Shaped, Loved, and Reconciled
Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, Year C
September 8, 2013
Texts: Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139
If you are a gardener in St. Louis, you know clay as your enemy, the bane of your garden’s existence—hard as stone after a baking Missouri summer; slick as ice, turning that hill in your backyard into a firehose in the rain. In scripture, clay is often used as a symbol. When we find out a hero has fallen into some sort of temptation, we say that we found out that he has “feet of clay,”—an expression from the Book of Daniel. Compared to gold, bronze, steel, or iron, clay is common, cheap, easily shattered. It is no surprise that we human beings are often compared to clay, as we see in our passage from Jeremiah. Jeremiah is sent to watch a potter at work. The clay symbolizes the people of Judah. God is the potter. And Judah is in danger of being destroyed by God for not trusting God to lead and mold them.
But remember that the Book of Jeremiah was written in a time of intense crisis for the people of Judah. So, being a history teacher, let me explain a little history here. Judah was a tiny people surrounded by hostile empires—Egypt, Assyria and Babylon, and Persia, and later on there is going to be Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire. Judah suffers from oppression, droughts, and warfare. The only thing they have going for them is that they are God’s chosen people. The people of Judah believe that they live under a covenant with God. Yet sometimes, terrible things happen. And the Book of Jeremiah is written right after what was undoubtedly the worst event in Judah’s history to that point. In 587 BC, the Babylonians swept in, crushed Jerusalem, carried off its priests and its ruling class, and destroyed the Temple.
How does Jeremiah explain this? God expects faithfulness from Judah and obedience. When Judah scorned God, God allowed its destruction as punishment. Therefore, the only way to escape further punishment is to return to God. Then perhaps God will forgive and rebuild, and restore the special relationship of blessing to the people of Judah. It’s a simple matter of justice, and fits so well with the idea of God’s incredible power.
Lots of faithful people throughout history have read these stories and believed that they’ve now got a grasp on how God works. It’s neat. It’s simple. They then transfer these same ideas to explaining how God works with individuals. It’s a simple calculus: 1. God punishes wrongdoing with tragedy and suffering; 2. We are suffering; 3. Therefore, God must be punishing us for something we have done, and we need to repent so that the suffering will stop. It certainly seems to make sense! When we are really honest with ourselves, we admit that we often are filled with mean, selfish, sinful impulses. We understand that tendency every time something bad happens, and our first thought is straight out of a country song: Why me Lord? What have I ever done to deserve this?
Now, there are some in our society today who look at texts like the one we have in Jeremiah, and see a warning about God’s judgment upon us as a people. You know the kind—the kind who peer out at us through our television screens and claim that airplanes filled flown by madmen into skyscrapers are a direct punishment from God. The kind who picket funerals and claim that God is allowing people to die because God hates us due to our sins.
Yet many of us--I HOPE many of us!-- hear these kinds of claims, and realize that they just do not match up with the loving, generous, merciful God in which we believe. They want to interpret scriptures like this as bad news about punishment rather than good news about forgiveness and redemption.
If we just look at the threats at the end of our reading from Jeremiah, we ignore another huge truth, one that all too often gets forgotten by those who talk about God’s judgment and punishment. Here it is: God also loves Judah and forgives Judah, over and over again. God sends prophets to Judah over and over again to convince them to return! Jeremiah uses these vivid images, but then says that it doesn’t have to happen. God’s will is not set in stone. If those who claim to love God follow three steps, all will be well: to confront the truth of their sin, and then to reconcile with God, a new Israel will be established with a foundation of peace.
Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann states that what makes Jeremiah different in the Old Testament is the depiction of God as constantly approaching Judah, demanding reconciliation. We get so focused on the punishment part, we forget about the grace part. God sends the prophets to point out the truth of the sin, and call on Judah to acknowledge that truth. But then God calls again and again to the lost. And again and again and again.
But we are not Judah. How do we take the ideas in our readings today and use them as individuals, to shape our relationship with God, and even with each other? How do we take anything from this, given that we are live in a different time and culture? Because we have to take a big step back, here, and remember that we are also people who have been shaped and moved by our understanding of God through the revelation of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, there is still truth for us in this text. So let’s return to the idea of the potter and the clay.
We take great pride in the fact that we are modern people. In the centuries since Jeremiah was written, we have acquired great knowledge about science, medicine, and technology. We explain human behavior through relatively new fields, like psychology. And for some people, that is enough. They think they’ve got it all figured out, and that we human beings are in charge. Yet the idea that we, like clay, are molded and shaped through life is something that we can still agree upon.
There are many influences that shape us throughout our lives. Yet, one crucial difference remains that separates us from clay. Clay has no voice in choosing who will shape it. It is true that, while we are children, we are most profoundly influenced by our families, and we have very little choice in the matter. As we grow older, however, we begin to push away from our families, and begin to allow ourselves to be shaped by friends and heroes that we admire and mimic, but we have choice in who those people are. Then, when we are adults, we like to trumpet our individualism and independence, imagining that we ourselves are in charge of the people we have become—that we, all by ourselves have shaped ourselves. You know, we love that phrase: “He is a self-made man!”
Yet we know that’s not really true. We are also shaped by others. It is good for us every now and then to remind ourselves of how we are similar to clay. If we do not allow ourselves to be molded by skillful hands, we will never be useful. And indeed, every person who has passed through our lives has a role in shaping the person each of us have become. Sometimes, we are shaped lovingly, kindly, and we become better, stronger, more beautiful. Sometimes, we fall into harsher hands, hands that attempt to squeeze us too tightly, or press upon us too hard, and we have trouble maintaining our balance as we limp away, misshapen, listing to one side.
Some people spend a huge chunk of their lives trying to make up for the injuries inflicted upon them by some of those influences in their lives. Some of us have lived through episodes in our childhoods that haunt us and have threatened to crush us—the shouts of our mothers and fathers that arose in the night and awakened us from childhood sleep night after night, or alcoholic rages that break the dishes. Hands that have touched us in anger, seeking to break us rather than shape us. Hands that have attempted to shape us for their own ends, who have used us and then discarded us.
If we try to heal the scars inflicted upon us, we often do not know where to begin. Sometimes, people who have experienced these kinds of events collapse, much like a misshapen pot upon the wheel. But countless others recover from their lives and move on. How can this be so? Maybe they had a good therapist, or a good doctor. Can’t we heal ourselves? Can’t we look within our own human resources to remake ourselves? Isn’t that what our society celebrates most?
Maybe. Maybe that works for some people. But there’s a reason why we are sitting here in these pews today. Perhaps some of us have tried to heal ourselves, and it hasn’t quite worked. Perhaps we’ve tried to heal ourselves with alcohol or drugs or food, or with bad relationships we thought would support us and make us whole. Maybe we’ve tried to heal ourselves by trying to acquire things until that’s all we hope to see instead of the emptiness within us. There are a lot of us who have tried everything, and yet we still feel misshapen. We are hurting, and sometimes we then hurt others. Sometimes we’ve been those harsh hands in someone else’s life. We’re ALL still searching.
Or some of us may be sitting in these pews today because we have experienced an overwhelming reshaping. Some of us have experienced a profound sense of release, a profound reconciliation, a profound sense of peace—the kind of peace that comes from being in the presence of a love that is so amazing that we are reshaped, and are never the same again. A love that leads us through the truth of our brokenness, through reconciliation with ourselves or those we have hurt, to a peace which not only passes all understanding but enables us to get through the next trial without being misshapen. A peace that comes to us through a God that reaches out to us, again and again, constantly trying to work us and shape us on that wheel, if only we will allow it.
There it is in our psalm today. God has known us and shaped us, the psalmist writes, from before the very beginning of our existence. God knows us and treasures us so much that God knows our thoughts and actions—and loves us anyway. That is the power of love and reconciliation that leads to peace! And it’s a power our world needs more than ever today.
To talk about a God who is waiting to crush us is to show that we do not understand God’s message at all. It just doesn’t fit with the God we have experienced in dark moments in our lives—a God of incredible power, yes, but the power to support us with limitless love, a God whose faith in US forgives us for our sins and foolishness and lack of faith over and over again. The problem with using verses like these to attempt to frighten us into some sort of rigid behavior is that it ignores the overriding thrust of the truth that God has revealed to us over and over again: that God reaches out to us repeatedly, and loves us unconditionally, even when we go our own blind way. God understands our weaknesses and through the gift of unlimited grace calls us again and again to reconcile with God and with each other, to allow ourselves to be shaped, to acknowledge that God can transform and sustain us even in our darkest moments because God made each of us, whether saint or sinner, cares for us, and loves us for all eternity. And that’s actually right there in the same readings that others twist for their own ends.
Are we willing to allow ourselves to be molded and shaped so that we can be the very best version of ourselves both as individuals and as a society, or are we more prone to resist and go our own way? Are we willing to accept that we are forgiven? Are we willing to forgive those who have hurt us, even if sometimes that requires forgiving them anew each new day, as the hurt and pain arises afresh? To forgive them, not necessarily because they deserve it, but because we recognize that they may be misshapen too and they—and we—deserve to live in peace. To forgive because we all deserve to live in peace, and to try to love them anyway as God most certainly loves us?
Sometimes we all get misshapen. But if you have ever watched a potter at the wheel, you know that she never throws the clay away; she just persists in working on it until she gets it right. God presses upon us behind and before, God’s hand is upon us, shaping us, never giving up on us, reconciling who we are with who God intends for us to be – a people forgiven, healed, renewed, shaped! A people empowered to go forth into the world, reconciled and at peace with ourselves, and with our God, and with one another.