The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 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.
Then the word of the Lord came to me: 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. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.
Last year while on my sabbatical, I took a twenty-day, 900-mile bike ride through New England. On day ten, about the half-way point, I arrived at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Lynn, MA, where I was being hosted for the evening.
Now for those of you who are not familiar with St. Stephen’s, Lynn—and I would have no reason to expect that you would be—it is a grand, old basilica that sits on the green in the center of Lynn. It was built with the wealth that manufacturing brought into the city back in the day. It had a cavernous worship space and ample brick campus, and was filled with works of art that were incredible to see.
But as has happened to so many of our cities built upon manufacturing, Lynn has faced major socioeconomic upheaval in the past half-century. Similarly, St. Stephen’s is no longer the prestigious church filled with the wealthiest denizens of the city. Its grand edifice still stands, but when you look around the sanctuary and supporting buildings, you can see the water damage in the brickwork, the conservation that the beautiful stained glass windows and massive old organ need, and the many renovations that are waiting throughout its halls and classrooms. Standing in its space, my breath was taken away by the majesty of the building as well as the price tag of the deferred maintenance that I could see. The impressive brick basilica is now equal parts source of pride and overwhelming financial burden for the church that calls it home.
As you might imagine, this is a source of some pain and anxiety for the community of St. Stephen’s. Every week they are confronted with the reminder of what the resources that their church once enjoyed and the reality that they will not likely ever enjoy such resources again.
St. Stephen’s, Lynn, is not alone in this reality, and for many church communities the despair it causes becomes crippling. The despair they feel, the longing for the way things used to be, becomes so strong that they are unable to see any path forward at all. As a result, for many churches, this marks the beginning of their death.
I say this, not with judgement, but with deep compassion. The process of being re-invented, the experience of being re-made, is a difficult and painful one. It means acknowledging the past while also letting go of it—letting go of the identity that we have tied up with who we once were. Yes, we may have once been a wealthy church, we may have once been filled with the movers and shakers of our surrounding community, we may once have had a children’s program filled with hundreds of young faces, and we may have once had a massive music program, but that is not who we are now.
As if giving up that part of our identity were not hard enough, so often we also have a corresponding identity made up of who we might still be in the future. Yes, we are not wealthy now, but we could be that again in the future. Yes, our pews are emptier now than they used to be, but we can get people back, we can grow again. Yes, we have fewer children now, a smaller choir, but we can still get back to the way things used to be. We only need to find the right program, the proper expert to guide us to a winning strategy. If we work hard enough, believe strongly enough, then we can be again what we once were.
Honestly, I think this is the hardest part of being re-made. Letting go of the identity of who we thought we could be in the future. Yes, often our dreams for the future often closely resemble what we remember of the past, but it is still a dream, still a hope, and it forms a large part of how we think of ourselves now. It forms a large part of our identity. When we are being re-made, re-invented, it means letting go of all that. It means letting go of our old dreams, our old hopes, of all that we thought was important.
It means stepping out into an unknown future, and that can be terrifying.
The pain, the uncertainty, even the fear of this process is captured in our reading from Jeremiah this morning. God is looking at what God’s people have become, at what they are doing in the world, and it is not what God made them to be. It is not who God made them to be. The words of the prophet that come to him while watching the potter work, “Cannot I do to you as the potter does to his work, crushing you in my hands when you do not please me, and reshaping you into something new?” The message is clear: shape up or I will change my mind concerning you and raise something new in your place.
Now, if that sounds like a threat to you, it is because it is. And if that threat sounds scary to you, it is because it is scary. But beneath the threat of the prophet’s words is also a promise, and beneath the fear is hope, because God does not threaten to throw us out. God promises to re-shape us, re-make us, and give us a new purpose.
Now, when we are deeply invested in who we once were, when we’ve tied our identity so closely to becoming again what we remember being, then being re-shaped can be as scary as being thrown away. It can be as scary as dying.
But if we can let go of that, let go of who we once were, let go of how we thought about ourselves in the past, let go of what we imagined ourselves to be in the future, we discover the promise of the prophet’s message. We discover the good news of God’s word.
And the Good News is this—we are never lost to God. Even as the world changes around us and we find that we are no longer who we once were, discover that our place in the world is no longer what it once was, God still has a purpose for us. God does not throw us away. God can still shape us to be the church that God needs in the world. God still has work for us to do, if we are willing to be re-invented, re-shaped, re-made.
When the people of St. Stephen’s in Lynn look out at the surrounding city, it is not the city that first built their church. Their place in that city is no longer what it once was. And the community of people that make up the church is not the same as it once was either. But as they look out at the world, they saw that there is still a need for them, there is still work for them to do. They looked and saw that in the diverse but economically depressed city that there was a need for serving children, to make sure that all children had access to resources and support to become the people God was making them to be. So, they partnered with local property owners to build playgrounds and ensure that there were safe places for children to play and be active. They opened the doors of their building to run summer day-camp so that the children would have quality programs and experiences during the summer months.
The people of St. Stephen’s looked out at their community and saw that people were hungry and did not have access to reliable sources of food. So in the hall that once held fancy social functions, the began a food pantry where anyone could come and receive a bag full of groceries, no questions asked. And as they looked out at their community, they saw that there was a growing population of low-income college students, coming from near and far, seeking an education to better their lives, but struggling to find affordable places to live. So, St. Stephen’s invested its money in building apartments specifically to house these college students.
And as the people of St. Stephen’s looked out at their community, they saw a city filled with people of many different races and nationalities, who had moved there in successive waves of immigration over the decades, and they saw the need to address the problems of racism. So they partnered with another church and began a monthly open-dialogue where people of all different backgrounds could come together and share stories of how racism had impacted their own lives. White and black, young and old, men and women, they came together to confront the racism that was in themselves, and to heal from its wounds together.
As I sat there, sharing in the meal brought together by this beloved community, I was filled with amazement and hope. Amazement because I don’t think that the people who first built the massive home of St. Stephen’s, Lynn, could ever imagine what their community would become. Hope because I saw what was possible when a community of God’s people opened themselves to being re-shaped and re-made to be a part of God’s work in the world.
Preached by Adam Yates