I have to attribute most of this sermon to a gentleman named Rian Adams, who identifies himself as a priest, poet, and advocate. You’ll know, I think, when I insert myself into his message, which I do now and then.
Our Brian had a good piece of advice a couple of weeks ago: we can always learn something new regardless of how old we are. Today’s lesson is about a potter at his potter’s wheel. So I decided to learn some Spanish that I hadn’t known before. A potter is un alfarero. Un alfarero works on a rueda de alfarero, a potter’s wheel. The medium the alfarero , the potter, uses on his rueda, his wheel, is arcilla, or barro , clay.
Now. Jeremiah offers us a good story this morning. An image of God that I really like.
The word of the Lord said to Jeremiah: Go down to the potter’s house, la casa del alfarero, and there I will let you hear my words. So Jeremiah makes the trek down to the potter’s house. It’s not merely a short trip down the block. Jeremiah lives in Jerusalem, which is located up on a hill. To get to the potter’s house, you have to go out of the gate of the city and down through the valley called Hinnom. Scare place, Hinnom is. It’s the place in Jeremiah’s time where the people of Jerusalem burn their garbage. They call it Gehenna, a cursed place, a place of burning torment, of misery, because of the child sacrifices of the past. The cursed concept of the valley of the dead and the fires there give us our vivid, sometimes cartoonish, vision of hell.
So Jeremiah treks down the hill from Jerusalem, making his way through the valley of garbage. Makes me think of the dump at Naselle where I used to live (I lived in a house in Naselle, not in the garbage dump). Jeremiah never visited the Naselle garbage dump, but I’ll bet he would have found it familiar. I used to go there on a regular basis. You drove up a hill to a clearing that had a drop-off on three sides, all three sides blocked off with logs so that you couldn’t back off into the garbage. To keep the dump down to a controllable size, they (whoever “they” were – the dumo authorities, I suppose) would set fire to various areas. Hence there were always smallish fires burning here and there.
Anyway, Jeremiah treks down the hill from Jerusalem, through the valley of the people’s garbage – the people’s sins? – in order to get to the potter’s house. Maybe Jeremiah didn’t have to literally (please forgive the split infinitive) to literally wade through garbage to hear God’s message. Maybe as a prophet, Jeremiah is just creating an image that would be familiar to the people of Jerusalem.
So. He gets to the potter’s house. The potter – God, we come to realize – is at his wheel, at his rueda de alfarero. I don’t know what God’s potter’s wheel looks like, exactly, but I’ve seen one at which the potter sits, using pedals to keep the wheel turning while he (or she) shapes the clay that has been placed on the wheel. It’s a messy job because clay is messy. To work it, you need to keep it wet, so your hands get really dirty. Picture God now sitting at the wheel, hands wet and dirty as the work of creation goes forward.
Let’s look closely at the creation of the pot, or pitcher, or jug on God’s wheel. First the clay itself must be prepared. You can’t just grab a lump of clay and make a pot. You grab your lump of clay and you work it. Forcefully. You knead it – hard – you squeeze it – hard—while you douse it with water – over and over –until the consistency of the clay is just right. Then you plop it on the wheel and start to pump the pedals so that the wheel rotates steadily. As it turns, you shape the vessel with your hands. You keep the pressure just so, to get the shape just right. The thickness must be even. At the top, the side must taper slightly and then be finished off with a graceful rim. The sides must rise from a perfectly round, level base.
But wait a minute! It isn’t you sitting at the wheel. Let’s not forget that it’s God! It’s God with clay up to his elbows, hands calloused and cracked in spite of the water used to keep the clay moist. There’s nothing neat and clean about working with clay. Gives you an interesting picture of creation, doesn’t it?
Let’s watch that lump. It doesn’t immediately have form. It needs time and water and just the right pressure in just the right places before it looks like a pot or a pitcher or a jug. If there’s not enough water, the clay will crack. If the pressure isn’t right, the clay will turn into a misshapened thing that might crack or fall apart or wobble or maybe not even stand up at all.
And then we realize that we are the lump of clay. We need to be kneaded [use gesture] and squeezed in order to become whaf God is creating. We need to be moistened. That starts with baptism, doesn’t it? Kneading, water – our baptismal identity – and shaping by the Potter’s hands are all necessary before we can become “whole” – the person God intends us to be.
Genesis says that God formed us in His image and molded us into his likeness. Thus it makes sense that one of the earliest images of God in Genesis is of a potter with muddy hands creating human beings.
And God is still working on us, shaping us toward wholeness. Because God’s not finished with us yet. That’s certainly how I feel. About the same time that I was baptized -- I was six weeks old – I came down with whooping cough. Didn’t die thanks to the 24-hour care provided by my parents and a couple of devoted aunts.
Didn’t drown when I was two and, naughty child that I was, tried walking along the very edge of the swimming pool and fell in. At the deep end, naturally. A family friend, a non-swimmer, by the way, waded in from the shallow end and waded back out with me.
Didn’t drown when I was twelve and got swept up in the current of the Eel River in Northern California. Gratitude there goes to a different family friend who rescued me.
Didn’t die when I got leukemia in my 60’s and beat the 5% chance of somebody my age surviving it.
Apparently God had plans for me. For one thing, I find myself very happily raising one of my grandkids – he’s now 17, and he’s been with us since he was three. For another, at St. John’s we were introduced to Total Common Ministry. I thought it was a good idea until I was tapped as one of the potential priests. My reaction was a very teenaged “NO WAY.” I can imagine the Potter pausing the wheel and starting to pull out some hair. Except that the clay on his hands made them too slippery to grasp the hair firmly.
Somehow God has a way of stubbornly working on us, stubborn as we might be, shaping us toward wholeness. God out-stubborns us. God isn’t finished with me yet.
Clay is messy. Our lives can be messy. But we tend to cling to the perception that everything is really okay. Really neat and clean. We see on social media and on TV families who seem to portray perfect lives. The operative phrase here is “seem to.”
Really, though, life is messy. We know that often there are pieces missing. Or we perceive warped pieces of pottery, both in ourselves and others (Hmm. What did we discuss at coffee hour just last week about judging other people?). We don’t see ourselves and others as perfect examples of pottery on display in art galleries or museums.
Here’s the thing. There’s nothing wrong with imperfection. God didn’t give up on Israel because of imperfection, and God won’t give up on us either.
Which means that it’s never too late to begin again. And begin again we often need to do. After all, there is no perfect clay, right? That’s why pottery-wheel accidents happen.
So – what happens in a pottery-wheel accident? Picture our clay pot spinning in perfect balance on the wheel until the potter moves his fingers (or her fingers) ever so slightly too far into the clay. Immediately the partly formed pot caves in on itself and becomes a lopsided blob on the wheel, spinning off and landing on the floor.
Sometimes when the pressure of life pushes us, we cave in on ourselves and spiral out of control, sometimes feeling like that lopsided blob. But then we remember: when the piece you’re working on falls apart, you can always start over.
The prophet Jeremiah sees a broken piece of pottery on God’s table; he says that God selects the brokenness, re-forms it, and creates something new from the broken pieces. I like that image. God selecting the brokenness to re-form.
That should give us confidence. Even when our lives seem to shatter, God can take our pain, our fears, our guilt, our grief – and transform the brokenness of the self into a new creation. The prophet says the broken pottery becomes better than it was before it crumbled.
There’s no perfect clay – no perfect relationship – no perfect family – no perfect dream – no perfect job – and I realized as I was working on this, no perfect sermon – and the list could go on. But here’s the point It’s never too late to appreciate the beauty of the flaw, of the imperfections.
There’s an art in Japan that I wish I had learned about when I took a class in Japanese and Chinese art and literature back in the 80’s. It’s called kintsugi [KINT-sue-gi (hard g)]. It involves a unique way of fixing broken pottery. In Japan, pottery can be handed down, hopefully carefully, from generation to generation. When a meaningful piece breaks, they don’t throw it away. Like God, they don’t throw away things because of blemishes or brokenness. They collect the pieces and repair the pottery. What’s interesting is that they don’t use invisible glue to make the pottery appear as flawless as it was originally.
They leave it with the vulnerabilities showing, because they understand that scars can be signs of refinement. Or strength. Or victory. The artist collects a special tree sap and mixes it with gold. Then the artist carefully joins the separated fragments together with the golden sap, making the piece stronger at the cracks.
When the artist is finished, the pottery is a one-of-a-kind heirloom with bright gold lines giving it beauty and character that it didn’t have before it broke.
Hear the words of Jeremiah again: the first piece crumbled in the Potter’s hand, but He made it into another piece that pleased him more.
With God, scars, imperfections, and brokenness become stories of triumph and grace. They’re stories where God mends brokenness with gold, and things become greater than we ever dreamed possible.
Nope -- God isn’t finished with us yet.