Pentecost XVI – Proper 18 – September 4, 2016
In the Potter’s Hands
A sermon preached by the Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA, September 4, 2016.
“Come, go down to the potter’s house.” Come to place to meet the artist, the craftsman, the one whose firm and gentle hands press in on, pull, draw and shape the clay of the earth into vessels… everyday vessels that would be used for holding water and storing grain. It was out of this same earthy material that God sculpted the first human being in the second creation story that is found in the second chapter of Genesis. Jeremiah brings us to a potter’s house that would have been a ubiquitous sight in the ancient world. The prophet used a well understood image. He is offering us a portrait of God that is not that of a parent, or a king, or a judge, or a lover, or even a teacher. The Hebrew word that Jeremiah uses for potter is based on the root “yastar” which means “to fashion” or “to form.” This is the same word used in the Genesis story as God fashions and forms the first human being. The prophet wrote six and a half centuries before the birth of Jesus, in a time of on-going conflict between warring kingdoms. Late in his life Jeremiah would experience the terror and grief of the Babylonian siege that would send the people of Jerusalem into exile for 70 years, more than a generation.
As a prophet, Jeremiah exposed and named the many sins of his time… idolatry, lying and slander, oppression of foreigners, widows and orphans to name a few. Jeremiah’s prophetic message was basically to return… to return… to return to God… as God’s people and as a nation. Later on, in the 24th chapter of Jeremiah we hear, “Then I will give them a heart to know Me, that I am the LORD; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God, for they shall return to Me with their whole heart” (Jeremiah 24:7). God continues to long for our return.
As we enter into the potter’s shed in today’s story from Jeremiah, I would like us envision the prophet’s scroll… to unroll the parchment and hear again a timeless message that is for us today… an ancient message that was proclaimed at a time when the world seemed to be coming apart at the seams. May we encounter the scroll’s message anew that it may work on us… and in us… and make us new. The wise scholar of ancient biblical texts, Walter Brueggemann, a passionate prophetic voice himself, opened a series of lectures on the prophet Jeremiah with this prayer:
You are the God who inhabits the scroll. We do not know how. We do not doubt. …We praise you even about the weird and objectionable parts of the scroll, partly by habit, partly because we do not listen very much, partly because we hunger and want a word addressed to us. We thank you for this radioactive scroll that has been set among us. With all of our criticism and all of our orthodoxy [the scroll] is not tamed or domesticated or made special. Let it shatter, offend, heal and transform. For this time, position us in front of this scroll. Let it vex us, and stir us and make us new. We pray in the name of Jesus a sure child of the scroll.
Let this story vex us, stir us and make us new. Today’s story of the potter offers us not some an abstract, theoretical image. This is an earthy, embodied, hands on story… and the feeling is not that of a gentle massage. This story evokes bodily sensations…. Sensations that reach down through skin and muscle and sinew… to the very marrow of our bones. May this story do its work in us.
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I remember visiting with a friend who was telling me about her spiritual journey over a pleasant cup of tea. She referred to Jeremiah’s image of the potter as she was reflecting on years of work she had accomplished by exploring and probing deep wounds that she acquired as a child, as a teenager and as an adult. Like most of us Jan has known raw pain, tsunamis of grief, as well as the welcome surprise of seeing rays of light and hope break through and illumine her dark places. Hers was an ongoing process of feeling the brokenness, yielding to the process of being re-formed, of experiencing healing and of being made new. Jan described the process like this: “It was like every single bone in my body was being broken. The work was not accomplished until every last bone yielded to the potter’s hands. I resisted for awhile… but finally I gave into the experience, explored the textures of my inner landscape, and let the tears flow as the pain kept on coming. But then one morning I woke up, and I heard the birds singing, and I was looking forward to a delicious cup of coffee and I just felt differently. I felt changed.” The forming was not complete. The work that God was doing in Jan continued. Instead of fighting the process she trusted it, welcomed it… yielded… and participated in God’s ongoing work of transformation in her… work that led Jan to a become a spiritual director herself, helping others to explore and recognize God working in their lives, helping others to feel God’s sure steady hand seeking to create ever greater beauty through a holy, ongoing, life-shaping process.
In the Jewish tradition the soul, the nephesh, is not preexistent. The nephesh, is not separate from the physical body. It emerges and forms within the physical body of animals and human beings. When Adam was created he was not given a nephesh, Adam became a nephesh, he came to life in his body, a body that became animated when filled with God’s breath, filled with the spirit of life. In her book Becoming Wise, Krista Tippett writes:
Our bodies tell us the truth of life that our minds can deny: that we are in any moment as much about softness as fortitude. Always in need of care and tenderness. Life is fluid, evanescent, evolving in very cell, in every breath. Never perfect. To be alive is by definition messy, always leaning towards disorder and surprise. How we open or close to the reality that we never arrive at safe enduring stasis is the matter, the raw material of wisdom.
“The vessel that God was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s and, God reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good.” Wisdom.
We may choose not to yield to this messy process. Our culture seems to promote fast remedies to deal with feelings of discomfort and distress. There are pills and bottles to mask the pain, to numb the body and create distance from hard truths and the raw stories that are the basic medium, the basic elements from which our ever new lives can be re-formed, strengthened and made ever more beautiful… the foundational elements required for growth in stature and wisdom even as we carry life scars that are evidence and proof of real life experiences of struggle, pain and healing.
The Japanese have a philosophy called wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi is an esthetic and world view that acknowledges the beauty of impermanence, transience, and imperfection. We do not get out of this life alive. We are on a trajectory towards death, and God knows we all have our cracks, our flaws, our imperfections as proof of the journey. The potter does not make a once and finished vessel. The vessel encounters life. The Japanese also have a beautiful craft called
“kintsugi” in which cracked and broken ceramics are not only mended, not only are the pieces reassemble, but their cracks, their seams of imperfection, are highlighted with special lacquer that is mixed with gold, platinum or silver. A plate broken into ten pieces of varying sizes would be reassembled with irregular, illuminated seams now elevating the piece to a new level of beauty. I would like to think that God’s working in us… healing, shaping and reforming us… especially in in our places of great pain and brokenness. that are illumined… bringing about new life… new beauty… new possibility. My friend Jan’s life scars, after which, God’s hand reshaped shaped her and reshaped her again, laid the work for her vocation as a spiritual director and her work with people who sought to do their own work of growing in their own skins, of trusting and yielding to God’s hand, to God’s working in her life.
God delights in us and calls forth our inherent beauty, using the whole stuff of our lives, flaws, imperfections and all. In his poem Perfection, Perfection, the poet Father Killian McDonnell reminds us to that:
The Venus de Milo has no arms.
The Liberty Bell is cracked
God, we entrust our lives into your loving hands. Vex us, stir us, shape us, form us… We offer up the whole of ourselves to you… heal our brokenness and make beautiful our scars… that our gifts of wisdom and understanding may reflect the beauty of your truth and be used in service to the glory of your name. Heal and illumine the whole of our being that we may be your instruments of healing in the world.
Jeremiah’s prophetic message was basically to return… to return… and to return again to God… as God’s people and as a nation.
Then I will give them a heart to know Me, that I am the LORD; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God, for they shall return to Me with their whole heart.” (Jeremiah 24:7)
 Walter Brueggemann’s opening prayer, video “Walking Into and Out of the Abyss – Week One.” http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=video+walter+bruggeman+jeremiah&&view=detail&mid=C3171854FE0E4A441F52C3171854FE0E4A441F52&FORM=VRDGAR
Krist Tippett, Becoming wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, New York: Penguin Press, 2016, pg. 67.
 Ibid. pg. 20.
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17