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Sometimes, when the chaos of the world is too much, I mow the yard. It’s rhythmic, takes place in a confined period of time and obeys certain rules, handed down to me by my father. And it’s a definable, simple task – there’s a start time and a finish time and you can see your progress as you go along. There is something fulfilling in that. It stands in stark contrast to the world I regularly walk in, full of complexity and innuendo, the need to discern rather than decide, and tasks that are never, ever really completed.
Mowing acts as a physical metaphor for me, helping me open up a different approach, settling my anxious heart with the repetition of rows. Now, don’t tell my kids I said this, ’cause I still want them to mow the yard. I can just hear it now, “But, Dad, we’d hate to take away your metaphor.”
Metaphors help us shape reality, they help us grab hold of things that are ethereal and slippery. They are a way to talk about things you can’t talk about or describe things you can’t really see. The great poet Robert Frost once said, “Unless you are educated in metaphor, you are not safe to be let loose in the world.” Nowhere is this more true than in the Bible, or in the world of theology, the realm of “God-talk,” for what is more elusive, more indescribable, more ethereal than God?
The prophet Jeremiah’s name means, “the LORD exalts,” or “the LORD hurls,” depending on how you translate an ancient Hebrew that is as pliable as the clay from Jeremiah’s metaphor. This “exalted hurler” Jeremiah comes in the midst of a rough time for Israel, and he comes to speak the word to a people worn out by the anxiety and stress of the days in which they live. Jeremiah is born at the tail end of the rule of Manasseh, who reigned for 55 long, brutal, corrupt years. Manasseh was a liar and a cheat, he completely trashed whatever moral authority the office of the king had, he made shady business deals that benefitted him over the nation, his appetite for the sordid and profane knew no bounds, and he filled the temple of Solomon, the literal “house of God” to the Jewish people, with magicians, prostitutes and idols. Manasseh did not worship YHWH, he worshipped lust and greed.
It was a hard time to grow up for Jeremiah and his family, for our scriptures tell us that they were part of a remnant of faithful people who resided in an almost exile in their own country. Eventually, though, Manasseh died. His son, Amon succeeded him, though, and little changed. In fact, it got worse. Amon was eventually murdered leaving Manasseh’s grandson, Josiah, the throne. And that’s when something surprising happened.
You know how despite the gallons of grass killer or the layers of fabric you put in places where you don’t want things to grow…things grow anyway? Little shoots begin to break through the rocks we’ve laid down or the concrete we’ve poured over, grass dots the edges of the places we want our way, life happens, even in the unlikeliest of places. Josiah, with no model to inherit, no family bloodline to emulate, changes course, bringing life and morality back to the temple, sending green shoots through the decades of selfishness and greed, seeking the will of YHWH, rather than the multitude of self-serving gods his father and grandfather sought.
Of course, he didn’t do this alone. And he did have a model, it just wasn’t from his own family. It was Jeremiah. We have records of Jeremiah’s sermons, the ways that he called out Israel, his words aimed clearly at the king. While he often spoke with a sarcastic, acerbic tone, Jeremiah always ended with hope – “Go stand at the crossroads and look around,” he wrote, “Ask for directions to the old road, the tried-and-true road. Then take it. Discover the right route for your souls.”
In our passage today, Jeremiah uses the metaphor of the potter, claiming that we are clay in the hands of a God who can (and will) recast us in proper shape, even if that is not what we’re asking God to do. It is a theology that raises God to a level of activity among us that we, here in this church, might be unwilling to ascribe to the God we imagine. After all, it is hard for us to recognize the voice of a God who says things like, “I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you.” The Hebrew, by the way, says something closer to I’m shaping doom against you, rather than evil, but that might seem only marginally better, right? This is not the God we lift up, it just ain’t our theology.
Yet theology, like sculpting clay, in malleable and changing. Unlike a finished piece of pottery, it often does not hold it’s shape. I know, for instance, that I do not believe in a so-called “providential” God who pulls the strings from on high in heaven, controlling our lives like a cosmic puppet-master. Then again, there are things that occur in my own life that I have a hard time reconciling as coincidence. I have experiences that I think of as “bad” until years later when something happens to me that the “bad” event prepared me for perfectly and then I reconsider – hey, maybe that was actually a “good” thing. And then I wonder at the way that seemed orchestrated by a providential God I don’t believe in.
It’s why we speak of God largely in metaphors, for metaphor helps us to understand aspects of what we do not understand fully. While I believe wholeheartedly in a God of Love and Compassion, I also must admit that there are times I want God’s judgment to come raining down on people I think deserve it completely. (It’s never me, of course, always other people) And we all bear witness to everything from broken relationships to fractured social situations to monster hurricanes that make us all realize that actions have consequences. As a parent, I can tell you that’s one of the most difficult things to do – let your children have the direct results of their own actions. It’s hard to think of that as love. But isn’t it? The phrase “tough love” seems a little worn out, and there is something to realizing that part of loving someone includes a little judgment, right? I mean judgment not about someone’s self-worth or value, but judgment about what they are doing – particularly if they are doing something incredibly damaging.
We are, Jeremiah imagines in his metaphor, clay on the potter’s wheel. And when we are not shaping up, when it’s clear that what is being formed is another poorly shaped ashtray, not the fine piece of pottery God intends, then it’s back to the lump of clay with us. It’s an image of destruction in one way of looking at it, an image of creation in another way of looking at it. An endless supply of second chances, from a God who reforms rather than rejects, who breaks down, but only to remake.
There is a reason, I think, that Jeremiah uses the potter’s wheel as a metaphor. Think about it for a second. Though pottery is to us now a nice form of art, something we are bound to see at a fair-trade store or at Mayfest, in Jeremiah’s time it was a foundational part of life. As Eugene Peterson writes in his book on Jeremiah, Run With the Horses, “The invention of pottery set off a revolution. Before pottery there were only wandering tribes, following herds of animals, going from one food supply to another, forced here by drought, there by famine. There was no time to develop anything, no leisure to reflect on anything. It was hand-to-mouth existence, day-to-day survival. But the invention of pottery made it possible to store and carry. Then it was possible to stay in a place for a while because grain could be stored for next winter’s meal and water carried. Then cooking could be done and merchandise transported. The invention of pottery signaled a revolution and the revolution was what we call civilization—the Neolithic Age.”
Potters were everywhere in Jeremiah’s time. There were artisan families that passed the skill down, generation to generation, and their shops were like QT, on every street corner. By using a metaphor of something so commonplace, and something that made it possible for life as they knew it to exist, Jeremiah brings the importance of what he is asserting about God and the path of God right into the core of his listener’s understanding of life itself. Pottery wasn’t something to set on the mantle and look at, it was the way you transported the food and water you needed to survive, the way that you brought your surplus to the extended family to help them survive, or the way you received that lifeline of water in the desert.
Jeremiah’s metaphor imagines God at work like those potters Jeremiah saw every day, sculpting the very survival of humanity, God making away of life for God’s people, each human being with a useful with a part to play in what God is doing. God pushes and pulls, kneads and presses, never throwing anything away, but seeking reconciliation and connection…and when the reality of our alienation from God is realized, an alienation found in not only our own personal connection to the Holy, but the unholiness in our politics, our systems and our cultures, then we find that God is plotting disaster like a potter who sees that the bowl is not shaping up as expected, it is hopeless — and God decides to recast it.
If we look at this from one angle, it is a message of destruction and doom revealing a God who we could easily cast aside as an angry God…we’ve all been taught about that one. But is that what is happening here? Is that what the metaphor is all about? Or is the metaphor reaching for something with more complexity, a way to understand a predisposition in us that alienates us from God, pulling us away from the very things that lead to life and wholeness? Can we see this as the action of a God who loves us enough to correct us, calling out our self-deception, calling faithful people to turn away from resignation to an unjust world, demanding that we root ourselves in something life-giving rather than in fatalistic sentiment. We are persuaded by Jeremiah’s metaphor to visit the potter’s house, listening for a God who is reshaping our lives and our world into something more beautiful, something more useful and just and merciful.
May God we with us in the hearing of the word…and the living of the Word. Amen.