A reflection on Proper 18 C: Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; Luke 14:25-33
Looking back over the years I remember a few things about the summer of 1977. I lived in Southern Illinois and worked two part-time jobs earning money for my third year of college. The Eagles were a popular band and their recent hit, Hotel California, played on the radio. The days were long, hot, and humid. I rode my bike to work and back.
Nights brought little relief, the humidity remaining thick despite the lack of sun and slight reduction in temperature. In the evenings I rode my bike to a near-by art studio where I was taking a class on pottery. Part of the class was learning how to make pots on a potter’s wheel. The rest of the class was building pots by hand. I loved working on the potter’s wheel. I never knew exactly what form would rise up from the mound of wet clay as the wheel spun. My thumbs would plunge into the center of the mound working with my fingers and hands to bring forth a shape. The spinning of the wheel became the impetus for the transformation my hands were trying to manifest. Sometimes the mound spun right off the wheel and landed on the floor. Sometimes the mound became misshapen, slightly too much pressure in one direction without balance from another would throw the entire piece off kilter. Sometimes, in a mystical moment of awe, a work of art rose up from the wheel, taking my breath away.
I still have a couple of the pieces of art that I made in that class.
In our reading this morning from Jeremiah we hear a story about God as a potter. Jeremiah the prophet is told to go to the potter’s house. There Jeremiah sees and hears the words of God through the potter and the clay on the wheel. The potter is having trouble with this mound of clay, which collapses and loses its shape. The potter presses the mound into a formless mass and begins again to shape it.
In this story, God is the potter and the clay is that which God desires from creation. Interacting with creation is for God, we hear in this story, like a potter spinning clay on a wheel, working to bring forth substance and shape. Despite the influence of spinning and the containment of hands, the mound of clay which exhibits its own free will. Free will is an aspect of all creation. Thus God works the clay, a process that requires love, skill, an artistic ability, patience, and adaptability. Surely God could make other choices, eliminating free will. But God, so far, has not chosen to do that. And so God and creation continue in this dance of being formed, shaped, and reformed. Thus provoking in us the question of whether or not the actions of human beings have any effect on what God decides to do. It seems this passage makes clear that creation is not locked into a fixed predetermined outcome. [i] Rather, we humans impact what happens, which means, perhaps, that we have an effect on God. That there are consequences for our actions is evidence of the effect we have on God. [ii]
In and through these consequences we learn that God is deeply invested in our lives and yearns to shape who we are and how we live.[iii]
This is a theme that the Psalm today makes clear. In the Psalm God is like a mother, forming us not on a potter’s wheel, but in God’s womb. God’s relationship with us is intimate. God knows us from the inside out; we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Fearful because we are not God and do not make ourselves, wonderful because we are God’s own creation.[iv]
As part of God’s creation God has given us the capacity to make choices. Nonetheless we do not get to choose the consequences of our choices.[v] Instead these consequences are part of the creative process of God’s action in the world. Sometimes that creative process means breaking down, reshaping, reforming, starting over, perhaps even flying off the wheel and landing splat on the ground. I know I have felt that way in my life from time to time as circumstances, often out of my control, knock me off balance. And yet, even lying splat on the ground, there remains a sense that God is still present, still inviting me, and us, into a creative, restorative process.
Our reading from the Gospel of Luke points us in this direction – what it means to participate in God’s creative process and what it feels like when that process breaks down in order to start over. A mass of chaos may ensue. Discipleship, Jesus tells us, is what it means to remain faithful to God even when we have no idea where or how God is present in the moment. Being shaped and formed by God, following the teachings of Jesus, can cause division in our lives even as we practice loving God, loving our neighbor, and loving ourselves. God’s love is wildly expansive and rarely fits neatly into our desires for comfort.
This reminds me of the movie, “Freedom Writers” (not to be confused with Freedom Riders). This movie stars Hilary Swank as a new teacher assigned to a particular class of high school students. This class is seen as the school trouble-makers. The administration believes that they have no ability to learn and are incapable of caring for anything, including school books. They receive only old worn materials that no one else cares about. Hilary Swank sees her students in a different way. She sees both their broken lives and their potential. She sees through the chaos of violence rampant in this poverty stricken neighborhood of Los Angeles to a place where the disparate gangs of teenagers begin to recognize more what they have in common, less what separates them. Based on a true story it is powerful movie of transformation. But it costs Hilary Swank’s character her marriage. Her husband does not want to live a life devoted to the kids and transforming their lives. He wants to just live and work and not engage the challenges in the world around him. So he leaves her. But she continues and as a result lives are changed. The Freedom Writers Foundation was formed from the work of this teacher and her students. It exists today with a mission to empower educators and students to positively impact their own lives and the world around them.[vi]
Thus, discipleship is a process of our growing in faith, regardless of - or because of - the challenges we face. This Gospel reading tells us that growing in discipleship and faith means we will face difficult questions and make tough decisions. But both our reading from Jeremiah and the Psalm remind us that God is with us. We are not shaping this on our own. God holds us like the hands of an artist forming clay. God holds us like the womb of a mother forming life.
Today we begin the Season of Creation. During these five weeks we will reflect on our role in the world - how we are living as disciples of Jesus and stewards of God’s creation. God holds us in love and then invites us into the creative process of life. You might say that it is as if God has placed the mound of clay into our hands. Now the question becomes - what shall we do with it?