The Potter’s House, Sermon Sept. 8

potter and clay

Jeremiah 18:1-11

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2‘Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’ 3So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4The 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.

5 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.7At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8but 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. 9And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. 11Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

The smell, the dirt, the trash, the homes made of anything from cardboard, to plastic doors, to plywood hit us as we pulled into the neighborhood that was literally the dump in Tijuana- a place where the poorest of the poor live off of discarded items, hoping to transform them into something useful, including the materials used for doors, windows, floors, and walls.  A place where methane gas leaks leave children with skin lesions, and decades worth of trash is covered with sand, only to be uncovered and washed into homes during a hard rainfall.  A place where we were told that we should never venture into after dark.  I think a lot of us had prepared ourselves for a sad and hopeless day filled with stories of poverty, depression, and tragedy, but when we got off of the bus, we were greeted by a young woman who shared her story with us:  as a teenager of 13, she became pregnant and was making a small living by sifting through garbage in the landfill to find materials that could be recycled- this is when she met Sister Teresa, a 63 year old nun who saw the opportunity for hope and a better life for this troubled young woman- she asked her what she would want to do if given the opportunity, and the desire of her heart was to learn how to do hair and nails- so the two set off in search of other young women who would also be interested in this life changing possibility.  Over time, Sister Teresa was able to train 15 young women in hair and nails and running a small business, and they were able to provide services to the landfill neighborhood such as a bakery, a salon, and child care, which eventually led to a school that provided education- the first opportunity in generations of families.  Now, in place of the beauty salon, is a clinic where a doctor volunteers and offers healthcare to the residents while the women continue to work and provide for their families.  Sister Teresa was a shaper- an agent for change, and hope for something beautiful to come literally out of the trash- the hope for trash to turn into treasures, the chance to turn hardship into hope.

As Jeremiah made his way to the potter’s house that day, did he know what he would find?  More importantly, was he prepared for what God would say to him as he sat and watched the potter at his wheel?  The potter sat at his wheel creating, shaping, molding.  The item that the potter had been creating spoiled in his hand, and then he began to reshape it into another vessel, as was pleasing to him.  The sight of a potter at the wheel would not have been a foreign sight to Jeremiah, as pottery making was an everyday occurrence in the ancient world- this was something that he probably saw daily, but God led him to the potter’s house and allowed him to see firsthand what God was doing with God’s people as the potter created, shaped, destroyed, and started over again with something new that was pleasing and useful.  God’s message to Jeremiah became clear: God is the potter, and we are the clay that is to be molded, shaped, transformed, torn down, and built back up again.  We are to be transformed and renewed into the image of God, putting aside our own agendas, our own pride and stubbornness; we are to let ourselves be transformed into something new by the potter’s hand- we are to repent and turn back to God.  And in the context of the story, Jeremiah’s message to God’s chosen people Israel consisted of repentance and transformation of their ways to allow themselves to be shaped and cared for by God’s own hands.

Jeremiah’s ministry came at a crucial time for Israel- just before, during, and after the fall of Jerusalem, and he had a tough job ahead of him.  As a prophet, his job was not to predict the future necessarily, but to interpret the actions and events of the day and let the people know what kind of road they would walk if they continued living and acting the way that they were. Prophets spoke to the people right in front of them, calling them to change.   In Israel’s case, their actions of turning away from God, injustice, idolatry, and even child sacrifice were leading them down a path of destruction, exile, and tragedy.  Jeremiah’s job as prophet was to say, “turn back to the Lord now before it’s too late” and to relay the words of God to the people, no matter how difficult those words might be.

At the potter’s house, Jeremiah realized that his task from God was to give the people a dose of God’s “tough love,” which would ultimately lead to transformation and hope, as we see later in Jeremiah 29 when God promises to bring God’s people home and says, “For surely I know the plans I have for you- plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.  When you call upon me I will hear you and when you search for me, you will find me if you seek me with all your heart.”  Even with judgment, war, and exile on the horizon, the encounter at the potter’s wheel is a glimmer of hope that God still has the desire to give new shape and new life in the near future.  The “tough love” of God is not about God doing harm or causing bad things to happen or tearing us down so that we fight our way back up.  It’s about realizing that God always has our best interest and future in mind, and that we must prayerfully discern what that is in our lives.  Sometimes we think we know what we need.  Sometimes we think we know what we want and we want it right here, right now, but then later realize that there is something even better and longer lasting on the horizon.  And perhaps that longing or that waiting is preparing us, reshaping us, transforming us, that we might be ready to face that big decision, that relationship, that experience as people who are ready to face it.  As people of God, we have to open ourselves to that vulnerability to say that a lot of times we don’t have all the answers and that sometimes we don’t know what’s best for us, but to have faith that God does.

We also have to have faith in the divine creativity at work in each of our lives.  Even when we are walking a path that is not of God, or if we still grieve over our mistakes of the past, and even when we acknowledge our sins of today and tomorrow, God the potter will work with what is available in order to make the best vessel possible in us, using the positive, the negative, the dirt, broken glass and all, working, kneading, transforming, and reshaping.  And that begins with a trip to the potter’s house, by us beginning the journey and making the first move.  But upon taking this first step, might we discover that God really has made the first move all along by going ahead of us to the potter’s house to hear a message and to accept the invitation for transformation.  That’s how it is with life and faith, isn’t it?  That God is always pursuing us, always guiding us- sometimes we acknowledge that fact, but a lot of times we do not.

At the potter’s house, we learn that God does not want to trash us- God wants to recycle us.  Notice that the potter did not just throw his spoiled clay in the trash- he broke it down and began to shape it into a new and pleasing vessel.  One of the ministries I enjoy supporting is Creative Women of the World– an organization that sells items that women have made literally out of trash and discarded items.  The organization encourages women in teaching effective business practices so that they may provide for their families and communities.  Many of the women that make items and run their own businesses that sell them are coming out of extreme poverty, human trafficking, or disasters.  When you buy something from the organization, you help in supporting these women and transforming lives.  Of course, this is great for me since I enjoy shopping- whenever I see this group set up, usually at clergy or ministry events, I enjoy browsing their scarves, jewelry, and particularly their handbags.  Believe it or not, my most recent purchase was this handbag made out of an old tire- when I heard the story behind it, I could hardly believe that something so cool looking and functional came out of an old tire that was probably sitting around in a dump being of no use to anyone or anything.  But with a little love, time, and care, it was made into something new and useful, and helped support a woman and perhaps a family in its transformation.  So like the women who transform old tires into handbags- like the 13 year old pregnant girl who brought hope to the trash filled dump neighborhood- God uses divine creativity not to throw away, not to trash the lump of clay, but to reshape it into something useful.

Even though God is identifying with the potter who will bring judgment against Israel, God is also saying that the recycling option is always open.  Repentance, then, is the key- when we turn ourselves around, when we acknowledge our sins and wrongdoings, when we pledge to be more Christ-like, when we seek to serve and love with our whole selves, it is then we will find that God is willing to take even us, the lumps of clay that we are, and rework us into something refreshing and new.  God does not want to discard us.  God wants to use us. But are we ready?

This turning around thing is not easy- sure, God might bring us to this point, but then it’s up to us to make the leap into walking a new path.  It’s easier said than done because we resist change, we are scared of the unknown, and if we are honest, maybe we just don’t want to repent.  We enjoy life as it is.  Sin, rebellion, and control can be fun- so we don’t want to give it up just yet.  Our stubbornness and pride is easier than the defeat we might feel when we realize that we are leaving a part of ourselves behind (Homiletics) and we don’t know what our new selves might look like.  A trip to the potter’s house will challenge us to turn it all around.

Yes, there are times when we feel like cracked bottles, old tires, spoiled or damaged goods, or useless lumps of clay- but God is not ready to throw us away- God is not through with us yet.  At the potter’s house, we are invited to the wheel where we realize that a life spent wallowing in our sins, our pride, and drifting apart from God is not the life to which we are called.  At the potter’s house, we humble ourselves to the potter who is willing to rework us and to help turn our lives around.  We celebrate that we have a God who will take “what is broken and fix it, what is wounded and heal it, what is incomplete and make it whole, what is ugly and turn it into something beautiful” (Homiletics)- we have a God who will take nothing but a lump of clay and turn it into a vessel that is pleasing, useful, and new.  So are we ready?  Will you join me- at the potter’s house?        Amen.

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