Carla J. Bailey, Pastor
A meditation given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
This past Friday evening I went to see the film “Get Low”, starring Robert Duvall. I could watch Robert Duvall buy lettuce at the grocery store and think I had just seen the greatest story ever told, so I went to the theater prepared to love the movie. I was not prepared however, to have a religious experience. I don’t often recommend movies to you but please, see this one. After the movie was over, I began naming the theological themes – redemption, salvation, confession, forgiveness, bearing false witness, reconciliation, heaven and hell, life after death, 40 years in the wilderness, works righteousness. Metaphors abound. They are so prolific, you’ll think you’ve just read the Bible. And, like the Bible, the story is told in ways that are not straightforward. Set in Tennessee in the 1930’s, “Get Low” is a study in browns and grays, a depression-ravaged people, ready to tell a story or believe a story, become obsessed with a reclusive old man whose story unfolds in little snippets of conversations as he comes out of his isolation to plan a funeral for himself, a funeral he intends to attend as a living participant. The more you see Felix Bush, the more you wonder what lies beneath his desire to be the living focus of his own death party. Who was he before he isolated himself? Suppose God said to us (as Jeremiah reports God said to him), go up to Felix’ house in the woods, “and there I will let you hear my words”. What would those words be?
As a prophet, Jeremiah was a poet. As a poet, Jeremiah relied upon those things poets have always used to reveal deeper truths. Jeremiah used images from nature. Rain, birds, the sun, moon, and stars, the spots of the leopard, the skin-color of an Ethiopian, all found their way into Jeremiah’s efforts to describe to Israel who God is, what God says, how God acts, what God wants. Jeremiah used metaphors his people would understand, the faithlessness of wayward children, sickness, marital infidelity, hope for prosperity, even in the midst of war and exile, and the creation of clay pots. He struggled with his own loneliness, isolation and the oddity he had become as a spokesperson for God. Even so, “Israel, understand this—God is like a potter who creates a pot and even though it is beautiful, it is flawed. So God destroys the pot and makes it again, another pot, out of that same clay. Israel, do you understand? You are that pot.”
Jeremiah wasn’t the only Biblical writer to use the potter and pot metaphor. Paul told his readers that we are like earthen vessels, clay pots, containing a treasure. The treasure doesn’t belong to us. It is transcendent and it belongs to God, but we contain it like a pot holds water. Some of us latch on to these metaphors as if to lifelines of clarity in a sea of obfuscation. We’re like that clay in the hands of the potter. We’re like a pot, dried, baked mud, but holding the water of life. We’re like that old, self-isolated man, clinging to a long-ago event with such a tight grip, the blood has long since left our fingers and our muscles have forgotten how to unclench.
It was typical of the prophets to describe conversations with God with the familiarity one might use when speaking to one’s grandmother, which is why, I imagine, prophets were deeply respected but generally ostracized. The kernels of truth could never be ignored, though the means of communication was mysterious. Israel was starved for explanations from God. What had they done wrong, to lose favor in God’s sight? Here’s the point Jeremiah. I made you and I can destroy you, just like that potter destroyed that pot. I made you a nation, and just like the potter, I can make you again, from that same clay. It isn’t the clay that is flawed. It is what you became that needs remaking. Such a powerful metaphor, an allegory so true, so clean, so accessible, that its meaning could not be mistaken, even by so obtuse a people as we can sometimes be. You, your clay, your DNA, so to speak, is just fine. Now, what will you do with it? How will you live? What will your usefulness be? How will you function? How will you serve? Will you be the vessel that carries the water of life to those dying of thirst?
To have embarked upon a journey of faith means that we have entered fully into the land of metaphor and symbol, interpretation and meaning. We have committed ourselves to a life of searching for meaning and purpose, weighed against the life whose purpose is more self-serving. We have accepted a life that strives for something beyond the pursuit of happiness, the promise of property, and we find our liberty is more joyfully experienced when it is tethered by the obligations of forgiveness, hope, and selflessness. Do you see this pot? The question asked of the believer expects an answer that relies on something more than the five senses. The answer, for the one who trusts God, is full of purpose and intention, commitment and service. Yes, I see that pot, and more, I see how it serves. Do you see the life you’re living? Yes, I see the life I’m living, and I see more than its daily activity. I see its possibilities for service. How does it serve? By seeing more than clay pots when I look into other human faces.
A friend of mine, a wonderful scholar and ethicist, has said about the use of metaphor in the religious life, that he cannot understand the mind of God. He cannot see God, touch God, converse directly with God. He does not knowingly witness, first-hand or in that very moment, God’s intervention in human history. What he can know, however, is the physical manifestation of God’s will, God’s purpose, God’s hopes. For example, my friend says, I can know the manifestation of God in Jesus. Jesus gives my friend access to the mind of God. It is what Howard Thurman meant when he said, “Jesus Christ is the for instance of the mind of God”. The human mind needs a metaphor, an image, a for instance, to gain access to the mind of God, so that the will of God might be made manifest in our lives. We need a metaphor, and if that metaphor is the potter’s wheel or something quite a bit more magnificent and nuanced, like, for instance, Jesus, we can embrace its meaning, its demands, and its possibilities.
Later in our service today, we will be participating in a service of communion, when we will recite familiar words and receive a morsel of bread and a thimbleful of grape juice. It is a metaphor too, isn’t it? Do you see this bread? It is my broken body. And this cup? it is my lifeblood. Now, how will you live? Amen.