Proper 18

September 9, 2007
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 18:1-12
Reading 2: 
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
Reading 3: 
Philemon 1-21
Reading 4: 
Luke 14:25-33
By Rick Marshall

Discussing the text
The assigned verses of Psalm 139 are often read at funerals and are a beautiful expression of divine love. What a contrast to the verses from Psalm 139 which were left out of the lectionary reading! Revenge and such hatred! An Orange County, California pastor has recently come under criticism for using similar texts from the Psalms to pray for the harm of his perceived enemies. Rather than using this text in a sermon, it would be effective to use it in the form of a liturgy, perhaps a responsive reading, or formed into a prayer.

I have often heard the Jeremiah text, the story of the Potter’s House, used to make the point that God is in control of everything. In the hands of those who believe in divine omnipotence, it’s an image that could be easily forced to make the point. There is the Divine presence, hunched over a lump of clay, imposing the divine will upon a passive substance. But closer examination of the story leads to a different, even opposite, conclusion about the nature of God’s power. The larger context is a series of images, metaphors, analogies of  Divine struggle with the hard-heartedness of God’s people. We begin with the end of this Sunday’s text: “But they will say, ‘That is in vain! We will follow our own plans, and will every one act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart.’” verse 12. The point of the judgment against the people could not be clearer. The people have decided to reject God and follow their own agenda. But look at the language of the text. At various points, it affirms human will, human decision and freedom in determining the future. It affirms God’s limitation that human freedom imposes on Divine action, and it affirms the possibility that God will change God’s mind, depending upon the response of the creatures. There is a lot of give-and-take in this text between human will and Divine will, both in dynamic relation to the other.

What does the image of the clay in the potter’s hand imply? Coercive control over the clay? Or does it suggest a divine willingness to shape the clay? The image would be extended to imply that God wants to shape human life. What’s coercive about that? The divine desire to shape human life into something useful, even beautiful, is a belief that does not require absolute control over the clay. Clay is passive and has no choice or will to respond to the hands of the potter in any dynamic way. Whereas, the story speaks of human will and divine will and the forging of a dynamic relationship between the two parties. There is more going on in the text than a simple matter of hands on clay. The limited point of the story is in verse 4: “And the vessel he was making was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to the potter to do.” The point of the story is not the passivity of the clay, but the Divine hands that are working to shape and reshape in a constant, dynamic, process, to make something of it. The potter is working and reworking the clay to some good purpose which is intended by the potter. The image is the Divine hands working with and reworking and working again and again toward some good purpose. What a powerful image of a dynamic relationship between the Divine will and human will! It is a statement about the Divine willingness to continually work with creation toward a good purpose. Both human beings and God can change their minds about how to react to the present and how to shape the future.

Another question: Who is responsible for the punishment of human stubbornness? It seems that God is ready to impose judgment from outside. But doesn’t the story imply the idea of “natural consequences”? The idea that certain decisions bring with them certain consequences is something parents help their children to learn. There’s a logic involved: If you follow a certain particular path, it will lead to a certain result. The result is a natural expression of  the decision. That’s why parents try to teach their children the ability to make good decisions. The consequence is implied in the nature of the decision. In verses 6 - 11, the Divine “I’ is used repeatedly. “I will do this” and “I will do that.” But all of these Divine threats are contingent upon human decisions. “If you decide to follow my intention for human life, I will do this. But if you decide to go your own way, I will do that.”

So, the story, instead of being a metaphor for Divine coercive power, is about the dynamic relationship between two parties in a relationship who are adjusting themselves to one another in the process of an unfolding relationship.

A whole different point is made by the Luke text. This text is tied more closely to the verses left out of Psalm 139. Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Wow! Pretty harsh language. And comprehensive, too. It would be easy to take the word “hate” in both texts at face value, then ignore them and move on to easier texts. But there is probably a rich vein running under the emotional/theological landscape of these two texts. Of course Jesus, given the context of commitment to the cause of the Kingdom of God, is suggesting what he more explicitly says at the end of the text. “So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” Well, put that way, it makes more theological sense. Hate, then, is not an emotional word, but a decision to renounce all that one has does not make sense. We can follow that line of thought to an end other than hatred and revenge. Bearing one’s cross is, later, related to self-emptying. Jesus is calling for a whole new orientation to life, where one’s life is seen not in one’s possessions or accomplishments, nor in family connections, but in emptying ones’ self to be filled with God’s power and purpose. This line of reasoning will lead us eastward and we might meet Buddha on the road somewhere. Jesus is calling his hearers to soberly consider the implications of what he is asking them to do by making this commitment to a whole new way of living in the world.

Process Theology and the text
The Jeremiah text is a good example of how some texts in the Bible can be used in simple-minded, heavy-handed ways to support the mistaken idea of Divine omnipotence, when in fact they imply the very opposite, on closer reading. The same literal-minded twisting of the creation story of Genesis chapter one happens in the same clumsy hands. The idea that God has all the power and the creatures have not is a violation of so much of the Bible. The idea that God does not change or is not affected by what the creatures do is preposterous and damaging. Even the beautiful poetry of the text from Psalm 139 could be twisted to imply a literal idea of omnipotence. Even the contrast between the positive images with the negative images in this Psalm imply human responsiveness and responsibility.

The image of the Divine hands working and reworking the clay says something about the willingness of God to engage in a process of molding and breaking, molding and breaking. There is a rhythm about the image that is profoundly process. Each moment arise out of the wreckage of the past, it arises to a point of decision and clarity about it’s existence in that moment. It then fades and becomes part of the past that the next moment will shape into it’s own becoming. The many become one and the one joins the many and the many become one and so on. It is the process of the unfolding of life.

Preaching the text
The Jeremiah text is the only drama in this week’s set of texts. I prefer preaching on texts which have dramatic dynamics: characters, action, conflict and resolution. It’s within those dynamics that, for me, energy flows from the text to me through the sermon to the congregation. I find it easier to preach on poetic texts, as well. My least favorite texts are the theologically dense parts of the Apostle Paul’s writings.

Therefore, I would preach exclusively on the Jeremiah text this Sunday. It would be a straightforward approach to the drama of the story. I would look at how the story is set up, what the context is. Then I would look at who the main characters are and what is the conflict. Which characters change? Which don’t? Then, what possible resolution might there be to that conflict. Then, the final move, what would such dramatic dynamics mean for us? Where is the point of creative transformation in the story? How are those story dynamics deeply embedded in our own lives?

Another sermon could take a close look at the harsh edge in the Psalms and Luke texts. A preacher could talk about how that harshness, if pushed too far or misunderstood, can become destructive in our lives. Why such a contrast between the beautiful, positive words of the assigned verses from Psalm 139 and the unassigned verses? What is the dynamic within the context of the whole poem? After all, love and hate are much closer together than we often realize. How can someone run so hot and then so cold? What drives this bipolar set up in the text? In life? Many examples come to mind, especially for those who have been divorced or who have had difficulties with their family members and all the co-dependent, weird family stuff that we all live with.

Children and the text
It would be easy to focus on the dynamics of the Jeremiah text with the children. The main point would be the relationship they have with their parents and how much control they have and should have over us. Begin by asking if their parents love them. Of course they do. Do they do things for you and help you? Yes, they make a home for us and provide a place to sleep and clothes and food and love. Do your parents tell you what to do? All the time? Would it be right for them to make all the decisions for you. What you wear, what you eat, what you think? I’ve seen parents who try to have too much control over their child. I don’t think that worked very well, because we have to learn how to make decision for ourselves. And if our parents control us and make all our decisions, how are we supposed to learn things? I think, if a parent loves their child, that parent needs to help their child learn to make more and more decisions on their own. Guide them, not control them.

Talk about God in this way asking similar questions. Do you think God has total control over us? Of course not. We make our own decisions. God wants us to make good decisions for ourselves and to grow up and to do well. That means becoming a strong, more independent person. We’re not puppets in God‘s hands, are we? No, God wants to lead us, or guide us, in the best way to live. Love doesn’t mean totally controlling another person, but guiding them.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.