How Are We Clay?

Jeremiah 18:1-4

potter
I don’t know how many of you have ever made pottery or at least watched someone else do it. It is a fascinating process and one that requires great patience, care, and creativity. Also, at least in my case, pottery-making involves A LOT of mistakes and starting over again.

Perhaps this is why many people in the Christian and Jewish traditions embrace a very small portion of an otherwise-ominous book of Hebrew prophetic scripture called Jeremiah. In general, most of the prophetic books are ominous and quite pessimistic, but in all fairness, it makes sense. I mean, consider Jeremiah’s context. These prophetic writings were penned over about four decades of not-so-great times in Israel, starting with the thirteenth year of King Josiah (627 BCE) and finishing with the eleventh year of King Zedekiah (586). In short, Jeremiah experienced the time in Israel just before, during, and after the fall of Jerusalem when the Babylonians took over. So obviously, Jeremiah’s words are generally pessimistic.

What is interesting theologically about Jeremiah is the tension between what is called “temple theology” and “covenant theology.” Real quick explanation. Temple theology says: nothing bad will happen to us [in this case, Israel] because Yahweh will protect us and the religious temple of Jerusalem. Covenant theology, on the other hand, says: Yahweh will reward us for our obedience and punish us for disobedience. It is “if-then” philosophy, i.e., if we do this or that, then Yahweh will do this or that.[1] 

This tension, I argue, still exists in modern theology today. Some people [across religious traditions] believe that no matter what, a higher power will save them/bless them/protect them. Many times they believe that because they assume that the higher power accepts their religion as the best one or the truest one. And then contrarily, there are some who believe that this higher power will reward and punish them based on their obedience or disobedience of particular religious rites and rules. Okay, still with me? Do you identify or resonate with either of these viewpoints? Were you raised to believe something similar?

As you think about that, now consider the allegory/image of the potter. Within this image are these two viewpoints, and I will suggest, an alternative viewpoint as well. First, consider what a potter might have been in the time of Jeremiah. Judean ceramic pots, in Jeremiah’s image, would not have been ornate, decorative works of art. These pots would have been functional, made of cheaper materials, and expected to last only a short time. This is why when YHWH calls on the prophet to visit the potter, this is normal and something that he would do quite often. Time for another pot as the last one no longer was usable. But don’t let this fool you. The old pots and the clay, for the potter, are not trash.

The potter is constantly interested in recycling and reuse.

For example, those of you who are potters know that a potter will periodically start a project and then decide that the project is failing and so they will abandon the original idea and start something new. I have heard that potters keep containers of scraps of clay and even pieces of old projects. These discarded pieces can be used or reclaimed as usable clay for new projects. Considering that, this is where I find an alternative to the temple and covenant theology I mentioned early.

I am not one to believe in a Yahweh/God/higher power /presence that punishes and rewards people according to how much they obey or disobey certain rules or moral codes. Neither do I buy the idea that the Divine favors one religion or nation over others, no matter what. For me, it’s all about the potter and the clay—very simple. Potters don’t waste clay. They recycle. They rework the clay. It’s not punishment or reward. It’s not favoritism.

It’s love of the art, the creative spark, and the hope that even discarded pieces from failed projects can be a part of something new, wonderful, and whole.

The discarded clay can be part of a new ceramic vessel and hold something important like wine, water, or oil.

So what do you think? How are we clay? What are your thoughts about this image?

[1] See Alphonetta Wines, “Thinking the Unthinkable: God as Enemy—An Image of God in the Book of Job and Other Books of the Hebrew Bible” (PhD diss., Texas Christian University, 2011), 58.

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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