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Clay in the Potter’s Hand

Jeremiah 18:1-12a

Pentecost 16, Common Lectionary Year C

©2016 Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

Introduction to the Scripture:
We are in the ‘end times’ of God’s national dream, that Dream of God of a chosen people, shaped and formed to be a blessing among the nations of the earth. It’s the sixth century before the Common Era, when Assyria has wiped Israel off the map,
and now Babylon hovers like a dementor, sucking the life and hope out of tiny Judah.

Into this world of decay and endings, of terrorized waywardness, and selfishness, God has found herself a new prophet, one whose extraordinary covenantal imagination, and whose evocative way with words might just call God’s people back to their core identity as God’s blessing ones. Today’s story is Jeremiah at his narrative best, so let’s let him speak.

Clay in the Potter’s Hand
Jeremiah was not noted for being the happiest of prophets.
And as we’ve seen, that’s perhaps not so surprising really when you consider the world he was born into,
and the God who ‘had his number.’

Jeremiah himself was just a pimply priest’s kid,
skiving off his chores with his buddies in Anathoth,
when YHWH – the Holy One – interrupted his childhood,
stole his innocence with…
well was it a dream? a call? a nightmare?
Depending on the day, Jeremiah would say “One, or all, of the above.”

Living in the last, distraught days of the remnant of God’s people, Jeremiah’s dreams, and consequently his words and actions, were filled with God’s horror,
God’s frustration, anger, judgment,
God’s desperate attempts to call her people back,
from the quagmires of selfishness that so often
bog down people, families, institutions, churches,
nations that are too bent on struggling for survival
to remember who or whose they are.

With word wizardry, and the poet’s tongue,
Jeremiah and God try one more time to set before God’s people the starkness of the consequences of the choices
they/we make to be blessing, or not.

So Jeremiah describes a field trip,
an exercise in experiential learning
with God as teacher.

They go down 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,
and a whole lot of clay.
down in the centre of the village, by the stream.

“Look! God says to Jeremiah,
“Watch the potter!”

Picking from the lumps of 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 forming 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, molded, 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!
But you heard what happened…
the potter frowns, watches the pot she’s throwing
suddenly develop a kink,
a lean, a wobble, a teeter….
was there a bubble of air
or a coarse grain in the clay?
All of a sudden, that which was supple,
beautifully useful
turns to a lumpen, ugly, useless mess
in the turn of a wheel,
the blink of an eye.

The potter, with a firm hand, decisively
sweeps the misshapen vessel from the wheel,
pounds it back to lumpen clay, the wheel slows to a stop.

Jeremiah gasps! Noooo!
Surely this is not God’s lesson?

We are God chosen people!
They’ll always be an “us!”
God promised!
The rainbow, never to destroy again!
The desert promise to Abraham,
that we would be as the stars of the night sky!
Moses, the rescue from Egypt!
Sinai, the Covenant,
David, that we would be God’s people, always
That God would move heaven and earth for us!

Jeremiah’s eye keeps raking the scene,
back to that lump on the ground.
Surely she’ll put it back on the wheel!
But the potter picks up another lump of clay,
fashions it into a serviceable pot,
round, solid, sturdy, fit for its purpose,
with a curving spout, to pour what?
Oil? Water? a Blessing?

And still the lump lies at her feet,
misshapen, untouched.
Jeremiah wills the Potter to pick it up,
“You’ve got your groove back, YHWH,
maybe your hand was a bit too heavy on the wheel,
I’ve heard they’re finickety….”

Jeremiah flails uselessly,
crying out in vain
that he’s doing the best he can,
that maybe God’s standards are too high,
that now in these days,
God’s expectations,
God’s stubborn fidelity to an impossible Dream
is just too big for this benighted era
of small things, small hearts.

But, should we be surprised?
Should we be surprised at God’s anger,
frustration, or is it anguish?,
as throughout history,
God’s people, with stubborn overconfidence
in our blessedness,
are misshapen by our selfishness,
no longer capable of being blessing?

Should we be surprised that grace,
though free, is never cheap?

Should we be surprised,
we being made in God’s image,
we, formed in the secret of our mothers’ wombs,
we the daughters and sons of Abraham,
we the disciples of Jesus Christ,
are formed, shaped, knit,
to be God’s blessing for the world, not ourselves?

Should we be surprised,
if in God’s fidelity to that world,
she picks up another lump of clay
fashions a new pot, as seems best to her,
to bless the nations,
to mend the broken,
to give sanctuary to the refugee,
the welcome the stranger,
to heal the land and sea and sky?
I can think of ecologists, politicians of good will,
social justice advocates,
people like Malala, Gandhi, Suzuki, King, Lewis,
people of all faiths and none,
with whom YHWH, the HOLY ONE,
the Creator of Heaven and Earth
chooses to work, because of God’s utter fidelity,
not merely to us,
but to God’s Dream of Abundance, Love, Life, Justice for all.

Far from this being a petty judgment
of a vindictive little god upon a small-minded people,
this is the story of human community then and now.
We can read. We see the signs.
We can dare to look at our own private stubbornness,
and be fearful, perhaps of the consequences.
We can if we dare, look with discernment
at the fidelity of this community
not just to our own “Identity and values,”
but to the larger covenant Dream of God,
and ask ourselves
“Where is there a flaw?
are we misshapen in any way?
Are we clay in the Potter’s hand?
Are we willing to be shaped, and bent towards justice for others?[1]

Jeremiah is now terrified it is now
too late for his people.
No stranger to railing at God, he cries,
“Pick up the clay, YHWH!
Put it back, please!”

To which, if we remember, God says
“Hush! At another time I may announce that I will pluck up and tear down a nation, a kingdom, this people,
but if they turn away from their stubbornness,
when they turn ….. no matter how long until… they turn,
from stubborn selfishness to a willingness to be blessing,
I too will turn,
I’ll pick up that clay.
I will build you, and you shall be built,
I will put a new heart within you.
The covenant will not be broken.
I promise you.”
Time for reflection

1  A reference to MLK’s “ the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

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