Being Re-formed: A sermon on Jeremiah 18

First Congregational Church of West Tisbury

Sunday Sept 8, 2013

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. 5Then 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.

 Sung: “We’re the best team in the land, we’re the best darn team in the land, we’re the best team in the land, we’ve got the whole world in our hands.” In 1978, when they were on top of their division and the whole world was in their hands, the British soccer team Nottingham Forrest Football Club took the American spiritual and made it their own.

With the help of a one hit wonder band named Paper Lace, the Forrest football team song made it to 24 on the British pop charts the same year they won the English First Division Championship and ultimately the European Cup. Best team in the land. The same tune, the very same tune was reworked by the neighboring, losing Rushden & Diamonds Football Club, whose despondent fans sang “we’re the worst team in the league.” 5Then 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.” Let us pray…. Reform us O God, into the people you want us to be this day. Amen.

It happened to my friend the new mother like this: her two and a half year old went to throw something into the garbage can and came back in tears. “Mommy, why did you do this?” he said. In his small hand was a brown paper lunch bag with one unremarkable smear of green paint.  Her son looked up with wet eyes; “Why did you throw away my art?”

Smudges of green paint, play-dough dishes, paint your own mugs. Anyone who survived middle school art class, or camp, or scouts knows that imagining a beautiful bowl and willing your hands to make it are two different things entirely. Can you remember that first ashtray or candy dish you made? Or the mug that became a vase after the handle fell off? Precious? Perhaps. Practical? Possibly.  Beautiful? Probably not.

But Jeremiah shows us God as the master potter. It all seems so lovely! God is the potter, we are the pliable clay formed into Chilmark Pottery. God is in charge, we are to be gently molded, formed into something useful.  The Good News is that God has a plan for the pot and if not, no big deal, on to plan B. I love how this upends the mythology that we are destined to only be one thing in life. Maybe now a pot, maybe later a pitcher. Often this passage is read in a highly personal way.  We each are precious, individual pots being formed by God.  Throwing on a wheel virtually guarantees that every piece is unique, unlike slip-casting, where wet, liquid clay is poured into a mold to produce identical pieces every time. No, this pottery is hand thrown and unique. I’m a little teapot, you’re a little sugar bowl.

But our precious individualism is not actually what the prophet Jeremiah is talking about in this passage. In verse 6, God says to Jeremiah, “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? “ God is speaking of an entire people, the whole household of Israel. It’s you plural, not you singular- you people, youse guys, y’all. We’re not talking single vases, but a whole set of dishes. Here God is concerned about reforming a whole people, the whole house of Israel. Jeremiah is the prophet looking at a stubborn people and the prospect of war, and the prospect that Jerusalem will fall. Jeremiah is desperately warning the whole people to reform their ways, stop worshiping other gods and turn back to the God of Israel. Jeremiah isn’t speaking to one individual, but a whole people.  You know that our lot as a nation rises and falls together, even as we pretend that this is not true. Perhaps more than anyone, you on an island know that our fierce individualism cannot protect one house from a storm and spare another. You know that though we try to fight it, we are bound together. Jeremiah isn’t talking of one person being reformed, but the people together being reformed into something new. Your church has been formed and reformed for generations- what is this, meeting house number 3 or 4?

You can’t have been around since 1673 and not have been re-formed a few times. At our best, at our most faithful, church is the place where we are formed and reformed together, by God.

God tells the prophet to go down to the Potter’s shop to hear God’s words. Where would God send us now? Go down to the Apple store and wait at the Genius bar, says the Lord. Go down to the auto shop and wait by the gas pump, commanded God. Go down to the coffee shop, and lo there I will show you how the beans are ground, covered in hot water and something precious is extracted. The invitation is to see every act of creation and recreation as a sign of God at work in our world and, if we allow, in our lives.  God is not taking Jeremiah to a museum to see precious vases, but to see the Potter rework the everyday ware. This is not Waterford china, this is Tupperware.

If we let it, our lives will be formed and reformed again. It wasn’t the Elias Tupper of Leominster, MA who really made Tupperware. It was his Vice President for a time, a woman named Brownie Wise, who made Tupperware thrive. Brownie Mae Humphrey Wise grew up in rural Georgia in the early 1900s, following her divorced, itinerant hat-maker’s union organizer mother around the South.

Brownie left school after 8th grade, married a Ford Motor exec who took her to Dearborn, but there was no domestic bliss. She divorced her abusive, drunk husband, took her son and supported them selling Stanley brushes door to door. Brownie figured out that Tupperware could best be sold to women by other women. Her Tupperware home parties were selling more than the brick and mortar stores. Ultimately promoted to Vice President, Brownie became the first woman on the cover of Business Week in 1954. A divorced, 8th grade drop out on the cover of Business Week. Brownie created a successful business that gave women ways of being publically valued for their skill as sales people. But tension grew and Tupper fired Brownie Wise in 1958, with no stock options like her male colleagues for the multi-million dollar company she helped build. Brownie spent the rest of her years in Florida before she died in 1992, perfecting her skills,  as a potter. We are constantly being re-formed. Again and again, reformed.

We are the precious, ubiquitous containers of God’s love, if we choose to be used that way. You who can barely will the blanket of despair off you to get up to answer the door know that that bland church macaroni salad delivered in Tupperware with a name written on the bottom can be a lifesaving sign of the love of God. You know that when we are at our most faithful, each of us, all of us together can be precious, ubiquitous containers of God’s love. The Potter needs us earthen vessels. We need God to reform us into the people he wants us to be.

But it’s not an easy thing to be reformed. There is some seriously harsh language from God in the passage. God is not happy with the people of Israel here. Like God’s anger when we betray one another, God is angry that the people have betrayed God’s love. If you read one verse further to verse 12, the people say, ‘It is no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.’ As strong or as skilled as the potter is, clay can only be reworked if there’s enough flexibility and water left in it. Once clay has hardened, it can no longer be reformed. Despite Jeremiah’s words, the people don’t want to be reformed.

Their hearts have grown hard, each acting according to their own will. You who have thrown clay on a wheel can tell us more, but a potter can’t always just shmush the clay back into a ball.  If air bubbles form in the clay after being folded back together, when the pottery goes in the kiln, the air bubbles will explode the pot and damage the pots around it.  And we’ve all known the people who don’t have their air bubbles worked out, get to a place where all they can do is explode and hurt the people around them. There’s pain in being reworked, being reformed into something new. To get the air bubbles out, the potter takes the clay off the wheel, and throws it against the table to wedge the clay back into shape.

Being reformed is not comfortable. But it is necessary. The entire Church in American is being reformed. Our country is being reformed. This congregation is being reformed. Being Reformed means that we’re really clear about who is the potter and who is the clay. We know we can’t reform ourselves and we know being reformed will hurt. You know this. You who have hit rock bottom, changed jobs, lost jobs, left marriages, made vows, moved here, left here, lost a home, lost a pet, lost a chance, started school, ended school, gotten sick, gotten well, gotten sick again, nearly given up, started all over again, you know that being reformed into something new hurts.  You know that one year “we’re the best team in the world” and the next “we’re the worst team in the league.” We sing He’s got the whole world in his hands. But do we trust those hands to form us into something new?

Published by RevEverett

I'm a pastor in the United Church of Christ here in Boston. I serve as the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Cycliss, seamstress, my book is "Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels." NJ by birth, MA by choice. Opinions are my own. Love abounds.

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