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  • Rev. Kathy Wolf Reed

Group Projects

Jeremiah 18:1-11

1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 "Come, go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words." 3 So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. 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. 5 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6 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. 7 At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 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. 9 And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 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. 11 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.


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Jeremiah’s Individual Call

Just a few weeks ago Nick preached on Jeremiah’s call story and encouraged each of us to consider how God might be calling us to use our individual gifts. Throughout scripture, from Abraham to the Apostle Paul, this is most often how calling begins: the individual, sensing the movement of the Spirit and discovering that still, small, voice nudging us forward.

But today we pick up on Jeremiah’s journey and seventeen chapters later we find God addressing not just him, but the entire house of Israel. And we are reminded that for better or worse, though the life of discipleship may begin with the individual’s call, at the end of the day, Christianity is a group project. And I don’t know about you, but when I was in school there was nothing I dreaded more than a group project.

Group Projects

I never knew which was worse: when the teacher would assign you to a group or when you got to choose your own. If the teacher was doing the assigning you might end up with someone you didn’t want to work with. At the same time, if you got to choose your own there was risk of being left out: like when the teacher said “groups of four” and you ended up being the lonely fifth without a team.

Then there was the work itself - division of labor was always an issue, ending up with multiple people who wanted to be in charge or (worse) the partner who didn’t want to do anything at all. Finding times to meet outside of school, deciding who would speak in front of the class. In high school some of our teachers would let us evaluate one another at the end of the project but even that was a dilemma: do I treat this person with grace or vengeance? In the life of faith hopefully the answer is always grace, but in AP English, vengeance seemed like a pretty good option.

I had so few good things to say about group projects that earlier this week I had to turn to some of the educators in our congregation for help. I asked a handful of them what they see as the benefits of group projects and here’s what they had to say - but as you listen I want you to think about this in the context of a faith community instead of a traditional classroom:

- Through group work, we are forced to verbally communicate with one another face to face (without a device).

- As a result, we get to know one another, not just our ideas but our human qualities as well.

- Along the way we learn things like cooperation, compromise, division of duties, team building, and considering view points other than our own.

- Ideally, when we work in a group we are both talking and listening so that we can get beyond the surface and really have to think about the topic at hand.

- It helps us realize that maybe we don’t all think or feel the same way. Agreement isn’t the end goal, but instead opening the mind to other possibilities.


God Speaks to Israel as a Community

In today’s text, Jeremiah speaks to a people just as resistant to group projects as I once was. God’s been watching them and sees that though many have discerned individual calls to serve the Lord, they are in desperate need of a group assignment, for all the reasons our wise and wonderful teachers have stated and much more.

The proclamation of the potter and the clay comes at a time when the wheels are starting to fall off the house of Israel. King Josiah, who’d been a great group leader, has died. During his reign he’d been the one keeping them accountable to their covenant with God, focused on serving God and God alone with their hearts, souls, minds, and strength. But now that he’s gone a new group leader, King Jehoikim doesn’t seem to care about any of that. All sense of cooperation, communication, and covenant have gone out the window.

As a result, individuals are “answering their call to God” but there seems to be little accountability within the community.

It’s a group project gone bad.

Or, to use the potter and the clay metaphor, instead of the clay melding together in a cohesive piece, it’s refusing to conform to the guidance of the potter’s hands, and the potter is getting frustrated.

The Response Sounds Harsh

God’s response to Israel may sound like a threat - God literally marches the prophet out to the shed (the potter’s shed) and says, “See how that clay is powerless in the potter’s hands? If you don’t shape up, that’s you and me, Israel.”

But in truth, God’s hope for them isn’t destruction, it’s redemption. The potter, the teacher, the creator does not want to see Israel fail, and so God brings Jeremiah into the learning laboratory, the potter’s shed, to watch the interaction between potter and the clay.

As the potter goes about her work, there is a goal, a hope for how things are going to turn out. And, the potter doesn’t just want the vessel to look nice, she wants it to be strong enough to withstand the heat of the kiln and ultimately serve a specific purpose.

So, she works the clay with constant scrutiny, assessing its condition and responding in turn. She applies pressure, uses tools to shape and mold it. And, sometimes, if it gets to the point where it’s just not working - she has to start over. But that’s key - the potter doesn’t give up on the clay, she starts over.


Turn/Repent

In that very last sentence of today’s passage, “Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.” the word “turn” in Hebrew is the same word translated as “repent” in Greek. So listen again: “Repent now, all of you from your evil way and amend your ways and your doings.” I want you to be better than this. I want you to come together as a community and refocus your lives on our covenant. I can’t shape and form you unless you cooperate as a people.

Generations later in Matthew’s gospel, it would be Jesus who would come along and see how divided and scattered the group had become. He would look at them and say, “Repent (or “turn”) for the kingdom of heaven is near!”

When the community has strayed from its calling to honor the covenant between God and Israel, or in our case the new covenant we have received in the grace of Jesus Christ, the potter may decide that it’s time to start over with a clean slate. But that doesn’t mean the potter throws away the clay. Instead, the potter offers grace and begins the tough work of reworking that clay.

Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley

Nick and I came to this presbytery almost nine years ago and at the time there were somewhere around 80 churches in the presbytery. Our numbers are now in the 60s.

There are a lot of factors at play in those numbers, many having to do with economics and rural communities simply not having enough people to sustain churches that were once much larger. But some of these churches did not make it because they couldn’t figure out how to manage the dynamics of a group project, and those are the most painful losses in the wider community of faith. There are even a few now struggling that need our prayers.

When we find ourselves struggling to work together it’s easy to point to those instances and become fearful - what if that happens to us? What if we can’t come to an agreement? What if we start to decline? BUT that is not something I fear here at this church. Because, historically, we have had a lot of success when it comes to group projects.

It doesn’t mean that we all think the same or even arrive at the same conclusions. We disagree. Instead, it means that we offer one another what is known in historic principles of church order as “mutual forbearance”. In the first section of our denominational book of order, the definition of “mutual forbearance” comes right after the entry on “truth and goodness”. So following truth and goodness, it says: “we also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men (and women) of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.”

Put another way: as individuals, and as Christ’s church, we have received grace from God in Jesus. Therefore, we should extend that grace to one another, person to person and faith community to faith community, with generosity and humility, always rooted and grounded in our identity as members of Christ’s body. We don’t all think the same, don’t all perceive the same solutions. But that’s group work. It’s hard work. And if we can treat one another with mutual forbearance and remind ourselves that we are all in the hands of the potter, perhaps the benefits of group work become more apparent.

Worth the Struggle

If we forget we are merely clay in the potter’s hands, that’s when we get ourselves in trouble. Be willing to turn, God urges Israel. Be willing to be transformed. Work for God’s purposes. The idea that God might have a change of heart and smash up the clay in order to begin again is not as much a threat as it is a reminder that throughout history God makes and remakes, creates and recreates in order to achieve God’s purposes. Before there was resurrection there was crucifixion, and even from that - death itself - came new life in Christ.

Answering God’s call as an individual is the first step. Recognizing our God given gifts helps us know what we can best contribute to the community of faith, the body of Christ. And then the next step is figuring out how our piece of clay can blend and conform with others’ in a way that creates a vessel that is strong and unique. If we remain true to God we are joined with that community in ways that bring joy and comfort, but also in ways that test our humility, our patience, and our ability to offer grace. But what we will find is that God truly is shaping and forming us into something far better than any one of us individuals could ask or imagine. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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