Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




 “Questioning the Potter”

Sunday, September 16, 2007



Isaiah 45: 9-19

Dean Snyder

Rev. Dean Snyder


There is a word in the Hebrew language that has no real parallel in the English language. Yatsar is a Hebrew word used in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, as both a noun and a verb. When it is used as a noun it means “a potter.” When it is used as a verb we have no precise word to use to translate it into the English language.


It is sometimes translated “to shape” or “to form” but it really means more than this. It means whatever a potter does. Perhaps Eugene Peterson does the best job of translating it in his paraphrase The Message. He translates it as “to work the clay.”


So, during these Sundays when we are meditating on the theme “In the Potter’s Hands,” we have been forced to bring a potter into our worship services. The prophet Jeremiah says that, if we want to understand God, we should watch a potter. Whatever the potter does, so God does with us.


Certainly shaping and forming are some things a potter does, but there is more. Several of you mentioned to me after last Sunday’s service that what you noticed the most was when the potter wedged the clay.


Pamela writes about wedging clay on her blog “News from the Wilderness of Art as Prayer.” “The wedging process involves slamming, pushing, pressing and kneading the clay repeatedly against a hard surface. Why wedge clay? Wedging helps homogenize the clay and get rid of air pockets. An air pocket trapped inside the clay will cause a hand built clay vessel to explode when it is subjected to the heat of the kiln during the firing process. A little trapped heated pocket of air will expand and ‘boom’ there goes the beautiful handiwork the [craftsperson] spent so much time on, not to mention the mess of broken pottery shards now inside the kiln. That same little air pocket hidden in the lump of clay on a potter's wheel will make it difficult-to-impossible for the potter to throw a pot of any value or beauty.”[i]


If we want to understand God, Jeremiah says, watch the potter.


Last Sunday we talked about the potter’s work. We said that it is intimate and personal. Potters get their hands dirty. Each piece is special. Jonathon, our potter in residence today, tells me that every piece has its own particular and peculiar wobble, because no pot is perfectly symmetrical. Every pot is off-center in its own unique way and the potter has to work with the pot’s unique wobble because if he or she tries to force it to be perfectly symmetrical, the piece will lose its base.


A potter’s work is evolutionary and gradual, except when it is not. A potter gradually shapes and forms a pot, unless he or she has to collapse it and begin again, which is what Jeremiah talks about.  


A potter’s work is spiritual. Working with clay has the capacity to spiritually renew the potter.


If you want a glimpse into the way God works, Jeremiah says, watch the potter.


Then the prophet Isaiah, the second Isaiah, during the time of Israel’s exile in Babylon, returns to Jeremiah’s image of God as a potter.


Isaiah says: “Does the clay say to the Yatsar  (to the potter) to the one who Yatsared it – to the one who wedged and wet and shaped and formed it…does the clay say to the one who fashioned it: ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles.’”


Does the clay second guess the potter? This is Isaiah’s question.


So this morning I’d like us to take a few minutes to understand Jeremiah and Isaiah and what they are both trying to say to Israel about God.


Jeremiah was a prophet in Israel during the time that the nation empire Babylon conquered Israel and carried the people away into captivity and slavery in Babylon. Jeremiah saved the Israelites and ultimately Judaism from extinction because Jeremiah provided a theology whereby the Israelites could begin to see that their identity and existence as a people was not identical with their existence as a people.


He used the image of the potter to tell Israel that God could collapse Israel and reshape it into a new vessel and that Israel could continue to be useful to God even in a new shape and form.


Jeremiah prepared Israel to live in the Diaspora. Had Israel not learned to live in Diaspora, there would be no Judaism and no Christianity, and no Islam.


Jeremiah convinced Israel, at least enough of Israel, that God’s hand was behind the wedging and wetting and shaping and reshaping and pressing and pulling and squeezing that they were experiencing as a people. So even though they were not able to imagine themselves as a people without nationhood, they were able to be flexible enough to live into it and survive as a people.


Now it is two or three generations later. The Israelites have been in exile in Babylon long enough that everyone who had ever lived in the land of Israel had died long ago. The Israelites had learned to live in exile.


The Persian King Cyrus is about to conquer Babylon and he has announced that when he does, he will return the Israelite exiles to the land of Israel. And the Israelites in exile are upset and distressed and not a little bit angry about this. Their lives will be disrupted and unsettled again.


This is when the prophet Isaiah returns to Jeremiah’s image of the potter and says that the Divine Potter is shaping human history, and who is the clay to question the potter?


Isaiah says: “Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel and its Maker: Will you question me about my children or command me concerning the work of my hands?”


Well, of course, we will. Who of us has not questioned God about God’s children, including our own selves? Who of us has not tried to command God about God’s work?


How hard it is to believe and accept that there is a larger meaning and purpose behind the wedging and the shaping and the squeezing and the pushing and the pulling that life does to us.


How hard it is to believe that our own peculiar wobble isn’t just a regrettable imperfection but part of our utility and beauty.


How tempted we are to wish that the circumstances in which we find ourselves that we can’t change were different. How tempted we are to wish that we had different bodies, different psyches, different ancestors and parents, different Meyers-Briggs preferences, difference genders or orientations, different minds.


Who of us doesn’t question the potter?


Of course, we need to be careful here. I do not believe either Jeremiah or Isaiah was calling for passive acceptance of whatever exists – the status quo. In fact, in both cases, the prophets used the potter image when Israel was being asked to change and to take on a new shape and new experience and new possibility.


The potter’s hand is at work not as much in what has been as what might be…the potter’s hand is at work in learning and science and medical research and progressive movements for justice and peace and understanding and inclusion.


On a personal and intimate level, the work of the potter is ongoing so long as we live, and I suspect beyond. None of us – no matter how long we have lived – are yet what we shall be.


And it is my suspicion that where the potter is holding us and shaping us is wherever we are experiencing the most resistance within ourselves.


Some of the most helpful books I read in preparation for ministry were written by a professor of pastoral psychotherapy at Yale Divinity School named James Dittes. His books had titles like The Church in the Way, Minister on the Spot, and When the People Say No. Basically Dittes had on theme – that in psychotherapy the place of greatest growth in a patient is where they are resisting insight and understanding the hardest. The job of a psychotherapist is to keep gently but firmly coming back to the resistance. A patient will tell you the work that needs to be done by where they resist the hardest.


Dittes’ point was that it is the same in congregations. Pastors often complain about the resistance of their congregations to this or that…they feel as if the church is getting in the way of true meaningful ministry…but Dittes’ point was that the place of the congregation’s greatest resistance is the place of greatest ministry.


And I wonder if that isn’t true of our personal lives as well – that the place of greatest resistance within us is the place where things have the potential to really happen for us spiritually.


I have spent most of my life questioning God…Why don’t I have any handles? Why did you give that guy such great handles and not me? What are you making? What do you think you are up to with my life?


How hard it is to trust that beneath all my own effort to find meaning and purpose in my life…to make myself…there are hands at work that are wiser than mine…that can see a utility and beauty in my that I can’t see in myself! How hard it is to trust the potter’s hands.