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 1:9-10; part of lectionary text Jeremiah 1:4-10 for Aug 25, 2019
It is both a discipline and a gift to take what the lectionary offers each week and see what the text says in my context as well as its own. I’ve set for myself the work of attending to the prophetic texts while they are given: not reading all the lectionary selections and deciding between but defaulting to the word of the prophet, whichever prophet. This week, though, the lectionary gives me — again — Jeremiah 1:4-10. But I had that one already this cycle!*, I want to protest. Let me choose another!
Except I’ve set myself this task not to choose but to accept. And I really do love this passage. So accept the invitation to ponder it again as a gift. Maybe there’s a narrowness to so (relatively) prompt a return to the same words. Or maybe there’s a wideness in clinging to the discipline’s constraint.
So. Jeremiah 1:4-10.
Why do I love this passage? Start there. I love the interplay of the words, the relationship exchange: the LORD gives ‘the boy’ as a prophet (1:5); the LORD gives God’s words to the prophet’s mouth (1:9).
I love it for the intimacy: ‘the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth’ (1:9). The contact is physical: hand meets mouth. The words, even, seem palpable: transferred via touch, taken between the lips, onto the tongue. God’s word eaten (Jer 15:16). Was it sweet as honey (Ezek 3:3)? Did it flame as coal (Isa 6:7; Jer 20:9)? ‘How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!’ sings the psalmist (Psa 119:103).
Suddenly, my lip cringes. Honey is too sweet. My tongue craves chocolate so dark that the depth of its taste rounds my mouth for hours.
Read on. The words that follow the given-word are not sweet. Jeremiah is appointed ‘to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant’ (1:10). Four infinitives of destruction; only two of hope. The bitterness of the first four verbs are only barely tempered by the concluding two. The words tell that Jeremiah’s work will be gut-wrenching, pain-filled (20:8-9). Not sweet.
I know something of the context of Jeremiah’s time: violent destruction, deportation, and death, a traumatic end to the nation. I know something of the context of Jeremiah’s scroll: oracles scribed and re-inscribed, edited and redacted and put into varying orders. I know that the balance of four to two may reflect the trauma of Jeremiah’s context or even a later spirit softening the first bitter draft with the final phrase of possibility.
As I spend the week (again) with the text, it’s these last words — not at all sweet — that stay longest in my mouth, on my mind. There’s a truth to them wider than the particulars of Jeremiah’s time. A truth narrower, too, than the breadth of a nation’s existence, or end. A truth that fits my life.
Think of gardens or forests. Or bookshelves or closets. Or calendars. Think of anything overgrown with weeds that choke the wanted plants, anything crammed too full of old things to leave space for possible new. The ground must be cleared. Of trash. Of debris. Of structures that oppress; patterns of practice or attitude that repress. Even of tangible items and rhythms of living that were good and dear but whose presence crowds out any alternative. (The curly-leafed ivy from my wedding bouquet which has overtaken the entire planter.)
I don’t mean to de-emphasize the violence of the prophet’s words, nor minimize the pain their proclamation portends. To pluck up and to pull down. To destroy and to overthrow.
But more and more I realize their necessity, notwithstanding the pain. At some point, the garment can no longer be patched. At some point, the pattern of life can no longer be tweaked and trimmed around the edges (whether ‘trim’ is read as addition or subtraction). At some point, the only possible way forward requires first an action of relinquishment, an experience of death.
It is exhausting work just to persist. Continuing on as ever we have because forever we have is so wearying that we can miss the way we are meant to take. Or even seeing it, feel ourselves too exhausted to make the turn. After all, we know how to walk this road. One foot in front of the other. There may be no great joy in it, but at least it feels familiar underfoot, it can be trodden without extra effort.
To push and push and push against a wall does not necessarily re-create it as a door. Leave off the fruitless effort. Step back. Study again the way and all the weights you are bearing. Hear the call to pluck up and pull down as invitation and as obligation, as discipline and as gift.
What in my life must I carry on? What in my life must I lay down? What in my life must I let die? What in my life must I uproot? What cost of loss and grief must I risk, allow, even try to welcome?
What in my life may then be planted and built? What of me may bloom new?
[*see ‘Two Texts at a Gathering,’ Feb. 3, 2019]