Texts: Jeremiah 18:1-11; Luke 14:26-34
Some twenty years ago, when I was living in Charlotte, I decided that I wanted to become a potter. I had two reasons for wanting to learn the skill of pottery-making. First, I wanted something interesting and out of the ordinary to write on my resume under the section where you list your hobbies. And second, I was looking for some type of spiritual discipline other than reading the Bible and praying. I had read an article on pottery-making and spirituality that gave me reason to think there was potential that I could find a hobby and deepen my spirituality all in one fell swoop. After all, working in a church, which I was doing at the time, didn’t leave me much time to cultivate both a hobby and my spiritual life. Furthermore, it didn’t hurt that the movie Ghost had just come out with that provocative scene with Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore at a potter’s wheel.
Checking all my options, I signed up for an eight-week pottery class at the local arts center. The following day, I purchased everything on the supplies list that was provided and waited for the next week to arrive to begin my journey as a potter. Nervous and excited I showed up for the first class with all my tools in hand ready to make my first piece of pottery—that night. After all, how hard could it be to turn a lump of clay spinning around on a wheel into a beautiful pot? Well, let me tell you. It’s hard, very hard. I will spare you all the amusing stories of my eight-week class and assure you that there were no Patrick Swayze-Demi Moore moments, and get to the two most significant lessons I learned about being a potter.
First lesson: centering your clay on the wheel is the first and most difficult task when throwing a pot. This first step is crucial and all else hinges on whether or not the clay is centered. If your clay is not centered when you drop your hole and begin to pull up the piece, it will be off balance, and you will fight the clay the whole time. I will confess to you, that for six of the eight weeks, I fought my clay. I would spend most of the class working and reworking my lump of clay just trying to center it. It wasn’t until I learned the delicate balance between when to apply pressure and when to release my grip and allow the clay to form, that I had any success at centering my clay. I can still hear my instructor saying, “firm but gentle.” As a good Baptist, I would sit at my wheel trying to center my clay and sing (in my head) that old familiar hymn: “Have thine own way Lord, have thine own way. Thou art the potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me, after thy will, while I am waiting, yielded and still.” The first lesson: centering requires being firm but gentle; yielded and still.
The second lesson I learned is that every piece of pottery has an imperfection that ultimately integrates into the design to make each piece unique. I was good at this part of pottery-making! I ended my class having made three pieces of pottery: one tilted to the left; one that was intended to be a small vase and weighed 50 pounds; and the other, well it was indescribable. Each had their identifiable imperfection and each piece was beautiful—at least to me.
I thought of my experience of trying my hand at becoming a potter when I read Jeremiah’s words that Ned has read to us this morning, particularly those words: “So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.” When I read the words of Jeremiah, as throughout all of the Hebrew scriptures, I keep coming back to this theme of a God who is a God of second chances—a God who works with our imperfections; who, when we allow God, will integrate our humanity into the sacred and create and fashion something wonderfully unique and beautiful. I see this God in the creation story and in the story of the great flood. I see this God working in Abraham and Sarah and in choosing unlikely heroes like Moses and David and Shiprah and Puah. To me, the key to understanding this second chance God, this potter who is willing keep working with us, is our willingness to stay in relationship with God and with ourselves—to be that lump of clay and to keep throwing ourselves on the potter’s wheel until we find our center.
Recently, I went to see the movie Eat, Pray, Love. I had read the book when it first came out and had appreciated the spiritual connections and wisdom it offered. There were so many good one-liners in the movie, but the one that caught my attention was when the author, Liz, said: “God dwells within you, as you.” In the book, she further develops this thought. She writes:
God dwells within you, as you….God dwells within you as you yourself, exactly the way you are. God isn’t interested in watching you enact some performance of personality in order to comply with some crackpot notion you have about how a spiritual person looks or behaves. We all seem to get this idea that, in order to be sacred, we have to make some massive, dramatic change of character, that we have to renounce our individuality[our imperfections]…To know God, you need only to renounce one thing–your sense of division from God. Otherwise, just stay as you were made… (Liz Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love, pages 191-192).
God dwells within us, AS US. God doesn’t come and erase all our years of living and our personalities and take up residence in our souls to make us something or someone other than who we are. God chooses us, woos us, and justifies us just as we are.
It is a temptation to think that this image of God as the potter is of a God who is trying to mold us into something or someone that we are not. Traditionally, that is how this Jeremiah passage has been interpreted. If we just give ourselves over to God, God will mold us and make us into something that is beyond or outside of us. I don’t believe that. Any good potter will tell you that the clay itself will guide you—that there is already a pot within the clay and all the potter does is help bring it into being. What I believe God is asking of us is that we allow ourselves to be that very person that God has created that is already within us—to accept ourselves with all our imperfections and then to allow God to dwell within us, as us—just as we are.
I remember the day I caught a glimpse of this truth for my own life. It was a time in my life when I was wrestling with trying to integrate being gay and a person of faith and the voices that said being gay was a sin were strong. I was walking from one class to another on the campus at Southeastern Seminary when the thought came to me: the biggest sin I could commit would be to not be who God created me to be—to not acknowledge God dwelling within me, as me. It was one of the clearest moments of my spiritual journey and from that point on, I never again questioned being gay and being a person of faith whom God dwells in and delights in. God dwells within us, as us. In the potter’s hand, we become the “us” that God has created.
The lectionary readings pair this Jeremiah passage with a passage in Luke that ends with these words: “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”In the ancient world covenants or treaties were usually ratified by the exchange of salt because of its value. Salt was the basis of much trade and commerce. Areas that were rich in salt traded it for gold, silver, and fine cloth. For ancient governments salt was also an important source of tax revenue. In Tibet, Ethiopia, and other parts of Africa, salt cakes were used as money. In the Roman army a soldier’s pay included an allowance of salt. Our English word “salary” reflects this; it comes from the Roman word “salarium” which means “allowance of salt.” In biblical times, salt symbolized the endurance and faithfulness individuals would show when making a covenant with one another.
To the question, “If salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” the answer may very well be in discovering the truth that, “God dwells within us, as us.” The only way we can retain or restore our saltiness when it is lost is to allow God and God’s love to dwell within us, as us. God is not trying to mold you into someone or something you are not. You are the salt of the earth, just as you are. Your work is to be as salty as you can be, being you. My work is to be as salty as I can be, being me. If we commit ourselves to this work, we give witness to our endurance and faithfulness to our covenant with God.