Sermon: God, Our Maker

09 September 2007

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
September 9, 2007

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

God, Our Maker

Jeremiah 18:1-11

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds here together be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

Our first scripture lesson today was Psalm 139, which was the basis for our prayer of approach. Later, our choir will sing it as our offertory. It's beautiful poetry, and in my teaching, I've often referred to it as the first and most important prayer of spiritual formation. I encourage you to look it up in your own Bible at home, when you have a quiet moment. I memorized it myself, to use in my own prayer and meditation. Psalm 139 holds in it both comfort and challenge. God searches and knows us. God guides us. God comes after us when we run away, when we "take the wings of the morning and fly to the farthest part of the sea," even when "we make our bed in Sheol," in some dark underworld of our own choosing. God's love is with us always, and everywhere.

And why is that? God made us. We are God's precious creations. True Creation theology is not so much about science as it is about the Good News of God's life-giving love. God knit us together in the womb and continues to shape us all the days of our lives. We are fearfully and wonderfully made! Remember the Genesis Creation stories, when God makes a stream to flow from the ground and then kneels down to tenderly shape the first human beings from mud? Those earthy Creation images fit well with the second lectionary text for today, the one Jen read, where Jeremiah has a vision of God as a potter, and us as the clay. It's such a vivid, sensual, and tactile image.

Now we are all about molding our children in Sunday School, aren't we? Forming them into good people. And that's not a bad thing. "Spirit of the Living God" was one of our favorite Kids Camp songs back in Northern California. Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me. It's a beautiful prayer of self-surrender and faithfulness. But here's the thing: sometimes by the time we're teenagers, we have had enough of being shaped by our elders and by our church and by our schools. We start to chafe against the edges of the molds we've been pressed into. We begin to pull hard on the tight reins on our lives that God, and those in authority hold over us.

I think if we're honest, we have to admit that we Congregationalists (like most patriotic Americans) have an even stronger independent streak than those in other religions or cultures. We behave, most times, not so much as the sheep of God's pasture as the wild horses of God's frontier. My church out West didn't have Church School shepherds; we had "wranglers." But there some church meetings I attended when I wished that God would intervene with some serious rodeo-style roping to keep our adults rounded up and on the right track. It's hard, sometimes, to keep our focus on Jesus, the Good Shepherd, where it belongs. That's when a strong, prophetic voice like Jeremiah's is needed to remind us that our life on earth is not about OUR work, but God's.

Our lectionary text a couple weeks ago was from Jeremiah, chapter one, where he gets his first call from God as a young man. He was a priest of Jerusalem, the capital of the Southern Kingdom of Judea. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had already fallen, as the great prophet Isaiah had prophesied nearly 100 years before. Jeremiah tells the story of his call in verses 4 and 5: "Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, 'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.'" These words recall Psalm 139. Jeremiah is reminded of his sacred origins as a special, even unique, child of God - how his life has always been in God's hands, and how his will must always be submitted to the plan of God, the master craftsman shaping his people's destiny. His very challenging call was to remind those headstrong people that their ancient scriptures still applied to them.

It's not so different today. You can see that, I think, if we put Jeremiah's ministry in perspective. He lived about 600 years before Christ. But he came about 400 years AFTER King David, and the writing of the Psalms. As we've been celebrating the 400th anniversary of Jamestown Colony in Virginia - perhaps that helps us understand how the Psalms already, in Jeremiah's time, were ancient history. Four hundred years is a very long time. So his people's memory of the establishment of their great nation - during the "golden age" of Jewish nationhood, under the Kingdom of David - was understandably clouded by the mists of the ancient past. The righteousness of past generations were idealized in theory, but NOT followed in actual practice.

Now, nearly 400 years after the first English settlers came to the New World, we have some of the same misty nostalgia at work in our times - and in this our 250th anniversary year, I think it's appropriate for us to remember with some humility how we began. Those first Pilgrims barely survived in these wild Northeastern forests - so our pastoral leaders did their best to center the people firmly in God's ways, entrusting their very lives to God's care, and earnestly studying scripture to try to uphold some very high religious standards. But, like Jeremiah's people, generations have now gone by - and we have come to accommodate ourselves more and more to the decadent, self-serving culture that surrounds us. Like Jeremiah's people, we have accepted God's law as more suggestion than commandment. Many people tend to be more religious in worship practice than in the day-to-day dealings of their lives. Perhaps we too need to repent. What might that mean for us today?

Let's listen to what Jeremiah was asking. The kind of reform he called for was also very similar to the reform Jesus wanted. Listen to these words from Jeremiah 7 (vv. 5-7): "For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood … and if you do not go after other gods … then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever." You need this context if you're to understand Jeremiah's vision of God as the potter molding the people as the clay. Words we hear as beautiful poetry were heard by Jeremiah's people as a threat. When he predicted his nation's defeat by Babylon if it did NOT repent of its unjust ways and take care of its own people, he was branded as a traitor to his country - and after years of persecution, public ridicule, and imprisonment, he finally died in exile in Egypt. Jeremiah is not exactly a good role model for a settled, long-term parish ministry.

But I'm bold enough to preach today from Jeremiah, because I think one of the most important disciplines for us, as Christ's church, is to submit to God's will for us. God is a God of both creation and re-creation. God continues to shape people, churches, and nations throughout history. We need to learn to listen to the voice of the still-speaking God - to listen and yield to God's will. That's hard, I know. We don't want to put ourselves, or our church, entirely into God's hands. It's a little scary. Jeremiah's vision, when you stop to think, is a bit of a nightmare. Can you imagine spinning on the potter's wheel and looking up to see God's fist raised up, ready to flatten us down and reshape us into something new.? We may be more beautiful, and useful, but it's bound to hurt. We know God is a creative genius, a master builder, but we tremble to know that sometimes a builder needs to demolish the old before the new vision can emerge.

So what does God have in store for us today, as our church enters the home stretch of our 250th Anniversary Campaign? What sacrifices may God require - as we prepare to rebuild our parsonage and organ, and improve our Fellowship Hall classrooms and kitchen? In today's Gospel text from Luke chapter 14 (which we didn't read), Jesus compares building God's Kingdom to a construction project. In verse 28, he says you have to look at the builder's estimate to consider whether we can afford it - whether we can bear the full cost of discipleship. It's one of those texts where Jesus calls us to take up the cross and follow him, so we know his way will require sacrifice. He expects us to put our whole selves into it, to give it our all. But if we do, because it's God's work of creation that we're joining, we can be confident that God will give us success.

I want to close with a story our former church historian Gene Farrell shared with me recently. He was remembering how, back in the 1960s just after he and his wife joined our church, they began building our new education building and fellowship hall - which would just about double our size. It was a VERY big deal - and there were many who said it couldn't, or shouldn't, be done. The town even had to reroute Silvermine Road. No one could imagine that we would ever find enough children in the community to fill all those classrooms. But now, aren't we grateful for those who had the vision to plan for our needs, and to sacrifice to pay the price to build the future that is ours today?

The observation that moved me most, as Mr. Farrell shared what it felt like to be a young man standing on the threshold of that challenging project, was this: He said that for members like him who contributed to the campaign, they felt like what they had to give was like one nail in a vast bucket. And yet, he said, "What would we have done without all those nails?" He pointed to one corner of Brooks Hall. "That nail right there doesn't know how important it is. And maybe that wall WOULD stand without it. But what if the one next to it had also not gone in, and the one next to that? Together they keep us connected to the cornerstone, and the church stands up." Jesus Christ is that cornerstone, and to him we need to be connected.

We are each individual creations of God, but together we form this beautiful edifice that is Christ's church. I suspect both Jesus and Jeremiah would call us to return to the Psalmist's humble view of ourselves as creatures of clay, precious to our Creator, but desperately in need of strong hands to shape and refine our beauty. For God longs to mold us together into a church that is a useful and durable vessel - one strong and open enough to hold God's own gracious Spirit. The Good News is that we can fully give ourselves to God, the loving potter, to be melted and molded and used for God's own holy purposes. We can trust that, even if the process requires hard work and sacrifice, we will be shaped by hands that love us completely and will hold us close forever.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.


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