Allyn preached this morning, so I begged permission to post his sermon as a guest blog post today. In addition to being my husband, Allyn Harris Dault is a 2nd year M.Div. student in the create program at Central Baptist Theological Seminary and choir director at Third Baptist Church. The photo of him is courtesy of Neil Das.
preached at Third Baptist Church this morning
How many people here enjoy cooking? It can be a major process sometimes, especially when you first start. My college roommates still make fun of me about the time I tried to make something out of nacho cheese Doritos, shredded cheese, and chicken strips. To my credit, I had seen something like it several times at Wednesday night church suppers growing up. It’s just that my efforts weren’t nearly as good as Ms. Myrtle’s (she was the Peggy of Summerville Baptist). I’m much better now, though. Ask Jennifer. I really enjoy making burgers. You can season them in lots of ways, dress them up however you like, grill ‘em up right – but my favorite part of the process is putting the meat into a bowl, adding in the flavors, and then mixing everything together. You really have to get your hands into everything to make sure the flavors are evenly distributed. Of course, as with so many things, the best and worst parts are related. I love mixing everything together, but I don’t like the slimy feeling on your hands after the mixing process is done and you’re left with the remnants of the spice rack stuck to your fingers. When my hands are in the process of mixing, I’m fine with it, but after I pull them out of the bowl…Eugh!
I imagine the potter in our passage from Jeremiah today didn’t share my finicky attitude toward having dirty hands. After all, making things out of clay is all about getting your hands dirty; there’s really no other way. For clay to be molded, it has to be wet, and there’s so much careful control needed that your only real option is to use your hands to shape that muddy glob of clay into what will be a pot or a vase or an oversized paperweight.
It takes real skill to be a potter. You have to know what the clay is capable of when it’s in your hands. We read that in verse 4; when the clay vessel was found to be spoiled, the potter had to rework it into a form that seemed good to him. So he did. Story over. The end. Thanks be to God.
If only that were the case. Verse six spins us like a potter’s wheel when God says to Judah, “I am that potter, and you are that clay!” God gets to play in the mud, arms looking gray and in need of a towel, but God’s people are the ones whose lives get messy. “You’re gonna do what to us? Shaping evil?!”
All our texts for today, in fact, point out the messiness of life. Luke recalls Jesus’s words about family struggles, carrying crosses, and dead soldiers. Philemon mentions that oh-so-happy topic of slavery. Even Psalm 139, one of the happier Psalms, mentions a mother’s womb and our coming from the depths of the earth. We hear and read these texts, and they remind us that human existence is just plain messy. We hear and read Jeremiah, and he reminds us that the divine potter is shaping evil against us, devising a plan against us.
This is not the God we like to think about, but an honest look at this passage causes us to ask some really difficult questions. When you’ve had a bad week at work or school, is God punishing you for not reading your Bible or tithing? What about grace, and the work of Jesus? Doesn’t that completely change our relationship with God? Isn’t the Old Testament system over with now that Jesus has been resurrected?
You’ll never hear me say an absolute yes to those questions, but I do think it’s not so bad as all that. It’s important to remember that though God is speaking to Jeremiah, his words are for the nation, the people of Judah. This is not an individual indictment, but a communal call to repentance. God and Judah had agreed to live by a covenant; Thomas Steagald, a pastor just west of Charlotte, puts its terms thusly. “The historical, divine initiatives – blessing, provision, protection – prescribe for Israel corresponding temporal expectations: worship, justice, and obedience. Over and over the prophets are called to remind the people of both past mercies and deliverance – precisely to summon Israel back to thanksgiving and service.”
So many of our songs that talk about God as the potter sound so sweet, but they must be based on other passages because they totally miss the point of this text. There is an unmistakable tone of coming judgment in God’s words. Again, I’ll read them to you: “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.” The people reply with despair; “It is no use!” It turns out to be self-fulfilling prophecy. Relief never comes. Not long after these words, Babylon comes in to tear down the walls of the capital city, destroying homes and the Temple, carrying off the country’s best citizens.
Are you miserable yet? Because to paraphrase a certain slightly inappropriate bumper sticker, if you’re not miserable, you haven’t been paying attention. God is promising to make trouble for the one group of people that ought to be protected against this sort of thing. You know, people like us! Wouldn’t it be better if God just left us alone?
And that’s the moment when everything changes, because agreeing with that is the most absurd thing any of us could ever say. God has to pay attention to us, because God is determined to shape communities whose distinctive ways of worship and life bear witness to the redemptive purposes of God (Professor Sally Brown, Princeton Seminary). God can’t leave us alone because we’re in this mess of a world together. If that were not true, there would’ve been no Jesus, no incarnation.
Our lives are deeply connected to the God with dirty hands. Those hands aren’t dirty just from playing with pottery, or from slopping burgers together in some heavenly kitchen. They also get that way from digging in the dirt to make us, the Psalmist says. They’re dirty because they get involved in the messy periods of our history, from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement. They’re dirty because they have carried a cross.
No, this God will not leave us alone, because this God has a will for us. This God has an idea for the kinds of pots we will become, and by this God it will be done. Our lives will be shaped “as it seems fit to me,” God says, even if crisis is a part of our conversion. For me, it was a break-up. For you, it may have been the death of a spouse or the loss of a job or the demon in a bottle or the demon between your ears. I don’t think these events come from God, but I am convinced that God uses these events to reshape us.
Of course, a purely individualized reading of this reshaping process is inadequate. We’ve already seen how God’s message in Jeremiah is for the people, not a person. The people of Third Baptist have had a number of times we’ve had to ask, “What kind of pot is God calling us to be?”. The move to this corner in 1885. The fire in the sanctuary. The coming of Dr. Johnson. The going of Dr. Johnson. The multiple decisions to stay on this corner. The calling of Pastor Warren. Leslie’s ordination. Our partnership with Buckner focusing on community ministries. Terrell and Angie and the roles they are filling these next months. Even now, we are hoping to hear God’s call through our Strategic Planning Process. We are hoping to discover who God would have us be. How we might get our own hands dirty as God’s presence in this place. Here. Now.
God is forming us into a shape “as seems best to him.” Our old shape will be no more, will die, but our new shape will be raised as more like who we really are. And wouldn’t you rather be reshaped while you can still be molded into something different, something more like you? After a defective pot is heated in the kiln, the only way to reshape it is to destroy it. Is there anyone who wants that?
Me neither. I’ll take the God with the Dirty Hands.