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)
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.
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.