Fire and Clay
15th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C
On Thursday, August 25, my kids went back to school. And except for the fact that I chose that morning of all mornings to cut Genevieve’s bangs - (Yeah. Pro tip, never cut your child’s bangs on the first day of middle school!) - well, except for that it was a pretty normal first day back.
On day one, lunches were made. Backpacks were filled. The bus was on time. Their schedules were a little messed up, but with the help of teachers they figured out where they were supposed to be. They met up with friends. They ate lunch. And before I knew it, they were home safely. As we talked over dinner, I had the sense from both of them that this was going to be a good year.
On day two, Genevieve was still not happy with her bangs, but at least the shock had worn off. Lunches were made. Backpacks were filled. The bus was on time. And all was right with the world… until 1:27 in the afternoon, when an emergency alert went out from Amherst College warning everyone to take cover because there was an active shooter on campus.
Andrew and I were in our kitchen when the text came through. He showed it to me right away. “It’s move in day for all the students,” he said quietly. And then we just stood there, frozen: hoping, praying, waiting for more information.
Because of their proximity to the college, all of the kids in the Amherst middle school were told to stay in their classrooms while all of the kids in the high school were locked down tight. George found himself crouched in a corner with his classmates. His teacher gave each kid a rock.
He himself was clutching a brick. He told them all to stay absolutely silent. He would know if this was a drill and this was not a drill. George could tell that his teacher was as terrified as the rest of them. 15 minutes passed. They waited. They listened. And then at 1:42, a second alert came through informing everyone that the system had experienced a malfunction.
There was no active shooter.
It was okay for things to go back to normal.
But how to you go back to normal after that?
I keep thinking about George’s teacher - I keep thinking about all of the teachers - thinking about the terror and vulnerability and sense of responsibility they must have felt. How their hearts would have been racing and their adrenaline spiking as they looked around for ways to protect themselves and the children as best they could with nothing but rocks and chairs and desks and text books.
I keep thinking about all of the parents at the college that day. Dropping your child off at college is already such an emotionally charged and vulnerable rite of passage. How could you possibly drive away from them after a scare like that? How much harder would it be to say, “goodbye?”
And then I think of the students, the young people, our kids…and honestly I don’t even have words. I keep thinking about the fact that no one was shocked by this. Indeed we prepare for this as best we can. I hate that our kids are growing up in a country where this is just the way it is now… a country that cannot muster the political will to change course… a country that prioritizes the right to bear arms over the right to go to school or work or worship or the grocery store with any guarantee of safety… a country that loves guns more than it loves children.
Thinking back to that second day of school, thinking about all of this, makes me so angry.
And I dare say that it makes God angry too.
I know the image of an angry God is not one we are entirely comfortable with here in the mainline church. There was a time, even right here in this congregation, when such an image was in vogue. But we’ve softened a bit since then.
We’ve seen the image of an angry God used and abused in order to threaten and intimidate others and we want nothing to do with that kind of theology. We have good reasons for talking more about the love of God in this place than the wrath of God, and I’m ok with that. In fact, my first response when I read these words in Jeremiah was repulsion.
I didn’t want to have to unpack this image of God as a potter and people as clay. I wasn’t sure what to do with a God who “plots evil” against Their own people. And the last thing I ever want to do is re-traumatize people who are still recovering from harmful church experiences in the past.
But friends, when I learned a little bit more about what was happening back in Jeremiah’s day, I have to tell you that, all of a sudden, God’s anger in this passage made perfect sense to me.
Because, you see, back in Jeremiah’s day the people of Israel were in tough spot. The northern kingdom had already fallen to the Assyrians and the Babylonians were breathing down the neck of the southern kingdom of Judah.
God’s people were under threat and they were afraid: afraid of losing their country, their independence, their religious freedom, their way of life. So afraid, that in an effort to gain some sense of control and security, they doubled down on religion. Sound familiar?
But rather than try to get God’s attention through acts of justice and generosity, prayer or even the sacrifice of animals, they began to offer up their very own children - not to Yahweh - but to any God who would listen. They condemned their children to the fire in order to secure their own protection. They allowed their children to die in order that they might live. It was a horrible bargain, but one they were willing to strike in order to feel safe. A horrible bargain God, at least according to the prophet Jeremiah, wanted nothing to do with it.
In chapter 19 of this very book, God cries out: my people have “filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places to Baal to burn their children in the fire as …offerings…which I did not command or decree,” says the Lord, “nor did it enter my mind” (19:4-5).
God is repulsed by what the people are doing. God is devastated. God is furious. So furious that God sends Jeremiah down to the potter’s house for a lesson. As Jeremiah watches the potter at work, something goes wrong with the clay and the vessel is spoiled. The potter allows the clay to collapse in on itself and then begins again.
“Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?” asks God. “Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in mine.” I can build and I can plant, but I can also pluck up and I can destroy. So go, says God, go and “tell the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you … devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil ways...” or else.
God can’t bear to see the children slaughtered any longer, so God vows to destroy the city - like a potter crushing an ill formed pot – if the people won’t stop. And can you blame our heavenly parent? I can’t. In fact, I’m glad God is angry about this and I bet Jeremiah was too. I’m not saying he left the potter’s house whistling, “Have Thine Own Way Lord,” or anything like that. I’m sure he was freaked out and deeply concerned for all the people of Jerusalem.
But there must have been some part of Jeremiah that was actually relieved by God’s anger and God’s willingness to act, and I admit that there is a part of me that is relieved by this idea too. I am relieved to know that there are some things that do make our good and loving God angry, because frankly if they didn’t then how could we possibly think of God as good or loving at all?
Years ago I came across a quote from N.T. Wright that I have returned to over and over whenever I’ve had to wrestle with images of an angry God in scripture. Wright maintains that:
The biblical doctrine of God’s wrath is (actually) rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise, and loving creator, who hates, yes, hates, and hates implacably – anything that spoils, defaces, distorts, or damages (God’s) beautiful creation, and in particular, anything that does that to (God’s) image-bearing creatures. (That’s us.)
If God does not hate racial prejudice,” says Wright, then “ (God) is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, (God) is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from … creation, in an act of proper wrath and judgment the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully, and enslave one another, (God) is neither good, nor loving, nor wise” at all (https://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/articles/the-cross-and-the-caricatures/).
Friends, we might recoil at the image of an angry God, but God’s anger at our actions – when we hurt ourselves and one another – is actually a natural extension of God’s love for us at all times.
If God didn’t love us, God wouldn’t care, but I choose to believe that God does. God cares so deeply about each and every one of us that when people abuse their power over one another, when people hurt, maim, and destroy one another, God is devastated.
I think God is as upset by gun violence in this country as you and I are. And I believe God will stand behind and bless any and all efforts to make this violence stop.
And yes, I know I’m preaching to the choir here. But I also know that many of you are connected to friends and family who have become convinced that this is just the way it is now. I know many of us come from communities and families full of people who persist in believing that guns are a “necessary evil.” What a damning phrase.
They’ve become convinced that unless the “good guys” can have guns, they’ll have no chance against the bad guys when they come, and that the number of people killed - the number of children slain - when those guns inevitably find their way into the wrong hands, is an acceptable sacrifice if it makes them feel safe.
I’m not preaching this sermon to convince you. I’m preaching this sermon to help you convince them, just as God hoped Jeremiah would convince the people of Judah. Convince them that the ways things are now is not normal. Guns are not necessary. This is not okay. Kids crouched in classrooms gripping rocks on the second day of school is not the way it needs to be.
500 years after Jeremiah, a prophet arose who said, “Greater love hath no one than this, that they would lay down their life for a friend.”
We’re not asking people to lay down their lives. We just want them to lay down their guns.
And I don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that the God who loves us all, wants that too.
May it be so. May it be soon. Amen.