Text: Jeremiah 18:1-6
In the summer of 1990, I became infatuated with becoming a potter. It seems, though, that I was not alone that summer. In the summer of 1990 there was a surge in aspiring potters. So you might ask why. What happened in the summer, specifically the month of July, of 1990 that would spark a major wave of interest in throwing and sculpting clay? Well, it was on July 13, 1990 that Paramount Pictures released the American romantic fantasy thriller film Ghost starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, and Whoopi Goldberg.
Maybe some of you remember this film. The plot centers on a young woman in jeopardy (Demi Moore), the ghost of her murdered lover (Patrick Swayze) and a reluctant psychic (Whoopi Goldberg). The film was an outstanding commercial success, grossing over $505.7 million at the box office on a budget of $22 million. It was the highest-grossing film of 1990 and was nominated for five Academy Awards.
And here is the most famous scene in the movie, the scene that inspired a nation of nascent potters. It begins: “In the middle of the night, a woman sits alone at a pottery wheel. A vintage jukebox in her apartment switches records, and “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers pours into the room. Her boyfriend, shirtless, approaches, sits behind her, and reaches out his hand, accidentally ruining her pot. No matter — they begin a new one together, his hands interlaced with hers, shaping the clay. He begins kissing her, and she leaps into his arms, the pottery wheel abandoned in the heat of passion.”(Gwynne Watkins, Yahoo Movies Flashbacks)
Sure, it sounds ridiculous on the page (or in a pew on a Sunday morning) — but on the big screen in 1990, with Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze as the clay-spattered couple, it was pure magic. This is the scene everyone thinks of when they think of the movie Ghost. And it is this scene, a scene that takes place early in the film, before the boyfriend’s death, that shows the audience everything we need to know about the passion between these two people. And that is the reason I thought of this film when I read Jeremiah 18. Likewise, Jeremiah 18 shows us the passion between God the potter and us the clay.
The text begins with God inviting Jeremiah to enter a potter’s shed and there observe the potter working with clay, so that Jeremiah may better hear God’s words and understand them. Now it wouldn’t have been unusual for Jeremiah to see a potter at work. In fact, it would have been a very common sight in the land of Judah. Potters were essential in Jeremiah’s day for that they provided the necessary serviceable items for the common or typical Judean household. These potters were not turning out finely crafted, expensive objects for those who had the big shekel 2600 years ago. No, these everyday potters were shaping imperfect pots that would hold a family’s grain or wine enough to sustain common life.
But this time, when the word came to Jeremiah from YHWH to go down to the potter’s house you get the sense that Jeremiah knew that it wouldn’t be the usual trip to replace a cracked or broken pot. No, this time YHWH’s/God’s words would be involved.
“It is important to know that the word translated “potter” in Jeremiah 18 is based on the more general verb, yatsar, [translated]: “to fashion, to form.” It is this verb that is used in Genesis 2:7 when God kneels in the dust, grabs a piece of moistened clay, and fashions from it a human being. Thus, the image [in Jeremiah 18] is of YHWH as potter, shaping each one of us on the divine potter’s wheel.” (John C. Holbert, Opening the Old Testament)
If you look at the Revised Common Lectionary for this week you will notice the Jeremiah reading actually went through verse 11 of chapter 18. And if you look in the worship guide you will notice that I chose to stop with verse 6. My reason is this: when you get into verses 7-11 there is a fairly significant theological problem. Verses 7-11 seem to imply that if I do better than I am doing, then God will be nice to me. If I do poorly, then God will strike me down. Now I am not adverse to theological problems, and the problem of a zapping God is one that I have tackled on other occasions, but I think this text offers us something quite profound and wonderful without having to get into a dispute with old and disreputable theology. So for today I am setting aside verses 7-11.
On this Labor Day, this image of the potter and the clay in verses 1-6 invites us to consider both the work of the potter and the work of the clay.
First, the work of the potter. One of the habits of a potter is that they never waste clay. Old, failed pots might get recycled into new ones, but potters would never just toss the clay. If you have ever been in a potter’s workshop you will find somewhere there a place, a bucket, where used clay is kept moist, ready to be used again and reshaped into something beautiful. Another thing you will notice when watching a potter at her wheel is that starting over is a common act. Maybe it is because the clay was not well centered on the wheel. Maybe it is because there was too much pressure in one direction. Or maybe the clay became too dry or too moist. But starting over is a common act for potters.
An honest potter will also tell you that the work of the potter is not to make a perfect pot—there is no such thing. The work of the potter is to shape the clay while allowing its true shape to emerge in the process. Actually, most artists speak of this truth. Whether it is a writer writing a story, a musician scoring notes, a painter standing before a canvas, or a sculptor standing with chisel in hand, the work of the artist is to set the story, the melody, the color on the canvas free. Possibly Michelangelo said it best when he said, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” Like the sculptor, the novelist, the songwriter, the painter, the work of the potter is to set the clay free. Have you ever thought about your relationship with God that way? God desires not to mold and shape you/us into someone or something that we are not. God has God’s hands on you to help set you free—free from perfection, free from conformity, free from whatever is keeping you from being you. And this is the work of the potter.
And that speaks directly to the work of the clay—our work? The most important thing for us to remember in our work as the clay is that we are not the finished pots. The shape of the clay changes, even when finished it can be reshaped. The particular pot or bowl or form may not work out, but the value of the clay is constant. We, the clay, have intrinsic value—we are already art, waiting to emerge. Can you believe that? Can you think about your relationship to God and to yourself in that way? You are already beloved and valued and worthy. This one life you have is about becoming you; it is about you and God together shaping your beauty and goodness. And the way you to do that—the way we do that—is to stay in relationship with the potter, the creator, the source. Sometimes our work as the clay is to allow ourselves to start over. Sometimes our work is to remain pliable so we can be reshaped. But our primary work is to know ourselves as works of art that cannot be put down or walked away from because of the beauty and promise we hold from our very birth. Our primary work as the clay is to stay connected to the potter for as much as the clay needs the potter, the potter needs the clay.
In the early fall of 1990, two months after the release of that blockbuster film Ghost, I signed up for a pottery class at the Mecklenburg County Arts Center in Charlotte. With Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore as my inspiration I began the journey of trying to understand the work and relationship of a potter and a piece of clay. At the end of eight weeks, I had two clay pots to show for my effort. One was a small pot with a handle that weighed about five pounds. (If you are a potter you know that’s not good.) The other was a small vase that leaned awkwardly to the left and had a crack at the top near the lopsided opening. On our last night I walked out of that art center carrying my two pots feeling both proud and humble, leaning awkwardly a little bit left, cracked and lopsided. That was my first and last pottery class. But it was only the beginning of how I would come to understand the work of the potter and my work as the clay.
It is not lost on me in writing this particular sermon that I have left the proper biblical interpretation of Jeremiah 18 for another day, and to a more knowledgeable Hebrew scholar. But what I hope I have done with Grace’s help is to draw our attention to the intimate and profound relationship between the potter and the clay—and the work of each.
I leave you with my learnings. One: it is okay to lean a little to the left (or right), to have a crack or two, to be a bit lopsided. Real potters will tell you there is no such thing as a perfect pot. And two: God, the divine potter, desires not to mold and shape you into someone or something that you are not. Like the sculptor, the Divine Potter sees you in the clay and throws, and turns, and gently guides until you are set free—set free to be you.