A Sermon for 4 September 2016
A reading from the prophet Jeremiah 18:1-11. Listen for God’s word to us.
“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 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. Then the word of the Lord came to me: 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. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 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. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 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. 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!
I wish we each had a lump of clay in our hands today. That would be the best way to spend some time with this text from the prophet Jeremiah. All of you sitting there with a ball of the soft stuff. Squeezing and kneading and working it in your hands. . . . If you’ve ever held clay before, then you know that it has such potential. It can become anything you want it to be: a pinch pot, which typically is the first thing you learn to make in a pottery class. A long snake of clay that you then can wind together into a flower vase. You can flatten it out in your hands as thin as a pancake in attempts to make a plate. Tear it into smaller bits to fashion little balls for earrings or even into the shape of a cross for a necklace.
Throwing a pot is a bit different. First you have to work the clay. Push down one way, then turn it to force it down the other direction. It’s kinda like warm up stretches before running. You’ve gotta get the clay ready before you put it on the wheel. It’s a process of moving around the molecules and getting out any air. In pottery class, they always said this is the most important step, which never ever should be skipped, even though so many novice potters wanna get right to the wheel. . . . After you have your clay ready, you finally take it to the wheel. Water and equal pressure on both sides are key – it’s what is needed to center the clay. Something you have to get right if the clay’s gotta a shot of becoming anything. Next, cutting into the centered clay, all the while keeping the wheel turning at a slow and easy pace. Too fast and the clay goes spinning out of control. Too little or too much water and the clay won’t form as you’d like in your hands. Too much pressure too quickly from one hand or the other and the next thing you know, the clay is collapsing between your fingers. Your intended beautiful bowl falls into a misshapen mess. . . . It’s fascinating to watch a master potter at work – and if you’ve ever attempted it yourself, you know it’s no where near as easy as it looks!
A lot of potters will tell you you have to listen to the clay. Let it tell you what it wants to become. . . . But not according to this text! According to Jeremiah, the potter has a good plan for what the potter wishes to make. That clay in the potter’s hands has an intended purpose. . . . I remember the pottery instructor always saying that to create on the wheel, you have to be willing to let go. Fail and begin again when the clay wobbles off center out of the form needed for a bowl. It’s not really that there’s only one way to make it, but it is the case that a pot thrown with too thick a bottom or too thin a wall won’t last the firing in the kiln. When the clay goes array on the wheel, it’s better to scoop it off to begin again because once it begins to set out of form, the clay will be wasted entirely. No use at all when it breaks in the scorching fires of the kiln.
It’s a mighty metaphor for our lives in God’s hands. . . . At God’s command, Jeremiah goes down to the potter’s house to hear a word from the LORD. He sees a potter at work. A typical potter who’s obviously mature in his craft. For the potter doesn’t hesitate one moment when the clay spins off track. He scoops it up to begin again. He’s not about to waste his clay. I’d imagine that potter Jeremiah was watching had been through quite a process to get that lump of clay in the first place. I don’t know everything about where you get clay and what all the right ingredients have to be, but I know clay is found in certain parts of the ground. The potter either paid a high price for his clay, or did the hard work himself of digging for it. Each piece is precious to the potter. If it all goes array, he’s going to scoop it up to re-work, re-center, and begin to create again. He’s a committed master potter, who’s not afraid to let go of what it’s become because he wants the clay to be what he knows it can be.
The process is a little scary, however, when we start to understand ourselves as the clay. That’s what Jeremiah is hearing as he sees the potter at work. The house of Israel is in the process of going array. It’s an act of love that God won’t just let it be, though the words the prophet hears seem kinda harsh. “Can I not do with you . . . just as the potter has done? . . . Just like the clay in the potter’s hands, says the LORD, I can pluck up and restart” (paraphrase of Jer. 18:6, 7). All this talk about disaster on those devising evil. We don’t really want to face this seemingly harsh-sounding God. It sounds so like: turn or else! A threat with punishment if not heeded – which doesn’t fit so well with our warm-fuzzy notions of God. And actually it isn’t the best way to bring about true, sustained transformation.
What we do know is that this is the same God, through Jeremiah, who says to the people: “For surely I know the plans I have for you. Plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (Jer. 28:11). A few chapters later, God declares: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people . . . for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:33-34). . . . Like the master potter, God has a plan for the people’s good use. When the clay goes array on the wheel, when the people turn from who God intends for them to be; like the master potter, God will re-work the vessel as seems good to God.
If you’re familiar with the work of Brené Brown, then you may know about her research on shame and the power of vulnerability – acts that take a whole lot of trust. The first thing Brown underscores is that all of us have a need for love and belonging. Shame leaves us feelings as if we’re not worthy of such love and belonging, which in turn makes it really hard for us to be willing to be vulnerable – to be willing to trust. Brown’s research testifies that: one powerful way to send a message of shame, which leads to one being stuck immobile, is to disengage. No longer be involved with someone when their behavior is unacceptable. Refuse the healthy act of engagement by setting proper boundaries with them. According to Brown, when we fail to do so – to set those proper healthy boundaries, it actually creates a deeper sense of shame in the other. Disengaging sends the message that you’re not worthy of a sense of love and belonging from me. . . . Do you hear the truth in that? The worst possible thing the potter could do to the clay when it goes array is to let it go array. Disengage from the process and just let it be. Scooping it up to re-work, re-center, and re-create again may be a process that really hurts – a process that seems like destroying. Plucking up and breaking down in order to re-build and plant may sound kinda vicious; but with the clay, the potter stays engaged all the while. The potter sends the message to the clay that it is so entirely valued, so deeply loved, that the potter just won’t let it go into whatever the clay itself might want to be. For surely the potter knows the plans the potter has for it . . . plans for the clay’s welfare – not harm – to give an amazing future overflowing with hope.
We are the clay – not just us individually, as we so often read into this text – but us collectively as a part of the body of Christ, the church. And the Master Potter seeks to re-create us into what is needed today in this world. It’s not easy to know what exactly that will look like. After all, the clay being re-worked doesn’t know if it’s going to end up a beautiful bowl that will be able to feed those who hunger; or an amazing cup that will quench all those who thirst. The process is a mystery that takes all of our trust. . . . It has been said that “we are not so at home with the resurrected form of things despite a yearly springtime, healings in our bodies, and the ten thousand forms of newness in every event and life . . . resurrection offers us a future . . . one that is unknown and thus scary. . . . (it’s not a) resuscitation of an old thing, but the raising up of . . . an utterly new thing” (Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond, 2013, pp. x-xi). In this we can trust. For a Master Potter holds us every step of the way. Indeed our Loving God continues with us until all things are entirely new! For this we give great thanks!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
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