Proper 18

September 5, 2010
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 18:1-11
Reading 2: 
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
Reading 3: 
Philemon 1-21
Reading 4: 
Luke 14:25-33
Alt Reading 2: 
Psalm 1
Alt Reading 1: 
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
By Rick Marshall

Reflecting on preaching
I am a hyperbolist, an exaggerator, a truth-enhancer. In other words, I’m a storyteller of biblical proportion. Most preachers are. By telling stories, we seek a dynamism in the Word of God. We believe the Word of God is a living, breathing thing, and the Word of God lives in stories, stories of old, but also in our own stories. What kind of truth do stories tell? If you buy a dozen eggs, you can verify the number by counting them; it’s an issue of veracity, of fact. Are there twelve? Yes. How good are they? Well, that’s a little different; that’s a value judgment. How can you verify that they are “good”? You have to taste them, and they are “good” probably in terms of freshness and taste. This is a values question. The question of the number of eggs is a facts question. Where does the truth of stories lie? This is the trouble that literalists run into when they interpret the Bible. They see truth as only factual, hence the effort in finding the tomb where Jesus was buried, or a piece of the cross, or Noah’s ark, which is important, but these issues are of relative importance when dealing with the Bible. Literalists make a category mistake. They use one kind of truth when another kind of truth is called for. They play the part of Joe Friday on the old “Dragnet” TV program: “Just the facts, ma’am.” That’s okay and important when it comes to detective work. The problem comes because the Joe Friday approach doesn’t work with poetry, narrative, character development, conflict, resolution, metaphor, parable. How would Joe Friday speak of love?

How would literalists understand these wonderful texts for this Sunday? They would tool around the texts as if in a motor boat on a lake, cruising slowly, dragging bait for fish, except they have no hook on the line; they remain on the surface of the texts. Would they catch, for example, the deeper meaning and the challenge of the story of the potter and the clay?

Discussing the texts
Why does the lectionary use just a few verses from this wonderful poem of Psalm 139? I often use the whole of it at funerals when talking about God’s steadfast love. This text could be laid next to the Jeremiah text and the tension that the comparison creates would be hard to deny. It might even guide our understanding of the metaphor of the potter and the clay.

Psalm 1 is an elaboration of a beatitude. Happy are those . . . From the very first word of the collection of psalms, the happy life is defined. It is contrasted with the opposite set of values which leads to death. We get a clear choice. The text from Deuteronomy is the classic statement of that choice: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” The Deuteronomy text goes on to describe the boundaries of the covenant agreement. If you love and obey God, then you will live. If you turn your heart away from God, then you will die.

The Jeremiah text feels like a threat: Turn to me (God) or else. The tension in the text is, on the one hand, God implying control over the people in a similar way that the potter is able to have complete control over the clay, and on the other hand, God calls Israel to make a decision to turn to God. God threatens and cajoles and demands an answer. How is it possible to demand a decision from someone who has no control in making decisions? This is a double-bind for Jerusalem and for all of us. If we are but clay in the potter’s hands, how is it possible to have a true relationship which requires freedom of choice by both parties to enter into and continue, in any meaningful way, this relationship with God?

The last verse of the text implies free agency: The people say, “It is no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.” The statement is already prejudiced by God’s point of view. God is putting these words into their mouths. It’s hard to imagine that the people would describe their own actions as evil nor would they refer to themselves as stubborn. They certainly act as free agents in the text. And God treats them as such.

Here is the problem: The way the text unfolds forces the reader to make a decision about how to interpret the metaphor of the potter and the clay. If the metaphor is taken at face value, it doesn’t work as a metaphor, at lease not in the way it is usually interpreted. How can God be all-controlling and yet demand from us a choice? Is it possible that we simply assume that the correct way to react to the potter and the clay metaphor is “yes, that’s how God’s power works”? Maybe our assumption is wrong. Is it possible to say that our reaction must be “NO”? “No, this metaphor does not accurately describe the relationship between God and the people.” Only a self-centered person would believe that the other partner in the relationship has no power. If the metaphor is taken at face value, then what kind of God would understand such a relationship as this as loving? How else can the metaphor be taken? Taken literally, the metaphor is a contradiction.

If we read the text and feel conflicted by its self-contradiction, are we not forced to question the kind of power God has and what best describes our relationship with God? By saying “NO” to the metaphor of the potter and the clay, are we not forced to understand our relationship with God at a deeper level? The self-contradiction forces us to think. Conflict, built into narratives and parables, goes against a shallow view of God and the kind of power God has. Is it possible that the metaphor acts on us to undercut our traditional view of God? I believe it does. Few of the biblical narratives and parables are neutral about the need to choose. Conflict demands an existential choice, a response. Resolution of conflict is difficult and the Bible rarely lets the reader off the hook of the need for a decision.

If the reader says “Yes, the metaphor accurately describes the relationship,” then that commits the reader to one path and one understanding, that God has all the power and the people have none. Yet, if the reader says “No, the metaphor does not describe the relationship,” it commits the reader to an entirely different path to what might be a healthier understanding of the covenantal relationship between God and the people. It might be the case that the metaphor is a challenge to us to stand up and claim our active part in the relationship. “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord.” I think the answer has to be NO. What covenantal relationship would tolerate this kind of treatment? The text continues on in this way and ends with “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” (Jer. 18:11). This is a cease-and-desist order from a spurned covenant partner who has been wronged. But must it go to court? How would the words of Psalm 139 fit with this view of the relationship? If we say NO to the metaphor of the potter and the clay, then what other metaphors can we say YES to?

We are confronted by God’s behavior once again. Some people’s relational skills are better than other’s. One method that doesn’t work so well is to threaten a partner. It’s hard for a relationship to be based on love when coercion and threats are used by one of the partners. God often threatens Israel as wayward children and other times as a disloyal wife. The power differential between God and creation is vastly in God’s favor. At least the potter is not portrayed as a tyrant. He is simply working and reworking until it reaches the desired result. God’s relational skills are not what we should expect from a loving partner.

The Luke text has Jesus saying very harsh words: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciples.” Wow. Hate? How does one interpret these words in a way that makes sense? Here again, the literalist runs into problems. Those Christians who hold up family values issues in denying marriage equality, what do they say about Jesus valuation of the family in this text?

Another way of interpreting these words is the idea that family cannot be an excuse to not follow the Way that Jesus speaks of, nor can it be the primary value in life. It would be an argument for non-attachment, an argument similar to that a Buddhist might make.

To hate means to turn away from, to detach. The demands of being a disciple or a follower of Jesus means that nothing will be at the center of life except a response to God’s kingdom. Everything else will take its proper place then. This central choice to follow Christ defines all other relationships. It’s easy to get caught up in the desire for easy answers to hard, existential issues. People heard about Jesus and they came to be healed by him and to be fed, many looking for hope. Who wouldn’t respond to the Jesus who helps heal others? The jarring truth in the story is that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and to his death, which is the ultimate existential question. How can we have hope and joy, peace and healing, while we are all on the road to Jerusalem? The ultimate answer to this question is trust in God for our unknown future. Jesus would say, don’t be afraid, trust your life into God’s hands, which, by the way, is a better metaphor-- hand-in-hand even. If we are all children of God, if we are in a covenant relationship, as true partners, doesn’t this imply that, in order for the relationship to be healthy, there has to be some measure of equality? Saying NO to an abusive act of a partner is empowering and a sign of health.

Process theology and the texts
If we take seriously the idea that we are co-creators with God, true partners, then we must say NO to the metaphor of the potter and the clay. This means that we see God’s power in a different way. We come right back to the idea of divine power as persuasive and not coercive. We have power to choose in a dynamic relationship with God. There is shared power in the covenant. How could it be otherwise? The Jeremiah text begs to be understood in process-relational terms.

It is doubtful that God wants us to be a docile and meek partner. To simply give in to God and be submissive in the face of all interactions with God is not a healthy relationship. It would be a life of fear and not trust. The one existential question that we are faced with is: Will we live our lives out of a sense of fear, or will we live our lives with a sense of trust in God’s loving, transforming power? Jesus often said, don’t be afraid, don’t be anxious. Would the God of the Bible, in both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, really want the kind of partner who is intimidated so easily? Would we want that kind of partner in other loving relationships? Does God want a cowering partner, one who shakes in the presence of God? What would we call such a partner in a human relationship? We wouldn’t call it love, far from it. We would suspect an immature relationship. This is the basis for saying NO to the potter and the clay metaphor.

Jesus, in his teachings, and especially in his life, death and resurrection, embodied the kind of transforming power that is divine. It’s that kind of power we are called to trust. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will not be afraid, for You are with me.”

In countless scriptures, God’s struggle with us is for a better, healthier, relationship. Let’s be honest with God and with ourselves in the reality of our relationship, with all the failures and the promises.

Preaching the texts
Here is an important problem to keep in mind while preaching: Many people do not want a more equal relationship with God. They are happy to concede all power to God, disavowing having any power themselves. God has a (mysterious) plan and we don’t know what it is, they might say. We just have to except any horrible situation as God’s plan. But this is victim thinking, where the victim has no power by conceding power to the victimizer. To become a partner with God requires taking responsibility in the relationship. Many people don’t want that responsibility. Many people want to be let off the hook of choosing a more adult relationship with God. The task of the preacher is to not let people off the hook of these texts so easily. The temptation is to preach the message that God has all the power (is omnipotent) and that we have none. Then the preacher falls back into defending God’s horrible behavior and rationalizing bad situations by pointing out our sinful nature. We deserve to suffer in our inability to have a relationship with God. Then comes the offer of a simple-minded road to salvation by repeating the sinner’s prayer where we concede all power to God. This scenario devalues human beings, even though God thinks we are important enough to have a relationship with and to struggle with it. We are not nothing to God; we are not miserable worms; we are not powerless with God.

We forget that Moses argued with God, as did most of the prophets and many of the psalms. They often said NO to God and God had to negotiate with them. Is this the picture of an omnipotent God? I think not.

The Jeremiah text begs to be heard. The preacher must allow it to speak for itself and to help us all with an adult assessment of the relationship and how saying NO to God can indicate a healthy relationship.

So, a sermon could play the Devil’s Advocate with the Jeremiah text: God tells Jeremiah to go to the potter’s house in order to hear God’s word. The first words are these “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?” (Jer. 18:5-6). The traditional answer is “yes.” But what if the answer is “NO”? “No Lord, you can’t do with us as the potter does with the clay. We are not clay. We are your relational partners. We are co-creators with you. No, you can’t simply impose your will on us and then expect us to love you and be loyal to you. If you do have that kind of control, then what sense is it to have a loving relationship with you?”

This text (Jer. 18:5-6) is a threat, and we don’t respond very well to threats.

“Sure, you can think you have power over me, but if you do, I will feel resentment and not love for you. You must woo me, not threaten violence.” This feels a lot like a lover’s spat. She doesn’t love him anymore and wants to leave for another. He feels insecure and starts to threaten her. She is unmoved by such threats and wants her own life, with another. He is too controlling and moody and doesn’t listen to her anyway. “I’m done!” she says. He says “Fine, if I can’t have you, then nobody will.” She says he needs to do what he needs to do. He throws a Bible at her, barely missing her head. She stomps out. He follows and stops at the door. “You’ll be sorry,” then says “I’m sorry, I love you, please come back.” Then he starts talking crap about her new man. “He’s no man. You will not be happy with him. You’ll see I’m right and then you’ll want to come back to me. And I will say I told you so. Who else is going to love you anyway.” God is done until the next time. It’s a familiar pattern.

A sermon could compare and contrast Psalm 139 with the Jeremiah text, and even with the Luke text.

The ultimate existential issue that the Bible speaks to is fear versus trust. How can we have a healthy relationship with God that values our participation? What are we afraid of? Why do we want to wash our hands of any responsibility in the relationship? To be a full partner with God requires a gritty assessment of life lived in fear. What does fear do to us? It distorts our lives; it limits us in so many ways. What is God afraid of? Why? How can there be trust between God and us? What is the true damage to the relationship when we build our own lives on our own terms, providing security by being violently disposed to problem solving? Why is violence so prevalent in the relationship?

Domestic fighting is messy. It puts each partner in the worst light. Even police officers know that it’s dangerous to enter a domestic dispute.

The sermon could end using Psalm 139 to describe a healthy divine attitude of steadfast love. How would a healthy metaphor for our relationship with God change our orientation toward our own life?

Children and the texts
The issue with the time with the children can be a discussion of fear and trust. I had a friend when I was young, maybe 6 or 7, who used to hit me all the time and belittle me. I thought he was my friend, but he didn’t act like one. Was he my friend or was he a bully? Would you think someone was your friend if you couldn’t trust them because sometimes they would treat us meanly? Who do you trust? Why? For one thing, they don’t treat you by bullying you and say they are your friend. A true friend would care about you and treat you well.

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.