Whenever I go home, I will invariably hear someone say, “I know you” or “I’ve known you since you were (fill in the blank)”. It never fails. To truly be known, it takes two people, doesn’t it? Someone beyond you has to identify something about you which defines you to the wider community. This is how we are known; to our friends, families, and the world. This is how our lives are lived and our stories get told.
When I was growing up in Randolph County, North Carolina, I spent a great deal of time at my grandmother’s house. With both my mother and father at work, she was essentially, my third parent. I went there after school and on holidays. I was there probably six days a week. For most of that time, my grandmother was a seamstress. She made her living hemming pants and altering clothes for people who traveled to her tiny house. Many of these people brought their ill fitting clothes from one or two of the neighboring counties. Women in late model Mercury sedans were always knocking on that little screen door, asking to come in, and drop off their clothes. Everyone knew my Grandma and for some reason, many of them seemed to know me.
“I know you,” they’d say. I did not know them. “I’d know you anywhere,” the person would go on. I didn’t know them from Adam’s house cat. “I know that face, you’re Bettie’s little boy, that’s little Bettie.” But I wasn’t little Bettie. I’m little Richard. People knew me because of my striking resemblance to my mother. Though, this doesn’t happen much anymore. She’s not bald and has yet to adopt the bow tie.
The relationships created by being truly known form and tell the stories of our lives.
“I know you when you made a makeshift parachute out of garbage bags and tried to jump off the back of the house,” someone might say to me. They know me for the stupid.
“I know you when you slipped and fell on the ice in Russia and someone stepped on your face,” another might add. They know me for the what have I done and where in the world am I moments.
To be known is to be known for the good, bad, and all the instances in between.
This is where Jeremiah begins his story. In fact, for Jeremiah, it begins before the beginning. I bet you didn’t know that was possible; to begin a story before the beginning. From creation onward, God is always stepping in, while events are already in progress. The Hebrew Bible is clear: God moves onto the scene as events are already unfolding. Just as the people around us, like those women who climbed those back steps into my grandmother’s kitchen to drop off their sewing and recognized me, people we have never seen or heard seem to know us and all about our lives. God says to Jeremiah, you, and to me. I know you and I knew you long before you were born. This idea, the story, this notion called YOU began long before you knew who you were. How? Why? Because others see the best in us before we see it in ourselves. God brings out the best in people. If we’re not seeing the best, then perhaps, we’re not listening to God say, “I know you when.” It’s much easier to listen to ourselves say, “I remember me when I was.” That leads to personal and spiritual messes.
Here’s how that kind of thing can happen: Take “The Jersey Boys”. Do you know the film or musical about the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons? I’m sure many of you have seen one or the other. If not, let me recommended it. In the movie, Frankie Valli, Tommy Devito, Nick Massi, and Bob Gaudio are reminding each other, “We are Jersey Boys”. No matter how famous, how many number one songs, or appearances on the Ed Sullivan show, it was important to remember who they were, where they came from and be surrounded by people who knew them when they were just kids singing on a street corner. When those connections fell apart, the Four Seasons fell apart.
God is pulling Jeremiah out of some comfortable surroundings and placing him in the middle of an uncomfortable prophetic venture. Jeremiah was known for being the son of a well-known priest, up and coming Levite himself, and part of the religious establishment. God sabotages all of that. God says, “I don’t know you that way.” “I know you in a different way, apart from who your momma and daddy are, or where you went to church, or who your Sunday School teacher was.” God says, “I know you as Jeremiah.” “You are Jeremiah with something important to say.”
Being known is an important part of being heard. If people know you, you might get a hearing. Others will listen to what Jeremiah says on God’s behalf. God has known Jeremiah for so long now he knows he’s the right person to speak to parched ears and dry souls. Israel has lost the ability to tell its own story. It is Jeremiah’s turn, like a child, to help but the most basic words, feelings, and emotions together for those who are ambivalent to what God is calling them to do.
It’s not easy being a prophet or prophetic. Prophets are not fortune tellers. Prophets are truth-tellers. This is what Jeremiah’s being called to do. At their most basic level, prophets are people who call the status quo into question. Where we are now is never good enough for an Amos, Micah, or Hosea. It will be the same for Jeremiah. Prophets have an innate interior compass that points toward an unreasonable expectation of hope. The prophet’s idea of hope sounds like science fiction when compared to the down to earth dry realities of the status quo. Here’s the thing, God is in the hope. Like cheap hot dogs, we have no idea what’s in the status quo. We’re also certain God’s been factored out of the recipe. The prophetic task is also tinged with grief. It is emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically challenging to see and say the difficult things God lays before us. God’s words are enormously troubling, “dig up and pull down” and “destroy and demolish”. And yet they are book-ended by the hopeful command to “build and plant”. Out of the oppressive, violent, death dealing status quo, grows hope.
You are in your church home. So I will say this, “I know you”. I knew each one of you when you sat in Ocracoke United Methodist Church. You know it will not be easy to be a prophet or live prophetic lives. However, like Jeremiah, you are called. From this moment, you are called. We have big decisions to make this morning. Are you going to say, yes that’s me? God you do know me. I’m the one. The second big decision to make is this: are we going to live prophetically, like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah and countless others. This is not about old guys in the Bible. It’s about you and me today. Are you able to call the status quo into question, point your interior compass toward hope, and live with the challenges of grief? If you can do that, remember, you’re a prophet too.