There is a potter to my right.
Yes. I wrote this sermon with a potter five feet away.
A coffee shop in NE Minneapolis dedicates a corner as an artist studio. And, so there is a potter at a wheel and it spins and the potter is completely focused on the task at hand.
The clay is slick with water and his hands glide across its surface. A little steady pressure begins to give the glob of clay form. It’s as if the coffee shop and the audience to the work does not exist to the potter—instead there is only the act of creation.
The potter lifts his hands for a moment and the wheel spins on.
Then, back to the shaping. The books stacked to the side give hint to the potter’s hopes. “The Artful Teapot”; “The Teapot Book”; and then, at the bottom of the stack…
I smile at this, giggle and hope no one notices my amusement.
Because, that final book…
Held up against the text for today.
“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: "Come, go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words." So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him…”
Confrontational Ceramics indeed.
This image of the potter as it appears in the book of the Prophet Jeremiah is meant to confront. The community Jeremiah addresses has been captured by the Assyrian empire and the elite taken to Babylonia where they are in exile. Yet, it is a comfortable exile and they have grown complacent and in their complacency have become accepting of their captivity. Jeremiah is tasked with confronting this complacency. Indeed, that is the charge to the prophet at his commissioning, and his words are intended to “pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow”.
The prophet’s words are meant to shake up and wake up the complacent, and invite active engagement with the potter at hand. The prophet describes a process in which the potter shapes the vessel and when it refuses to yield to the potter’s intention the potter collapses it in upon itself. But, the potter does not abandon the clay, the intention is creative not destructive and a new form takes shape, one pleasing to the potter.
If the potter does not confront the clay, will it ever meet the potential within?
Confrontation. Not something you’ll hear endorsed very often in the land of Minnesota Nice. But, in our reading of scripture, confrontation becomes a tool by which those being confronted are invited to see themselves anew. Confrontation, the tool of the potter in encountering the clay.
So, in engaging with this text, we are invited to see ourselves as the clay and God as the potter. And, so God confronts us…and in that confrontation there is an invitation—“turn now from all your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings”. The path you are on is not the only path, you can choose another way.
And, that way may not be one of ease…but a comfortable exile is still exile.
The clay meets the potter’s hands and has the opportunity to conform and yield to the will of the creator. Your will, and not mine be done…in the Gospel of Luke, these are Jesus’ words when he prays in the garden prior to his own captivity.
A captivity which precedes his death, which precedes his resurrection, which precedes our liberation.
But, we are not liberated to be libertines. The libertines referenced in scripture being those who persecute from their position of freedom—the fault of the libertine being that of using the power accrued in personal freedom to exploit and persecute and participate in the enslavement of others. In Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom, he writes “The truth is that we are not yet free; we have merely achieved the freedom to be free, the right not to be oppressed. We have not taken the final step of our journey, but the first step on a longer and even more difficult road. For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. The true test of our devotion to freedom is just beginning.”
Part of becoming the person that God calls us to be is accepting the responsibility of using our power, our freedom, our privilege in such a way that others are freed to share in the same. That is the argument that Paul makes as he appeals to Philemon on behalf of the slave Onesimus, “if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” IF you consider me your partner…
Do we consider ourselves a partner to Paul the last and least of the apostles? Will we liberate or desecrate the creation that spreads out behind, beneath and before us? Will we be free and accept our burden?
The cross is not light, yet the cross liberates. This defies the expectations of the world that built the cross for killing and has seen it raised for living.
And, this is the discipleship to which we are called. To take structures built for killing and elevate them for living. To transform death into life.
This is the daunting and costly discipleship to which we are called and that is the nature of the discipleship described in Luke. This passage from Luke is the only place in this particular Gospel where the word “cost” appears.
The cost of discipleship is the cost of placing Christ at the center of our lives. It was Martin Luther who said that in our lives we are to place God first, then our spouses, then our children, then the church. This is not a repudiation of family, rather it is a statement of priority. If Christ is at the center, then our lives our ordered after such a fashion that our relationships are shaped by our love of God.
So cost, yes. But the cost is a choice that leads to liberation. The cost re-orders our lives in such a way that the shared burden of the cost lightens the burden for those we would call beloved. The cross, our choice, doesn't take for granted the hate, the fear, the pain of our shared humanity as merely a fact of life.
As disciples who accept this cost, we work to liberate those who have unfairly born the burden. Even if doing so puts us at a disadvantage or upsets the assumptions of the dominant culture.
To be a disciple is to participate in the re-working of the clay for the liberation of the form.
From the dust jacket of Confrontational Ceramics by Judith S. Schwartz,
“This ground-breaking book looks at the use of ceramics as tool for confrontation, where artists use this ancient and most plastic of media to make provocative commentaries about the inequities of the human condition…this sumptuous book is very much about how ceramic work is used to confront the harshest of realities. These artists take nothing for granted nor do they accept any conditions as merely a fact of life.”