Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The story of Jeremiah’s visit to the potter’s house and God’s use of the potter’s process as a metaphor for God’s own work is wonderfully and frustratingly straightforward. We get it. But it immediately raises questions.

September 5, 2010

Alternate First Reading
View Bible Text

Commentary on Jeremiah 18:1-11

The story of Jeremiah’s visit to the potter’s house and God’s use of the potter’s process as a metaphor for God’s own work is wonderfully and frustratingly straightforward. We get it. But it immediately raises questions.

The hermeneutical question is, “what relationship or analogy shall we suppose between Jeremiah’s audience and our own communities?” In the text, the “clay” represents a “nation” or a “kingdom,” and at his call in chapter 1, Jeremiah was indeed “appointed a prophet to the nations”–a broader scope than that claimed by most parish preachers. So is this text of mere historical interest–“look how God used to be involved in the affairs of nations?”

Or does the reference to the “house of Israel” in verse 6 invite us to hear ourselves addressed in the passage since we, like Israel, are in a specific covenantal relationship with God–a covenant to which prophets urge us to remain accountable. And if we do hear ourselves addressed, how narrowly focused is our understanding of “ourselves;” is God’s dealing with the nation of Israel typical for how God deals with individual Christians or congregations, or should the potter metaphor be reserved only for God’s work with the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church–the whole “people of God?”

The theological questions revolve first around God’s prerogative to discard a blob of clay (a nation–even the nation of Israel) when God senses that it will fail to conform to God’s purposes. Second, we must grapple with the testimony of Jeremiah that the peoples’ actions and disposition contribute directly to God’s ability to form them for use. Further, is a discarded nation (or church body or congregation) utterly condemned (separated from God forever), or is it only out of the picture for the particular part of the mission for which God is forming vessels? Those who believe that a people’s salvation is by grace alone will struggle with the former meaning even though the language of the text leans in that direction: “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…”

Assuming that many of us will consider the contemporary congregation or church body to be a faithful analogue for the “nation of Israel,” the ecclesiological questions are, first, “who exactly has to repent here in order to render the lump of clay useful?” Again, it is a matter of scope; is it the individual Christian, the congregation, the denomination, or the nation that must change…and how, exactly? And second, does the promised presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church offer any more protection from the potter’s negative judgment than was offered to Israel through the covenant (a decidedly conditional protection according to this text)?

The clarity of this episode from Jeremiah allows these questions to arise quickly. Enjoy wrestling with them (as I have here), for in the process your own theological commitments will be taken down to the potter’s house for some debate with God’s vivid metaphor.

One possible means for encouraging your audience to engage the text is to use the sermon as a means to enter fully into the potter’s metaphor–extending, through sensory imagination, the bare bones given here. The first step in such a composition process is to establish a firm theological framework made up of brief true statements inferred from the text and then fleshed out by the whole canonical and Christian witness. A possible framework from this text might be: God has a mission; God employs nations and peoples in service to that mission; people are free to choose whether to be employed (or employable); God desires people to repent of evil and turn toward God’s will; God is active in the formation of that/those people; God is a sovereign mission director (God alone decides who is suitable).

Once the framework is in place, the sermon can enter into the metaphor in a number of ways. Gather the elements of the scene: the potter, the potter’s hands, the clay, the wheel, the shaping tools, and the water (for sure, do not forget the role water plays in shaping pots!). Or envision the steps in the process–even those that occur before and after the throwing and reshaping referred to in the text: for example, the envisioning of the shape depending on the intended use; the kneading of the clay (to get the air out); the firing; and the glazing. Then, flesh out the theological framework by imagining the dynamics of the potter’s work.

For example, note how advantageous it is for the potter to recognize the unsuitability of the clay before the clay is fired and glazed. At that point all that is lost is the potter’s time and patience; but after firing and glazing the piece is useless. A sermon that uses the imagery of the text but builds on a broader theological framework might consider whether the Church is a lump of clay–and therefore able, through water and the hands-on work of God, to be reformed for mission–or a useless bit of dust-collecting kitsch (no offense intended to St. Paul’s use of the “clay pot” imagery!).

However you might use this iconic metaphor, when I am sitting in your congregation on September 5th, let me hear about the use to which God intends to put this finished product, this people. What is God’s mission and what is our part in it? As the wheel spins and the water flows, what does the potter feel in this lump of clay? What in us serves as encouragement (or discouragement) that this vessel will continue to serve God’s purpose?