Today is week two of a brief four-week sermon series on Jeremiah, a prophet who had the unenviable task of delivering some of God’s harshest judgments on the people. In the reading we heard today, there is still an edge to the message God needs him to share, yet Jeremih is so intense that it feels like somewhat of a breather from the intensity of the man and his mission as we go with him to a potter’s house.
Making pottery is an ancient craft. The oldest known pottery is about 20,000 years old and the first evidence of a potter’s wheel is some 8,000 years ago. Other than the development of motorized potters’ wheels, and advances in kiln technology, a lot of what a potter did 2,600 years ago in the days of Jeremiah is still done now in the same way. The basics at the potter’s wheel have remained the same across cultures and across millennia: a stone wheel, clay, water, hands. A lump of clay is drawn, by the heel of the hand, the palm, the fingers, strength from forearms and shoulders and core, and suppleness encouraged by water moves the clay into a functional piece of pottery. Much like the description of creation in the book of Genesis, where the formless void gradually takes shape at the behest of the creator, a lump of clay becomes something more when shaped by the creative, experienced hands of the potter. It is a beautiful, rhythmic process, physical and creative. And while we in our day may see pottery making as primarily an artistic endeavour, in Jeremiah’s day pottery-making was a very practical endeavour, with cups and bowls breaking frequently, a trip to the local potter a part of one’s regular routine.
Today, I want to zero in on the process that takes place on the potter’s wheel, described by Jeremiah, of a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel almost being formed into something, but then being broken down, moistened yet again, and drawn into a new shape. The interaction between moist, supple clay, and the skilled hands of the potter, is a metaphor of great power and great necessity for us as people of faith, as we entrust our lives and the lives of these communities of faith into the hands of the divine crafter.
As I imagine myself watching a skilled potter working with this soft, pliable material, it strikes me that for the past two years, it has felt like much of Church life has been somewhat wobbly, very much in need of holy hands to keep it from losing all shape. The word “fluid” comes to mind. And as I imagine clay being pushed and pulled and caressed into shape, I find myself drawn to this notion of these two congregations, Ralph Connor and Rundle, being supple and pliable and opening ourselves to whatever form and function God has in mind for us. While the keyword since 2020 has been “adaptability,” that strikes me as too technical a word for what is needed, and the metaphor of allowing ourselves to be softened, moulded, re-worked, has an organic tone that matches where we are and what we need.
As we face major decision in coming week, it is going to be crucially important for us to remain pliable as we seek Divine guidance for our future faithful functionality. For those who are visiting us this morning – or those watching on YouTube who may be watching this service far away from here in a very different context – as I get into some of the specifics of what we are considering here in Banff and Canmore, I invite you to bring to mind the Church, or community, or workplace that is your home base. Any of these images about the Divine Potter moulding the clay can also be viewed in an individual way, as well, though the messages delivered by God through Jeremiah at the potter’s house were directed less at an individual person, and more at an entire people.
At the end of 2020, the people of Rundle Memorial United Church in Banff approached the Ralph Connor congregation here in Canmore, with a desire for the Banff congregation to organically merge into this one. In United Church polity, the way that usually happens is through a formal amalgamation. We struck a working group, with representation from both congregations and, eventually, the Chinook Winds Region, to investigate what this would mean on an organizational level, and what it would mean on a personal level, and as great progress was made on all of that, we looked with even greater depth at what it would look like at on a financial level. For the past year and a half we’ve been sharing resources and programming; as the Minister here at Ralph Connor and the supervisor at Rundle I’ve been in relationship with both places; and we have started to dream what our Mission as United Churches in the Bow Valley would look like if expressed as a shared Mission on two campuses. And as I have mentioned to many of you before, as soon as we started imagining a Ministry not just in Canmore, Harvie Heights, Lac des Arcs and Exshaw, and went to Banff and looked down the Bow Valley from that vantage point, it became immediately evident that to be a combined entity of Banff and Canmore also calls us to seek God’s guidance and the wisdom of Stoney Nakoda friends on what our connection will be with Mini Thni.
In my experience of it, the more we have worked through the details – and got some necessary paperwork cleared up, and took a hard look at the physical condition and sustainability of our buildings, and realized how robust our finances are when we combine two very different funding models – the more this feels like a gift, a chance to be supple again, to go on the potter’s wheel again, to be connected to the heart and hands of the Holy One. Yes, it is a big thing to embrace Mission in the very hands-on ways that have been the hallmark of the Banff congregation for decades: providing a home for the community playschool, reaching out with affordable basic goods through the Rundle Thrift Shop, and, God willing, utilize the Manse at Rundle to provide the first home in Canada for the Bhatti family when their refugee resettlement process comes to fruition. Getting involved hands-on with those projects is a big thing, and a great thing. Similarly, I hope that the Rundle folks have over these past months been getting to know the community connections that emanate from this building, including the ongoing walk of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, the young adult outreach done through CYAN, the work of the Bow Valley Refugee Project, the engagement of holy healing practices through our Healing Pathway Ministry and the Spiritual breadth of Evensong, the robust worship and music life that makes these walls sing. Gradually, we’ll learn a bit about the history of each place, and aspects from over 260 years of combined heritage still inform our practice. I am whole-heartedly in favour of this amalgamation and look forward to the vote on October 2nd, and am delighted that we have intentional times like our time together today with worship and the potluck lunch to follow, when we can get to know one another, breaking bread together as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Sorry if that part of the sermon had a soapbox feel to it, but it has been an exciting journey thus far in our Ralph & Rundle or “R&R” discussions. Yes, it’s added to the load but it has also broadened our horizons at a time when it would have been tempting to stick to the familiar and the close-to-home. And it does connect with our scripture for the day: with Jeremiah, watching a potter at work, and being shown by God the importance of opening ourselves once more to God as we re-set, refresh, reform, repent.
Picturing ourselves on God’s potter’s wheel – perhaps with two lumps of clay being kneaded and moulded into one – I do need to flag a limitation of the pottery metaphor, which may already have been causing a “hey, wait a second” response in your mind. In this enacted parable, we are shown the benefit of moist pliability, and the trust needed to be pushed and pulled and re-formed by the God who sees potentials in us that we may not see for ourselves. But the problem is, to be functional, traditional pottery isn’t moist and supple. To be of use, it needs to dry and be fired in a kiln, and once that happens whatever the clay is, is what that clay is gonna be. You can smash it to bits – as Jeremiah does in another object lesson one chapter after this one – but you can’t just say, “I don’t need a great big water jug any more, I’m just going to grind this down, rehydrate it and make it into a bunch of cups.” Potters confirm that the firing process pushes out the water and changes the chemical composition, so that ground up pottery may at best be used to add texture or for very rough repairs, but can never become true, workable “clay” again.
While acknowledging this limitation of our core metaphor, I invite us to set aside that problem. For while God has for decades been using each of our communities of faith in ways that are meaningful both for the participants here and for the towns and villages around us, a type of functionality that suggests that we’ve already been shaped and kiln-fired and put to good use, I don’t believe that we need to smash what’s already here in order to become something new. Already finished Clay pots cannot readily find new shape and form, but God’s intention for us is always moving and growing and leading us, for faithfulness and for relevance – there is never a point when we are a finished product! The metaphor has its limitations but God does not, and if we can move past any rigidness that suggests to us “the way it’s been is the only way it can be” as we consider amalgamation, and as we have another congregational meeting two weeks from today to consider structural changes to this building to expand its welcome to all our neighbours, we will literally be placing ourselves in God’s trustworthy hands, eagerly awaiting whatever it is that will come off the potter’s wheel. Unlike the clay, we’ll be expected to put a fair bit of work into this endeavour as well, but we can’t view it as work that we do solely on our own, separate from God’s gracious wisdom.
Earlier, I mentioned that this scene at the potter’s house helps me understand our present and future and recent past in an organic way, not just “being adaptive” but being willing to let go of our self-understandings and pride, making ourselves vulnerable and at the complete guidance of God’s creative love. When I think of this story in the Hebrew Scriptures of being re-made in God’s image, it reminds me of that time in the 3rd chapter of the gospel of John, where Jesus and Nicodemus are debating the notion of being re-born. Jesus talked about not only becoming like a child, but to be like a newborn infant re-entering the world, being re-born. Nicodemus pointed out this this was impossible and Jesus basically said well, impossibility isn’t something that God is familiar with. To me, this is much the same principle we’ve seen in Jeremiah’s visit to the potter’s house. Nicodemus knew that an adult couldn’t go back into the womb and Jeremiah knew full well that pottery, once fired, can’t just be ground down and rehydrated, so I think we are being called to a rebirth of sorts in which we let go of our hard-and-fast understandings of how God has made us to be useful (as people, and as congregations) and imagine ourselves back at the clay stage, moist and malleable, in God’s hands with limitless possibilities before us.
And so, friends, I invite each of us and all of us to this journey of being open and supple and pliable, to set aside brittleness in favour of the creative motion of God the potter. A we continue to consider amalgamation and wonder how a new combined entity might serve the communities around us, we await with expectant curiosity to see the new creation that will come off the potter’s wheel. Amen.
© 2022 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.