September 11, 2022

  “Come to the Potter’s House”

(Jeremiah 18:1-11)

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.  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.

Then the word of the Lord came to me: “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as the 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.  At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but 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.  And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but 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.  Now, 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.

            I couldn’t believe it when I looked at my little card file and realized I had never preached on this text.  It’s so well known and attended to by artists and song writers and preachers, but there you have it.  I never chose it.  Interesting! 

So, today, let’s go down to the potter’s house.  Will you join me there?  We, along with Jeremiah, have received God’s invitation to the potter’s house, and there, we are told, we will hear God’s words.  I think we preachers in sermons have wanted to immediately jump to the end of the story to make quick meaning for listeners.  Okay, go to the potter’s house.  We’re messed up, but God’s gonna fix us. 

But I just want to think for a few minutes about this invitation because I suspect there’s a little lesson right here for us.  As the story unfolds God doesn’t make an immediate declaration to us.  God wants us to walk along with him and observe.  So, we know that the words will be coming, but for the moment let’s just go with God and see what the potter is up to. 

I think it’s fair to think of the potter’s house as holy ground, as sacred space, because it’s a place where we’ve been invited to go with God.  It’s a place where God has promised to give Jeremiah (and us) God’s message, but for now the message will be shown, not spoken.  It’s a place to which God invites us.  God has a notion that we will learn a lesson there.

            …You know, I never wanted to be a teacher.  I was a decent piano and flute player so people assumed that I could teach kids even when I was a teen, but I didn’t really have the patience to find interesting ways to tempt students to learn.  I just wanted them to get to work, learn to read the music, practice and get it figured out. 

Fortunately, I have found ways to work around this non-teaching thing as a preacher.  I’ve been at it for a while, and it’s worked pretty well.  But I do notice that my friends dream up interesting activities for their grandchildren when they visit.  For me, though, I just think that being present with babies, children and adults is my way to grandparent.  Showing love in a way that woks for me.  I believe that that is the way to make connections—the way to teach, really.  Going to the potter’s house was God’s way of showing this very important message.  And that message is that God did not want to give up on the people.

            So, when God invites Jeremiah and us to the potter’s shed, God is hoping that the lesson will be demonstrated to us, and that we can learn it by being there and watching.

            Now, don’t get me wrong.  After this visual lesson, God begins to speak in a very direct and prophetic way.  God makes it clear that there is some changing that needs to happen right now.  God is speaking loudly and clearly through Jeremiah who hasn’t, as they say, ever minced words with his people in the past.

            But, let’s go back to the ingenious trip to the potter’s shed.  The dean of my theological school, Dr. Van Bogard Dunn, God rest his soul, will forever be my mentor, example and dear friend.  Bogie, as he was known, quoted his teacher in college who told his classes, “Teachin’ ain’t tellin.’  I try to remember that as I deal with the people in my life and in the task of preaching.  Teachin’ ain’t tellin’.  God gave Jeremiah and us the experience in the potter’s house first before he began the lecture.  He wasn’t tellin’ yet but he was teachin’ for sure. 

            So, imagine yourselves answering God’s invitation, maybe even taking God’s hand on the way down to the potter’s house.  This was the home of the guy who performed a task that was absolutely essential to his community.  Folks in the 7th century BCE did not have mass produced plastic dishes nor did they have metal cooking containers.  They had vessels that were used for everything having to do with cooking and eating.  Unlike today, potters were not trying to scrape out a living as artists whose products were bought for their beauty as they are today.  No, in Jeremiah’s time, this painstaking task was essential to their community.  People were forever needing what the potters produced.  Things got broken, families grew, the community became larger.  The potter’s work was very important.

            So, then, imagine entering into the potter’s workspace as he was bent over his wheel.  Picture how he had messed up the vessel he was working on.  You may even be able to feel what it was like to have squashed the bowl or pitcher that he had been fussing over.  This probably happened often because we are led to believe that he simply scraped up his clay and started again, reworking it into another vessel “as seemed good to him,” we are told. 

            There he was, doing God’s work, showing us the lesson without a word spoken.

            Then, and only then, can we hear God’s interpretation of this teaching.  “Can I not do with you, just what this potter has done with the clay?”  If a fix is needed, God can do it.  If a hard reset must happen, God is more than able.  God is capable of doing a new thing with that vessel and, of course, with us, with our communities.  Just as the potter can take the clay and reshape it, so God can manage us when we’ve gone off the rails, even when that hard reset is needed.

            And let’s face it, we all have needed this word of hope in the midst of our own hopelessness.  Let’s not forget that Jeremiah’s ministry was aimed at those who had strayed far from God.  He had been using his pulpit and his voice to call the people home, but, so far he had been unsuccessful.  Entering the potter’s house was supposed to teach a hard lesson to the people.  Watching the potter deal with a project gone bad was intended to give hope to the hopeless; it was supposed to hold the mirror up to people whose lives were a mess, to show in a powerful way that the community had strayed far from God. 

            The lesson is that God knows what to do with our mistakes and troubled selves.  God knows how to put us back on track.  God knows how to re-form us, to make us brand new.

            …I visited the Chapel at St. Thomas Hospital Friday before last.  As you probably know, Summa has owned St. Thomas for a number of years and has been in the process of building a new behavioral health facility on their own campus.  So, they’re preparing to move out of St. Thomas completely. 

I wanted to visit the Chapel before it’s gone because inside it is the Sister Ignatia Heritage Center.  Now Sister Ignatia had worked with Dr. Bob Smith, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Dr. Bob and Sister Ignatia had collaborated in creating the first hospital-based unit devoted to the treatment of alcoholism.  That’s right.  The birthplace of AA is right here in Akron, and the very first hospital-based unit for treatment anywhere was also born right here in Akron.

            Well, I bring this up because AA and people like Dr. Bob, Bill Wilson, Henrietta Seiberling and Sister Ignatia brought hope to people who had completely given up hope.  It was like folks took a trip out to the potter’s shed and realized that God could give them another chance, that God could make them brand new.

            Now, this is true for us too.  You may not have the disease of alcoholism, but you may have been beaten down by circumstances or by your own behaviors.  You may have thought that your community or your church has no way out of its problems, but the potter is here to show us that there is a way where there seems to be no way, there is hope even when we have lost all hope, that our potter can change his mind about what we can become. 

            Jeremiah reports that God said, “Can I not do with you, O House of Israel, just as the potter has done?  Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.”  Even though we or our community has become something that is not pleasing to God, God can change God’s mind about how we’ll be dealt with.  God can make us brand new.  God is our potter, and we are the clay.

            What is God dreaming into being for us today?  A trip to the potter’s house may give God and us an idea about how we can be ever closer to God and serving in new and vital ways.  God can rework us into another useful vessel.  First, we must believe it can happen.  We’ve got to believe.  Then we must turn ourselves and our lives over to God’s care and submit ourselves to God’s will.  This, really, is all of our work every day: finding God’s will in our lives and submitting ourselves to it.  So friends, let the potter have his way with you, with all of us, because God knows best.  Amen.