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Sep 08, 2019

Good Clay (begins at 24:22)

Good Clay (begins at 24:22)

Speaker: Jeff, Bethany Rob

Series: September 2019

Category: Faith

Audio of 2nd scripture reading, Jeremiah 18:1-11, followed by the sermon begins at 24:22.

Jeremiah 18:1-11

1The 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." 3So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4The 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.

5Then the word of the LORD came to me: 6Can 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. 7At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8but 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. 9And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10but 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. 11Now, 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.

Good Clay

Jeff:

Why did Jeremiah have to go see a potter?  If you’re familiar with the story, did you ever think about that?

There are lots of metaphors God could use for how we are shaped or turned into something beautiful.

God could’ve told Jeremiah to go see a painter and you could imagine Jeremiah looking at this big canvas with lots of colors coming together to make something beautiful.  But, God didn’t tell Jeremiah to go see a painter.

God could’ve told Jeremiah to go to a concert or see a musician or something.  I’m sorry RuthE, Alla, and choir.  God didn’t choose music.

Why did Jeremiah have to go see a potter?

God could’ve chosen a carpenter.  There were plenty of those in Jeremiah’s world and I’ve heard that God has a thing for Jewish carpenters.

Why a potter’s house?

Jeremiah’s world is a crazy place if you didn’t know.  He’s commonly referred to, by people who spend all their time studying these things, as the “weeping prophet” and you would be to if you had his life.

His homeland is being conquered by an invading army and his family, friends, and neighbors are all being exiled to a foreign land.  So not only are they being conquered, not only are they being enslaved, they are being scattered to another place they’ve never been.  These are Jeremiah’s loved ones.

To make matters worse all the leaders of his community, most of them are corrupt.  And the religious leaders and preachers?  They are all preaching idolatry.

And you thought you had it bad.

In the midst of all this Jeremiah is dealing with a deep sense of doubt… doubt in his faith and doubt in himself.  We read about throughout his writings in the Bible.  He says things like, “Where are you God?  How long will we suffer?”  And, “I can’t do this.”

In the midst of all this why is Jeremiah at a potter’s house?

I’ve been to a potter’s house once.  It was in a San Luis Potosi which is a city in the middle of Mexico.  I was there with a church outside of Houston, TX and we were working with a missionary there named Dale.

Dale loved to take people to the Potter’s house and talk about this story.  I was mesmerized by how all these rows and rows of bowls all looked exactly the same even though they were made by hand.  Dale talked about the water and the bubbles in this room, in the next room about the shaping, then there we are with the guy at the spinning table.  Finally, we come to the room where they are finished after having been put through the fire.

Dale held one of those bowls in his hands and talked so poetically about how fragile our life is and how each of us is held in God’s hands.

Then he dropped the bowl.

Pieces scattered in every direction.  It was completely broken.

Dale’s point to all of us was that the pot, after it has become hard can only break.  It can not be reshaped.  Once we become hard, we can only break.

God says, “Can’t I do just as this potter does?”  Well, not if we’ve become hard.

Jeremiah finds himself in one of the most ordinary and simple places and learns a timeless truth, so timeless that it has been passed on from generation to generation to our reading of it to this very day.

It’s a deal to come to church in the morning isn’t it?  Sunday morning, right smack dab in the middle of your weekend.  It’s a deal to come to church isn’t it?  You’ve got to get yourself together.  Maybe you have to help get other people together.

But you do it because, generally speaking, we have an expectation that we’ll find some sense of hope, truth, or something you need here.

I hope you find what you need from the people here.

But we’re going to close that building down to renovate it pretty soon.  That will push us out of this special place some to the ordinary and simple places that we see all the time.

We will be pushed to the coffee shops, the restaurants, parks, people’s homes, maybe even your home.

What timeless truth will learn in those simple and ordinary places?  What timeless truth will we learn in those simple and ordinary places?

How will you be shaped by those simple and ordinary places?  How will we be shaped by those simple and ordinary places?

 Bethany:

It likely comes as no surprise to many of you to hear that I am a planner.  I like to know when and how things are going to happen as far in advance as possible with as many details as possible.  I want things to be in the calendar ASAP, and I’m not great at dealing with surprises.  I like to be in control.  Spontaneous, I am not!

At first glance, this passage from Jeremiah fills me with anxiety.  This idea that God is the potter and I am the clay - that God is shaping and molding me as I move through life - just screams lack of control.  I want to be the one shaping and molding my life! I don’t want to be some formless lump of clay.  Thank you, but no thank you!  I’m just fine here on my own, God.

The thing is, however, I am definitely not fine on my own.  For, as this passage points out, if left to my own devices, I will most certainly make a mess of things.  The reason that God the potter is stepping in here is to encourage the people – who have made a mess of things - to change their ways.  God has made it very clear from the beginning of God’s covenant with us that what God desires is for us to listen to God’s voice, and to follow in God’s ways of love.  God yearns to shape each one of us into the kind, compassionate, loving children of God that we were created to be.  When I begin understand God the potter in this way, my anxiety relaxes, and instead I am filled with hope.  I am reminded that God desires only the best for me and will be there to reshape me when – not if! - I go astray.

As much as I am filled with hope for my own journey when reading this passage, I am reminded that Jeremiah is not speaking to one individual, but to the entire community.  I can’t help but wonder what that might mean for us as a Westminster community, especially as we enter a year of great change to our physical church structure.

Most importantly, what I hear in this passage is that God desires what it best for us.  I know we will have times of anxiety in the coming year.  Renovating is never easy.  There will be unforeseen difficulties.  We will have to be spontaneous and flexible in ways that – if I’m being honest - give me hives.  But, God will be moving into that unknown future with us, helping to re-shape and re-form us in ways that we did not even know were possible, so that we may become the very best version of our ourselves.

This only happens, though, if we are open to being re-formed and re-shaped.  Are we going to hold fast to the way things used to be?  Or will we be open to experimenting and trying new things as we discern God’s call together?  I hope that we can help each other hold on to the familiar a little less tightly, give up a little of our precious control, and free ourselves to be open to the movement of the Spirit and to what God is calling us to do and be as we journey together.

Many years ago, we were studying Psalm 139 in our high school Confirmation class, and one of the students got this very disturbed look on her face as we finished reading the first several verses.  I asked her what was wrong and she responded, “This Psalm is horrible!  It makes God sound like a stalker!”  I had always taken great comfort in this Psalm, knowing that God would be with me always … regardless of what happened throughout my life.  I could see her point, though.  Maybe there are times in our lives when we would prefer to not have God with us.  Those times when we just want to be challenged.  Those times when we want to stay in our comfortable routines rather than being called into discipleship.

Both of these passages do have a wonderful promise of comfort, as well as a challenge.  Yes, God will be with us always, molding us into the best versions of ourselves.  That is hope-filled Good News.  And, it is also a challenge to actually go about the business of being our best selves as a church community.  Let us push ourselves beyond the familiar and comfortable.  Yes, we are an inclusive community.  How can we be even better about welcoming all?  Yes, we are a community that serves.  How can we reach out even more to those in need?  Yes, we are a community that praises God.  How can we even more obviously make known the glory and wonder of God?  Yes, we are a generous community.  How can we give even more abundantly?

I love our Westminster community.  I am richly blessed every time we are together.  And I know God is not done with us.  God continues to mold and shape us.  May we be active participants in God’s vision for our future together.

Rob:

          Do you know what distinguishes clay from sand?  Death.  I know, that’s a strange way to end this shared sermon and kickoff our program year, but work with me.   

I have a friend named Charles who is both an Episcopal Priest and a professional potter.  He says what makes the clay hold together is, “the sticky death-matter of eons of dead leaves and plants and animals.”[1]  One of the most countercultural messages we carry is that we are born out of death, even though both religion and science have long known this. 

          Yet, we deny it, and in doing so its possible gift to us.  I read the other day about a person who asked someone with terminal cancer rather insensitively what it was like to live knowing you were dying.  The response, “What’s it like live pretending you’re not?”  If we aren’t to fear death, what have we to fear? 

          We experience death on a number of levels all the time.  The losses are real, the pain, the accompanying grief.  We can respond to these realities in roughly two ways.  One, as things change around us we can try futilely to grip every fleeting moment as if we can stem the flow of time.  Or, we can learn to turn things over to some larger hands.  That’s a hard lesson for driven, capable people, but as my friend Charles reminded me, we are not the potters.  We are the clay.  God is the potter.  Spirit is the sculptor.  Our job is to learn to be clay.  It’s plain as day in Jeremiah.  The ones who will do well will be malleable to the touch of the divine. 

          This doesn’t mean we are to be passive, or relinquish control altogether.  Nobody has to receive the touch of hands that are unsafe or forceful – that’s, thankfully, one of the markers of our God.  Charles says the good potter never dominates the clay, but is in co-creativity with it.  Our job is to learn to be good partners with God.  That means our prayer might need to be less talking and more listening, less directive and more attentive, less certainty and more curiosity.  Charles says, “The saints of the church are not saints because of their holiness,” their own achievement.  “They are saints because they let God mold the death and decay in their very real lives…”

          That’s my vision for us, that we would learn to allow the death and decay in our individual lives and our collective life to be molded into something that is both useful and beautiful.  Three aspects of this image from Jeremiah rise to the surface for me as we look forward to the year ahead: 

  • The vessel was not made simply to be displayed on a shelf to be admired. It was meant to carry precious things, food and water, oil for flame.  Jesus brought material and spiritual sustenance to those in need, and we are called to likewise. Our faith doesn’t live on a shelf; it lives out in the world.
  • We are called to be a vessel of hope. It is so easy to despair.  Many have been given fragile vessels or have dropped them altogether.  We are to be bearers of hope, when others can’t bear it anymore.  Hope is not denial.  Hope is a spiritual discipline.
  • Our fragility can be a gift. I don’t mean the kind of fragility we see that makes us defensive and aggressive, but rather a mode of being that recognizes our own woundedness, our vulnerability, as a point of connection to others.  In Jesus, we see an example of how suffering can be a pathway to compassion.  Our culture has been built upon impenetrable strength, and it look how deeply broken we are seeing it is.  Let us show what can be done with holy brokenness, as did Christ, rising from the dead to new life. 

That may not be as concrete as some would like, but talking about the unmovable and the finite makes no sense when referring to clay in the hands of a potter.  Let us give up on erecting timeless monuments to unchangeable positions and wade into the flow of eons of creation and recreation, death and resurrection, and make it our life’s work to bec

[1] Personal correspondence.