September 4, 2016, 16th Sunday after Pentecost, Pr. 18 YR C The Rev. Deacon Anne Abdy Texts: Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
I have a friend in South Carolina who is a potter. And I understand that this parish has a potter in its midst too. I have not spent much time working with clay but I have rolled clay into snakes. I am sure there is a technical term for this. I made a pot joining all the snakes together. It worked for me. I had fun for a day. But being a potter is serious business. It is back breaking work as my friend spends hours each day hunched over the spinning wheel molding her next creation.
Today we read the familiar story of the potter who is fashioning that squishy slimy clay into a bowl, mug, or storage pot. We don’t know what is being made but we know something good is being created. Most my life I have heard this story from the clay’s point of view. The clay by the pressure of the potter’s fingers magically transforms into something useful—something good. This is the warm and fuzzy image I have of the Potter story, yet, this childhood image is not what is painted in the Scriptures.
Today rather than directly focusing on the role of the clay, I wish to have us consider the character of the Potter. What are the potter’s thoughts? What are the potter’s actions? What is the purpose behind the action of molding clay? I know that if I were a potter, and not the God the Creator as the Jeremiah story suggests that is patient and wise, I would probably be saying a few choice words after not getting the clay to stand upright as it leans looking like the leaning tower of Pisa, and then flops over and collapses on the spinning base. Or worse, the clay flies all over the place as the centrifugal force of the spinning wheel flings clay blobs across the room and onto me. My frustration may turn to anger. After repeatedly throwing the clay again, and again, shaping it, then starting all over again, I may be feeling quiet inapt.
This is not what is going on in the story. Yes, the story is about molding an un-tame, undisciplined, worldly people into a great nation, but inherent in the story is extreme violence and destruction. I don’t know, but I doubt clay spoils overnight unless it is exposed to the air and then it hardens. If an air bubble gets into the finished product; then there will be a problem upon firing. The product will explode or at least crack and break into pieces. When I texted my potter friend about air bubbles and exploding pots, her response was, “A yup! Sorry…You could try to pierce it together before it dries too much.” So even in the midst of the brokenness, God the Creator, the Potter, is fixing things. And, embedded deep in this painful destructive imagery is a story of a loving God who walks alongside this motley crew. The Potter never leaves the clay.
Yet, when we look more closely at this scene, verse four reads, “he reworked it [meaning the clay] into another vessel.” Whoa! Stop the presses! Did God just change God’s mind?! What! Is God indecisive? Is God unsure? Is God unwilling to commit? Does God have problems solving problems? No! And we know so because there are lots of examples all over the Old Testament of God changing God’s mind or in some cases being persuaded to change God’s mind. Think of Moses taking a stand at Mount Sinai and God relents. Or after the Great Flood, a rainbow shines in the sky as an act of remembrance. These examples are not points of poor decision-making skills; rather these examples illustrate the extent to which the Almighty will go to shape the tribe of Israel into a sovereign tribe. At each decision point or turn of the wheel, the people are minutely shaped into the tribe set apart from the tribes of the day.
Being set a part or being different is difficult to do. I remember in my teen years, I wanted to sleep in on Sundays but my dad would have none of it. “The family goes to church together,” he would say. Every Saturday evening we would argue and every Saturday evening, he chipped away at my resolve. It takes time to create the perfect pot, a perfect people, or in my dad’s case, shaping me by his values to be the person that is standing before you today.
Like the God of the Old Testament, Jesus in the Gospel challenges us to be remolded, be reshaped, and be reformed from the inside out. Discipleship, Jesus says, is a deliberate sacrificial action and it is not supposed to be easy. To be shaped into something new requires radical acceptance. This reshaping is not easy.
My same potter friend has a ministry at the Allendale Correctional Institution, titled – now get this – no surprise, Jeremiah 18 Pottery Ministry. She brings in all the tools and the materials. She uses the clay as the testimony to Jeremiah’s lesson of God reworking the clay into something beautiful. Prison life is not easy. It is a hard and harsh life full of its own trials and tribulations. The inmates are learning and growing while living within the secure prison walls. Yet, beautiful things are happening on Tuesday mornings with a 21st century motley crew of men.
God works hard at the potter’s wheel and Jesus reminds us of the meaning of discipleship. So it is in those sacred spaces left behind by the plucking and prodding of the Potter’s hand, and Jesus’ harsh statements that we are fashioned. And it is through active discipleship that we, members of Resurrection, are continually transformed into that sovereign nation—the alternative tribe. We have a God who never leaves the tribe; a God who sits nearby, and a God who loves so much to remake, rework, and re-throw clay.
Thanks be to God, the Father. Thanks be to God, the Son. And thanks be to God, the Potter, who through the work of God’s Spirit transforms us, and in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “into another vessel, as seemed good to him.”