9/8/2013 Formed by God

Ordinary Time (Proper 18)
Jeremiah 18:1–11; Psalm 139:1–6, 13–18; Philemon 1–21; Luke 14:25–33

With this week’s post I complete three years of weekly blogging on the Revised Common Lectionary. Okay, let’s get started on year 4.

Jeremiah is one of the greatest of the Hebrew prophets. This is true not only because of the prophetic insight to be discerned in his lengthy biblical book but also because his long life allowed him to view pre-exilic Judah, the conquest of Jerusalem and destruction of the temple, and the radically altered life of the Jewish exiles. This week we hear a word of warning, and in the process we learn some surprising things about God:

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 word 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. potterwheelJust 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 or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, 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. –Jeremiah 18:1-11 NRSV

First of all, notice that Jeremiah didn’t “hear” God’s word while aimlessly wandering around the city. No, it was deliberate–God told him to go to the potter’s house. There he heard (understood?) a divine truth in stark contrast to the predominate and competing theologies of Judah.

There was a popular understanding among the people that because God had covenanted with David to establish a royal “house,” that kingly dynasty would be protected by God’s hand. And so the majority of people didn’t worry too much about the ominous threat posed by the mighty Babylonian army. Furthermore, the people’s “temple theology” added to the sense of comfort and assurance; as long as ritual sacrifices were made by the people at the Jerusalem Temple, God would be pleased with God’s favorite people.

Yet read the prophetic words understood by Jeremiah:

mixing_clay_7-727219“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 or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it.”

Let’s unpack some of that. Similar to the way a potter works and reworks a lump of clay, God, too, can “pluck up and break down and destroy.” There is no clearer refutation of so-called covenant protection than that! But there’s more, and this may pass by relatively unnoticed: God can change God’s own mind.

I was raised in the church hearing that God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one to read between those lines to come up with the idea that God’s plan has been set in motion, that it will neither change nor be unfulfilled. Hmm, something appears to be amiss here–or is it?

If that isn’t enough, some folks over the centuries have managed to morph those ideas about divine unchangeability into a statement about the church. However, scholarship especially in the last few decades has revealed there never really was a supposed perfect, golden era of the Christian Church back in the first century, that what became known as “the church” was always a process of diverse and competing approaches to the faith community, its beliefs and doctrines, and how Christians both act in the world and respond to cultural, national, ethnic, political, and economic realities. Those processes continue in the 21st century, and we can fully expect them to evolve in the future.

That’s worth taking a moment to ponder possible meanings. Isn’t it curious, then, that so many of the fights in Christianity–and in my own faith community (and in yours)–are connected in some direct way with beliefs, doctrines, and practices? It’s typically those most upset about change in the church who fret that the church has “lost its way,” that “we don’t know what we believe anymore,” that it’s all led or leading to apostasy of some sort.

This brings me back to Jeremiah and the potter working his wheel. We may remember this familiar story from our childhood’s Sunday school lessons. There it was primarily about a loving God, tenderly shaping a people who would be vessels to contain the Holy Spirit. Now, reread the passage from chapter 18 and this question may be the first to come to mind: Where’s the love?

I don’t have to look as far as my whole church denomination here; I need look only as far as my congregation.

This coming Christmas will mark 25 years since we held the first worship service in our church building. Before that we shared a facility with the congregation out of which we were formed. It was an acrimonious split. Enough said about that, I suppose. In any event, having our own building allowed us to worship the way we wanted to, using the “new hymnal” published by our denomination in 1981 (that other congregation steadfastly refused to have anything to do with it, by the way). Coincidentally, our next “new hymnal,” Community of Christ Sings will be released in a little more than a month. It, too, promises a major change not only in what we sing but how we understand our international faith community.

051310_matt_fieldofdreamsThe 1980s were not quite like the 1950s and 1960s, when my denomination–and most others–couldn’t build churches fast enough to keep up with the demand. It was as if that whispered line from the movie Field of Dreams applied to the church: “If you build it, they will come.” And although we tended to talk about Jesus Christ and the church and our life as disciples in vastly different ways than we did fifty or more years ago, we were–and would continue for some time–mainly talking about Jesus. Certainly people were still attracted to the church because of what we were saying, although the growth rate had slowed considerably.

Now in the second decade of the 21st century it’s becoming clear that people outside the church (and probably more than a few inside, as well) aren’t at all interested in hearing about Jesus. Instead they want to know what difference it makes to have a faith in Jesus Christ. How does that alter the quality of our inner, spiritual life and, perhaps even more importantly, what does a faith in Christ lead us disciples to do in a world filled with hunger and homelessness, discord and war, pain and sickness, loneliness and separation, bigotry and inequality?

Image09052013183013-AThis week my congregation finally received approval from the city to start building an addition to the east side of our church facility. As with practically all church building projects, there’s certainly an element of excitement and anticipation. And it’s also important to raise some important questions about just why we’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars.

If it’s to have a bigger, prettier, more comfortable building in which to gather so we can, among other things, talk about Jesus–well, I and others have some serious reservations. Fortunately, the idea has been discussed that a larger facility will provide more space for programs of outreach into the community. And if that idea becomes reality and it leads to a whole new era of service to others outside our fellowship, then perhaps spending so much money will be justified.

If God can still be described as like a potter in this day and age, then who and what is God forming and re-forming? What are God’s intentions (a much better word than “plan”)? What is our response and responsibility as vessels formed by God? Will we, can we, make the transition from a people who talk about Jesus to a people whose faith in Jesus Christ leads us into the world to be his hands and feet and eyes and ears?

Oh my, this church stuff just doesn’t get any easier.

An Invitation: I will be preaching on this text from Jeremiah in my home congregation (Colonial Hills Community of Christ in Blue Springs, Missouri) this Sunday, September 8, with worship beginning at 10:15 a.m. Or come earlier (8:45 to 9:45 a.m.) for a pancake breakfast celebrating the start of the new Sunday School year.

What-was-Paul-Thinking-beachmed-200x300My book, What Was Paul Thinking? is now discounted at both Amazon.com and Barnes& Noble.com in print ($10) and e-book ($5.99) editions. If you’ve ever wondered just what Apostle Paul was getting at (and let’s face it, Paul can be hard to understand and appreciate at times) this is a good place to start.


About Rich Brown

Rich Brown is a writer, blogger, editor, and publisher. His most recent book is "Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile" (Isaac's Press).
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