Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Unfinished Clay

Luke 14: 25-33
Jeremiah 14: 1-11

Preached at Center Moreland and Dymond Hollow UMC's, Sept. 9, 2007.

Many of us can remember when we first heard that the World Trade Center in New York had been struck. I was driving Josiah from home to his pre-school in Commerce when the radio started talking about an accident in New York. After I dropped him off, I went to the directors’ office to see more about what was going on, and it had become clear in those minutes that it was no accident, and the director was in tears. We prayed together with a few of the staff members (this is Texas, after all) and then I went over to the campus ministry, turned on the TV, and left the front door open all day.

I remember driving by the one high-rise dorm the university had, thinking that that could possibly be a target. Then I remembered where I was, a land grant college in rural east Texas, and realized that that was probably silly.

It became clear to many in the student body that day that America was on the brink of being created into something new. We don’t know yet, six years later, what that new creation is, but in those days, the students of the university gave voice in the university commons as to what they wanted to be.

They didn’t want to be attacked.
They felt the pain of the families of those who had died.
They honored the bravery of the firefighters and police who died when the buildings collapsed.
They didn’t want to be hated for their nationality.
They were sure that the Muslims in their midst shouldn’t be singled out for abuse, ridicule and suspicion.

And these were conservative East Texas rural white kids, urban black kids, and some East Indians and Bangladeshi. They were southern Baptist, non-denominational evangelical, Methodist, Catholic, Hindu and Muslim. They knew what was best about America, and they instinctively rushed to defend that ideal against the prejudice and “profiling” that they knew would follow.

Like I said, we still don’t know what we are becoming, but it does seem as if we are slowly recovering our balance, even six years later, and the balance is returning to something along the lines of what makes us the best of who we are. The excesses are slowly being pruned away. We are assuming a different shape, as a country, however. We are differently shaped than when we were in WWII, than when we were in the height of the Cold War, than when we were fighting amongst ourselves in the Civil War. Each of those events, and many others, are evidence that we are constantly being shaped, formed, destroyed and recreated by the events that happen to us. America is called “the never-ending experiment” for just that reason.

Jeremiah’s imagery of the potter and the clay are meant as a very clear metaphor of Israel’s relationship with YHWH in the imminent invasion and destruction of their country. He even explains it himself. It’s a symbol of Hope. He’s saying, “yes, you will be destroyed for a time, but you will be re-made”. Through it all, God is saying that his promise of relationship to this people is not broken. The promise to Abraham is not forgotten, even through a cataclysm.

Perhaps the mind at this point goes to thoughts of America being the chosen country of God. Perhaps that is true, but I am also aware of how Paul refers to this concept in Romans (9:20-24):

But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is molded say to the one who molds it, “Why have you made me like this?” 21Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use? 22What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction; 23and what if he has done so in order to make known the riches of his glory for the objects of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24including us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?

There are times in which we are the chosen nation of God, for God’s purposes. There are other times in which we are punished like Israel and other nations are used for this purpose. And there are times in which events happen that do not concern us, and we are put on a shelf because we are not necessary. A proper sense of humility as a nation would lead us to this conclusion. And we do not know which is which. But what is true is that we rarely act as a nation with the humility of God that we read about in last weeks’ scriptures.
If we are punished as a nation, I am pretty sure that it isn’t for the reasons we so often hear in media sound bites from TV preachers. God never “turns his back on us”, just like God doesn’t turn God’s back on the other nations of the world. But we are crushed, re-molded and re-shaped, just like the clay on the potter’s wheel.

As individuals, this is true as well. We get sick. We are unemployed. Loved ones die. Things happen to us that we didn’t expect, stuff that we couldn’t have imagined when we thought of the future as high school grads. We are mashed down, reshaped, mashed down again, and another try is made. What we are thinking we start off as, as Christians, is rarely when we end up being. Along the way, we lose contact with friends, our convictions change, we disagree or offend some of the people we loved—in a sense, if we truly commit to being shaped by the Cosmic potter, we do end up “hating” our roots, the places we come from, who we were.

We needed to be “there” so that we could get “here”, however, wherever “here” is. Very little about me reflects my time growing up in California, but there are bits that god has saved for God’s purposes. The same is true of everyone here and their life experiences.

And we also need to remember that, because we are unfinished clay, “here” is not the end of the work. We don’t know where we are going. The potters’ wheel hasn’t yet stopped spinning.

If we keep to our best selves, however—and pledge allegiance to Christ and love the world, inside and outside these church walls, the final product will come quicker. Cataclysms will happen in our lives. It is appropriate to search for cosmic answers, about why and what for, but it is not too wise to rush to a conclusion. The truth, which is clear to God, may not become clear to us for years and years. Staying with God, letting ourselves be flexible and pliable in the face of change, not forgetting the central bits of our faith, rather than being wishy-washy, is actually the way to become closer to what God wants. Good clay resists manipulation just enough to stay put where it was left.

The wheel never stops turning. The clay is always unfinished. Our lives in Christ are never complete, but we do expect to become “perfect in love” in this life, and as a nation.

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