“In the Potter’s Hand”

Scripture – Jeremiah 18:1-11

Sermon preached by Sudie Niesen Thompson

Sunday, September 4, 2022


I know very little about the art of shaping clay. Sure, now and then, I’ve had opportunities to watch potters at work — their skillful hands pressing and pulling until the clay finds form. But, personally, I’ve had little experience beyond the pottery classes children take at summer camp. So, as I returned to this image from Jeremiah, I figured I should talk to someone who knows a thing or two about throwing pots. I called my dad. He has taken a handful of pottery classes — enough to be proficient at the wheel. Enough to make plates and bowls — even the chalice and pitcher that we will use for communion today.  “What would cause a vessel to spoil?” I asked him. And he had no shortage of answers. It turns out there’s plenty that can go wrong when throwing a pot … starting with the way the clay is prepared. If a potter doesn’t knead clay properly before placing it on the wheel, the air bubbles inside will cause weak spots in the vessel. If a potter doesn’t center clay properly when placing it on the slab, the lump will distort as the wheel spins. Even with a successful start, a vessel can spoil in the potter’s hand. Water is essential to the process of shaping clay, but too much water will make the clay soggy and soft. Pressure is the only way to mold a formless lump into something useful, but uneven pressure will yield a vessel that is too thin in some places and too thick in others. And, then, there’s the matter of the potter’s hands: if they’re unsteady, the clay will control her movements … not the other way around. In all of these scenarios, the result is effectively the same. The clay will wobble on the wheel. It might flop over or fold in on itself. Sometimes it will fall down completely. And, then, the vessel is beyond repair. It’s spoiled in the potter’s hand. So she must cut it from the wheel, knead it, center it, and shape it anew. In today’s passage, Jeremiah witnesses this process with his own eyes: 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.

God has sent Jeremiah to the potter’s house, telling the prophet: There I will let you hear my words. So Jeremiah visits the village potter and observes the artist at work. The prophet watches the clay wobble on the wheel. I imagine he sees it flop over or fold in on itself or fall down completely. Because the potter deems the vessel unusable. It is beyond repair. It is spoiled. So the potter begins again — shaping the clay into something that seems good to him. Of course, Jeremiah’s field trip to the potter’s house isn’t about a spoiled vessel. It isn’t exactly about clay or the hands that shape it. It’s about God and God’s people. It’s about the one who established the covenant with Israel, and the ones who forsake that covenant. Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? Here, in the potter’s house, the word of the Lord comes to Jeremiah. And it is a word of judgment: Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings, says the Lord. Otherwise, it seems, Israel’s fate will be the same as that of the vessel that was spoiled in the potter’s hand. The nation will be deemed beyond repair.

The house of Israel is certainly in need of reform … The people have turned away from the God of their ancestors, choosing instead to worship the gods of other nations. And, in doing so, they have abandoned the ways of God. Instead of providing for the orphan and the widow, some in the community are taking the goods of others. Instead of caring for the poor, some grow fat while others starve (Jeremiah 5). The people have abandoned the laws of the covenant, which ensure that the whole community flourishes. So God sends the prophet to call the people back: Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand … Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings, says the Lord. It’s not a perfect metaphor — this image of clay in the potter’s hand. After all, the mistakes that happen at the wheel are the fault of the potter, not the fault of the vessel. Clay has no free will. It cannot choose either to pull itself into a pot or to collapse upon the wheel. But — when it comes to the house of Israel — the fault lies with the clay … not with the potter. The people are responsible for their mistakes and misdeeds, for their tendency to turn away. No, it’s not a perfect metaphor. And, yet, the house of Israel is very much a spoiled vessel. It has lost its center; it’s no longer grounded in covenant law or oriented toward its covenant-keeping God. So it has become distorted. And out of balance. The community, which is supposed to ensure all people have what they need to flourish, is too thin in some places, too thick in others. And, so — like a spoiled vessel — the house of Israel has become wobbly. It looks like it might flop over or fold in on itself. It may even fall down completely.

Can 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. It sounds ominous. Like God is ready to walk away from the covenant community. Like the potter is content to quit the clay. From the tone of this word from the Lord, we would expect to find the potter washing his hands of the mess, while a collapsed lump of clay lies — abandoned — on the wheel.  But that’s not what happens. That’s not how the story goes:

… I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel, Jeremiah says. 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.  The potter doesn’t scrap the pot; he doesn’t scrape the clay from the wheel and throw it into the waste bucket. Quite the opposite, in fact. He begins again. The potter kneads the clay, centers it on the wheel, and shapes it into something new. Even before Jeremiah receives the word of the Lord — even before he hears this summons to repentance — the prophet witnesses this act of grace. He watches the potter work and re-work the clay until it becomes a vessel that seems good in his sight.  No, it is not a perfect metaphor — this image of clay in the potter’s hand. And, yet, God is so much like this potter. Shaping and re-shaping, forming and re-forming. Exerting pressure when the clay begins to wobble; pulling or pressing the walls into place when the pot starts to flop or fold. Laboring tirelessly at the wheel, until the vessel is solid and sturdy. Not necessarily perfect, but good in God’s sight.

This is the way of God. It seems this has always been the way of God, who has been working with clay since the dawn of time. According to the second creation story in Genesis, our Maker molded the first human from the dust of the earth and breathed into this being the breath of life. And the One who went on to sculpt the birds of the air and the beasts of the field and a second human from the form of the first — all so creation might be complete and good — this God continues to work the clay. God the Potter shapes and reshapes — sometimes re-making us completely — until we are fashioned and readied for holy purposes. Can I not do with you, [O people], just as this potter has done? says the Lord. And our hope-filled answer is: Yes. Yes, God, you can form and re-form us. Yes, God, you do make and re-make us … shaping us with a steady hand; firmly pulling the clay into position, gently molding the clay when it flops or folds, lovingly attending to flaws and weak spots that might cause us to wobble or fall down. Indeed, the potter returns to the wheel over and over and over again, re-working the clay until the vessel seems good in God’s sight. Like our ancestors within the covenant community, we know what it’s like to wobble or fall down … Sometimes because of mistakes we’ve made; sometimes because of circumstances beyond our control. Maybe we’ve lost our center, or spun out of balance. Maybe the weight has become unbearable, and we’re teetering and tottering … headed toward collapse. Whatever the reason, we’ve all had moments or seasons or — even — decades when we wobble. When it looks like we might flop over or fold in on ourselves. Like we might fall down completely. But — no matter how much we flop or fold, no matter how vulnerable we are to collapse —  all is not lost. Because, in the Potter’s hands, nothing is beyond repair.

Pastors Danielle and Kevin Riley can testify to this truth.[1] This clergy couple serves alongside a Presbyterian congregation in Concrete, Washington — a rural community near North Cascades National Park. The Rileys are clearly called to this work. But — for much of their lives — ministry would have been the last vocation they might have imagined for themselves. When Danielle and Kevin were teenagers, they each began using drugs and alcohol. Years later, on the heels of painful divorces, the pair met on a dating app. Soon, Kevin and Danielle were using meth together, and their lives began to spin out of control. Danielle lost her job at a local hospital. Before long, both were living on the street, sustaining themselves through petty theft and small crimes. Things were bleak. More than teetering or tottering, it seemed they had fallen down completely. And, then — on the day Danielle found out she was pregnant with their son — she was arrested. Danielle passed her time in jail by participating in a Bible Study. “What she found there surprised her — it was the first time she’d ever considered that God wasn’t angry with her or ready to drop the hammer of punishment. It was there she heard about God’s love.”[2] On the outside, Kevin began talking with pastors from the same ministry that led the Bible Study Danielle was attending inside the jail. They guided him toward a recovery program, where he committed to the work of getting clean and sober. When Danielle was released, she joined him in recovery. Together, they found healing. And — with it — a sense of purpose. The Rileys felt called to help others who were struggling with and suffering with addiction.  “Addiction is a disease of loneliness,” Danielle says. “People … need community to heal from something like that.”[3] So the Rileys committed themselves to being part of communities of care, and they discerned a call to ministry. Now, Kevin and Danielle are serving alongside a small congregation — a congregation that had lost its sense of purpose. But, under the Rileys’ leadership, this church has identified its own call to support those who suffer with addiction. They’ve started a 12-step program, a cold-weather shelter for those experiencing homelessness, a medically-assisted drug treatment program. All born of their belief that healing is possible, that transformation is possible. As Danielle puts it: “Nobody is beyond resurrection. If it can happen to us, it can [happen to] anybody.”[4] You could hear this as a story of hard work: Kevin and Danielle pulled themselves back together and got their lives on track. And, then, decided to help others do the same. In some ways, it is such a story. After all, the Rileys’ journey toward healing certainly took determination and dedication. But — as they’ll attest — it took more than that: It took a faith-filled community that was committed to picking them up when they had fallen down. And it took a faithful God, who was committed to their transformation.

Sure, it’s a story of hard work. But it’s also a story of restoration. A story that reminds us nothing and no one is beyond repair. It’s a story of a Potter who will not quit the clay, but tirelessly works at the wheel — shaping and re-shaping; forming and re-forming. Because this is the way of God. It has always been the way of God — the one who molds us when we wobble, and re-makes us when we fall down. The One who returns to the wheel over and over and over again, until every vessel seems good in God’s sight.


Prayers of the People

Gregory Knox Jones


Eternal God, we give you thanks for your marvelous creation, for the gift of life, for your steadfast love, and for your promise that neither life nor death, nor things present nor things to come, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from your healing love.

Mighty God, we know that following Jesus includes praying for those who suffer, and so we join our hearts for people who are facing immense hardship and misery. Today we pray especially for the people of Pakistan where horrific flooding covers one third of their country and more than 1200 have perished. We struggle to comprehend the enormity of the disaster as a million homes and two million acres of crops have been submerged by the deluge and hundreds of thousands of livestock have drowned. Food and clean water are in short supply putting millions at risk of starvation and aid agencies brace for a rise in infectious diseases.

Compassionate God, these poor people have been devastated by blistering heat waves, torrential monsoons, and melting glaciers. The loss of homes and destruction of property overwhelms comprehension and the loss of life is heartbreaking. We pray that the Pakistani people will discover in you comfort in their sorrow, grit to endure these trying days, determination to forge ahead in the best way possible, and glimmers of hope despite rivers of despair.

God of Wonders, we are deeply grateful for heroic acts that saved many from perishing and pray for an outpouring of generosity by the people and governments of our world. May resources flow in to help people survive these agonizing days and eventually to rebuild their lives.

We give thanks for all who are providing food, medical care, housing, financial help, transportation, a shoulder to lean on, spiritual nurture, and whatever needs they can fill.  We are truly grateful for all who are responding in Christ-like ways, and pray that we may be counted among them.

Gracious God, forgive us for the ways we contribute to the climate crisis and inspire us to do all we can to preserve your creation – our one and only precious home.

Now, hear us as we pray together saying, Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.



[1] This illustration is drawn from multiple sources: Presbyterian Mission Agency, “Kevin and Danielle Riley,” https://vimeo.com/showcase/9574375; Amy Muia, “From Darkness, into Light,” Sedro-Woolley City Scene (August 3, 2018); and the website for Mount Baker Presbyterian Church (https://mountbakerpres.org).

[2] Amy Muia, “From Darkness, into Light.”

[3] Presbyterian Mission Agency, “Kevin and Danielle Riley.”

[4] Ibid.