“Pottery 101: The Shaping of our Foundations”
Jeremiah 18: 1-11 ~ Northwood United Church – Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook – September 8, 2019
There is a warm, comforting, almost pastoral image to this morning’s text, isn’t there? The gentle potter working patiently in her shop on her next creation. Her gaze intently focused as she shapes her treasure in her hands. She is unbothered by the bits of clay that have found their way under her nails, or up onto her arms and even staining her shirt. A mistake is made from time to time, and her hand gently smooths out the imperfection; a greater miscalculation occurs and she patiently forms the clay back into a ball and begins again. We all like this image of the patient potter who lovingly shapes each new creation into being. It feels right on this ‘Welcome Back Sunday’ as we reassemble and look into the year ahead. Yet there is a lot more going on in this text, and here at Northwood, than the image of God, the patient potter at her wheel.
This romanticized image of the patient and gentle artist rarely proves true, does it? More accurately, artists are intensely passionate and almost obsessively devoted to their creation. One famous example is found in the life of Vincent Van Goh who cut the lower portion of his ear. And history records countless examples of artists whose passionate personality ultimately led them to the creation of true beauty. In an interesting article entitled “Creativity and Irrational Forces: Eccentric Artists and Mad Scientists”, the creative result of an artist’s unstable personality is highlighted. In the article, Poet Anne Sexton puts it this way: "I, myself, alternate between hiding behind my own hands, protecting myself anyway possible, and this seeing of my pain. I guess I mean that creative people must not avoid the pain that they get dealt”. Some interesting findings came from the University of Kentucky Medical School headed up by Arnold M. Ludwig, Professor of Psychiatry. Having spent ten years studying the biographical records of 1,000 prominent 20th-century artists, their research concludes: "creative artists were by far the most likely to suffer from mental disturbance." The article concludes noting a clear trend that artistically creative individuals, are unusually likely to be emotionally unstable.
So, let’s add to the simple image of the patient, loving potter that we often romanticize in this text. And let us, more authentically, look at the vision of God, the conflicted potter, that is being shared here in Jeremiah’s prophetic vision. In the text, we are invited back into a very troubling time in the history of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Jeremiah, a descendant in the line of priests, most notably Abiathar who was banished by Solomon and his own father, Hilkiah the priest at Anathoth. Jeremiah prophesied just prior to the Babylonian conquest with Jeremiah being born in 627 BC and dying in 587 in Egypt. Jeremiah’s challenging job was to call the people back to God, to call them to repent, to call them to faithfulness, to call them back to God. We, of course, know the results of history. They continued to go astray and a divided people are easy prey for an attacking enemy.
There is an earlier biblical image in the text arising from Jeremiah’s potter and the clay that is helpful to hold. If we go further back to the second creation story in the book of Genesis, to the formation of humankind…the shaping of the first human. ‘Adam’ was the first example of God, the artist, taking the clay from the ground and shaping it into life. In the text, we read of the ‘Lord God stooping down and taking the earth, shaping it, and breathing into it life, and creating…‘Adam’. Adam in Hebrew literally translates as ‘mud man’ (the man shaped from the mud) or as ‘Red man’ (the red colour of the earth). As God shaped humankind from the red earth, from the mud, and breathed life into our being, God was shaping us with a deep purpose…a hope for the world to unfold in all its beauty and grace. Yet, sadly, scripture continues to unfold as an anthology of humanity exercising their own free will and going astray. We think of Adam and Eve’s later disobedience in the garden; Cain’s first murder and the narrative of the darkness and disobedience of humanity continues to unfold. Yet, as scripture continues, we read story after story of God’s relentless pursuit to reshape, to reclaim, to restore the beauty that once was. God’s love story continues as one of calling us all into right living through the prophets; calling us home through the sending of God’s Son. Our faith story describes this joy of our homecoming to God as being akin to a father welcoming home a lost son, a shepherd finding their lost sheep, a widow finding her lost coin.
As we read through the Jeremiah text, we read of a passionate, creative, loving artist who is profoundly worried, frustrated, and angry about their creation. If the people continue in their present direction, Jeremiah’s prophecy is clear: death and devastation will be the outcome. Is that God’s judgement? Or is that the cumulative effect that occurs when we continue to walk in the ways of evil and darkness? What we learn, however, is a deep theological understanding of “God’s Immutability”. God is the same…yesterday, the same today…the same forever. Yet the unfolding of our destiny has malleability – it is shapeable. As Jeremiah prophecies: “If that nation concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind” (v.8). We are reminded of God’s deep yearning to bless and rejoice throughout all of God’s creation. And we find, here, good news in knowing that the punishment and pain is not predetermined. It may also be reshaped into blessing. Our blessing from God is God’s deepest desire, yet we are also reminded that it is a privilege; blessing is something that occurs when our ways are aligned with God’s ways ~ when we are positioned to receive. Jeremiah was calling them to repent –which means to change their direction – to be the malleable clay in God’s hands – to be shapeable in God’s purposes, the way they were designed.
This feels like a very ‘malleable’, shapeable time in the life of our congregation. I know the 1st Sunday after Labour Day isn’t a Sunday with a particular seasonal name such as Christmas or Easter or Pentecost; however, I believe it should have a distinguished name of its own. ‘Welcome back Sunday’ is the Sunday when we are called to take stock of our ministry and truly discern how God is calling us to live out our faith. It is summed up in that great hymn we love to sing that lifts up our faith response: “I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart”. This is the day; this is the fresh new beginning that we are called to ask HOW we now are being shaped by God for ministry? What is our church to do and be this coming year? How are YOU called to ‘dig in’ and get involved in making Jesus come alive at Northwood? Teachers and professors and students feel the optimism in the campus air. Do you feel the hope and the possibility this new year offers?
It is important for you to be aware that a lot is happening these days in our community. A new cooperative ministerial has begun to form among the churches in Fleetwood. I have begun working with Pastor Tom Bomhoff from the Fleetwood Christian Reformed Church in bringing our faith leaders together to find ways that we might work cooperatively in blessing our city. Yesterday, at the Fleetwood Festival, we actually shared our tent with the Fleetwood CRC. This year, our Spirit Kids, Pro D Day Camps will be done in cooperation with Fleetwood CRC as we create a more lively experience for our children to come together as one big group. The largest change, of course, will be the skytrain coming along Fraser Highway to the Rec Centre. Things are changing! We are being shaped and moulded, whether we like it or not. The question becomes: can we be ‘good clay’ and allow God’s shaping to emerge? On the flip side, this is also a time of challenge. At the end of October, our sister church at Colebrook United will close its doors. The demographics of their neighbourhood changed significantly since opening in 1959. This is a time of deep sadness for the community as they close their doors, yet the sale of the church will allow new ministries to emerge in ways never thought possible! Amidst opportunities and challenges, the question continues: can we be ‘good clay’ and allow God’s shape to emerge in our being?
I think the deepest challenge in this text, and in this time of ministry, though, is to be faithful. To be faithful as we live into the changes. Much of the way we live in our lives is, quite frankly, to fulfill our own needs and desires; to fulfill those of our family or our friends. What is so odd in Jesus’ community is that the point of their existence was always for ‘the other’. The point of Jesus’ community was to provide space for the last, the least, the hungry, the neglected. There is a wonderful practice used in First Nations, and other, wise cultures where they gather in a circle and always hold an empty chair in their circle formation. The empty chair symbolizes the ones who are not there yet. It is a calling to awareness of those they are called to include. For us, this is the challenge of living the gospel for others. Pierre Berton called out the church a long time ago regarding ‘The Comfortable Pew’ practices we were sliding into. Do we need to be shaped from our comforts?
During the summer, we enjoyed singing some of our favourite music with our “hymns by request”. The question from this text becomes: ‘in our selections, are we thinking of hymns for our own comfort? Or hymns that will touch the lives of others?’ People are sometimes curious about why some ministers don’t wear gowns or stand in the pulpits like they did in the past. What we are now aware of is that churches that are growing do not even have pulpits and ministers wear normal attire such as jeans and t-shirts. Comfortable or not, can we be re-shaped into the church of the future? Can we trust in God’s guiding presence calling us from complacency and inviting us into a deep service of compassionate service and love?
I know…I know that this is hard stuff. Because I know what I like and what I’m comfortable with and being changed and being shaped is not something I necessarily want either. Many here through the week poke fun at my monotonous lunch routine, same thing…day in and day out. This is the nature of our human condition and this is why living our faith out is so very hard! This challenge to reform the church has been an age-old for us. I came across a 1900 year old piece of writing from 2nd Century Bishop - Irenaeus, likely written to a house church in what is now modern Day Turkey: “It is not you who shape God; it is God who shapes you. If then you are the work of God, await the hand of the Artist who does all things in due season. Offer the Potter your heart, soft and tractable, and keep firm, the ways in which the Artist has fashioned you. Let your clay be moist, lest you grow hard and lose the imprint of the Potter’s fingers”.
My friends in the journey of faith, God is shaping us into a new creation. May we offer ourselves as good clay and behold, with awe, what God is doing in and through us.