Transcribed from the sermon preached September 17, 2017
Richard Lindsay, PhD
Scripture Readings: Jeremiah 18:1-11, 2 Corinthians 4: 6-11
Imagine the potter’s face when Jeremiah shows up in his shop. This prophet who was notorious for standing around the gates of Jerusalem shouting “The end is near!” The potter looks up from his work at the disheveled, bearded figure standing in the door, maybe gives him a quiet, polite nod. Watching to make sure he doesn’t break anything. The potter gets so nervous, as he’s spinning the pot, he makes a mistake and the lip of the vessel starts to spin in crazy contortions and the clay flies off the wheel. So he has to gather up the clay and pile it on the wheel again to start over. Maybe he curses quietly under his breath as he realizes this will put him behind on his projects for the day. And just like that, Jeremiah shuffles out the door. The potter breathes a sigh of relief that he can get on with his work.
What Jeremiah concludes from watching this scene is that God is the potter. God can build up and God can smash nations who do, or do not do God’s will. Jeremiah must have delivered this message with great relish to the people of Jerusalem. They had turned from their covenant with God and had forgotten what the Law God had taught them. They were worshipping the false Gods of greed and national ambition. Were forgetting the widow and the orphan, and the immigrant. And they were about to be crushed by the Babylonian Empire, have their Temple destroyed and be sent into exile. Jeremiah is often called the weeping prophet, because he would see all this happen in his lifetime.
We must take great satisfaction in this prophecy as well. Everywhere we look, our country seems to have strayed from its greatest ideals and its promises. We see the work of the current administration and its enablers doing exactly what the Israelites were doing. Trying to take medical care from the poor, oppressing the immigrants in our midst, worshiping false gods of tax cuts and nationalism. Empowering the worst elements in our society—the white supremacists and the fascist authoritarians. It must be nice to know God’s going to crush them like a bad piece of pottery. And Jeremiah captures our sadistic glee at the prospect of God’s punishment, when he says later in the chapter,
Do not forgive their iniquity,
do not blot out their sin from your sight.
Let them be tripped up before you;
deal with them while you are angry.
Is that the result we’re hoping for? Well, maybe.
In 2 Corinthians, or as our president likes to call it, “Two Corinthians” we get a completely different pottery image from Paul’s writing. We have this wonderful idea of clay pots, but in this case it represents our own imperfect, mortal, material bodies. Out of this imperfect clay shines the light of God in Jesus Christ.
And this sounds a lot like our current condition as well. We work for justice and to make change in the world, and in doing so, Paul weaves an image of pottery that is not smashed, but is quite resilient. “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”
Paul could be very legalistic in his writing. There’s no question this man was a lawyer by training. He knew the great heritage of Greco-Roman rhetoric. And sometimes, I have to admit, I don’t always agree with him. He was a product of his time and place, and I don’t think we need to take his positions on LGBTQ people, or the positions of women in leadership, or whether people under the yoke of slavery should be obedient as part of the Gospel. What amazes me about Paul is not that there are a few verses that we just can’t follow in our own context today, but just how much of what he wrote—nearly two thousand years later—that’s still relevant. That to me is evidence of his spiritual inspiration—not that everything he said and wrote was perfect, but that out of his imperfection we still get so much transcendent truth.
And every once in a while, he seems to break out of that lawyerly prose and come out with an image or a metaphor that is sheer poetry. And I think this is one of those passages. That the light of God is almost stored, if you will, contained, and then opened, in these earthen vessels of our own bodies and personalities. And the most wonderful idea here—hinted at but not stated—is that the places where we’re most fragile. Even the places where there are cracks in the vessels, is where the glory of God shines through the brightest.
So even as we work for justice and peace in the world, we experience oppression, we experience setbacks. And perhaps, most frustratingly, we experience the limitations of our own bodies and the fractures of our communities. But when we are at our most shattered and vulnerable, that’s when God’s glory really shines through.
There’s one more passage about pottery that I just have to read that I always think about when I read these verses from Paul and Jeremiah, and this was written in the Second Century, about 120 years after the time of Paul, by Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon. Irenaeus is what is generally known by the patriarchal term of “Church Father.” These were the earliest of writers and theologians after the authors of the canonical New Testament. Irenenaus wrote a five-volume work known as “Against Heresies” in which he condemned the practices of Gnosticism. There are probably some aspects of Gnosticism you and I would agree with, and in fact, many have cited this passage from Paul as being at least influenced by Gnosticism—this idea of the light of God shining out through the imperfect vessel of the flesh.
But there’s one element of Gnosticism that I firmly disagree with, and that was that this world was a mistake. That creation was made by an accident and that our bodies are like prisons to the soul that we will be released from when we die. Irenaeus was against that, too, and in fact, was against the idea of a fallen Creation at all. His idea was that we were made imperfect so we could grow and be molded into better beings by the grace of God. A pretty interesting and appealing idea. And I have to think he had both Jeremiah and Paul in mind when he wrote this passage that uses a beautiful metaphor of pottery to describe our becoming vessels of God:
“How will one who has not yet become human be God? How can one who is just created be perfect? How can one who has not obeyed the Maker in a mortal nature be immortal? You should first follow the order of human existence and only then share in God’s glory. You do not make God; God makes you. If you are God’s handiwork, then wait for the hand of the Master, which makes everything at the proper time, at the time proper for you who are being created. Offer God a soft and malleable heart; then keep the shape in which the Master molds you. Retain your moisture, so that you do not harden and lose the imprint of God’s fingers. By preserving your structure you will rise to perfection. God’s artistry will conceal what is clay in you.”
This is a wonderful reminder that we do not create the world in our image, God creates the world in the divine image. It’s tempting to think we have to do all the work. The creating and molding—the forming of hearts and minds, the striving for justice and the work of charity. But Irenaeus reminds us that the work we should be about is not trying to become like God, the work we should be about is becoming fully human. We forget that even as we try to go about the work of the Tikkun Olam, the mending of the world, we too are being molded and formed.
Like this somewhat more professional potter here from Yorkshire, it takes a lot of water to keep our clay moist. We have to continually offer up our hearts to God as moldable, malleable vessels. And what an intimate process of formation this is, as even the grooves, the fingerprints of the Artist find their way into this piece of handiwork.
I’ve known a few prophets in my time. If you’ve ever known a prophet they can be very inspiring, but they can be difficult people. They have one channel and its the Complete Outrage Channel, and its on, 24 hours a day. Some of them, have learned to turn down the volume on that channel for the sake of their friends and family. But for others, the remote control was lost a long time ago.
One of the prophets I have been fortunate enough to know is Mel White. Mel was a prominent evangelical figure in the 1970 and 80s. He ghost-wrote biographies for Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. He wrote a book for Billy Graham. He made Christian films with his own production company. He was there at the founding of the political movement known as the religious right. But Mel had a secret: he was gay. And finally, after years of hiding, he came out in the early 90’s, and suddenly his old friends from the evangelical movement didn’t want to talk to him anymore.
Mel set out to confront the religious right about their prejudice and what he called their spiritual violence against the LGBTQ community. He founded an organization called Soulforce, which took the principles of nonviolent direct action as taught by Gandhi and King to confronting the religious right. Mel would lead actions against Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, Focus on the Family. Somewhat controversially, he led actions against many of the Protestant denominations that were still persecuting their LGBTQ members and not allowing them to participate in the life of the church. This included an action against the Presbyterian Church (USA) in which Soulforce and several of the LGBTQ affinity groups in the church disrupted the 2000 General Assembly in Long Beach, for its refusal to overturn rule G-60106b in the Book of Order, which prevented the ordination of KGBTQ people. Eighty-One people were arrested in that protest.
In 2002, Mel and his husband Gary took their continued one-sided relationship with Jerry Falwell to the next level, when they moved into a house across the street from Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, VA. This was always entertaining because Mel would send these gently needling open letters to Jerry inviting him over for dinner. “Please come and bring your wife. Gary is a wonderful cook.”
They and other Soulforce members started attending Falwell’s church every week. And remember, this service was broadcast in syndication across the country as Jerry Falwell’s Old Time Gospel Hour. Whenever Jerry would start railing against the homosexuals and how they were destroying the country and the American family, Mel and Gary and all the Soulforce people would stand up in the middle of the service. They wouldn’t say anything. They wouldn’t interrupt. Just stand there. So the people in the church knew these were the homosexuals Jerry was talking about.
One summer I stayed with Mel and Gary after being the press liaison for the first Equality Ride, which took about thirty young people around to Christian colleges and universities to try to bring about a conversation on LGBTQ students on these campuses. And that summer, I went to Jerry Falwell’s church with Mel and another friend. And sure enough, Jerry started railing against the homosexuals, and we stood up in the service until he was done. And then we sat back down again. It was one of the weirder church experiences I have had.
A couple of years ago, I had the chance to sit in during a sermon Mel was giving at a UCC church in Columbus. This time he was invited to speak. By this point he had retired as the Executive Director of Soulforce so he had had some time to reflect on his work. And he outlined and explained how his readings of Gandhi and King had led to his philosophy of nonviolence as applied to the forces of religious intolerance for LGBTQ people. And he said something in this sermon that really caught my attention.
He said, “When you start doing nonviolence it doesn’t change the lives you think its going to change. People say to me, “You never won Jerry Falwell over, you never won Pat Robertson over. You’ve gone to jail so many times. You never affected anything.”
And at this point, you could start to see the color rise in Mel’s face. You could start to see the volume being turned up on the outrage channel.
And I have to say to them, as Gandhi said, “Oh we don’t do justice for their sake, we do justice for our sake.” Anyone who has stood in line around these denominational headquarters and protested the teachings of that church will never be the same. Anyone who goes to jail with me will never be the same. You stand for justice and something happens to you! I think that’s why Jesus was saying Love your enemy. Because its going to do a great thing for you.”
At first I was a bit taken aback by this. I mean, I thought our work with Soulforce was supposed to change the world. I thought it was meant to confront and change these other people who were causing so much pain and harm to my LGBT brothers and sisters and to me. But then, as I pondered this a little further, I started to realize, when it comes down to it, who do I really have the power to change? Just me. And if I really admit it, who really has the power to change me? Just God.
I don’t think we think about our work enough for the power it has to transform us. I don’t think we focus enough on how doing social justice work, doing work for charity, or doing work for the church is an act of spiritual formation. There’s so much to do, and there’s so many things that need fixing, there’s so many new outrages we face everyday. And in the process we can become “hell-bent” on justice. But if we’re hell bent on justice, how can we offer soft, moist, pliable hearts to God, in order to be shaped? The work we do for God has the opposite effect from what it is supposed to if it causes us to be hardened. So often we forget that our job is not to become divine, to be perfect, but to become fully human. Isn’t that enough of a challenge for one lifetime?
You do not make God; God makes you. If you are God’s handiwork, then wait for the hand of the Master, which makes everything at the proper time, at the time proper for you who are being created. Offer God a soft and malleable heart; then keep the shape in which the Master molds you. Retain your moisture, so that you do not harden and lose the imprint of God’s fingers.