(Jeremiah 18:1-11; Luke 14:15-24)
The word to us today from the scripture passages is about change. In the Jeremiah passage, God tells Jeremiah that Israel is like clay in the hands of a potter. God can change the shape of Israel, just like a potter can change the shape of the vessel he is making on the potter’s wheel. Clay is a substance that can be changed without being ruined. It can be made and re-made into many different shapes. God’s people are like that. They can be made and re-made, shaped and re-shaped into many different configurations, depending on their behavior and God’s intentions.
The Luke passage gives us a similar message. If the people invited originally to God’s dinner party are too busy and distracted to attend, others will be invited, and if there continues to be room for more guests, even more people will be brought in. The dinner party will take place regardless of whether the original invitees attend. The dinner party stays the same, even though the guests may change.
The potter will make a vessel out of clay even though the shape of the vessel may change. The host will have a dinner party even though the guest list may change. God will work through his people even though how he does so, and with whom he does so may change. There are two constants: God and God’s people. And there are two things that change: the shape God’s people take, and the identity of the people who fill in the shape at any given time.
This is an important message for the church these days, both the church, in general, and this church, in particular. During my time as your pastor we have discussed how the religious life of the United States changed during the last half of the Twentieth Century. Going to church used to be something that most people did; it was a given in many ways. Now, however, people don’t go to church as a matter of course. Instead of going to church because that is what one does, people have to choose to be involved in a church. Because it is no longer expected by society, people have to decide whether attending a church is something they want to do. This means that there are fewer people in church, but it means, also, that those who attend are there by intention; they have made a decision to be there. A woman I know who is from Texas – where society still expects people to go to church – said that here in the Northeast, people don’t “play” at going to church; if they’re there, they mean to be there. They are serious about it. And she likes that about the Northeast.
Of course, those of us who remember how it used to be can be upset by the change. Where are the people who used to sit in these pews? Why aren’t they here today? Why did they stop coming? Why did things have to change? We liked it the way it was!
Yes, the way it was was lovely for those of us who were there for it. But the one constant is change, as the saying goes, and church has changed. We can feel the way we feel about it – sad, unhappy, upset, nostalgic, whatever – but we can also be reassured that there are two things that haven’t changed: God and God’s people. God is still God, and those who choose to be God’s people are still God’s people. There are really only two things that have changed or are changing: the shape God’s people have taken and will take as time goes on, and the identity of the people who fill in that shape at any given time. If we go back to the images from the scripture passages, we could say that the potter is still working with the clay, and we could say that the host is still holding his dinner party. The only things that are changing are the shape of the vessel and the guest list. We can be assured that the shape of the vessel will be perfect for this time, for God is the potter; and that the guest list will be perfect for this time, because God is the host. What we need to do is not panic, but trust the potter and trust the host. We need to remain flexible so that we can be shaped by God the potter, and alert so that we can discern who it is that God the host would have us invite and welcome. We are both the clay with which God the potter is working, and the servants that God the host sends into the streets to find guests.
Remember the way things were and give that time the honor it deserves. But keep your feet firmly planted in the present and keep your gaze firmly directed toward the future. Keep your faith in God the potter, who is working to create just the right shape with his faithful clay; and keep your faith in God the host, who is continually reworking his guest list. God will find the correct shape for this church at this time, aided by your faithful flexibility. And God will instruct you whom to invite to this church at this time, aided by your faithful service. All we have to do is remain pliable, like good clay, and remain alert, like good servants. Just think of yourselves as alert clay – maybe even alert Play-do – and you will be fine in the hands of the master potter and the master host. Amen.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, September 4, 2016, the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost.