September 5th, 2010

This week, it was difficult for me to focus on just one of the Scripture readings. Each one of them speaks to me, for a different reason, even the one we didn’t use. I will just mention each one briefly, and then switch to my theme for this morning, which is God as a craftsman. In the reading we didn’t use, but which was mentioned in last week’s bulletin, there was a letter from Paul to Philemon, in which Paul asked Philemon to set free the slave Onesimus. Interestingly, this short letter has been used by slave-holders and abolitionists alike to justify their very different positions. I would invite you to take some time this week to read this letter, and see if you can come to any real conclusion on Paul’s attitude towards slavery.
Then we had the Gospel reading, which I used as the focus for the children’s story. You have often heard me mention the cost of discipleship, usually in the context of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and you know that I think that many people are not willing to pay that cost. This is a theme on which I have already preached here, and no doubt, I will be preaching on it again and again, as it is one of my favourites.
Psalm 139 is another favourite of mine, and I was particularly struck by the verses which we read this morning. Let’s have a look at them again, just so you can see why this means so much to me. We read: O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
The message here is that we – all of us – are known and accepted by God. And isn’t that amazing? God knows us completely – even to the extent of discerning our thoughts. Now some people may not like that idea, that God knows our thoughts, and what we are going to say before we say it. But I must jump in to say that God is NOT Big Brother. He is not a giant surveillance camera like the ones in banks or fast food restaurants. Our thoughts, our deeds, our words, are not going to be reported to the authorities. Although, if that were going to happen, I am not really sure to whom God would report in any case!. The point is that, knowing us, God accepts us completely. That is the amazing thing. And if God accepts us, then why do so many of us have trouble accepting ourselves? Why do so many of us suffer from low self-esteem? Every day I see people who are hell-bent on self-destruction; people who live lives of anger; people who are so consumed by guilt that they cannot function; and all because they cannot accept themselves as God created them.
Ah, but the Psalmist said: I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. If we but accept ourselves as one of God’s wonderful creations; if we but acknowledge that every single person in the world is also one of God’s wonderful creations, then we would stop beating ourselves up for our weaknesses, our failings, our flaws. And, even better, we would stop seeing those flaws, those failings, those weaknesses in others. Acceptance, whether of self or other, is crucial.
For me, though, the key words in this Psalm are the words “knit” and “woven”. These are skills which are commonly associated with women, and most of us have been conditioned to think of God in terms of a man. After all, every Sunday, we say the Lord’s Prayer, which begins “Our Father”. Many of the prayers I write for worship use the term “Father”. We refer to God as the “King”. But do we really know? Can we really know? If we look through Scripture, we will find many feminine references to God. Jesus comments that he wants to gather Jerusalem to him in the same way as a mother hen gathers her chicks. And in Isaiah, the Lord compares himself to a nursing mother, when he says that he could no more forget his people than a woman could forget a baby at her breast. My point is not to feminize God, but to show that God is not only powerful and strong, but caring and nurturing. And God is a craftsperson. God makes things. We are one of the things that God makes, but we are not the only thing.
And now let’s move to Jeremiah. The image of God as potter is certainly one of the most powerful ones in Scripture, occurring as it does in both the old and new Testaments. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, we can read: But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. Here, the jars of clay refer to our bodies, which are made from dust and which will return to dust.
Now, I want you to go back to your childhood for a minute, to the time when you made things with modeling clay or play dough. Some of you were probably very talented, but more of you were probably like me. I made excellent worms and snakes, but not much else. And I eventually reached a stage where I could take many of my worms and stack them on top of each other to make a kind of bowl. Not a great one, admittedly, but recognizable as a bowl. The best thing about clay, however, was its forgiving nature. If I made something and really didn’t like it, it was a matter of just a minute and I could squish it back into a ball, and start all over again. And as long as I stored the clay properly, I could work with it for days or even weeks.
A potter – a real potter – works in much the same way. She will sit at her wheel with a lump of clay. As the wheel goes around, the clay forms into a container. Those of you who say the movie GHOST will no doubt remember the scene where Patrick Swayze’s character – as a ghost, of course – sits behind Demi Moore’s character as she is working at her wheel. As the wheel turns, the potter breaks off lumps of clay, and tosses them into a bucket, where they will accumulate and be used again. If the original pot doesn’t suit the potter, it is also tossed into the bucket, and remade at another time. Eventually, the pot is ready to be fired, and the scraps are made into something else. Nothing is wasted. Nothing touched by the potter is ever a failure.
If, while the potter is working, she sees an air bubble in the clay, she cuts it out. If the air bubble is too big, then the whole chunk of clay must be taken off the wheel and reformed. And that is the key word for us, as Presbyterians. Reformed. We are a reformed church, but we are not finished. We are not yet ready for the kiln, for we are always reforming, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Our church was formed in the 16th century during a time in which the institutional church had accumulated many flaws – many air bubbles. A movement to reform the church sprang all over England and Europe. Our particular branch sprang up in Scotland, with help from France and Switzerland. One thing we need to remember, as a reformed church, is that any church can develop flaws, just as clay on a potter’s wheel can develop flaws. We need to be constantly on the alert for such flaws, which is why our church has the governance it does. This is why we do not have bishops, and why our moderator is elected for a one-year term. There is – we hope – no danger of any hierarchy becoming entrenched, and guiding the church in a way that is not Scripturally based.
We can see that society has changed drastically, and that it is continuing to change. Some denominations are digging in their heels and refusing to change. But, with Jeremiah, and thinking of ourselves and our church as lumps of potter’s clay, we can see that change can be not only good, but in some cases, may be necessary. In the early days of the Presbyterian church, music was not permitted, other than the Psalter. And even that had to be sung without instruments. Now music is such an integral part of our worship that we cannot imagine a service without it. And it is only just over 40 years ago that the first women were ordained in the Presbyterian Church in Canada. As far as I am concerned, this was a good move and a necessary one.
Jeremiah, in referring to God as a potter, is speaking to us as much as to the Israelites. God, as a potter, wants to make beautiful and useful vessels. Just as an earthly potter hopes that her creations will be used to hold something, so does God want his creations to hold something. While the earthly potter hopes that her creations will hold water, or food, or flowers, God wants us – and his church – to carry his Good News to all people.
I said earlier that the potter cuts out flaws before firing the finished vessel, but sometimes, despite the best efforts, despite the most drastic cuts, the finished creation turns out to have a flaw. One would think that it would then be discarded, but this little story will illustrate how even what we perceive as flawed creations can be useful. A water bearer had two large pots, each hung on each end of a pole which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For a full two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pot full of water in his master’s house. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, perfect to the end for which it was made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do. After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, it spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream. “I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you.”Why?” asked the bearer. “What are you ashamed of?” “I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work, and you don’t get full value from your efforts,” the pot said. The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and in his compassion he said, “As we return to the master’s house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.” Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path, and this cheered it some. But at the end of the trail, it still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and so again it apologized to the bearer for its failure. The bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of your path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you’ve watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house.” Each of us has our own unique flaws. We’re all cracked pots. But if we will allow it, the Lord will use our flaws to grace His Father’s table. In God’s great economy, nothing goes to waste. So as we seek ways to minister together, and as God calls you to the tasks He has appointed for you, don’t be afraid of your flaws. Acknowledge them, and allow Him to take advantage of them, and you, too, can be the cause of beauty in His pathway. “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead. I press on toward the goal to win the prize.
Each one of us needs to be ready to be moulded. Each one of us needs to be ready to have our flaws cut out. But we also need to remember that, even with our flaws, we are still God’s creations, and that, even with our flaws, we can be used to complete God’s work. Thanks be to God.

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