The Sunday Sermon: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 8, 2019
Scripture: Jeremiah 18:1-6
Reworked Into Another Vessel
Whew … If you’re Hope, or Jill, or Stephanie, or Jenny that “whew” is particularly for you! These are the members of our Christian Education Ministry Team. All four and a few of their spouses have been on the front line this morning, pulling off yet another Rally Day here at Pewee Valley Pres. (clap). A pancake breakfast and introductions to teachers and curriculum, first meeting of their classes, blessings in a backpack, and a commissioning litany already… Whew!
I would remiss if I didn’t also include the other teachers who we just prayed with and prayed for on this Rally Day: Ashia, Violet, Connie, and even me. Another Rally Day begun, and one that continues after worship with Small Group – lunch, first fellowship and more fun and games. All are invited to stay on for that, too!
It’s a big deal every year, in part because none of this happens without planning meetings, curriculum selection, material ordering, cutting, pasting, and preparation. It never does. It doesn’t happen without difficult decisions, frowns, worries, frustration, and fighting with bulletin boards. It never does. But it happened, it is happening. Once again this year, we have been reworked into another vessel and a new ministry year has begun.
Pray with me … And listen for the Word of God in the word to Jeremiah. Read Jeremiah 18:1-6. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Reworked into another vessel. And it seems good …
The image of the potter in this passage is one of the best known in the bible, I believe, certainly it is in Jeremiah. All of us picture this artisan in our minds eye as we read these verses. And these verses begin a longer reading that raises some of the most important theological issues in all of Scripture. But … I stopped short of those issues by finishing our reading at verse six! Read on later (later!), through verse eleven. That’s the whole periscope in our lectionary passage for this morning. And when you include verses seven to eleven in a sermon message, you engage the tension between divine sovereignty and human freedom; you ask and respond to questions like “do our actions as human beings really have any effect on what God decides to do?” And you explore whether we as individuals and communities are locked into a course of events that God has already determined, or … not.
But we didn’t read verses seven to eleven. Many of the commentators who share their interpretations of Jeremiah’s prophecies regard verses seven to twelve, actually, as a later addition. An “extensive admonitory address in the first person prophetic style of divine speech” heard often in Old Testament scripture and definitely bound up with the metaphor of the potter’s work, but still … a later addition. So, we didn’t’ read them this morning and we’re not going to ask those questions, explore those “existentials”, or engage those issues. Because we only read through verse six.
“Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand,” O house of … Pewee Valley.
The vessel made of clay in our shortened scripture reading has changed, changed its shape in verse four. It became “spoiled” the text says, but honestly this just means the “shape it was in” changed. The “vessel” that the potter intended has changed in her hands as … more, or less, pressure was exerted. Or a wall, one side, one part of the vessel becomes too thin as it is “thrown.” Or the shape that was intended, the shape that held its own for a while, maybe for the last ten or twenty years, maybe for two or three years, maybe just since last year, does not serve as it once did. When any of these things happen – end of verse four – the potter collapses the vessel, compresses the clay, and begins again, does something new.
Every year, every year, in the weeks and the days that lead up to this day, Rally Day, where we rollout a new slate of Sunday school classes, consider a new year of youth, Small Group, and of broader fellowships, as we begin a new “ministry year,” I feel like we, Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church, are the vessel in this shortened lectionary reading: reworked, reshaped, reformed.
Every year, in some small way or in larger ways, we are “re-shaped” to best meet the needs – the educational, fellowship, and worship needs – of an ever changing community. I almost physically feel “the potter” bent at the wheel, clay-spattered from head to foot, sensitive hands pressing and shaping the spinning clay, us, to draw something forth, something new and useful and beautiful. We push back as this day approaches every year. I know I do, I feel it – hear it – from others, too, either by trying to remain the same thing we’ve been, even if we’ve only been that for the past year, or trying to be something we’re not, or can’t be, for one reason or another. We push back. But patiently and expertly “the potter,” God, this reality that blows where it will – or in our analogy this morning, “throws” where it will – and calls us to follow, draws forth something new, useful, and beautiful from us. And it is “us.” Our entire congregation.
This image of the potter at the wheel shaping his pottery is almost always thought of and spoken about on an individual level, when we remember it, think about it, or hear it in other contexts. “God’s shaping and re-shaping of me, or you, individually.” A number of our hymns, old and new, reinforce that more personal relationship. Curious that we changed our response to the assurance of pardon this morning. Spirit of the Living God includes “melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.” Appropriate and beautiful and assuring. But, believe it or not, legitimate as it may be to imagine God shaping our individual lives, Jeremiah is addressing primarily the life of a community in his potter/pottery metaphor, not an individual.
The reality of God in our lives is primarily intended to shape the community of faith in our collective social, religious, and even political lives to serve divine purposes. This understanding, this conviction, this belief is the single greatest difference between us and the fundamentalists, and even many of our most conservative brothers and sisters in the Baptist traditions or mega-Christian churches. The most faithful teaching, preaching, and hearing of the Word – read and proclaimed – attends to the communal level of what’s being shared first and foremost, and only secondarily to the implications for our individual lives of faith. We are never more focused on ourselves as a community than we are on Rally Day every year. So let’s attend to ourselves.
First of all, like the potter intent on drawing a useful vessel from the clay, God is deeply invested in our common life, in our community. The potter does not work aimlessly in our scripture reading, nor does our God. Every turn of the wheel matters. Every change in curriculum, or teacher, or class, or staff, or worship element, or worship leader, or choir anthem, or fellowship, or ministry, or mission matters. We are being shaped for purposes that exceed our own preoccupation with congregational maintenance (listen to that again …), keeping things the same, or worrying that this time around is not as “good” as last time around. We’re not just changing, we’re “being changed.”
Second, the relationship between the potter and the clay is profoundly dynamic. In verse four, we aren’t told what the source of the flaw in the clay, in the vessel in progress, is. We can resist the shaping hand, push back, do what we’ve always done because it’s safer, not “re-shape” because we think it’s an admission of failure somehow, or not having what we used to have. We can push back. But we can also choose to align ourselves with the forces at work that are re-shaping us, meeting us where we are now and leading us into the future. We can pursue a more self-serving, self-interested agenda or we can “be thrown” into a new vessel.
For all communities, and maybe even more for faith communities, there are moments when we face choices that will have an impact on our future. Rally Day is such a day every year for us. In small ways or large, we begin again, setting the stage for what’s next. We can choose to lament what was, what is, and even what we fear will be, or … or … We can choose to accept the potter’s hand, shaping us in distinctive ways of worship and Christian education and life together that bears witness to a future unknown, but not something to be afraid of – for we are “in the Potter’s hands.”
Jeremiah is directed to the potter’s house to hear God’s word. A potter is an artist, a potter’s house, an artisan’s studio. Pablo Picasso once suggested that “art is a lie that help us see the truth. “Go down to the potter’s house and their I will let you hear my words.” What Jeremiah sees there allows him to “hear” God. What Jeremiah sees at the potter’s house is the “truth” that helps all of us see the “lie” of immutability, of permanence. Change is inevitable. So …
It’s Rally Day 2019 and we have been reworked into yet another vessel, an expression of something different than we’ve been, something new, something useful, and something beautiful. Change is inevitable. Growth, however, in optional. This year, again, we seek both. We have once again been reworked into another vessel as seems good to God. The opportunity to change is an opportunity for faithfulness because who we are this year, right now, is a part of God’s intention and order for us in the years ahead. Believe that and get excited..
Reworked into another vessel. Thank you Christian Education Team, thank you teachers, thank you staff, thank you all for being here in this exciting time. May the coming year reflect our openness to all that God is shaping us to be.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor
Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / September 8, 2019