Fragile Vessels


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Though we sometimes allow challenges of the world to harden our hearts, we are all a work in progress in the hands of the Great Potter.

Sermon Video

This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Jeremiah 18:1-11

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2“Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” 3So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. 5Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. 9And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.

11Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

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After wrestling for years with a sense of call to attend seminary and become a pastor, I embarked upon a new chapter with many questions about where it would lead. Up to that point, I viewed faith and my understanding of Jesus to be a mostly personal and private matter. Though I might not have said it out loud, he was more of a buddy to me than a cosmic Prince of Peace. My Jesus tended to agree with my views, laugh at my jokes, and tolerate my flaws. I also appreciated pastors who said things with which I agreed, told good jokes, and revealed flaws of their own. My lens of faith was very inwardly focused on personal salvation, which to me mostly had to do with making sure I was able to get to heaven along with all of the people I loved. As for the people I didn’t care to be around, I assumed that heaven must be large enough that I could avoid them.

In my second semester, anxiety concerning military activity in Iraq was building to a boiling point. I was taking an Old Testament Prophetic Literature course, which included an examination of passages like ours from Jeremiah today. I really found comfort in the image of God as a potter molding us like clay in the middle part of 18:6—“Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.” Doesn’t that sound nice, a gentle Creator patiently shaping us?

Taking a class in which I could learn more about this Potter and other passages about justice, mercy, and kindness sounded like an academic hug. That was until Harvard educated Professor Marvin L. Chaney—for whom I have the utmost respect—started to remove the rose colored lens through which I viewed prophetic writing. Dr. Chaney started drawing comparisons between what books including Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Micah said, and the current state of affairs with the United States in 2003. He continued on and on for weeks through the invasion of Iraq in March and through the entire semester of the class. Far from a unified bunch of liberals, my schoolmates included a person preparing to become a military chaplain and another who looked and spoke as though he had been frozen in the year 1951. He even drove an old classic Cadillac and loved Frank Sinatra.

When we examined prophetic literature, arguments would break out in class and via e-mail. Some threatened to boycott class if Dr. Chaney wouldn’t stop talking about military issues. I am thankful to say that the chaplain and Mr. Cadillac stayed with the community through graduation.

The class was a far cry from an examination of a warm fuzzy God who smiles when we make oddly shaped bowls out of clay and give them to our parents for holidays. As I’ve said before, one key takeaway for me was that prophets weren’t people most of us would want to invite to a dinner party. They blurted things out that upset the status quo. Take today’s passage, for instance:

Let’s read Jeremiah 18 together:

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2“Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” 3So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. 5Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. 9And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.

11Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

And the prophet goes on in verse 12: “But they say, ‘It is no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.’”

By verse 18, the people have heard enough of the prophet: Then they said, ‘Come, let us make plots against Jeremiah—for instruction shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet. Come, let us bring charges against him, and let us not heed any of his words.’”

What was going on behind the scenes for people to be so upset?

The book of Jeremiah is set in the final days of Judah, the southern kingdom that included the capital city of Jerusalem. Judah was stuck with Babylon on the North and Egypt to the South.[1]  Judah tried to balance allegiances and pay for protection, which meant that elite would take land and property. Rigged weights would be used to tell a farmer that their crops weren’t worth their actual value. Over time, farmers would fall into debt and lose land that Jewish covenant law said was rightfully theirs. Along with idolatry-worshipping gods rather than God–these unjust practices were among the chief concerns of Old Testament prophets spelling an end of the empire.

In 587 BCE, Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and the temple. Many citizens of Jerusalem were deported and Judah’s illusion of power was over.

Imagine if the Capitol and White House and other key landmarks were destroyed in Washington, D.C. and many people dear to us were sent away into exile. That is what it might have felt like to live in the aftermath of Babylon’s attack on Judah. Biblical scholar Kathleen M. O’Connor explains that, “In Jeremiah every passage anticipates disaster, speaks about it, or searches for ways to cope with its enduring consequences.”[2]

According to Jeremiah, the people of Judah had a chance.

But they said, “‘It is no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.’”

This passage and others like it from prophetic literature in the Hebrew Bible can be much more comforting when we can proof text verses and apply them to ourselves as we wish.

I do believe that God the Potter is shaping us and transforming us day by day. A few centuries after Babylon sacked Jerusalem, God was still showing up in the person of Jesus Christ.

Jesus showed up to shape and transform us as individuals and as a society.

Just as Jesus cared to reach out to individuals in their struggles, care is always a reason central why we are here. The Calvary community includes people who have recently made the decision to enter hospice care, embark upon another round of treatment, give pain management another chance, and reach out for help with depression. This community includes students who sometimes feel overwhelmed and want to scream under the pressure. We are here to love one another no matter what. I want you to know that I am honored to be present with every person connected with this place, even if we don’t agree on every topic in the world.

The Potter is shaping us as individuals.

I know that as much as I have been talking to you about very challenging and controversial matters such as socioeconomic and racial justice and equality, some may think the church is not concerned with your struggles and joys. I know that to many, talk of justice today is at least as aggravating as what my professor said in the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

There is something some people play called “pastor bingo,” making a game out of frequent phrases or topics the preacher will bring up. Sometimes I am more annoying to you than my professor was to our class in 2003. I want you to know that we care about you as individual, even as we point to broader issues of justice.

Some people I deeply respect have shared that they feel bullied when we advocate and discuss issues including Black Lives Matter. (For some, the bingo card was just completed as I brought up this topic yet again). I am not standing here today intending to bully you. I do not claim to be a prophet. I do strive to listen to modern day prophets including Glenda Hope and Janie Spahr and Ernie Jackson, and to take action.

I would like to share in a brief snapshot of life how it feels that my views have been shaped regarding Black Lives Matter.

Those views were shaped first by growing up as a child in Idaho in which I was part of a group that made fun of the only black kid in my school because he was not good at basketball. Didn’t think much of it.

I was the kid who went away to college in Los Angeles the same year of the Rodney King verdict and uprising and listened to people from South Central Los Angeles battle with people from more affluent areas and listened to their struggle. I listened to people struggle with the question of why if you had captured something on video, there could not be a conviction.

I put that aside for many years, focusing on what I cared about.

I volunteered different places and felt pretty good about myself.

Then here at Calvary, we reached a place after the Trayvon Martin killing and verdict and after Ferguson, there were outside voices saying that too many white people have the microphones and bullhorns and positions of power. We want to say for ourselves that Black Lives Matter. If you look during the first years of the movement including  Pew Research study, the majority of posts about it were positive.

But in March of this past year there was a turning point, not coincidentally turning as we go through this very tense political season. People are on edge and want to be embraced and I empathize.

If we look at our own history, the three reasons why our denomination has split have been over slavery, ordination of women, and full inclusion of the LGBTQ community.

These things have split the church historically. My prayer for us is that God will shape us together. That we will not have to be a vessel with which God has to start over like the people of Judah.

Whatever views you bring, I would be honored listen to listen to you

Your Session, your board of directors and listening and would be honored to hear from you. Each and every one of us has our own story and way that God has been shaping us. I firmly believe that as we look out into the world, people have been told to wait too long.

People in the time of Jeremiah had been told to wait—just wait while the people in power deal with this. Wait while they raise funds and accept them taking over your property.

People in our own country as recently as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the years since have been told to wait. I firmly in my heart that we can be part of removing the yield sign, the stop sign, the red tape and other barriers and working to come through together as one unified vessel.

I pray that the Potter will continue to shape us as a congregation and as a society.

As we prepare to come to the Communion table today, I invite you to reflect on the words of Paul as he continued to employ the clay imagery more than 600 years after Jeremiah: But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”

[1] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary On Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), Location 86-116, Kindle Edition.

[2] Kathleen M. O’Connor, Jeremiah: Pain and Promise (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012), Location 63, Kindle Edition.

 

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