On Clay, and Pots, and the Glory of God
September 30, 2001
Jeremiah 18:1-11, 2 Corinthians 4:6-10 The Rev. Ralph DiBiasio-Snyder
Introduction to the Scripture:
"Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet . . . " we all just sang a few minutes ago, as we placed into the hands of our third graders their first copy of that extraordinary collection of writings we call the Bible. We pray that they will find in its pages what they need to grow to be strong and faithful men and women of courage and integrity. We pray that the journey symbolically begun today will continue through their lives: the journey of learning how to hear within the pages of Holy Writ what God by the Spirit is saying to us today.
As people farther down the path of that journey, we know that reading the Scripture and understanding the Scripture are two different things. The first does not guarantee the second! Hope will be reading from Jeremiah one of those passages that seem to raise more questions than it answers. He begins with a common sight in his world: that of a potter spinning a pot on his wheel. The prophet, though, doesn't see a pot and its maker. He sees his nation, and that nation's Maker, Yahweh, the Lord. And Jeremiah says some startling things about God's hand in the world. The same image is repeated in the verse you will hear from the book of Isaiah.
Then Hope will read from a letter written centuries later. St. Paul, like
Jeremiah, likes the image of a ceramic pot, an earthen vessel. But he
does something very different with it. Listen now for God's Word to us
Jeremiah 18:1-11, 2 Corinthians 4:6-10
Used to be . . . when I was much younger . . . that one of the luxuries of staying in a motel (we never stayed in a real hotel) -- besides, of course, the color TV, and the "Magic Fingers" vibrating bed -- was the ability to call the desk clerk and request a "wake-up call!" A real person, with a cheery voice, would call you at the appointed time and welcome you to the morning! Nowadays even in fancy hotels all you get is a radio with an alarm -- so cheap you can't figure out how the alarm works so you're better off just bringing your own alarm clock. "Wake up calls" are a thing of the past.
But we've been hearing that phrase a lot since September 11th, haven't we. Struggling to understand, hoping to comprehend the incomprehensible, trying to salvage some meaning, something we can "learn" from that mass grave in New York, people have been saying that the terrorist attack was a "wake-up call for America." I have an idea what they mean by that, but the phrase, it seems to me, is dangerously close to trivializing such massive loss of life, isn't it? Well, there are just no words, no metaphor expansive enough to even begin to encompass what happened September 11th.
Still, the questions linger: how could it happen? Why did it happen to them, to us, to the world? What does it "say" to America? And many people have asked, Where was God on that sparkling fall morning? Is God saying something to us?
If Jeremiah were still around, I think he'd venture an answer. You'll remember that this fall we are exploring the ministry of this prophet Jeremiah, looking for a Word to us that will be "a light unto our path." Our path in the coming days and weeks is not clear, and the road ahead seems a whole lot more dangerous than it did not very long ago. And so, as people of faith have done for centuries, we look to the Scripture for light. Let me begin by giving you a quick review of what we know about Jeremiah and his message.
Living 2500 years ago, his nation -- Israel -- was in the last decades of its existence. In fact Jeremiah lived to see the complete devastation of Jerusalem and the collapse of the World Trade Center of his day, Solomon's magnificent Temple. Jeremiah's message was twofold.
First, he called his people back to obedience to Torah, to the Law of God. There was only one God, Yahweh, he said, and the sin of his nation was that it had turned away from Yahweh. It wasn't that they weren't religious anymore. They were. But they had turned to a competing deity -- Baal was his name; maybe you remember that from Sunday School. Religiously Jeremiah's message was simple, and clear: leave your worship of Baal, and the pretty shocking practices of that religion (child sacrifice was one, according to Jeremiah). Return to the worship of Yahweh in Jerusalem, he said, and you will be saved. That is, neighboring countries will not overrun you.
But Jeremiah called not only for religious renewal. He called for social justice. Listen to him in chapter 5 --
Scoundrels are found among my people; they take over the goods of others. Like fowlers they set a trap; they catch human beings. . . . Their houses are full of treachery; therefore they have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy.
And again in chapter 22 --
Thus says the LORD: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place.
The message of Jeremiah to the people of his day, in a nutshell, was that political calamity is preceded by religious and social corruption. National disaster -- in Jeremiah's case it was the fall of Israel, the destruction of Jerusalem, mass deportation to Babylon -- national collapse comes when a nation has lost its way religiously and socially.
Now: let's go back to that disturbing passage from Jeremiah that Hope read for us. It is "disturbing" because it is so stark. Jeremiah's image of the potter's complete control over the clay is matter-of-fact. "Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? As the clay is in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand." And then this: "I am a potter shaping evil against you . . . ." Pretty rugged language! So stark that if this were the only thing we knew about this God, I'm not sure any of us would want to worship him, this potter plotting evil against us. Hiding in fear would be a more reasonable response!
But of course this passage is not the only thing we know God. We know much more, thankfully. And in fact elsewhere even Jeremiah says that God is merciful, forgiving, longing to restore and heal God's people. What we have here in Jeremiah's take-no-prisoners language is hyperbole overstatement to get his listeners' attention. He's not trying so much to teach about God as to urge his people to change. "If that nation . . . turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster I intended to bring on it . . . . Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings."
That was then, of course, and this is now. The challenge: to see if there is imbedded in the history of the Hebrew people and the preaching of Jeremiah something for us today, some new word, some light for us today. As to Jeremiah's call to return to the worship of Yahweh, to keeping of Torah: this would be pretty tough in the pluralistic society in which we live. We are not a Christian nation, nor a Jewish one, or Muslim or Hindu or any other single religion. We are a nation that welcomes people of all faiths, and people of no faith, for that matter. Just how seriously any of us practice those faiths, how deeply committed we are to the values, to the God we say rules our lives -- that may be another matter. Jeremiah challenges us to genuine, life-changing faith.
His call to a renewed commitment to social justice is likewise timely. When the social fabric of a society is stretched and frayed when families are separated by the demands of work and school and sports and leisure, when we fail to look after those who cannot care for themselves, when we pay more attention to stock quotes than to our families and friends, when as the show Frontline on PBS this week demonstrated maybe you saw it we treat our children and youth as sources of revenue streams, turning six-year-olds into consumers; (Baal worshipers sacrificed their children literally, whereas we do it much more subtly) when our social linkages are damaged and broken, disaster is inevitable, as sure as if God had planned it. But of course God doesn't plan it, in fact God continues to call us back to the ways of healing and health and wholeness as a people.
As in Jeremiah's time so too in our time, there is room for us to turn -- "repent" is the word Jesus liked to use, but is out of fashion with us. We are to be always turning away from what is false and to what is true; from what falsely offers us peace -- of heart and for nations -- to what truly will bring peace. For we know that peace of heart comes by finding our rest not in things but in God and one another. And peace for nations comes by working for justice, seeking out the root causes of hatred, finding ways to live graciously and responsibly in a world that grows smaller daily. Jeremiah's word urging social justice is as relevant today as it was the day he spoke it.
But let us turn to another preacher, another text. As I said earlier, St. Paul liked the imagery of pots too. But he was concerned not so much with the making of them, as their use in the world. He didn't go to the potter's house to see them made. He just looked around his home, and the homes and shops he visited, and saw ordinary pots -- all shapes, sizes, for all purposes, like those that we see here today.
When we planned this sermon last summer we had intended that Carol, who is a potter, would be here in the chancel spinning -- creating -- a pot on a wheel as I preached. That way, when things over here got a little monotonous you all could watch Carol. Unfortunately a shoulder injury has meant she can't throw pots for a little while yet, and we had to settle for this display of ceramics. These pieces come from many places: from Italy and Mexico there is one here from the new ceramics factory at Mazahua Mission many places in the US, including some pots that Carol made.
As I say, I can imagine St. Paul looking at an array of pots like these, noting their individuality, their utility and beauty, but also their frailty, their delicacy. I can see him pondering how common these earthen vessels are, simple pots, and many, and yet they could hold something very special: The wine of the Lord's supper, might have come to Paul's mind.
As Paul struggled to communicate how the Spirit of Christ -- the same Spirit of God that was in the beginning creating all things, that was in Jesus making all things new, that "Holy Spirit" that was let loose at Pentecost -- as he struggled to put into words how that Spirit of Christ had come to indwell the likes of you and me, it suddenly struck him. We are but earthen vessels, made from the earth: ordinary, common, of every shape and size and color, so frail, brittle, easily broken and not easily mended. Clay pots: The very last thing you would think God would choose to contain God's presence, God's glorious, empowering, enlivening, creating and never predictable Holy Presence, Holy Spirit. And yet, says Paul, that is what God did.
The first verse of the reading from 2 Corinthians summarizes Christian theology -- did you see that? You hear Genesis in there, and the first chapter of John, the revelation of God in Christ. Listen again to that verse: It is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness" [there's the Creation story; it that God] who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. That's our story. For Christians our knowledge of what God is like was found in the man Jesus.
But go on from there: We have this treasure [that treasure being the glory of God] in clay jars, earthen vessels . . . What an extraordinary proclamation, what an encouraging proclamation! At Christmas we announce that God became flesh in the man Jesus, born of Mary, one of us, sharing our human joys and sorrows - Immanuel, God-with-us. That's the "glorious impossible" of the Christian story, to use that great phrase by Madeleine L'Engle. But the experience of the early church, and the experience of the church today if we can believe it is what Paul has announced. Not only did God become flesh in Jesus. That same Spirit has come to live within us , earthen vessels -- mere clay pots -- the glory of God in these fragile and blemished, imperfect and mortal bodies.
Here is the Good News for today. Yes, Jeremiah, we hear your plea to live faithfully, to follow your ways of justice and mercy and care for the least among us. We have heard that call again in the message of Jesus the Christ who came commanding us to be salt and light in the world. But we can walk in the paths of justice and peace because we have heard and believe the amazing Good News that the glory of God, the light of God's presence, has come to live within us -- earthen vessels, ordinary clay pots. May God in these days and weeks to come empower us to live as God's people, that, in the words of St. Paul, "the life of Jesus may be made visible in us." Amen.