The Potter's Wheel
Here at Christ Church, Clermont Ferrand, we are back to our schedule of services every week after a break for Summer. In the next three weeks we have the pleasure of Father Thomas Myers taking the services, and then Bishop Mark Edington will be with us for the month of October. This Sunday, our Lay Minister Alison spoke to us...
I doubt if I am speaking to an audience old enough to remember, but in the 1950s, when television for the masses was still in its infancy, the BBC had a number of short films, known as “interludes” which would be shown to fill gaps in the programme, during intervals in plays (yes there were actual intervals then!), or as a standby in case of a studio breakdown, which, since all programmes were live, this was not an infrequent occurrence. There were several of these – The White Kitten, showing a kitten playing, Ploughing, and possibly the most famous of all “The Potter’s Wheel” which showed a potter’s hands forming and reforming various shapes out of clay on his wheel: a vase, a wide bowl, a tall pot…
It is that ability to form and reform shapes in clay that is alluded to in the reading from Jeremiah. The prophet is commanded by God to go to the Potter’s house and to watch the craftsman at work. He sees the potter manipulating the clay, and then he watches as it all goes a bit pear shaped (possibly literally) But no matter, with his skill and knowledge, the potter simply reforms the clay into a more pleasing shape. With this scene unfolding before Jeremiah’s eyes, God speaks to him, and he understands the message he must give to the people of Israel.
This message is one for us today.
Firstly, God as the potter in this parable made the vessel into what he wanted it to be. In the creator’s mind before we were created, he has an idea of what we are to be. The Psalmist reminds us that God “knit me together in my mother’s womb” and that I am “perfectly and wonderfully made” God’s hand has been on me from the beginning…
Who we are, and even where we are, is all in the providence of God. Every believer is in the hands of God and being shaped according to His perfect will. As the potter pats the clay for a purpose, so is the Lord in shaping us. Sometimes, the things that have happened in my life have not been good, and like the potter needs to press hard to manipulate the clay, I have found God’s hand heavy on me. Other times, when I have been in step with God, his hand is lightly guiding me, forming me into the person he wants me to be : my very best self, open to his love, and goodness.
And this is the second part of Jeremiah’s message: We are the clay in the potter’s hands and as long as we are in his hands we will be moulded and shaped by the purpose and power of God. He is moulding us into the image of Jesus and as long as we don’t resist, we will be formed into that perfect vessel that God planned for us to be from the beginning of our being.
But of course, it’s not that simple. We are influenced by the experiences and circumstances of life, and we don’t always do as the potter intends. As a small piece of grit in the clay can throw the whole pot off balance on the wheel, so we can be thrown off balance by life. I must admit, this is where I feel the analogy breaks down a little because a lump of clay doesn’t have any will of its own. It is just there, waiting to be manipulated, be it by a piece of grit, the potter’s hand, the slowing down or speeding up of the wheel. It does whatever these outside influences tell it to do.
We, however, have a will of our own, and so sometimes, despite the best efforts of the Potter, we mar the vessel that God is creating. Even while we are in God’s hands something happens, and life causes us to question His purpose and design. We resist His workings and the vessel we become is not what God intended. We resist because it is hard. Life following Jesus is not easy; it requires pain and sacrifice and an abandonment of self-interest.
I think this is what Jesus was saying when he said Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers, and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. We know that Jesus came to humanity to show us love; he demands that we love our neighbour, and so here he is not telling us that hating our family is what he wants of us. He is using exaggeration, hyperbole, to tell us that we must be ready to give up everything to follow him; loyalty to Jesus should come before all other competing loyalties, including family, self-interest, and possessions. But time and again, we fail. We want to do it, but it’s hard.
And as we try and sometimes fail to be the useful vessels that God wants us to be, sometimes we need to be broken down and rebuilt again. One commentator I read put it like this: If you exemplify behaviours that are contrary to Jesus, God will rework you into another vessel that seems good to Him. Will this be uncomfortable? Yes. Why? Because some of us do not want to change because we have become accustomed to our own lifestyles. This is why God has to reshape us and put us in heat so we can be transformed into the righteousness of Christ. Is this painful? Absolutely! Who wants to be shattered, remoulded, and placed in fire? But it is worth it.
Facing up to our failures, repenting and beginning again can be remarkably hard, but it is this consciously acknowledging what we have done wrong that begins the process of healing. Healing of our relationships with God, with our neighbours, with our world.
In the letter to Philemon, Paul talks about the slave Onesimus; we don’t know exactly what had happened between Onesimus and his master Philemon, but there had been a breakdown in the relationship. Onesimus had fled to Paul, and there had found his way back not only to a better relationship with God, but an acknowledgement of his failings in his relationship with his master. Paul uses the words Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.
Through accepting and repenting of his failings, Onesimus becomes useful in the Lord’s work. And that can be us also. When we truly accept that we fail Our Lord over and over, when we repent of those failures, and we put God’s Kingdom before everything else in our lives, we too can be remade, reformed, renewed.
Jeremiah’s prophecy, including the image of a lump of clay being formed and reformed is a powerful one. But time and again, when I picture myself as that broken, “marred vessel” I don’t see God bringing me back to an amorphous lump to start again. Instead, I see him taking the broken shards of my life and piecing them back again into something that is the same, yet somehow, is gloriously, beautifully, miraculously different…
I picture God working in the Japanese art of Kintsugi, or Kintsukuroi: you may be aware of this craft. As a philosophy, kintsugi is about embracing the flawed or imperfect. It is the of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with a golden lacquer. As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise. Not only is there no attempt to hide the damage, but the repair is literally illuminated. It is about taking the broken and making it more beautiful.
We are who we are, broken, battered by our own failings, and the difficulties that life has thrown at us. But God sees what we can be. We have our history, that has made us who we are, and God loves that. Wherever life has taken us, to the depths or to the heights, God has been there with us, and now he wants to take who and what we are and make us useful and beautiful vessels for his Kingdom. What we need to do is to let him.
I have made a PPP showing some of the beautiful, restored pottery of the Kintsugi tradition, paired with one of my favourite worship songs, “At the Foot of the Cross”. As you listen to the words of the song, and see the photographs, imagine yourself as one of these broken vessels, mended and renewed by God’s love, by Christ’s sacrifice. The writer of the song says: Our Lord will take the bad in our life and turn it into good if we let him... we often want to hold on to our troubles and try to fix it ourselves... we struggle to turn things around... Yet if we take it to the cross Jesus just has a way of making things better... He will turn our ashes into beauty if we just trust Him.
Or, putting it a different way, He will turn our useless, broken pots into beautiful useful vessels if we just trust him.
Here is a link to the Power Point Presentation that follows: S11 PPP.pptx
(Highlight the link, left mouse click, & "Open link in new tab")
A soft wheel being formed upon a spinning wheel: rising falling widening drooping lopsided, wet clay shaped by the potter’s hand worked reworked changed, turned, crafted to be vessels.
Let us pray.
O God, you know us as intimately as a potter knows the clay within her hands. See our paths, behind and before us. Know our hearts; hear the prayers that are within us.
We ache for peace. We yearn for vision and certainty amidst so much mystery, amidst so much chaos. We strain toward you. We collapse. We want someone to hold this life together. Have mercy.
Be full of love in those places & to those people who are suffering, sick, abused, and dying; be full of wisdom in the places of decision-making; be full of strength in the ties that bind us and show us the cords that we otherwise have abandoned.
Make us vessels full of love, receptive to your wisdom, trusting of your grace so that our formation – our transformation – in your hands will take shape to your glory.