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Shaped as Seems Best

Sermon - 9/05/10
Rev. April Oristano
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Jeremiah 18:1-11

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2ĎCome, go down to the potterís house, and there I will let you hear my words.í 3So I went down to the potterís house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potterís hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

5 Then 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 potterís 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.


Are you familiar with the United Church of Christís slogan?  God is still speaking.  And another one goes with it: Donít place a period where God has placed a comma.  Itís a great slogan.  And itís true.  God is still speaking.  But speaking to who?  And what is the message?  O here comes another one, just like all the bounty of TV evangelists who say God is still speaking, well God isÖ  Jeremiah, believed that God was still speaking then. 

Saying that God still is, still is creating, still speaking means that the one who hears God has some explaining to do.  Who or what is God and of course if God is not a who to you then you definitely have some explaining about how you know what to do with the message/the receiving of Godís message.

I believe.  I think God is still speaking, still creating.  I say that and will answer the two questions.  Who is God?  I call God the Spirit of Life, the amazing confusing overwhelming feeling and sense we have when in the process of birth, art, words, love, death, joy, pain.  Creation is happening in every moment.  That is what I call God. 

What is the message of creation, of God then?  How do I hear the message? The message is in my life.  In your life.  In living itself. 

Jeremiah believes that God is still speaking and is in relationship with him, with the people.  What is the nature of this relationship?   The potter and the clay.  Jeremiah is a large book, full of conversation with God and proclamation and full of imagery that we wonít get to. 

But there are some Common themes in his writings that we do get to experience today - are about the character of God and the relationship between God and the people.  God ďChanges Godís MindĒ for the people and the people ďturnĒ to God.  

Jeremiah speaks of a God of love and a god of great power.  A God who watches, and a God of action, and important to me this morning, a God who communicates, shares responsibility, who wants the best.  "Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.Ē  And this passage is not without troubling imagery - The pronouncement that any nation or kingdom can be uprooted is troubling but it is followed by the acknowledgement that any nation and any kingdom can change.  Even God.

A Negative reaction to this prayer of Jeremiah is expected Ė our teacher is Jesus and his words for his enemies were prayers of reconciliation and forgiveness, not for their total destruction. But we have heard others pray in this same way Ė pray to God for the destruction of others.  If we are unaware of our own daily mutterings we too have prayed that someone get out of our way, do it our way.  But thatís not what I hear in this passage.  I hear a conversation between a person of faith and their God.   

Jeremiah does not take the revenge into his own hands, he does talk with God about it.  Shouts at God about it Ė laments, in the way we all do, to take this burden, this nonsense, this idiot and get him out of my way!  It is a release in some ways, to recognize the anger and hatred in our lives, and give it to God.  The answer to such prayers often comes in the reshaping of our own lives to address why we are so mad, what little control we have over anotherís actions and thoughts and behaviors, but what we can do is work on our own thoughts and actions.  See that hatred and revenge do little to solve problems or create solutions. 

I experience God as a compassionate parent in this message from Jeremiah.  Godís openness exists in a picture of God as a shaper of destiny Ė can I not do with you as this potter does?"

This is an echo of Godís action In the wilderness, where Godís change of mind stops a planned and some would say merited punishment of the people who have disobeyed (exodus 32: 12, 14), there is the echo of Godís compassion in the story of Nineveh, a foreign nation that evokes a merciful change of mind on Godís part and the decision not to destroy Nineveh (Jonah 3:10).  And Jonah himself, disobeyed on more than one occasion, ran from Godís instruction, denied change was coming to himÖin the end there was room for him too, to turn to God, try a new way.

We go through hell and back in our lives and the question for you is Do you think God is walking with you, ready to talk it out, create something with you that will help give shape your life or not?  And even deeper is this question:  Is your relationship with God built on mutual trust, where you trust God to help illuminate your own understanding, to open your mind to new possibilities and does God trust you to take the risks necessary to change your life?

With God, with the creative forces in our lives there isnít just one way to be or become.  And If the pot will not work in its present shape, the potter can mold it back into a lump of clay and begin to work afresh with it.  Hmm. This isnít working - What seems best here?  Start over?  Make something new OR perhaps embrace the design youíre makingÖI donít believe there is a right answer.  The artist in each of us will answer uniquely.  And from just this brief introduction to pottery, you can see that anything can be made of clay.

Staying open to interpretation reminds me of another story of art. Christy Knox, a disciple you may know in Silverton, is a clown and a balloon artist and she taught me some of her tricks.  She is possibly the most encouraging person I know.   The power you feel once you know how to make a balloon dog, itís amazing.  Itís like your childhood magic in your own hands.  Try it.  She teaches me the fish and then we go onto a more difficult dog.  I start out making a basset hound, sure.  You get about halfway there and someone else says ďitís an elephant!Ē. And Iím heartbroken, over a balloon, I know. But Christy says, ďYes! Thatís what she was going for!Ē Go for it, April.  Itís an elephant.  A beautiful one.  A horrid basset hound but a beautiful elephant. 

Apply Christyís advice to the metaphor in Jeremiah - even a pot that has been fired and cooled, has hardened and taken a final shape can become something new.  A cereal bowl doesnít only have to be for cereal.  Soup?  Potted plant?  Key dish?  Even broken to bits an old bowl can become A mosaic table top or anything of use to the artist.  What appears to be trash to one can be recycled and utilized and treasured by another.   Apply this to your personal life and suddenly the parts you hate about yourself, things you are trying to rid yourself of, things you wish werenít true about you, things you keep to yourself, these are special too, part of the design that is you right now.  Not what was designed for you but the design you are becoming. That you are co-creating.  Sometimes the clay doesnít want to move and the potter must change course.  Sometimes the potterís vision is so powerful the clay reshapes.  All in a days work between you and God and it will be rare and unique, a one of a kind work.

Let me tell you an Ecuador story.  You know A family that lives in a rural village in Northern Ecuador lives in ways very different from our own.  Parents going to work does not mean the same thing as it does here.  We have daycare.  We have co-ops, and schools in every neighborhood.  State funded organizations to help families in need.  Churches are an important place in the family in both Ecuador and the little village of Eugene.  Churches respond to the need of the people in the community and find a way, make a way. 

When I visited Ecuador we went to a village named Cuatro Esquinas, , to observe their progress toward their goals.  Cuatro Esquinas means Four Corners. 

About four years ago, a team of Oregon Disciples came to help Cuatro Esquinas start their project.  It was a modest goal to build a sanctuary and adjoining classrooms for children.  And upon their departure the task was nearly complete.  The sanctuary was standing, some finishing touches needed to be made but the community, maybe 30 people in all, were pleased to have a place of worship.  The children & families that worked with our Oregon Disciples grew very close in that time of working together.  I reflected a couple of weeks ago that in our group the Oregonians and the Tocagonians -we sort of grew one heart.  Several on this first trip returned to the US with ďgodchildrenĒ and a promise to return. 

Four years later and a mostly new set of Oregon Disciples.  I stepped off the bus first.  When we stepped off the bus we were welcomed by over 100 people, mostly children. There were so many kids and they were so happy to see us.  And I really didnít know why.  Happy to see complete strangers - the first group off the bus were rookies.  But then came the Ecuador veterans:  Julie Hannah, Audre Bratcher, Rick Ikeda, Doug Wirt had all worked with the community of Quatro Esquinas and the welcome for these Ė their friends Ė their families.  Amazingly beautiful. 

Well I began to cry.  I couldnít tell you why exactly but I know itís related to the culmination of dreams coming true, of promises being kept, of key pieces of the heart being reunited after so long.  It was that sense I fist talked about this morning that co-creative power.  The community had multiplied, 3 times as large as when they first visited.  The children had grown. The godchildren were now pre teens, and had new siblings to introduce to godparents.

And The church Ė was practically un recognizable to the four who had helped to build it.  The sanctuary isnít even large enough to have a childrenís worship service, thatís how many kids this church is serving now.  The pictures are blurry, I know, I was crying.  But I had to try to include them.  The classrooms are used every day for childrenís education, reading, writing, bible study, music.  But there arenít even enough chairs to let all the children sit in the class.  Not enough desks to allow all the children to do the same exercises at the same time. 

This will not do says the pastor and the community.  The building is not right.  Itís finished but it isnít enough.   The church is now 2 stories higher than the original plan.  A giant, massive, coliseum style sanctuary is being built above the education wing, to host regional worship events and capital campaign style events for the community.  The goal now is to continue the work, get every child a desk.  At least half of the children you see in these photos are orphans or who have parents who work 6 of 7 days away from the village, bussing themselves to the best market to sell goods.  These children are left unattended and are hungry, eager to learn, so incredibly loving, as all children are.   

The potter in this story of Jeremiah does not give up when the clay doesn't hold its shape. Instead of discarding it, the potter comes up with a new shape "as seemed good" (verses 3-4). This is how Jeremiah comes to see the hand of God intimately involved in the events of his day. Even though Jeremiah uses the potter metaphor to warn that God is "shaping evil" against God's people (verse 11), the original metaphor tells us that God is still at work, even in these disastrous events, finding a new shape for God's people "as seems good."  How can you use Jeremiah's eyes and interpretation to compare to your own image of God at work in your world? 

This week I got a massage.  Iíll thank you all for this gift I received was in recognition of my year anniversary here Ė a gift card and I decided that after sleeping on the floor of the church for River Rally (which was awesome) and then sleeping on the ground for the camp out last weekend (also a lot of fun), combined with the fact that I havenít treated myself to this completely awesome experience in over a yearÖit was time. 

Getting a massage is a lived experience of the potter and the clay.  Itís not for everyone but I do highly recommend it, even it is ďoutside the boxĒ for you. 

IN my experience the body stores memories and thoughts and emotions in a very physical way.   Old wounds, unreleased anger or sadness, worry right here.  Things we consider a burden to share with others, Grief.  Lists of things to do.  Work anxiety, personal anxiety.  It all finds a little niche in the body and waits. 

Every time I get a massage I am confronted with my hidden baggage and thereís no denying it Ė I mean you can try but I find I canít think about anything else except the one thing.  And the masseuse gives the best advice:  breathe.  Allow her to do her work, my work is to breathe.  As the potter she can feel the places of hurt in my body, she doesnít know the cause but she cares only for the reshaping, the relaxing of the muscle.  Massage therapy is therapy in more than one way.  Believe that. Now I say ďthereís a good chance of an emotional release but I donít know what kind yet.  Just wanted to warn you.Ē Because itís important that I donít shame myself for crying or hurting in the process.

God is still creating, beside us, inside us, alongside us.  God is still calling and pointing and hopeful.  There is an openness in Cuatro Esquinas, an openness to the shaping power of the people with God and it is standing literally in the face of a volcano.   And It is both in your ability and in your inherit nature to give shape to your life, help create your future, with God.  And in the process, God grows and learns to experience change in another unique way, and can offer your life as an example to others who are struggling to change.

I quote Fredrick Buechner from his work Now and Then "Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace." 


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