Made of Clay
Lectionary Texts: Jeremiah 18: 1-11 / Luke 14: 25-33
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, September 4, 2016
- Pottery Lessons
So, think about what shapes you. What makes you who you are? What defines you, identifies you, molds you into what makes you “you”? And here’s the hard question: How willing are you to be reshaped? That’s tough on us. Most of us have a hard time changing our internet browser and now we’re being faced with actually being reshaped?
I really have always been a little fascinated with this image of the potter and the clay that we get from the writer of Jeremiah. Perhaps it is because, even though I love unique pieces of thrown pottery, the art of pottery-making is always one that has sort of eluded me. I took pottery lessons from one of the art teachers when I was in elementary school and a couple of years ago as we were going through my grandmother’s house, we found some of the great works of art that I had given her. Seeing them confirmed for me that pottery-making is not my thing.
But I do remember working with a small potter’s wheel and trying to make it work for me while at the same time trying to hold what for me was just a slippery and uncooperative lump of dirty clay. The difficulty was that the wheel seemed to move one way and the clay just wouldn’t go where it was supposed to go for me. The wheel spun so rapidly that each wrong move made yet another imperfection in the smooth clay. When I watched the teacher doing it, it looked easy, beautiful really, a rhythm that would produced something incredible. But when I did it, it was a disaster. I think that may be the reason this metaphor works so well. Maybe that’s what God feels as well. Think of God sitting at the potter’s wheel trying to mold a somewhat uncooperative lump of human clay into what God envisions we could be. And we twist and turn, trying to make our own way as the wheel continues to spin on its axis.
- The Analogy of the Potter
So Jeremiah takes this image and uses it as a wonderful metaphor reminding us what God has done in the past and calling us to an awareness of what is doing now. This image of the potter is one of the best-known passages in Jeremiah. It is comforting to think of God’s hand in our lives, shaping and molding us into what God envisions us to be. Jeremiah observes this process at work and he begins to see it as a great analogy for the relationship between us and God. He sees it as the way that God works with nations, with communities, and with each of us as individuals.
Here, God’s people take the role of the clay and God is the Divine potter. This Scripture is specifically addressed to the “House of Israel”, the people of Judah who are the only remnant remaining of God’s covenant people. And yet, using the metaphor, sometimes the pot gets marred on the wheel; sometimes it doesn’t look like what the potter had envisioned at all. According to the prophet, even the people of God, those who God had intended to plant and to build the Kingdom of God, those who God had called to do God’s work in the world, can suffer the same quandary on the potter’s wheel, becoming misshapen (or in some cases, perhaps overshapen and hardened) and not able to be what they were meant to be.
Remember that a covenant relationship is conditional. It can be broken by either party. So the people can choose not to respond as they should and the vessel that the potter began can be destroyed. The misshapen clay can just be thrown away and a new one put into its place on the wheel. And the writer of Jeremiah is clear that God has every power to do just that. But at the end of the passage, we are given a glimmer of hope. After all, throwing us away is not God’s plan. God loves us way too much for that. If the people turn, repent if you will, and turn toward God, God, too, will again turn toward them. Redemption is there for the taking. And rather than throwing away the misshapen clay, the potter will begin again, adding water (in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit), and shaping the material into something better and more useful than it was in the first place.
III. The Potter’s Wheel
So, we would like to think that we are clay, supple and yielding to God’s hands. But you and I both know that is not always the case. You see, with clay, you can roll it back into a ball and start again. But we humans are, to say the least, a little more challenging. We have a mind of our own and a will of our own and both of those things are wonderful gifts from God. They are part of the way that God has molded and shaped us. After all, God had no intention of populating the world with a bunch of perfectly shaped fired pots.
Think back to the second creation story (did you notice there were two of the them?) where God forms the human from the dust of the ground, forming us in much the same way that a potter molds his or her creation. Then God breathes nostrils into this earthen vessel and makes it a living, breathing human being. Here’s where we differ from the pots, though. Pots get fired and then they are set. A beautiful vase will sit there and look beautiful flower arrangement after flower arrangement. But we are different. We are continually being molded and changed. Unlike clay, we are never finished. That’s what it means to be human, what it means to be made in the image of God.
And God made us fairly adaptable. The wheel—the environment and world in which we reside—is always and forever changing and we are always and forever moving and shifting against it. That is called life. That is the way God created it to be. I think the point is that the clay is not meant to be controlled by the wheel, but by the potter. And the potter, the Divine artist, allows the clay to shift and move on the wheel so that the being that is buried deep within itself might be allowed to grow and mature on its own and become what it was meant to be.
It’s a scary ordeal. What if it doesn’t work out? Can God start again and mold humanity once more, perhaps into something that is more in line with who we are supposed to be, with who that image of the Godhead represents? But God has chosen to do something different. Rather than throwing the clay away, God takes it again and again and again and reshapes it, remolds it, and when the water begins to dry, God adds a little bread and a little wine along the way. We call it redemption. God just sees it as a normal act of gracious love toward all of God’s children, the act of saving them from themselves.
- So Who Does the Shaping in You?
So, back to the question. Who does the shaping of you? How willing are you to be reshaped? How committed are you to being a disciple of Jesus Christ? Now remember, that we’re in the middle of Luke. The writer keeps pressing us. It seems to get harder to swallow every week. But the point is that faithful discipleship is not for the faint of heart.
So the Gospel passage that we read picks up where last week’s left off. Remember that we got this invitation to this great feast. We are pumped. Of course we’ll come! So, the next question that the Gospel writer poses is, “do you really know what you’ve accepted?”
It starts out by telling us that large crowds were following Jesus. These were not the disciples. Jesus had a very high popularity rating at this point. He was the great physician that could heal them all. He was a great speaker. And they had great covered dish dinners. So there were hordes of people joining the Jesus bandwagon. All of the pews were filled. And Jesus stands up in front of all these visitors in the worship service and says, “Here’s the deal. If you want to follow me, it’s not a “sort of” thing. It’s all or nothing. You have to hate everyone in your family. If you do not devote yourself completely to me, if you do not carry your cross, if you do not submit yourself to a little suffering, you can’t come. “Huh? Is this guy nuts or what?”
So, Jesus tells them a story. A man started building a watchtower but he understimated the costs of the materials so he couldn’t finish it so he ended up with this unfinished eyesore on his property. It was very embarrassing. They all just sort of looked at him with blank stares.
OK, try this. Before a king goes to war, he needs to figure out whether he has enough troops to cover himself or, quickly, he needs to figure out a way to make peace. So, if you want to follow, it’s all or nothing. Leave your family behind and give up all your possessions.
I’m thinking that the following week the worship attendance may have dropped. After all, we don’t have to sit and listen to this. And our possessions? We need this stuff! Again, discipleship is not for the faint of heart. Now, I actually don’t think that Jesus was being heartless. He was trying to get people to realize that when we accept the invitation to follow Christ, our lives must change. We can usually balance the things that define us—our families, our communities, our country’s flag—but if any of those things start consuming us, perhaps positioning themselves in our lives on an equal or an even greater footing with God, then God cannot reshape us into who we are meant to be.
- How Willing to Be Reshaped Are You?
So, what are you willing to give up to follow Christ? What are you willing to do to be a disciple of Jesus Christ? I read an article this week by Rebekah Simon-Peter entitled “Two Words That Growing Churches Don’t Use.” The words are “just” and “simply”. Like, “to join this church, you just have to come up here and answer the questions.” or “just give what you can” or “to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, you simply have to give your life to him. She said that we use those words to avoid scaring people off but instead we are living in a culture of mediocre grace. Discipleship is hard. There is no “simply” about it. It takes effort. It takes a willingness to, yes, give up what you have created and let God remold you.
When I was writing this week, I thought of a young Muslim friend of mine. (I’m not going to use her name.) When I was at St. Paul’s, I did a weekly Bible Study on Thursday morning. She showed up one day. No one knew her. She introduced herself as an Iranian Muslim doctoral student. She asked lots of questions. It was obvious that she was searching. We embraced her. She came back the next week and the next week and after awhile, she had become one of us. One day, she asked me if she could come talk to me. I was pretty sure I knew what it was about.
So, a few days later, we sat in the chairs in my office and talked. She told me that she had always been Muslim and had grown up in a Muslim family in a country that expected you to be Muslim but had never felt like that fit. So, lately, she had wandered through lots of different traditions, including Judaism, Hinduism, Taoism, finally somehow landing in my Bible Study at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church. She asked how she would become a Christian. I told her about Baptism and commitment (or what I thought was commitment). She said that was what she wanted.
I asked her if she was sure. I asked her if she could return to Iran if she did this. I knew the answer. The answer was “no”. She would be killed. If you are a Muslim in Iran, you have to stay that way. I asked how her family felt. She said they were fine and they would be fine if they didn’t have any contact with each other. In that moment, she was giving up everything to follow Jesus Christ. She said it might be dangerous for me. My answer was that I knew that but that Iran was not on my wish list of travel sites. So, I told her I would baptize her. Her response was one I’ll never forget. She looked at me and said, “I feel free.”
In that moment, I realized that for the first time I really understood my own baptism. For the first time, I understood what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. It’s not something you do. It’s who you are. It’s how you are reshaped by God into who God calls you to be.
The next Thursday morning we went in the sanctuary. All of my Bible Study class was there. Also there were two of her Iranian Muslim friends offering their support. I explained that this was not a pitting of one religion against another. Rather, it was an affirmation of what was for her, the Way that God was unbinding her and setting her free to be molded into who God envisioned she could be. She knelt down, I took the water. There were tears everywhere. She was beaming. And in that moment, her life changed forever. She lost everything and gained everything in the same breath.
We have it so easy. We don’t know what many of our brothers and sisters throughout the world give up to follow Christ. Many of us have convinced ourselves that we can sort of straddle the life we’ve created and the life God is shaping. We can sort of hold on to what we’ve done and that with which we’re comfortable. We cannot. We cannot get buried in the minutia of life or the minutia of how we are church. Jesus set high expectations for us. It was intentional. Because otherwise, God can’t shape us into that great vessel that God envisions we can be.
And at the end of the day, the potter steps away from the wheel and is covered head to foot with clay. Imagine God up to the divine elbows making and remaking us, so engaged that God actually became the clay to show us what was in God’s heart. God doesn’t force us into submission. It is our choice and God sits waiting at the wheel for us to return. How willing are you to be reshaped? How much will you give up to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?
One of my favorite writings was found in U.N. Secretary-general Dag Hammarskjold’s journals after he died in a plane crash in 1961. It goes like this:
Thou takest the pen—and the lines dance.
Thou takest the flute—and the notes shimmer.
Thou takest the brush—and the colors sing.
So all things have meaning and beauty in that space beyond time where Thou art.
How, then, can I hold back anything from Thee? Amen.
(Dag Hammarskjold, 1905-1961)