Shaping and Renewing at the Potter’s Wheel

Jeremiah 18:1-11 & Luke 14:25-33

I am going to take a risk, today, and talk about something that I know nothing about: pottery. How many people have ever done pottery? Sat at a potters wheel, worked the clay into a pleasing shape, and then fired the object in the kiln, to produce a piece of pottery?

I never have, so I am venturing into these waters with caution. Those of you who have, will perhaps already have a deeper appreciation of the words from Jeremiah which we have heard today,

Way back in ancient Israel, the prophet Jeremiah, presumably, knew something about pottery. For potters were essential to the lifestyle of ancient people; they made jugs, bowls, carrying implements, and decorative items. We still depend on potters, today; there is nothing more pleasing than going into the workshop of a potter, watching them create something, handing over your cash for the item of beauty that you have seen for sale.

Jeremiah, by contrast, is not talking about purchasing a consumer item. He is talking about the daily work of the potter, working with skill and care to produce a jug, and bowl, that will be useful to a family for years to come.

And Jeremiah knows that, in the skill set developed by the potter, there is the capacity to look at the clay as it forms a shape, and to discern whether it will be robust enough, sturdy enough, to form a new piece of pottery; or whether it needs to be recast, reshaped, broken down to basics and started all over again.

The image of the potter, sizing up the clay and determining to start all over, is a potent image when placed, as Jeremiah does, in the context of the life of the people of Israel. It is a tangible, material image, which resonates with the inner life, the spiritual life, of the people of his day.

Once the people of Israel had pride in their national condition: a king ruling over them, an army of might and power, a Temple where they could worship as commanded, a homeland that provided them with homes, fields, crops, vines, all the essentials of life.

By the time Jeremiah had become active as a prophet, the army had been devastated, the nation had been conquered, the temple had been ravaged, the priests had been forcibly removed from the land, the vast majority of the people had been sent into exile over in the east, in the regions around Babylon.

 

 

The Exile, as it became known, was seen to be an event of great punishment, visited upon the people of Israel because of their disobedience over the generations. And the role of the prophet, carried out with intensity and commitment by Jeremiah, was to remind the people that it was their sinfulness, and the sinfulness of their ancestors, which had caused the Lord God to punish them in this way.

But God would not remain, simply, as the God of punishment, visiting hardship upon the people for ever. Rather, the prophet declares that what God wants, what God clearly desires, is a change of mind, a change of heart; a full scale repentance, a turning away from evil and am returning to the covenant which God had made with the ancestors of the people.

So, the work of the potter was at hand, to demonstrate that what God most intensely desired from the people, was this repentance. God was about, not perpetual punishment of the people, but the reworking, reshaping, refreshing of the life of the people, bringing them back into covenant relationship.

Indeed, there are striking words in the passage from Jeremiah which we have read today; words about God changing his mind, about the intention to pluck up a kingdom and destroy it, or the intention to plant and build a new kingdom. God is envisaged as an agent provocateur, agitating amongst the Israelites, agitating for them to change their minds, to return to convenient fidelity.

Earlier this year, in the first phase of the IIM process with you, I spoke about being in the liminal space, the in-between space, the place of not yet being where we hope to arrive at, still in a place where the last holds sway, but in a place of transition, of being not settled.

At that stage, during the season of Lent, we were thinking about the wilderness being the liminal place, the in-between place, the place of being unsettled. Perhaps you feel that we have moved on from that space. And yet, still, there is a sense of being in-between, not yet settled. We continue on the journey.

For the people of Israel, the liminal space that they occupied was no longer the wilderness, the land in between Egypt and Israel. Their new liminal space was Babylon itself. Sent into Exile, cast out from their homeland, they were in transition, away from the familiar certainties of life.

You may recall that I spoke of transition theory that we use was developed by William Bridges, in a book he wrote, entitled Managing Transitions (2009).

Bridges talks about transitions in terms of three stages: first, there is the letting go; then there is the neutral zone of being in-between; and finally, the connection into a new place, a new way of being. In that neutral, in-between zone, there is a need for us to nurture and develop a capacity to live within the discomfort of ambiguity which arises during the experience of loss, as we move away from the familiar.

In that liminal space, that unfamiliar territory, Jeremiah speaks the word of the Lord, urging the people to reconsider, to review, to reshape, to remake themselves. The imagery of the potter, the clay, the potter’s wheel, and the process of creating a new utensil, speaks directly to their situation.

So, it seems to me, that as we reflect on the prophet Jeremiah, today, we can resonate with this sense of renewal that he seeks for his people. The Lord, says the prophet, will look for the people to turn from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings. The prophet was indicating that what God most dearly wanted, was for Israel to be reshaped and renewed. And the liminal space, the in-between place, is precisely the location where this renewal, this reshaping, can take place.

(And in the light of the announcement I made earlier, there may be a sense that as a Congregation we are firmly in that liminal zone, waiting for events to proceed to enable us to move on, into a new mode of being.)

Last week, we focussed on membership. I spoke about membership in terms of the gracious openness that, I believe, the Uniting Church seeks to foster amongst its people. The understanding of membership that I developed in last week’s sermon was framed in terms of being active: of being active as a disciple in daily life, being active in participating in fellowship within the Congregation, being active in support for the work of the church, as well as actively committed to working for the reign of God in human society and actively bearing witness to a faith commitment.

I want to think more, in our workshop today, about what it means for us to be active as disciples, actively witnessing to our faith, actively seeking the reign of God, in what we do week by week, in the context of a society, in Australia, where attending church, believing in God, and valuing the Christian faith, has diminished over the decades.

How do we maintain our Christian witness? How do we continue working for the reign of God? How do we participate in fellowship and rejoice in our relationships with one another? These are the markers of active, committed membership.

In a few weeks, I will be inviting everyone with a connection to this Congregation, to join in an act of affirming our faith, confirming together what we each believe, identifying with one another as members, together, in this Congregation. I have prepared a small handout, which is available today at the end of the service, for everyone to take, to read, to consider, and to use as the basis for affirming together our belonging to this Congregation.

This is a further step along the way in the Intentional Interim Ministry process. It is a matter which I was alerted to, at the very start of the process, in my conversations with the Joint Nominating Committee late last year. Revitalising our sense of belonging, renewing our membership, is an essential,step along the way during this liminal period, this in-between space, of the IIM year.

After we have renewed our membership, we will then move into a time of discernment, as we prayerfully consider who God might be calling, to exercise leadership within this Congregation. The position of Chairperson of the Church Council and some positions as members of the Church Council will need to be voted upon, as is the regular process within the Uniting Church.

As we approach the time of voting, we will need to be discerning, nominating, and then prayerfully considering the people to join our leadership team on the Church Council. So the reshaping and refreshment that I have been speaking about today, will in fact be the process that we will be taking as a Congregation.

You can see on the screen the timetable that Church Council agreed to for this process: affirmation of membership, call for nominations, discernment as to who is called to exercise this ministry of leadership, voting, and then the instituting of the new Church Council. That is the timeframe for what we will be doing in the coming weeks. It will require us all to undertake a period of discernment with regard to the future leadership of this Congregation.

But it is not just a matter of refreshing our common life in terms of membership and leadership. Our discipleship calls us to engage with God, in God’s mission to the world. God is reaching out to the people of this planet, reaching out in love and compassion. We are called to work alongside God, to discover where God is already at work, to become coworkers with God in the mission that is already underway.

So today we will continue, after worship and fellowship, in a workshop that will focus our attention on that mission, and stimulate us to imagine ways in which we, as a Congregation, can share in God’s mission to the world, here in this part of that world, in Queanbeyan.

For membership is not only about attending and participating in worship and fellowship; it is about active discipleship, engaging in actions that bring the reign of God to a reality in the lives we live in this world, and witnessing in words as well as actions that point to the way of Jesus, the one whom God specifically chose to lead his mission in the world.

After the benediction, and after the morning tea, we will meet to listen, to converse, to explore, to imagine, and from all of that, to provide the foundations for the plans that will be needed, as we think about next year, and beyond. The IIM process is for an Interim time, an in-between time, a liminal space, and so it is reasonable to have anticipation and expectation about ministry leadership into the future.

And calling the right minister means being clear about what gifts and skills will match what is sought within this Congregation. And that, in turn, means being clear about the values and the mission of this Congregation, and being able to identify the direction of mission that is to be undertaken in the coming years.

So that is why I encourage and invite you to participate in the workshop, to prepare for the discernment ahead, to pray about the leadership of this gathering of people, and to set out in hope that God will reshape and refresh us; that, as the potter reworks the clay, so too the Queanbeyan Uniting Church will be renewed and refreshed for future mission.

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