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The Potter

Date: 08/09/2013/Speaker: Susan Yap

18 1-2 God told Jeremiah, “Up on your feet! Go to the potter’s house. When you get there, I’ll tell you what I have to say.”

3-4 So I went to the potter’s house, and sure enough, the potter was there, working away at his wheel. Whenever the pot the potter was working on turned out badly, as sometimes happens when you are working with clay, the potter would simply start over and use the same clay to make another pot.

5-10 Then God’s Message came to me: “Can’t I do just as this potter does, people of Israel?” God’s Decree! “Watch this potter. In the same way that this potter works his clay, I work on you, people of Israel. At any moment I may decide to pull up a people or a country by the roots and get rid of them. But if they repent of their wicked lives, I will think twice and start over with them. At another time I might decide to plant a people or country, but if they don’t cooperate and won’t listen to me, I will think again and give up on the plans I had for them.

11 “So, tell the people of Judah and citizens of Jerusalem my Message: ‘Danger! I’m shaping doom against you, laying plans against you. Turn back from your doomed way of life. Straighten out your lives.’

Whoa God!

This is not an image of a potter lovingly shaping, moulding his pot as the verses 3-4 seem to first invoke. We read on that when the pot turns out bad, we can almost imagine the potter crumples it up and slaps it on the ground to re-work it. The text has God saying “I will pull up a people or a country by the roots and get rid of them”. The NRSV version says God will “pluck up, break down and destroy”. You can almost visualise the image of God’s hand squashing down the clay in anger. There are other prophets like Jeremiah who very clearly display and warn us of God’s mighty wrath.

Do you believe that God punishes people or nations who do evil and do not listen to Him/Her in this way? it is a very common portrayal of God in the Old Testament. Is this the God of your understanding? If it is I certainly don’t blame you. For that’s exactly how the ancients and in fact, many modern people too, understood and understand life and God’s way of acting in their lives.

Do you believe human beings are passive lumps of clay to be moulded at the whim of a superior force? Well for one thing, I don’t believe God can change us if we do not have a hand in the change as well. In fact it is more often that we say people just cannot change. There are those we believe we are co creators with God in our lives. The hands that shape us are our Creator’s as well as our own. I am more inclined to believe that’s how God works. God works WITH us to bring shape and life to our lives.

So for those who believe that God acts with mighty force to destroy evil and bring good to God’s creation, is this how you interpret the times when bad things happen in the world, or to us? There are consequences for obvious bad actions on our own part of course. But when bad things happen to innocent people, things we hardly deserve – like cancer, how do we explain it? Is it the hand of God punishing or teaching us a lesson, or testing us? – as is quite often heard said?

My sister recently posted on Instagram, a saying – When you’re going through something hard and wonder where God is, remember the teacher is always quiet during a test – I promptly commented that God does not test us. Shit just happens. Suck it up.

Harsh comments I know but in my mind, that cannot be so. It simply cannot be so. I refuse to believe God is like that. My God brings life out of death; my God does not bring death to life. It cannot be so. God brings new life, we’ve always said. So when the innocent die, or the young before their time, we often explain that we only see dimly and all will be revealed some day when we will all see clearly. God will reveal the reason for what we cannot comprehend, the larger picture we cannot now see.

We know our failures, our sufferings, our mistakes teach us lessons, make us stronger. Those of you who know my father’s story of personal suffering during the second world war may say if he did not experience such suffering in his youth, he may not today have the same degree of empathy for the suffering. Yes, I suppose that is somewhat true. But does God will such harsh lessons to teach empathy? It’s like the proverbial parent who says, “I beat you because I love you; it hurts me more than it hurts you”. We don’t buy that do we? At least not in modern parenting. I’m not talking about tough love here. About not allowing computer games till homework is done; not giving in to your kid’s every whim and fancy. That’s fine. But to be cruel, harsh, cause physical hurt or pain to teach your children?

There was a story told by the pastor of a church I attended in Melbourne, to illustrate sacrificial love. About the station master father who did not pull the brakes/barrier on an oncoming train even though he spotted his toddler son on the tracks, in order to save the train passengers from a potentially fatal crash. I thought that was a horrifying story to tell. But then again, don’t we know of a parent who did just that? Allowed his son to suffer on the cross and die? To save the world as it were?

Don’t you have problems with that? Or is it just me? We know, or rather are taught, in fact this is the crux of our faith to many, that Jesus took the fall. Jesus took our place. He was the sacrificial lamb, the scapegoat. What do you understand happened on that cross? How does Jesus’ dying save me? What does his dying save me from? Perfectly good questions but oh, you cannot imagine the number of different answers. In the pew we largely hear the one common strain, but in theological studies, intellectual inquiry, academic scholarship, historical and biblical criticism, there are a myriad of theories of why Jesus died.

Did you hear recently the news that the popular song “In Christ Alone” will be left out of the new hymnal of the Presbyterian Church in the US? That’s because songwriters Keith Getty and Stuart Townend said they will not change the lyrics.

Members objected to the line that says “On that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied,” spokesperson and chair of the Presbyterian Committee Mary Louise Bringle wrote in The Christian Century. Bringle said most of the committee wanted the lyrics changed to: “The love of God was magnified.” They said they didn’t want to suggest in the new hymnal that Jesus’ death on the cross was an atoning sacrifice needed “to assuage God’s anger” over sin.

As many theories there are about atonement, I don’t think any one has the final word. Except God him/herself. So many questions we’re dying to ask God. So for now the easiest thing to say is that God’s ways are not our ways, God’s ways are mysterious, beyond our limited comprehension. Perhaps a cop-out answer to everything we do not understand?

The ancient Hebrews, though some of us feel they were perhaps misguided, or perhaps just did not have the scientific knowledge we have today, had an answer to every disaster. It was the wrath of God of course, meted out on His disobedient people. As simple as that. God dwells among and blesses His people but only if they followed his commandments and respected his demands. And there are just as many today who believe, as those who don’t believe, that this is so because at least it is an answer. The worse kind of answer is, “I don’t know”, right?

However, when we read the Bible we are often very quick to discount (or domesticate) the parts of the Bible that don’t sit well with our rational thinking minds, and modern understanding of our faith and our God. We are quick to gloss over the dark verses, the depressing, ugly or horrifying stories. Stories about God destroying entire groups of people including children. We rather prefer the inspirational and beautiful verses, and eagerly re-post them on our Facebook walls.

So how then do we read the Bible? Do we leave out the violent verses to match our modern view of a loving God? Do we tone down or domesticate the angry God? NO, BUT we do accept that the Word, our scriptures are tied to and embedded in the human lives of that time of ancient history time-bound and culture-bound. There are of course some timeless truths and lessons from the biblical stories but the narratives are largely time-bound and culture-bound. And as we move from the OT to the NT we can already see shifts in peoples’ understandings.

The OT tells stories from over 1000 years before the birth of Christ – can you wrap your head around that timeline? 1000 years before 2013. This ancient book was not written by us (21st century beings) NOR for us NOR in the language we are reading it in today. So it will always be a struggle (if we take this book seriously) to reconcile ‘that which is particular and peculiar to the time, place, culture of its writing – to what is universally applicable beyond the bounds of time, place and culture” – as Peter Gomes puts it in the chapter “Hard Texts and Changing Times” of his “The Good Book”.

And although the text does not change, and has not changed in thousands of years, we who read it DO change. God does not change but OUR UNDERSTANDINGS of God changes for sure. And our understandings will continue to evolve. And finding answers or resolutions will require lots of time, work, energy, study but it is what God asks of us. To undertake the journey of life filled with doubt, struggle and trials. And even if we never see clearly at the end, its OK. Enough to know we have run the race to the best of our abilities.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he always called to task the Pharisees – those who were the most certain about their faith and who believed they had all the answers. Ironically, the people who were the most unsure and desperate were the ones that Jesus used to change the world.

I often quote one of my favourite preachers Barbara Brown Taylor who taught religion in a US college. In an essay of hers titled CAUTION: Bible Study in Progress, she says-

Most of my students profess to live by the Bible without ever having read more than 50 pages of it. Their knowledge of what is in it comes from their parents, their preachers and their Bible study leaders, as well as from movies. There is no one thing that can be said about all of these interpreters, except that they all have more power than the text.

When I ask students to read what is actually on the page, most see what they have been taught to see. The story of Adam and Eve is the story of original sin. The snake is Satan, the apple is disobedience, and Eve is the seductress who leads men astray. If I send them back to locate “sin,” “Satan” and “apple” in their Bibles, some are generally astonished to find that the words are not there. Whether they know it or not, they are on the edge of a dangerous decision. They are either going to hang on to their interpretations and do whatever they have to do to make the text fit, or else they are going to let the text lead them to expand their interpretations.

The danger arises partly because many of them come from communities that censure nonconformity. If they begin asking the wrong kinds of questions at church, they may find themselves at the center of quite a lot of pastoral concern (if they are lucky) or shunned (if they are not). If they persist, some may even find themselves estranged from their own families. But even those who are free of such constraints are not safe in my classroom.

(She goes on to highlights inconsistencies, contradictions, etc found in the Bible), then continues,

As interesting as these things are, they call a great deal into question. How reliable was the oral tradition? What was lost in translation? Where there are two accounts, which one is true? Who decided what would be in the Bible and how dependable were those people? In one form or another, these are all questions about the trustworthiness of the Bible, and they lead to the one question that no college course can answer: Is this the Word of God or not?

No wonder people steer their fledglings away from me. “Major in education,” one student’s preacher told her, “and get your religion at church.” If he and I are working against each other, then it is because we believe the same thing: that how people read and interpret scripture is the single most important factor in how they practice their Faith. Every church fight I can think of right now, as well as every clash between Christians and non-Christians, rests on some interpretation of scripture. While I do not expect this ever to end, I do welcome the opportunity to introduce even 20 students at a time to the rich complexities of the Bible. When they pay attention to what is actually on the page, they generally find that scripture does not so much support their religious ideology as call it into question, leaving them nowhere to turn but to the God beyond their concepts of God.

The problem with blessing the questions is that I don’t have any place to send students who want to keep asking them when their one religion class is over. Even in churches that support free inquiry, Bible studies tend to serve up more for the heart than for the mind.

Meanwhile, I take my job so seriously that some days I hate doing it. Like my precursor the snake, I work near that tree in the middle of the garden, but unlike him I hiss a warning to those who approach. “Think hard about staying in this course,” I tell my students at the beginning of the term, “because once you know things you cannot ever go back.” Then I do my best to care for those who stay, believing that God is with them even as they fall — from innocence toward the promise of a deeper life of faith.

So we confront the Bible, the foundation of our faith, in its entirety, knowing where it came from, who wrote it, and why, and how it is to be understood, confronting head on the tough passages and knowing that our faith will be stronger, our understanding will be deeper, not despite, but because of, the honest and earnest study of scripture. That gay Christians have a deeper grasp of biblical scholarship is not a coincidence, it is precisely because the clobber passages in the Bible have forced us to engage rigorously with the Word, so that we can live lives that are responsible and faithful to God.

As David Grant says in his book, Thinking through our faith: Theology for the 21st century Christian, “We must be Christians in OUR day and OUR time. To be faithful to God requires that we live out that faith in our contemporary world … to that end, we must know as much as we can about the best thinking being done in all realms of thought. To do otherwise is to slight not only ourselves but God’s creative goodness.”

How do we think of God today? We have discarded pre-modern thinking in science, medicine and many other disciplines, and moved on to post-modern discoveries, why not in matters of religion? The Word is dynamic and alive, let us not kill it. Let us similarly allow our faith to be vibrant and alive too.

So after we diligently study the scriptures, become biblically savvy, what’s next?

A professor at INSEAD where I work, always reminds her students that “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This was likely her way of getting them to rationally discuss things instead of personally attacking each others’ views. And there’s a lot of truth to what she says. Let’s not use our knowledge to perpetuate the intolerance, egotism and closed-mindedness that we have been subjected to. Let us rise above the petty squabbling and show and spread love – that’s how they’ll know we are Christians – by our love, by our love.

Of course, proper theology, a correct hermeneutic (text interpretation) and a logical apologetic (explanation or defense) is important, for as Barbara Brown Taylor says, how people read and interpret scripture is the single most important factor in how they practice their Faith. And also people need to see, hear and know that we stand up for what we believe. But we do not need to be defensive, arrogant and we do not need to belittle others. Because in the end, the truth has nothing to hide and will make itself known.

Moreover, Christians tend to fool ourselves into believing it’s our beliefs that make us better people, not our behavior or witness. It’s as though we’ve thoroughly and critically studied the Bible, noted and recorded all the truth it contains, but it doesn’t transform who we are.

We forget that the central message of the Bible is in fact transformation and conversion. And not conversion that simply happens to an individual confined to a spiritual or private , agenda.

Walter Brueggemann, the great OT scholar highlights that the “central converting action in the Bible is the formation of a new community that lives in covenant with the Lord, this God like whom there is no other.”

The prophets of Israel were seen always vigourously calling Israel to conversion, and always with urgent political and economic implications – calling God’s people to live their lives personal AND corporate with the goal of bringing about justice, righteousness and faithfulness.

And in the NT as well, the call to conversion is Jesus’ central teaching. Jesus brought the good news of a new age which invites all to new ways of life. Walter Brueggemann states that Jesus “announces the old order has lost its power, the old system that exploits and dehumanizes, where people covet, control and manipulate, where the poor and rejected are made powerless, and where the well-off are settled comfortably assuming God has blessed them.”

Jesus exposed these people and this system. And brought good news to the poor, the rejected, the left behind, the homeless. Jesus said to them, “Welcome Home”, “You belong”, “You are My beloved”. And I believe that is why Jesus died. Because he rejected the deathly ways of the old order and showed that it has no power over us. And it is what Jesus calls his people do to with him – die to the old, be born again into the new!

Let me return to the Potter’s house where we started and ask, What kind of pot are you? What’s inside you, what are you holding, what are you full of? And what do you pour out? What kinds of pots are we in FCC? What are WE full of and what do WE pour out for the world to see and receive? The Potter has made us for a purpose – a holy purpose – wonderfully made, precious and beautiful, but more than that we have been made to hold and pour out the love of God to all, to deny the old and embrace the new way of life in Christ, with all our heart, all our mind, all our soul and all our strength. Amen.