Sunday, September 4, 2022

Sermon: “Like Re-Formed Clay”, Psalm 139:13-18/Jeremiah 18:1-10 (September 4, 2022)

When you think about building God’s kindom, what sorts of metaphors come to mind? Paul uses gardening imagery: we plant the seeds and care for the plants, while God provides the growth.[1] Several of the prophets use a marriage metaphor to describe how God works together with the people,[2] and Jesus talks about the kindom of heaven in terms of a master entrusting his servants with his money.[3] In each of these images, the act of bringing God’s kindom to earth is depicted as the joint effort of partners. Now, granted, these partners have varying levels of responsibility and authority in each metaphor, but the general dynamic seems to be one of colleagues or teammates working together to accomplish something.

This makes the metaphor found in our Jeremiah reading an outlier. Unlike all these other scriptural illustrations, Jeremiah’s prophesy seems to strip us of our agency; it reduces our role in kindom building to that of inert raw material to be used according to God’s whims. As far as Jeremiah is concerned here, we aren’t God’s skilled co-workers or beloved spouses or trusted servants. No, we’re nothing more than lumps of clay that can be pinched, prodded, and manipulated to conform to the potter’s will. At the first sign of a flaw, we’re beaten down and reduced back to a shapeless mound.

Needless to say, this does NOT sound like good news.

But if we’re being honest with ourselves, this may be the most accurate biblical metaphor for our role in building God’s kindom. No matter how directly God involves us in the divine plan or how much autonomy we may feel that we have, we are not God’s peers in any way. We are a creation, the work of God’s own hands, and we always have been. We usually interpret Psalm 139 as a celebration of our uniqueness and God’s deep knowledge of us, but it’s also a reminder that we owe our very existence to God. In particular, the psalm harkens back to the second creation story in Genesis, saying, “My bones weren’t hidden from you when I was being put together in a secret place, when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth.” No matter how highly we think of ourselves or how much of God we see reflected in ourselves, the truth is that we still find our origins not so much in any sort of heavenly elements as in lowly dirt. We are dust, and to dust we shall return.

Guess what else comes from the earth? Clay. So you see, as humbling as it may be, the image of humankind as clay in a potter’s hand really isn’t that far from the truth.

Scripture is clear about God’s omnipotence, especially in comparison to humankind, but we still bristle at the idea of it being our purpose or fate to be “manipulated” by God. Culturally speaking, we value intractability. We personally aspire to changelessness, instead of worshiping the holy one who already embodies this characteristic. We disparage “flip-floppers” and the “spineless” – so-called “soft” individuals – as gullible or weak; we celebrate the “unshakable” and those we describe as having a “backbone” – those who are rigid in their thinking and acting – as reliable and strong. But the human desire to be unchanging assumes a personal virtuousness that we simply don’t have. It assumes that there’s no need for us to grow or evolve in any way. This desire denies our innate fallibility, which is the defining feature of humanity in contrast to God.

This, however, is where our being clay becomes good news. We don’t HAVE to be beyond reproach or without sin to play a part in kindom building. We don’t have to be something that it simply isn’t in our nature to be. All we have to do is just remain malleable enough, flexible enough, changeable enough for the potter to shape us into their masterpiece. It’s not our job to pigheadedly shoehorn God’s kindom into the world by force; it’s our job to let God change us until we BECOME the kindom. When we remain pliable to God, our mistakes aren’t catastrophic, because God can reshape them into something better. When we remain pliable to God, our flaws aren’t disastrous, because God can rework them into something beautiful. When we remain pliable to God, our hubris isn’t the end of the world, because God can re-form us into a holy people. 

Until every lump is evened out, every edge smoothed, every crack filled, and every detail perfected, the potter must work with the clay continually, keeping it from getting too dry, so that it can eventually become the perfect creation that they see in their mind. God does the same thing with us, continually covering us with the waters of our baptism and gently disrupting our lives until we return to the malleability that enables God to re-create us every day.
Personal malleability isn’t necessarily an easy quality to sustain. All clays harden eventually; the only thing that varies is how. Some harden when fired in a kiln or baked in an oven. Suffering the flames of grief or trauma can cause us to harden quickly as a defense mechanism. We close ourselves off from everything outside of ourselves so that we can’t be hurt again. Other clays, like the ones you’re working with right now, harden with extended exposure to the air. If we go for long periods of time without allowing ourselves to be divinely transformed, whether out of apathy or estrangement from God, we, too, will eventually harden until we can no longer be re-formed into something new.

Maintaining malleability needs to be an intentional choice. It requires vulnerability. We have to maintain absolute trust in and connection to God, or else we become permanently trapped in whatever form our sin dictates. If we want God to continue molding and shaping us into the kindom of heaven, we can’t let that happen.

Now, that isn’t to say that hardened clay is a bad thing in and of itself. Eventually, every potter WANTS their work to harden so that it can be preserved, used, and enjoyed indefinitely. The trick is to prevent that from happening before the project is finished. And this potter’s piece is not yet done. We know because all things on earth are not as they are in heaven. We know, because the kindom is still, in many ways, just out of reach.

So it’s not yet time for us to harden anything other than our resolve to be whoever God is calling us to be. We must remain open to the Spirit, open to change, open to being re-made, re-worked, and re-formed. No matter how comfortable we may be, know that it’s not the way we’re meant to stay. Jesus is clear that he came to turn the world upside down, and that includes us. If we remain rigidly in our comfort zone, we’ll miss the transformative power that God is trying to work through us.

As clay, we are soft and unfinished – and that’s okay. In fact, it’s wonderful. God’s people aren’t SUPPOSED to be unyielding fortresses of stone; we haven’t been tasked with the responsibility of defending God’s kindom. We are the clay from which the kindom is being built, right this very moment. And we can’t serve our purpose if we aren’t willing to be changed by the one who is without fault and desires nothing but reconciliation with the whole world. So, stay malleable, my friends, allowing God to re-form your life again and again until you are covered by the Potter’s fingerprints. The kindom depends on it. Amen.


[1] 1 Corinthians 3.

[2] Hosea, Joel 2, Isaiah 62, etc.

[3] Matthew 25:14-30.

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