet and people so closely that the suffering of one is experienced by the other as grief and heart-sickness, hurt and dismay (Jer 8:18-21).

‘Love bears all things,’ Paul murmurs.  

‘Love gives all things,’ Jeremiah says.  The LORD gave me myself; the LORD gave me God-self.  Paul nods in rueful recognition, recalling a certain encounter of his own (1 Cor 15:8).  

Not an easy gift, love.  Its force breaks in to life-as-it-was and plants life as-it-might-be, life growing towards complete.

The texts’ conversation continues, overture expanding into symphony; the music of their exchange stretching past their two times and on into my own.  Breaking in and giving still.

* [literal Hebrew; the NRSV connects Jer 1:5 and 1:10 by repeating the verb ‘appoint,’ stressing the connection of Jeremiah’s appointment as prophet and the nations/kingdoms he is appointed over; the Hebrew of the MT connects Jer 1:5 and 1:9 by repeating the verb ‘to give,’ stressing the connection of the LORD giving Jeremiah as a prophet and the LORD giving words to Jeremiah’s mouth.]

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