A sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost
St. James Church, Lincoln, California
“Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.”
The prophet Jeremiah was invited by God to observe a potter at his work. We might expect this to be an image of the potter lovingly crafting a pot, gradually smoothing it into the desired and perfected shape. Certainly that’s the implication of some popular religious songs about the potter and the clay. But is that what Jeremiah saw? The potter was working on the vessel, something didn’t go right, and the potter smashed it down, destroyed it and started over on something new. Not nearly as comfortable an image as we might expect. And these are the words of the Lord to Jeremiah:
“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. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good thing that I had intended to do to it.”
God is free, and won’t be played for a fool. In the imagination of our hearts, we may think that God has promised us things will be a certain way. But at any point, the Divine Potter may look at that vessel, that vessel of our imagination, take it, smash it, form it back into a lump and start something new. God is not to be controlled by human expectations.
This can be frightening in many ways because what it means it that we are not protected from God.
Two sociologists interviewed teenagers about their religious beliefs and found that, for many of these young people, their belief system boiled down to: One has the right in life to be happy and to feel good about yourself and we don’t need God’s presence unless we need a problem solved. Many modern adults ascribe to a similar theory of religion. But that’s not what this passage from Jeremiah is telling us.
What this text is saying is that God is faithful to God’s mercy and justice. God is sovereign in bestowing grace. God promises good, and that good is a gift. But grace is not a right, it is a free gift of a free God. We can’t manipulate God into a corner.
There’s a movie, written and directed by Kevin Smith, entitled Dogma. It’s a comedy, with a well-earned “R” rating, in which a couple of fallen angels have learned that the Catholic Church in New Jersey has set up a plenary indulgence so that any person who enters one particular church building will have her or his sins forgiven and will go to heaven. These fallen angels figure that if they can get there, have their wings removed so that they become mortal and enter the church, they will go to Heaven, despite God’s eternal decree assigning them to Hell. The film maker is actually leading his audience into a serious reflection on the meaning of the Gospel, even though there was quite a bit of horrified reaction from certain ends of the religious spectrum when the film came out.
But these angels—they were trying to game God. Their premise was that God was rigidly bound by every pronouncement. You’ll have to watch the movie to see how it works out in the movie, but in the real world, God will not be gamed. It is only God’s love meeting human repentance that remains in the end. It surprises us, who God loves. It certainly surprised the princes of Judah, when Jeremiah told them that their enemies were forgiven.
Jesus surprises us. He turns to the crowds, who are expecting him to be nice and to talk about nothing but love, and he says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” There is no avoiding that this is an intense statement. When Jesus uses the word, “hate” it is the opposite of the word, “love”. However, we moderns tend to always default to thinking of “love” and “hate” as matters of feeling, indeed of personal feelings. But love is a matter of behavior.
A renowned scholar puts it this way: “The terms denote attitude and modes of action, not emotions. The point is not how one feels toward parents and family but one’s effective attitude when it comes to a choice for the kingdom.”[i] Jesus is the embodiment of the compassion of God. We are invited into that compassion. But that invitation is not to go along with the crowds, or a political party or faction, or our own neighbors and family. The invitation is to accompany Jesus—and his life defines compassion, not any of those other things. Jesus walks with us into the truth of the free God. That freedom has its cost, as the parables about the tower builder and the king going to war that end today’s Gospel lesson indicate. A Christian life in the world in which we live involves loss, suffering and sacrifice and with Jesus, we accept that squarely, without trying to avoid it, or push the consequences away, leaving others to endure the consequences.
The promise of God is God’s mercy, his mercy to all. The Gospel is God’s freedom that sets us free. Manipulation and scheming are of no use. We are free of the need to make excuses, or to make ourselves look like we are the ones who are in the right. We do not know how things will come out—we live in the freedom of God. What we do know is that God is the God of Love. God’s mercy extends beyond our imaginations. But wherever we suffer or doubt, God’s mercy is there for us.
[i] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 229, n. 26.