The Sunday Sermon: Clay to Pottery

Jeremiah 18:1-11
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

A couple of years ago my husband Skip and I were having dinner at the restaurant in South Park with some friends. And after dinner as we were leaving, we looked across the street and lo and behold there was our own Deedra Hardman working in the pottery studio where she makes her amazing creations. So we walked over to say hi.

Which might have been somewhat of a mistake because I started looking around at some of the things she was working on, and there was this clay bowl which caught my eye. Looking closely, and clearly not thinking I reached out to touch it and my finger went all the way through because the clay had not dried yet.

I felt really, really bad, but Deedra, God love her, just laughed, assured me it was okay, and not to worry about it. Which I really appreciated at the time, but I still felt pretty foolish. Because if I had really thought about what I was doing, it would have made a lot more sense to ask Deedra first if it was okay to touch a piece of pottery prior to it being glazed and fired.

This incident came back to me as I was going over the readings for today and I realized in some ways, it is a good analogy for the Christian life. God creates us, gives us form, being, life. And so often without thinking or at least thinking through the consequences of our actions, or, in all honesty, knowing perfectly well what we’re about to do is wrong but do it anyway, we, if not break, mar the beauty God sees in us, and intends for us.

Fortunately as we just heard from the prophet Jeremiah, such actions do not in and of themselves have to be the final word. Repentance and reformation of life are always possible but they do require conscious action, mindfulness of the present moment and where it may be leading us.

The consequences of not doing this can be huge. Now, we often, because it is a lot more pleasant, spend a greater amount of time thinking about the benefits and privilege of discipleship rather than its demands. But today’s readings, if we are faithful to the text, compel us to look at some hard truths.

The reading from Luke’s Gospel is particularly hard to hear. To take it at face value, it says to be Jesus’ disciple we are to hate not just our family, but our very life; we are to carry the cross; we are to give up all our possessions. It’s easy to see how we can poke holes in the clay, if for no other reason, to try and escape from these demands.

Which makes it particularly important to put what is being said here into context, because this is one of those areas that behooves us to be as clear as possible about what is being asked.

In Jesus’ time “hating” one’s family had less to do with emotion than with behaving in such a way that could bring dishonor to one’s family. Robert Tannehill, in his commentary on Luke, writes, “Life was family centered, and the honor of the family was highly valued . . . If some members joined a suspect movement and abandoned their home, this brought disgrace on the family, particularly the patriarch.”

Likewise to take up one’s cross had a very literal meaning in Jesus’ time. It was to endure a most humiliating and painful death. There was no glory in it or thought people would die this way in order to make a point, to die a martyr.

Rather, to die by crucifixion generally meant someone engaged in outrageously dangerous or criminal behavior and didn’t have the sense or resources to avoid being caught, or at least punished.

Finally and perhaps the one requirement which does speak to all of us across the ages, to give up one’s possessions is a clear call to not let what we have, or even desire, so burden us that we don’t do everything we can in order to follow Jesus.

And what all this tells us in very real terms is that true discipleship means we give up or put aside the desire to socially respectable if following Jesus calls upon us to speak up or act in such a way, that may even bring disapproval upon ourselves, our families, and loved ones.

It means being willing to give up or put aside our safety nets of status, standing, or maybe even personal safety when living out the Gospel requires it.

It means being willing to give up or put aside everything in order to follow this enigmatic carpenter, even to Jerusalem.

It is daunting. But as Canon Chris Harris said in his sermon last week, God does not require perfection—we will all fall short, often. And we are still deeply loved.

Yet at the same time, we should not fool ourselves or allow ourselves to be lulled by pious platitudes. The rewards and outcomes of faithful living are more plentiful than we can even begin to imagine, but they are not the result of cheap grace, but rather of God’s abundance.

However, even in the midst of this bracing reality check, and this is a sign of God’s abundance, we are reassured by the words of today’s Psalm how we created out of love, for just this way of being, “For you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will thank you because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful, and I know it well.”

So while today’s readings from Jeremiah and Luke are daunting, they are also a wakeup call to recommit ourselves to living our lives with consciousness and purpose. To make Jesus real. What more wonderful responsibility could any of us ever have?

Buddhist monk Thich Nat Hanh, in writing to both Buddhists and Christians in his book Living Buddha, Living Christ, gives a passionate description of what this looks like:

Our faith must be alive. It cannot be just a set of rigid beliefs and notions. Our faith must evolve every day and bring us joy, peace, freedom, and love. Faith implies practice, living our daily life in mindfulness. Some people think that prayer or meditation involves only our minds or our hearts. But we have to pray with our bodies, with our actions in the world. And our actions must be modeled after those of the living Buddha or the living Christ. If we live as they did, we will have deeper understanding and pure actions, and we will do our share to help create a more peaceful world for our children and all of the children of God.

 It is never too late to take up this call to an alive faith, no matter how far we have fallen or even walked away. The Christmas following my unfortunate encounter with Deedra’s bowl, I received a lovely package from her and inside was this. It is the same bowl I put my finger through but now it is strong and beautiful, having not only been repaired but glazed and put through the fire of the kiln.

And it is here, our analogy of the Christian journey, from clay, often broken, transformed into pottery, each piece unique and special, finds its fruition. For like this beautiful bowl, once broken, God, out of unimaginable love, will take us, along with our transgressions, our failings, and make us the strong and beautiful, even Godly, people we are formed to be.

The Rev. Canon Allisyn Thomas

8 September 2013

Robert C. Tannehill, Luke (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 1996), p. 235.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha Living Christ, 10th Anniversary Edition (The Berkeley Publishing Group: New York, 2007), Kindle Edition

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