Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139
How many people here have ever done pottery? When I was at Pearson College one of the activities I signed up for was pottery class. I am NOT an artist, but there’s something about working with clay that really appeals to me. Maybe it’s because it’s so hands-on and earthy, when so much of my life is about the head and the heart. Maybe it’s because you can do so much with clay and work it in so many ways. Any maybe it’s because no matter what happens with the clay, you can always start again. Right from the cutting of the block of clay, up until the final glazing and firing, if what you’re making doesn’t meet your expectations, you can squish it up, or smash it, grind it up, and begin again. For someone like me, whose failures with the clay are always going to be greater than my successes, that’s really appealing. After all – a picture done in crayon will always be full of its awkwardness and oddities. You can’t erase crayon! A painting – well – let’s not even go there. But with clay, I can always start fresh.
That’s the imagery Jeremiah uses in the prophetic passage today. A trip to the potter’s shop was a normal occurrence in ancient times. The potter is a maker of utilitarian goods – everyday stuff – though all of us know that there is beauty in even the everyday objects of our lives. Everyone needed what the potter made. That’s the people of Israel. Nothing extraordinary, just regular folk, whom God has been shaping throughout their history to be of use to the world. But every now and then, the vessels don’t turn out quite right, and a process of shattering and remaking is necessary to make those people the beautiful and useful creation God intends them to be.
The imagery is pretty deterministic, reflecting a belief that God controls and chooses all that happens in life, good and bad. The fate of the people of Israel is seen both as a natural consequence of their failure to live according to God’s law, but also as fair punishment for that failure. This is very harsh to our 21st century ears. Note, though, that God’s mercy is attached to the threat of punishment. There is always the chance to repent – turn things around. Interestingly, in the original Hebrew the word repent is also used to describe God’s perspective. God will change God’s mind, will be sorry to have judged so harshly, if the people are willing to meet God with new commitment and faithfulness. Not quite the unchanging and remote God many of us have been brought up to believe in!
There are two ways we can look at that passage from Jeremiah. We can accept the deterministic argument and ask – why would God need to break and reshape the people? How does that apply to us? According to the prophet, the people have placed other values ahead of their love and commitment to God. Are there ways and times in which that has been true of us? If so, are we willing to be reshaped by God, even if it is difficult and even painful?
We can also take a less deterministic view, and instead ask, when hard things happen – when we feel damaged or flawed or even broken by the events of life – where is God in that? How does our faith affect how we face such events? We as individuals, and we as a church, face hard times. Do we blame God? Do we blame each other? Do we assume that God has forsaken us? Or do we look to God for the strength and wisdom to learn the lessons that may come with those hard times? I believe that God can take and use the most difficult experiences we face, and use those forces to create something very fine and useful out of each of us and out of this church.
Pottery lasts. Even the broken bits can go on for centuries, and tell us a great deal about where we have been as a human race – what our lives are founded on. There are ancient cities, like Jericho or Ilium, where the layers of human debris go down, and down and down, century by century, and in each era shards of pottery are found. They tell the story of evolving human history. So, too, the bits and pieces of where the church has been broken and mended and reshaped tell us where we have been. They are as much a part of our legacy as the parts that have stayed whole through the stretch of 2000 plus years – and honestly, that’s not much.
We have a bit of historical amnesia as Christians. We tend to think that the way things have been in our memory is the way things have always been. But the church has always been and always will be formed and transformed by the events of human history and by the Spirit of God moving in the world. Often the changes that occur are a painful but needed correction, so that the church can again be faithful and effective in its ministry to the world. What is fascinating about the cycles of change in the church is that something of the old, of the tradition, always remains, while something radically new will also emerge – and the reformed tradition and the radical revisioning of church continue to exist side by side, until the next reformation comes. Just as one example, take the Protestant Reformation of 500 years ago. Not only were all of the Protestant denominations born out of that period of tremendous upheaval, the Roman Catholic church changed as it responded to the Reformation with its own Counter Reformation. The church as it has been was reshaped, and a new type of church was born.
The history of the Christian church, like the history of the people of Israel, is one of being broken and molded anew, of upheaval and reformation, of despair and new hope, of journeys through the valley of the shadow and of green meadows and refreshing streams. No matter where we go, God is with us. No matter what happens to us, God is with us. More than that, in some of these painful experiences, we may discern the hand of God shaping and remaking us. While I do not believe that everything difficult that happens in our lives comes from the hand of God, I do believe that like any loving parent, God sometimes has to let us learn by doing, by making mistakes and suffering the consequences – and that sometimes, the Holy Spirit may really have to do some shaking up to get our attention! Then the clay is remolded and the cracked vessel is remade into something more useful and more beautiful than it had been previously.
The wonderful thing about this image of the people – of us! – as cracked vessels or stubborn lumps of clay is that it’s a realistic picture of who we really are. I know folk seem to be shocked when Christians turn out to be as odd and temperamental and difficult and human as anyone else. I don’t really know why, except that somehow we’ve started to believe our own press that Christians are “good” people. The truth is that most of us ARE pretty good people much of the time, but we are also flawed people. We all have our cracks, whether they be hairline fractures or big gaping chunks missing. To think otherwise is to fool ourselves. Just as we individuals are cracked, so is the church – because the church is no more and no less than people who have been invited into relationship with Christ and one another.
If we are facing tough times, in our own lives, or in the life of our congregation, perhaps we might consider what we might learn, how our faith might grow, how our relationship with God might deepen through this experience. Perhaps God the Potter is at work once again – molding that stubborn clay into something that is both useful and fine. Something to get us thinking. Amen.