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Posts tagged ‘Jeremiah’

How Are We Clay?

Jeremiah 18:1-4

potter
I don’t know how many of you have ever made pottery or at least watched someone else do it. It is a fascinating process and one that requires great patience, care, and creativity. Also, at least in my case, pottery-making involves A LOT of mistakes and starting over again.

Perhaps this is why many people in the Christian and Jewish traditions embrace a very small portion of an otherwise-ominous book of Hebrew prophetic scripture called Jeremiah. In general, most of the prophetic books are ominous and quite pessimistic, but in all fairness, it makes sense. I mean, consider Jeremiah’s context. These prophetic writings were penned over about four decades of not-so-great times in Israel, starting with the thirteenth year of King Josiah (627 BCE) and finishing with the eleventh year of King Zedekiah (586). In short, Jeremiah experienced the time in Israel just before, during, and after the fall of Jerusalem when the Babylonians took over. So obviously, Jeremiah’s words are generally pessimistic.

What is interesting theologically about Jeremiah is the tension between what is called “temple theology” and “covenant theology.” Real quick explanation. Temple theology says: nothing bad will happen to us [in this case, Israel] because Yahweh will protect us and the religious temple of Jerusalem. Covenant theology, on the other hand, says: Yahweh will reward us for our obedience and punish us for disobedience. It is “if-then” philosophy, i.e., if we do this or that, then Yahweh will do this or that.[1] 

This tension, I argue, still exists in modern theology today. Some people [across religious traditions] believe that no matter what, a higher power will save them/bless them/protect them. Many times they believe that because they assume that the higher power accepts their religion as the best one or the truest one. And then contrarily, there are some who believe that this higher power will reward and punish them based on their obedience or disobedience of particular religious rites and rules. Okay, still with me? Do you identify or resonate with either of these viewpoints? Were you raised to believe something similar?

As you think about that, now consider the allegory/image of the potter. Within this image are these two viewpoints, and I will suggest, an alternative viewpoint as well. First, consider what a potter might have been in the time of Jeremiah. Judean ceramic pots, in Jeremiah’s image, would not have been ornate, decorative works of art. These pots would have been functional, made of cheaper materials, and expected to last only a short time. This is why when YHWH calls on the prophet to visit the potter, this is normal and something that he would do quite often. Time for another pot as the last one no longer was usable. But don’t let this fool you. The old pots and the clay, for the potter, are not trash.

The potter is constantly interested in recycling and reuse.

For example, those of you who are potters know that a potter will periodically start a project and then decide that the project is failing and so they will abandon the original idea and start something new. I have heard that potters keep containers of scraps of clay and even pieces of old projects. These discarded pieces can be used or reclaimed as usable clay for new projects. Considering that, this is where I find an alternative to the temple and covenant theology I mentioned early.

I am not one to believe in a Yahweh/God/higher power /presence that punishes and rewards people according to how much they obey or disobey certain rules or moral codes. Neither do I buy the idea that the Divine favors one religion or nation over others, no matter what. For me, it’s all about the potter and the clay—very simple. Potters don’t waste clay. They recycle. They rework the clay. It’s not punishment or reward. It’s not favoritism.

It’s love of the art, the creative spark, and the hope that even discarded pieces from failed projects can be a part of something new, wonderful, and whole.

The discarded clay can be part of a new ceramic vessel and hold something important like wine, water, or oil.

So what do you think? How are we clay? What are your thoughts about this image?

[1] See Alphonetta Wines, “Thinking the Unthinkable: God as Enemy—An Image of God in the Book of Job and Other Books of the Hebrew Bible” (PhD diss., Texas Christian University, 2011), 58.

Jars of Clay

Jeremiah 18:1-6

 

Art in Me is a song written by Dan Haseltine, Steve Mason, Matt Odmark, and Charlie Lowell–otherwise known as the band “Jars of Clay.”

jarsofclay They are three-time Grammy award winners who recently released their 11th album [Inland]—this time under a new label. Jars of Clay, in 2007, left the contemporary Christian label called Essential Records and started their own label, Gray Matters. Why? On paper it seems that they have enjoyed a lot of success claiming the label of a Christian music group. But the members of Jars of Clay have never felt completely comfortable within the confines of this label. Dan Haseltine has remarked that the “Christian” label led to limitations.

“It’s a ghetto, frankly,” Steve Mason says of the category. “Unfortunately, it loops us in politically and socially to a bunch of things that we don’t necessarily buy. It is frustrating, sometimes, because we feel like what we’re doing is good art, and we want what we’re doing to stand up with the stuff that’s out right now.”[1]

The questions that Jars of Clay ask in their music can be identified by all walks of life — all faiths, no faith. They are honest questions. As Mason commented in an interview, Jars wants to make “room at the table for everybody.”

jars_of_clayGroupSad, isn’t it? This music group has encountered so much pressure to just “fit” into a category called Christian—to be lumped together with others who are completely different from them. I am glad, though, that the band decided not to change its name. Jars of Clay is an appropriate name for their honest, meaning-filled music. After all, clay jars are earthenware, pots, things made out of earth. They are formed, shaped, pulled, pushed, and molded until they are cooked in a kiln.

And all the pots are different; they are not the same.

But clay jars don’t form themselves on their own. They need a potter. Perhaps one of the most intriguing and misunderstood metaphors for God in scripture is the image of the potter. The prophet Jeremiah, as all prophets, sees things in the natural world and in everyday life and applies a deeper meaning to them. Essentially, this is a prophet’s job—to see and hear a little bit deeper and then to share this insight with people. Sometimes, though, as in Jeremiah’s case, what prophets shared was not always pleasant. The image of God as potter and people as clay is both comforting and challenging.

In Jeremiah’s day, clay was used for lots of things. Of course, there were expensive clay items that the rich would decorate and display. But the most common pots were the ones that Judeans used every day for practical things around the house. Maybe the pots were not perfectly shaped or adorned with color. But they were perfect to store grain, wine, or oil. The pots were life-sustainers. That doesn’t mean that the pots themselves would last very long. Because they were used so much, from time to time they would crack or break.

That meant a trip to the potter’s house.

The potter’s job, of course, was to patch up any cracks or breaks and, on occasion, to completely destroy a pot and remake it. So Jeremiah is called to the house of the potter—a common trip that people of Judea would have made. But we need to pay attention to the Hebrew word for potter here. Potter [in English] is a translation of the verb yatsar which means to fashion or form.[2] It is the same verb used in Genesis 2:7 when YHWH [God] kneels in the dust, grabs a piece of wet clay, and forms a human being. It is the same image we see in the Muslim scriptures [the Qu’ran]: human beings formed by God from clay.[3] So this is a direct reference to the creation story—a story that hundreds of ancient cultures tell in a similar way with humans being created from clay. For example, the Incas of South America tell this story:

Viracocha [God] raised up all the people and nations, making figures of clay and painting the clothes each nation was to wear. To each nation he gave a language, songs and the seeds they were to sow. Then he breathed life and soul into the clay and ordered each nation to pass under the earth and emerge in the place he directed.[4]

And the Hopis from North America tell this story:

The deity of the east made of clay first a woman and then a man, who were brought to life in exactly the same manner as the birds and animals before them.[5]

We must make this connection between the creation story and Jeremiah’s trip to the potter’s house. It shows us that this potter who Jeremiah must visit is constantly forming, shaping, dismantling, and remaking the clay. There is a reason for that.

The clay, now established as being human beings, is seemingly in constant need of repair.

Sometimes the clay pots even need to be broken up completely. At times, the potter’s hands slip on the clay and the potter has to restart the process. At moments the potter isn’t pleased with the pot’s shape and so it must be smashed back into a clump of clay and reshaped. If you’ve ever tried to work at a pottery wheel, you know that this is how it goes. It is a process full of trial and error, smashing, shaping, and remaking until you get the shape you desire. Making pottery requires a LOT of patience. And you have to get your hands dirty. And you have to make sure the clay is adequately moist and not too dry. And you have to spin the wheel just right so as to smoothly transition the clump into being a pot.

So the image of God as potter and humans as clay, shared by so many cultures and religious traditions, seems clear:

All of us come from the same natural, organic earth.
We share a formation by a patient, careful, detail-oriented potter.
Each pot formed from the clay is different—unique.
And the potter is never finished with the clay.

It is a powerful and wonderful metaphor, I think. But it can be misunderstood.

Sometimes we make the false assumption that all pieces of clay are exactly the same and so the pots need to look and act the same. Sometimes we can forget that it is normal for pots to develop cracks and imperfections. Often we look at overused, broken-down pots and assume that they are useless and cannot be remade. And also we can force other clay pots to be shaped in the same way we were—even though that is impossible. Each pot is formed uniquely. Each clump of clay needs a different amount of water and a different shaping technique. Homogenous pots do not emerge from the potter’s house.

And the metaphor hits home when we consider our own brokenness, our struggles, are cracks, fissures, and need for reshaping and remaking ourselves. Yes, we are cracked pots in need of patient care, love, mercy, and periodic trips to the potter’s house. And I think if we recognize that we share this with all others, then we’ll stop trying to force them into categories.

And we’ll embrace their clay-ness and their ability to be molded and shaped as the potter sees fit—not as we see fit.

So friends, recognize your clay-ness and recognize the clay-ness of others. Remember that you have something contained in that clay jar that is your life: a treasure. The treasure inside your cracked pot is the love and compassion of God that you share with others. May it be evident and may it shine through all the beautiful cracks and openings in your pot. Amen.


[1] “Jars of Clay Seek ‘Reintroduction’ With First Indie Release,” Hollywood Reporter, 9/4/2013, Rebecca Sun.

[2] Cracked Pots I Have Known and Loved, John C. Holbert

[3] Qu’ran 38:71: Indeed, I am going to create a human being from clay. Sahih International

[4] Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Ed. Richard Cavendish. Silverdale Books. page 187.

[5] The Traditions of the Hopi, by H.R. Voth, [1905]

Hope?

Luke 21:25-36:  The Fantasy of Hope

The first Sunday of Advent is known as the first day of a new church year. Christian Churches [Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox] around the world start with the stories of the prophets and the gospels in late November/early December and then walk through the stories together, leading up to Holy Week and the celebration of resurrection in the spring. Parts of the world differ on the calendar, but the basic sequence of the story remains the same. This year we start with Luke’s gospel. Now each gospel is unique of course, in terms of how it was written and pieced together, and how it tells the story. Mark’s gospel was written first; then Luke and Matthew; then John. Matthew copies Mark a lot and only adds a few unique stories; Luke copies Mark about 50 percent of the time and often changes Mark’s telling of the story to a more literary, flowing style. Luke also contains unique stories that the other gospels do not have at all.

Luke tells the story in a “moving forward” kind of way. So Luke starts from Jesus’ birth and humble beginnings in Nazareth of Galilee and then moves to Jesus’ teachings and those who followed him; then to Acts and the birth of the church [also written by the same authors of Luke and meant to be Luke part 2]. Luke’s story begins in Bethlehem and ends in the heart of the Roman Empire. Three characters appear throughout Luke: Jesus of Nazareth, the Apostle Paul, and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Other books of the Bible do not mention Mary much. But in Luke Mary is the link between the birth of Jesus’ ministry and the birth of the church.

This is all very important to know as we read the stories together. Often in the United States, we have a story in our heads about Jesus’ birth that looks a lot different from the actual stories of scripture. A lot of that, of course, is due to religious traditions created in Rome as the Christian movement became an established religion. So we must always be aware of our sources of the stories we tell about Jesus.

Of course, my hope is that during this Advent season we can hear the story of scripture as clear as possible. I hope that you will be open to being surprised, moved, and perhaps even shocked by the story of Christ’s birth as you seek to hear it anew. Yes, the scriptural stories and their realities will challenge your typical beliefs and traditions about Christmas and this story of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, shepherds, and a manger. But if you open your minds and hearts to the story itself, I do think that you will be blessed, challenged, and moved to connect it to your own story. Since reading the Life of Pi and seeing the movie, I’ve been moved to really examine how the stories of our lives  make us who we are. And I am also thinking quite  a bit about how we sadly convince ourselves that our telling of a particular story is somehow superior to another’s telling of it.

This is so true as it pertains to what we call the “Christmas” story.
My Advent hope rests in our connecting the stories of scriptures  to our own stories in an authentic way.

Jeremiah 1Jeremiah, Michelangelo, 1516

Jeremiah’s story will lead off. Now you may wonder what the heck a Hebrew prophetic book, Jeremiah, written well before Luke’s NT Gospel, has to do with Advent and Christmas. Well, good question. So let’s explore Jeremiah, whose name means the weeping prophet. The context was a really difficult moment in Israel’s history. Jerusalem had been destroyed; the line of David’s kingdom was broken; the temple of Solomon was burned to the ground. The Israelites were exiled to Babylon three times, starting around 598 B.C.E.[1] Jeremiah, the prophet, spends most of his book talking about how God is not too happy with the people of Judah [Israel], more specifically its political leaders, because they have not kept their end of the covenant promise they made with God through Moses. They did not take care of the poor; they did not love God as they said they would. Of course, the leaders of Israel didn’t like Jeremiah’s message. After all, they had built much comfort, status, and power for themselves. They had great influence. So Jeremiah calls them out, and even though the prophet is obviously no fan of political leaders, in the face of very little hope for Israel, Jeremiah decides to promote a new vision of a leader.

This new leader didn’t look like the others. Radically inclusive and strangely ordinary, the righteous branch that will spring up restores a new kind of way for Israel, a world in which all people are given an abundant life. He calls upon imagery of trees and branches like in Genesis—ways to describe God’s good creation and human beings’ participation in it.
stump_jesse21

The branch is reflective of the God-qualities of justice and mercy; it springs forth. But Jeremiah doesn’t see this as real yet. He only hopes for it. It is only fantasy. The reality is that the righteous branch did not spring up from among the people of Israel. Instead, Cyrus the Great, a Persian king, took over Babylon and Israel in about 538 B.C.E.[2] Cyrus actually embraced other religious traditions and therefore allowed the Israelites to return home, rebuild the temple, and practice their religion. For many of the Jewish faith, Cyrus is referred to as an anointed one, or a messiah.

Notice I haven’t mentioned Jesus yet. Why? Because Jeremiah has nothing to do with Jesus. It was not until many, many centuries later that the Christian church in Rome interpreted the hope of Jeremiah to be a reference to Jesus of Nazareth and the rebuilding of the line of King David and the salvation of the world. Certainly, over the centuries, the Israelites [who many in modern day identify as the Jewish people] and Christians have interpreted prophecies like Jeremiah’s in different ways. But as we connect Jeremiah to Luke, I want us to hear the story’s message above all.

Jeremiah’s story is not about Jesus. Luke’s story is. But despite that difference, both stories point us to the same theme:

redemption follows deterioration;
restoration follows chaos;
justice and mercy follow oppression;
and hope is the key.

You see, Luke’s gospel, like Jeremiah’s prophecy, tells us a story about the current state of the world and what is to come. Luke 21 is sourced from Mark’s gospel [chapter 13] and is sometimes called the “little apocalypse.” Apocalyptic literature involves story-telling in difficult times. Notice this business of signs in the sun, moon, and stars; nations in anguish and confused as the ocean roars; people fainting out of fear and anxiety, concerned about what will happen next. Like Jeremiah, Luke’s gospel is about Israel. After the temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem, the Greek ruler Alexander the Great conquered Israel in 300 B.C.E. Then, years later in the 1st and 2nd century C.E. another conquering empire, this time Rome—took over Jerusalem, destroying the temple once again in 70 C.E.[3] So we’re back to that again. Luke parallels Jeremiah’s story. Things look bleak. Help is needed. Redemption seems far away.

But there is still hope in the middle of despair.

Instead of the weeping prophet, we have the grown-up Jesus–not the baby in the manger we associate with this time of year. In fact, the baby Jesus is mentioned only six times in all of the Bible! Instead, the teachings, ministry, and life of Jesus are the most significant parts of the story. Keep in mind that the apostles and the the early Christians did not celebrate the birth of Jesus. This idea of Christmas was not mentioned in history until the Roman Church established it as a tradition in about 336 C.E.[4] This shouldn’t surprise us, because the stories of the New Testament clearly tell us their purpose: to tell the Good News of the story of Jesus of Nazareth’s teachings, ministry, and death. Advent is a time of preparing for Jesus the grown-up version—not the baby. Keeping this in mind will only enrich the stories.

figtree2For Jesus then tells a parable about a fig tree–an allegorical story with a point. Like Jeremiah, Jesus uses the natural world. Trees are usually metaphors for humans. The fig tree sprouts leaves and tells us that summer is near. Likewise, when we see all this chaos and uncertainty around us, God is near. Hope lives in despair. Sprouting leaves and blooming plants remind us that new life is still possible when life around us says the opposite. The Greek word for near in this case is engizo, a word that literally means coming nearness.[5] Redemption, then, is coming near. What a perfect message for Advent—a time when we recognize that the apocalypse is not some future, world-ending event someone predicts, but apocalypse is actually right now. Things are difficult now. Hope is hard to come by. At times, we can feel like the world is crashing down and the foundations of our lives are rotting beneath our feet. But redemption is coming near… FigBranch

Jesus says: watch at all times. Don’t watch for calamity or destruction or something else to stress out about. Don’t throw your hands up in the air and scream: “We’re all going to die! AAAAAAHHH!” Instead, watch for signs of redemption. Watch for God. And: pray that you might have strength. And don’t just pray; stand up. God will even help you stand up. For the low are lifted high; the last are made first. The apocalypse is in fact not bad news, but good news. All the worry and fear of life is shared by everyone. And it is in recognizing all this chaos that we notice the redemption that is coming nearer and nearer.

Friends, I, like you, often wonder about hope. Is it a fantasy? I look around and I see pain and prejudice and apathy and separation. Look, it may be Christmastime, but we cannot escape reality. We should never ignore the people suffering all over the world. We cannot gloss over injustice. Instead of looking for quick fixes or easy answers that help us forget, we should stand up. That’s right! As Jesus said, our prayers and our faith practices should stand us up.

We should all stand up stubbornly out of hope—believing that in a world seemingly beyond repair, there are still green sprouts appearing in this church and others who say to our lesbian, gay and transgender brothers and sisters—you are welcome, loved, and accepted here. You are part of our community.

There are buds blooming where people show that color and culture and language matter less than character; if we don’t hope and pray for these things, we won’t do these things!

There are branches budding and bearing fruit in the middle of our chaos and destruction. And you and I—we have this fruit to bear. But it’s not false hope. It’s not ignoring the problems. It’s seeing the world for what it is and seeing ourselves for who we are. And then it’s standing up to do what is just and merciful and kind. It’s you and I springing forth with new life and lifting up others who have fallen down.

I close with an excerpt from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech on April 3rd, 1968 in Memphis:

mlk

“…the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around…But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars..”[6]

Hope is only fantasy until we make it real. Redemption is coming near. Look for it. And bear redemption’s fruit for others. Amen.


[1] Amy Erickson, Assistant Professor of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Iliff School of Theology.

[2] Jona Lendering (2012). “Messiah – Roots of the concept: From Josiah to Cyrus”. livius.org.

[3] Jewish Encyclopedia. Temple of Solomon.

[4] Biblical Archeology, Christmas origins, www.bib-arch.org/e-features/christmas.asp

[5] Gospel Commentary, Karl Jacobson, Asst. Professor of Religion, Augsburg College, Minneapolis, MN.

[6] Martin Luther King, Jr.I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, 3 April 1968, Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ Headquarters), Memphis, Tennessee.

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