Readings for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Year C)
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17
This sermon was preached at Christ Episcopal Church in Sausalito CA on September 4, 2016.
For the last few years, my wife has been making all kinds of dishes and jewelry out of clay in her ceramics class in Castro Valley. She makes bowls, platters, little cups for sake and miniature prayer labyrinths. In fact, most of the dishes that we use in our apartment are dishes that she made. She always returns from her class excited and rejuvenated by the process of creating, even though it can sometimes be challenging and frustrating. There are many factors that are beyond her control, especially when it comes to glazing the pieces and firing them in the bisque and raku kilns. She also understands the challenge of forming and pulling the clay on the wheel. I have learned from her that sometimes the potter wants to make the clay into one thing while the clay seems to have a mind of its own and wants to be made into something else. And the clay will remain stubborn until the potter and the clay get on the same wavelength.
I can’t help but think of this when I hear of the prophet Jeremiah’s visit to the potter’s house. Jeremiah notices the potter forming a vessel out of the clay which sometimes deforms and folds in on itself requiring the potter to start over and try pulling and forming another vessel out of the same clay. While lost in the almost hypnotic beauty of watching and absorbing this creative act, Jeremiah receives prophetic insights about the way God works with God’s people. He hears God say to him and through him, “Hine kachomer beyad hayozer ken atem beyadi” (Look, just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.) Jeremiah then elaborates on this image and analogy in a variety of ways, primarily in an attempt to rouse the people of Israel to repent and thus avoid the impending disaster of Babylonian invasion. However, I feel Jeremiah’s wonderful image of human and divine creativity inviting us to reflect on the creative process in general, a process in which we all participate as people who create and as creatures who are still being created. (I also feel invited to reflect on the creative process since many of you have been enjoying or will be enjoying the creativity at the Sausalito Art Festival, where Christ Church is selling some delicious pulled pork sliders…)
We often have a romantic view of the artist or writer or musician who sits at the desk or studio each day simply allowing the muse to flow smoothly through the person to the paper. What I appreciate so much about Jeremiah’s image is the fact that the potter seems to be struggling. The potter has an idea of what he wants to make and starts to slowly and carefully form it but then it falls apart. So all the time that he put into the project seems to have been a waste because he has to start all over again. That’s how I have personally experienced the creative process.
Over the last few years, I have been trying to write a dissertation on the Gospel of John, a Gospel that I had the privilege to preach about here, eight months ago, on the Feast day of St. John (December 27th). I said that the Fourth Gospel has been likened to “a pool in which a child may wade and an elephant can swim.” And I added that it is also like an ocean in which a doctoral student like myself can drown. And I asked you to please pray that I not drown or get forever lost in the mysterious Fourth Gospel. I will confess that, in many ways, I did get lost. I spent months trying to work with and interpret the Gospel the way the potter worked with and tried to interpret the clay. And my work kept deforming and folding in on itself. To use another metaphor, I spent months following paths that would ultimately lead me to dead ends. After more than a year, I had nothing to show for all my hard work. I was like a potter working tirelessly at the wheel and not producing anything. And there comes a time when one might consider the possibility that maybe these aren’t my gifts. Maybe I should count my losses and move on to something else. Maybe I did not accurately estimate the cost like the person in Jesus’s parable. Maybe I did not consider whether I really had enough mental, emotional and spiritual resources to see my project through to the end like someone who lays down the foundation for a tower and cannot complete it, like the king who did not have sufficient troops to succeed in battle and must therefore hold up the white flag and surrender.
I have learned that part of the creative process involves trusting that God and God’s creativity is at work within us even things look unproductive and hopeless. The creative process involves giving God the freedom and time to mold us and stretch us and refine us like clay; and it is a process that we ought not enter into lightly. The psalmist in this morning’s Psalm seems to embody the role of the clay when he says, “You press upon me behind and before and lay your hand upon me” (Ps 139:4). Giving ourselves over to the divine creative process requires immense sacrifice, which may at times feel painful. Jesus knows this which is why he warns us in a profoundly disturbing way to not enter lightly into this process of being shaped by God. He says, “Whoever . . . does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” This is harsh indeed. (The organizers of the lectionary were probably wise to have this Gospel read during Labor Day weekend when many parishioners are on vacation.) This Gospel message is not for the fainthearted. This is Jesus’s way of saying, “If you want to be formed by God’s hands and submit yourselves to the divine creative process, you need to be willing to make serious sacrifices.” And those sacrifices may involve our most personal and profound relationships. They may involve our greatest hopes and dreams. The divine creative process may require us to let go and even give up on a profession, a project or career path. In order to be malleable clay in God’s hands, we need to be willing to let go and sometimes make the most painful sacrifices.
Another poetic prophet, Isaiah, also compared the relationship between the potter and the clay with that of God and humanity when he said, “Woe to those who quarrel with their Maker, those who are nothing but potsherds among the potsherds on the ground. Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’ Does your work say, ‘The potter has no hands’?” (Isaiah 45:9). Who are we to question our maker?
And yet, the more I read Scripture the more I see the clay questioning the potter. From Abraham to Job to the Psalmists to Jeremiah and to Jesus of Nazareth, I see the saints of Scripture question and even quarrel with God. In many cases, it seems that the potter and the clay must work together. There are indeed times when we are called to be submissive and docile in God’s hands, but ultimately we are called to be co-creators with God. As the late psychiatrist and theologian Gerald May said, “We are not the authors of our life with God, [but] nor are we pawns. We are participant co-creators. God will be active within us irrevocably, but we bring immeasurable beauty to that process when we affirm it, choose it, and actively join in it.”
The creative process as both a creature and a creator can be brutal and demanding and can require great sacrifice. But the God who created our inmost parts and knit us together in our mother’s womb will never give up on us, no matter how stubborn we might be. God wants to co-create with us, as God’s beloved creatures and as people blessed with creativity within ourselves. Some believe the when the Bible says we are made in the image of God it is referring to our impulse to create. And it is by participating in creative work that God works creatively on us.
Thomas Merton said, “Each one who is born comes into the world as a question for which old answers are not sufficient.” And each one of us is called by God to join him in creating and embodying the divine creative response. God invites us to join him in singing the song, in writing the story, in painting the canvas, in molding the clay that is our lives. Although the project might feel like it’s going nowhere fast, it is by working with the clay as the potter and by working with the potter as the clay that we can become a vital part of God’s marvelous works, fearfully and wonderfully made. And we can rejoice with the Psalmist and say, “We thank you because we are marvelously made and we have the privilege to marvelously make; your works are wonderful, God, and we know this full well.”
Although we may give up or even feel called to give up on various creative projects, God never gives up on the clay that is our lives. A potter does not just throw clay in the trash because it’s not cooperating. The potter will temporarily take it off the wheel to re-wedge it and then throw it back it on for another pull. As the potter, God never gives up on us, even though we may be stubborn clay. I have realized how the divine potter was committed to continue molding and working on me in spite of my stubbornness. For this reason, I ultimately could not give up working on my impossibly stubborn dissertation. I had to sacrifice jobs, teaching opportunities, time with family and friends and time here at Christ Church in order to keep grinding away at what felt like a lost cause. It took years to get on the same wavelength as the clay of my dissertation and that would only happen to me occasionally. The creative process, as Thomas Edison said, is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine perspiration. I share all of this because I am so happy and relieved to say that a couple days ago, I successfully defended my dissertation and am now, after a long seven years, the Rev. Dr. Daniel London. I want to thank you so much for your prayers and support along the way. I ultimately did not drown in the Fourth Gospel thanks to you and thanks to the God who continues to co-create with each of us.
 Regarding this remark, Paul N. Anderson writes, “Attributed both to Augustine and Pope Gregory the Great, who describe Scripture as ‘a stream in which the elephant may swim and the lamb may wade,’ a recent application of this imagery to the Gospel of John is made by Paul F. Brackman, who said, “Someone has described the remarkable character of this Gospel by saying that it is a book in which a child can wade and an elephant can swim” (“The Gospel according to John,” Interpretation 6, 1952, 63) as cited in Paul N. Anderson, The Riddles of the Fourth Gospel: An Introduction to John (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2011), 245. Also, see Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1971), 7.
 http://shalem.org/2009/01/01/seeking-the-one-who-has-already-found-us/, accessed September 3, 2016.