A Sermon for 8 September 2019 – 13th Sunday after Pentecost
A reading from the prophet Jeremiah 18:1-11. And perhaps before reading this text, it’d be helpful to remember that the prophet Jeremiah was called to speak for God to the people of Judah. The thought is that as things in Israel already had fallen apart when the Assyrians overtook and exiled the northern part of what once had been the unified kingdom, things in Judah were just beginning to fall apart and finally did entirely when Babylon conquered and destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in 587 BCE. In the days leading up to the devastation of Jerusalem, folks were wondering: How did we get here? How could something like this happen to the people of God? Did we neglect the covenant? Is God with us still? (Connections, Yr. C, Vol. 3, WJKP, 2019. Joseph J. Clifford, p. 287). Throughout Scripture, we hear varying responses to such questions – even as we Christians continue to make sense of national and personal devastation in so many different ways. Like: have we brought it on ourselves? Do destructive things just happen – even to righteous people? The likes of faithful Job or the descendants of Abraham who found themselves enslaved in Egypt only, at last, to be rescued by a grace-filled God. As we ponder the welcomed and unwelcomed changes of our own lives and of our life together as the body of Christ, let us listen for God’s word to us in this reading of Jeremiah 18:1-11.
“The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2 ‘Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’ 3 So I went down to the potter’s house, and there the potter was working at his wheel. 4 The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. 5 Then the word of the LORD came to me: 6 Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7 At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. 9 And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. 11 Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: 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.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
Early in the 12th Century, Hildegard of Bingen was busy having visions from God. Hildegard began having such visions as young as three years of age. Tithed to the church at birth by her noble parents because she was the tenth of their children, Hildegard was brought when she was 8 to live with her spiritual mother Jutta, an anchoress turned abbess who was enclosed in the Benedictine Monastery at Disibodenberg. There, Jutta was to “introduce (Hildegard) to the habit of humility and innocence” in a double monastery – a Celtic-founded monastery that has both men and women (Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life, Second Edition, Sabina Flanagan, 1998 p. 2-3).
Many today seek deep, direct connection with the Divine. Hildegard’s experience warns regarding such communion. For throughout her life, whenever she failed to heed the Voice of her visions; Hildegard had terrible bouts of illness. Finally, at the age of 43, Hildegard acquiesced to the Voice to publicly reveal her visions and the Voice’s insistence that she (a mere woman, a simple nun) write what she saw. So it was that this remarkable 12th Century woman claimed her own spiritual experience and began a forty-year ministry that would include counseling kings, advising popes chastising to them in writing the injustices she saw in archbishops and bishops and priests, cultivating gifts in twelve areas of human endeavor including music and art and healing and science and theology and pharmacology and preaching and writing and iconography, and being a complete innovator who it has been said was both “daring and audacious so much so that 800 years later (she’s) made a huge impact in our time (and hasn’t) become irrelevant or boring” (quote by Mary Ford Grabowsky in “A Very Real Mystic,” Hildegard von Bingen In Portrait).
You may know the vivacious, larger-than-life force that was Hildegard for her signature concept viriditas or greening power. In Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen by Matthew Fox, viriditas is described as “God’s freshness that humans receive in their spiritual and physical life forces. It is the power of springtime, a germinating force, a fruitfulness that comes from God and permeates all creation” (Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, Matthew Fox, 2002, p. 44). As a mystic of the Rhineland; Hildegard was influenced by the lush, flourishing valley that surrounded her throughout her lifetime. One scholar explains that Hildegard saw the fecundity of the Rhineland and believed it all was the very essence of life. As so many do, Hildegard didn’t just look upon the world as beautiful. In fact, in the mandala of her vision entitled “The Six Days of Creation Renewed,” Hildegard chastises Adam because, as she wrote: “’he took in the smell with his nose, but he did not perceive the taste with his mouth. Nor did he touch it with his hands’” (Ibid., p. 97 – Hildegard’s own words). According to Hildegard, this was Adam’s great fall. Because God – who Hildegard calls “the purest spring” – (she also calls Jesus “Greenness Incarnate” and the Holy Spirit the “greening power in motion, making all things grow, expand, celebrate” [Ibid., pp. 43-44]). According to Hildegard, God has put the greening power within us and all things, and we are not merely to look upon it with our eyes – appreciating how pretty it is. Our viriditas is in us in order for us to participate with the Creator in creating. Thereby assisting “the cosmos in its unfolding” (quote by Matthew Fox in “A Very Real Mystic,” Hildegard von Bingen In Portrait). Hildegard presses the point further in her vision entitled “Sin – Drying Up.” In this mandala, Hildegard records what she saw from God – the merciful dew sent to the human heart by the Holy Spirit (Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen, p. 92). The sap of life – the greening power that keeps our souls from turning to dryness. That keeps us from becoming cold, hardened, dust – the greatest sin. For, as Hildegard wrote: “A dried-up person and dried-up culture lose their ability to create” (Ibid., p. 46). Thus, Hildegard explained that our baptisms are “baptisms through water but into moistness” (Ibid.). Our baptism, Hildegard proclaimed, is “a commitment on our part to stay wet (to remain) green. Like God” (Ibid.).
Hildegard’s viriditas comes to mind as we hear the reading from the prophet Jeremiah. To the potter, the prophet is charged to go. There, Jeremiah will hear God’s word when he sees what the potter is up to. If you’ve ever tried to work clay on a wheel, you know how important the friction of both hands. The centering of the clay. The need for water to keep the material on the wheel malleable. Clay that dries out. Clay without that bit of water stiffens. It no longer can be shaped. It becomes hardened into a form useless to the potter. But, as Jeremiah saw in his visit to the potter’s house: even if clay goes awry on the wheel; as long as it is moist, the potter can scoop it up. Press out the kinks in preparation to re-center it on the wheel and begin again.
It’s like that with the people of God. We’re meant to drip with the waters of our baptisms. To stay malleable for use by the Creator. Because, as one commentator writes: “When our shape becomes fixed, we leave little room for God’s grace to” re-form us (Connections, Yr. C, Vol. 3, WJKP, 2019. Joseph J. Clifford, p. 288).
You remember a two summers ago when we were busy doing that CAT. That Church Assessment Tool that resulted in a Vital Signs report regarding this congregation. One of the things we learned through that process is that churches that are vital today have key factors in common. Among such things as vital worship, meaningful relationships, and an orientation to lifelong learning; communities of faith that are vital today are flexible. They are malleable. They stay green – growing like clay able to be re-shaped by the potter in order to be effectively used in the context in which that clay finds itself today.
In the past few weeks while I’ve been away, I’ve been asked more than once to tell about the congregation among which I serve as pastor. After about the third time of telling about the ministry we’ve been at together these past several months, I realized I had lots of very exciting things to tell. Of course, we’ve done the usual: worship each week on Sunday mornings. Holding meetings now and again for decision-making. But we’ve also stopped for some time of silence – in the middle of Presbyterian worship – not only to reflect individually upon our priorities, our own big rocks – but also to write notes of encouragement to teachers heading back to H.G. Hill Middle School for another year of investing in the children of Nashville. We’ve tried things like creating out of recycled and natural items as we learned a bit about Hildegard and God’s power at work in creation. We’ve learned more about caring for those who are aging and continued our intergenerational visits to homebound members of the church. This very month we are in the beginning stages of welcoming two new community partners to this congregation. One by providing space for those who participate in an effort called Nashville’s Non-Violent Communication. And another where we are working with peers in the community to launch a training and on-going support ministry for those who have lost a loved one through death by suicide. We’re continuing with our current community partners Playcare and H.G. Hill Middle School and Mending Hearts and Small World Yoga and the 12-step Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families that meets here every Saturday. A few of us even have met with innovative ministry leaders of Nashville to learn what more can be done for the assets of this congregation to creatively serve the needs of the community around us. Not to mention, our property leaders and Trustees have been working HARD to upgrade things like the electrical system of this building and our internet and phone systems that will allow us to find new ways to deepen our relationships with each other as we navigate typical 21st Century means of connecting.
It’d be easy to hunker down and think: we’re just a little group of people – aging and set in the ways we’ve always known. And then we hear things like people getting fed this summer by those from this congregation who went to provide meals during a Solidarity Retreat held monthly at Penuel Ridge Retreat Center for people who are homeless. Women recovering from addiction and trying to get their lives back together after serving time in prison coming here to sit down for a scrumptious, welcoming feast! We learn of young and middle-aged adults coming here weekly to work through the painful experiences of their childhood. We’re about to welcome to the facility those seeking to learn Heart Centered Mediation Practice in a four-week course being led by one of our new community partners. And even if Heart Centered Meditation Practice doesn’t sound like our preferred way to pray, hopefully some of us will commit to attend – if for no other reason than to learn a different way to connect with God that is meaningful for those who’d never come Sundays to worship like us. Hopefully a few more of us will volunteer our time this school year for the 30 new fifth graders now enrolled at H.G. Hill Middle School who just are learning to speak and read English and desperately need adult mentors to come help them grow.
It seems to me we’re moving along in our malleability as a congregation even by doing things like gathering after worship now for a true chance at fellowship instead of sprinting through coffee and treats a few minutes before worship begins. Supporting and encouraging each other through life’s joys and challenges. All the while giving of ourselves in new ways as we serve God by serving others in need. Slowly but surely we are being re-shaped. Re-fashioned. Re-formed by the Potter. Clay still dripping with the waters of our baptisms. Ready yet for use by our Great Creator today.
As the days roll on, may we stay malleable come what may!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2019 (All rights reserved.)