September 18, 2016 | Psalm 139 and Jeremiah 18: 1-6 | Rev. Nancy Talbot –
I want to begin this morning by expressing my appreciation for the generous donation that made it possible for us to install new windows in the sanctuary this week. The broken seals in the old windows had been clouding our view for many years now so its lovely to come into the sanctuary this morning to see a clearer vision of the world beyond this us. I’ve been told over the years the original intention of the windows was to do just that, to ensure our sanctuary was not a place for us to escape from the world but rather a place to be reminded of our call to live faithfully in the world and an invitation to experience the sacred not only within these walls but in and through all of creation. The new windows are an excellent expression of our theme for this fall “We live in God’s world.”
If I remember correctly, when the church was first built there was no development beyond this place so gazing out those windows meant gazing out into nature. We all know if there is anything that reminds us we live in God’s worlds it’s the wonder and beauty of nature. Even though we mortals try and from time to time actually succeed at creating new species of plants and animals and changing the patterns of the weather, we all know that in and of ourselves we cannot fling stars into the sky and whales into the sea and ladybugs onto flowers. We can’t make the wind blow and the rain fall and all of that serves to remind us we are not ultimately in charge.
And yet isn’t it remarkable how much of our life energy is spent trying to control things over which we have no control. And isn’t it true that often when we do try to control those uncontrollable things we end up distorting ourselves and others and life itself until we end up all bent out of shape.
Byron Katie who many of us are coming to know through learning about and practicing The Work says there are only three kinds of business in the universe: mine, yours and God’s. She says anything that’s out of my control, your control and everyone else’s control is God’s business. She believes much of our stress and suffering in life comes when we are in somebody else’s business.
So how do we live in God’s world recognizing that we are part of God’s wondrous creation, responsible for tending our lives, taking care of our own business and caring for others but not controlling them, and ultimately not being in charge of a great deal that happens in our lives?
Both of our scripture readings this morning give us an image of humanity cradled in the hands of an artist, shaped and formed, put together with great intention and care. In Psalm 139 we hear how we have been intricately woven in the depths of the earth, knit together in our mother’s womb. The passage from Jeremiah describes us as clay in the potter’s hand. Both images are intimate and tender and yet both readings contain elements of our human tendencies to break the mold in which we were created and run away from the source that brought us into being.
In verse 7 of Psalm 139 the psalmist wonders where he can flee from God’s presence. In the passage from Jeremiah the people of Israel, to whom the passage is originally addressed, have made such a mess of their world they are being reworked into an entirely new vessel, their original shape and form completely unrecognizable.
I wonder if that has ever happened to you? You look at yourself in the mirror and you wonder what happened to the person you used to be? How you got to this point in your life? Or perhaps you have had those times in your life when you’ve felt like just running away from it all, hiding at the farthest reaches of the earth? Sometimes it’s our world we look at and wonder if we have distorted and damaged it beyond repair.
When I was about 10 years old, a new center for creative arts opened in the small town where I grew up. One of the first classes they offered for children was pottery making and my parents quickly signed me up. I loved going to pottery class. I loved the feel of the clay in my hands. I loved rolling it into a ball and pounding it flat with my fist and I loved learning the various techniques involved in shaping and forming the clay into a variety of useful and decorative items.
I learned how to make a simple pinch pot and then a pot made out of a clay coil and eventually we learned how to throw a pot on the pottery wheel. First you take the clay and center it on the wheel my instructor told us, get the wheel going, then carefully, but firmly shape the sides of the pot, and finally place your thumb in the middle of the ball of clay and press down into the center to form the interior of the pot, drawing up the sides of the vessel.
The instructor made it all look so simple, in nothing flat she was able to produce a beautiful vase. Then it was my turn. I carefully placed the clay in the center of the wheel, started the wheel spinning and then watched as the clay wobbled in my hands and eventually flew off the wheel in protest and hit the wall. It was ages before I made anything that even remotely resembled a pot.
That is when I learned an important thing about making pottery. Although clay made be soft and supple, easily shaped with the touch of our hands, to actually create a beautiful and useful vessel that is congruent with the vision you have of that object in your mind takes patience, skill and perseverance. You really do need to get to know the clay. You have to sympathize with its properties. I learned that clay is not always easy to control and it often seems to have a mind of its own.
In the passage from Jeremiah, it appears the potter is in total control of the clay especially in the verses that follow the portion we read this morning. God the potter is building up and plucking down entire nations. But there are also indications that the potter is sensitive to the way the clay responds to the potter’s touch. When the clay yields itself to being shaped and fashioned by the hands that hold it, something beautiful and good emerges. When the clay resists the potter’s touch it spoils.
Life is sensitive to our response. We may not be in ultimate control of our lives, much of life may not be our business. But how we yield ourselves to one another, or resist one another, how we give ourselves over to life or hold ourselves back affects the shape life takes and not just our own life.
These few weeks as we’ve been shifting back into our regular routines after summer, some of us starting new jobs or retiring from long-held ones, some of us looking at the days left before us and wondering what we might give ourselves to now, some of us wondering if there is anything left of us to offer at all, I’ve been observing the thoughtfulness with which so many of you are trying to live your days. A number of you have mentioned to me the things you are letting go of in your lives and the things you are taking on in order to live with a greater sense of balance, better health, a deeper sense of purpose.
Several years ago I read a piece by Henri Nouwen that I found helpful when considering the shape of my own life and the way each day is an invitation to live our lives in the hands of the potter. It’s from Nouwen’s personal diary “The Inner Voice of Love” in it he is addressing himself as we the reader listen in. This piece is called “Give your Agenda to God”:
You are very concerned with making the right choices about your life. You have so many options that you are constantly overwhelmed by the question “What should I do and what should I not do?” You are asked to respond to many concrete needs. There are people to visit, people to receive, people to simply be with. There are issues that beg for attention, books it seems important to read, and works of art to be seen. But what of all this truly deserves your time? Start by not allowing these people and issues to possess you. As long as you think that you need them to be yourself, you are not really free. Much of their urgency comes from your own need to be accepted and affirmed. You have to keep going back to the source: God’s love for you. In many ways, you still want to set your own agenda. You act as if you have to choose among many things, which all seem equally important. But you have not fully surrendered yourself to God’s guidance. You keep fighting with God over who is in control. Try to give your agenda to God. Keep saying “Your will be done, not mine.” Give every part of your heart and time to God and let God tell you what to do, where to go, when and how to respond. God does not want you to destroy yourself. Exhaustion, burnout and depression are not signs that you are doing God’s will. God is gentle and loving. God desires to give you a deep sense of safety in God’s love. Once you have allowed yourself to experience that love fully, you will be better able to discern who you are being sent to in God’s name. It’s not easy to give your agenda to God. But the more you do so, the more “clock time” becomes “God’s time,” and God’s time is always fullness of time.*
If you’ve ever been to a potter’s studio of if you yourself are a potter you may know what a clay scrap barrel is. It’s the place where discarded clay is kept. Sometimes you will find there whole pieces that have failed somewhere in the process of pottery production. All these bits and pieces of unused, damaged or resistant clay are eventually gathered up and mixed back together into something useable. Nothing is lost. Everything is redeemable. The potter takes what had no shape, the cracked and broken pots and fashions them into something new.
The people of ancient Israel were very familiar with this process. They were familiar with the house of the local potter. Pots were common vessels used to hold just enough wine or just enough grain to sustain life for the community.
In our day and age especially in our corner of the world pottery is often more decorative than practical. A man by the name of George Ohr is thought to be the father of American art pottery. His work was often criticized for lacking proportion, grace, and dignity. That’s because unlike Jeremiah’s potter who seemed to desire perfection, Ohr who liked to twist, pinch and crumple his clay was able to see the beauty in imperfection. He prided himself on the unique nature of his creations, no two of them exactly alike.
Perhaps he knew from experience we humans really are like clay in the hand of the potter, fearfully and wonderfully made, prone to getting tipped off balance and bent out of shape, yet still beautiful, vessels made for receiving and pouring out an endless supply of love and compassion, justice and peace, living in the world that is still unfolding.
*Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love, page 105-106, 1996, Doubleday.
Even if your life isn’t busy… how you respond to it matters…