The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire


Sermon - September 4, 2016
Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 18:1-11
Sermon Title:
ďThe PotterĒ

The Rev. Robert Vodra

     This week we move from the New Testament, back into the Old Testament, to the book of Jeremiah.  Just so we are all on the same page, Jeremiah is a major prophet, which just means his book is longer then a minor prophet, does not say anything about how important he is.  He was doing his ministry from about 625 BCE through the destruction of the first temple in Jerusalem in 587 BCE.  If you remember, the quick and dirty history of Israel is first temple was built about 1,000 BCE, destroyed in about 600, they spent about 70 years in exile, the second temple was built about 500, and destroyed just after Jesusí life.  So Jeremiah started his ministry toward the end of the first temple.  He told the people that they were not following Godís will.  They were building temples to other gods, and worshipping other gods.   Unless they turned themselves around, they would be invaded from the North and sent off into exile, and the temple destroyed. 

     Now we do suspect that the book of Jeremiah has been edited over time.  Obviously we do not have an original copy.  It was written, probably by a scribe, and at some point was transferred to scrolls to be read from in the temple in Jerusalem, and other places of worship.  As it was copied, I suspect that some of the information was cleaned up, perhaps details added, or information taken out.  Also, remember that some of this editing was not intentional.  If your job is to copy scrolls, this was all manual, no printing press.  So each word has to be written by hand.  As you are copying, you may realize that something does not make sense the way that it was written.  Well, perhaps the copy that I got was copied incorrectly, so I will change it back to the way it should be.  And then every copy from that copy has that edit.  Some of the errors could have been someone writing the wrong word. 

     But beyond all the information, this week we hear Jeremiah talking about his image of who and what God is. 

     In 1987 I started to get interested in pottery.  I was working at Silver Lake, Connecticutís UCC summer camp.  They had hired a young man to be the pottery resource person.  That basically meant that their main responsibility was pottery, but also could be asked to do lots of other things.  So during my free time I would often go over there, hang out with him and try to learn some things.  He worked with me and taught me how to make a bowl on the pottery wheel.  This was not a fancy bowl, the sides were not that high, and it was not even that round, but it was something. 

     The next summer, 1988, I became the pottery resource person, so I was responsible for the pottery program, and could be asked to do lots of other things.  That summer I worked with kids, and saw a lot of ashtrays made.  Often they started as a bowl, but ended up a little bit too short.  But in between groups, or at night, I had some time to practice and work on my skills. 

     When I arrived at the University of Maine that fall, I was walking to the dining hall with my roommate one of the first days of school, and I noticed something in the window downstairs, it was pottery wheels, about 8 or 10 of them.  Turns out that they had a craft studio in the basement of the dining hall.  When they opened, I went in, talked to them, and got a job as a pottery instructor.  College kids or even people from the surrounding area could sign up for different craft classes, they could make candles, throw pottery, do weaving, all sorts of things. 

     Since many people have a dream of throwing pottery on a wheel my classes were always full, about 20 students, most of whom were my age or older.  20 students, 8 or 10 wheels, we had to trim down the class size.  So first week we did wedging, which is where you take the clay and work it to get out any air bubbles.  Not exciting, but important to learn if they are going to be serious.  Then we did hand building.  I didnít get them on the wheels until the 3rd or 4th week.  By that point many through all we were going to do was make pinch pots and coil pots.  They did that in elementary school, so they stopped showing up, which meant that most classes we would have one wheel per person by that time.

     I did that for about 2 years, and then the craft center closed.  But during my time working there a man came in.  He was older, maybe around 40 at that time, and he could throw pottery.  He had a small wheel at his house, and a small kiln, but was thinking of doing it more permanently.  So I started to hang out on weekends with him.  He formed Pushaw Pond Pottery, and we made and sold pottery for a few years. 

     Now clay is really cool.  You can take it, and do whatever you want with it.  Maybe make pot, or a pitcher, attach a handle, let it dry out, and it gets kind of hard at that point.  But if you take a pot that has not been fired yet, and put it in water, it goes back to clay.  Let it dry out to where you can work it again, and no trace of that pot exists.  But if you fire it, bake it in a kiln, up to about 1500 degrees, there are chemical changes that occur in the clay.  Water that is in the chemical structure of clay gets pushed out, and the clay molecules connect together.  Once it has reached that temperature and cooled back down, it can go into water forever and will never turn back into clay. 

     Of course we had failures.  Sometimes you do not let the clay dry quite enough, so when you fire it, the water in the pores turns to steam and the pot either cracks or explodes.  We also built our kiln to do our larger firings.  We had a pile of fire brick, so we would put all the pots on shelves, and then build the kiln around it, as large as it needed to be.  We had a big propane tank, some big hoses with big burners, and that is how we got the pots up to around 1500 degrees.  So when one exploded, sometimes it would take a few others with it.  Sometimes putting together or taking apart the kiln, a brick might slip and take out a couple pots with it. 

     We also had a pretty high failure rate when we glazed our pots.  Our favorite thing to do was Raku firing.  This is from Japan, I believe.  You get the pot really hot, when the glaze starts to melt, around 1800 degrees, then you pull the pot out of the kiln, it is red hot and put it into a reduction container, that is a fancy name for something you can reduce the oxygen in.  If you are doing one or two pots, a trashcan full of old newspaper with a lid works well.  Since we were doing more than a few pots, we just had a hole in the ground.  We would fill it with sawdust, old newspaper, wood chips, anything that would burn and use the oxygen.  When you put the pot into that, it all catches fire.  We would then throw some more woodchips or sawdust or whatever we had on top of the pots, and then cover it with a big sheet of metal.  After a while, maybe 20-30 minutes, you pull the pots out of that stuff that is still smoldering, and dunk it into a bucket of water or throw it into a snowbank to cool.  With the carbon from stuff burning, the lack of oxygen when you get it buried and covered, you get some amazing pots.  Lots of metallic colors, lots of cool cracks in the glaze that are filled with black.  But we all know that if we take a hot glass from the dishwasher and try to fill it quickly with cold water, the glass breaks apart.  Same thing often happens with Raku pottery, you pull it out of the kiln into the cold air,  put it into the woodchips, or dunk it into the water, and it breaks. 

     All around his house he had what he called his pot gardens.  Nothing illegal, but he would take anything that broke and put it outside in his gardens.  So after a few years, there were quite a few broken pots half buried in his gardens. 

     I have lost touch with John, but unless someone has picked up all that broken pottery and thrown it in the trash it is still there.  We created something that will last forever.  Now it would have been nice to sell it to someone for them to enjoy in their homes, it had a place to live.  When I was working on the sermon I googled Pushaw Pond Pottery, and it appears that they have closed, but on ebay there are several vintage pots from Pushaw Pond Pottery.  Hard to believe that something vintage was built after 1988, but apparently according those posting on ebay, it is. 

     I love the image of the potter for God.  The idea that God takes us, just like we took clay out of the ground and work us.  We wedged the clay to get it to the right consistency, to get all the air bubbles out.  Sometimes this was 30 seconds, sometimes this was much longer.  And then the things that you can build.  We didnít do a lot of tea sets, not that many people drink tea, and very few use tea pots anymore.  We would do production stuff, mainly to make money.  We would throw a set of 4 mugs, we did pitchers, we did the little salsa bowls, with the little bowl in the center of the larger platter.  And for this, you are looking for consistency, at least in the sets.  If you have 4 mugs you are planning to sell as a set, you donít want one to hold 12 ounces and another to hold 16.  And as long as you are making 4, might as well make a bunch more.  Maybe someone will want to buy one, maybe someone will want to buy 6.  Our other specialty item was wall hangers.  We had a machine we bought that rolled out clay.  So you would wedge it, put it in this machine and it would produce a slab of clay, all one thickness.  If you take those, put them together into a little rectangle, with a longer one on the back and a hole, you now have a wall hanging thing.  You can use it as a vase, put flowers in it.  You can use it to hold a toothbrush, toothpaste.  Sell them for $5 or $10 at a craft fair.  Although all the production stuff we did was similar, none were exactly the same.   The way that you make this handle for his mug might be a little thicker or thinner.  Maybe it is curved a little different way.  And when you glaze it, you are applying something that will melt and basically turn to glass, so it may drip or slide a little different.  Most of the glazes were a shade of gray when we applied them, so you could not tell what it was going to look like until it was fired.  If you mix your glaze a little different this time, it will come out different.  How does it interact with other glazes and the shape of the pot?

     I like the idea that at any point in the formation process until firing, God can start over.  We may think a pot is perfect, but when it dries, we notice that something is not quite right.  Maybe something that nobody would ever notice, except for us.  Maybe the bottom is not even thickness.  Maybe it is an individual piece, but we donít like the way something came out.  Throw it back into a bucket we had in the studio.  The water gets soaked up into it, and it turns back into clay, ready to be wedged and worked into a new piece.  If you like the imagine of being reborn, this is great.  And the idea that this can happen over and over and over again until the pot, or we, are perfect in the potterís eyes. 

     And this is where I see God as one who does Raku pottery.  Almost all of these were individual pieces, and there is no way to get consistency.  We did a segment for a TV station in Maine, so they were asking lots of questions.  How do you know when to pull it out of the kiln?  Well, when it looks right.  How long do you leave it in the leaves and woodchips and sawdust?  We leave it in there for one beer.  After we put the pots into the hole, most of the time we would open up some beers, and when we finished our beer, we did the next step.  And each of those steps cause different results.  How hot it gets fired, how long it is in the reduction, what glaze or glazes you used. 

     And those were our special pieces.  Those are the ones that we, occasionally, got into a museum.  Those are the ones that we would bring to a craft show and put a $100 price on.  And maybe God does not know exactly how we are going to turn out.  Those of my friends who believe in predestination would not agree.  But maybe what Jeremiah is trying to suggest is that that God forms and reforms us, makes us perfect in Godís eyes.  Then God applies the glaze that God mixed, and we get put into the kiln.  All the stuff that happens does affect us.  How hot, how much air, how much carbon.  Our families, our friends, our churches.  And in that process sometimes things happen.  Not all our pots turned out perfect, we had lots of broken pieces, but they were still beautiful and still had a purpose.  We donít all turn out perfect, if there is any such thing, we are all different, all original, some of us even get broken in the process, but in the end we all turn out beautiful, and we still have a purpose.