In the Hand of the Potter

26 Aug

(a sermon for Sunday, August 26, 2012, based on Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Luke 12:32-40)

Along a country road that winds through the village of Edgecomb on the coast of Maine there is a small gift shop that specializes in handcrafted pottery; actually, it’s one of countless little shops up there, but this one always caught my eye because much of its inventory was set up outdoors!  You can see it from the road – all this beautiful earthenware displayed on shelves built along the sides of what looked to be a patio deck; with place settings of cups, plates and saucers set just so.

We used to drive by that shop a lot when we lived in Maine and were going to Boothbay Harbor – and though to be honest, I don’t think we ever went inside (!), that place always held a strange fascination for me. I would always ask the same questions every time we passed by – do you suppose those people set that display out every single morning and take it down at night?  Aren’t they afraid of theft and vandalism, not to mention the stray bit of rock or tar that might go flying!  And what about wind and rain, and the heat of the summer sun beating down, or for that matter the imminent danger posed by a single unsupervised preschooler? The possibilities staggered the imagination!

Actually, I’m pretty sure that their major concern was less the potential risk of damage as it was attracting tourists and impulse buyers!  But over the years as I’ve remembered it, I’m come to think that it probably also had something to do with the great pride that the potter took in his or her work.  After all, at heart the potter is an artist; and these places settings were created as works of art, each a creation of simple beauty unique in design and style.  As one of those people who struggled valiantly to transform grade school clay into something that looked like a candy dish, I’m amazed at the kind of skill, care and also, the incredible patience it takes to create something so deceptively simple as a plate or coffee mug.

Patience does play a big part in it; because truly, no matter what kind of art you’re talking about, there’s a creative process that always involves some trial and error!  In fact, I’m guessing that somewhere in the house of that potter in Edgecomb there’s a back room that serves as a cluttered and dusty workshop.  And there, along with a potter’s wheel, some water and clay, and a wide array of “works in progress” lined up on shelves, more than likely there’ll also be a barrel filled with shards of broken and brittle clay – misshapen, uneven pieces of pottery, each one representing an attempt at making something beautiful; earnest efforts that in the end weren’t good enough to finish, or impossible to fix once the clay had hardened and become inflexible.

I wonder if this is what Jeremiah saw when the Lord sent him to the potter’s house – this barrel filled to the brim with discarded pieces of dried out, useless, broken clay.  If so, then it must have sent chills through him to hear the Word of the Lord so clearly spoken over the whirring of the potter’s wheel: “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, as this potter has done …like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.”  “At any moment,” God says to Jeremiah, “I may decide to pull up a people or a country by the roots and get rid of them!” (The Message)

Harsh words – but then, Jeremiah the prophet was accustomed to having to bring a hard word to the nation of Israel: “If it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice,” destruction and disaster will follow.  Tell the people of Judah; tell all Jerusalem, the Lord says:  “Look!  I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you.  Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.” 

It’s all pretty foreboding, the kind of words that preachers look at and wonder where they can find any kind of positive message!  Yet as we read this passage from Jeremiah, we find that all the while the Lord is speaking this disturbing word of prophecy, the potter is there working at his wheel, and he’s not simply tossing away this lump of clay he’d been working on for so long.  Yes, what was there was misshapen and spoiled, unsuitable for any useful purpose, but “as seemed good to him,” the potter takes that spoiled vessel in his hands and works with it; and with time and effort, patience and care, he then molds it into something beautiful!

Turns out that the Lord’s intent is not to destroy or bring disaster, but rather to create something beautiful – even from that which by all appearances, is ruined.   To put this another way, God’s judgment is real, but God’s love prevails.  What we have here in Jeremiah is this marvelous image of God as an infinitely creative and loving potter who takes no pleasure in giving up on a vessel, but wants to work with it, to lovingly shape it and mold it again and again until at last it becomes the work, the people, the true art God intends for it to be.  This was always God’s desire for Israel, and the good news is that it’s still God’s desire for you and for me.

Jesus knew this to be true.  In our gospel reading this morning, he talks about this in terms of preparing for the coming kingdom of heaven.  “Sell your possessions,” he says to his disciples, “and give alms [to the poor].  Make purses for yourselves that do no wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven… [and] be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.”  Understand, in biblical terms this is very apocalyptic language, and had such words been spoken by someone else, those listening might well have run in fear for the end of the world and the fiery judgment that would accompany it!  But Jesus understood that while readiness was of utmost importance, the kingdom’s coming was not something that should fill us with terror!  On the contrary; Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”  Don’t you realize that even now, God is joyfully readying you for kingdom by shaping and reshaping you to be the people he’s always intended you to be?  Don’t you know that however fearful and broken you might feel, that’s surpassed by how God ever and always sees you… as good and beautiful and perfect?

That’s important for us to hear, friends …because in truth, there’s a whole lot of people in this life who simply do not know this to be true; who do not understand that in infinite and graceful love, God truly intends for them to be beautiful, as the song says, in every single way.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that one of the inevitable by-products of air travel is that you spend a fair amount of hours at airports waiting for delayed flights to arrive and depart – I don’t fly that much, but friends, I don’t think I’ve ever flown anywhere without some kind of unexpected layover! But I also must confess that such delays lend themselves to great opportunities for people watching; or, more accurately, for seeing people at their best, and occasionally at their worst!

For instance, it was in the midst of such a delay that I saw such love in the eyes of newlyweds cuddled up together while waiting to get to their honeymoon destination that it didn’t matter if they got to their destination or not!  I’ve saw it in a young mother passing the time playing peek-a-boo with her giggling baby, both of them wearing smiles that could light up the room.  And I’ve seen a supreme example of fullness of joy emanating from a couple of grandparents, a fullness exceeded only by their carry-ons quite literally stuffed with gifts for those children on the other end of the line!

By the same token, I’ve also seen eyes filled with fatigue, annoyance, impatience, frustration and downright anger – admittedly, some of it having to do with the delays themselves and the necessities of homeland security; but a lot of it clearly expressing something deeper.  You know the kind of look I’m talking about – it’s the one that tells you right away not to come anywhere near, don’t make small talk, and don’t mess with this person, because this is one tough, angry individual! It’s a hard look; as though the weight of the world is on his or her shoulders, and you can literally see the strain of it all on their faces and in their eyes.

Here’s my mindset: I see someone like that, and I have to wonder just exactly how it was that this person got to that point; what it was that happened in his or her life that gave them such a hard look, and what it would take to lighten that burden.  Now, I know it’s not that simple, and that you can’t always judge a book by its cover, friends; but my point here is that it is all too easy in this life to become hard and cold and brittle and broken; and such brokenness does tend to show forth from us.

The fact is that for many of us, there are those moments in life when we’ve become so discouraged as to start to lose hope; when our faith begins to waver and we doubt we’ll ever live the lives that we’ve been longing for, much less become the people that God has envisioned us to be. We let the hard knocks of life and the injustices of the world make us tough and brittle; and somewhere along the line, we end up completely – and what seems like irreparably – broken.

Isn’t it interesting, though, that it’s invariably in such situations that God somehow manages to break through to our lives and hearts?

It can happen in a variety of ways – maybe in the love of family and friends; perhaps in thoughtful and unexpected gestures of support and caring that come in those moments we needed them the most; or maybe it’s felt in a moment of indescribable and yet palpable peace that could only come by God’s own Spirit.  However it happens, when it happens, it’s the way that somehow God got through to us, and we discover in the process that though we may have been bruised and broken along the way, we will not stay cold nor brittle forever; for even in our brokenness, God will remold us into something beautiful, reworked and shaped for a new and blessed future, so that at the last we might truly be that which God has created us and calls us to be, as “it seems good for [the potter].”

It is true: God is the Potter, and we are the clay – and in the hand of the potter, we are made truly beautiful; but, remember, it still falls to you and me to allow this potter to do his work. The 2nd century theologian Irenaeus expressed this beautifully; he said, “It is not you who shape God; it is God that shapes you.  If then you are the work of God, await the hand of the Artist who does all things in due season.  Offer the Potter heart, soft and retractable, and keep the form in which the Artist has fashioned you.  Let your clay be moist, lest you grow hard and lose the imprint of the Potter’s fingers.”

In other words, each one of us here is a work in progress; and no matter how “finished” any of us think we may be, by no means is God done working with us yet!  So, in faith, we need to let God do just that; we need to open ourselves to the work of his loving hands, to keep our hearts soft and pliable so that the great beauty that God sees within each of us might truly become the reality of our lives and living.

Thanks be to God who is the Divine Potter!

Amen, and AMEN!

c. 2012  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on August 26, 2012 in Faith, Life, Sermon


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