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“Pliable in the Potter’s Hands”
September 8, 2019
Introduction of a Minute for Mission – Professor Mark Douglas from Columbia Theological Seminary:
In the Richards Center at Columbia Theological Seminary,
hung high on the walls of the refectory are large, painted portraits of the many professors
who have taught at the seminary over the last several decades.
As I participated in the convocation luncheon at the seminary this past week,
I was reminded that I had sat at the feet of probably 80% of those professors.
Each professor, through the classes they taught and the lives that they lived,
had an impact upon my life and faith.
I will be eternally grateful for them, and for their Christian witness.
Several of those professors made deep, lasting impressions upon my life;
a few changed my theological understanding forever.
One day, my friend Mark Douglas’ portrait will hang on those walls,
and I will be proud and grateful to have been both his student and his friend.
Like a shaping tool in the hands of a master potter,
a professor, a school teacher, a mentor or coach, certainly a parent, and yes, a prophet,
will alter the form and substance of our lives.
Jeremiah was called the “prophet of doom”.
Jeremiah spoke plainly about the reality and consequence of human sinfulness.
He did not want to do so; he was a reluctant prophet with an unpopular message.
Jeremiah accused his nation of two things, specifically, indifference to God and indifference to
Or, in New Testament language, failing to love God with one’s heart and soul,
and failing to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
Jeremiah claimed that the people had devoted their lives to things other than God.
They were spending their lives on things that do not last,
and they had arranged their economic system in such a way that the poor had no hopeful future,
the poor and needy, instead of being lifted up, were being constantly exploited.
For four hundred years the people had been drifting away from God.
For four hundred years, prophets had been warning the people that a reckoning would come.
All that they held dear would be overturned.
Of course, the people didn’t believe him; they didn’t want to believe him.
So unpopular was his message that the king had him arrested for his views.
The king and the people preferred the message of the false prophets of the day
who said that everything was going to be okay.
The false prophets said that the nation really was not that sinful after all.
God had blessed them; God would continue to bless them.
Hear the Word of God from 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 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. 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 spoke with Tamara Gehle the other day. Many of you know Tamara and her children, Eilis and Eric.
Some of you are aware that Tamara has become an accomplished potter.
She creates beautiful things with her hands from the clay of the earth.
Tamara spoke about the challenges and pitfalls of being a potter.
She said the process of making a bowl or a pot or a pitcher is not easy; it takes quite a bit of effort.
Tamara remarked that bowls almost always do not turn out exactly the way potter intended.
One of her intended coffee mugs, for example, turned into espresso cup right before her eyes.
Becoming a potter takes a long time and quite a bit of practice.
The relative usefulness and beauty of a pot or a bowl depends greatly upon the skill of the potter.
The potter has to know what he or she is doing and concentrate fully throughout the process.
The Master Potter’s hands are careful, intentional, creative.
They give not too much pressure or the pot will crumble;
they give just enough pressure to alter the shape and direction of the bowl.
One of the first challenges of turning a pot is centering the clay on the wheel.
If a person or nation becomes unbalanced, not centered, the result will turn out misshapen,
and may even fall off the wheel.
So many things can go wrong with the process of turning, then trimming, then drying, then firing a
Did you know that a pot is tested by fire not once but twice?
The first testing in a hot kiln is to strengthen the bowl so it won’t break.
This process happens at about 1700 degrees Fahrenheit.
After the first firing, the pot is still a bit porous so that it can absorb a coating of glaze.
Once it cools, the pot is glazed and fired again – this time at 2300 degrees Fahrenheit!
When this second firing is accomplished, the pot or bowl is smooth, no longer porous.
The glaze has turned to glass, clinging tightly to the pot;
the surface is non-porous, now able to hold liquid, now able to be useful and beautiful.
Ultimately, this passage from Jeremiah is about who is shaping your life?
Who or what is shaping our common life as a nation?
Is God the Master Potter shaping our lives?
Or have we allowed some intruder at the wheel?
Is something, some group, or someone other than God
working hard at forming our thoughts and attitudes?
The prophet tells the people: You cannot go on doing the things you are doing.
As a nation, you must amend your ways.
This worship of false gods, this taking advantage of the poor, must come to an end.
Last weekend, Melanie and I were in Kansas City for the wedding of one of our “adopted sons”, Cade.
Cade Crow was a teammate of our son John on the Presbyterian College soccer team.
Cade and Bentley’s wedding was a wonderful occasion with two very nice families,
and it was a special time for us with our son John and his friends.
While we were in Kansas City, we had the opportunity to visit the National World War I Memorial.
Of the many powerful aspects to that memorial, one that struck me was the pliability of national
100 years ago, the maps of Europe and Asia looked very different than they do today.
Many tend to think of national borders as static, unchanging.
But any cursory review of history reminds us that borders between nations have always been moving.
Some have speculated, for example, that the seven Central American Countries –
Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.
might one day join together. They potentially could be more stable and strong together,
with more international influence, rather than limping along as small and independent nations.
Borders between nations are not static over time, but can change, sometimes rather quickly.
The new nation of South Sudan in Africa is only several years old!
Our mission co-workers, Shelvis and Nancy Smith-Mather, experienced firsthand
the birth of that nation and have been working hard there teaching peace and reconciliation.
Like Jeremiah’s people, we too tend to think that no major change will actually come.
Like the employees of SunTrust and BB&T, we did not see such change on the horizon.
The impending merger of these two banking behemoths began with conversations,
literally just months ago, between the two CEO’s.
Both CEO’s were looking 15-20 years ahead and realized that together,
their banks may be more able to navigate the winds of change than if they remained separate.
Many lives are being turned upside down by such a significant merger,
and we may not know for years whether this was a good idea or not.
When winds of change come, they often come swiftly without much warning.
This Jeremiah passage certainly speaks to how we must live as individuals,
but the force of this passage was directed toward the nation, toward the people as a whole.
Judah had lost her way; she was a nation tossed to and fro by what seemed popular or expedient.
False prophets were crying out: there is no need to fear, no need to change.
God has blessed us; God will continue to bless us.
But their worship had been corrupted by devotion to false gods.
The people were giving their lives to created things rather than the Creator.
The “needy were being sold for a pair sandals”, the prophet exclaims.
The poor were being taken advantage of by the rich.
The direction of the house of Israel was not good, and it was the prophet’s unpopular job to exclaim it.
Since you are in worship today, you are probably already aware of what ways or doings
you may need to amend. You may have come here today because you are feeling the need for change
in your life and you know you need God’s help to do it.
When we gather at this Table, we often do so in order to discover new strength or new direction.
As we approach the table today, there are several questions worth considering.
First, who or what potter has been shaping our lives?
Have we entrusted our lives and the life of our nation to the care of the one true God,
the One who holds good intentions for our common life?
Or have we placed our lives in the hands of another?
Have we placed our economic systems and health systems and education systems in the hands of
Second, are we willing to change?
Are we willing to be pliable in the hands of the Master Potter?
Are we willing to have the form and substance of our individual lives and our common life altered?
The beautiful pitcher on the Table began as a simple lump of clay.
It was formed intentionally, carefully, creatively by a Master Potter.
It was tested not once, but twice, by fire to become strong and useful,
so that it could one day be placed on this Table to hold and to offer the sacramental wine.
My prayer is that we too, not only as individuals or as a congregation, but as a nation as well,
through the way that we live and organize ourselves to live together,
might hold and offer the body and blood of our Lord so that the world might eat and drink and be full.
Thanks be to God for persevering with good intentions for Judah, from whence the Messiah came,
and thanks be to God for persevering with good intentions for us and our nation,
so that we too may bear his grace to all whom we meet.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church