For the past several weeks, the lectionary has had us following Jesus on his campaign of teaching and healing and preaching. And we’ve watched as he has rewritten the rules for religious people. We’ve watched the religious leaders turn on their heads while Jesus healed in the temple or upset the dinner party.
And today is no different. Jesus is teaching a difficult lesson: Discipleship is costly. Discipleship means you have to be “all in.” Jesus’ claim on us is total, and our response should be commensurate to that claim. There is no exclusion. Nothing – not even family is off limits when it comes to our commitment to walking a faithful journey. Our loyalty belongs to Jesus.
That’s a difficult teaching. I imagine it made the religious leaders continue to raise an eyebrow and watch him carefully. Afterall, they had religion down pat. They had the temple on Sabbath. They enjoyed a cultured life, meaningful work, good food, good wine, good family and friends every other day of the week. They had a good balance, and here Jesus is rewriting the rules again.
Demanding that his followers reorient their lives – even their family life – fully to their God.
Demanding that you and I also orient our lives to our God.
But if our God is the same God we read about in Jeremiah, isn’t that a little bit scary? Let’s turn our focus now to that Jeremiah passage. God is the potter. We are the clay. Are you comforted by that? Or are you scared by that? God has the power to squish you, scrap Her plans for you, and turn you into something else on a whim.
That is unsettling, but remember – Jeremiah was a prophet. Prophets had one job to do: go to a city or a group of people and convince them they need to turn from their evil ways. Oftentimes there was a threat. An or else… And in this case, it was, “God is like a potter. God can squish and squash you and turn you into something else if God jolly well wants to. You are pliable, like putty in the hands of God. So you better change your ways.”
Now that’s not terribly comforting on the outset. At least it’s not to me, because who wants to think of God as purposely intending harm to us, God’s own creation? This reminds me of four-year-old daughter, who would make the most colorful, adorable artwork. She would spend thirty or 45 minutes (which is a long time for a kid that age) making an elaborate piece of artwork, and then once she had shown us her creation, she would begin systematically destroying it. Sometimes ripping it into shreds; sometimes picking off the pieces one by one, wadding it up and throwing it in the trash. It baffled me why she would create only to destroy.
God baffles me here too. Why create only to destroy?
It’s hard to imagine that God, the Creator of the universe, would choose to bring disaster on a whole nation of His own making. But of course you know there are people who imagine just that. After all, we call natural disasters, “acts of God.”
There are even modern day prophetic voices who claim that God is causing natural disasters to bring the nation back to Him; These disasters are meant to punish our country for the wickedness we tolerate.
August 2005, Hurricane Katrina: Shortly after the massive destruction of hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the Gulf Coast, Repent America director, Michael Marcavage, issued a statement blaming the massive disaster on New Orleans's annual gay party, Southern Decadence.
"Although the loss of lives is deeply saddening, this act of God destroyed a wicked city."
December 2011, Tsunami: Cindy Jacobs, of Generals International said homosexuality also caused the 9.0 magnitude earthquake, which prompted a destructive tsunami in eastern Japan, causing 15,870 deaths and $235 billion in damage. "Everything that I said has happened," she said. "We have seen these disasters happen. We need to repent for turning away from God and saying that we can make any laws that we want, it doesn't matter... that God's laws don't count."
The words of Jeremiah were quite possibly ringing in their ears: In Jeremiah, God says, “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.”
But here’s the thing that my husband pointed out when we talked about this passage this week: “The sins that the Old Testament prophets are usually talking about are systemic injustices and economic oppression, so if God is sending disaster on our country, it’s because we still don’t know how to treat the poor and have equitable economic and political systems.”
I’m not so sure, though, it is right for us to focus on the disaster at all. Because the truth is, if you trust the analogy of God as the potter and us as the clay, it’s all grace.
As we trust in the Spirit of God at work in our lives, we realize we are like clay in the hands of our artist God. Maybe we start out as a bowl – sturdy base, smooth sides, perfectly round lip – but when we become dried out or out of kilter and are slung off the potter’s wheel, we are scraped up off the floor, revived with a little water to restore our constitution, and our new life begins at the potter’s wheel. This time, the potter thinks, I’ll make this lump of clay into a beautiful serving dish.
And on the process goes. None of us, it would seem from this analogy, is ever fired. We are always pliable, re-formable lumps of clay. And God is always at the wheel.
This summer at Montreat, NC, one of our denomination’s retreat centers, I stopped into the pottery barn to pick up clay for our high schoolers to mold into pinch pots. I stepped into the magical land of clay and creativity and didn’t want to leave. The place was buzzing with grandmoms and grandkids, summer vacationers, college work crew on break – everyone brimming with creative energy and joy. Newbies learning to throw pots on the wheels. Kids cutting shapes out of slabs. Experienced sculpters working on the front porch, delicately piecing together their masterpieces.
The pottery barn operates on joy, creativity, routines, and – like most artist collaboratives – frugality. I stayed in the pottery barn a while, observing the operation. There are dedicated spaces for each activity. One place to get your clay, weigh it, pay for it. Another place to roll it out. Another place for the wheels. Another for drying. Another for cutting and shaping up. Another place to pick up your piece when it comes out of the kiln. And another for washing all the tools. A giant double sink with windows overlooking the porch, and to the left of the windows, the reclaim pile. All of the unused clay from projects, dried out scraps, bowls that fell off the wheel, abandoned kids projects, all of it is thrown into 5 gallon buckets. Water is added, then the staff presses it out onto the counter to dry out to become the right consistency to be reformed into a new piece another day.
As long as there are artists in the building, there is clay in the reclaim pile.
As long as God is our creator, we are in the reclaim pile.
A material of potential and possibility.
We are re-formable lumps of clay. And God is at the wheel.
Now the metaphor still might not be comforting to you. Afterall, if you spend the first half of your life as a bowl, you get used to being a bowl. And when you are scrapped and being reshaped, it hurts. You might live in fear that you will never be a bowl again. And even when you have been formed into an elegant new serving dish, you still might grieve the days when you were a sturdy-based bowl.
But listen, friends, when God is at the wheel, you can trust that God will reform you into something beautiful and useful for the kingdom. You can trust that God is right beside you. God’s artist’s hands always have clay under the fingernails, because God is always at work. And just like all other artists I know, God is passionate about Her art. About us. And God is thrifty. None of us will be wasted.
Our job, as lumps of clay, is to remember we have a purpose. But only when we are in the hands of the Creator. I think that’s what Jesus was getting at in Luke, too. Discipleship means you have to be “all in.” All in the hands of God.
The good news, friends, is this: God is the Potter. We are the clay. None of us, it would seem from this analogy, is ever fired. We are always pliable, re-formable lumps of clay. And God is always at the wheel.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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