Preached by Elder Mary Lee Miller on April 6, 2014
Text: Jeremiah 18:1-6
Ages ago, I took a class to learn how to shape something from clay, using the hand method only. Mar Carter was my teacher and she was very very good. I was very very bad. First came my pencil holder. That cracked in the firing. Next a lamp base. We used that for years, careful to put the bulging side toward the corner of our living room. Finally, a cookie jar shaped like a clown. After a couple of years, with the top ill-fitting, it met its end. Eons from now some archaeologist will make a remarkable discovery: pot shards in bright turquoise buried deep in the Genesee riverbed.
That was the end of my inglorious couple of years with Mar Carter. Now, Jeremiah and his kin had to go to the potter’s house often. Clay pots were used for all types of storage, including wine and grain. And, these pots broke often and needed replacements. The clay was not very good and the wheel for throwing the pot was very rudimentary. But, leave it to the Lord to use such an every-day chore to make a serious point. The Lord ordered Jeremiah to go to the potter’s house and hear what he was to say to him. I love the way the Lord spoke to his prophets. He spoke in words, of course, but he spoke even more emphatically in images. God’s metaphors were worth a thousand words.
As Jeremiah was watching the potter, he saw that the potter was having a hard time getting the pot to come out right. He had to scrap one and start another over from scratch. Jeremiah got the message: “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel just as this potter has done? Just like the clay in the potter’s hands, so are you in my hand.” Ominous sounding. But note: the Lord was determined to try all over again.
The metaphor thousands of years ago: God, the potter, and the people of Israel, the clay. The people had lost their center because the temple where their God lived was destroyed. Their nation was crumbling and they longed for a king like David.
The metaphor for us, today: God is the Potter, the designer and shaper of our future; we are the clay, struggling to hold to our center and keep our balance in unsteady times. Consider the steps the potter must follow. First he has to know what the pot is to be used for and the amount of clay needed. Then, he has to cut a slab of clay out of his supply which is kept in a large pot of water, knead it to get out any impurities, roll it into a conical shape, and throw it on the wheel. These steps are the easy ones. The hard part follows: He must then set the wheel to spinning and work with the clay perfectly so the vessel will not collapse.
I want to give an idea of how both we and God work together in this process.
Think of it in terms of the dynamics of a spinning wheel. It builds up centrifugal force which causes the clay to press against the hands of the potter. The clay exerts pressure and also must yield to the pressure of the potter. The potter is designer and critic of the final vessel but without the participation of the clay, the vessel will collapse.
Israel was in trouble. But what about us? We are spinning! But, I believe we are holding our center. Thanks in part to our community grit. Thanks largely to the steadying hand of God.
I have seen this dynamic push/pull in action at South for the past few years. We see a decline in our numbers and the ushers start counting heads by looking over the balcony. Then we force ourselves to stop counting heads and focus instead on the gifts of those who remain. We see some of our treasured programs phased out. Then we launch new programs. We hold on to this beautiful building for dear life. Now, we are focusing on new ways to be together and to house our ministry. We have tilted from center on the wheel from time to time, but we have not collapsed. The potter has always called us home to center and we have answered that call. This movement is what I would name “co-creating a future.” The process is not for sissies. Tough slogging. It can been long and it is tiring.
Sometimes I like to turn to poetry to let a little light to shine through. Here is Joyce Rupp’s Bittersweet.
Leaving the safe path, the smooth road, the marked way, I wander far from it on an unsure path, rutted and rough. Halfway around a small pond, not yet frozen solid with December’s cold, bittersweet startled me, its vivid red twining around the meandering brambles of a grey sapling. Forgotten was the stinging wind on my face and the rough land under my feet. A jubilant discovery of beauty on an uncertain road.
We are traveling that road also. And we are experiencing the sweet and startling presence of the One who is our guide.
Staying centered is indeed very difficult. Just ask the most God-centered person this earth has even known. Jesus knew the heart of God. When he prayed Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, he knew what that meant for him, but…he lived into the will of God regardless of the tough slogging. Why? Because he was always centered in the certain Love of his Lord.
Becoming who we might yet be means growing pains. That’s for sure. Reminds me of a personal story told by physician Naomi Remen in her Kitchen Table Wisdom.
“In the beginning of December the year I was thirteen, my father declared bankruptcy. That was the year we all made our Christmas gifts. Despite the stress in the household, on Christmas morning the living room was much the same as always. Though the presents were wrapped in the sporting green section of the newspaper. Among the gifts lay a small velvet box. Even at 13 I knew that what was inside was not homemade. My father said “Open it.” Inside I found a pair of twenty-four-karat gold earrings. As I stared at them I felt the full weight of my homeliness, my terrible shyness. I took them into the bathroom to try them on. With my pimply face and lank hair they looked absurd.
Tearing them from my ears I ran into the living room and shouted at my father, “These look stupid on me. Take them back.” My father said “I bought them because someday they will suit you perfectly.” I am truly grateful to have survived my adolescence. At some of my lowest moments, I would get out the box and look at the earrings. My father spent $100 he didn’t have because he believed in the person I was becoming. My father taught me that wholeness was just a matter of time.”
So much more has our God spent on us! Our own new wholeness in the future is also just a matter of time.
Let me conclude with words of Robert Browning, inspired by an epic poem by Rabbi ben Ezra.
Mind the metaphor!
Earth changes but the soul and God stand sure.
What entered into thee
That was, is, and shall be.
Time’s wheel runs back or stops:
Potter and clay endure.