Scripture: Jeremiah 18:1-11
If you head west on Highway 64 and then head south of Asheboro, you’ll find yourself in the quaint little town of Seagrove, NC. Seagrove has the largest concentration of working potters in the United States. In just a twenty-mile radius, there are almost a hundred shops to visit. Taking a day trip to explore the beautiful variety of pottery will remind you of another reason why North Carolina is such a fabulous place to call home. Two of my favorite potters are Paul and Shelia Ray. Paul was born and raised in Seagrove on property that his family has owned since 1791. He grew up in the midst of potters working all around him; the famous J.B. Cole Pottery was located next door. Paul was a collector of pottery as a young adult but never considered being a potter himself. In 1991, Paul’s parents Gordon and Patricia Ray decided to take up pottery as a hobby, buying their own kiln and studio. Their hobby has since turned into the successful business that is known as Cagle Rd. Pottery. In their studio, Paul began to experiment with clay and fell in love with the art of pottery. He quit his job, enrolled in pottery classes, and went to work for his parents. Eventually, he and his new wife Shelia opened their own business, called Ray Pottery; their showroom is located on the family land. One of their signature glazes is an elegant red mixed with a rustic ash. You don’t have to look far to gaze upon the beauty of their work. Paul and Shelia are the creators of our beautiful communion set that you see on the altar this morning.
In order for Jeremiah to hear the word of the Lord in our text for today, God tells Jeremiah that he must go down to a potter’s house and watch the potter at work. I think most of us who don’t know much about making pottery imagine it as peaceful work. The potter calmly perched upon their stool, leaning into the clay, all while soft bluegrass music is playing in the background. Perhaps at times this could be an accurate scene, but making pottery is physically demanding, relying on just the right amount of pressure in the potter’s hands to create what the potter wants to create. And when it all falls apart, the potter must smash the pottery, tearing it down, in order to have the chance to salvage it. Jeremiah comes upon a scene where everything has fallen apart. The potter is sitting by his wheel with a spoiled vessel. Jeremiah watches the potter completely smash down and rework the piece into something different. It was not what he intended it to be but it was still good. There are tiny pieces of clay discarded and thrown everywhere. Sweat is pouring from the potter’s brow.
In the middle of the mess of the potter’s studio, the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah: “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, you are in my hand, O house of Israel.” Will the people of Israel remember who they are and to whom they belong? Will they rest in God’s hand? Will they allow God to turn them around and remold and remake them or will they continue down the path of destruction? Will they continue to be mesmerized by the power of kings or will they be led by Yahweh? The prophet knows the Babylonian empire is coming to destroy them, so he pleads with them one more time. The words of destruction that come next, from the Lord via the prophet’s mouth, offend our modern sensibilities and notions of God. God says, “At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good I had intended to do to it.” God changes God’s mind? Yes, God does not change, but God’s plans and actions can change based on the choices God’s people make in their life together. This passage is troubling to our theological framework because it imagines God as one who can plot disaster against God’s people. But perhaps what we need to take away from these harsh words is that there is a day of reckoning. Our choices do matter. If we choose to veer from God’s desires for us, there will be consequences. We will find chaos instead of life. God pleads for us to be malleable. In our text, the day of reckoning is upon the people of Judah, so God cries out, “Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.” God desperately wants us to follow in God’s ways, but God always gives us a choice between life and death, between good and destruction.
Theologian Sally Brown says there are three implications that can be drawn from this metaphor of potter and clay. First, God is deeply invested in our common life. God attends to every turn of the wheel. God spends great time and energy shaping us for God’s purposes, and quite often, God’s purposes are beyond the visions we have for ourselves. Second, the relationship between God and God’s people, just like the relationship between the potter and the clay, is dynamic. God is affected by our choices and actions, just as a potter is affected by the condition of the clay. We can resist God like hard clay. We can try to pursue our own desires and seek out our own agendas or we can yield to God’s vision for us. Third, there will always be a time when the clay is no longer pliable, a time when the future course of direction is set. Just as there is always a point in the process of raising a pot from the wheel where the vessel is what it is, there are watershed moments in the life of the community of faith where the choices they make set their course.[i] The prophet’s words in our passage warn us that the actions we choose will set the course of our future as God’s people.
During our sermon series on prophetic ministry, we’ve talked about how prophetic ministry creates an alternative to the culture of the world. It calls us to weep for things as they are and grieve because things are not as they should be. It challenges us to burn down our own dreams and enliven our imagination so we can dream God’s dreams for the world. As people who are in tune with God’s desires, we are called to be prophets ourselves by repairing the breaches in our world. We must be grounded in our worship of God, so we can remind ourselves who we are and to whom we belong. We must practice Sabbath so that God can reshape our desires and make us into a unified community that models justice. Our worship must be grounded in the story of the people of Israel. It must not get mixed up with the values of our culture; it must resist the glorification of wealth, power, and self-sufficiency. It must resist easy accessibility and shallow immediacy. It must be centered on the living water, Jesus Christ our Lord. Today, Jeremiah reminds us that in order to be God’s prophets, we must become clay. We must be pliable, moldable, willing to be stretched and pressed by God’s hand. We can’t dream God’s dream, repair the breach, or drink living water unless we are open to being molded by God our potter. God is trying to shape our faith community so that our worship and life together bears witness to God’s redemptive purposes, and if we want to be a part of God’s purposes, we must be willing to be vulnerable enough to stay on the potter’s wheel; we must be willing to risk being remolded and changed by God.
How might God be trying to reshape us, remold us, remake us? Where might we need to be open to change? When we sing the hymn, “Have Thine Own Way,” we often think about God working in us as individuals. The lyrics are “Have thine own way, Lord! Have thine own way! Thou art the potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me, after thy will. While I am waiting, yielded and still.” But prophets work in communities of faith. Of course we each have to participate, but we can’t be molded into God’s people alone. We have to be remade together. Being remade doesn’t feel good; it’s not comfortable; it stretches us in places where we don’t want to be stretched. Being pliable means being willing to be open to doing things a different way; it means being pressed and challenged; it means examining what we are doing, why we are doing it, and changing what we are doing in ways that will make us more open to God’s dream for the world.
Dorothy Day, the cofounder of the Catholic Worker Movement, said this about her prophetic ministry with the poor:
“What we would like to do is change the world – make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute –the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words – we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever-widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.”[ii]
Prophets like Dorothy Day know that the world has to change, and in order for the world to change, prophets call us to change before we are ready. As Leo Tolstoy said, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing themselves.” Change is often a dirty word in church, but we cannot cling to our death-dealing ways if we want to build God’s kingdom. We have to be vulnerable enough to be changed by God so we can change the world around us. Day reminds us that being changed by God often means enlarging our hearts so that we can love our neighbor as God loves them, so that our enemies can become our friends. Prophetic ministry is all about change. The prophets of old and modern day prophets, from Jeremiah to Isaiah to Dorothy Day, are all trying to get kings, people, the keepers of the religious status quo to change, to repent, to do something different.
Like the people Jeremiah spoke to, we too are invited to turn and amend our ways. Our choices matter and affect how God can work in our world. God is deeply invested in us as a people, and we are invited to become clay in God’s hands so that God can shape us more fully into God’s people, so that God’s love can become incarnate through us. This morning we are invited to remember who we are and to whom we belong, the potter who loved us so much that this divine artisan sent Jesus to give us another chance to repent and change our ways. As we partake in the Lord’s Supper, we will be shaped and formed into followers of Christ; we will be made into God’s prophets in the world. Theologian Nora Gallagher tells us that “communion has the same intention as other spiritual practices: to gradually move us out of one place and into another.”[iii] Change. Communion invites us to change. Of her own spiritual life, Gallagher says, “My life couldn’t go on in the same way as it had before: driving around in my nice red Volvo, thinking about what new linens to buy. What we learn we cannot unlearn; what we see, we cannot unsee. Jesus doesn’t call us to live in a soft cocoon, distracted and undisturbed, allowing others to pay the costs of our comfort. When it comes right down to it, Jesus followed where compassion led him, and he bore the cost of what he found. Jesus asks us to follow where compassion leads, and bear the cost of what we find.”[iv] If we truly want to be God’s prophets, we will become clay, letting God mold and shape us, letting God’s body and blood sink into our being; we will go where compassion leads, bear the cost of what we find, and make whatever sacrifices we need to make in order to repair the breaches in our world; we will have the courage to change, to turn and amend our ways so that we can live out God’s dream for the world.
As we eat the bread and drink the wine together as a community of faith, let us remember God’s great love and commitment to us; let us remind ourselves that God’s vision for us exceeds our visions for ourselves; let us recommit to the covenant we’ve made with God to be God’s people; and let us soften ourselves, becoming like pliable clay in God’s hands, willing to be smashed and remolded, so that we can be God’s prophets who dream God’s dream, repair the breach, and drink living water; let us become clay so that all can see Christ only always living in us. Amen.