"God's Investment"

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; Jeremiah 18:1-11

Rev. Dottie LaPenta

Listen     Bulletin

Have thine own way, Lord! Have thine own way!
Thou are the potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me after thy will,
While I am waiting yielded and still.

Individual vs. Community

Are those familiar words to anyone here this morning, maybe the over 60 crowd? These are the words to an old hymn written in 1902 by a woman who couldn’t raise enough funds for her missionary work in Africa. She was so frustrated and these words became her personal reflection about God’s will for her life and direction. If it was not God’s will that she should be molded and shaped into a missionary serving Africa, well she would wait and go with God’s plan.[1] It hasn’t been in our hymnals for a while, but it’s a sweet hymn and quite personal about each individual’s relationship with God’s will for their lives.

Just as Psalm 139 assures us that we are known by God and that no one is lost to God, this old hymn affirms that individual, intimate relationship with God is given to each one of us.

Legitimate though it may be to affirm that God knows us individually and legitimate though it may be to imagine God shaping our lives as a potter shapes clay, this is not the focus of our text from Jeremiah. Jeremiah is addressing the community collectively, not individually, specifically the “dwindling away” nation of Israel, what’s left of it. God means to shape this community of faith and its social, religious and political life to serve the divine purposes. But things have gone amok, big time.

 Let’s have some Bible study for a moment and give some historical context to this passage. The ancient near east had experienced geopolitical conflicts for some time. To the north, the Assyrians had been in power and even overtook the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE, about 300 years after King David.

 A hundred years later the Assyrian power was weakening and this gave an opportunity to the southern kingdom’s leadership to reform some of the peoples’ ways, to call them back to their own constitution and purposes, to worship God alone and live in the world according to what was important to God. [2]

Josiah was a good king of the southern kingdom of Judah and a strong leader of the people with attempts to bring them back into the covenant and remind who they were and what they were to be about.

It didn’t last. When Josiah died, the kings who followed were either too weak or too willing to rub elbows and “schmooze” with the power packs of the ancient near east. God became somewhat a thing of the past. Jeremiah comes on board as a prophet during this time, and most of the time wants to tear out his hair over the choices the people and their leaders are making. The Babylonian exile of the Israelites was progressing even as Jeremiah was preaching and foreshadowing.

The people were not a captive audience to Jeremiah’s oracles. They had no power or purpose other than self- interests and being enticed and lured into the ways of surrounding cultures. What was the use of their worship when other cultures had lovely temples and many gods? Isn’t many gods better than one god? Apathy, exploitation, idolatry, corruption-no big deal! [3]

II. Relationship between the potter and the clay

So God sends the prophet, Jeremiah to the potter’s house. Initially, God is silent.

The first thing that Jeremiah observed was that the vessel that the potter was shaping in his hands became spoiled. Even with the potter’s hand on the clay, the vessel could become spoiled. But the potter takes that vessel and reworks and reshapes it until it seems good.

Then God starts to talk to Jeremiah, “ O house of Israel! Can I not do with you, just as this potter has done? Just like the clay, so are you in my hand.” If God is the potter, what is this clay? I mean, what do you think of when you think of clay? Do you think of yourselves as clay? Do you think of this community as clay?

I spoke to my friend who is a potter this week, and she helped me realize that potters don’t see clay as just a passive mass of blob. There’s potential in clay, there’s a future. There’s becoming something. There’s resistance as well as suppleness. Time is required and patience and re-working when it’s not right and good.

I have actually heard my friend talk to her clay as she is working at the wheel “Why are you being so stubborn today?” “Who are you talking to?” I ask. “My clay!” she answers.

Sally Brown, a preaching professor at Princeton seminary writes that the relationship between the potter and the clay in this passage is very dynamic and energetic. The potter is not indifferent to the clay, just as God is not indifferent to our condition and our way of life.[4]

One of the best things about the Hebrew Scriptures is that God is such a character in the stories. Here in this passage, we experience God wanting to be in the peoples’ faces because God is righteously angry about their ways and lets them know that choices have consequences.

There is judgment in this passage, but God’s judgment includes God’s willingness to give us more chances, to redeem the community, to reshape and remold and raise us into a new faithfulness. Our behaviors and our choices matter to God.

God is determined to re-shape communities whose destructive ways have failed to bear witness to God’s love and redemption. [5] The clay in this metaphor is an active participant in the creative work of God, as our communities of faith are called to be.

Like the potter, God has hands on our community ready to take the crackpots and crack their pots and make them into earthen vessels of living and breathing participants in work that we know can be tough, messy and often risky. Sometimes it’s too much for us and we are easily lured and enticed to other gods. But the potter keeps working.

III. When the Clay is Set. Watershed Moments

In the conversation with my potter friend this week, I asked her if there was a time in the process where the future of the vessel was set. I expected her to say “no,” but she actually became animated saying, “Oh yes! There is a turning point in the process. You might be able to do some trimming but there is a time when the pot is fixed to go forward with a specific use and a purpose.

I don’t want to mix metaphors because that is a preaching sin, but as the pot becomes set for the future, it’s like a watershed moment when a path is chosen, a choice is made, a purpose declared and a future determined. [6]

We set pots all the time. We choose paths. We determine purpose.

Currently, there is a 1619 project, which commemorates 400th anniversary of Africans being brought from Angola to this country and being sold as slaves. The history books and classes that we have experienced do not include this story. Many don’t think it needs to be included. This project is claiming a turning point, the time to decide if our educational systems will tell a part of our history that’s been swept under the carpet and redacted out of our history books. How will we face truth or will we? What is being set for the future? [7]

Our sisters and brothers in the United Methodist Church made a significant choice this summer in their annual conference when the vote taken was for the path of tradition for ordination and for marriage. Some who are called to ministry cannot be ordained. Some who want to seal a loving relationship in marriage cannot do that in their church community.

The Presbyterian Church set these same pots for more than 20 years until God raised a new faithfulness in our denomination and our constitution was changed. Some left the denomination because they could not drink from that vessel.
These turning points and the choices made are not set in stone and unchangeable forever, but they do have a profound impact on the community and its members for a significant amount of time.

About a year ago I went with a group on a mission trip to continue the work of rebuilding after a hurricane had destroyed the homes of many in this community. Our construction supervisor was an amazing leader. I will call him Ed. He is an active member of a Presbyterian Church, He knew everything about construction, and found a job for everyone. He was also an enthusiastic advocate for our gatherings in the morning and in the evening for Bible study, worship and devotions.

Many times on these trips, the construction supervisors want to get as many work hours in as possible and will say, “Do we really have to have devotions twice a day? Don’t you think 5 minutes is enough? How about just a prayer.”

But not Ed! We accomplished a lot on that trip in the re-building department, but we honored our time of worship together. Ed thought it was as important as picking up our hammers and paintbrushes.

One evening, Ed and I were having one of those cherished end of the day conversations. I was thanking Ed for supporting my role as pastor to this community of workers. I told him, “Ed, you really embody the Christian faith.”
“Oh, I never tell anyone I am a Christian!”
“Really?? Why”

“Because of the church and the choices that were made for so many years. As a gay man, I was told that they loved me, but hated my sin. They insisted on conversion therapy because as I was, I wasn’t worthy. God and I are good. I think we always have been. But the wounds that the church community inflicted are still there and I just cannot speak the words that “I am a Christian.”

“Well, what do you tell people if they ask you about your faith?”
“Oh!” he said. “I tell them I am Presbyterian.” 

This community, First Presbyterian Church is at a turning point, a watershed moment, a time for a future direction to be set, and the potter is at work. Maybe you thought this interim period would be like a tubing trip down a cool and refreshing river on a beautiful autumn day. It’s rarely that way. But get this!!

God’s investment is lovingly and passionately in you, ready and willing in all your diversity of thought and opinions to shape, to mold, and to raise a new faithfulness for your future. Can you trust God and through this process of reflecting and re-shaping rebuild your trust in each other?

Back to my friend again, when she is in her studio working, she’s a mess. She may as well not even wear an apron because the water, the clay and the gunk are on her clothes, on her shoes and in her hair. It’s not a neat, tidy and straight-forward process.

But it holds a future.

We can envision God in that potter’s apron with clay all over the place seeking to bring us into a beautiful and purposeful form and to shape us again and again as living and breathing participants in God’s good purposes. [8] That’s what we are about as a community of faith.

God is up to God’s elbows in the messy, the risky, the sacred, the wonderful and the important work of making…….. and re-making. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!

[1] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-have-thine-own-way-lord

[2] Thomas Steagold. Feasting On the Word. Year C, Volume 4, Abingdon, Louisville: 2010, pp. 26-31.

[3] Anthony J. Saldarini. “The Letter of Jeremiah” in The New Interpreter’s Bible. Volume VI. Abingdon Press, Nashville: 2001, pp. 712-718.

[4] Sally Brown. “Feasting On the Word,” Year C, Volume 4, Westminster John Knox, Louisville: 2010, pp. 26-31.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sally Brown.

[7] project1619.org.

[8] Sally Brown.