Grace Is Messy

Jeremiah 18.1-11

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. Then the world of the Lord came to me: 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. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation of a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoke, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 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. 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.  

Metaphors can be messy.

And don’t get me wrong, metaphors make the world go round. We use them ALL THE TIME, even without realizing it. Some are obvious, like saying, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” And “He has a heart of gold.” We say those thing to imply something about the nature of something using words or descriptions that aren’t real or even possible.

When a big cloud rolls overhead we know that domesticated animals are not going to fall down upon us and we know that if we looked inside the chest of even a truly decent person we’ll find blood and muscle and sinew, not one of the most valuable substances on the planet.

And yet we grow comfortable with metaphors because we use them all the time. But every metaphor has a limit and every metaphor can be messy.

Jeremiah speaks of a vision and moment given to him by the Lord about the potter and the clay. This has been a beloved scriptural metaphor for millennia and communicates a lot about who God is and what God does. Like a potter with clay God knows God’s creation intimately, gently, and purposefully. God desires the best result from the work put in. God shapes and molds exactly the way God wants to.

It’s a good and fine metaphor. Like all metaphors it expresses something with words that help bring about a different or perhaps fuller understanding.

But this metaphor is really messy, in more ways than one.

Here’s the good: God as the potter harkens back to some of the earliest verses in scripture about God forming Adam out of the earth, out of dirt, perhaps even out of clay. We, as the creation of God, are formed and shaped in the image of God to live freely and fully on the earth. 

And, like clay, God’s fingers can smooth out any and all of our imperfections such that by the end of our formation, we are exactly as God intended us to be.

Moreover, God never gives up on God’s art. No matter how much we resist the shaping, God can always leave us out to dry if we are too wet, or add a little more water if we are too dry. God can even smash the clay back into a ball and start all over again if God wants.

But our God, the divine potter, will make beauty of our brokenness.

Sounds good right? 

Well, here’s the bad: God as the potter implies a total control over creation such that if there is something wrong with the world we’re left with a question: Why didn’t God fix it? We, the creation of God, formed and shaped according to God’s purposes, do all kinds of bad and horrible stuff on the regular. And even if we are met with moments of malleability, most of us continue to do things we know we shouldn’t or avoid doing things we know we should. Which means that either God isn’t a very good potter, or God desires us to be bad.

Moreover, the Jeremiah texts makes it abundantly clear that God looks specifically at our wrongness and threatens to bring evil upon us unless we amend our ways. God therefore stops seeming like a potter and instead appears like the divine torturer waiting to bring down punishments until we get in line. 

Metaphors are messy. And every metaphor has a limit. But this is the one communicated to Jeremiah by God, and by Jeremiah to us.

When we read these words, when we imagine God sitting down at the wheel fashioning each of us in our own unique way, it’s hard not to feel like we all need to shape up. The potter has seen our messed up characteristics, our choices, decisions, words, and is going to do whatever the potter can to get something out of our nothing. Which, though it sounds hopeful, is also kind of terrifying. 

It’s terrifying because the potter can destroy the clay whenever the potter wants. So, friends, we need to start behaving ourselves and hopefully prevent the destruction that God is holding over our heads.

Or, to put it in simpler terms, if we don’t fix what’s broken in us, God is going to smash us into oblivion.

Today, if we think about potters, we usually conjure them up in our minds as pensive, kind, and gentle people. My sister is a ceramicist and in her daily life she is nice and loving, but when she sits down at her pottery wheel, she is anything but. She becomes her own force of nature, throwing her whole body weight into the machine and into the clay until something comes out of all the effort. Clay splatters everywhere and she had to construct a make shift wall around the wheel just to make sure clay didn’t fly all over the room.

Working with clay is an inherently messy endeavor. You’ve got to get not just your fingers but your arms and whole body into it. And one false move can bring the whole thing down. If the clay is too dry it won’t move under your fingers, if the clay is too wet the clay won’t hold its shape, if the wheel spins too fast the structure will fall in on itself, if the wheel spins too slow it won’t remain symmetrical. 

And Jeremiah, with this metaphor, speaks to the people of God a word about their clay – they need to fix themselves. And not just themselves as individuals, but as a community. God desires the reshaping of the community such that the community can serve God’s purposes in social, political, and even economic ways. 

And God is gonna get what God wants. God means to shape us in ways that we can barely even imagine and definitely in ways that go way beyond what we typically think about in terms of church maintenance. I mean, does God care about the fact that we just celebrated 60 years as a church? Probably. But does God care about the ways we interact with the community such that everyone can hear the Good News? Definitely.

God works in our lives all the time, drying us out when we’re so soggy with our own self-centeredness, dropping the water of compassion on us whenever we feel alone, or hurt, or afraid. God even uses people like us to be the drying or watering agents for the people around us, both familiar and strange. 

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And God has to do this work over and over again because there is something fundamentally wrong with our clay, with us. We can call it sin, or selfishness, or any other number of things. In this text Jeremiah draws attention to the fact that our clay is messed up because we can resist the hand of our potter. We can choose to align with God’s purposes or we can go against them.

But if you’ve noticed, I’ve already started to shift the metaphor around a little bit. That’s why its so messy. You see, Jeremiah makes it abundantly clear, through the threats of destruction, that we’ve got to change the condition of our condition. Jeremiah speaks about the choices being made that affect not only the present but choices that will have consequence in the far and distant future. 

The difference is this: Who is ultimately responsible for shaping the clay? Is it the clay itself, or is it the potter?

Because here’s where the metaphor gets the messiest. If the responsibility is solely on the clay, well then friends, prepare yourselves for destruction. Sure, we can make little changes in our lives, we can try to love God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and body, we can try to love our neighbors as ourselves. We can put a little more money in the offering plate than we did the week before. We can reach out to our literal neighbors and invite them over for dinner. We can volunteer at the local homeless shelter. We can donate canned goods to local food pantries. We can do all sorts of stuff, stuff that will make the world better around us. But at the end of the day, we’re still the same clay.

We will always be sinners in need of God’s grace because that’s who we are. God, in ways that are confounding, chose to make us free. Free to act with God or against God. It is a beautiful and messy gift but one that make life all the more interesting and exciting. We are not puppets being pulled along by some puppeteer up in the sky (another messy metaphor). 

We are dirt. Dirt that has been given life by God.

Should we try to be better and do all sorts of good things? Absolutely. The world would do well to have some more decent acting people in it. But, at the end of the day, we can’t change our clay. Only God can do that. And that’s where the metaphor of the messy potter with the messy clay comes into its fullest. 

God is determined to shape communities whose ways of worship and prayer and life-living bear witness to the redemptive and graceful purposes of God. This isn’t something we can, or have to, do on our own. God is God because God is the one who can always make something of our nothing. God can raise new and beautiful things even out of our ruinous self-indulgent and indifferent practices. 

It’s not up to us on our own, but it’s God who works in and through us to reshape the world around us. God speaks to us through the words of scripture, or a song, or a stranger so that we can start to imagine a new and different world. God uses people and places and things to dry us out or wet us down until we start to spin smoothly on the wheel of the potter. 

Working with clay is messy. If you’re not careful, and frankly even if you are, clay can get everywhere and into everything. It is messy. And so is grace.

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As the unmerited gift of God, grace is given to all regardless of earning or deserving. Which means that grace is there for the best of us and for the worst of us. That’s a ridiculously messy theological proposition! In just about every other part of our lives we make it all about what we’ve done or deserved. We judge people on what job they have or what school they went to or where they go on vacation or what kind of clothes they wear. But in the reality of God’s kingdom, none of those things matter. Grace is given regardless of circumstances. It is not expensive, it’s not even cheap, it’s free.

At the end of the day, a potter will step away from the wheel covered in the art that was used in creation. Even in the world of messy metaphors there is something beautiful and strange in the knowledge that our divine potter became clay for us in the person of Jesus Christ. 

God was willing to take on exactly what makes us what we are so that the artist and the art would become inextricably tied up with each other, forever.

It doesn’t get messier than that. Amen. 

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The End Of The Beginning – Ash Wednesday

Genesis 3.19

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

If you’re here in this place, with these people, on this occasion right now, you are blessed. You are blessed because you understand, you grasp, what the church is really all about. We are a people called church, who follow Jesus and take upon ourselves the sins of the world.

However, we don’t take upon the sins of the world in the way Jesus did. We are told to take up our own crosses, but we don’t drag them up to a place called The Skull, and we don’t wait for people to nail us to them. We take upon the sins of the world in confession, a confession that God is our judge and has every right to be. Because we have failed to be the people God has called us to be over and over and over again.

The United Methodist Church has a document to help us whenever we gather together. The Book of Worship outlines the ways to serve the Lord for just about every occasion, including funerals.

The Service of Committal is brief and is reserved for the graveside. And in our Book of Worship you can find these directions for clergy: “Stand at the head of the coffin and while facing it, cast earth upon it as it is lowered into the grave. The pastor then says, ‘Almighty God, into your hands we commend your son/daughter, in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. This body we commit to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’”

The last time I did a graveside burial, I held the Book of Worship in my hands like I’ve done too many times before, I read the all too familiar words, and when it came time to cast dirt upon the coffin, I couldn’t find any. I frantically looked at the area around the hole, and they had covered it with a frighteningly sharp bright green carpet of AstroTurf. So I bent down in my robe onto my knees, and I started ripping up the perfectly manicured grass on the edge of the fabricated lawn. I needed some dirt. I needed to dirty this pristine and picturesque committal service because death is ugly and disruptive. I clawed the ground and threw the grass to the side until I scraped enough bare earth with my hands to have a solid mound to drop onto the coffin.

It was a holy thing.

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I took my dirt covered hands and placed them on the coffin, I prayed the words from the Book of Worship, and then I slowly walked away giving the family time to grieve before leaving. And just as I began backing away, the funeral director motioned for the pall bearers to come forward. But they did not bend down to the hole in the ground I had just revealed. No, they took roses, the boutonnieres, from their lapels and laid them silently on the recently dirt covered coffin.

It is, of course, much nicer to throw roses than dirt. But like almost everything in the tradition of the church regarding worship, the dirt has important theological significance.

I wound venture to guess that many Christians, though they hear the words about ashes to ashes and dust to dust at funerals and at Ash Wednesday services, they have no idea where those words come from. But you do. You know where they come from because you just heard it. It is the final announcement from God to Adam and Eve as they are kicked out of the Garden of Eden.

By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

            For us humans, this is the end of the beginning.

Much has been made about the Genesis story of eating from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. The slithering serpent who manipulates Eve’s desire; Eve’s treachery through inviting Adam to join her in the prohibited act; Adam hiding his shame and nakedness from God when the Lord returns to the Garden. And its all pretty harsh.

By this act sin was brought into the world. Because of our ancestors’ choice, we were banished from the paradise of God’s created order and were punished. Women must suffer through childbirth. Humans must work and sweat over the earth in order to glean enough produce to survive. Families are torn apart by an individual’s choice that has ramifications far greater than they can ever imagine.

And then we come to a place like this to have ashes smeared across our foreheads in an effort to remember what happened long ago, and what will happen to all of us one day.

We will die.

But we’re content with spending the rest of our days prettying everything that we can. We bring roses to place on the coffins at graveyards. Politicians bump up statistics to make things appear better than the actually are. We do our best to cover our scars, both physical and emotional, as if they were never there. And some churches spend Ash Wednesday not in sanctuaries confessing their sins with their brothers and sisters in faith, but in their parking lots presenting “Ashes to God with a cup of Joe.”

We would rather cover the harsh realities of truth than look at them in the eye.

God’s pronouncement to Adam and Eve, that terrifying moment when they were expelled and told that they will suffer until they return to the ground, that strange and all too familiar expression you are dust and to dust you shall return, they strike fear in the hearts of us mortals.

Sometimes its good to be afraid because it reminds us what a tremendous blessing it is to be alive at all. Sometimes its good to get down on our knees and confess our sins before the Lord because it reminds us that we are not God. And sometimes we need to catch a glimpse of ourselves in the mirror on Ash Wednesday to remember who we are, and whose we are.

This day, this Ash Wednesday, is a moment for us to confess our sins, and for all the sins of the people who are not here. We bow our heads and are adorned with a sign of death, not just as a reminder to us and to others that we will die, but that God will not let death be the final Word.

And here is the hope, my brothers and sisters, the hope we need on a day like today. We know how the story ends. We know that the pronouncement at the edge of the Garden was not the final word. We know the final word is not suffering, nor death, nor dirt, nor even dust. We know that the final Word is Jesus Christ.

The ashes that will soon be on our skin are not our crosses to bear, but Christ’s who carried it to The Skull and was nailed to it for the world. Jesus Christ is God’s greatest and final Word because in him the fullness of the Lord was pleased to dwell. In Him the sin of Adam and Eve were reconciled unto the Lord. In Him we are brought back into the dwelling of God’s grace where the light always shines in the darkness.

So wear the ashes with fear and trembling, let them dirty your lives a little bit, but also remember the hope that has been available to us in the one who hung on the cross, and rose again. Amen.

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