Jeremiah 18:1 – 12 The long arc of the moral universe bends toward justice


A sermon preached on September 5, 2010 based upon Jeremiah 18:1 – 12 

There was an episode from the old Twilight Zone TV series in which an enormous space ship lands on earth.   Nine-foot tall extra-terrestrials come off the ship presenting themselves to humans as coming in peace.    The head extra-terrestial carries around a large book that seems to function as his manual of which the title is “Serving Man”, though the contents of the book are undecipherable to the human beings.   The space aliens tell the humans of the wonders of their planet and invite human beings to come on board their space ship in order to make a visit to this wondrous place.

Thousands board the ship, but in the final scene, just as the doors are being locked for take off, word comes down from the crack team of human code-breakers who have been working night and day to decipher the language in which “Serving Man” is written:  “Don’t get on the space ship!  The book is actually a cook book!”  Ah, but it’s too late.

My son Andrew has always possessed an extraordinary imagination as well as sensitivity.  As a child he suffered for a time from these gifts when his mind latched onto the thought behind this Twilight Zone episode and other science fiction stories that there could indeed be extra-terrestrials with malevolent intent who are visiting our earth.

Now 23, on a recent visit Andrew called to mind that time of anxious obsession as a child, attributing to me some inspired words of wisdom that I said back then that helped him to let his fear go.   He said I told him that he didn’t need to worry about the intentions of possible visitors from outer space, because if they had advanced as a civilization in terms of the incredible technology required to travel the immense distances involved in reaching earth, then they would have by necessity also have progressed morally as well. To have advanced so far would require that their civilization take to heart a deep moral vision of the sort articulated by Jesus or Gandhi. Otherwise, with such extraordinary powers at their disposal, they would have blown themselves up long before they ever had the chance to visit us.

I think when I said such a thing to my young son, I was probably grasping at straws to find something — anything — that might reduce his anxiety.  Nonetheless, I think the basic idea holds up.

I got thinking about such things after I read over the story of the prophet Jeremiah’s visit to the potter’s house.  He watched as the potter worked the wet clay on his wheel into vessels that would be both useful and beautiful.  If the shape that began to form did not please the potter, he would break it down and start over again.  He would do this as often as needed until he had successfully formed a vessel that pleased him in terms of its usefulness and beauty.  It seems significant to note that the potter recycled the clay; the misshapen clay wasn’t thrown out, but used again from a new beginning.

Jeremiah heard God speaking to him in the experience of watching the potter at work.   It was God’s intent on shaping the people Israel into a beautiful and useful vessel, but when the expressions of their common life was taking did not please God, God would break the society down and begin again, as often as was necessary.   The implication was that ultimately God was at work doing the same with all the nations of the world.

The question that might come to us as we ponder God as the potter is this:  why didn’t God just get it right the first time?

The answer is found in contemplating the mystery of human freedom, of which the scientists believe, it took something like 13 billion years for the universe to produce.   The Bible speaks of the creation of humans as being unique in so far as we alone were made “in the image and likeness of God.”  There is much that might well be said about the meaning of this distinction, but at the core it assumes the capacity on some level to make meaningful choices between good and evil.  If the choices are going to be real, then there must by necessity be some appeal to the choice for evil, otherwise the choice for good has no significance.   This is represented in the story of the Garden of Eden, where the choice offered by the serpent to eat of the forbidden fruit holds some significant appeal, deceitful though it may be.  The temptation offered there and every temptation has its appeal in the short term.  It is the longer term consequences of the choice that do us in.

So God has created a universe in which the pinnacle of creation as we know are creatures with the capacity to act in freedom in a manner that reflects the love and creativity of God.    The freedom is essential, but it also is the ingredient that makes for countless attempts at creation that  lead to an ultimate collapse.

I heard a quote this week that was often used by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and often attributed to him, though he himself was actually quoting somebody else.  It is this:   “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it curves towards justice.”   What is being said here affirms what is at the heart of our faith:  that the creator of our universe is a good God who knit into creation an underlying moral structure.  And although the failures and setbacks we experience in embodying this expressing this underlying moral order may often discourage us, fear not!  Justice will be approached over the long haul of human history.

There was great comfort is this saying during the civil rights movement when the forces of oppression possessed such things as snarling dogs and powerful water hoses with which to knock over protesters, as well as the very real threat of lynching and bombings.  But several decades later the truth of the statement is born out by the fact that most of the basic civil rights issues that were being fought for back then have largely been resolved in our country.   (Which is not to say there aren’t many battles yet to be fought in bringing about a more truly just society.)

Implicit in all this is the understanding that every regime that is badly out of tune with the moral order with which God created this world will eventually collapse; the potter will bring the high and mighty crashing down;  the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend towards justice.

I heard a story once of a technique used to tame wild horses on this country’s western frontier.   A newly captured wild horse, filled with a rebellious spirit, would be tied with a long rope to a docile donkey who had long ago chosen to serve its masters. The horse would be released, and immediately it would pull the donkey away out into the wilderness, out of sight to the people seeking to tame it.    For several days there would be no sight of the beasts, but eventually they would be seen on the horizon, the donkey leading the way home, the horse having given up its rebellion ready now to submit.

The analogy is crude, but the point is that on the long haul, serving only ourselves proves meaningless.   Eventually the will is yielded to serve a higher purpose.

My son Bobby recently began attending St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark.   The initial attraction to the school had to do with their soccer program, but we were impressed by the manner in which the Benedictine monks running the school seek to shape the boys at the school.   The motto of the school, taken from the Rule of St. Benedict which established 1500 years ago, appears every where and is repeated often:  “What hurts my brother hurts me.”  The motto is inescapable, hopefully, over time, the boys who pass through there take it to heart, interpreting it on deeper and deeper levels of their lives.

Either the human family will learn to live by the wisdom of “What hurts my brother hurts me,” or in various ways we will continue to come crashing down, until we get it right.   This is the big question of the world we live in today:  can we learn to be in cooperation with, rather than in conflict with, various peoples who seem at first glance to be alien from ourselves?  Can we recognize our brother, our sister?  Can Jews and Palestinians do this?  Can Americans and Arabs do this?  Can Christians and Muslims do this?

Every now and then surprising things happen in the course of human history that remind us that the potter is intent on having his/her way with us, in spite of the resistance we put up.   The collapse of the Berlin Wall was one such sign.  The end of Apartheid in South Africa was another.

The movie “Invictus” focuses on the year following Nelson Mandela’s ascension to power, marking the official end of Apartheid in South Africa.   The national rugby team known as the Springboks had been made up almost exclusively of white players, and as such had been a symbol for many of white domination.  Many blacks relished the opportunity they now saw  for pay-back, calling for the team’s long standing name and colors to be changed.   But Nelson Mandela saw this as “selfish thinking” that did not “serve the nation”, and urged all South Africans to get behind their team in the 1995 Rugby World Cup.

Thirty years earlier Mandela had been sentenced to prison by the ruling white government.  He had entered prison as an advocate of violence as necessary to overthrow of powers that enforced apartheid.  In his nearly thirty years in prison Mandela contemplated the deeper moral order to existence, and came to recognize that paybacks would not be helpful in establishing unity between blacks and whites in a new South Africa.  It would simply push the whites to remain in the us-against-them mentality.   Instead, Mandela said, “We have to surprise them with restraint and generosity.”

In a few minutes we will once more return in our imagination to that upper room in Jerusalem long ago where Jesus gathered with his disciples the last night of his earthly life.  Everything was coming to a head.   One option – the one many people hoped he would adopt – was to lead a violent uprising against the Romans and the religious authorities in partnership with them.

Jesus possessing divine insight saw that it would do no good in the long haul of establishing the kingdom of God on earth.    He took a stand against the endless cycle of violence and the stubborn refusal to recognize the truth that every human being is my sibling, and whatever hurts them hurts me.   And so he went to the cross instead, and for two thousand years humankind has been surprised by the memory of his restraint and generosity.

Whether is is a brokenness in our societies or a brokenness in our personal lives, let us put our trust where Jesus placed his trust, in the God who is indeed in control.  As we come to receive his body and blood, may we be strengthened to stand with Jesus in trusting that the arc of the moral order may be long, but it does indeed bend toward justice.