Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Originally uploaded by whatnext
I was in Vancouver, British Columbia when the attack happened. Someone casually remarked, as I left the train, that a plane had run into the World Trade Center. I ran to the office building and tried several news websites. No luck - they were jammed with traffic. I called my sister, who manned a news desk in Salt Lake City, Utah. She told me we were under attack.

Someone set up a large screen TV in the conference room. There was a palatable sense of helplessness among all Americans and Canadians in that conference room who watched the second tower fall, live, on CNN.

I remember feeling that I should be back in my country. We were supposed to launch our project that day. Instead, the launch was canceled and the project delayed.

Copyright © 2007 by Christopher D. Drew

Monday, September 10, 2007


Wedding Day Kiss
Originally uploaded by whatnext
Today marks our sixth month of marriage! Sara and I both feel extremely blessed to be married, and we look forward to the next six months, six years, and six decades together! Whoo hoo! Thanks be to God for the blessing of marriage. And thanks, dear Father in Heaven, for the blessing you gave me in Sara, my beloved.

Being Shaped

Being Shaped
Jeremiah 18:1-11
September 9, 2007
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

© 2007 by Christopher D. Drew

Sermon Focus: God’s sovereignty is absolute and extends into earthly history. Nations may rise or fall as the Creator/Potter sees fit. Israel is no exception to this rule, and all nations are called to repentance so that disaster might be averted. Our Jeremiah pericope also gives us a sense of hope, because the Creator/Potter can, if it His will, restore what has spoiled and give it new life.

Sermon Function: To teach listeners about God’s sovereignty, and how it extends to us even in times of social or personal chaos, or, as with Mother Theresa, when God seems utterly absent from us; and to inform listeners that God’s active grace in our lives doesn’t ipso facto mean we enjoy a wonderful ecstasy of union with God in this lifetime – our faithful discipleship and obedience to Christ are spiritual conditions of new life and commitment, which are themselves “fruits of the Spirit” and grace from God.

[Click to Show/Hide Sermon Text]


We are currently in the middle of a series based in Jeremiah, one of the Major Prophets in the Old Testament. So far, we’ve talked about God’s call and the variety of forms that call might take as we seek to be better disciples of Jesus. Last week, we spoke about the dangers of unrepentant sin, and how Jesus Christ is our sole hope for eternal salvation. This week, the subject in question is God’s divine sovereignty. How does God move in the world? How do we relate to his totally “other” God we worship? These are some of the questions posed in our reading of the today’s scripture.

Let’s listen now to God’s word.

[Read Scripture - Jeremiah 18:1-11]

Introductory Illustration

This is a big weekend in four smaller American cities that are gearing up for a big time world premier film event. They are: Waterbury, Connecticut; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; and tiny Luverne, Minnesota.

Many of you know by now that Luverne is my wife’s hometown. Her parents still live there. And the entire city if revving up for the big event. Sara’s father, Bill, will be singing in the Luverne Men’s Chorus. The city’s classic, old-style Palace movie theater is being cleaned up and renovated. They will be singing a medley of military branch tunes for the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard veterans in the town, and those who will be visiting specifically for this big event. Period automobiles and military equipment will be displayed. The filmmaker will be there, and I suppose one or more of the celebrity types who signed on to this project will likely attend this big premier in the small town of Luverne, Minnesota, home of the beloved red cardinals football team.

The movie in question is a documentary film by Ken Burns called The War. It’s a multiple-episode film produced for PBS, and it will air on most local PBS affiliates on September 23rd, just later this month.

Military veterans will have the opportunity to be the first to see portions of the finished project at the Palace Theater. A few clips are available at the PBS website set up specifically for this project. The War is about World War II. Burns spent time in each of the cities I mentioned, working to get local perspectives on the war and it’s impact on the local communities these men left behind to serve in far away places in Europe and Asia.

My own grandfather was in World War II, and he spoke very infrequently about his experience. I remember sitting with my grandfather to discuss his experience for an interview project I had to complete for class. He spoke somberly and seriously about his time in the pacific theatre. He mentioned specifically watching from his supply ship, the U.S.S. LaPorte, as a kamikaze pilot flew his plane into the ship adjacent to his. I recorded the interview using the now-ancient cassette tape recorder. I have no idea where that tape went.

Having seen just a smattering of the clips available at the PBS website, I’m struck with how much we miss when we don’t share our stories with one another. It is the stories of a place and a country that give life and meaning to what we see today. It is the rich imagery of eyewitnesses to history that tell us what it means to be human creatures, frail, fallen, yet created in the image of the Creator, and love by the creator.

The founders of this nation would speak frequently of the actions of divine providence. There was among most of them a sense that the divine will was playing out right before their eyes. I sense that the men and women who served this nation so ably in World War II shared a similar sensibility – that in the middle of tragedy and death there was also a sense of awe at the magnitude of what the nation was called to do. It wasn’t pretty. War is a horrible thing. But there was some sense of unity, of common purpose, even amidst the human moral failures involved with warfare.

And while all this is going on, nations rise and fall. And amidst social, political, and personal chaos of our lives, God is there. Sometime God’s presence isn’t immediately discerned or understood, and we have to result to history to see His fingerprints on the works of the world, including our own lives. For my own part, I discern that World War II was itself brought about by forces that far and away transcend our own. Disasters occur as a natural extension of what war is. But nations can also rise up from war, and new, just kingdoms are put in place by Almighty God, as He, in his sovereignty, sees fit. And this should give us some cause for hope – that when things are at their worst and when nations fall, we can have the assurance that, even through we may not immediately or instantly understand what his happening, God is in fact present with us.

Jeremiah’s Context – War and the Destruction of Israel and the Temple

In today’s scripture text, Jeremiah is giving us a picture of God’s work in the world amidst the destruction of his own nation, Israel, the expulsion of its best and brightest to faraway Babylon and Egypt, and the annihilation of the Temple.

In the aftermath of all this turmoil in a nation chosen by God to be a beacon of light to all the nations, Jeremiah has a vision of a potter:
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. (Jer 18:1-4 NRSV)
The Hebrew noun translated as “wheel” in our text has a dual ending, meaning that there is actually two wheels here. One larger wheel would have been found under the worktable, and the potter would spin this wheel with his foot. This larger wheel would propel the smaller wheel upon which the potter would shape his creation by hand.

My brother-in-law, Ken, who many of you met last week, is an accomplished pottery expert. His works have been sold across the country, and I’m proud to say that Sara and I enjoy a few of his pieces in our apartment. I have seen how he is able to transform mere clay into works of extraordinary beauty. Sometimes, however, things get off track and you need to start over. Even expert potters do this at times because sometimes the clay just isn’t cooperative.

One of the reasons we get into trouble in our faith lives is that we’re tempted to take on the roles of both clay and potter. We want to proclaim faith and still cling to the mistaken notion that we should, as a result of our faith, still have some control over how we are ultimately shaped by our creator. There is, in fact, only one potter – Almighty God, and through faith we received the grace of being shaped into something beautiful, something that can bear fruit in the world.

The Problem – We Rebel in the Potter’s Hand

This text speaks to us specifically about God’s sovereignty. And the images used by Jeremiah show us how we ought to be – a people capable of being shaped into something magnificent. But that temptation to take on both roles is persistent, isn’t it? Don’t we believe that we know best how we ought to be shaped, both individually and as a nation? And don’t we sometimes think that God might somehow be mistaken, and that his designed shape for us might be different, maybe even radically different from what we think we’ve been created to be? In fact, this very book of the Bible, Jeremiah, speaks to this condition. When God challenges Jeremiah to speak God’s words to the people of Israel, what does Jeremiah say? He said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (Jer 1:6 NRSV). We can’t really be called to sell our possessions for the benefit of the poor in our community, can we? We can’t really be called to quit a job for the sake of our family or loved one, could we? We can’t really be called into ministry of the church as an officer, could we?

Do you remember what Jesus said to the rich young man in the Gospel of Mark?
“You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. (Mark 10:21-22 NRSV)
These “can’t bes” are infused into our vocabulary all the time. They are the Great Dodge, the attempt to take on the role of Potter, to shape ourselves into our own image, rather than into the fullness of what we are called to be, which is the imago Dei, the very Image of God.

And our society seems eager to respond to the notion that we are able to control all the aspects of our lives. That is one of the main reasons why we fail to cope well when things don’t go our way. Personal failure and sin, rather than being viewed as an opportunity to be reshaped into something better, is instead looked at as an unredeemable condition. In order to get around that, we develop fancy coping mechanisms to scapegoat the problem, to make it the responsibility and fault of someone else or something else.

God the Potter is Sovereign

But God is sovereign, and God is capable of doing whatever God wants. God says to Jeremiah:
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. (Jer 18:7-10 NRSV)
For Almighty God, the fate of the nations, entire nations, are as the simple compound of clay that sits before the wheel of the Potter. In this passage, we might be tempted to say that God’s will can be arbitrary, or that world wars, sin, and idolatry point to an uncontrolled chaos. But that really isn’t the case. God’s will for His creation is steadfast and sure. The question is, for us, whether our response to God’s grace is in accordance with His will. And you can be sure that God’s will will prevail. In fact, this text makes it clear: God’s will will prevail, and in his wisdom he already knows, as he knows us in the womb, what we will chose. This is built into the plan, my friends. The clay can prove resistant to the shaping of the potter’s hand. When this happens, the clay is simply mashed up and reset on the wheel, to be shaped into something else the potter finds useful.

There is warning here, brothers and sisters. We are called to be obedient to God’s will. We have rebelled against it. We exist, in fact, in a more or less permanent state of sinful rebellion. And that persistent rebellion and sin can lead, as we discovered last week, to disaster:
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. (Jer 18:11 NRSV)
Repent and follow me, says God. This is a message strikingly similar to Jesus’ first sermon in the Gospel of Mark, which goes like this:
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15 NRSV)
Christ’s first call to us is to repent, to turn away from our desire to be both potter and clay, to turn away from everything that detracts from the nobility of having been created in the image of the Creator.

Hope for Israel, Hope for Us, Hope for the World

When we do this, we can cling to the hope that God won’t leave the work unfinished.

That hope is reflected in verse four of our text. "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" (Jer 18:4 NRSV).

We are not without hope that God work a wonderful thing in our lives. Jesus Christ is the single best example of that hope. It is a resurrection hope that shines brightly from the work Christ accomplished on the Cross. “’Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?’ says the LORD” (Jer 18:6 NRSV). Can I not do with you, O house of First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Texas, just as this potter has done? Can I not do with you, faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, as this potter has done?

The answer is “Yes!” And we can shout out this answer even in our fallen condition, because Jesus Christ makes it possible. We can say “Yes!” by repenting, and turning away from the sins that separate us from God. We can say “Yes!” to the future of this church. We can say “Yes!” to responsibility supporting its mission and it’s search for a new pastor. We can say “Yes!” to the missional responsibilities incumbent upon faithful communities of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And we can say “Yes!” to Jesus’ call to be transformed into a new, magnificent, resurrected creatures, first formed into a human being from the simple dust of the earth, just as the simple clay is transformed by the potter into something beautiful, something that can literally bear fruit, something more than we can possibly imagine, even in the midst of World Wars, and even in the midst of our doubts.

Final Illustration

Mother Theresa wrote a long series of letters to her spiritual director. These letters have recently been compiled for publication, and they reveal that Theresa suffered from decades-long periods of spiritual darkness, times when it seemed God was absent from her life.

Skeptics and our ever-popular atheists like Christopher Hitchens responded in an almost triumphant fashion. Hitchens wrote a lengthy piece to more or less welcome Mother Theresa into the atheist fold.

Isn’t it interesting that the Roman Catholic Church, then, is so incredibly anxious to release these Theresa’s letters to the public? It is interesting, but not very surprising. What these letters reveal is just how human Theresa was. And that is what Catholics look for in a Saint. You see, my friends, the fruits of the spirit are not always what we think they should be. In fact, they usually are not what we expect. The peddlers of religious ecstasy would have you believe otherwise. There must be some feeling we have, some knowledge of spiritual unity, in order for our lives of faith to be real.

But that is not how we will be judged. We are not judged by how authentic our religious feelings are, or by achieving a certain level of spiritual transcendence. We are instead judged on our faithfulness and obedience. The fruits of the Spirit are not linked to individual self-satisfaction, but on faithful discipleship. And the challenge for us today is this: We are called to be like pliant clay, obedient to the will of the Potter, just as Jesus Christ was obedient unto death for the sake of those sinners to whom He ministered.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Texas.