"SHAPED" - Romans 12:9-13; Jeremiah 18:1-11

A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

From Sunday, September 8, 2019

Texts: Romans 12:9-13; Jeremiah 18:1-11


            Here we are on Rally Day – the fresh start on a new church year. Church School kicks off with new classes and good opportunities for fellowship and nurture. Worship returns to 11:00am – making it easier for some of us to get to church. The choir is back – thanks be to God! –offering so much with their gifts and voices to our worship experience.  We have other opportunities in place too to engage us, encourage us, and deepen connections and faith as we move into this new season.

            But here is a question: are we – the congregation gathered – mostly good people who come to church to be a little bit better? Are we here so that Christian faith can mostly just help us along our way?

            I remember a wonderful quote from one of my mentors – William Sloane Coffin: “It is often said that the Church is a crutch. Of course it’s a crutch. But what makes you think you don’t limp?” (Credo, p. 137)

            We do need a crutch for our limp: community, worship, encouragement in faith, places to grow and serve together – all these help us with our limp.

Yet remember: we are Presbyterians. Our tradition affirms very well and very strongly that we are not just good people who need to be encouraged to be a little better. It is much more complicated than that. We are also people affected – infected! – with selfishness, with sin,  selfishness and sin that remain pervasive in our lives and in our culture. The journey of faith is not just an effort to be a little bit better. The journey of faith is about finding life with God, rooting life in God – God who creates, claims, calls, and journeys with us. Ours is a dynamic life of striving – as we move through our seasons and our years – of trusting God and serving God with all of our failings and festivities, sins and successes. Ours is a dynamic life of living in God’s care and seeking to be God’s faithful people – from birth to death, through changes and challenges – finally belonging always and only to God. That is why we seek life together, in church, in community, in God’s life and care. We are God’s people - and we want and need to become more and more enfolded into God’s care and into God’s service.

            If you have been around this church awhile, you have probably learned that I have an affection for the prophet Jeremiah. I find myself both convicted and inspired by Jeremiah. Jeremiah helps me in this dynamic journey of life and faith with God.

            Our passage today is a good one, from Jeremiah 18. This passage offers a wonderful analogy that always applies to our lives. Listen:

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2“Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” 3So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel.4The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. 

5Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. 9And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.

11Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

            This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

            This wonderful analogy of the potter and the clay is another attempt by the prophet Jeremiah to help the people, help us, understand the fundamental message: God is not some concept to be left on the periphery. Life and faith are not just about helping good people be a little bit better. God – the God of the universe, the God of the Scriptures, the God who knows us and claims us - rules and reigns! Our lives are related significantly to God. God matters. We are not ever meant to be people who live in the world with just a little bit of faith. We are meant to be people whose lives are integrally, significantly, constantly, fully amended, . . . and enfolded into God. We are not people who live materially and just add a little spiritual life. We are people who actually belong to God – and Who God is, and what God offers us and expects of us – fundamentally shapes us. This is Jeremiah’s main point. This is also a primary point throughout the Bible.

            Jeremiah the prophet, as you may recall, has an extreme urgency about this message and the need for amending life. In his life and times, God’s people were about to be destroyed by the Babylonian empire. The year was around 600BC. God’s people were in trouble.

Here is the way one commentator puts it: The word “jeremiad” means a doleful and thunderous denunciation, and its derivation is no mystery. There was nothing in need of denunciation that Jeremiah didn't denounce. He denounced the king and the clergy. He denounced recreational sex and extramarital jamborees. He denounced the rich for exploiting the poor, and he denounced the poor for deserving no better. He denounced the way every new god that came sniffing around had them all after him like so many (dogs) in heat; and right at the very gates of the Temple he told them that if they thought God was impressed by all the mumbo-jumbo that went on in there, they ought to have their heads examined.

Jeremiah also told them, “When some of them took to indulging in a little human sacrifice on the side, he appeared with a clay pot which he smashed into smithereens to show them what God planned to do to them as soon as he got around to it. . . .  

But the people didn't (get it)! When he told them that the Babylonians were going to come in and rip them to shreds as they richly deserved, they worked him over and threw Jeremiah in jail. When the Babylonians did come in and not only ripped them to shreds but tore down their precious Temple and ran off with all the expensive hardware, he told them that since it was God's judgment upon them, they better submit to it or else; whereupon they threw him into an open cistern that happened to be handy. Luckily the cistern had no water in it, but Jeremiah sank into the muck up to his armpits and stayed there till an Ethiopian eunuch pulled him out with a rope.

Jeremiah then told them that . . . .the only hope he saw for them was that someday God would put the law in their hearts too instead of in the books, . . . but that was a long way off. (F. Buechner, Peculiar Treasures)

Do you see how Jeremiah – and the whole Bible actually – is not just urging us good people to be a little bit better? Jeremiah affirms that God reigns – we are God’s people – and our lives are to be amended, and enfolded into God and SHAPED with God’s intentions.

The king and the people in Jeremiah’s day thought that they were God’s chosen, beloved people - but they were not living like it. They were taking their sense of “chosen-ness” and doing whatever they wanted – living extravagantly, taking advantage of the poor, chasing after other gods, ignoring the covenant commitments. Does that sound familiar?

They were taking their sense of establishment as God’s people – with land, and temple, and city (Jerusalem) – and neglecting the widows and orphans, making a mess of faithful worship, refusing to heed the commandments. So Jeremiah speaks out, in lamentation, in poetry, in direct voice, and here in chapter 18, with an analogy of a potter and clay.

The message is clear: God can do to God’s people whatever God wants – like a potter with clay. While we might think – and we often do – that WE can indeed do whatever WE want. The real message is this: life is always lived with God, before God, under God. God finally rules and reigns!

Here is another way of thinking about this: God loves us, always and fully, as we are. But God also loves us far too much to leave us there. As the wonderful words to the hymn – Spirit of the Living God - remind us – God is always seeking “to melt us, mold us, fill us, use us.”

God is always wanting us to be SHAPED in faithfulness – that is our word for today – SHAPED. God is always seeking us to be SHAPED in devotion, in worship, in service as God’s covenant people. It is not about good people being a little better. It is about amending life, SHAPED, centered in God’s care and service; not just a little bit, but fully; not just peripherally, but foundationally; not just sometimes, but always.

That is why this is a good text for our lives on this Rally Day.

We are not just beginning another program year at the church, we are also saying goodbye to Kathryn, who has been such a great colleague and pastor among us. This Rally Day brings change and challenges for us. But we remember that we are always SHAPED by God. And Kathryn is SHAPED by God. God is not finished with us. God has plans for us, especially as we realize that our lives are enfolded in God – we trust and serve God. That is our foundation and our hope.

We are also not just having another Rally Day. We are facing another loss – with heartache and shock – and figuring out life in this community without Ele Bigger. She was such a gracious, generous servant among us, who nurtured this community through countless meals and receptions, cooking for the homeless, stocking our church kitchen, caring for us all. But God is not finished with us. We have to trust God and know that our life will continue to be SHAPED by God’s loving care, especially as we take stock, amend, and re-commit our lives to God. Can we trust God? Can we keep seeking to respond to God in faith and service? This is what God asks and expects.

What else is going on in our lives? We, perhaps, have struggles with our relationships. Do you hear the story here? Do we trust ourselves . . . . or do we trust God? It is easy to feel life totally unraveling when we find ourselves angry or hurt or in unfamiliar territory. What are we focused on? Who is our foundation?

We find ourselves in the middle of messy situations. We may even feel like the potter’s clay is being discarded and thrown away – we have grief, and losses; we feel discouraged; we feel burdened by what may lie ahead. We have questions – why is this happening, is there any point – and we may feel real despair. Yet, we have to give sincere attention – what is God asking of us? What does God expect of us? What is the faithful response? Can we turn from evil and sense God re-making us? Can we trust that God loves us as we are, but God loves us too much to leave us this way? We are always being SHAPED by God. That is the promise and message.

What about the culture and the world? Goodness! It can feel so heavy! Gun violence, . . . fresh signs of racism, . . .  so many things generating fear, . . . .systemic issues of oppression and exclusion, . . . and the increasing crisis of climate change,  . . .  and more.

And those in leadership seem to either do nothing, . . . or make things worse – roll back regulations, clear more land, ignore the suffocating planet.  

Can we find ways to be more faithful? That is what Jeremiah is urging! Faithful means rooting our lives in God’s life, not just giving lip-service to it. Faithful means being sincerely SHAPED by the love and promises of God. When we trust God and seek to serve God, what do we do – we do not lose heart; we keep living with faith, hope, and love; we keep striving to use our lives for justice, peace, light, and . . . the reign of God! We stay focused – stay engaged. We advocate. We seek to serve.

Here is another quote from William Sloane Coffin: If indeed we love the Lord with all our hearts, minds, and strength, we are going to have to STRETCH our hearts, OPEN our minds, and STRENGTHEN our souls, whether our years are three score and ten, or not yet twenty. God cannot lodge in a narrow mind. God cannot lodge in a small heart. To accommodate God, they must be palatial. (Credo, p. 130)

We are always being SHAPED by God the potter – and the intention, according to Jeremiah, is for larger hearts, larger minds, larger souls that trust God and actually serve God. We are SHAPED to love God, and love what God loves – not just a little bit – but in palatial ways. We are SHAPED for ongoing transformation – that stretches our hearts, opens our minds, and strengthens our soul. Church and church community help us with that.

SHAPED – not wallowing in selfishness and despair – but certain of God’s care and sincere in serving God.

SHAPED – not sitting around when God needs our energy and commitments for the coming reign of God because the world is in a mess – but engaged, advocating, doing justice, loving kindness, walking with God.

Paul’s words say is so well: “let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good, . . .  do not lag in zeal, be ardent in the spirit, serve the Lord.”

SHAPED – not just a little bit – but fully, fundamentally, always as God’s people – who are enfolded in God’s care, and in God’s service.

May it be so. Amen.

Prayer of Commitment: Holy God, to turn from you is to fall; to turn to you is to rise; to love you and serve you – well, that is to abide forever. We seek that way. Amen

Alex W. Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during Sunday morning worship on September 8, 2019. This is a rough manuscript.

Alex EvansVirginia Evans