I suspect, like every parent, Maureen and I have a small collection of oddly shaped pottery that our daughter’s made either while in grade school or at camp. I believe these “one of a kind” pieces are all supposed to be some sort of bowl or vase. I think this is so, because all of the pieces are to some degree or another round and to varying degrees they are all indented in the middle. As I look at these objects of grade school art, I wonder how different these pots would look if either of the girls pursued pottery as a hobby. By now the sides would be smoother and thinner. No longer would they be making pinch pots or rope pots. Instead, they would be throwing pots on a potter’s wheel the way my brother-in-law Joel has done in the past.
I actually enjoy watching potters throw pots. It is fascinating to watch as what starts out as a formless blob of clay slowly takes shape as the potter applies pressure to the sides and middle. I think it is exciting to watch the clay rise from the wheel as if coming to life.
I have also felt disappointment when the clay takes form and then suddenly, either because the clay has spun off balance or because the potter’s hand has slipped, comes tumbling down and the process of molding the clay begins again.
This morning our reading from Jeremiah talks about God as the potter. And, I suspect as some of us listened to this passage they were immediately reminded of the folk tune from the eighties in which we sang, “you are the potter and we are the clay.” Although the sentiment of the song is beautiful, this passage is not about God molding us as individuals but of God molding whole communities. In this case, the community in question is once again Israel whose ways have gone astray from the Lord’s dream for them. The question which rises out of this passage is, can the Lord bring the vessel of Israel back into balance or will God have to let the vessel return to the mound of clay it once was and begin molding it yet again?
As a community this passage leads us to ask, how are we in need of God to mold us? Perhaps better yet, how is God challenging us to grow?
One of the few things I know about institutions is that they seek to preserve equilibrium. In other words, groups, no matter what they are for, over time establish norms of behavior and expectations of member which allow it to function and to be productive. Once the balance or equilibrium is established, the organization or group will do whatever it takes to preserve the balance or status quo.
But here is the problem, groups are dynamic realities that constantly need to grow. Often times the focus of a group moves from its purpose or intended mission to making its sole purpose the preservation of equilibrium. When this happens, creativity and growth is stifled and productivity declines.
I am not clear as to what the precipitating issue is with the Kingdom of Israel. In this passage, neither God nor Jeremiah tells us exactly what the problems are. What one can deduce from historical context, is that over time, as the Kingdom of Israel became established and prosperous, their mission, their covenant with God, got lost as prosperity overrode their desire or willingness to allow God to mold them into the Divine Kingdom.
Before I continue, i need to point out a second issue with how this passage is traditionally misused. This passage is not a failsafe way to prove God is punitive. Here God tells Jeremiah, if Israel is not willing to amend its ways and find a new balance, God will have to allow Israel to collapse in order to be remolded. As I read this passage, it is not about God’s desire to punish, but to give warning. . . to let Israel know that its ways are not sustainable and to challenge Israel to change course and to return to what God desires of God’s people, which is to do justice, love kindness and to walk humbly with God.
This is why Jesus speaks so harshly about what it costs to follow him. Jesus did not come into the world to bring glory to the Roman Government. Nor did Jesus come into this world to uphold the Temple hierarchy which lived in collusion with the Roman Government, despite Rome’s inhumane treatment of non-roman citizens. Jesus did not come to uphold systems of injustice but to challenge them. Unfortunately, whether we benefit from injustice or are victims of injustice, very few of us are willing to or feel empowered to challenge them. This is why Jesus declares the cost of following him ultimately is death itself, because in order to follow Jesus, it is the Reign of God we must seek and this means seeking divine justice for everyone at any and all cost.
Many ask why the cost of justice is so great. The answer is simple, accepted norms are hard to break, and whether we want to admit it or not, it is hard for us to imagine a life without injustice. To imagine something completely different than we know today requires a corporate willingness to engage in what Ellen Davis calls “religious imagining”. This is the willingness to imagine that this world, or even this community can be better than what we have today. And in oer to live into what’s better, we must first be willing to endure the hardships, the growing pains of what it will take to get there.
Change is difficult, change is scary especially when we are unclear or not in control of the outcome. When Jesus says we must be willing to give up our lives in order to follow him, he is calling us to be willing to give up our lives as we know them in order to find a new way of life and of being. This new way can often be drastically different than what is and put us in conflict with others.
I don’t think I fully grasped what Jesus said this morning until I watched the movie “The Butler.” The relationship between the Butler and his estranged eldest son comes to a climax over dinner when the son challenges his father’s passive acceptance of segregation and his willingness to be paid less than his white counterparts. To her husband’s defense, the mothe, chastises her son by basically saying it is because of that butler you had food on the table, you got an education, and it is because of that butler that you, the son, is who he is today. With these words, the relationship between father/mother and son is torn in two. . .the son is able to imagine a better world, a world free of segregation and racial injustice, while the father is afraid to lose the life and livelihood he has managed to find within his own oppression.
Familiarity, no matter what the costs are, is comforting, and offers us a sense of security. God,however, does not afford us the luxury of familiarity and comfort. Instead, God continuously challenges humanity to engage the religious imagination and to seek what God knows to be possible. And it is God through Christ, who continues to push humanity out of what is comfortable in order for God to mold us into the dream God has for us. Yes, God is the Potter, and we, creation, are the clay.