Sermon Seeds – Like Clay
Sunday, September 4, 2022
Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost | Year C
(Liturgical Color: Green)
Jeremiah 18:1–11 and Psalm 139:1–6, 13–18
Deuteronomy 30:15–20 and Psalm 1
In and With: Like Clay (Click here for the series overview.)
By Phiwa Langeni
In a recent conversation with a friend’s six-year-old, I asked what she knew about the process of making pottery. Here’s her response, mildly paraphrased: “The spinner spins around. The clay gets round, then you smooth it. Put it in a hot oven to bake the clay. It could burn you; be careful! Take it out of the oven and cool it down. Enjoy your new pottery!”
Though the brief conversation was over almost as soon as it began, her words continue to wrestle my spirit. Having had my own amateur experiences at the potter’s wheel, I was able to track her instructions even with the appropriately childlike descriptors she used to explain each step. Part of the profundity of her sharing lies in the simplistic accuracies of the ceramic making process.
My young friend also unintentionally illuminated some truths that I’ll now share with you, a few phrases at a time. Every analogy can only go so far, of course. However, these are some essential takeaways that could apply to us while we wrestle with issues today as Jeremiah did back in his day.
The spinner spins around. A potter’s wheel is a circular plate-like disc that rotates horizontally in front of the potter, powered manually with their feet or by an electric motor. This frees up their hands to focus fully on forming the clay. Depending on the type of pottery being made, the potter may choose steady or varying speeds for the wheel with which to construct the piece. Notice how the conditions of the spinning wheel rely on movement to be functional. The potter’s wheel cannot be static or unchanging for it to produce quality ceramics; a helpful reminder as we continue to navigate life through global pandemics.
The clay gets round, then you smooth it. The potter takes a chunk of clay and places it at the center of the wheel. Working against the centrifugal force that spreads the clay outward, the potter uses water along with differing pressures of their hands and fingers to shape the pottery. Various kinds of clay require diverse techniques for it to endure the entire process of becoming. Therefore, while some similarities may come through (shout out to all the identical siblings and lookalike relatives!), it is impossible to make more than one exact duplicate. The potter must be tuned into the conditions of the wheel and the clay itself to create the intended piece. And, unlike the people about whom God warns Jeremiah, we, too, must be willing to be (re)formed into more than we could ever imagine for ourselves.
Put it in a hot oven to bake the clay. Because clay is a natural material, it requires heat to solidify and maintain its form. Without heat, the unhardened clay would revert to mud with prolonged exposure to water. The heat of the kiln alters its physical structure, making it waterproof and permanent. Even as its structure gets physically altered, it will always have started out as a lump of clay and a stretched and formed piece under the dizzying conditions of the wheel. In fact, it’s that very history that informs its more permanent state after spending time in the hot kiln, oftentimes in community with other pieces that need to be hardened. Likewise, our histories inform but do not define who we are to become.
“Clay is a very interesting and fundamental material – it’s earth, it’s water and — with fire – it takes on form and life.” Rithy Panh
Take it out of the oven and cool it down. After the extreme heat of the kiln has completed its cycle, the newly hardened pottery requires time to reacclimate to room temperatures. They are especially vulnerable in their post kiln state as the hardening process finalizes with a less brittle return to a new normal way of being. When we are pressed and put through the formative fires that leave us vulnerable and brittle, we, too, need time to cool off and ease into who we’ve become. To not do so puts us at risk for the kind of disaster that jeopardizes our very being.
Enjoy your new pottery! After all those steps, the pottery is ready to be enjoyed. Some potters opt to paint their pieces with colored glazes while others keep them in their earthly, unadorned state. Whether decorative or functional, the pieces are now free to be and do, for which the process of becoming has prepared them. When we are called to and readied for a particular work, our ways and our actions must align with our purpose in God’s vision for us. To do anything less is a great disservice to God and each other.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
“This Too Shall Pass”
I achieved so much in life
But I’m an amateur in love
My bank account is doing just fine
But my emotions are bankrupt
My body is nice and strong
But my heart is in a million pieces
When the sun is shining so am I
But when the night falls so does my tears
Sometimes the beatings so loud in my heart
That I can barely tell our voices apart
Sometimes the fear is so loud in my head
That I can barely hear what God says
Then I hear a whisper that this too shall pass
I hear the angel’s whisper that this too shall pass
My ancestors whisper that this day one day will be the past
So I walk in faith that this too shall pass
The one that loved me the most
Turned around and hurt me the worse
I’m doing my best to move on
But the pain just keeps singing me songs
My head and my heart are at war
Cause love ain’t happening the way I wanted
Feel like I’m about to break down
Can’t hear the light at the end of the tunnel
So, I pray for healing in my heart
To be put back together what is torn apart
And I pray for quiet in my head
That I can hear clearly what God says
Then I hear the whisper that this too shall pass
I hear the Angels whisper that this too shall pass
My ancestors whisper that this day will one day be the past
So I walk in faith that this too shall pass
All of sudden I realize
That it only hurts worse to fight it
So I embrace my shadow
And hold on to the morning light
This Too Shall Pass
For further reflection:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” Marianne Williamson
“It is not that the clay, human beings, are left alone to chart their own course in the world, or to decide on their own what they should be or become. The purposes of God are already declared. Following the metaphor, the clay needs the purposes and plan of the potter in order to become. The question that remains, then, is not what the people should become, but how will they respond to the purposes of God who already has intended what they should become. The issue, then, is whether they will become what God intends, or whether they will choose to reject God’s intentions.” Dennis Bratcher
“Clay acts almost as an antidote to the overwhelm of the digital world. It interrupts your compulsive email-checking. Your mind has a single focus, so the practice can feel meditative or therapeutic. There is no way to speed up clay-drying or firing, there’s no ‘clay-microwave’ – ceramics take as much time to make today as they did 2,000 years ago.” Jennifer Waverek
• Consider ways in which Waverek’s words may ring true for you as an individual and as a congregation.
• If you have time, take in the whole article and see if anything else resonates for you.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
Imagine yourself as a lump of clay. In your imagination, watch God’s hands collect you, then form and reform you on that dizzying potter’s wheel against nature’s pull away from the center. Feel the caring pressure of God’s purposeful formations and allow the necessary waters to wash over you. Embrace the intense heat of the kiln as your very essence transforms. Look around you at the community of vessels; you are not alone! Listen to the hiss of the kiln as the door opens. Gently breathe in and with the cooling air strengthening your brittle and healing self. Let the tickle of the paintbrush joyfully adorn you. Be and become the ‘you’ that God desires for the unique shape of your life.
Brzeski, P. (2013, October 6). Busan: Cambodia’s Rithy Panh on his Cannes winner ‘The Missing Picture’ (Q&A). The Hollywood Reporter. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/general-news/busan-cambodias-rithy-panh-his-643788
A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles”
Bratcher, D. (2018, November 20). Commentary on the texts: Jeremiah 18:1–11 (1–12). Christian Resource Institute. http://www.crivoice.org/lectionary/YearC/Cproper18ot.html
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Jeremiah 18:1–11 and Psalm 139:1–6, 13–18
Deuteronomy 30:15–20 and Psalm 1
18 The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2 “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” 3 So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4 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.
5 Then the word of the LORD came to me: 6 Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7 At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8 but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. 9 And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10 but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. 11 Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.
Psalm 139:1–6, 13–18
1 O LORD, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
O LORD, you know it completely.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.
15 See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16 If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
1 Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
2 but their delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law they meditate day and night.
3 They are like trees
planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
4 The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
6 for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, 2 to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God 5 because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. 7 I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
8 For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9 yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. 10 I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. 12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13 I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “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. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.