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Sermon for Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, "Hymn of Promise"

Sermon 9/5/10
Jeremiah 18:1-11
Hymn of Promise

In a summer when we’ve been learning about and singing our favorite hymns, on this day when we conclude with our tied-for-favorite hymn, Hymn of Promise, it seems only appropriate to talk about a few other songs this morning. We just heard a reading from Jeremiah where the prophet sees God acting as the potter at the wheel. We love this imagery – it shows up in many of our songs: “Have thine own way, Lord! Have thine own way! Thou art the potter; I am the clay. Mold me and make me after thy will, while I am waiting, yielded and still.” We also have “Spirit of the Living God,” where we sing for God’s spirit to melt us and mold us, or the contemporary worship song, where we sing about putting things in our life “In the Potter’s Hand.” We also sang this morning, “Change my heart, O God”, which includes the words: “You are the potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me. This is what I pray.”
These songs draw this ‘God as Potter’ imagery from the text from Jeremiah that we have shared today, a passage that is well loved – God calls Jeremiah down to the potter’s house, and there Jeremiah watches the potter working a vessel. I wonder, though, if we look at this text more carefully, why it is we like this passage so much? We have, I think, in our minds these peaceful images of a God who gently molds us into this wonderful vessel that we have the potential to be. Well, I don’t know if you’ve ever watched a potter at work, but when a vessel goes wrong, the process of correction is usually anything but gentle. The clay pot may be completely smashed down, until it resumes a non-descript clay lump form. If things have gone too wrong, if the design is too far off from what was planned, the potter may simply start over again. If we really want God to be a potter, and if we really think we are clay to be molded, then it means that we’re saying we are giving God control over who we are and what we will become. Is that what we’re saying? “Have thine own way, Lord! Have thine own way! Hold o’er my being absolute sway!” Absolute sway! Are we giving that power to God? Do we want to? Are we able to?
I don’t know about you, but I’m a planner. That’s not to say that I’m particularly organized, or neat, or detail-oriented, because I’m not. Right now, since I’ve just been unpacking into my new home, I can pretend that my house is a disaster area because I’ve just moved in. But since you’ve seen my office here, you perhaps already know that my desk is almost always messy, and I always have as many important papers on the floor next to my desk as I do on the desk. But still, I am a planner. I like being prepared, and I like figuring out what will happen, what I want and hope to have happen. I remember getting my course catalog when I started college, and immediately I sat down and mapped out which classes I would take each semester for every semester of my entire college career. This was all before classes actually started my freshman year. That’s what I mean when I say I’m a planner.
Of course, even for those of us who are planners, real life, real life events have ways of breaking in. I did take a lot of the courses on my map for college, but some of them I took at different times than I expected, some I just never took at all, and some classes I never dreamed of wanting to take I took and loved. And my life is richer for those unplanned experiences. Are you a planner? Even if you don’t think you are, I’m guessing that you’d rather be responsible for planning your own life than letting someone else do it for you. My roommate in college, for example – her mother had a copy of the course catalog, and I remember vividly my roommate on the phone with her mother while her mother tried to pick classes for her. It’s one thing for circumstances to have made some classes unavailable for me. It’s another for someone else to want to make my decisions for me. That wouldn’t sit very well with me.
And yet – God is the potter, we are the clay. As people of faith, one of the things we actively seek to do is to let someone else make decisions for us. We say – we sing, we claim – that when it comes to plans and futures and hopes, that we’re letting God guide us, show us a path to follow. As people of faith, we’re committing to hand ourselves over, as unformed lumps of clay, into the Creator’s hand, asking God to shape us and mold us, because we believe and trust that God can draw out of us something more beautiful than we can imagine and plan for ourselves. Do we mean it? Do we really want God to be the potter that shapes us?
I think people of faith are always making such wonderful plans. Church people make great plans – we have committees to make plans, and conference about our plans, and teams to figure out how to plan. We plan all these different ways that we will serve God, share God’s love. And plans are important, they really are. We wouldn’t go very far without them. But I wonder, how often do we do what we think is best, what we have planned, and then ask God to bless our work instead of letting God decide what we should do and so already knowing we’re blessed in the path we’re taking. If we’re the clay, and God is the potter, then we need to stop asking God to be with us where we are, and start trying to follow where God is going, where God is calling, where God is leading.
When I served in Greater New Jersey, all churches were asked to read a book called Power Surge by Michael Foss, a pastor. I confess it wasn’t my favorite book. But it had one theme that I thought was right on. Foss said that churches must move from being making members, to making disciples. Too many churches, he said, are on a membership model, instead of a discipleship model. To me, that phrase says: churches need to move from trying to be the potter, to remembering that God is the potter, and we’re the clay. A membership church is a church that can function well-enough as its own potter. A church that has plans that keep it going on the same path like clockwork, a church that is more of a social organization than anything else – that’s a membership church that can take care of itself pretty well, and invite God to join in sometimes. There are many churches that can be successful for quite a long time doing that. But Jesus never mentions membership. Instead, he calls us to be disciples. The word disciple means students, pupils. It signifies people who are ready to learn, to be taught, to follow, to take instruction. A student doesn’t write the curriculum or create the lesson plans. A student learns and is shaped by the teacher.
What we want to do is be disciples. That’s starting off in the right place, because we’re signaling that we’re trying to be open to God’s will for us. And who better to set a path for us than Go, who created us? No two vessels a potter creates with his or her own hands are exactly alike. Each detail has come from the potter’s own touch. Each curve and pattern and shape is a result of the potter’s work. If we are clay, and God is the potter, then we are intimately known by the one who has created us, and all that we can be is there in God’s creative, creating mind. And when we fail – and we always will struggle and stumble – if we are clay, if we are open and flexible and moldable, God can always and will always start over with us, create again from us, rework us into something new.
            Our hymn for today, Hymn of Promise, was written in 1986 by Natalie Sleeth. Sleeth was born in 1930 in Evanston, Illinois. She was a gifted musician and organist. She wrote many anthems and hymns, and one other is in our hymnal: a benediction song called “Go Now in Peace,” and another, based on an anthem, “Joy in the Morning,” appears in our hymnal supplement. Sleeth wrote Hymn of Promise in 1985 as a choral anthem, at first, and later adapted it into a hymn. Sleeth said that she was “pondering the death of a friend (life and death, death and resurrection) pondering winter and spring (seeming opposites), and a T. S. Eliot poem which had the phrase, ‘In our end is our beginning.’” These seemingly contradictory ‘pairs’ led to the “thesis of the song and the hopeful message that out of one will come the other whenever God chooses to bring that about.” Her husband, Dr. Ronald Sleeth., a professor of preaching, requested only this hymn for his funeral when he died.
            The beauty of this hymn – or one of its many beauties – is that it speaks of the mysteries of life, the miraculous way life unfolds, and trusts that things are revealed in time, according to God’s vision, known to us only as it comes. And yet, as the title suggests, as the words suggest, there’s a promise to us: beginning, infinity, believing, eternity, resurrection, victory. Those are the promises, even though the journey is the mystery. “From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”
            I know, it’s hard, being the clay, when we are so used to be being potters, so used to being in control and in charge. It’s hard to be the created, the bulb, the seed, the cocoon, instead of the creator. But God draws out of us, as only God can, the flower, the tree, the butterfly, the beautifully crafted vessel. It is the only way I know of that we can be disciples. And in God’s hands, we’ll find much love, revealed in seasons, and much grace, as we let God shape our lives. Amen.


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