Saturday, 28 September 2013

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 29th September 2013 Pentecost 19

Readings:  1 Timothy 6: 6-16,  Luke 16:19-31

Let us pray:
God, you who challenge, guide, ask much yet give so much more, may our questions be true and our answers be formed in your truth, your word.  In Jesus name.  Amen

In his ‘Confessions’ Augustine, the influential Christian theologian of the 4th century, analyses his own response, attraction even, to plays, dramas that depict tragic and sorrowful events.  He notes that, “in the capacity of spectator one welcomes sad feelings; in fact, the sadness itself is the pleasure.”  And he goes on to reflect on how, in this way, you can engage in the sadness and sorrow of the world without feeling that you have to actually do anything about it.  Acknowledging the existence of suffering and feeling sad seemed enough - without the need to respond - and that really troubled him. Where was the mercy he asked?
Jump 1700 years and there is a very scary parallel that we can draw with our modern world – we have never been so informed, had so graphically illustrated the extent of suffering and tragedy in this world and never have we been so capable of pulling the curtain down on the drama with the remote  or  the mouse in hand,  switching to the next story, stepping lightly to the next headline that catches our fancy. We have engaged and experienced sorrow, acknowledged the sadness, done our bit – what more can we do?
There is no sense at all that the rich man of the parable went even this far - he certainly did not appear to at all notice the beggar outside his gate.  He didn’t stop and tell him to get a job or go to the local welfare place or even observe from afar – he just didn’t see him.  The wall between where he lived and where the beggar sat wasn’t just made of bricks and mortar, it was made of his own attitudes, his lack of awareness that anything mattered outside his own comfort and presumably, his fortune that provided that comfort.  And even when he got into conversation with Abraham across the great gulf that separated heaven and hell, he still didn’t see Lazarus – he didn’t speak directly to him, he expected service and when he had a small moment of understanding of the consequences of his actions, his thought was still not for the weak and the suffering but to save those of his family from making the same mistake.  I wonder if he had been able to get the message through what kind of difference that would make – a dropping of a coin or a crumb in the bowl I suspect – nothing that would particularly transform the life of the Lazarus’s of this world.
Sometimes we have parables that take a great deal of unravelling to find meaning in – not so this one.  It is blunt to the point of discomfort and uncompromising in its message.  You ignore those who suffer in this life, you will get to know all about it in the next.  If you didn’t pick up on all the pointers – the prophets, the Messiah returning from the dead – then you won’t get it even if a brick is dropped on your head – you will find a way of explaining it away so that you can continue on with your chosen path – where your welfare, your money, your attitudes and compassions are for you and yours and you fail to engage with the lot of those who are outside of your wall. 
Just as we continue, unbelievably to me, with the idea of gated communities (whether its to keep people out or in) so too was the concept was alive and well in Jesus day.  The rich man could effectively shut out that which was troubling, disturbing, less fortunate and live within his own particular view of reality. 
And that brings us to wonder about our own realities and how in touch they are with the world of suffering and injustice that Jesus was so engaged with.  I wonder if, in our societies’ increasing isolation from community, of concern with self above others, in our instant yet often manipulated engagement with news and information, increases hugely in our ability to isolate ourselves from other’s suffering not just physically but attitudinally and culturally – and that we as a society have reached a place similar to that of this rich man completely out of touch with the world in which he lives, uncaring of others and their needs.

Let me unpack that a bit and in light of our other reading for today where Paul is continuing with his exhortation against false teachings, especially the very destructive dangers of allowing such things as money and riches to be the driving force in your life, not God.
What are some of the current driving forces we need to be beware of, ones that can lead us into this ‘it’s all about me’ approach to life.
Our society is littered with sayings that encourage us to believe that we should always be growing, accumulating, moving up the ladder of success –always more seems to be the general theme.  The idea of being content with what you have, of having only that which you need is being increasingly eroded from our social expectations.  We see this in the enormous and continually growing gap between rich and poor – when for instance two people work hard at their 40 or even 60 hr a week job and one cannot feed their family and the other hauls in a 7 figure annual salary.  We see this in the way we live on credit, encouraged by ads to borrow for that holiday or that third car.....  We see this in drive to buy and discard and gather more and more of that which we don’t actually need – and of new, always new, latest versions.  Oh that the queue outside the shop for the latest iphone might be instead to help work in the community garden or to spend an hour helping in the old folks home.
What else causes this sense of separation from the very real world that Christ invites us to engage in?  Well I can’t help come back to Augustine and his sense of detached suffering We have the technology that totally enable us to see as never before the extent of pain and suffering in the world – but the same technology seems to also encourage just a fleeting connection, an awareness without engagement.  I’m not sure why that is – maybe it’s because it’s overwhelming in its quantity or that the television and internet and other media have almost blurred the lines between tragic reality and fictional melodrama to the extent we can engage our sympathy with any number of victims – and have them all in the world of make believe.
Then there are the attitudes that allow us to ‘not see’ that very real world which surrounds us, where the Lazarus’s of this world live.  When we employ the thinking that just as we have worked for our rewards so others deserve their lowly status – they could get themselves out of it if they really wanted.  When we profit from (by that I mean use) products and services that exploit others, are not sustainable, have dirty dollars attached to them.  When we think punitive measures are more important that restoration and reconciliation and that things are more important than people – then we are not ‘seeing’ the world that Christ asks us to be part of.  

So what are we to do, we who potentially could be that rich unseeing person, and yet live by a teaching that tells us to pull down these walls that separate, to see the world as it is and to live in ways that not only see but engage with those who are on the outer edges of this world.  Paul’s words are as important to us now as to the community then – because he sees very clearly the difference between living with good fortune (whether it be money, possessions, educated minds, family or anything else) and living dominated by, driven by those same things to a degree that we isolate ourselves from the reality of the world.  We are to be constantly on the lookout, says Paul, always discerning what it is in society and in ourselves that shuts us off from Christ’s teaching of love and compassion, a glimpse of the kingdom, for all people, for the Lazarus’s of this world. And I know enough of this community to know this is something we are very aware of – we are a people who question social mores that divide and desensitise, who live (reasonably) content with what we have and who are generous and engaged with those who do not.  For we who live in the grace of Jesus Christ, this is the eternal life that Jesus, resurrected, came to bring to all the world, to all people.  And so we say, thanks be to God.

Margaret Garland

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 22 September, 2013 Pentecost 18

Readings:  1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 13:24-30

Let us pray:
Open our hearts and minds O God for in your Word there is much that would speak to us today.  May our understandings and our responses be held in the power of your Spirit so that we might live to your purpose.  Amen.

There was a homeless woman who seemed to be in great distress sitting on the corner surrounded by her plastic bags, but she was known for her histrionics, her smell and her limpet like connection whenever someone talked to her.  So the woman who was about to speak to a meeting at the Church round the corner on the need to feed the hungry and help the needy chose to carry on – too disruptive and no real chance she could fix it anyway.  But the woman and her baby from the gang house up the road stopped to check – for she had been there and knew the value of a shared word, a hand of greeting.

It is no great exaggeration to say that, as a church and as Christians, our words of guidance and admonishment carry little weight with the world today - and it is only through our actions and our living choices that we are likely to be heard.  Hypocrisy is probably one of the loudest most prolific accusation made against the church and its people throughout the ages – preaching one thing and acting in another way, pious on Sunday but uncaring the rest of the week.  And so we have lost the trust of many in the world, not surprising really because our actions have often hugely contradicted Jesus message of love, justice and mercy for all, of his one commandment to love God, neighbour and self.

The church, we could say, is just like this field in the parable – full of weeds that need to be plucked, that are giving us a bad name.  And we have many within our church who would sympathise with the servant who wanted to pluck out all that was obviously choking the growth of the wheat.  Many  who would say, we need to get on, figure out who is in or out, what the definitions are of good or evil and come down hard on them, show the world that we can practice what we preach, be morally, spiritually and behaviourally trustworthy.   The only trouble with that rousing sentence is one little word – and that is the word ‘we!’  We must, we should, we can!

For Jesus tells us overwhelmingly in this reading that we, you and I, do not have all the answers, see all the truths and that we will do more harm than good if we try to play God by deciding we know what and who is unworthy.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t speak out against what is wrong or unjust or hypocritical in the church but it does mean that there are possibilities that we cannot imagine, and hopes that are beyond our reckonings, that we are better to focus on growing tall and strong in that field that to spend our energy berating the weed that grows alongside.

Do you sometimes have periods of time where it seems that God is just throwing the same message at you again and again – through conversations, through reading and listening, through pastoral encounters and scriptural passages the same point is made repeatedly – until you have got it?  It has been this way for me over the last few weeks as I have struggled with how to respond to words and actions within the church that have dismayed me, that have been, in my view at least, patently unchristian, lacking in grace, ‘Jesus wept’ moments. Do I chop out weeds or do I grow good wheat?
This gospel reading today (not the lectionary reading by the way but chosen as an appropriate reading for a Spring Service) is, for me, just the latest prod in a series of ‘rethinking moments’ about how to do daily life in a Christ like way.
Let me take you through some of them briefly. 
First moment: my response to the manipulation of opinion on same-sex marriage within the church by certain people was to get angry and try to respond in type.  A wise man said to me that, while understandable, it was not the way of Jesus to enter into debate to convince others but rather to do what is right – openly and sometimes outrageously.
Second one: feeling weighed down by the churches organisational strictures and the way they consumed our energies, resources and focus to the detriment of being Church another wise man mused over when it was that we became principally an organisational beast and stopped being a movement?  Very good question followed by another - how to become a movement again, to be a people with a passion for Christ and living for others?
Third moment:  met with a friend who had just returned from a Salvation Army conference (Just Action 2013) and was on fire for the injustices in the world – from human trafficking, slave labour, economic exploitation, people abuse in so many ways – she heard it all and was angry – and, instead of being overwhelmed by it all and shutting down, she chose to react by examining what it was that she was doing that in anyway supported these injustice and stopped doing it, found another way.  What we consume, how we vote, when we speak up, what we choose to do.
There were other conversations and experiences too but the latest moment was reading the Gospel parable for today and realising that Jesus instruction to not try to root out the weeds until both are full grown was a pointer as well. 

Our church is not perfect – and never will be.  Our church is people and all of us have wheat and weed experiences, all of us have difficulty defining which is which at times because they can look remarkably similar, be entangled in a way we find hard to separate.  But the particular point I would want to follow up on is that there is more power, more grace in living openly and determinedly as the people of God than in trying to identify and change those who we believe are not doing so.   To resist the temptation to pull out/expunge what we think is wrong because God has more hope for our growth than we can ever imagine.  So I need to shelve my desire to retaliate against those I believe to be wrong and instead live and choose as I believe Christ calls me to do – and trust God with the rest.  For as Paul says:
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 

The God who is glimpsed in this parable of the weeds and the wheat models an infinite patience with our humanity, a desire to give us time and opportunity to make good choices and to forgive our mistakes, a belief in the power of love, grace and mercy over anger and judgement, and a holy and purposeful planting that is well beyond our capacity to understand or to fully anticipate.

So let us stop focussing on all that we think is wrong with our church, our lives and concentrate on being the best we can for Christ, make the often little choices that say to the world we do live as we believe, we won’t buy slave laboured goods, we will speak out when we believe the local dairy farm workers are being mistreated, we will carefully consider who we vote for, we will stop and make sure that the bag lady on the corner is ok.  And that folks is where that little word ‘we’ comes in in all its power and grace, that is where we can make a difference that is beyond our capacity to know.
And for this we say – thanks be to God.   Amen.

Margaret Garland

Monday, 16 September 2013

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 15th September 2013 Pentecost 16

Jeremiah 4: 19-26; Genesis 1: 1-4a, 27; Luke 15:1-10

Loss! — there are many different kinds. Thinking of the Christchurch and Seddon earthquakes, there are personal losses of loved ones and houses, but also losses that involve the whole city and district, with different areas sometimes in conflict with each other over the losses. On an individual and communal level, people and land are involved in relations with each other in connection with loss.
     This can be seen in the loss presented in Jeremiah. “My anguish, my anguish!” it begins. The word literally means “bowels” for ancient Israelites the seat of the emotions, everything that churns people up. This may be an individual speaking but it is more likely that the people of Jerusalem and/or Judah are being personified. When the anguish says “My tents and curtains are suddenly destroyed,” these single words may stand for the whole habitation of the people. The loss is devastation of the community and of their churned up state of body and spirit: “My heart is beating wildly, I/we cannot keep silent”. Loss indeed.
     While I ‘writhed’ through this passage, I kept thinking of Syria. I still hear and see a woman stumbling out of some nightmare, wailing, “We don’t count, don’t count…”. She couldn’t keep silent. Loss indeed.
     In Jeremiah — a question: “How long must I see the standard [of war], hear the sound of the trumpet?” Syrians see and hear the jets and the rockets, and stumble through the devastation. And yet some of us say things like, “These Arabs are always at each other’s throats; they deserve all they get”. Are we the ones who are lost when we say or even think this? They deserve our compassion not our contempt. Compassion when we realise that words in Jeremiah could almost be an exact description of the state Syria is in now: “Disaster overtakes disaster, the whole land is laid waste”. This is not just some laughable pessimism some ‘Jeremiah’ thinks up. It actually happened in Israel and still happens in neighbouring Syria today.
     Such loss is more than enough. But to say the next section in Jeremiah ratchets it up a notch is an understatement. There now follows one of the most nightmarish visions in the whole Bible: “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void”. Before it was just the land but now it is whole earth. The words “waste and void” are exactly the same used in the very first verse of Genesis 1, and when in Jeremiah the heavens have no light, this is also reminiscent of the light as first creation in Gen. 1.
     But the point is now, there is no light. This is not creation, but UNcreation. Gen. 1 presents creation of stable relationships, but now — “I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking”. The doom presented here is expressed by saying “I looked” no less than four times. In Gen. 1 when God looks, God sees that it is good. But here “I looked on the earth, I looked on the mountains,” and now, “I looked and there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled”. This combination of the absence of both people and birds effectively expresses the loss of all civilisation. We are lost ourselves. The fourth and final ‘look’ is “I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert…”. Desertification — we have lost ourselves. We manufacture and consume all sorts of things. We are defined as consumers. We have lost something else creation in Gen.1 speaks of, our image of God, lost our true selves.
     The Jeremiah passage ends: “… the fruitful land was a desert … before the Lord, before [God’s] fierce anger”.  It sees the cosmic chaos as brought about by God’s anger, but perhaps we should understand God’s anger in what we have done ourselves, in our consuming loss of God’s image.
Loss! — there are many different kinds. But some people say, “I was lost but now I am found”. However soberly, can we say that loss sometimes leads to finding? Jesus’ parables of lost and found give us hope. Our sobriety should continue in realising that the parables do take loss seriously. The shepherd is prepared to go into the wilderness to find one lost sheep; the woman carefully searches the house to find one lost coin. It is also significant that the parables pair a man and a woman. (“Male and female God made them”.) Not only men suffer loss. They are not necessarily the same kind of people, however. Shepherds were reputed to be shiftless, thieving, trespassing. They were on the margins of society, but their loss is no less significant. The woman, however, sounds like a respectable housewife, though poor; she might have 9 other coins, but losing even one of them is significant.
     But, whatever the differences between the shepherd and the housewife, they both have the most significant feature of the parables. On finding what was lost they both rejoice. They don’t say, “Oh it was nothing and it’s alright now”. No, they rejoice. Further, reaching home, they do not keep their joy to themselves, they share it with their friends and neighbours, and exhort them to rejoice with them because they have found what was lost. They are both living within the circumstances of their time because, in the shepherd’s case, the word for “friends” is masculine and in the housewife’s feminine. (Would it be different with us?)
     There is, however, a sting in the tail to these happy outcomes. We might assume that everyone would be pleased. But would they? Jesus concludes the first parable: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous who need no repentance”. Are we meant to ask whether 99 righteous would be pleased over more rejoicing over one sinner than over them? And righteous who need no repentance for anything at all? Are there such people? Do we assume that we are like that? Or is this one of Jesus’ characteristically provocative exaggerations with the purpose of emphasing a main point: here the extraordinary joy at the finding of the lost sinner?
     This is confirmed by the difference in the ending of the parable of the lost coin. Here the 99 righteous are no longer mentioned: “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents”. Full stop. The final emphasis in on the joy over one repentant sinner. Still more: there is not only something left out but something added here. The ending of the sheep parable just has “joy in heaven”. The coin parable adds “joy in the presence of the angels of God…”. This description makes heaven more explicitly communal, brings in presence, overcomes the distinction between male and female friends. There is only joy. All’s well that ends well….
     Except that we have forgotten the beginning. I haven’t mentioned the introduction to the parables. They are told in the presence of two groups of people: the tax collectors and sinners, the marginalised, and the Pharisees and scribes, those at the centre of society who are murmuring that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. So in the end this beginning is a provocation to these authorities to respond with joy at the finding of the repentant sinner. In the end too, in the light of  Jeremiah’s prophecy, there is a provocation even to those who do rejoice to realise that there are peoples suffering far greater loss of land than they in their joy are….
     Yes, there are many kinds of loss. If joy at finding the lost sinner helps us acknowledge the devastating loss of others, the greatest loss would be not rejoicing over the sinner who repents.                                                             

                                                                                                      Maurice Andrew,  Opoho, 15.9.13

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Sermon Knox Church Sunday 8th September, 2013 Pentecost 16

Readings Psalm 139: 1-6, 13-18 , Luke 14:25-33

Prayer:  May the words of my mouth and the understandings of our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God, our rock and our sustainer.  Amen
I spent most of my early parenting years persuading our children that it was never good to use the word ‘hate’ – it was too easy and emotive, quite indiscriminate, and a strong word for extremists to hang their hat on.  Rather, I said, use words such as dislike or ‘am uncomfortable with’ – for me ‘hate’ was a bit of a four letter word.  And yet here it is in the beginning of our Gospel passage –  Jesus seemingly telling us to hate our families, even life itself we want to do this faith thing properly. 
The sentiment expressed is unequivocal and out there – a statement we would expect from someone who is no longer interested in the balanced view, who is stirring others to a cause with extreme hyperbole and shocking statements – but not from our gentle loving Jesus.
So maybe the translations are wrong somehow – or our understanding of the word is changed – forsake not hate, a preference for a best way or a letting go of something (according to the Message version of the bible) – well yes to all of that but still, whatever the interpretation,  this is an extreme passionate and very uncomfortable statement of the cost of discipleship.  And it is really tempting to just pass on quickly and not engage with this particular passage in too much depth. 
The words of explanation following are just as troublesome – but in a different way.  Almost too pragmatic – telling us to be measured in what we choose to do, plan and predict consequences before we engage, be rational.  Know what you are taking on and be prepared to withdraw if you think you might not win.
Extremist statement followed by cautioning practicality – a paradox is it not, yet it is what we have come to expect from this man Jesus.
So - which one of us thinks that hating our family or giving away all our possessions are a pre-requisite of being a Christian?  Not a one I would say.
So how do we wiggle out of this one then with our theological integrity intact and our hearts telling us this cannot be so.  Perhaps by going back to that word I used earlier - hyperbole – that act of saying something more extreme than you actually mean to make a point, to introduce a new perspective, a new way of thinking – a point that often gentler words slide off. We do it all the time – like when we say ‘The whole city was there to watch Otago defend the shield’ offering a take on the depth of feeling.  Or ‘I have nothing to do’ to express a sense of indecision or boredom!   Likewise Jesus is using extreme language to make a very important point – which is: discipleship, following the way of Christ comes at a cost and it is important to take time to consider that before you commit to this path.  Hence the emotive and the practical in one place.  The shock statement and the caution.  Alienation from family, community, possessions, openness to personal and financial vulnerability are on the cards if you choose to follow the way of Christ so take time to understand that.  Be aware that if living in God’s way is your purpose as a Christian, then it will bring you into conflict and difficult times with the world you live in.
How might this show itself to us these days?  What are the things that might bog us down/hold us back so much that we need such a very sharp knife as these words of Jesus to cut loose – to be the people God calls us to be.
Often, sad to say this can be family, family of upbringing, family of church, and of community.  In all those contexts, there are views and strictures that either constrain us or send us off in the opposite direction to a straight jacket of rebellion,  times when the desire to please or to keep the peace overcomes that which we know is wrong, hurtful, when a fear of lost relationship or condemnation holds us back from speaking out for better ways.
And we all, I am sure could write out a list of times where our possessions, our need for financial security has compromised our choices to live to God’s purpose – where we watch with awe, and only awe I might say, at those who trustingly walk that path of uncertain provision for the future. When we put possessions above gifting, personal comfort above sustainability, future proofing above the hungry child who needs food today – then we are making choices that hold us back,  that need that same sharp knife applied to change how we think and act. 
And this has to be relevant in our church at this time  as we struggle and bicker over the response to same-sex marriages legislation.  I could even be tempted to say ‘I hate’ the way that some within the church are attempting to impose a particular binding on how I or any of us should act or believe – this within a church where the wisdom and understanding of – a bit of hyperbole coming up here - of forever has been to honour diversity of opinion.   But it is real – it has happened.  What do we do?  A very wise person said to me a few weeks ago as I was getting pretty angry about this – he said while it is understandable to want to face into the battle and one day prevail, is it not better, more the way of Christ, to simply live out that which we believe is right, even if it has some substantial consequences for us within the Church?  
Another wise person (yes I know a lot of wise people) said to me a couple of days ago – when did the church stop being a movement and become an organisation where enforced ‘right’ thinking took priority over being a mission filled community of Christ living as Christ would have us do?  And how do we become a movement again – where the way of Christ, the walk of faith in love, forgiveness and mercy as a people of God is the most important thing in our lives and we leave off those things within our church family or without, that prevent us being who we are called to be – let us treasure our heritage but be vigilant for that which holds us back, prevents us from putting God at the forefront of our lives.
And that is whatever prevents us being a people who affirm the right to life, love and hope for all people.
As we gather round the table today, re-membering that supper in the upper room, may we each one of us understand that we are welcome, who ever we are and wherever we are, that we are gathered as a people of God and nourished so that we might then go out to be the best we can be for God – and if that is not worth a bit of passionate emotive hyperbole, then I am not sure what is!

Margaret Garland

Sermon Opoho Church Sunday 8 September, 2013 Pentecost 16

Let us pray.
O God, help us to attend to your Word  with understanding, to receive it with faith, and to live by it with courage,
for the sake of Jesus Christ, Amen.

TEXT.  Jeremiah chapter 18 verses 5 & 6 from the Revised Standard Version
‘Then the word of the Lord came to me:
“O house of Israel,
can I not do with you as this potter has done? says the Lord.
Behold like the clay in the potter’s hand,
so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

The art of pottery has not changed much for thousands of years. What Jeremiah saw at the potters house is very much what he would see in a pottery  in today’s world. Pottery is a very ancient art. And the standard of pottery in Jeremiah’s time was very high. The prophet would have seen a potter working clay on a top round stone, connected to a larger and lower stone that would have been turned using the feet, or turned by an assistant. Pottery in Jeremiah’s day was not glazed, but is was  coloured. Archeologists have heaps of evidence of what ancient pottery was like, because pottery lasts and lasts. In fact, archeologists use pottery for dating what they find in their diggings. It is as accurate as carbon dating.
Of course, we all use pottery every day. And there are many potters in New Zealand. For instance, In the Nelson district there is a pottery trail. I had a cousin, Dianne Wishart, who was a potter in Golden Bay – she and her husband Barry owned and operated a pottery called “Decorator Pots, not far from Collingwood. Here are two of their works.   
Over forty years ago I knew a potter who lived next to St. Margaret’s College in Clyde Street. His name was Ossie Stevens. He was a leading light in the artistic community in Dunedin, and his pots and ceramic works were appreciated and admired by people far and wide.  Some of you may remember him, and even own some of his work.  His wife was an actress and had been a member of the New Zealand Players.  
The Stevens were both very loyal members of Knox Church, and that is how I came to know them. They were very gracious and hospitable people and great conversationalists.  I greatly enjoyed my visits to them when I was the Assistant Minister of Knox. 
One day I asked Mr. Stevens about what he experienced as he created his pottery.  
He said that he had had his wood-fired kiln in his back yard for seventeen years, and that he was still struggling to understand it. After creating  his pieces of pottery on his wheel, and after colouring them and applying glazing, he would place them in his kiln. Then came the placing of the wood in the kiln, and the lighting of the fire. Then the waiting for the fire to do its work.
Only after the kiln was cool again  could he discover the results of his work.  He said that he would be in a state of nervous excitement as he approached his kiln after a firing.  Until he picked up each piece and examined it, he would not know how the firing had turned out. He said that the whole creative process  was like the birth of a child. He felt elated when the pieces turned out well. And he felt despair whenever a piece did not turn out well or was spoiled. Soon after emptying his kiln of new pottery, he would feel exhausted from his creative efforts, and then fall into a  state in which he could not create any pottery. That state could last for a month or more. Eventually his strength and creative energy  would return. He would learn from what had not gone well in his latest firing. His mind would fill with new ideas about how he could improve the performance of his kiln. He would be excited when new ideas came to him for what he could create through his next  firing.

Our text likens God to a creative potter. “Behold, like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.” Jeremiah perceived God’s creative goodness in forming Israel into a people during the Exodus. In that process, the people were like clay in God’s hands. God rescued the people from slavery in Egypt, and lead them through the desert, where he fed them and gave them water. There in the desert, God made a covenant with the people, mediated by Moses. God  promised to be  their God, to guide, protect and bless. The people promised to worship only God, and to live by God’s laws.  

This took creative work and effort on God’s part. And like Mr Stevens being very devastated when a piece of pottery did not emerge from the kiln as he wanted it to be, so God was grieved when Israel rejected him and went off after other gods, the baals of the Canaanite fertility religion. After the settlement in the promised land, the people became unfaithful to God. They worshipped idols, worthless gods, and so became worthless themselves. Their glory departed from them. The Israelite community fell apart. There was no justice or fairness in Israel. The rich exploited the poor. Selfishness and greed reigned. The covenant between God and the people was no more.
Jeremiah proclaimed that because of Judah’s sin against God, God would punish the
People. A terrible foe from the north would overrun Judah and Jerusalem, and leave them in ruins. The temple would be destroyed. There would be great suffering.
But because Israel was like clay in the potter’s hand, all would not be lost. God would take the clay that had resisted his creative efforts, and he would remake Israel. God would  make a new covenant with her. God’s good purposes for his people could not be destroyed by Israel’s disobedience.
Our text is really a comfort to us, as we struggle to be loyal to God and follow Christ’s way of loving service to others. We know that sometimes we are like clay that is defective – clay which spoils the potter’s intentions. There are many ways in which clay can resist the potter – it can be gritty, or too wet or too dry, or unsuitable for the shape of the pot being fashioned in the wheel. There are many ways in which we can disappoint God, the divine potter.

But we are clay in God’s hands. When we disappoint him, God  does not reject us or throw us away in anger. No matter how often we disappoint God, and are unfaithful to God, God is always faithful to us. When we fail God, God refashions and recreates us. This is an experience we have every time we worship God.
In our prayers of confession, we confess our sinfulness to God – our imperfections, the wrong things we have done and the good things we have neglected to do. And through Christ we experience the forgiveness of God. We feel our guilt being lifted. We can go on again as God’s people. God never gives up on us
In my years of parish ministry there were Sundays when a service would not go well for various reasons. The sermon would not catch the attention of the congregation. On Monday I would feel despair. But then next Sunday loomed large on the horizon. And God’s creative goodness was there in the scripture for next Sunday, and the inspiration would flow again. God never abandons us. We are always in his hands, no matter how badly things have gone for us.  

 Then the word of the Lord came to me:
“O house of Israel,
Can I not do with you as this potter has done?
Behold, like clay in the potter’s hand,

So are you in my hand, O house of Israel.”

Rev Peter Wishart