Grace Is Messy

Jeremiah 18.1-11

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the world of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation of a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoke, 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 that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.  

Metaphors can be messy.

And don’t get me wrong, metaphors make the world go round. We use them ALL THE TIME, even without realizing it. Some are obvious, like saying, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” And “He has a heart of gold.” We say those thing to imply something about the nature of something using words or descriptions that aren’t real or even possible.

When a big cloud rolls overhead we know that domesticated animals are not going to fall down upon us and we know that if we looked inside the chest of even a truly decent person we’ll find blood and muscle and sinew, not one of the most valuable substances on the planet.

And yet we grow comfortable with metaphors because we use them all the time. But every metaphor has a limit and every metaphor can be messy.

Jeremiah speaks of a vision and moment given to him by the Lord about the potter and the clay. This has been a beloved scriptural metaphor for millennia and communicates a lot about who God is and what God does. Like a potter with clay God knows God’s creation intimately, gently, and purposefully. God desires the best result from the work put in. God shapes and molds exactly the way God wants to.

It’s a good and fine metaphor. Like all metaphors it expresses something with words that help bring about a different or perhaps fuller understanding.

But this metaphor is really messy, in more ways than one.

Here’s the good: God as the potter harkens back to some of the earliest verses in scripture about God forming Adam out of the earth, out of dirt, perhaps even out of clay. We, as the creation of God, are formed and shaped in the image of God to live freely and fully on the earth. 

And, like clay, God’s fingers can smooth out any and all of our imperfections such that by the end of our formation, we are exactly as God intended us to be.

Moreover, God never gives up on God’s art. No matter how much we resist the shaping, God can always leave us out to dry if we are too wet, or add a little more water if we are too dry. God can even smash the clay back into a ball and start all over again if God wants.

But our God, the divine potter, will make beauty of our brokenness.

Sounds good right? 

Well, here’s the bad: God as the potter implies a total control over creation such that if there is something wrong with the world we’re left with a question: Why didn’t God fix it? We, the creation of God, formed and shaped according to God’s purposes, do all kinds of bad and horrible stuff on the regular. And even if we are met with moments of malleability, most of us continue to do things we know we shouldn’t or avoid doing things we know we should. Which means that either God isn’t a very good potter, or God desires us to be bad.

Moreover, the Jeremiah texts makes it abundantly clear that God looks specifically at our wrongness and threatens to bring evil upon us unless we amend our ways. God therefore stops seeming like a potter and instead appears like the divine torturer waiting to bring down punishments until we get in line. 

Metaphors are messy. And every metaphor has a limit. But this is the one communicated to Jeremiah by God, and by Jeremiah to us.

When we read these words, when we imagine God sitting down at the wheel fashioning each of us in our own unique way, it’s hard not to feel like we all need to shape up. The potter has seen our messed up characteristics, our choices, decisions, words, and is going to do whatever the potter can to get something out of our nothing. Which, though it sounds hopeful, is also kind of terrifying. 

It’s terrifying because the potter can destroy the clay whenever the potter wants. So, friends, we need to start behaving ourselves and hopefully prevent the destruction that God is holding over our heads.

Or, to put it in simpler terms, if we don’t fix what’s broken in us, God is going to smash us into oblivion.

Today, if we think about potters, we usually conjure them up in our minds as pensive, kind, and gentle people. My sister is a ceramicist and in her daily life she is nice and loving, but when she sits down at her pottery wheel, she is anything but. She becomes her own force of nature, throwing her whole body weight into the machine and into the clay until something comes out of all the effort. Clay splatters everywhere and she had to construct a make shift wall around the wheel just to make sure clay didn’t fly all over the room.

Working with clay is an inherently messy endeavor. You’ve got to get not just your fingers but your arms and whole body into it. And one false move can bring the whole thing down. If the clay is too dry it won’t move under your fingers, if the clay is too wet the clay won’t hold its shape, if the wheel spins too fast the structure will fall in on itself, if the wheel spins too slow it won’t remain symmetrical. 

And Jeremiah, with this metaphor, speaks to the people of God a word about their clay – they need to fix themselves. And not just themselves as individuals, but as a community. God desires the reshaping of the community such that the community can serve God’s purposes in social, political, and even economic ways. 

And God is gonna get what God wants. God means to shape us in ways that we can barely even imagine and definitely in ways that go way beyond what we typically think about in terms of church maintenance. I mean, does God care about the fact that we just celebrated 60 years as a church? Probably. But does God care about the ways we interact with the community such that everyone can hear the Good News? Definitely.

God works in our lives all the time, drying us out when we’re so soggy with our own self-centeredness, dropping the water of compassion on us whenever we feel alone, or hurt, or afraid. God even uses people like us to be the drying or watering agents for the people around us, both familiar and strange. 

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And God has to do this work over and over again because there is something fundamentally wrong with our clay, with us. We can call it sin, or selfishness, or any other number of things. In this text Jeremiah draws attention to the fact that our clay is messed up because we can resist the hand of our potter. We can choose to align with God’s purposes or we can go against them.

But if you’ve noticed, I’ve already started to shift the metaphor around a little bit. That’s why its so messy. You see, Jeremiah makes it abundantly clear, through the threats of destruction, that we’ve got to change the condition of our condition. Jeremiah speaks about the choices being made that affect not only the present but choices that will have consequence in the far and distant future. 

The difference is this: Who is ultimately responsible for shaping the clay? Is it the clay itself, or is it the potter?

Because here’s where the metaphor gets the messiest. If the responsibility is solely on the clay, well then friends, prepare yourselves for destruction. Sure, we can make little changes in our lives, we can try to love God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and body, we can try to love our neighbors as ourselves. We can put a little more money in the offering plate than we did the week before. We can reach out to our literal neighbors and invite them over for dinner. We can volunteer at the local homeless shelter. We can donate canned goods to local food pantries. We can do all sorts of stuff, stuff that will make the world better around us. But at the end of the day, we’re still the same clay.

We will always be sinners in need of God’s grace because that’s who we are. God, in ways that are confounding, chose to make us free. Free to act with God or against God. It is a beautiful and messy gift but one that make life all the more interesting and exciting. We are not puppets being pulled along by some puppeteer up in the sky (another messy metaphor). 

We are dirt. Dirt that has been given life by God.

Should we try to be better and do all sorts of good things? Absolutely. The world would do well to have some more decent acting people in it. But, at the end of the day, we can’t change our clay. Only God can do that. And that’s where the metaphor of the messy potter with the messy clay comes into its fullest. 

God is determined to shape communities whose ways of worship and prayer and life-living bear witness to the redemptive and graceful purposes of God. This isn’t something we can, or have to, do on our own. God is God because God is the one who can always make something of our nothing. God can raise new and beautiful things even out of our ruinous self-indulgent and indifferent practices. 

It’s not up to us on our own, but it’s God who works in and through us to reshape the world around us. God speaks to us through the words of scripture, or a song, or a stranger so that we can start to imagine a new and different world. God uses people and places and things to dry us out or wet us down until we start to spin smoothly on the wheel of the potter. 

Working with clay is messy. If you’re not careful, and frankly even if you are, clay can get everywhere and into everything. It is messy. And so is grace.

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As the unmerited gift of God, grace is given to all regardless of earning or deserving. Which means that grace is there for the best of us and for the worst of us. That’s a ridiculously messy theological proposition! In just about every other part of our lives we make it all about what we’ve done or deserved. We judge people on what job they have or what school they went to or where they go on vacation or what kind of clothes they wear. But in the reality of God’s kingdom, none of those things matter. Grace is given regardless of circumstances. It is not expensive, it’s not even cheap, it’s free.

At the end of the day, a potter will step away from the wheel covered in the art that was used in creation. Even in the world of messy metaphors there is something beautiful and strange in the knowledge that our divine potter became clay for us in the person of Jesus Christ. 

God was willing to take on exactly what makes us what we are so that the artist and the art would become inextricably tied up with each other, forever.

It doesn’t get messier than that. Amen. 

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Church People Are Gonna Church People

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with John Carl Hastings about the readings for the 14th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28, Psalm 14, 1 Timothy 1.12-17, Luke 15.1-10). John Carl serves as one of the pastors of Bluff Park UMC in Alabama. Our conversation covers a range of topics including College Football message boards, hot winds, discomfort for the Lord, pretending all is well, colloquial liturgy, praying for others, the sneakiness of works righteousness, and the impracticality of grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Church People Are Gonna Church People

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Exegete This!

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with John Carl Hastings about the readings for the 13th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 18.1-11, Psalm 139.1-6, 13-18, Philemon 1.1-21, Luke 14.25-33). John Carl serves as one of the pastors of Bluff Park UMC in Alabama. Our conversation covers a range of topics including story time with Bishop Willimon, throwing on the wheel, difficult verses, being known, predestination, Philemon, reading outside the text, hating the family, kingdom catching, and uncomfortable fellowship. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Exegete This!

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Worthless

Jeremiah 2.4-13

Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the Lord: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? They did not say, “Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and puts, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?” I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination. The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?” Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit. Therefore once more I accuse you, says the Lord, and I accuse your children’s children. Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Cedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing. Has a nation changed it gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed to evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out sisters for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

One year my elementary school got the bright idea for a new program to help keep the tomfoolery down in the cafeteria. We were, as most kids are, fine in the classroom, but the minute we were allowed to mingle with friends in other classes, everything went crazy. 

So the teachers would yell, and separate certain students from others, but it never really worked. And then the front office got an epiphany… The three flowers.

One day, in the middle of every table, stood a small little vase and inside each vase were three fake flowers. The idea was that if the table became too rambunctious, a teacher or administrator would come over and remove one flower – the first warning. And, if sort of worked, the fear of losing the other two would inevitably lead most of us to quiet down and focus on our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But then someone would put their hand over the armpit and start making the sounds of flatulence, or someone would purposely spill milk out of their nose and then flower number two would disappear.

For most that was enough. With two flowers missing a table would eat in miserable silence waiting for the lunch period to end.

We knew the punishments for losing all three flowers: There was the possibility of extra homework, the loss of recess, and the most dreaded of all, a phone call to our parents.

So having lost two flowers, we would get our acts together and instantly mature right on the spot.

Except for one day. Because on that particular day, having already lost two flowers, one of my best friends stuck his spoon into his chocolate pudding, and rather than bringing it to his mouth, he started to arc it back with his other hands and he shot the brown blob across the table directly at the girls.

Time suspended for a moment as the entire table watched the pudding reject the laws of physics and fly in slow motion until it landed directly in the middle of the forehead of the prettiest girl in our class.

And immediately, our table and the tables around us erupted in cacophonous laughter until the cafeteria lady, as we called her, slowly sauntered over and withdrew our final remaining flower.

Our hearts sank knowing that the worst thing in the world had just taken place and our imaginations began to run wild with whatever punishment was coming our way. The cafeteria lady quickly wrote down all of our names on a piece of paper, and then she handed it to me. She said, “Lunch is about to end, and when it does, you are to take this to the office, the principal will be calling each of your parents to tell them what you did today.”

The remaining minutes were agonizing and we refused to look each other in the eyes, and when I picked up my tray to deposit my trash the lunch lady came over a final time and said, “And don’t get any funny ideas like throwing away the piece of paper before you go to the office.”

Why did she plant such a seed of mischief in mind? I will never know. 

But that’s exactly what I did.

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No wants likes getting in trouble. It’s not the trouble we mind, but its getting caught that makes all the difference. If we can avoid it, we do everything we can to avoid indictment. And then we read a scripture like the one from Jeremiah and we squirm in our pews. We squirm, precisely because it makes us uncomfortable. 

Jeremiah’s condemnation resonates with us in ways we’d care not to admit. Each of us, in our own time, can take a good hard look in the mirror and catch glimpses of our own waywardness, or lifestyle choices, or foolish decisions and know that the word from the Lord is true. 

We do the things we know we shouldn’t, and we avoid doing the things we know we should do.

Or, to put it like Isaiah puts it: People who pursue worthless things become worthless themselves.

Ouch.

The people of God during the time of Jeremiah were a people of foolish wastefulness. They had been given everything they needed: plentiful land to eat its fruits. But for them it was never enough. And, to make matters worse, it wasn’t just the people, it was the priests too. They all went off in search of the illusive “more” and they came back empty handed.

The desire in the hearts and minds and souls and bodies was so blinding that they had forgotten who they were and the story of God’s deliverance.

Which is why Jeremiah speaks of their water and their cracked cisterns. The people of Jerusalem are dying of thirst, both literally and spiritually. The faithlessness of God’s people had delivered the Babylonians to their door steps and their aid and supplies had been cut off. The cisterns scattered throughout the city are literally drying out leading to cracks and the water has stopped.

But it’s more than just the literal water that’s missing. Jeremiah has eyes to see and a word from the Lord to preach that they have lost the living water of God. Not because it dried up and disappeared, but because the people made their own cisterns and bottled their own understanding of enough instead of relying on God.

The people have lost their story. They have forgotten that God, their God, had delivered them from captivity in Egypt to the new and beautiful Promised Land, God had been faithful to the covenant struck with Abraham, but the people had listened to another song, they had followed their own thoughts and desires, and now, they are accused.

And not just them, but their children’s children!

Over and over again throughout the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments, Israel knows itself as the people delivered by God. And still today, we are a people delivered by God from the tyranny of another sort, not from a Pharaoh in a far away land, but from the reign of sin and death. And its because we know the story of what God did that we can live fully and faithfully today.

We are the stories we tell.

It’s true. Just think about what’s important to you or to your family. Whatever the thing is, there’s probably a story that helps bring the object to light. Narratives shape the world around us and give us the means by which we can understand who we are and, in the church, whose we are.

And even though we know that we’re the stories we tell, more often than not we act like we are the things we possess. We value ourselves on the clothes we wear, the car we drive, the home we own. And all of those things are worthless. They can blow away with the wind. 

Is there a shirt that can make us happy?

Is there a car that can fix our marriage?

What good is a perfect house when you run out of water?

So Jeremiah lambasts the people of God, and even us all these centuries later. Why have you forgotten what God did for you? Why are you rushing after things that cannot bring you life? Why have you dug your own cisterns when God is the one with the living water?

And here’s the deal: Jeremiah, bless his heart, we can see what he’s going for. He’s not simply trying to make the people feel bad about themselves, he says what he says so that they can change. The prophet wants everyone to tune their hearts back to God’s frequency. 

But it’s not going to work.

Literally, it doesn’t, things just get worse for the nation Israel as she refuses to listen and continues to dig her own cisterns.

But it was never going to work out anyway.

The more prophets prophesy about the need to change, the more preachers preach about the need to change, the more things largely stay the same.

No one goes to an AA meeting because their spouse nags them to go. No child jumps at the opportunity to do their homework because their parents yelled at them to do so. 

Just think about the last time someone tried to fix you… Did it work?

Just think about the last time you listened to a sermon that told you all the things you needed to do to fix your life… Did you and did it work?

Thats the kicker about preaching – people don’t change because we tell them to repent, nor do we change because someone told us to. 

It’s infuriating, but we all have to come to our solutions on our own. Sure, we can do our due diligence and show people the door, but we can’t push anyone through it. But even that is a long shot in terms of transformation.

We like to talk about how the world is changing, how we can barely keep up with it all, and part of the reason it feels like the world is spinning out of control is because we all stay the same. We are creatures of habit and when we find a routine that seems to work we stick with it, even if the routine is a denial of God’s living water provided to us for nothing.

We’ve got the crooked and broken notion that we’ve got to dig our own wells to get what God has already given to us.

What Jeremiah points at in his indictment, the thing we almost always miss, is that this is exactly the thing he was criticizing. It’s not just that God’s people needed to be better, though it wouldn’t have hurt, the problem was they were so convinced that they could do everything they needed on their own when they couldn’t do much of anything. 

We are all works in progress – that’s absolutely the truth. And yet, this incessant desire to change others usually makes things worse.

Should we stop trying? Of course not. The point isn’t to give up, but to realize that we all need help outside of ourselves and even outside of the people closest to us. We need a savior. We need living water that will never ever run dry. We need the bread and the cup. 

We can’t do all of this on our own.

So thanks be to God, who through Jesus Christ has made us his own. Amen.

No One Listens Anymore

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Chris Corbin about the readings for the 12th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 2.4-13, Psalm 81.1, 10-16, Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16, Luke 14.1, 7-14). Chris is the Missioner for Leadership Development for the Episcopal Diocese of South Dakota. Our conversation covers a range of topics including humidity, Remembering The Future, the economics of parsonages, idolatry, Sunday morning choices, Episcopalians vs. other Christians, competing narratives, angels, lawful freedom, and dinner party theology. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: No One Listens Anymore

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Breaking The Rules

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Chris Corbin about the readings for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 1.4-10, Psalm 71.1-6, Hebrews 12.18-29, Luke 13.10-17). Chris is the Missioner for Leadership Development for the Episcopal Diocese of South Dakota. Our conversation covers a range of topics including church empowerment, Weird Anglican Twitter, call stories, being needed, prophetic vs. political preaching, wickedness, different translations, salvation history, rule followers, and Jesus as Torah. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Breaking The Rules

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Welcoming The Fire

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the 10th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Isaiah 5.1-7, Psalm 80.1-2, 8-19, Hebrews 11.29-12.2, Luke 12.49-56). Ken serves as the pastor of Holy Redeemer in Rochester, Michigan. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Fleming Rutledge, preaching for preachers, the fruit of the vine, the blame game, particular preparation, the case for the collar, restoration, the faith hall of fame, the divine “yet”, and quoting Capon. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Welcoming The Fire

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