Sermon Seeds: In an Earthenware Jar
Sunday, September 25, 2022
Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost | Year C
(Liturgical Color: Green)
Jeremiah 32:1–3a, 6–15 and Psalm 91:1–6, 14–16
Amos 6:1a, 4–7 and Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6–19
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
In an Earthenware Jar
In and With: Like Clay (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl Lindsay
Have you ever felt like your life is under siege? Have there been times when all your plans fell apart, everything that could go wrong actually did, and those around you seemed to be working against you? Maybe you feel like that now. The chaos of life disorients you. You exist in crisis mode, putting out one fire only to find another spark has enflamed another space around you. Reactive mode has taken over; there’s not even capacity to hope.
People who have lived through war tell me it impacts them for the rest of their lives. Their sense of attachment to people, places, and things alters dramatically. Some may hold on more tightly because the fear of more loss consumes them. Others may loosen their grasp or disengage entirely out of a different response to the same fear. In those cases, they attempt to mitigate potential pain by not caring enough to generate the hurt they want to avoid. Both approaches are defense mechanisms, responses born of trauma and devoid of hope.
The prophecy of Jeremiah is full of trauma—the events themselves as well as the aftermath. The Babylonians have overthrown Judah, and the people hearing this are living under exile. This story is told to a future audience and it relays a vision— given in their past— of a future beyond their current time. The passage begins by setting the setting of when the vision was given. It happens during the siege. While the city of Jerusalem was being taken, the Sovereign One provides a vision of a distant future. It’s a word of hope and promise in the midst of chaos and terror.
Sometimes, the only hope is the choice to resist the inevitable victory of the aggressor. History recounts the captured Africans who jumped into the hostility of the Atlantic Ocean rather than remaining subjugated to the barbarism of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. We might consider the horrible choice of enslaved African mothers, forced into pregnancy, who smothered their newborns rather than allow them to be sold as property and terrorized their entire lives.
The prophet has a particular role during these times that may be as chaotic to discern as the strategists on the battlefield:
A prophet can go insane trying to keep straight her twin impossible tasks, to destroy and overthrow on the one hand, and to build and plant on the other hand….But what to make of the oracles that fall within 30:1-33:26 which have come to be known alternately as the book of consolations and the little book of hope? Either these oracles are clear evidence of the hand of an exilic editor tampering with the prophet’s legacy and trying to make the prophet out to be more hopeful than history and circumstances allowed him to be; or the legacy of Jeremiah refused to be pigeonholed.Renita J. Weems
Survival Literature is what such books have come to be referred to. They were written to explain how and why people find themselves in these situations and, once in the environment, how they manage to survive whole. Rather than trivializing pain or interpreting it way they face it squarely. That was Jeremiah’s legacy to the gola (exiled) community living decades after him….Survivors of catastrophic events, unspeakable horror, prolonged suffering will tell you that you hope, or you die–first your will, and then your flesh.
Survival would have been the utmost priority for those under siege, particularly those confined in the palace in Jerusalem. Considering that the Babylonians were attempting to topple an independent nation, the king’s palace would have been the most vulnerable place to be. Imagine being imprisoned within a target. That’s the position Jeremiah finds himself in during the most precarious event of his lifetime. During survival mode, it’s unlikely that Jeremiah longed for a vision of the future, particularly one seemingly so mundane:
In the midst of the siege of Jerusalem and the certainty of Jerusalem’s defeat, Jeremiah is commanded to buy a piece of land, a seemingly pointless thing to do. In his explanation, God makes it clear that nothing is impossible for him. He is the God who creates and saves by his great power. In the midst of threatening disaster, a message of hope is given: this is not the end. Judgment has to come, but through it God will bring about a new beginning. Jeremiah’s symbolic action enacts God’s promises in a vivid way. His piece of land is a deposit of what is to come: a land of peace and prosperity under God’s guidance. But the most important thing is the restored covenant relationship between God and his people.Hetty Lalleman
The command paints a vision, but it is not one of victory over an enemy. It’s an assurance of existence. The specificity of the command seems incongruous with the moment. Is every little detail of this future transaction really necessary while the surrounding city is bombarded by the advancing Babylonians? If there was to be a word of hope, why would it come by way of this very particular intra-family transferral of property.?
Perhaps the specificity is the point; it makes the message of hope concrete in face of present terror and impending defeat. The progression of actions within the overall command do not signal any extraordinary process. This transfer is not dependent upon a miracle. In fact, it is a routine transaction. Routines are grounding; they offer stability and reassurance. Imagine being in the midst of a catastrophic event…and imagining even a portion of life being the same. The nature of the transaction is also significant: a land transfer. In the midst of a foreign adversary laying claim to the central city of the nation, God informs Jeremiah that his family’s property will still belong to them. The original audience, who had survived the aggression, received the encouraging message of the promise: Occupation and exile in the present is not the final status.
The God of the covenant would not allow their current condition to stand. The family relationship between the main characters of this story is not coincidental; it is essential to the symbolic significance of the command. His cousin Hanamel will not be able to maintain ownership of the land, but it will not fall into adverse hands. Jeremiah’s purchase will redeem it for his family. The people hearing this vision may not benefit for the redemption to come, but they may be consoled that their kin will benefit from the promised change in circumstance. The covenant remains in effect and steadfast for generations to come.
Jeremiah’s little book of consolation rethinks and reinvents the covenant tradition as a deepening, a reigniting of what once was. Through one of Israel’s most hallowed traditions, Jeremiah’s new covenant both preserves and re-enlivens Judah’s relationship with God, at once ever ancient and ever new. The new covenant is the old one reborn, internalized, intensified to gather in the whole family and reunite them with the God of their past. Through it, the old covenant made at Sinai becomes stronger, deeper, and firmer. Jeremiah’s creative innovations save the original covenant from destruction in the disaster. They reframe Judah’s present brokenness in light of a nation’s whole story. They reset Judah’s relationship with God in the most appealing terms.Kathleen M. O’Connor
The covenant transfers, renews, and endures for a new age. It would be customary to have two copies, one completely sealed and one partially sealed. In this case, both copies are placed in an earthenware jar for safe keeping. The redemption is not imminent. The original hearers would have known that because they are receiving this message after a significant time has passed since the fall of Judah to Babylon. The reassurance comes from knowing that God is not surprised by their continuing condition and accounted for it in this promise of hope.
Hope is in the jar of clay, made by the Potter’s hands for use according to the Potter’s plans.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
“My grandmother’s hands feel leathery. They are never soft or smooth. No amount of lotion can unharden the skin after years spent cleaning, scrubbing, cooking. Hands immersed in dirty water, clean water, harsh chemicals—hands that, combined with elbow grease, shined floors and windows and baseboards in white women’s kitchens. Hands of an older, Southern Black woman . . . hands that quietly built a nation but whose history is often unrecorded. I have no memory of manicured hands holding mine. Instead, when I remember her hands, I can still feel the calluses of someone who only knew labor her whole life.
It is only now that I am much older that I can piece together the work of her hands. Strong young hands cutting tobacco in Southern fields; brown hands cradling the one long-desired child she dared to love after so many losses; tentative hands signing legal documents she did not understand for a new life up North; gentle hands walking her abandoned granddaughter to school. My grandmother’s hands are a love story, but they are not smooth, not soft, not easy. No real love story is. Her hands are a love story of survival in hard places, during hard times.
These hands parted small sections of hair, oiled a dry scalp, and made neat piles of shiny braids. These same hands, which had scrubbed toilets and diapered other women’s babies, would take the smallest of barrettes or beads or balls and place them securely at the end of tiny plaits, in alternating patterns and colors, securing them at the ends with tiny rubber bands. The creativity of brown hands, denied an artist’s palette, found joy in arranging the colorful beads of her granddaughter’s hair. These hands, which had never touched a potter’s wheel or blank canvas, created beauty from braids.Rough, callused, heavy hands loved my tender young scalp. These hands, so large to my child’s eyes, threaded an impossibly tiny needle, and from fabric scraps they made dolls and quilts and magic. I would later have no trouble believing in the creatio ex nihilo—the idea that God created the cosmos out of nothing—because all my life I had watched my grandmother prepare a feast from an empty refrigerator and bare cabinets. She taught me that to be a Black woman in this world is to learn how to make something from nothing.
Sometimes I look at my professionally manicured hands and feel a sting of hot shame. Shame at not being able to fully comprehend the generational sacrifices made on my behalf. Shame for ever having been embarrassed to wear Easter dresses sewn by those hands when my friends wore fancier ones purchased at Macy’s. Shame for once rejecting the food those hands cooked in favor of something at the local fast-food place. And shame when I wonder whether my hands will ever produce something that leaves so enduring a legacy.”
— Yolanda Pierce, In My Grandmother’s House: Black Women, Faith, and the Stories We Inherit
For further reflection
“If she knew how beautiful love is, she would already put it in a box, seal, and preserve it.
So she could smell it whenever she wants.” ― Kusumastuti, Denting Lara
“…failure with clay was more complete and more spectacular than with other forms of art. You are subject to the elements… Any one of the old four – earth, air, fire, water – can betray you and melt, or burst, or shatter – months of work into dust and ashes and spitting steam. You need to be a precise scientist, and you need to know how to play with what chance will do to your lovingly constructed surfaces in the heat of the kiln.” ― A.S. Byatt
“I thought clay must feel happy in the good potter’s hand.” ― Janet Fitch
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Create a ritual of hope. Allow a moment to acknowledge present anxieties. Distribute pieces of paper and/or create an online form (possibility creating a Google form) to collect the hopes of the people. Place the in a pottery vessel with a lid to be opened at a future date.
Lalleman, Hetty. Jeremiah and Lamentations: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013.
O’Connor, Kathleen M. Jeremiah: Pain and Promise. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011.
Weems, Renita J. “Jeremiah.” Patte, Daniel, ed. et al. Global Bible Commentary. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Jeremiah 32:1–3a, 6–15 and Psalm 91:1–6, 14–16
Amos 6:1a, 4–7 and Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6–19
Jeremiah 32:1–3a, 6–15
32 The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. 2 At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, 3 where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him.
6 Jeremiah said, The word of the LORD came to me: 7 Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” 8 Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the LORD, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.” Then I knew that this was the word of the LORD.
9 And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. 10 I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. 11 Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; 12 and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. 13 In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, 14 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. 15 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.
Psalm 91:1–6, 14–16
1 You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
2 will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
3 For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
4 he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
5 You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
6 or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.
14 Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
15 When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.
16 With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.
Amos 6:1a, 4–7
6 Alas for those who are at ease in Zion,
and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria,
4 Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,
and lounge on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock,
and calves from the stall;
5 who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
and like David improvise on instruments of music;
6 who drink wine from bowls,
and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
7 Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,
and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.
1 Praise the LORD!
Praise the LORD, O my soul!
2 I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
3 Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
4 When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
5 Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD their God,
6 who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
7 who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets the prisoners free;
8 the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
the LORD loves the righteous.
9 The LORD watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
10 The LORD will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the LORD!
1 Timothy 6:6–19
6 Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; 7 for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; 8 but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 9 But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
11 But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14 to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. 16 It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
17 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19 thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”