Summit Presbyterian Church
September 4, 2016
Psalm 1; Jeremiah 18: 1-11
Shaped by God
In Ireland this summer — and this is the only sermon where I’ll talk about my vacation, which I think can be a little obnoxious — In Ireland this summer my friend and I spent a lot of time searching out and wandering through abandoned churches. We saw one church over a thousand years old that was still in near-perfect condition. Small, one room, dark — a hole for a window — bare and dry, it had been made by laying flat stones on top of one another at a precise angle to ward off the rain, much like the stone beehive huts that people lived in at the time. We traipsed through early monasteries, villages really, with tall stone celtic crosses carved with figures from the Bible and early saints. Many of these structures were ruins, single walls or four walls open to the sky, with the still beautiful mosaics and carvings and paintings now worn and faded. Some of these churches were large tourist sites; others were in the middle of towns or at the edge of the sea. The churches had fallen into ruin for many reasons. Over the centuries churches and monasteries were looted, destroyed, shut down or abandoned in wars between Kings, in Viking attacks, with the English conquest. People also emigrated, or starved, or buildings just fell down. But as some churches were abandoned, others were converted — from Catholic to Protestant and back again — and new ones built. My favorite new church was the Roman Catholic Galway Cathedral, official title Cathedral of Our Lady Assumed into Heaven and St. Nicolas, built in the 1960s. It’s a large stone structure evoking the great European cathedrals with magnificent high ceilings and light streaming in. There were all different kinds of stained glass windows, mosaics, paintings and posters, all bright and beautiful, a feast for the eyes and spirit. (Although I should tell you that when I was googling it yesterday, to refresh my memory, I came across an article in the Irish Times. They had invited their readers to send in nominations of buildings in Ireland that deserved the wrecking ball. You guessed it - Galway Cathedral was near the top of the list. So it’s not everyone’s favorite!) So in one small country, churches were built and planted, plucked up, broken down and reshaped. And the buildings are just traces, the fossils, of the people of God who have worshipped and taught and learned and served and been shaped in so many different ways since St. Patrick set off for Ireland about 1600 years ago.
Building and planting, breaking down and reworking - “I am a potter,” says God, in Jeremiah’s prophesy to the people of Israel. God has called Jeremiah to the home of a potter to illustrate his point — much like a children’s sermon with an object lesson. The potter has smushed the pot he was working on — or perhaps it fell upon itself because it was too thin or lopsided. The spoiled pot is in his hand but he doesn’t throw out the clay — he reworks it into another vessel as seems good to him. When Jeremiah sees this, the Word of the Lord comes to him, saying “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?” Jeremiah goes on to warn the people: God will build and pluck up and destroy, depending on what they do. If they do evil, God will break down and destroy — but if they listen to God, God will build and plant. Underneath this dire warning, there’s a word of encouragement: Listen, O people, to God and do good: then God can make a beautiful and useful pot of you. Also, although Jeremiah doesn’t say it is this: if you don’t listen, God doesn’t give up. God puts the clay back on the wheel, reshaping a new pot as seems good to him.
It’s a beautiful image, one of the most well-known in the Bible. But as with any metaphor we find in scripture, God the Potter captures only in part the mystery of the immortal, invisible God only wise. God will not be reduced to an image, even if she offers it herself. So we can’t carry this too far: God may shape and build and destroy but it doesn’t necessarily follow that God directed violence against Israel (although that’s what Jeremiah preached), or that loss is God’s punishment. It also doesn’t follow that we’re helpless putty in God’s hands. To return to Ireland, it doesn’t mean that God was behind the destruction of monasteries and churches or even necessarily, the building of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption and St. Nicholas. . . . But there’s wisdom in this scripture. We’re told what to do. Listen to God, says Jeremiah. Turn from evil. Or in the words of Isaiah, Turn from evil, do good; seek peace and pursue it. Or in the words of Jesus, quoting Moses: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. And as we listen to God, God will shape us, through the Holy Spirit, into a church that seems good to her. The form will change over time and place: in terms of doctrine, church government, worship, and yes, buildings. As we say in Presbyterian speak, we’re a church reformed and always reforming. But this scripture reminds us our first question is not: What should the church look like? What form should it take? It’s “what is God calling us to be and do?” and in the Bible, God isn’t particularly interested in buildings or church government. (Although God does give detailed instructions on the making of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, and God does commission leaders. Sometimes I wish you all couldn’t read the Bible on your own. Then I wouldn’t have to acknowledge those parts of the Bible that don’t support my point!). Mostly, God is concerned that the people worship God, not idols; that we feed the hungry, protect widows and children, forgive enemies, release captives, bring good news to the poor, love one another. If we keep ourselves focused on God’s voice, the form of the church will follow. And as we see when we look at the global church, across the centuries, those forms are many and diverse, falling into ruin and also rising from the ashes. Beautiful, useful pots and vases and jars of all sizes, shapes and colors.
Today we lifted up in prayer Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, whose building burned down this week. Good Shepherd is a small Presbyterian congregation, but there were four other congregations worshiping there and also a children’s program and other ministries. They will be forced to wrestle directly with the question that faces the church in all times and places. What next? What is God calling us to be and do? Kevin Porter, the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery, said this after the fire: “There are things about a 1912 structure that are not the best conduit for ministry in 2016. We need to pause, hear God’s voice, see the gifts God has given to those who are here today and determine what the needs are and what is appropriate moving forward.” The language is a twenty-first century, but in Kevin’s gentle way he’s channeling Jeremiah: Pause. Hear God’s Voice. Trust that the Holy Spirit will form us as we follow God’s call. In the case of Good Shepherd it may be rebuilding a similar church on the same corner; or it could mean something entirely different. We’ll keep them in prayer, remembering that we’re in need of prayer too, along with the church universal, what we also call the holy, catholic church. Praying that we may always listen to God’s voice. Turning from evil, doing good, and letting God shape us, in a way that seems good to God.