The Potter’s Vessels

Jeremiah 18:1-11

Philemon 1021

Luke 14:25-33

On behalf of Marsh Chapel let me welcome all the new students who are moving in here this weekend, preparing for matriculation tomorrow and classes the day after. Even more warmly we welcome your parents who are here to help with the move-in. May your aches and pains from carrying books and TV sets temporarily obscure your sadness at losing your children to a university that is separate from your home. Like potters molding clay, you have molded your children until now. From now on, different potters will be at work. The foundational shape you have provided is far more important than anything the academy can do. Yet your children now move into a new world with new potters.

The Bible has many wonderful images for God, who of course in a literal sense is beyond imagination. The central controlling image is that God is creator of heaven and earth, of everything visible and invisible, as the first chapter of Colossians puts it. This is a paradoxical image because it says, in effect, that God literally cannot be imagined. Anything that can be imagined is something in heaven or on earth, something visible or invisible. That covers everything that is some one thing rather than something else. Anything that can be imagined is something created. The majesty of God the Creator, whose praises we sing, is that everything imaginable derives from God’s creation. In everything imaginable, God is present as creator. But to identify God with any imaginable thing is idolatry. I want to put this point about divine transcendence in the front of our minds as we think about the image of God as a potter.

All the images of God are metaphors and symbols, which means that we make a point in using them, but should not say that they describe God outside the context of making that point. The Psalms say that God is the rock of our salvation, and we know what that means without ever literally thinking that God is a rock to be studied by geologists. The 23rd Psalm says God is a shepherd, and we know what that means without thinking that God runs an agribusiness. When Jeremiah speaks of the hand of God, or Isaiah of the hem of God’s robe, or Exodus of Moses seeing God’s backside, we know that these are metaphors of a divine body when God is really not a body. Yet we can use those metaphors without flinching or misusing them. When so many books of the Bible imagine God as speaking and mention the Word of God, Jews, Christians, and Muslims sometimes forget that this too is metaphorical. In Exodus, God is imagined as a warrior who leads the Israelites out of Egypt, and in 1 Samuel and other places God is imagined as a king. Hosea spoke of God as a lover with an unfaithful wife. In Job, God is likened to an architect when it comes to laying the foundations of the natural world. Jesus often spoke of the “Kingdom of God,” and yet he imagined the head of the kingdom as a father rather than a king. Many of the images of God represent God as a person of some sort. And yet John says that God is love, not a lover but love itself. Metaphors like these are necessary to relate the Creator of heaven and earth, all things visible and invisible, to the affairs of human life, and we need to keep track of the contexts in which they apply and those in which they are obviously false in a literal sense.

Jeremiah’s image of God as potter has application in the context of God creating and shaping people and nations. In the first chapter of Genesis, the famous first creation story, the natural world arises out of God speaking like a king laying down the law. But in the second chapter of Genesis, more detailed about the creation of human beings, God is imagined to be a potter. God takes mud and molds it into the form of a man, like a ceramic doll, and then breathes into it to bring the doll to life. St. Paul describes God as a potter, in Romans 9, when he wants to make the point that the creator can do with us what he wants. What do we learn from the image that God is a potter and that we are the potter’s vessels?

The chief lesson is that we can look to the things that shape us and see God in them. The hand of God, to use that image, is in all the things that give us life and form. When I was a teenager I worked in a Scout Camp during the summer and loved to lie out on the parade ground on clear nights when everyone else slept and groove on the stars above. I felt them as my most real and awesome environment. Under the vastness of that sky I was absolutely, ultimately, nakedly myself before God on that hill outside Irondale, Missouri, and I loved God the Creator who made me in that place in the heavens and earth. One such night, knowing that I was already God’s because I lay within the potter’s hands, I decided that the way to be myself in God was to be a minister. Many of you too, I suspect, find yourselves most cosmically and intimately shaped by such experiences of God as the one who places you within the vastness of creation.

Many other parts of nature shape us as well, and thereby reveal how the Potter-Creator works. We are not clay, yet we have evolved out of the elemental physical properties of the earth. Our blood is about as salty as the ocean from which our distant ancestors emerged. Humans are social beings, and the history of society and civilization is part of the shaping process. Our own communities are powerful forces for shaping us with cultures that make us somewhat akin and somewhat different. A few minutes ago I alluded to the ways our families shape us, like a potter giving us form. We are also shaped by our friends and enemies, our schools and work, and by the accidents of history during our watch. The technical theological term for all these formative influences is “prevenient grace.” God is to be found in all the things that “come before” and shape us.

Jeremiah reminds us of the downside of this, however, namely, that sometimes the pots do not turn out well and the potter has to remake them. Planets collide and suns flame out. The natural evolution of the human species was at the cost of countless species that died out; maintenance of human metabolism requires enormous expenditures of the energies of others things. Human societies make high civilization possible but they also do horribly unjust things. Families are not perfect and friends sometimes lead us into great harm and evil. Christians believe that everyone is born and shaped with flaws.

Christians also believe, however, that everyone can be repaired like a pot thrown back onto the wheel to be reshaped. This too happens in many ways as people learn what is right and wrong and events force serious judgments on behavior. Institutions of moral and spiritual education are in every civilization, and they all can be construed as agencies of the divine Potter, more grace.

The specifically Christian agency for the repair of broken vessels is discipleship to Jesus Christ. Our gospel text from Luke indicates that this is no small thing indeed! Discipleship requires total commitment. Jesus says that potential disciples need to count the cost beforehand to see whether they want to enter onto the Christian path. Luke quotes him as saying that “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.” These are extremely sharp words and run directly against Jesus’ message emphasized elsewhere that we should love all these people, and strangers as well. In Matthew’s version of this saying, Jesus says that whoever loves their relatives more than they love Jesus cannot be his disciples, not that they actually have to hate their relatives. Nevertheless, Matthew quotes Jesus as saying he has not come to bring peace but a sword a
nd that being his disciple will in fact set people against their families.

Jesus’ point, I believe, is that for us to repair our broken lives we need to attach ourselves wholeheartedly to his way of living in a community of love. This does not mean that we have to leave our families or friends—these are the sources of our strengths. But sometimes our families, friends, and social habits are the very cause of our failings and we need to go back to basics. We need to accept being thrown back onto the potter’s wheel to be reshaped. The Christian life day by day is lived on the potter’s wheel, always in process of being reshaped. This means always hunting for means of grace to be better vessels, better people. The technical theological term for this is “sanctification.” As we seek out and live among the shaping influences of sanctifying grace, we are able to re-establish relations with family and friends, bringing out the best in all. Flawed children from broken homes in an urban ghetto can be made whole and new by a long trip to the country where they can lie on their back at night under the stars and feel that God creates even them, along with all the points of light. Prodigal sinners can return to their homes and find love that makes them new. Confused young people can come to the university and find the gracious love of learning that turns them away from their own problems to serve the world and God. The comforting thing about being a broken vessel is that even the flawed pot is part of God’s creation. Creation continues until all are redeemed, every broken vessel.

Now I invite you to Jesus’ table to partake in the ancient meal that feeds the soul and heals it when distressed. Come to this table to feel the Creator’s grace that shapes us through the heavens and the earth. Come to this table that inherits all the graceful powers of civilization. Come to this table where families are purified and fulfilled as the family of Jesus. Come to this table where the comfort of God can be felt in every influence of the Potter’s hand. Come to this table to find your own work as a divine influence on your friends and world. Come to this table, a potter’s wheel, where you can become a perfect vessel of the divine Potter. In Jesus’ name, come. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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