Preached at the Church of St John the Divine, Victoria BC
Text: Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Psalm 139
Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words…
But before we go: Put down whatever you are working on – the dishes can wait until later, and that TV show is already on Netflix. Put down whatever you are thinking about, whatever is distracting you – the shopping list can be put together later, and there will be plenty of time after church to plan the rest of the long-weekend. Because together we have been asked to step out of our home, step out of our office, step out of our comfortable pew, and go for a short walk.
We are going down to the potter’s house – perhaps it is an unfamiliar place, because we’re more likely to pick up a new piece of pottery at the mall or at the market than we are to visit the potter’s home studio… But maybe in this unfamiliar place we might be better able to hear and see and smell the words of God.
The potter’s house is just over there – around that corner. Watch out for the step and mind your head as we duck through the door. It feels a little close inside, but don’t worry, there is plenty of room for us all. God has invited us here to hear her words.
As we listen for the word of God, look around you, see and smell and hear the sights and smells and sounds of the potter at work – the whirr of the wheel, the smell of fresh clay, the cool splashes of water used to work the clay, and the bright colours of already glazed and fired vessels on the shelf on the far side of the room. There is such a difference between the two: this malleable clay being moved around on the wheel by the potter’s firm but gentle hands – compared with the brightly painted, gleaming, hard vessels lining the shelf, waiting to be sold and used.
As we watch, the potter pulls the clay off of the wheel, reshapes it, and begins again. And as we see the new vessel emerge out of the hands of the potter from the lump of clay on the wheel, it occurs to you that this transformation would no longer be possible with those brightly glazed vessels over on the shelf. This clay held lovingly in the potter’s hands has not yet been fired. And unlike fired clay that has dried and shrunk, hardened into a permanent structure and shape, and become rigid and brittle; this unfired clay is plastic and moldable. It can be shaped and reshaped over and over again. It is flexible and responsive. It is a material of possibility.
Not moldable so that the potter can do whatever they desire with the clay, but left unfired so that it can constantly be worked and reworked – as flaws are found in the clay, they can be removed. As strengths are found, they can be built on. The hands of the potter are so sensitive that they can feel all of these strong points and weak points in the clay with the tenderest of touches…
Lord, you have searched me out and known me, you know my sitting down and my rising up, you discern my thoughts from afar.
You press upon me behind and before and lay your hand upon me.
Where can I go from your spirit?
For you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I will thank you because I am marvellously made; your works are wonderful and I know it well.
My body was not hidden from you, while I was being made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth…
And then you remember those creation stories: God scooped up clay, scooped up dust from the earth and formed it to become a person. As the Creator leaned over the clay, shaping it, the air and water that makes up breath was breathed into the clay, giving it life. Not to become dry, rigid, brittle vessels, but flexible, responsive vessels – every pore of the unfired clay still filled with the Living Water that continues to give life day after day after day
And those individually formed, intricately knit, wonderful human bodies come together to create an even bigger living vessel that we see here today: the church. Not a hard or rigid structure – beautiful and shiny, but only good for one or two things and certainly not flexible – though some days our physical plant may feel hard and inflexible – but a living, breathing, flexible, responsive vessel that is continually being shaped and reshaped as strong points and weak points are found: building on the strong and reshaping to shore up the weak. Changing and responsively reshaping over and over as more living water is added to the clay.
Not so that the potter can have their way with the clay, arbitrarily making it into whatever they desire – plucking up, breaking down, building, or planting at will, but a mutual responsiveness : as the clay responds to the potter and the potter to the clay, so we respond to God and God to us.
Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words
Rather the words we hear is this analogy we see in the potter’s house: God did not shape us – as individuals, as a community – once and for all: we have not been fired in the kiln and set on the shelf waiting our one single, specialized purpose. We are clay that has not yet been fired. God’s plans for our community, this church, as we hear from Jeremiah, are not fixed or hardened in clay. God says to Jeremiah that God’s plan to build up a people may be thwarted by their choice not to go along with that. On the other hand, we hear that God’s plan to pull down a kingdom that has become strong by taking advantage of the poor and marginalized may not happen if the people turn from that behaviour. God responds to us responding to God…
God cannot and will not make us do anything. We have gifts here in this place – oh so many gifts and talents – but God will not make us use them if we do not choose to. The shape of our lives and the shape of our life together in this community is not fixed. Like unfired clay, we remain supple. We become formed into our particular shape through living and worshipping together… Because unfired clay has endless possibilities… Education, common practices, the gifts we have and choose to use and share – they shape us and form us into what we are.
But in it all, God announces her desire for us to return to communion with each other and with God – that we might be formed into the image and likeness of God as we respond to the potter’s tender hand.