Text: Jeremiah 18:1-10
While this sermon was given Greg W. was working at a potter’s wheel beside me, so if you weren’t there…use your imagination.
1. Common things
“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.”
Seeing a potter at the wheel is not an ever day occurrence for us. It’s rare, especially in church. There are few people who have taken time to develop the skill, and even fewer who make a living at it.
But in Jeremiah’s time, it would have been a common sight – minus the electrical cord. Pottery was a skilled art form that also had very practical and necessary functions. There were different techniques, the wheel being one of them, but this is was how vessels got made. The kinds of vessels that households used to store, hold, serve, eat and drink. Everyday kinds of pitchers and bowls and cups for everyday kinds of activities that these artisans would make, display, sell, and keep making.
When Jeremiah goes down to the potter’s house, he is not going to some exotic studio to which only he and a few others had exclusive access. He’s going to see something that was quite common. Who knows how many times he and countless others had passed by this very place and others like it and not given it a second thought. One more shop, one more person at work, just part of the scenery.
But one day he has a thought, an inspiration, a word from the Lord, to go down to the potter’s house, and to watch more closely. Rather than walking by; to pause, to consider what’s going on. To see something profound in something so common as clay.
It can be hard to relate to that first bit of today’s reading: “The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah.” How exactly does that happen? What was actually going on when the word of the Lord came to a person in the Bible? In this case, that initial word of the Lord was that he needed to get out and hang out at the potter’s house to get the real message.
And this is what Jeremiah does. He goes down to watch the potter at work. Long before the theory of multiple intelligences and different learning styles, the prophet goes for a walk, takes a field trip, and only once he is having this very visual experience of watching this potter with his hands in the mud, working, shaping, relating with this stuff, does Jeremiah get a message. We may not know exactly what it’s like to have the word of the Lord come to us, but we can understand the invitation to find wisdom in common
A significant part of our formation as human beings is how we relate to the common things. We can treat them as nothing but dead lumps of clay, or we can treat them as things infused with wisdom, having a genius of their own, revealing some aspect of reality that is otherwise hidden.
Look at the common things. What do you see? What are they saying? What wisdom can be gathered from them? Tell others what you see. Let the children tell us what they see. Let the different generations learn together what the common things are saying to us.
The bulk of my experience working on a potter’s wheel came in Mr. Weber’s seventh grade art class. I will therefore avoid trying to sound like I know too much about what’s going on over here. One thing I do remember pretty distinctly is that beginning phase when the fresh piece of clay has just been put on the wheel. When you first throw the clay down, you aim for the center, but you never quite get it, and even if you do, the lump of clay is an uneven shape. And so the next step of the process, once the wheel starts turning, is centering the clay. You can’t do much with the clay until it is pressed evenly into the center. Once it’s centered, you can start to do the creative work, moving it out and up in whatever form it takes. I remember the centering.
So there’s a message. It’s not the one that Jeremiah focused on when he watches the potter at work, but it’s there to be seen. First get centered, then formation can happen.
I’m not sure when the word came into prominence in reference with spirituality, but there is now a whole wealth of writing and practices that have to do with centering oneself, being centered, centering prayer. It can be a very helpful image as we go about our days. We know, we can feel in our bodies and in our minds when we are not centered. When our thoughts are scattered, when we’re simply reacting to our environment out of engrained habits, when we’re acting primarily out of our private ego and not our sense of connection to the whole. We can feel that wobble, we know we’re not in the place we want to be.
When Jesus was asked “what is the greatest commandment?” it’s a centering type question. Of all that’s been written, and all the holy commands and rituals that we’ve been given, what’s at the center? What’s the greatest? Jesus gives us a center. You shall love God with all your being, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. It is that lively relationship between God, self, and neighbor, that dynamism of love, that is the centering energy Jesus offers the world. Jesus embodied and exuded that energy, the crucified and resurrected Christ became the symbol of that cosmic center, out of which all creation flows. When we become centered, it is the dynamism of divine/human love, it is Christ, that is that center.
One of the ways of thinking about Christian formation, and the work of the church, is that we are always nudging one another, allowing the Spirit to nudge us, back to the center. We point to the center, we celebrate the center, we confess together that we fail to remain centered, we allow ourselves to become malleable enough to be gently directed back into the center. We rest in the center. And from the center, we take shape. By the skillful touch of the Divine we are drawn out, we are lifted up, as we abide in the center.
3. Shaped and shaping
What Jeremiah does notice this potter doing, is that the potter has been working with a particular piece of clay which isn’t taking shape the way he was hoping, so, as the text says, “he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.” This becomes a symbol for the prophet for God’s relationship with Israel. The people, like the clay, have not taken on the hoped for form. They have not become the people of justice they have been called to be. So it becomes a call to repentance and a judgment oracle about the impending collapse of the nation at the hands of the Babylonians.
There are strong words here about destruction and God breaking down the nation, and for good reason we don’t interpret national catastrophe through this same kind of theological lens. But one part of the symbolism here is that the potter never gives up on clay. It’s not the clay that’s the problem. It doesn’t get tossed out and trashed. It’s the shape that’s the problem. It’s taken on a poor form, isn’t on the right track. So, even the most stubborn piece of clay whose form keeps eluding the potter, will be worked and reworked, and reworked again, until it becomes what it needs to be. Nothing is lost.
God is like a potter, we are like clay. This goes all the way back to the Genesis creation myth of God forming the human creature from the clay and breathing in the breath of life.
Some of us have spent a fair amount of our adult lives trying to get beyond the image of God as a white haired man, but I’d say we’re doing pretty well for ourselves this morning with a benevolent god figure.
The humbling thing about this picture is that we can not only locate ourselves in the place of the clay, being shaped, but at some point we also find ourselves in the place of the one doing the shaping. To go back to another expression at the beginning of Genesis, we have been “created in the image of God.” Part of our being created in the image of God is that we are shaped in order that we may shape others, with the same patience, same grace, same persistence with which we ourselves were shaped. To bear the image of the Creator Spirit is to ourselves take on the role of being creators.
One of the remarkable things about our humanity is that we are not simply passive recipients of this life we have been given, as if all of life is regulated by forces beyond our control – instincts, our family system, divine maneuvering. We have this tremendous freedom to not only affect our own shape, but to shape others. How we live, the way we relate with our neighbors, the ways we teach one another and raise the children among us, matters. We are not just the clay, we also play the part of the potter.
So we have this inescapable dual identity.
On Friday I visited Jen and Matt B. in the hospital and got the chance to meet their brand new daughter Anna. One of the things that came up in conversation was how you look at a newborn and you think about not only all the ways that you as parents hope to influence and guide this child, but how much the child will shape you. Dual identity. Potter and clay.
As we kick off the Christian education year it’s worth thinking about all the people through whom God has and continues to shape us. All of the hands that have pressed in and led us out and raised us up. Not only that, but consider how our hands, these hands, your hands, act as the hands of Christ, the potter’s hands, touching and forming.