Tuesday, September 3, 2019
Less Potter, More Clay
Want a recipe for homiletical disaster? Tell a group of committed progressive Christians who are being critical of their evangelical counterparts that they aren't any more faithful than their opponents. Or, from the other side, try telling a group of committed evangelical Christians who are lambasting the faithlessness of liberal Christianity that actually they're the ones who don't get it.
Sunday, I don't plan to do that, but the reading from Jeremiah 18 sure is tempting. What I love most about this reading is that the prophet is walking around one day, listening for the Lord's direction, and, when he comes to the potter's house and watched the potter do his thing, the word of the Lord came to him. This prophecy--this teaching--is born from an everyday encounter, an EfM theological reflection unfolding before us. When the prophet sees how the potter, while throwing a pot, loses the form that he was striving for and starts over with another vessel, it occurs to the prophet that that's how God works. God is the potter, and we are the clay. As ridiculous as it is for the clay to say to the potter, "I'm sorry, but I was planning to become a water jug and not a flower vase," so it is ridiculous for us to say to God, "I'm sorry, but, since we're the truly faithful ones, we're planning on you to prosper our ministry and thwart theirs."
It feels good to have God on your side. It feels good to know that you are doing something not for selfish reasons but in response to a divine commission. But, when we're the ones calling the shots and giving our work a godly label, we're not serving God but casting idols for ourselves--images that look a lot like what we think God looks like but, in fact, are formed from our image--our understanding--instead of God's.
The prophet wasn't talking about the split between evangelical and liberal Christians, of course. He seems to have been talking about Israel and its rival nations: "At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but 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." The prophet wants the people to understand that security is never guaranteed. We cannot rest on the promises our ancestors were convinced they heard from God. Even this morning's Daily Office reading from 1 Kings 8 reminds us that, although God seems to promise Solomon that God will never take the divine name away from the temple that Solomon had built, by the end of the reading--likely the product of a redactor's pen--God tells Solomon that, if he is faithless, the temple will become "a heap of ruins." If God is God, then we are not, which means that, like clay in the potters hand, our job isn't to determine what will happen but to be faithful as it does.
Of course we think God is going to champion our cause for ever. Of course we're convinced that we're right. The problem isn't pursuing what we think is God's path. The problem is forgetting that we're clay. We're clay. When we forget that God is the artist, the potter, the architect, then we begin to decide what God is going to do, and that always leads to trouble. The message is a simple one. The prophet finds it in the simplest everyday place. Of course we're the clay. Of course God is the potter. But, as the prophet declares, sometimes that means that God is "shaping evil against you." What is our response? We could try telling God that God isn't allowed to do that--that God is supposed to be loving and faithful in ways that we have defined for God--but we might have more success if we tae the prophet's advice: "Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings." The hardest sins of which to repent are the sins of self-righteousness. Just ask the liberal and conservative Christians who are fighting each other.