Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




 “The Potter’s Work”

Sunday, September 9, 2007



Jeremiah 18: 1-6

Dean Snyder

Rev. Dean Snyder


The prophet Jeremiah was listening for a word from God. The job of a prophet is to listen for a transcendent word in the midst of the confusion and disarray of ordinary life – to hear a word that somehow goes to the heart of things and helps us find our way again when we are lost.


The prophet Jeremiah was listening for a word from God in the midst of a confusing and violent time in the life of the nation Israel.


And he had an impulse to go to the Potter’s House…the Potter’s Shop…where the potter was working at his wheel. The image of a potter at his wheel, her wheel, became for Jeremiah an image for God.


It is this image that we want to sit with for the next five weeks here at Foundry. In the Potter’s Hands.


And we will have potters here with us at work in our sanctuary for five Sundays. It is almost a requirement of the Scripture that we do this.


In the Hebrew language, the language the Old Testament is originally written in, there is a word for what potters do that has no real parallel word in English. The verb in Hebrew for what potters do is the same word for the noun “potter” except with a verb ending.


Sometimes the translators translate it “shape” or “form,” but that is just because we have no word to translate it exactly.


So really the only way to understand what the Hebrew verb is saying is to watch what a potter does. A potter does more than shape. A potter throws, a potter opens the clay, a potter pulls and pushes, a potter impresses, bulges, flutes, and incises. A potter even jiggers and jolleys.


So the only way really to get a full sense of what Jeremiah is trying to say about God is to watch what a potter does – which is what I hope you will do as part of your worship these five Sundays. To hear what Jeremiah wants to say to us, watch the potter.


During roughly the same time that we will be watching the potter here in worship we will be having house meetings. Dee and I hope to participate in 20 house meeting with a total of 300 Foundry folk participating. Our hope is that whatever the potter is doing to the pot, God will do to us as a community through those house meetings. Our hope is that in listening to each other, God will form and shape us, God will open us and jigger and jolley us. Whatever the potter does to the pot God will do to us.


Jeremiah uses the image of the potter and the clay as a metaphor for God’s relationship to Israel. Israel is a nation, a people, a community. God is a potter seeking to do whatever potters do to clay to the nation Israel.


But it is an image that can be applied in other ways. It can be applied to the spinning and whirling galaxies and universes. Galaxies and universes are in the potter’s hands.


And it can be applies at the most personal and individual levels. You and I are clay, we are mud, in the potter’s hands. We are the potter’s work.


There are three things I want to say about the potter’s work this morning to start us off living into this image of the potter’s hands. And then we will see where this takes us over the next weeks.


First, the work of a potter is personal. You might even say it is intimate. A potter works with his or her own hands. They may use tools, but much of the work, especially early on, is done by hands willing to get dirty. It is personal. Even intimate.


And it is personal in the sense that every piece a potter throws and works on is individual. Jonathon, our other potter, was telling me the other day that each piece a potter throws has its own particular and peculiar wobble. I thought to myself: that sounds right.


No piece, no pot, is perfectly symmetrical. There is no perfection. Every piece is off-center in its own particular and peculiar way. Jonathon was telling me that, if you are the potter, you have to work with a piece’s particular wobble. If you try to force the wobble, the pot, he said, will lose its base.


Every pot is unique. Every pot has its own peculiar wobble. The potter doesn’t try to force the wobble so as to destroy the piece’s uniqueness, but works with the wobble to shape and form the particular pot that that clay has the potential to become.


Jonathon makes the tea cups for the Teaism restaurants. Each cup, he tells me, takes only a few minutes. But for those few minutes that cup has his absolute full attention.


The potter’s work is very personal. Intimate. This is not mass production by a machine. It is the work of the potter’s own hands.  


The second thing about a potter’s work: a potter’s work is evolutionary, except when it’s not. A potter’s work is not instantaneous. It is not like the plastic molding machine I operated as a summer job during seminary that pops out Tupperware each piece instantly fully formed.


A potter’s work is gradual and patient. It takes time. The shape and form emerges under the push and pull and squeeze of the potter’s hands. The shape and form a pot is at any particular point of the process is not what it will eventually become. It is always on its way to becoming.


I believe that evolution is God’s standard operating procedure. All the debate about whether we believe in God or evolution misses the point. Evolution is God’s ordinary way of doing things in most of our lives. If we are healthy and spiritually flexible, we evolve.


I even believe we evolve after we die, which is why I am guilty of the Protestant sin of believing in something like purgatory. We never stop evolving. 


I said that a potter’s work is evolutionary, except when it is not. Because there are times when a potter will collapse a pot and start over with it. This is a part of the image that Jeremiah applies to Israel. There are times the potter will rework a pot…will turn the pot back into clay and start over again.


There are some of us who have had these kinds of experiences in life, too.


Jonathon told me a very interesting thing about this. When he has to stop a project and start over on it again, he tells me he has to let the clay sit for a while, at least a day, because the clay has a memory, he says. If he tries to rework it immediately, whatever the problem was will reassert itself again.  


The clay is not just a passive object here. The clay pushes back. The clay asserts itself. It is from the tension between the potter and the clay that the pot emerges.


The potter’s work is evolutionary, except when it is not.


The third thing about the potter’s work is this – it is spiritual work. It is the potter’s work to discern in the clay potential that the clay cannot see for itself. The potter’s work is about spiritual discernment as much as it is about the physical work.


Karen was telling me yesterday that work at her wheel is a spiritual experience for her. If I heard her correctly, it takes her out of the busy world and centers her and connects her to herself and to the clay.


Jeremiah says that the work of a potter is to work the clay into “a vessel as seem[s] good to him [or her].” (Jeremiah 18: 4)


There is a spiritual bond between the potter and the clay…the potter and the pot. The pot takes on some of the spirit of the potter and in the process becomes both useful and beautiful.


Watch the potter. To understand our relationship with the divine, watch the potter.


It has been a tough summer. I find myself beginning September more tired than I usually am. There is a lot going on…a lot that needs attention...a lot to worry about. Lots of us have a lot of good ideas for Foundry. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do lots of things, have lots of meetings, do lots of activities.


But what we may need the most is the grace to surrender to the potter’s hands. To allow the divine potter to see in us possibilities for usefulness and beauty we cannot see in our lumpy old selves, and to let the potter’s hands shape and rework us.


Watch the potter.