Scripture: Jeremiah 18: 1-11; Psalm 37: 1-12; Luke 6: 27-38
Today’s Gospel follows on from last week, when the Blessings and Woes showed that life will throw us bad times along with good times. Now, Luke continues sayings of Jesus from his ‘Sermon on the Plain’. We should treat other people, not only our friends, as we want them to treat us. Here, Jesus reminds us that God comes to us in the ordinary events of our lives.
Jeremiah at the potter’s studio
Today’s Scriptures offer various contrasting viewpoints. We begin with the prophet Jeremiah’s visit to potter’s studio. The potter’s craft has scarcely changed in the past 3000 years. Jeremiah watched the potter throw a lump of wet clay onto his wheel to make a jar, but the result was not perfect. So the potter scrunched the clay up and threw it on the wheel again, until he was satisfied with the result. To Jeremiah, it seemed that the Word of the Lord was commenting on what the potter was doing. The jar that the potter was making was no good. He could destroy it and make something new and better with the clay. God could be dissatisfied with Israel in just the same way.
The context was that the leaders of Judean society had become corrupt. Much of Jeremiah’s book tells how Jeremiah preached that Israel must turn away from evil ways. Israel’s leaders needed to shape up. Otherwise, he said, it was inevitable that God would punish them. Jeremiah did not believe that disaster was inevitable. In his vision, God could behave like the potter, and rework Israel like the potter’s clay into something better. The passage ends, ‘Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter devising a plan against you. So turn away from your evil way; amend your way of life.’
Jeremiah lived in tumultuous times
Judah, the part of Israel based on Jerusalem as its capital, was a tiny country surrounded by powerful neighbours – Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. Babylon was the rising power; Assyria was declining; King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had recently defeated Egypt militarily. Judah was the meat in the sandwich. The situation was similar to that of Canada, a small nation caught between the policies of China and the USA in the context of Huawei’s telecoms equipment and the extradition case against Meng Wanzhou.
Is there divine punishment, or do bad deeds catch up with you?
Jeremiah’s vision in the potter’s studio happened in this way: ‘Can I [God] not do to the House of Israel what the potter has done to the clay?’ Ancient Israel was a theocracy. Its leaders believed that God would reward or punish Israel very explicitly for the nation’s good or bad behaviour. Israel was behaving like an imperfect pot. The leaders had two choices – to continue as poor work, or remake themselves into something better. The passage ends, ‘Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter devising a plan against you. So turn away from your evil way; amend your way of life.’ Of course, that did not happen. Nothing changed in Israel. Babylon defeated Judea militarily, and the Jewish leadership went into exile in Babylon.
Many modern Canadian Christians don’t say that God interferes so directly in human affairs. But we can think about Jeremiah’s doom-laden prophesies another way: actions have consequences. Jeremiah’s equation was, “If you kings of Israel rule corruptly, God will punish you.” I would put it slightly differently, in the words the prophet Micah told his people. They should do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before God. If we don’t behave properly, the consequences will eventually catch up with us. We are seeing exactly this play out in the SNC-Lavalin scandal. For years, there have been allegations that the company gained contracts through bribery and corruption. Jeremiah’s explanation would be divine retribution for ungodly behaviour. We would probably say that their bad behaviour had caught up with them. Same idea, different words.
The tie-in between the Jeremiah story and Psalm 37
The psalm begins with these words. “Do not fret yourself because of evildoers; do not be jealous of those who do wrong. For they shall soon wither like the grass, and like the green grass fade away.” Instead, “Put your trust in the Lord and do good … who will give you your heart’s desire.”
Perhaps the psalmist was a little blasé. It is very hard not to fret (be angry) about other peoples’ wrongdoing when it puts you at a disadvantage. It can take an awfully long time before the evildoers eventually get cut down like the grass. The competitors of SNC-Lavalin must have really gnashed their teeth at the idea that their rival was getting contracts illegitimately. The psalmist was trying, it seems, to pour soothing ointment into the wounds of those unjustly treated. “In a little while the wicked shall be no more; you shall search out their place, but they will not be there. But the lowly shall possess the land; they will delight in abundance of peace.”
Psalm 37 also comments on today’s Gospel sayings of Jesus
Jesus tells us to do the difficult thing – to love our enemies, to treat them with respect. Above all, to treat them the way that we wish that they would treat us. That’s harder than what the psalmist recommends – hoping and waiting for our enemies to be cut down like the grass. In the same way, if we rush to judgement on other people, we can expect the same behaviour from them. Think of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” It all seems to be one of a piece. The Hebrew Scriptures are often keen on vengeance – an eye for an eye, etc. Jesus models something different for us: a compassionate God – “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
God comes to us in the ordinary, but we often don’t notice
For me, a fascinating aspect of the story of Jeremiah and the potter’s clay was that Jeremiah found God speaking to him in very ordinary circumstances. A potter’s studio doesn’t seem like the obvious place to encounter God. Yet that is where Jeremiah had his vision. Many – perhaps most – of us, miss seeing God in life’s ordinary moments. We are too busy to notice.
A tiny example: a couple of Sundays ago, I saw 21 turkeys in the cemetery. That glimpse of beauty was for me a moment of ‘There’s God’s creation; isn’t that wonderful?’ That doesn’t mean that God put on that show especially for me. The ‘God-moment’ was that I took the time to notice what was there. Yes indeed, God comes to us in the ordinary occasions and moments of life.
Brother Lawrence, a man of great wisdom
I have spoken before about my great admiration for the illiterate monk Brother Lawrence. He was a lay brother of the so-called Barefoot Carmelite order in Paris. Lawrence had the most menial jobs in his 17th century monastery, but he could recognize even tasks like scrubbing floors and peeling vegetables as God’s work. He was one of those unusual people who had great wisdom without the benefit of formal education. He recognized that God comes to us in the ordinary activities of life. An educated colleague wrote down many of his sayings and published them as a book with the title ‘The Practice of the Presence of God‘.
Most of our lives exist far from the executive suites of large engineering firms. We do not have the prophesying abilities of Jeremiah. But I believe that we can be open to God – and doing God’s work – in our everyday activities, like Brother Lawrence. It is holy work to cook the dinner, or to sweep the floors, for our families, so long as we view it that way.
Perhaps I can wrap up this rather rambling homily about Jesus, Jeremiah’s potter, SNC-Lavalin, Psalm 37, and Brother Lawrence into one package through the words of an old hymn, “Teach me my God and king, in all things thee to see, and what I do in anything to do it as for thee.”