Re-forming the Clay in Our Hands
by Louise Westfall
Recently, one of you shared with me a remarkable essay on the topic of evolution, written for a high school class in 1954. Judy Jones gave me permission to cite this paper (interesting historical side note: it was composed on a manual typewriter and duplicated with carbon paper!) to illustrate the dynamic we celebrate today, reformation. Yes, the particular reformation commemorated today is Martin Luther’s “protest-ant” challenges to Roman Catholic theology and practice. And yet, a similar thoughtful re-shaping was present in Judy’s own intellectual engagement between science and the religion of her youth. She wrote way back then, “Some people think that the Bible and scientific facts conflict, but actually I believe they complement each other.” (Confirmands, are you listening?!)
Today’s Scripture text describes reformation using the metaphor of a potter working and re-working clay toward a purpose. It’s a remarkable picture of God-as-artist, a creative God whose plans for people are not fixed or hardened into stone, but are shaped by human choices and actions. To Jeremiah was given the daunting task of proclaiming the truth of this metaphor to people who had turned away from God. Clay is made of the dust of the earth, the humblest of origins. Clay is the stuff of infinite promise, capable of being formed into things of great beauty and purpose. But sometimes, even the most experienced potter will tell you, destruction is part of the creative process. I encourage you to keep working your hunk of clay during the reading from the prophet Jeremiah, in the 18th chapter at the first verse. Listen for God’s Word to the church, reformed and always to be reforming. [Jeremiah 18:1-11]
Among the many rich insights of this text, is one that erases the picture of God as the “unmoved mover”, an impersonal, all-powerful ruler of a static universe governed by immutable laws. In this narrative, everything that happens to individuals, to nations throughout history, comes from God’s hand. So we have TV preachers attributing a devastating earthquake to punishment for violation of God’s holy word. We attribute an ill person’s healing to God’s will which, of course, begs the question for when healing doesn’t occur.
Jeremiah sculpts a different image, that of a God who is attentive and fully engaged with God’s people. Picture the way a potter hunches over the wheel, placing her hands on the clay just so, adjusting the speed carefully forming the pliant material. A God who is responsive to the people, as they turn away from God’s guiding hands. There’s no coercion, and in this text the good plans God had for the people were thwarted by their selfish choices and idolatry, not so different from the way clay collapses on the wheel when it gets out of alignment. But God is quick to proclaim a word of grace through the prophet. Return to me, and I will restore, re-form, you to be the people I intend. I will build and plant and create in you and for you a flourishing life. I will transform you in ways you can only imagine.
This, friends, describes the dynamic of the Protestant Reformation, as Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and others sensed that the institutional church had hardened in its own way, counter to the Word of God. They sought reformation, and Luther’s list of 95 complaints was intended as a starting point. That they were met instead with charges of heresy, which resulted in schism, reflects an institutional hazard: defending the status quo rather than holding an open spirit to the work God continues to do, the creativity that “does a new thing.”
In the church, confession is more than acknowledging the ways we have strayed from God’s word. We are called to make amends, to repair what has gone wrong, to re-form hearts and take actions reflecting God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Of course, Protestants are the reformation heroes on this day. But how often do we fall prey to the same kind of hardening? A similar need to do church the way we’ve always done it? Where are the sacred cows we won’t touch because they were good enough in the past? What might God be calling us to do or become in this time and place and how can we be responsive and receptive to it?
I learned of a remarkable example recently. Princeton Seminary is the oldest theological school (and arguably the best!–most of your ministers past and present would agree J). Founded in 1803, it has been a lively center of intellectual activity and faithful Christian witness ever since. A while ago, students and faculty began raising questions about the seminary’s historic relationship to slavery. Rather than clamping down on the questions, the seminary authorized a comprehensive historical audit. Two years of research uncovered a number of significant ties to slavery, including major donors who were themselves slave owners and founding faculty members who used slave labor personally. Even more distressing was the fact that early progressive abolitionist faculty became deeply involved in the American Colonization Society, which advocated sending free blacks to Liberia. Fact is, these good Christian leaders could not envision a fully integrated society. They “othered” black people, imagining them as “less than” whites. President Barnes noted, This audit was an act of confession, a commitment to truth-telling .
But that was just the beginning. In the church, confession is more than acknowledging the ways we have strayed from God’s word. We are called to make amends, to repair what has gone wrong, to re-form hearts and take actions reflecting God’s Kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.” In good Presbyterian style, a broadly inclusive committee was formed to lead a deliberative process of discussion and response to the audit. A plan for reparations was developed that includes scholarships for students who are descendants of slaves or from underrepresented groups; hiring new faculty whose research and teaching will give critical attention to African American experience and church life; curriculum changes including a required cross-cultural component; renaming the library after Theodore Sedgwick Wright, the first African American to attend and graduate from the Seminary; ensuring every member of the seminary community understands its history. Over $27 million dollars was designated from the endowment, along with a million dollars in the annual budget. I’m going into some detail because reformation often leads to sea change; it’s costly; it requires courage, and to some extent no one really knows the final outcome. These reparative steps will help Princeton confront the racism and white privilege so entangled with its history, and help write a new chapter, one more fully reflecting the justice and purposes of God and the Beloved Community.
But here’s the thing: such openness to face the truth–whether of an institution’s history or an individual’s story–requires trust in a reforming God. Clay by itself can’t do much; in the Potter’s hand it becomes alive, animated by spirit. When we place ourselves and our beloved community in God’s hands, we can imagine, dream, throw in and start over, re-design and innovate, brainstorm and discuss, confess and start fresh. Behold, I am doing a new thing, God declares. To discern it, we must listen to God and to one another, to voices silenced by prejudice or oppressive systems. We must be willing to learn, to have our minds and hearts changed, because of new insights, information, or occasions. Reformation can happen to big, powerful institutions. Reformation can happen to a young woman in a science class. Reformation will happen when we join God in a creative enterprise of remaking what is broken, lop-sided, and flawed into wholeness, justice, and breathtaking beauty.
Hold the clay you’ve been forming and re-forming in your hand. Perhaps some of you have fashioned it into an object—that’s great. But don’t worry if you haven’t. The word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah invites us to yield ourselves–the clay in our hands–to the Spirit of God. To offer all of who we are to the Divine Potter and be astonished at what—together– we will create.