September 9, 2013

Clay in a Potter’s Hand


Text: Jeremiah 18:4: “The 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.”

Looking at this building from outside, even if you’ve never been inside, you probably form an idea about what kind of place this is pretty quickly. It’s a church-shaped building; it has a steeple, and those differently-shaped windows, and a steeply sloped roof. It’s bigger than a house, it doesn’t seem to be a bank or a grocery store, and there’s no Starbucks sign outside. So it’s probably a church.

Our building is an intentional signature. The people who came before us, the people who paid for and designed this building, had that in mind. They had first gathered in a Masonic Hall, which was a fine building on its own terms, but not really much different from other commercial blocks in town. They didn’t want people driving by to mistake this place for a library, or a school, or a market. They didn’t even want a place that would maybe be mistaken for a Congregational New England meeting house, or a theater, or, well, a Masonic Hall.

So we have this very Gothic building, a beautiful, small, quintessentially churchy building.

Except that of course it isn’t only a church. It’s a nursery school. It’s a community meeting space. It’s a rehearsal space, not just for our choir but for the occasional orchestra that comes to us needing a space.

And it’s more than just a building. It’s the home of a community of people—us. It’s a shelter for people in trouble, a refuge for people who are grieving, and a place where the joyful experiences of life and love are protected. It’s a school of tolerance, a house of mercy, a gathering of generations, a storehouse of memory.

We think we know what a place like this is just by looking at it from outside. And even those of us who know the place think we know what it is, what it does, what it stands for, what happens here, and what doesn’t happen here.

If we were a bank, or a market, or a Starbucks, it would be perfectly sane for us to have that kind of certainty about the place. Because places like banks and markets and cafes have a kind of single, one-dimensional purpose. They have lots of different products, and they have take a lot of different forms, but they have one fundamental orienting purpose.

This place is different. We don’t report to shareholders, and we don’t have a business plan or a profit objective. We report to God.

And that means that for all this beautiful building, for all the history that we have here, for all the people driving by are sure that goes on in here when they see this place, there is someone we answer to, and who gets to say what the purpose of the place really is.

All that we do—the community-building, and the help we try to give to folks who need it, and the fact that we try to give kids a set of tools for building a life, and the visits we make to each other when someone is sick or in the hospital—all of that we do because it is part of what the God we answer to, and whom we claim here to be serving, wants us to do. We know those things because of the text we have at the very center of our life together, the Bible. And we know those things because the better we get at doing them, the more value, the more depth, the more joy we find in being together here.

But there’s a catch. At any moment, the God whom we serve might come up with a different idea. The potter who has made this clay, who has shaped us into the community that we are, might decide that there is something else that needs to be done—something more pressing.

And when that happens, well, we have to stretch and reshape ourselves to respond to what God wants done. That is how cathedral basements get turned into soup kitchens. That is how church rooms get converted into food pantries. It’s how the parish hall of All Saints Church in Ashmont got changed into the first few classes of the Epiphany School, now in its own building in Dorchester.

We are clay in a potter’s hand. We like to think of the form we have been given as a thing of beauty, and indeed it is; but when the potter has a different need, when a water pot is more necessary than a flower vase, or when a bowl will help feed more people than a chalice, then we will be changed by the hands that formed us in the first place.

The last time Saint John’s had a person with the title of Rector was more than six years ago. Ever since that time we have said to ourselves that if we only could just get ourselves back into a place with a settled minister, things would be different. We’d be more stable, or we’d grow, or good things would happen.

Well, I hope in the last six years we’ve at least learned that rectors don’t actually make all that happen. Rectors are not the thing that makes a church work. All of us together do that, and over these past six years we have all of us learned how to do it more and more fully.

But one thing is for sure: Things are going to be different. We are not settling down; we are speeding up. We are not sitting still; we are reaching to do more.

Notwithstanding our beautiful building, we are not hard and unyielding stone. We are clay in the potter’s hand, and in this moment we are going to be reshaped and remade into whatever vessel seems good to God now.

We are going to be doing more to serve those in need in Newton, and we’re going to be doing it in deeper partnership with other parishes around us. We’re going to find people among us who feel called to explore serving in pastoral ministry, and through them we’re going to strengthen our capacity to care for everyone who is part of this parish.

We’re going to be saying more to the world outside this building about what goes on inside this building, mostly through the growing ministry of Kate McKey-Dunar. And we’re going to be part of an ongoing study of what makes small churches work, and thrive, and flourish, a process that began back in May.

When the prophet Jeremiah likens us to the clay in the potter’s hand, he is offering us a gentle reminder about what it means to be clay. It is not for the clay to fall too much in love with the beauty of the pot it becomes; because it may be the potter has a different idea in mind.

We are here because we love this place, and we love these people, and at least an hour a week we want to spend time with them and thank God for them. But God may have other things in mind for us to do as well; indeed, I’m sure of it. God has built this place, but God has not finished building it. We are being built anew, shaped anew, recast anew. New occasions teach new duties, as the old saying goes; and by the grace of God we are being prepared to meet them. Let’s begin. Amen.