In the Potter's Hands
I come from a family of artists. My grandfather was formally trained at an art school in Bergen, Norway. His first job as a new immigrant in New York City was painting backdrops for Broadway productions. He later settled into a career in outdoor advertising. In the era before electronic billboards, he was deployed up and down the eastern seaboard to hand-paint huge roadside signs. For his own enjoyment, he painted scenes of his native Norway and one of those paintings is a treasured item in my home.
My sister is an artist, also, and she recently retired from a long career as an art educator. She taught all media but always gravitated toward ceramics. In my home are numerous pots and vases and coffee mugs that she began fashioning as early as high school and sent to me Christmas gifts over the years. She built a pottery studio in her backyard and is now spending her retirement throwing pots and selling them online and at craft fairs.
I took a ceramics class in college. It looked like an easy elective, and it was. I just didn’t realize it would be so messy! The studio was in the basement of my 100 year-old, already-condemned dormitory. The large room had a surreal appearance; every square inch was covered with mud. I was taught there to take a glob of wet clay and wedge it on a plaster surface until it attained just the right consistency and then throw it onto a spinning wheel to begin shaping a vase or pitcher. Most of the time it was a disaster as the wheel gained speed and I lost control of the clay object. It would begin to wobble and then flap around and finally fly off the wheel. I think I got a “B-” in the class and haven’t tried to dabble in pottery since.
In Jeremiah, we hear the voice of God speaking to the prophet, saying “Go down to the potter’s house.” Jeremiah obeyed and saw a potter working on the wheel. Some of the clay was destroyed and some was made into useful and beautiful objects.
I learned some things in ceramics class that Jeremiah probably observed there in the potter’s house. I learned that if you want to create a pot, you have to choose the clay very carefully. Clay isn’t just clay. Different kinds of clay vary in their rate of shrinking and their in their potential to be manipulated or adapted for different shapes. I learned that it is necessary to place the clay exactly in the center of the wheel or else the project will be doomed from the very start. I learned that once the clay is chosen and shaped into a form, it needs to rest. There is a required period of time for drying. And I learned that once the clay has dried and reached what is called the “green” stage, it is fired, subjected to intense heat, in order to solidify. Then it is covered with a decorative glaze and fired again.
You’ve heard of the classic, Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I think I could say, “Everything I need to know I learned in ceramics class.” The same with Jeremiah. The message Jeremiah received wasn’t really about how to make a pretty vase. It was about a people being shaped into a useful form that can bring about great good rather than the great harm that was too often seen in Jeremiah’s day.
Here’s a question that I think is implied in God’s message in Jeremiah 18: What kind of clay are you? Remember, when making a ceramic object you have to start with the right kind of clay. One of the qualities of good clay is that it is malleable. It has to be capable of being changed without cracking or falling apart in the process of being shaped. I really believe that one of the secrets of a successful and happy life is being able to say “This is how I am right now. This is what I believe. This is how I do things. But I am open to change in ways that will allow me to grow and further develop as a person.” Inflexibility stymies us like a protective shell keeping God’s creative hands away.
“Just as clay in my hands, so are you” God said to Jeremiah.
When Jeremiah went to the potter’s house, he saw that there had been an attempt by the potter to make a vessel out of clay, but the work was spoiled in the potter’s hands. It sounds like the potter may have failed to throw the clay into the center of the wheel.
Here’s another important question: Are you centered? Is there a spiritual center in your life that connects you to God and prevents you from being thrown in every direction and never becoming all that you envision for yourself? Many of us have very busy lives, and if they’re not busy enough we find other activities to fill our days. One of the aspects of this congregation that drew me to Colorado was the emphasis on meditation and other forms of contemplative spirituality. Last Sunday, those who attended our early morning Taize service walked the labyrinth which is a metaphor for journeying to a spiritual center and then moving from the center back out into the world and the busyness that often characterized our lives. How do you find that center and maintain peace within?
After the clay is shaped into a pot, what comes next? It has to rest. This is the “green” stage. The great stories about creation in the Hebrew Scriptures tell us that God rested after the work of creation was complete. Jesus talked about the Sabbath, also. He said that persons were not created to serve the Sabbath. In other words, it’s not just a rule to keep. The Sabbath was created for us. It is God’s merciful provision to keep our clay selves from cracking and becoming useless. We need to rest. Even the holiday we call Labor Day, which is a commemoration of the work of labor movements, is a reminder that we need to stop and rest from our labors. Clay pots are not indestructible, and finding ways and places to be renewed and re-created is an essential task for us human creatures
After resting, the green clay is fired up and subjected to intense heat to make it much stronger. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul related his challenging experiences and described being pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and stuck down. But not destroyed. Instead, the fire strengthened him. We feel the heat, too, but that doesn’t mean we are going to burn up. Many people here could tell about the experiences of life that seemed unbearable at the time but ultimately strengthened their resolve and became an important part of who they are right now.
I think it’s important to note that Jeremiah’s lesson about clay wasn’t just given so he could become a better individual. Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry spanned the years prior to, during, and after the dramatic fall of Jerusalem six centuries before the birth of Jesus. The battles and their losses were devastating, and the exile that resulted was a reminder that collective unfaithfulness and injustice have deep and long-lasting effects. God’s message was to the people of Israel who forgot who had made them and disregarded their high calling. In our liturgy in the season of Lent, we say “Remember you are dust.” Here God is saying “Remember you are clay, formed from the dust of the earth. Submit to the hands of the master potter who still wants to shape you for a great purpose.
Our faith as progressive Christians is never just about ourselves. I come from a faith tradition that placed an enormous emphasis on being holy. I was taught to put my spiritual energies into being the most Christ-like and pure person I could possibly be so that God would be pleased with my life and ultimately bless me with all good things including a place in heaven. The “social gospel” was shunned as a counterfeit for the real gospel, and efforts to make this world more just were often seen as pointless since the earth and its people were temporary anyway.
I rejected that view of faith long ago. Any worthwhile spiritual connection with God must ultimately move us beyond ourselves and embrace and lead efforts to change our world for good. I’m grateful that our church is filled with people who care deeply about justice and peace-making and environmental stewardship. You are co-artists with the master potter creating a better world that reflects God’s image.
The hometown of Lucille Ball is just outside of Jamestown, New York. Seven years ago, the village trustees commissioned a sculpture to commemorate their only famous former citizen. The sculptor chose to model the likeness on the I Love Lucy “Vitameatavegamin” episode, showing Lucy holding a spoon and a bottle of health tonic. When the sculpture was revealed in the town park, it was universally agreed to be the most hideous likeness of Lucille Ball imaginable. It received national attention for its ugliness. The artist apologized and admitted that the sculpture, which the town folk dubbed “Scary Lucy” was “his most unsettling work ever.” Three weeks ago, on what would have been Lucy’s 105th birthday, a new sculpture was dedicated. It is an accurate and beautiful likeness of Lucy. A local newspaper reported that when the statue was unveiled the people gasped with relief.
God is revealed in Jeremiah as a master sculptor. Unlike the potter in the potter’s house who created useful, beautiful objects as well as those that were destroyed in the process of creation and never used, God’s work is always good. And unlike a commissioned sculptor who just couldn’t get the likeness right, you bear God’s image perfectly. You are God’s creation, and that creative work continues daily as you are shaped by the master potter.