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The Mixed Blessing of Being Clay in the Potter’s Hand 

Penetecost 16 Common Lectionary Year C

Jeremiah 18:1-11

©2013 Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

Audio file

Jeremiah was not noted for being the happiest of prophets. Given that his world was one of endings; of rampant infidelity to the Dream of God, of that stinking rottenness of decay, corruption and destructionthat has so often accompanied the decline and fall of a society,it’s perhaps not surprising that he is known as the prophet of doom! What’s more surprising then is that Jeremiah could pull out of this mire and mayhem some of  the most powerful poetic hymns of hope to be found in any literature.   Today’s passage is Jeremiah at his best. He will take us by the narrative hand into the grip of existential terror, and then lift the corner of the veil to catch a glimpse, barely perceptible, of an earth-making hope, made all the brighter for the darkness that surrounds it.

He begins with a “Once upon a time” simple tale of God inviting Jeremiah on a field trip, to do some hands-on experiential, active learning, with God as teacher.

They go to the potter’s house. Every town and village had one in those days before Walmart and Pottery Barn. Pots were a mundane necessity, not an artistic luxury, so don’t imagine some fancy gallery, just a courtyard with a wheel, a kiln or a fire, some water, and a lot of clay.

“Look! God says to Jeremiah, “Watch the potter!” Picking from the lumps of clay… (work your own clay) wetting the hands, the wheel, setting it spinning steady, squeezing, pushing, smoothing, caressing a lump into something hollow, round, tall.  A miracle emerging from a muddy mess!

What mystically inclined prophet-person wouldn’t quickly run over all the spiritual metaphors evoked by this earthen creativity?  -God formed Adam from the dust, just like this!!  -So we are shaped, lovingly, artistically, patiently,  skillfully, intimately. What an incredibly powerful message to teach our children, that they are God’s creation, that if they allow God to be the potter of their lives,they will be shaped, moulded, caressed to their full potential, and beauty, service with style! “Yes, Yes! I see!” says Jeremiah,  trying to show God how theologically smart, how spiritually insightful he is!

Then…. the potter frowns, watches the pot she’s throwing suddenly develop a kink, a lean, a wobble, a teeter, going from beautiful, to mildly ridiculous, to plain ugly and useless in the blink of an eye. The potter, with a firm hand, decisively pounds the emerging pot back to lumpen clay, the wheel slows to a stop.

Jeremiah gasps! Noooo! Surely this is not God’s lesson? That the God who is capable of creating such beauty as a spider web, such quirky grandeur as a giraffe, such intimate grace as the kiss of lovers’ lips, can also crush, pound back to mud, the very creation God has lavished such love upon?

Here we go! The vengeful god of the Old Testament! How can we stand to read this? How much damage has been done in our world by the descendants of this prophet of doom, with their  ‘you miserable worm!’ diatribes? Their callous condemnations of unmitigated suffering as the heavy fist fall of an irate deity?

Not here at CPU, not now, surely?! While there’s no stepping around the real evidence in ink that Jeremiah’s world believed God to be the cause of both creation and destruction, we don’t have to be slavish adherents to a three-thousand year old worldview. As 21st century thinking Christians, our task with this, and texts like it, is to take it seriously, not literally, as we plumb its complicated depths in search of liveable, life-giving wisdom that is consistent with the overarching Dream of God.

So let’s go back to Jeremiah, looking in horror at the de-formed clay spinning uselessly beneath the hands of the potter. Horrified, because he sees his people, de-formed, squashed, destroyed. He, who had believed all his life that God would never, could never give up on God’s people, now sees in the potter’s clayed hands, evidence that even God’s own creation is vulnerable to destruction.

God lets Jeremiah, and us, squirm long enough at the lumpen vessel to see,… it is possible for societies to crumble, for freedoms to be lost, for empires to end, for wars to drench the world in blood, for deserts to invade once green forested land, for species to disappear, for ice-caps to melt. It is  possible for the clay to be crushed to nothing, if not by the angered hand of God, (which I don’t believe) then by the carelessness, let’s call it by its true name, the sin,  of God’s creatures (which I do).

And the sight is horrifying! It is scary as Hell.

But. God’s lesson for Jeremiah is not yet over. “Watch the potter again, will you Jeremiah?” Tell us what you see.

“The broken clay is taken off the wheel, reshaped  by the potter into a ball, perhaps she adds more clay to it, it is wetted and smoothed, then placed back on the turning wheel. The potter’s hands, with skill, dexterity, artistry, intimacy, begin to remould that broken, ugly, useless de-formed lump of clay…… A new creation is emerging, something beautiful, hollowed out, growing tall within the fingered caress of the potter. It is being resurrected!!”

Horror for Jeremiah, and for those of us who have followed him to the potter’s house, slowly turns to hope as he watches the potter.

And alongside Jeremiah, we begin to discern that hope without the horror isn’t hope at all, it’s naïve optimism, a wonky pot on the wheel, not capable of standing by itself, much less of containing blessing.[1]

We learn from the potter’s house that God’s action in the world is not mere creative whimsy, but the hard, gritty, skilled work  of repeated resurrection, fashioning new hope for the world from the misshapen clay of the worst destructions, deformations and deaths it is possible and impossible for us to imagine. God’s work is to take broken clay of our lives, and make it new and whole again! Let’s bring this home, to our here and now: take that clay in your hand again. How do we look on that potter’s wheel? We, as individuals? We, as a community of faith?

Is there some misshapenness in our personal life which needs the firm yet gentle, skillful, reshaping touch of God? ……Let your clay in your hand tell you that….

And us, as a community of faith; how is God taking our clay and reshaping us, recreating us as a vessel capable of carrying the Gospel to one another and to those beyond our walls? Let me give one glimpse of hope among many: Our launch, starting this morning, of a new tech-savvy, web-friendly, active-learner friendly curriculum for KidZone may well be one of these newly re-formed pots, taking the well-worked clay of previous generations, to fashion a new vessel capable of carrying a new generation forward in faith. Those of you actively involved in ministries in the congregation, imagine how God is smushing and reshaping your area for effectiveness…

Looking beyond our walls, (through Greenbelt eyes), this text calls me to ask how God is taking the worn-down Social Gospel clay of our United Church past, and reshaping  us into a new vessel of affirmation and inclusion, of intelligent, passionate engagement with racial, gender and eco- justice as we live the Gospel of Jesus in Canadian society.

What more powerful, hard-won message of hope can we glean from gloomy Jeremiah than this: God is at the wheel, ready to shape and fashion us, again, and again, and again, no matter how often we go wonky, into vessels of blessing.

Thanks be to God!

[1] I am not saying that God introduces horror just to teach us the lesson of hope. On the contrary, I am suggesting that it is precisely in the midst of horror (of a natural or human disaster for example) that we begin to perceive most clearly the redemptive work of God.


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