Throwing the Clay


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

September 15, 2019

Texts: Jeremiah 18:1-11; Luke 14:25-33

      On a really cold January night in Washington, D.C., my late husband Bob and I were standing in line to get into the old Embassy theatre to see Lawrence of Arabia when people from the coffeehouse two doors down brought out cocoa to warm our bodies––and then they suggested we visit the coffeehouse afterward to warm our souls. Now almost sixty years later, the Potter’s House still stands as part of the outreach ministry of Church of the Savior, organized a little more than ten years before. 

       Finding its inspiration in Jeremiah’s story of God’s molding us to be the good news to the poor, the Potter’s House continues to speak to the Adams-Morgan neighbor-hood through feeding the poor and educating the rich in mission. Finding its hope in the fact that we can be molded as is the clay, the Potter’s House speaks to the powers on Capitol Hill through its witness for social justice and peace.  

       Although we were unable to go to the Potter’s House after the movie was over because it had closed for the night––that movie was almost four hours long!––we did return to the Potter’s House and spend many evenings there talking with the Christians who led committed and inten-tional lives. 

       Anyone who has ever taken a pottery class knows what it means to throw clay. Starting with a lump that is some-what wet, you put the clay on a flat round surface called a bat connected to a wheel on a pole connected to a pedal; when you push the pedal, the wheel turns. As you begin to shape and mold the clay into something recognizable, like a cup or bowl, you have to add more water to the––and potting is messy––that you are working with. You dip your hands into water and shape the clay until you have what you want. And, hopefully, it will look something like what you intended. 

        The unanswered question for us is how we will be molded. The truth is that we are molded much in the same way: we begin with some raw material––that’s the lump of clay and then we are shaped by the parameters of the wheel and the hands that shape us. We have water thrown on us as we change shape and become a finished piece. Fired by tragedy and misfortune, we emerge hardened through anger, bitterness, and forgiveness, hatred and love. Glazed, we present an image to the world as a pot, a dish, a cup. 

       The question is whether after this process we can be remolded and become something different than what we were made to be or does the pot have to be broken, mixed with water again, in order to be recast. We don’t like to think of ourselves needing to be broken to change our shape. 

        In this passage from Jeremiah, God is the potter and we are the clay. And this image of God is a mixed one. God tells us that we can be cast down almost at will––but that perhaps God’s mind will change if the nation turns from its evil ways. The prophet here is speaking in a certain histor-ical context. 

        Judah has been faithless and has not kept God’s commandments, and we’re not talking about the piddly ones: the dietary laws or the strictures regarding Sabbath. Breaking those are only symbolic for breaking the really serious ones: worshiping other gods and gouging the poor. For the prophets, all of these laws are related: small infrac-tions lead to wholesale abandonment and God’s justice will visit those who abandon God. 

      This passage is also about the possibility of change, which we hold within us individually and collectively as a society. Rather than trying to be finished too early in the process, we can have the potter throw more water on us so that we are shaped in a way that allows us to be fully re-sponsive to God. None of us is really a finished work until the day we die. Until then, we are being constantly shaped and reshaped as is the clay on a potter’s wheel. 

        What we do individually affects us as a society. Our preoccupation with having the good life, the easy life has affected us as a society where we try to take the easy way out. Just look at how the 2020 Presidential campaign is shaping up. The Republicans are just sitting idly by as Trump runs campaign rallies disguised as public events and the Democrats are doing these dreadful “debates” which are little more than positioning matches. Neither party is addressing the real issues we face as a Nation. 

        It is far too easy to look only at remolding the vessels we are from an individual perspective. Each of us, I daresay, is involved in some other organization, some group that hopes to remold societal policies. For some it may be envir-onmental groups like Clean Ocean Action or the Sierra Club; others of us are more likely to be involved in organizations promoting equality and parity, such as the ACLU, Equality, or the AAUW. 

       Jeremiah put the events of his day into the context of God’s anger at the people forsaking the ways laid down by the law. Jeremiah had worked with Josiah to restore the law as God had given it; however, after Josiah was killed in battle, his son relapsed to the old evil ways. 

        To put it mildly, God was not happy. Rather than being shaped by God’s law, Judah had chosen to disobey it. From our modern perspective, we explain the disaster that befell the kingdom as the result of bad geopolitical choices; from Jeremiah’s point of view, this is God’s judgment. In some way, they are related to each other.

       Our bad geopolitical choices didn’t just arise in a vacuum but are related to serious flaws and failings just as they were in ancient Israel. We all bear some responsibility for the mess we find ourselves in. It’s not just about the messes we created in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it extends to the whole way we do business as a nation from being bamboozled into believing that capitalism would lead to a democratic China to ignoring the serious income gap between rich and poor. We are tempting God and, more than that, we are tempting judgment. For it will come.

       Terrified after 9/11, we were cowed in creating such measures as the Patriot Act, which continues to eat away at our fundamental freedoms as a people. We sit here and nod, but the real answer is to become part of the solution––not in a partisan political way but by acting on our individual and corporate conscience. The question remains for us as it remained for ancient Israel: how will we be shaped and who will shape us?  

       Let us pray: God of the ages, shape us, mold us, use us for your will. In the name of him who came to show us how to live, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.