Moving Forward

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This past Saturday morning, the bridge crossing over the Monongahela River in Masontown, Pennsylvania, my hometown, was imploded. A new four-lane bridge, half of which is complete and which is already carrying traffic across the river, is in the process of replacing it. The old bridge dated to the 1920s, and was always a part of my experience of living in, and after moving away, returning to, Masontown. After the drive in from Columbus, I always knew when I came around the bend in the road and the bridge came into sight that the trip was just minutes from being over; the familiar ka-chunk………ka-chunk………kachunk……… of driving over the expansion joints on the bridge assuring me that I’d arrived “home.”

I couldn’t go back to watch the implosion, and I was lurking online Saturday morning, waiting for the first videos to pop up on Facebook, youTube, and the local news outlets. If, like me, you’re into demolition porn, you can see what I think are the two best clips of it here and here.

The old bridge was narrow and rickety and long past its prime. The new one is going to be much nicer from a driving standpoint, even if visually unremarkable – it will never be the kind of local landmark that the old one was. And it will be a nice feeling as I drive over the new one to know that my Dad is actually helping to build it. Still, its demolition comes with mixed emotions. As a kid, the bridge was just always a part of my life. You couldn’t think of Masontown without simultaneously thinking about the bridge. From my home, I’d hike to the bridge. I walked across it, hung out underneath it. As a teenager, it was part of the route that I’d take as a student driver, driving my grandfather to Chessie’s Fruit Market, and then taking the long way home through Greene County, back over the bridge in Point Marion, and back to Masontown, just for the driving experience. Those times driving with him are some of my favorite memories, and I thought of those drives, and him, every time I crossed that bridge. When our girls were little and we’d make family trips back to  Masontown, they’d always want to know when we were getting close to “the Green Bridge,” partly because they were always a little creeped out by crossing over it, and also because they knew that grandparents were just moments away. So while the new bridge leads into the future, there’s no question that there was also a real sense of loss when the old one dropped into the river below.

Just less than 24 hours after it did, I opened the last worship service as pastor of the Frankfort Presbyterian Church. I was there for just over six years. I entered the ministry in a somewhat unorthodox (you might even say ass-backwards) way – first studying and becoming a non-ordained, half-time “Commissioned Lay Pastor;” and then, beginning seminary and the full-bore ordination process – which, if you aren’t familiar with the Presbyterian Church, is extremely rigorous. I completed those ordination requirements as of last January and have been actively, aggressively, seeking a full-time ordained call since just before then. So my departure in one way or another from Frankfort was, at least in Presbyterian-relative terms, imminent, and no surprise. Not just imminent, but a positive development. Still, just as with the demolished bridge, my departure comes with a lot of sadness. Yesterday’s service was deeply moving to me. I’m amazed I got through the day without crying; I only came close once. It was an interesting service. Beyond the basics, it included a regularly-scheduled “Service of Healing and Wholeness” – don’t get the wrong idea here; I’m not talking about televangelist-type theatrics, just a time for people who feel in particular spiritual need of prayer come forward to receive it. It means a lot to the members who come forward, and especially yesterday, it meant a lot to me as I called each one by name, anointing them with oil and praying for them one by one, knowing that this would likely be my last contact with them. And, after anointing and praying with the last person, handing her the oil and kneeling down in front of her, having her do the same for me was deeply moving. The service also included a “Litany of Farewell,” providing a form of closure for our pastoral relationship in which we officially recognize the end of our covenant together. We thanked each other for the love and care we showed each other throughout the mutual journey. We also asked each other’s forgiveness for the times we didn’t live up to the other’s expectations, and we granted that forgiveness to each other in return.

After the service, I was so moved by the outpouring of love and support that the congregation offered me; the long line of people waiting patiently to shake my hand, offer a hug and a tear and a kind word. Saying goodbye to each of these people, who have meant so much to me was extremely hard. We’ve been through a lot together; more than I could or would detail here. And just as much as those memories of driving my grandfather to the fruit market will always be a part of me long after the old bridge is gone, these wonderful people are going to remain a part of me for a long time after I leave Frankfort.

But I have said goodbye – goodbye to the old landmark bridge that had been such a significant part of my hometown, and goodbye to people and a pastorate that, together, have been such a significant part of my life for the past six years. Those roads behind me are closed. And I wonder what’s up ahead, around the bend.

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Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen (Final Sermon in Frankfort, Ohio, September 29, 2013)

Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.  Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.  The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”

Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the LORD has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho.  The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.”

Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on.  Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan.

Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.  When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”  He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.”

As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.  Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.  He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan.  He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.   (2Kings 2:1-14 NRSV)

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Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem,  and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.  While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them,  but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.  And he said to them, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” They stood still, looking sad.

Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?”

He asked them, “What things?”

They replied, “The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people,  and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him.  But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place.  Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning,  and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive.  Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.”

 Then he said to them, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?”  Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.  As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on.  But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. (Luke 24:13-29 NRSV)

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Standing here at this pulpit for the last time, I’m feeling a whole range of different emotions. Surely, there’s a sense of accomplishment. A sense of accomplishment since six years is actually the average length of time for any pastorate these days. And on a personal level, there’s a sense of accomplishment that I’ve completed seminary and exams and all the other ordination requirements. But even more, there’s a sense of accomplishment, and excitement, and joy, because together, I think we’ve done great work together for the kingdom of God here in this congregation and I look forward with excitement to what God has in store for both of us.

But there’s also a sense of sadness and loss. I’ll miss Frankfort. I’ll miss watching the seasons unfold across the wide-open countryside as I drive into town. I’ll miss being maybe the only person in Ross County who thinks that purple nettle blooming in the fields is a beautiful thing. I’ll miss getting stuck in traffic jams caused by combines and tractors and wagons full of soybeans. I’ll miss street dances, and county fairs, and Sunflower Festivals, and pancake breakfasts, and fish fries. And of course, most of all, I’ll miss each and every one of you.

 I also have questions today, and curiosity. I wonder about things. I wonder what the birthday party is going to be like when Bob Anderson makes it into the “Century Club” this time next year. I wonder what God has in store for all of the kids as they get bigger and bigger. I wonder why the center support of the third pew from the back is out of line from all the others; and why there’s a missing piece of stained glass in that window that focuses morning sunlight into my eyes like a laser beam throughout most of the summer. And I wonder how all of you will be, as you go on with your lives – how God will continue to be present with you, and to bless you, through good times and bad, both as individuals that I’ve come to know and love, and together as this congregation.

For the most part, those are questions that I’ll never know the answers to, since when I leave here, I really leave. According to our Presbyterian polity, once you all have another pastor, I’m not supposed to return. I’m only supposed to come back here if, and only if, the new pastor asks me to come back for some special reason, and even then, only in a secondary capacity to them. I’m not supposed to do funerals or weddings or anything else. I’m not supposed to take calls to offer spiritual care or counsel. And I won’t. No matter how close we might feel, that will be the job of your new pastor, and it’s by sharing those experiences together that you’ll form new bonds with them, just as you did with me. So if you call me with some request and I say no, you’ll understand why I have to do that.

The two passages of scripture that we heard today both have to do with walking together – with journeys, and transitions, and they both have parallels to our relationship, and what’s happening here today. You and I have been walking together for six years on a journey, and today is the last day of that walk together, just as was the case with Elijah and Elisha in our Old Testament text. Both of them knew that Elijah was going to depart, and even though they knew that it was God calling them in new, separate directions, and that it was for the best for both of them, they were both still sad about it. Of course, Elijah did leave, and as he did, he passed his mantle – the symbol of his leadership – on to the new leader. I’ll be leaving today too, but I’m not expecting a fiery chariot and horses to swing down from the sky and carry me home to heaven; it will just be my old Hyundai that carries me back home to Columbus. And I don’t have a mantle like Elijah to leave behind for the next pastor. The closest thing I have to that would be my “dress,” as Kiera calls it, and I have to take that with me. I guess the only thing that I can leave behind is my mad scientist wig and my Clint Eastwood hat, so I suppose those will have to do.

The New Testament passage that we heard – the resurrected Jesus walking with the disciples on their way to Emmaus, the story I love to talk about during Communion – is about walking together on a journey, too. But this one details the turning of sadness of separation into the joy and excitement of new beginnings. That’s what you all offered to me when I first arrived here, and that’s what you’ll need to offer to whoever comes after me. Walk together with them just as you walked with me. Listen to them. Allow yourselves to be challenged, and inspired by them. Welcome them into your lives. Welcome them to the table, just as the disciples did with Jesus.

It’s no big mystery that the next five to seven years are going to be crucial ones for this congregation. You’re going to face challenges and questions that are probably unprecedented in its long history. You’re going to have to ask, and answer, tough questions about what God is calling you to be, for this community and for yourselves. Questions about how God wants you to be the church. Questions about how you work among yourselves. Questions about priorities – what things to hold onto, and what things to let go of. Questions about whether to continue going it alone, or to merge with others, or to join with others in some other sort of cooperative relationship for mutual benefit in ministry and mission. There are a lot of examples out there of innovative solutions adopted by small congregations in similar circumstances. Congregations that have learned how to use all the crayons in their box with creativity and ingenuity to continue serving God.

These are difficult questions, with difficult answers, and the only definite part of coming up with the answers is to know that the answer is not to look to the past. These answers are going to require new ideas, new alternatives. It’s going to take listening to new voices. And as you go about that process, I encourage you to work with the Presbytery to seek out these new answers.

Over the past six years, this congregation has shown that it can successfully navigate change. And based on the new members that the congregation has attracted in recent times, I’d say that overall, the congregation’s efforts have been headed in the right direction. But there’s still a lot of hard work and hard choices ahead, and the only advice I can offer you in this last sermon is the same advice I’ve offered all along: Keep moving forward. Don’t stand still, and certainly don’t allow fear and anxiety over the unknowns of the future to cause you to react by turning back, by circling the wagons and drawing in on yourselves, because if you have that reaction, the congregation will die. There aren’t any guarantees about what the future will bring, but there is a guarantee that comes with trying to live in the past. It will fail. Elijah and Elisha didn’t turn back toward home to avoid their encounter with God and their new future. Jesus didn’t turn the disciples around to go back to Jerusalem, he led them forward to Emmaus and their future. You’ve heard me say before that the earth only spins in one direction, forward, and that’s the only direction that can lead to life. There’s no turning back. It’s living forward in faith that the hope of the gospel calls us to. The God who has loved us and been faithful to us from the very beginning; the God who sent us prophets like Elijah and Elisha to guide our paths into new futures; the God who cared enough about us to become one of us and to die for us to lead us into a new covenant and a new future in the kingdom of God; the God who continues to strengthen us and challenge us and inspire us and speak to us through the Holy Spirit – that God calls us to keep moving  forward, and doing so without anxiety or fear, or idolizing comfort or custom, and without turning back. That God calls us to always proclaim the gospel to others in ways that make sense for our time and place.

Well. My time, in this place, is done. But wherever God’s whirlwind leads me, and wherever it leads you, know that you’ll always be a part of me. You’ll always be in my heart, and in my prayers. The apostle Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, “I thank my God every time I remember you” – and so will I, when I remember you.

 Thanks be to God.

mash goodbye

Outside the Lines (sermon 9/22/13)

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My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: “Is the LORD not in Zion? Is her King not in her?” (“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”) “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!  – Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1

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Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”  – Luke 16:1-13

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There’s a popular movement in the church today. It follows a number of variations but generally falls under the title of “Pub Theology.” The general idea is for a group of people to gather together, usually over a beer at a favorite local watering hole, and to engage in wide-ranging conversations, discussing deep questions about God, humanity, life, the world. Usually, there will be a series of questions used as conversation starters, but there isn’t any leader who will steer the discussion to an endpoint or supposedly “right” answer to the questions. The idea is to bring together people from as many different backgrounds as possible – different Christian denominations and traditions, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists; and the conversation is to proceed with everyone respecting each other’s viewpoint, and ideally, everyone learning something new in the process. And while the Bible is obviously referred to frequently in conversations, Pub Theology sessions are typically not actual Bible studies, since, by definition, all the participants have very different ideas about how the Bible should be understood. That makes sense, there’s a wide variation in how to understand the nature of the Bible, and how to interpret it, even within the same denomination, even within the same congregation, let alone across multiple faiths, and even those of no faith.

But even in a setting as diverse as some Pub Theology sessions, one thing that pretty much anyone examining the Hebrew and Christian scriptures would have to admit is that throughout those scriptures, God has always acted, and appeared, and spoken, in ways that were unexpected. God seems to always be working outside the normal expectations, always coloring outside the lines. It’s easy for us to lose sight of that reality because we’re so familiar with the stories of the Bible, but when we put ourselves right within the actual context of those stories, we very quickly see, time after time, that God is no respecter of norms and traditions. God doesn’t really seem to care at all about what human beings think is the right or proper way for God to behave. God almost universally tosses aside social, religious, and cultural traditions in the process of interacting with us. It just seems like God is always saying or doing something that we wouldn’t expect, or maybe even approve of.

That’s the case with today’s passage from Luke’s gospel, the parable of the dishonest manager. This is a hard passage for us to get a warm and fuzzy feeling about. This manager is a poster boy for behavior that we try really hard to teach people is really, really wrong. The manager cheated someone else for his own personal gain. What the dishonest manager did was unethical. It was immoral. His way of handling other people’s money, of using other people for his own benefit was disgusting.

Maybe it’s an especially appropriate week for this Lectionary text to come up. Is it possible that we see a real-world illustration of the dishonest manager just by turning on the evening news? This past Friday, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would make severe cuts to the federal SNAP program – food stamps. They did this while continuing to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate welfare, subsidies, and tax breaks to the richest, most well-connected corporations and industries in the country. And they justified it by claiming that food stamps are a disincentive to personal responsibility; that they make it too easy for people to just sit around and not get a job – but the reality is that a full 72% of the people who receive food stamps are the working poor – working families with children, who are working one, two, sometimes even three jobs but still not making a living wage, and who don’t know if they’ll have enough food to last through the month. If the current bill is enacted, it will strip four million people from the food stamp program this year alone, and another three million people every year for the next nine years to follow. Why, literally in the name of God, would Congress vote to do this?

Is it a coincidence that those same wealthy fat cat corporations who are getting all the government payouts will dump millions and millions and millions of dollars into those politicians’ reelection campaigns? Is it just a coincidence that these same corporations will provide cushy jobs in the private sector to these same politicians when the public eventually votes them out of office?

The poor can’t dump tons of money into reelection campaigns, and they can’t offer golden parachutes to former congressmen. The poor don’t have anyone to stand up for them against the actions of the dishonest managers of this world, and that’s precisely why God has commissioned the church to speak out on their behalf, as part of our working for the kingdom of God.

Are these politicians just misusing other people’s money – our money – in order to feather their own nests, just like the dishonest manager Jesus talked about? Isn’t it just as despicable? Actually, if anything, they’re worse. At least Jesus’ dishonest manager was taking money away from a rich man who had surplus; he wasn’t taking food out of the mouths of the poor.

It is despicable, whether it’s a story from 2,000 years ago or from last night’s news. And yet, contrary to what we’d expect, Jesus seems to be praising the dishonest manager – no, he doesn’t just *seem* to be praising him; he actually *is* praising him, at least in some manner. This doesn’t seem right. This isn’t the Jesus we know – is it?

Jesus obviously isn’t praising or recommending dishonesty, or misusing other people for personal gain. He’s making a different kind of parallel here, and he undoubtedly made the parallel in a shocking way to make sure everyone remembered it – and it worked; we’re still wrestling with this parable two thousand years after he told it. If you listen closely, maybe you can hear Jesus snickering about it in heaven. In this parable, I think Jesus is saying that God gives certain resources, gifts, and opportunities to each of us in the kingdom – both as individuals and together, as the church. They aren’t always the same, or the same measure. But God does entrust all of us with something. And God wants us to use what’s at our fingertips – – not unethically, and not for personal gain, like the dishonest manager, but still with creativity, and innovation, and ingenuity, for God’s purposes, not ours; and thinking outside the traditional norms and customs in order to maximize that good as we try to live out the kingdom of God. God calls us to continually see if there are new, different, unexpected ways that we can use what God has given us to carry the kingdom even further in our world.

Maybe a good way to think of what Jesus is getting at with this parable is just that God has given us all a box of crayons. We might not all have the same colors, or the same number of crayons. Maybe I only got the standard little box of eight, maybe you got 16, maybe someone else got the big box of 64. But however many crayons we got, and what colors, God wants us to use whatever we have at our fingertips, whatever we have at our disposal – and we’re supposed to use all of our intelligence, all of our wits, all of our hearts, to make the best, most beautiful contribution to the kingdom of God. And because we worship a God who isn’t afraid to color outside the lines, if we have to do the same thing in order to make the most beautiful thing – the thing that pleases God most with our crayons – then it’s okay for us to color outside the lines, too.

The good news for us is that God does indeed love us and care for us enough to entrust us with  those crayons. We are that loved, and trusted as co-creators with God. God trusts us with our box of crayons. The question, and the challenge, for us in this story is to ask whether we really are using them in the best possible way, with the best of our creativity and ingenuity, the way that God would want. Are we? Am I? Are you? If we aren’t, why not? And if we did use all the resources God handed to us with the same degree of creativity and ingenuity as the dishonest manager, what would our lives look like? What would our churches look like? What would our world look like? Maybe those are good questions for a Pub Theology gathering. If we really maximized the blessings that God has given us to advance the kingdom of God, would we still live in a world where the poor are trampled by the unethical and the dishonest? Or would it be something very different? Would it be a beautiful thing, a wonderful thing, an amazing picture with all the colors of the crayon box?

Thanks be to God.

Kintsugi Kingdom (sermon 9/8/13)

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 word 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 or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it,  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.  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.” (Jeremiah 18:1-11 NRSV)

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Have you ever watched a potter working on a wheel? Somewhere along the line, you’ve probably seen one. Isn’t it really fascinating? I think it’s really just a beautiful thing to watch, as the potter makes this thing of beauty rise up out of this lump of clay, this shape of whatever the potter is thinking about, coming through their hands and translating that thought into actual form. And the experts make it look so easy, almost effortless.

Have you ever tried to use a potter’s wheel? Back in my twenties, I did. I had some friends who operated a stoneware pottery business, and in the off times, they’d let me try to make things on one of the wheels. It isn’t easy at all. As a rookie, it’s very easy to get things wrong. Maybe you’ll be too cautious, and end up making the walls of your pottery too thick, making it too heavy, maybe making it too hard to fully dry before firing in the kiln and having the moisture still embedded in it blow it apart. Or maybe you’ll be too bold, trying to draw the clay up too much, making the walls to thin and they buckle. Or maybe you’ll bump your hand and mess up your shape, and it folds in on itself. There are all sorts of ways to mess a piece of pottery up for an amateur.

But as good as they are, even the pros don’t always get the result they want. They might make any of those simple mistakes. Sometimes, the texture, the consistency of the clay, just won’t be right to make what the potter has in mind. A lot depends on the response of the clay itself. And when things just aren’t right, the potter will simply fold the clay back in on itself, maybe sprinkle a bit of water on it, and work it back down into a cone-shaped mound, centered on the wheel – and then, the potter will start to draw up the clay again – maybe into something completely different from the earlier attempt.

That’s exactly what the prophet Jeremiah saw, when God told him to go to the potter’s workshop and watch. Jeremiah lived around 600 BC, and what he saw that day is pretty much the same thing we could have seen in a potter’s shop today in 2013. About the only real difference is the electric motor on the wheel now, instead of foot power. And as we heard, God used this scene as an analogy to explain something to Jeremiah, and to set up an object lesson for the people of Israel. It was intended as a lesson about how God deals with nations, with peoples, with groups, but it could also translate to us individually too, I suppose. According to the lesson, God says that a people’s response to God’s plans and intentions for them is critical. That their response to God’s molding and shaping them can change God’s mind, for better or worse, depending on their responses to God’s inputs. That, regardless of the nation’s past or God’s previous intentions for it, if it acts in ways consistent with what God considers good and right, God will lift it up and nurture it. If it does evil, God will punish it, even if it had been blessed in the past.

This is a particularly interesting week for this Lectionary text to come up. When we turn on our televisions, go online, open our newspapers, we see the horrendous human tragedy in Syria, the death and maiming of thousands of Syrian people, the creation of many more thousands of refugees, as a result of the civil war going on there between the evil and corrupt Assad regime, and the rebels, who are arguably no less evil and corrupt. There are no clear good guys in the situation in Syria. And yet, it’s a human tragedy. And the world wonders what, if anything, can or should be done to try to end it. With the President pushing for some kind of military strike against the Assad government, even though it appears that Congress doesn’t support it and something like 90% of the public opposes it, the matter of the behavior of nations, whether for good or evil in God’s eyes, is an important one to think about.

This passage speaks to that issue. But it also speaks in other ways – to the church universal; to denominations; to congregations; to us as individuals. In all of those settings, we need to be responsive to the shaping, molding hand of God upon us. And based upon our response to God’s input, God may indeed feel the need on occasion to change course – to fold the clay back down upon itself, as it were, and regroup, and start fresh with a new shape, a new purpose, a new plan. In a way, that’s how we all started our journey of faith – by recognizing that as we were, we weren’t quite what God wanted us to be, and accepting God’s reworking and reshaping of us,  sprinkling a bit of water on us to make us more workable clay.

That analogy works at the beginning of our journey of faith. But an interesting thing about clay is that even after a potter has made the shape on the wheel, and sets the vessel out to dry before firing it, if it’s dropped and broken, or cracked – even then, the clay can be broken up, and pulverized, and wet back down, and reshaped, re-formed, repurposed. But what about after it’s been fired in the kiln? What about after it’s had its shape and purpose for a long time, maybe for years? Once a pot – or a nation, or a church, or a person – has had its form and purpose set for years – what happens if it breaks then?

There’s a practice that originated many years ago in Japan called kintsugi. It’s the art of repairing broken and chipped pottery and ceramics by repairing cracks and filling voids with a resin containing gold dust. In our experience, when we have a teacup with a broken handle or something similar, we might get out the super glue and try to repair it as seamlessly as possible, hoping it will look like it was never broken. But kintsugi does the opposite. It acknowledges the brokenness, and actually ends up articulating and highlighting it. It acknowledges the history of the brokenness, but through the intricate gold veining that now works through the pottery, the vessel regains its original purpose, but in a way, better, and more beautiful, than the potter’s original idea or intention.

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I think the kingdom of God could be called the Kintsugi Kingdom. It’s populated with all of us broken people, still bearing the signs of our brokenness but made whole and beautiful and wonderful and healed by God. A kingdom where no matter where you are in your journey of faith, beginning, middle, or end; no matter what happens to us, we  are never past the point of God’s touch, God’s renewing, regenerating, repurposing. God is the potter, and we are the clay. And while God may remold and reshape us at various times, in ways we might never have anticipated or expected, to suit God’s will, it’s clear that God never give up on us clay vessels, even long after we’ve been fired and aged and brittle. Out of our brokenness comes new hope, new life, new possibilities. We are kintsugi creatures in God’s kintsugi kingdom.

Thanks be to God.