Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Have you ever felt like a fraud? Like you were inadequate and that it was only a matter of time before people found out that you really weren’t qualified? These feelings are apparently very common for people in graduate school. Lingering in many students’ minds are thoughts like, “I’m not smart enough, not eloquent enough; I’m lacking in critical thinking. I don’t know how they let me in but, clearly, they made a mistake and everyone else is at a different level than me.” These thoughts and tendencies have been called “imposter syndrome” and they’re common in academia, as well as in the visual and performing arts, and in teaching. Imposter syndrome occurs when high achieving people are unable “to internalize past and current success. [It’s when] Being successful does not alter how you feel about yourself and does not alleviate feelings of inadequacy” (Caltech Counseling Center, n.d.).
A place like Washington, DC, must be rife with imposter syndrome: it’s filled with ambitious people trying hard to make a difference or to achieve their agenda, to gain power, or win the public’s heart. But I imagine that a form of imposter syndrome is also common in the church, self-doubt about whether we’re really worthy enough to do anything for God. “I’m really not spiritual enough, I’m good enough or holy enough. I really don’t know the Bible enough to teach Sunday school, to lead a Bible study. I’m not pure enough or qualified enough to do x, y, or z in the church.”
The Bible has many stories of people who are given opportunities to serve God and their reaction is, “God, I’m really not qualified for this!” Well, what does make a person qualified to be used by God? Several of our texts converge today, in different ways, to answer this question. In Jeremiah, a Psalm, and in 1 Corinthians, we can see that anyone made by God is called, qualified, and ordained to do God’s work. We are all made by God, loved by God, and gifted with skills and purpose: the only qualification we need is love—God’s love for us and our love for others.
Formed, Known, Set Apart, Appointed
Our first text this morning is in the book of Jeremiah. The first few verses of the book (which we didn’t read) explain the context of what era Jeremiah’s ministry occurred, during the reigns of the last few kings of Judah before the Babylonian exile. We learn that Jeremiah came from a family of priests, though it isn’t clear whether he was working as a priest at that time. After these few introductory verses, the book begins with Jeremiah’s call to ministry. Biblical commentaries note that there are a lot of similarities with the calls of other prophets, such as Moses and Isaiah (House, 1998).
The word of LORD comes to Jeremiah, saying, “Before I shaped you in the womb, I knew all about you. Before you saw the light of day, I had holy plans for you: A prophet to the nations—that’s what I had in mind for you” (Jer. 1:5, The Message). Imagine hearing a word from God—that God formed you, knows you, has set you apart, and is appointing you to an important and daunting task. Prophets had been around before Jeremiah (Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Jonah, and more), so Jeremiah knew what this “being a prophet” might entail.
Right away, Jeremiah says, “Sorry God, you don’t really know me. I don’t know what I’m doing, I don’t know how to speak, and I am way too young for this” (paraphrase, v. 6). Put another way, God says, “I know everything about you, I made you, and equipped you for this.” And Jeremiah says, “Umm… I don’t really think you know what you’re doing, asking me.”
The LORD responds to Jeremiah, “Don’t say that you’re too young! I’ll tell you where to go and you’ll go there. I’ll tell you what to say and you’ll say it. Don’t be afraid of a soul. I’ll be with you and I will rescue you” (vv. 7-8, adapted from the Message). Then the LORD reaches out and touches Jeremiah’s mouth (in a vision, or in a manifestation of God, it isn’t clear), and says, “Now I’ve put my words in your mouth, and you’ll be able to do what I’m asking you. You’ll call nations to repentance and judgment; you’ll bring them hope and healing again” (vv.9-10, paraphrase).
After the LORD says this, Jeremiah takes up the call—receiving God’s visions of judgment, calling for justice and repentance, and speaking forth a future hope where Israel would be given a new covenant (Jer. 33).
I think it’s important for us to learn from Jeremiah’s call: God began by telling Jeremiah that he was formed by God, known by God, set apart by God, and appointed to serve God. When Jeremiah protests that he isn’t adequate, the LORD says, “I am making you adequate. I’m equipping you with all that you need to follow me in faith and proclaim my message.”
God’s words to Jeremiah reminded me of Psalm 139, which we used part of Psalm 139 for our call to worship:
One: O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.
All: You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.
One: You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.
All: Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, Lord.
One: You hem me in, behind and before; you have laid your hand upon me.
All: Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.
One: For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
All: I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful—I know that full well.
One: My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.
All: All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
One: How precious to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them.
All: Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand. When I awake, I am still with you.
Just as Jeremiah was formed, known, set apart, and appointed by God, so too are each of us made and known intimately by God, loved by God, and set apart with gifts and purpose. Have you ever felt called by God and thought you weren’t qualified? Perhaps you’ve thought about new ways to serve or new ministries to start, but you’ve doubted yourself, saying, “I’m not the right person. I don’t have enough time, enough skill, enough faith. I don’t read my Bible enough. I don’t pray enough.”
Sisters and brothers, God made you, knows you, has a plan for you and calls you to be a part of God’s work. You may not feel qualified, but you are—because the Creator of the Universe made you, knows you, loves you, and will walk with you every step of the way, just as the LORD did with Jeremiah.
Discerning our Gifts
You might be saying, “I haven’t exactly heard God’s voice like Jeremiah, so how do I know what God is calling me to do?” How do we know how we are to serve? How do we know what our gifts are? In the Church of the Brethren, with our Anabaptist and Pietist background, I understand there to be two ways to answer this. First, we learn about our gifts by considering our own interests, desires, and natural talents. If you want to learn what your gifts are, start by asking, what interests you? What are you good at?
Second, we also learn what our gifts are through the calling of our community. This is when sisters and brothers speak to us that we should try this or that role and they affirm us and encourage us when we do serve, sharing that they see the Spirit working in us and gifting us in this way. We also rely on the Spirit’s work in the community to have people say, “I think your gifts might be better used elsewhere.” From our Pietist heritage, we emphasize the Spirit’s voice to the individual, and from our Anabaptist heritage, we stress community discernment and the priesthood of all believers.
Both of these aspects of gift discernment require intentionality. As individuals, we need to think about our talents and our interests: how can they be put to good use for the church? It also means that we need to try things out, get our feet wet in service. As a community of Jesus followers, it means that we intentionally encourage everyone to find a way to serve in the church, whether big or small. It means that we get to know one another and intentionally learn about each other’s strengths—what we each can add to the body of Christ.
Preaching was never something that I imagined I would do. I knew I wanted to serve God, to build up the body of Christ, to work to extend God’s Kingdom of justice and peace. I pictured that happening a lot of ways, but somehow, not through preaching. Though I had done well in public speaking during middle school and high school, no one had ever encouraged me to try preaching. While I was training for ministry in my undergraduate studies, we had to take both an intro speech class and an advanced communication class. A preaching class was my advanced communication class. While I did well and several people found my messages encouraging, it ended there. Several years later, I preached a few times in Nigeria, both by myself and jointly with Nate. We began preaching and speaking more together in the U.S., sharing about our peace work in Nigeria. Opportunities began to open up and the church began to call out my gift.
In April 2012, I preached my first sermon at Washington City, just two months after we moved to DC. After I finished, someone said to me, “Are you sure you haven’t missed your calling?” I laughed, but when, hmm. Shortly after, another person encouraged me to explore pastoral ministry—an unexpected prompting to be sure. Not long later, I was called as Community Outreach Coordinator and part of that work involved filling the pulpit here once a month. Within a year, Jeff, Nate, and I were called as the ministry team. The community of Jesus followers again affirmed this gift in me. I started by trying something out, explored my interest (eventually), and the church encouraged and affirmed my gift.
Love is the Qualification
Preaching is just one type of gift (often defined as teaching or prophecy) and there are many other types. Wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, caregiving, discernment, service, administration: these are just some of the gifts described in the New Testament. Some gifts are upfront and a bit flashier, others are quiet and behind the scenes. Scripture says that all are crucial and needed for the body of Christ and the work of the church. One of our other passages this morning was the beautiful section in 1 Corinthians 13. While the scripture is often used at weddings, the context in Corinthians is actually about spiritual gifts. Paul has several chapters in a row, and this is in the middle. It’s about love being the qualification for all gifts and service to God.
The Corinthian church had issues with certain gifts being prioritized over one another; they also had issues with people lording power and status over each other. Paul uses chapter 13 to ground the discussion about spiritual gifts in the context of love. He writes, “If I speak in tongues and if I prophesy, but don’t love, all I do is meaningless noise. I’m just a gong or a cymbal. It clatters and dissipates. If I teach and can explain every theological mystery, and even have faith that God can do marvelous things, but don’t have love, I am nothing. I am nothing. If I rid myself of all my possessions, if I make every sacrifice in service to people who are poor and in need, if I even sacrifice my own life—but don’t have love, I gain nothing. It is meaningless in God’s sight” (paraphrase, 1 Cor. 13:1-3).
Paul then goes on to explain about what love looks like, just in case the church in Corinth thought that love was only warm fuzzies and sentimentality, rather than patience and kindness, trust, hope, perseverance, and more.
We see in God’s word to Jeremiah, that we are made by God, known by God, loved by God—that is what makes us qualified to begin God’s service. God also makes sure that we all have gifts to put to use. Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 12:7 that “To each [follower of Christ] is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” The only qualification on our end, holding up our part of the bargain (or covenant, really), is that we focus on love. In our singing, our distributing of the offering plate, in our administrative meetings, our answering the phone, our chopping vegetables, in our giving mail to people who are homeless, in our office work, in our preaching or guitar playing, we are to exude the love and kindness of Christ. We are called to put on love as a garment, as the uniform that we need to preach or usher or do administration or weed the garden or serve the meal or play the guitar. Love is the qualification we need to serve God.
I’m not saying there aren’t skills or techniques we need to learn for different roles; I’m not saying we are automatically fully prepared. But in terms of qualifications, all you need to get started is love—a willingness to walk in faith and love.
Sisters and brothers, anyone made by God is called, qualified, and ordained to do God’s work. We are all made by God, loved by God, and gifted with skills and purpose: the only qualification we need is love—God’s love for us and our love for others. AMEN.
Caltech Counseling Center. (n.d.). The imposter syndrome. Retrieved from https:// counseling.caltech.edu/general/InfoandResources/Impostor
House, P. (1998). Old Testament biblical theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.