I am a huge fan of pottery. I have been given many gifts of pottery, my favorite being a chalice and paten upon my graduation from seminary. When most of us think of pottery, we immediately think of a beautiful finished product: the smooth texture, the radiant glaze, or the hands that carefully formed the bowl or other item. We imagine the potter at his wheel, gracefully shaping clay into a work of art. We might even recall the intimate scene from the movie “Ghost” where Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze romantically shape a piece of pottery together.
But the more I have read about potters and pottery this week, the more I realize how flawed this romantic image is of a potter. First of all, potters begin their work with about a two pound chunk of clay that they then have to knead and work into a more elastic form. They eventually have to throw the clay onto a wheel and get the clay centered. This work is so difficult that new potters can take hours just to get the clay centered before they even begin the messy work of forming the clay. Once they figure out the centering, then there is the work of using water, the spraying of wet clay everywhere, and of course the endless mistakes. Exerting too much or too little pressure, making a wall too thin, or creating an unintended shape can mean starting all over. One woman watched a man form a beautiful bowl, only to have the whole thing collapse when he tried to take the bowl off the wheel. The man destroyed five bowls before he finally removed a perfect bowl properly – each time having to start from the messy beginning.[i]
This much more realistic version of a potter making pottery is what the Lord uses as a metaphor today for how God will treat the Israelites. The Lord sends the prophet Jeremiah down to the potter’s house to hear God’s words. Jeremiah says, “So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.” Jeremiah immediately recognizes the metaphor God is trying to communicate. God is the potter and Israel is the vessel. Clearly Israel has veered off course – in fact, Israel has already fallen at this point in history, and Judah is the only group of God’s people left who are still in active covenantal relationship with God. So this people, who have journeyed from Sinai to the present, who have lived a covenantal life of reciprocal obligation and blessing, have hit yet another point in life where they have fallen away from their covenantal promises and face the option of being destroyed and discarded or being taken back to that compressed version of clay and being shaped into something more pleasing to God.[ii]
Knowing what we know about the potter’s work, we immediately see that this will not be easy work for God’s people. Life as they know life will be collapsed, and new life with God will take a very different shape. That transformation will be messy and uncomfortable, and in fact may take multiple attempts at reshaping. Though the Israelites are offered a way out of destruction, the way out will be painful, disheartening, and disorienting. All that is familiar will be changed, and though God is holding the Israelites in God’s hands, those hands do not promise to be gentle or permissive.
I have been thinking a lot this week about St. Margaret’s journey with the potter these last fifty years. We were first centered as a rag tag team of Episcopalians at a local American Legion Hall. Then the potter reshaped us time and again with various vicars. When we called our first rector, we started all over again, finding new life and new ministries, God’s hands exerting pressure on us in various ways. Even as we faced difficult times with our second rector, God’s hand was ever with us. I am sure many of us felt like we were being compressed down into a clay heap, only to start being shaped again by God in these last couple of years.
Of course, all of that sounds a bit too much like the glossed over version of some of our favorite hymns. In “Spirit of the Living God,” we hear, “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me…” Similarly, in “Have Thine Own Way Lord,” we hear, “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.” Those are the old timey hymns I grew up singing, and I always remember singing them with heartfelt desire. Of course, now that I know a little bit more about the pottery-making process, I am not sure how wholeheartedly I could sing those hymns. Those hymns are calling on God to do exactly what God suggests in Jeremiah – that God will reshape us, remold us, and require us to be pliable, cooperative subjects in the process.
Since I entered the search process here about two years ago, we have been talking about change. Change is a word we throw around a lot, that most of say we are ready for, but the majority of us secretly and not-so-secretly hate. We know that change is necessary and inevitable, but we will fight change with every ounce of our being – even sometime unconsciously or at least without malicious intentions. And yet change is what we have all been undergoing for the past two years, and the change does not seem to be stopping. If we were to imagine St. Margaret’s on God’s Pottery Wheel, we might be able to think about the ways God keeps adding water to us, keeps exerting pressure, and keeps pushing us this way and that way. It is entirely possible that God has even crumpled us down into a heap again and started afresh with us within the last two years. I know we have all felt that potter’s work. Every single person here, including me, at some point in the last two years has groaned under God’s constant shaping and molding. This kind of shaping is not pretty, is messy and painful, and quite frankly is hard. Most of us do not prefer to stand, “waiting, yielded and still.” We prefer that God back off and just go ahead and declare us a beautiful bowl, and be done with us.
Now you have probably learned by now that I always like to give us a bit of good news on Sundays to take home. I am going to try to give you a little taste of good news, but I have to warn you that today’s good news is a little bitter sweet. The good news is that the metaphor the Lord gives to Jeremiah is one of promise. God does not say that the potter takes the spoiled vessel and throws the vessel into the trash. The promise to Israel is that God, despite all their sinfulness and evil ways, still gives the Israelites another chance to return to God and to the covenantal promises they have made to be in relationship with God. But God does not promise that their misshapen selves get to stay misshapen. They will still need to bend to the potter, and be willing to be shaped into something new and beautiful.
This is the colored promise for us as well. God does not abandon us when we resist God and the changes God wants to make in this community. God does not lose hope on our complaining selves that would much rather do things the way we have always done them. God promises to keep God’s powerful hands around us, holding us with the seasoned hands of a potter. God will be with us. But God is also going to keep pushing us, and keep painfully shaping us, and artfully bending us into beautiful vessels that can glorify God and show Christ’s light to our community. So maybe this week, we need to pick up our Lift Every Voice and Sing hymnals and start singing “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.” Perhaps if we sing that old hymn enough, we might actually start yielding to the potter who loves us, is always with us, and who desires for us to be a beautiful vessel of God. Amen.
[i] Christy Jo Waltersdorff, “Centering the Clay,” Brethren Life and Thought, vol. 50, no. 1-2, Wint. – Spr. 2005, 53.
[ii] Bruce C. Birch, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 29.