Archives For Jeremiah

When Potter Becomes Clay

Jason Micheli —  September 11, 2016 — 3 Comments

fullsizerenderFor this weekend’s sermon, in view of the 15th anniversary of 9/11, I chose to use all of Jeremiah 18, a passage that begins with the familiar Potter/Clay metaphor but ends in a visceral, spittle-on-the-lip prayer for vengeance against enemies.

Special props to my dear friend, Laura Paige Mertins, who worked at her potter’s wheel while I preached (and distracted everyone from anything I said). You can find LP’s work for sale at her Etsy shop here. You get this blog for free so you should at least make up for it by buying something of hers.

     ‘Just what the blankety blank is your problem?! Reverend?!’

Because it was New Jersey, at first I thought she had a problem with my holding the church door open for her.

Her sorta, kinda of a question had been loud enough to stop the worshippers ahead of her on the front steps outside. And she was obviously angry enough that everyone behind her in line suddenly weren’t in a hurry anymore.

‘Just what the…is it with you?! she asked exasperated.

Little did I know then how that would become the defining question of my pastoral career.

She had close-cropped Terri Gross hair and the kind of horn-rimmed glasses you expect to be distributed by the Democratic National Committee.

I’d seen her come in to the sanctuary as the service began; I’d never seen her before. Like most of the crowd who gathered that evening she was a stranger, a visitor, a mourner, searching for meaning in a place she hadn’t searched before.

It was Wednesday evening, September the 12th, 2001.

The day after.

I’d been working in the campus mailroom at Princeton, my supervisor, Vince, on the phone with his wife who was in the hospital dying of cancer.

The nearest TV was mounted in the corner outside the dining hall. The TV was on mute. And for a while all of us standing there staring up at the buildings we were on mute too.

Until the tower fell and the silence became a chorus of whispered ‘Oh my God’s.

Then we watched what everyone else everywhere else watched.

     I remember Vince, a Catholic, his fair-skinned face turned a splotchy red as he pointed angrily at the TV and said through clenched teeth: ‘God damn them!’ 

     In the moment, it struck me as faithful a thing to say as anything.

 

I was still just a student at Princeton. I was approximately 7 weeks in to my first gig as a solo pastor at a small church that’s no longer there.

Irma, the church organist, and Les, the church accordion player (yes, the church had an accordion player) had helped me put up some xeroxed signs around town that morning.

I didn’t really know what I was doing other than to think offering a worship service might be a good idea.

‘Service of Lament’ read the xeroxed signs I stapled into telephone poles.

The small sanctuary was Christmas crowded that evening, filled with bloodshot eyes and tear-stained faces I’d never seen before.

My preaching text that night was that ‘For such a time as this’ line from Esther, a little book rife with violence and ethnic hatred and where God seems present NOT at all.

The other scripture passage I used I used as the opening prayer: a lament. A clench-fisted, spittle-on-the-lips cry for vengeance.

Vengeance against our enemies.

I took the lament from the Book of Jeremiah. Chapter 18.

Jeremiah 18, as you heard, begins with that beautiful- and possibly even flattering- metaphor of how we’re like clay in God the Potter’s hands. But only a dozen verses later Jeremiah turns ugly:

“Pay attention to me, Lord; listen to what my enemies are saying…

Enough! Let their children starve;

let them die by the sword.

Let their wives be barren widows;

let their men be slaughtered

and their youth struck down

in battle.

Let their screams be heard

from their homes

when you suddenly bring armies

against them.

They have dug a pit to capture me,

set traps for my feet.

By you, Lord, you know

all their sinister plots to kill me.

Don’t overlook their wrongdoing;

don’t cleanse their sin

from before you.

May they stumble before you;

when you become angry,

do something about them.”

Look it up.

Because I used Jeremiah’s prayer as the opening prayer, we ended it by saying ‘Amen.’ As in: ‘May it be so.’

It seemed the kind of prayer that captured how everyone felt that day. I didn’t notice the volume go soft before we got to the amen.

So I was caught off guard when the woman with the short hair and arty glasses met me at the front doors with: “What in the…is your problem?!”

“Um, excuse me?” I replied.

“Praying for God to wipe out our enemies?! Isn’t that the same kind of religious fanaticism that led to yesterday?!”

As is my habit, I tried to diffuse her anger with ill-advised humor.

So I said: ‘“Oh no, ma’am, it’s much worse than that. That word ‘stumble’ in the prayer it’s the same Hebrew word from the flood story. It’s actually a prayer for God to do to our enemies what God did to all those who didn’t make the 2×2 cut.’

I was new to ministry, but I could tell I’d just stepped in it.

“Christians aren’t even supposed to have enemies!” she shouted softly. “They’re supposed to love everybody.”

Then she pointed her finger at me scoldingly and asked:

“Do you really think Jesus would approve of you praying something like this?”

 

I’d thought the lament from Jeremiah an appropriate scripture for the day after.

After all, Jeremiah’s own career as a prophet coincided with a date seared into the collective memory of God’s People every bit as much as 9/11 is scarred into our own.

587.

587 BCE

Five- hundred and eighty-seven years before Jesus.

The date Babylon attacked and invaded the Promised Land, burning the City of David and razing the Temple, the symbol that Israel was, literally, ‘one nation under God.’

Not long after the attack there were deployments. Deployments of the nation’s best and brightest and, too often, the tragically young.

The Bible names the deployments “Exile.”

587: Jeremiah’s 9/11.

So what better piece of scripture to pray on the day after the 11th, I thought, than one of these six laments woven throughout the Book of Jeremiah.

Except-

That woman with the Terri Gross hair and the horn-rimmed glasses, she had hit upon a problem.

She’d greeted me by asking what was my problem, but what she’d hit upon with her question was our problem.

As in, you and me. Christians.

What do we do with a scripture passage like that? A foam-in-the-mouth prayer that desires the destruction of our enemies?

Because, of course, we don’t just believe we’re clay in the Potter’s hands. We believe the Potter became Clay.

We believe that the Creator became a Creature, that God became flesh.

In Jesus Christ.

And we believe that, in Jesus, God the Potter displays what it looks like for us to be his earthen vessels. And, of course, a big piece of that is what Jesus tells us to do about our enemies. To LOVE them.

So…what do we do with a passage of scripture like Jeremiah’s prayer against his enemies?

Would Jesus really approve of a prayer like that?

What do we do with it?

 

Of course, for the heretics and anti-semites among us, the easiest thing to do is just dismiss Jeremiah’s nasty prayer for vengeance and violence against his enemies.

You know, roll of the eyes and dismiss it as one of those Old Testament texts. One of those angry, jealous, wrathful God passages. One of those Old Testament texts.

Like the passage in Samuel where, because God is holy and we are not, a boy named Uzzah is struck down dead for accidentally touching the ark.

Jeremiah 18- we could say- it’s like that, one of those Old Testament texts.

The problem though is that those Old Testament texts, warts and all, are stuck on to every promise God makes to his People Israel. And if you dismiss those, you’re left with a Jesus in the New who has no promises for you.

So what do we do?

Do we chalk it up to context? Put it in perspective?

Do we say that this prayer, Jeremiah 18, gives voice to the voiceless? That it’s anger and rage and lust for payback are exactly what you’d expect to hear from an impoverished and exploited people?

It is. And it does.

So we could chalk it up to context and remember that the people who proclaimed and prayed Jeremiah’s lament weren’t like us at all and maybe feel a little better about this bible passage.

At least until we remember that over and over again God promises to be on the side of people like the ones who prayed this prayer.

People who, on most days, are not like us at all.

And that puts me right back feeling a little queasy about what I should do with a passage like Jeremiah 18.

Maybe we could go the other way with this passage. Just say no.

No, Jesus would not green light the defeat and destruction of your enemies.

But, no worries, because that’s not what’s going on in this passage.

It’s not as troubling and incongruent as it sounds at first, we could say.

Because praying to God to avenge you- as ugly and visceral as it seems- IS  a way of acknowledging that vengeance, no matter how bad you want it and how justly its deserved, isn’t yours to mete out.

Praying to God to avenge you is a tacit recognition that vengeance belongs to God alone.

And so we could say that a passage like Jeremiah’s prayer isn’t as nasty as it sounds. We could say that giving over your vengeful rage to God is a way of giving up your claim to it.

That it’s better to put your hate and violence into prayer than into action.

I think there’s something to be said for that.

But the words still stick in the throat, don’t they?

“Let their children starve;

let them die by the sword.

Let their wives be barren widows;

let their men be slaughtered

and their youth struck down

in battle.

Let their screams be heard

from their homes

when you suddenly bring armies

against them.”

Even if it’s about putting your anger into prayer not action, it still doesn’t sound very Jesusy.

It’s hard to imagine the Potter who commanded us to love our enemies green-lighting the wailing of their children.

 

‘Do you really think Jesus would approve of a prayer like that?’

The Terri Gross doppleganger asked me a second time.

She’d upped the ante with the anger in her voice.

But I was just a 3rd semester theology student. Just in my 3rd month of ministry. I hadn’t yet been dressed down by an exiting worshipper as I am by He Who Must Not Be Named here at Aldersgate every week.

So I didn’t know what to say.

Not knowing, I simply told the truth:

“Not only would Jesus approve of a prayer like that,’ I said, ‘Jesus prayed prayers like that.”

She shot me the kind of look I’d reserve for Joel Osteen and she walked out. Disgusted.

But it’s true.

As a Jew, Jesus would’ve prayed 3 times a day, the shacharit in the morning; the minchah in the afternoon; and the maariz in the evening.

3 times a day.

And each of those 3 devotions would’ve included at least 1 prayer from his Bible, what we call the Old Testament. And of the prayers contained in Jesus’ Bible, the single largest genre are laments- prayers for vengeance against enemies.

So do the math:

At the very least, Jesus prayed a prayer like Jeremiah 18 every 50 days.

At a minimum, Jesus prayed for the defeat of his enemies 7 times a year.

When you do the math, you discover that as Jesus hung on the cross and said ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’ he had prayed for the defeat of them at least 210 times in his life.

That means when Pontius Pilate executed a gathering of Galileans for worshipping Yahweh and mixed the Jews’ blood with the blood of animals as a final insult, chances are Jesus had prayed something like: ‘By you, Lord, you know all their sinister plots to kill me.’ in the past month.

210 times.

That means when King Herod conscripted the poor in Galilee to construct his palace at Sepphoris, a sentiment like “Don’t overlook their wrongdoing; don’t cleanse their sin from before you” had only recently been prayed on Jesus’ lips.

And when Herod took John the Baptist’s head, it wasn’t long after that Jesus prayed a prayer that ended just like Jeremiah’s in chapter 18: ‘Do something about my enemies.’

Like any good Jew of his day, Jesus would’ve had them all memorized.

210 times.

Jesus prayed such prayers.

For the defeat of his enemies.

So I said to Terri Gross:

“Not only would Jesus approve of a prayer like that, Jesus prayed a prayer just like that.”

But I was just a student, still only a rookie pastor. I didn’t know what to say.

Because if it’s true that Jesus the Jew prayed a prayer just like Jeremiah’s, then the better answer to her question would’ve been another question:

Who do you think Jesus had in mind when he prayed like Jeremiah?

Who do you think Jesus pictured when he prayed for the defeat of his enemies?

 

It’s the better question.

Because to ask ‘Who did Jesus have in mind when he prayed his Bible’s laments?’ is but a way of remembering that Jesus had enemies.

I mean- we know Jesus had enemies, but so often we act as though Jesus didn’t know he had any enemies.

Which of course makes the cross an abstract, a-historical solution to our spiritual problem: sin and salvation.

Or worse: it treats the cross as inadvertent, unhappy end that Jesus didn’t see coming.

So often we act as though good, loving Good Shepherd Jesus never had an impolite or unkind thought in his head. Not so.

To ask ‘Which enemy did Jesus have in mind when he prayed prayers like Jeremiah’s?’ is but a way of remembering that he had them.

For Jesus to be fully human- as human as you or me- in 1st century Galilee means that Jesus had enemies. Enemies he wanted to defeat. Enemies he wanted to defeat as much as anyone else in Israel.

It’s not until you remember that Jesus had enemies whose defeat he prayed for that you’re able to hear his gospel the way he intended it to be received.

Because when Jesus commands his followers to love their enemies and pray for them, there’s a 1 in 3 chance he was thinking of King Herod.

And when Jesus commands his followers not to resist evil and violence with evil and violence of their own, the odds are even better Caesar and Pilate immediately came to everyone’s mind.

And when Jesus commands them to forgive a fellow believer who’s wronged you, I’m willing to bet the Scribes and Pharisees were on Jesus’ mind. They plotted against him at least that many times.

It’s not until you remember that Jesus had enemies he wanted to defeat that you’re able to hear his gospel rightly.

But maybe we don’t want to hear it.

Because once you hear his gospel rightly, you can’t help but notice how Jesus does exactly as he says.

For when the Scribes and Pharisees finally condemn Jesus and come for him in the Garden, Jesus tells his followers to put away the sword.

And when Jesus is mocked, beaten and scourged, he makes good on his commandment.

He doesn’t retaliate.

He turns the other cheek.

And when Pilate and Herod and Caesar and the priests and the soldiers and the crowd and you and me crucify him- when his enemies crucify him- Jesus responds by loving them: ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.’

He dies rather than kill.

He doesn’t resist evil with evil.

He suffers it.

He dies to it.

And in dying to his enemies, Jesus defeats them.

Destroys them, the apostle Paul says. Triumphs over them.

When we forget Jesus had enemies he wanted to defeat as much as anyone else in Israel, we then don’t know what to do with a scripture passage like Jeremiah’s vengeful, clench-fisted lament.

We think we need to dismiss it as one of those Old Testament texts replaced by the New.

     But the confusion we feel about a passage like Jeremiah 18 is really our confusion about Jesus

Because it’s not that Jeremiah’s prayer is antithetical to Jesus.

No.

Jesus is God’s answer to Jeremiah’s prayer.

Pay attention, this is everything.

     Jesus doesn’t replace Jeremiah’s angry prayer.

Jesus enacts it.

It’s not that Jeremiah’s prayer for his enemies to be defeated is the opposite, alternative to Jesus’ teaching that we should love our enemies.

     No, it’s that when the Potter becomes Clay we discover:

the love of enemies is the way the Potter defeats them.

We completely miss the revolution Jesus leads from the get-go because all our faith is in the kind of battles we wage.

Love of enemies is not Jesus telling us we should passively endure our enemies; it’s his strategy to defeat them.

The cross is not how evil defeats Jesus.

      (If that’s what you think, then why are you even here on a Sunday morning?)

The Gospel is that the way of the cross is how Jesus defeats them.

     The way of the cross, the way of suffering, forgiving, cheek-turning love is the something Jeremiah prays for God to do against his enemies.

And I know- at this point someone always wants to argue that Christ’s enemy loving offensive just isn’t effective in our world.

But today, right now, the crucified Christ rules the Earth from the right hand of the Father.

And Caesar? He just has a salad named after him.

So you tell me what’s more effective.

 

After the woman with the Terri Gross hair and horn-rimmed glasses stepped out the sanctuary doors in disgust, a few strangers later a 50-something man came up to me.

His thick white hair had a severe part on the side. You could tell from his dress that he’d come straight from work. His red tie matched the color of his countenance.

When he shook my hand, he pulled me towards him in a ‘I know it was you, Fredo’ kind of way.

And he said, angrily: ‘I’m not a religious person, but you’ve got a lot of nerve.’

‘Here we go again’ I thought.

‘Where do you get off praying that? Forgive those who trespassed against us?! Did you see what they did?! Just where did you get an irresponsible idea like that?!’

‘Uh, well, um…Jesus’ I said.

He shook his head. ‘This was my first coming to a church. I can see I haven’t missed anything.’

And he stormed out.

I wonder-

If our discomfort with a prayer like the one Jeremiah prays

If our dismissals of Christ’s commandment to love our enemies

is because we’d like to go on thinking Christians can be Christian without having enemies, or just having the same enemies everyone else has.

I wonder if our discomfort and dismissals are because we’d like to go on thinking we can follow Jesus without making enemies.

Making enemies for the way we follow Jesus, the Clay in whom we see what the Potter desires for all of his vessels.