Drew’s sermon from September 8th, 2013. The Biblical text for the sermon is Jeremiah 18:1-11. May your week be filled with grace, mercy, and humor.
Clay in God’s Hand
When I was in seminary I went to a conference in North Carolina on recreation and play. They were talking about how to do Bible study with youth, and had us do a really interesting exercise. The teacher gave us all big hunks of play-dough, and told us to work with them for a minute, and then she started telling us the story of the hemorrhaging woman. You remember that story, right, the woman who had been bleeding for 18 years, and only wanted to touch the hem of Jesus’s robe. As she tells us the story, she tells us to form our clay into the image of someone in need of healing. Then she told us to pass it to the person on our left.
At different points in the story, she would tell us what to make out of the clay that had been given to us, and then pass it to someone else. Shape it into someone who has experienced much needed healing. Shape it to communicate great joy and relief. It was remarkable to see the creativity of the people in the room as they formed the clay in their hands, and it was remarkable to look across the room and how quickly and easily your piece could be transformed, healed in hands of another.
For young children, working with play-dough is a pretty common experience. It is less common for us, but hopefully you can think back to the last time you worked with play-dough or worked with kids who did, and remember what it was like, a little bit. There are a lot of limitations to play-dough. It smells funny, and the smell hangs around a little bit. It dries out if you leave it on the counter for more than fifteen minutes. It’s easily contaminated. It tastes terrible.
There were a lot of limitations to the earthenware vessels that people used in the 7th century before the common era. Those old clay pots cracked easily, they shattered often, and chipped freely. So trips to the potter’s house were a common experience for people in the time of Jeremiah. This story is a reminder for us that God often chooses to speak to us in the experiences of everyday life.
God sends Jeremiah down to the potter’s house so that he can watch the potter at work. Maybe you’ve worked at a potter’s wheel at some point. It doesn’t take much for a slowly forming bowl to suddenly take an uneven shape, or a slip of your thumb into the clay to spoil the form. And this is exactly what happens. While Jeremiah watches, the vessel falters in the potter’s hands, and the potter reshapes it into something new.
That’s when Jeremiah hears the word of God he’s been waiting for. Just as the potter can remake the clay into a new form that fits his vision, so I can do to you, God says to Jeremiah. The house of Israel is like clay in my hand. If you do not take the form that I want, I will remake you into something else, God tells the people of Judah.
What was going on in Israel at the time was this: over the years since Solomon and his children had built the Temple, it had become the center of worship for the nation of Judah. According to the theology of that time, the Temple was the place where God was. So sacrifice or worship outside of the temple was strictly forbidden, and sacrifice within the Temple could only be performed by the king’s priests.
According to their understanding, Yahweh was the God of the nation of Judah. And since God was the God of the nation of Judah, as long as they kept God happy with regular sacrifice and praise in the Temple, God would ensure that they were protected and blessed with prosperity. We can fall into this kind of theological blunder pretty easily, when we get to thinking that as long as we’ve got our butt in the pew on Sunday morning God doesn’t really care what we do the rest of the week.
But maybe you can see where this leads. As long as they were dues paying members of the Church of Yahweh, folks did just about whatever they wanted. They didn’t care for the poor in their society, they let injustice reign unchecked. And they started looking around at other God’s too. Most specifically, the Gods of Egypt and Babylon, two expanding empires that were rapidly encroaching upon Judah’s territory. Those other Gods were pretty powerful, judging by the wealth of their nations and the strength of their armies. And since they didn’t think God really cared much as long as the pleasant aroma of burning sacrifices kept coming, they figured it wouldn’t be all that bad to hedge their bets a little bit.
But God, on the other hand, had a something very different in mind. What God tells Jeremiah is that God will not ignore the people’s unrighteousness. According to Jeremiah, following God doesn’t mean treating God like a vending machine that keeps working as long as you keep it fed and say the magic words. Following God means having a relationship with God. Our God is not a God to be feared but a God to be known. It is living in covenant with God, it means being accountable to God for your righteousness and your sinfulness rather than whether or not you belong to the right group.
I ran into this yesterday. I was playing in a Frisbee tournament, and in Frisbee you call your own fouls, it helps keep the game clean. And one of our guys goes down, and I assumed that he made a call, so I’m storming down the sideline defending this call even though I didn’t even see what happened, because he’s my guy. He’s on my team. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t see the play, or even hear what call he made. I’m defending the call I think he made just because he’s a part of my group. Come to figure out he didn’t make a call at all, he just hit his head and was a little shaken up, that’s all. This kind of thing happens to us all the time, when we defend our friends without actually knowing what happens, or assume that our country’s actions are morally right because we are part of that country and we try to behave morally.
Living in covenant with God, having a relationship with God, means being accountable for our actions, and not just being on the right team. And it is not easy. I think most of us can remember a time in our lives where we were not shaping into what God wanted us to be, and we know how the clay feels in the potter’s hand. But the good news is that God destroys only to redeem. God molds us to gives us new life, to make us whole, to make us into vessels of his grace.
The Temple theology is a lot easier to deal with, especially if things are going well. It doesn’t ask us to question ourselves, to change, or to grow. It does not ask much of us, but it doesn’t give us much in return either. Because the truth is, that for every one of us something will happen that messes that up. That’s life. A mistake that costs you a relationship, a loss that makes you question your value, a pain that does not seem to go away. Something will happen that will mess up that easy system.
And then suddenly all of that stuff about being clay in the potter’s hand will become good news. Because instead of being rejected, instead of being thrown out, instead of falling apart, we can be forgiven. We can be made new, we can be made whole. In humility and repentance we can find new shape for our lives, new purpose.
God takes flawed, messy lives, and shapes them to God’s purposes. In God we are not just promised a second chance but chance after chance after chance, to be made new, to be made whole. And when we realize that, when we begin to understand that God does not give up on us, that God is always perfecting us into new vessels of his grace and mercy, we begin to see that being clay in the potter’s hand is not so bad at all.