Proper 18 Year C, Jeremiah 18:1-11
God shapes evil against us. What an interesting thought. Today we have two images of clay and for some reason the second one seems to get over looked. Near the end of this Jeremiah passage the Lord says: “Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you.” This image of the potter does not seem to be of a benevolent God.
When we think of evil we often think of the devil or even the antichrist. Often we have a dualistic idea where we imagen that Satan is the opposite of God or at least his illusive arch nemesis, in which we are just waiting for God to capture him as if this were the Joker in an episode of Batman. In traditional Judaism there is no evil such as this. Hasatan, or as we call him Satan, is usually translated as the Adversary or the accuser. This is a legalistic term in which you are the defendant and Satan is the Prosecutor. Traditional Judaism doesn’t see Satan in opposition to God at all. Satan is sanctioned by God to test us, to help us increase our faith, to do things to us that will cause us to return to God. It is also clear in the Old testament that Satan is not really a single entity or personality nor is Satan the creator of natural disaster or chaos. Even though we do not appreciate what Satan is doing to us, he is ultimately in our lives working with God to help us, to bring us closer to God.
When we delve into the New Testament view of Satan, we for the most part, outside of the book of Revelation, find a similar view. He still has many titles and names. He is the obstructer, devil, the tempter. But in the New Testament he appear to have a more distinctive role in which he is specifically entering men, causing them to do evil deeds and he inflicts people with ailments. Additionally we see that his role now targets Christian endeavors, thwarting our efforts. And he seems to be more of a specific entity, an individual of sorts.
As time has gone on, beyond the Bible, we have woven folklore into our narrative; such that Satan is a fallen angel. We also get Satan confused with the antichrist who will have human qualities. But the antichrist is clearly different, because he will only come at the end times. So unlike many commentators, there is no way that any of our politicians are the devil incarnate unless you think we are literally living in the end days. Even beyond folklore we bring in pagan ideas of dualism; in which all physical things are inherently bad and all spiritual things are good. Now when we confuse these ideas some are led to think that Satan is like a demiurge, a lower god of this world, who is trying to undue God and his creation. Dualism was denounced as heresy in the early church and is untenable to a God who made all things good.
Now lest look at our first and more common image of clay. In a metaphor in which we are being molded out of clay by God, the potter. When we think about this passage from Jeremiah, we often see ourselves as the vessels being shaped and molded by the potter, the hand of God. We are brought into a scene where we are being shaped and reshaped by God. We have seen this passage depicted and told to children in this way. And it is easy especially for us in our society to read this in an individualistic way; where we, as individuals, are the clay. As with any metaphoric language it can be interpreted in different ways. But I’d like to step back a bit and look at it again without being so overly simplistic.
At the heart of this passage, in Jeremiah’s prophetic vision, he enters the potter’s house and sees a pot on the wheel that gets spoiled. The potter then begins to rework it. This is where the word of the Lord says: “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?” Clearly in this image, the clay is the people of Judah, or all the faithful people of God; not us as individuals. So if we take this metaphor, and place it in a more appropriate context, where the Clay continues to be all of the faithful people then shouldn’t we say the clay is the whole of Christendom; the entirety of the Christian Church and possibly beyond. God’s people as a whole are being worked and reworked over time by God. The work is bigger than any one person or even any one group.
Change has always occurred within the Church. From its beginning, to now, and it will change in the future. The Church has never been stagnant. Occasionally there are periods of great change or even clashes from within itself; the Reformation for example. Or more recently, there has been a lot of talk about the decline of Christianity. Some say that the Church is broken and needs to be fixed. I not sure I agree.
The text says that God reworked the piece because it was spoiled. But most Bible translations, and probably more accurately use the word “marred” instead. Spoiled means unusable as if the piece was beyond repair; as where marred implies imperfect. The piece is still usable but not up to the creators standards. Change does happen and sometimes things need to be fixed or improved upon. Using this metaphor the changes that occur are not because the church is broken beyond repair but that it needed improvement, it is not meeting the creator’s expectations.
The Lord is working this clay on a wheel. From what I understand clay in this state can almost take on its own presence. It can collapse or be ruined for no apparent reason. Some days the clay is just harder to work with than on others. But that is not what is going on here. The imperfections, according to the prophet, come from us. And yes, if needed, the advisory is out there to remind us that we are not the ones creating. We are not the ones who ultimately have to be pleased. God is.
So I wonder if the church is really not in decline because it is completely broken but because we need to pay more attention to what we are doing. The Church is being reworked, at least from God’s perspective, and it will be brought to perfection…eventually.
Churches are changing some are becoming more missional. They are meeting the people where they are instead of waiting for the people to come to them. At this very moment I’m not sure how we are changing. Maybe this is what I’m feeling here in Eagle Lake. There seems to be a change in the air. We have new clergy in several of the parishes in town. Even within this parish, I feel we are burgeoning on something new. There seems to be an energy that has been rekindled. I don’t only feel this but some of you have told me this as well. I wonder if this feeling is the beginning of our parish being reworked into something new.
Newness may sound scary to think about, but in this metaphor we have to remember that we are not talking about something that is broken. For our church is not, Christ Church is a great place. In this metaphor we also clearly see that the substance or the inherent being never changes either. During the pot’s recreation, the pot is simply remade or improved from where it was before. It’s the same clay, the same potter: just as we are the same people in the same place.
This is where we are, looking in to the future, trying to identify how we as parish follow God to the best of our abilities. Any pains we have along the way strengthen us to follow God more faithfully. Any changes that occur ultimately improve us, making us better than we were before. I don’t know what the spirit has in store for us but I am excited to be on this journey with you.