Jeremiah 18:1-11Standing at the Gates of Repentance
We are coming up on the Days of Awe. In a few days is Rosh Hashanah. The Jewish New Year. The time when we release everything from the past year which has separated us from God -- including that which has separated us from each other and from our own best selves.
Rachel Barenblat (Velveteen Rabbi) talks about the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, about the work we are called to do to prepare ourselves. She says that her teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi calls the spiritual work of that month of Elul tikkun ha-sulam, "repair of the ladder." She recalls the Biblical story of Jacob’s Ladder, with angels that ascend and descend -- which begs the question of why the angels begin here with us on the ground rather than up in Heaven. One Jewish teaching answers that these angels are our prayers -- which begin where we are; and when we reach out to God, God reaches back to us. She writes:
Reb Zalman's teaching about "repair of the ladder" tells me that the work of this season is work of alignment. We're meant to be aligning that internal ladder so that our prayers can ascend without obstruction, and so that divine blessing can descend in return. If there are obstructions in our relationships -- with ourselves, with our partners, with our families and friends, with our communities, with other communities, with God God's-self -- then blessing can't flow as it should.I was reminded of this when I read the Luke passage -- about building a tower on a foundation.
Jesus asks, "which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether you have enough to complete it? Otherwise, when you have laid a foundation and are not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule you, saying, 'This person began to build and was not able to finish.' "
Jesus, sensibly, exhorts us not to begin a project without a plan for how to bring it to fruition.
But this is counterbalanced by the God in Jeremiah who can rework the clay that is the substance of our lives into an entirely different shape than it is now or than we had planned it to be.
We are called to bring Jacob's Ladder into alignment, to free it of obstructions -- but we can also rest in the assurance that this work is not ours alone. God is the Potter, the Carpenter, the Shepherd. It is God's work that we are doing. And we do well to remember that we are only repairing the ladder -- it is God who has created it.
Ultimately, all our projects are only a part of God's greater project of Shalom.
Counterbalancing the importance of the work of repair, in a later post, Rachel quotes Leonard Cohen's song "Anthem," which I'll quote at slightly more length here:
Ring the bells that still can ringJacob dreams this ladder when he is fleeing from his brother Esau, who is out to kill him because Jacob tricked him out of his birthright.
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in
Throughout his life, Jacob has trusted in his own cleverness -- and the assistance of his mother -- to subvert the social order and to work situations to his advantage, despite his position as younger brother.
When we are wrapped up tight in our own doings, there is no space to let God in. We don't want to let God in -- we've got this all taken care of. God might have some different plans in mind, and who wants that?
But when our own devices have failed, when we leave the world we have known and venture into the wilderness to seek a new place, sometimes our self-assurance is a little bit shaken, and perhaps we let down some of our defenses, and some cracks open up in our shell through which the Holy Spirit can move.
Upon waking from this dream, Jacob says, "Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it."
God is with us not only when we have perfect offerings, when we have perfectly completed all the work of repair and have washed away all the grime of our labors, presenting our shiny clean and smiling faces before God.
God is also with us when we are fleeing the consequences of our own actions -- and is often even waiting with a blessing to offer us, as in this story, where God not only affirms that Jacob will inherit the promise made to Abraham, but also says, "Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go." Our lectionary elides this portion of the Psalmist's address to God, for reasons that are unclear to me:
7Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?God is with us always -- always reaching out to us, patiently waiting for us to make a move toward ascending or repairing that ladder.
8If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
9If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11If I say, "Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,"
12even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
Jesus calls us to let go of all that we have in order to follow The Way which leads to eternal life. For none of us has the tools to build Jacob's Ladder, and so we are asked to surrender to the One who does.
We are asked to open ourselves up to being radically remade -- to give up our gropings for power and control, to let go of our belief that we can do this all ourselves.
"Come, go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words."
Bring your self -- your shaky, wobbly, misshapen, soft clay self -- to the potter's house ... a house perhaps built of strong timbers, on the edge of a wood, so you have to travel a bit out of the hustling bustling "civilization" to reach it ... and settle yourself there, perhaps a bit nervously, as you watch a pair of strong hands throwing clay and you wonder what it would feel like to be that clay on the wheel.
And as you settle yourself, the potter begins to speak to you, not taking her eyes off her work, but speaking directly to you, in a voice that is gentle but firm, perhaps a bit deeper than you had expected. She reminds you that She knew you and knit you in your mother's womb. And She tells you the story of your birth, of how you cried when you were pushed out of the amniotic fluid that had had been your home for months and into the harsh air. She tells you of how quickly your lungs and eyes and limbs adjusted. She tells you of the warm bodies, soft and firm, that held you close, that would not left you fall.
She tells you the story of your life -- of the times you fell, of the times you cried. She reminds you of the times when someone was there to pick you up, to bandage your wounds, to hold you as you cried. And She tells you that even when no human was there, when you felt abandoned and alone, that She was there beside you, watching you, and weeping with you.
And She tells you that She has such good plans for you -- plans to prosper you and not to harm you; plans to give you hope and a future. And you know that She loves you.
And so when She finishes the piece She is working on, when She has cleaned off Her wheel, and She looks at you invitingly, you nod.
We often express a desire for new life, but we frequently want it on our own terms -- we have a clear picture in our minds of what that new life would look like, and we just want God to make it happen. The story of the potter here reminds us that there is One with greater vision than ours.
In synchronicity with where we are in the Jewish calendar this week, today’s Jeremiah passage ends with God saying, "Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings." The Psalmist, in turn, ends by asking God, "See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."
Wikipedia informs me that:
In the Talmud tractate on Rosh Hashanah it states that three books of account are opened on Rosh Hashanah, wherein the fate of the wicked, the righteous, and those of an intermediate class are recorded. The names of the righteous are immediately inscribed in the book of life, and they are sealed "to live." The middle class are allowed a respite of ten days, until Yom Kippur, to repent and become righteous; the wicked are "blotted out of the book of the living."I feel really disingenuous standing here before you extolling reconciliation -- because I am violently angry at someone. But as I was struggling with that disconnect, I remembered that above bit about Rosh Hashanah.
It would seem to make more sense for the New Year to come on or immediately after Yom Kippur, so that after all this work you start the year fresh, but no, you start the year and immediately you begin a period of concentrated work.
And the Days of Awe aren't just about apologizing and asking forgiveness for the things we have done to others -- faithful Jews are also called to forgive that which has been done to them (or so I am given to understand from at least one Jewish friend of mine, anyway).
I do not get to pursue reconciliation with this person I am violently angry with. Over and over again she has failed someone I care very much about, and the one time I tried to have a conversation with her about that, it did NOT go well. She got an apology from me for the ways in which I was arguably out-of-line in that situation, so she probably feels sufficiently reconciled -- but she has also made it clear that she is incapable of providing my friend with what she needs, and is uninterested in trying. So how do I achieve reconciliation with her? Pettily I want to scream at her and possibly punch her in the face; but much more than that, I want to change her, to help her grow into the vocation she is pursuing, to help her help my friend.
But I'm not the Potter. I don't have the power to reshape her, nor do I know what vision the Creator has in mind either for her or for my friend.
Jesus says, "None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."
Anger is a possession.
Bitterness is a possession.
Spite is a possession.
A desire to control is a possession.
In order to walk in the Way of the One who calls us to new life, we are called to let go of that which binds us to our old lives, that which keeps us twisted in on ourselves.
Letting go? Not one of my strong suits. So this isn't work I particularly want to do. But perhaps the impending Days of Repentance will help me to try.
As we move out into the world, I invite us all to open ourselves, even a little bit, to the transformation God wishes to work in us -- whether that means doing some work of reconciliation or perhaps some other work altogether.