Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17
YES, everything is broken. Be glad!
There’s a pottery shop in Yangon that I like to visit. It mostly sells tiles for floors and roofs, a few decorative items, and even a few pieces of clay jewelry. I have never bought anything in there. I don’t need much roofing material, after all. But, I like to go in and look around because the patterns, choice of materials, and colors are so beautiful. The last time I visited I noticed that they had some manufactured tiles which didn’t have the same allure as the old tiles that were made by hand and dried in the kilns out back. Nobody had pressed sea shells or odd bits of glass into them. They were all the same, as manufactured things are.
There was something else out back. There was a fairly large wooden bin that was usually about half full of broken tiles and pots. I didn’t think too much of that until this week when I started reading about pottery making, clay, and how it all really works. It’s more complicated than I thought. I learned, for example, that the bin full of broken bits and shards wasn’t waste, it was recycle. It’s explained in a recent article in Patheos, “Potters never waste clay. Old, failed pots might get recycled into new ones, but potters would never just toss the clay. “
In this world of brokenness, it is not difficult to imagine a bin full of chipped, cracked, and just plain useless pottery standing-in for our lives. The institutions which are supposed to support us — government, the church, family — have turned out to be peddlers in broken promises and purveyors of broken dreams. Our own lives are often broken, sharp around the edges, and fragile and it seems that we may be on the rubbish heap with other broken pieces of would-be dreams and abandoned hopes.
There are those who like to say that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. Still others say that even the darkest moments can be turned into learning experiences. But the truth is that sometimes there is no healing, the silver lining never shows itself, and things wind up being worse than before. You can have a happy ending in the movies. In real life, sometimes it’s better to just throw things into the bin out back and try to forget.
But, the potter does not forget. What seems a pointless failure, an unredeemable act, whatever it is… still has usefulness for the potter. It will not be made into what it was before, but it will be remade into something different. The potter may leave the clay in the recycle bin for a long time, or remold it quickly. But it is always for the potter to decide, not the clay.
I know I don’t need to unlock the analogy for you. As the old hymn which was written by Adelaide A. Pollard says, “Thou art the potter, I am the clay.” And we know that the clay does not say to the potter, “Why did you make me the way you did?” The clay doesn’t ask questions; it waits, other broken pottery may be tossed onto it, it may grow discouraged… I’m not talking about clay now, I am talking about you… But the waiting is in hope because we know who the potter is. With the Psalmist we may pray, “…forsake not the work of your hands,” knowing confidently that the one who has begun a good work in us will not give up on the project until it’s finished.
In today’s gospel reading we see that Jesus has not come to promote the family values of the religious right. He never will, either. You might go so far as to say that the one thing Jesus is not interested in healing is the family unit. Throughout the New Testament, he is clear that in his kingdom it is an impediment to link your identity to your family or tribe. Your new identity is that you are a person who does the will of God.
This passage is not about hate. I am not sure how the English version got translated that way, but I am sure that Jesus is not preaching hate. The message for today is to be so focused on following Jesus that you forget other obligations. Remember the fellow who wanted to follow Jesus, but he also wanted to wait until his father was dead and properly buried? Jesus told him, “No. The time to follow me is right now. Forget your familial obligation and come with me.” And there was another fellow who wanted to “say goodbye” to his family. Jesus said, “No. You don’t need your father’s permission. Make your own decisions. Follow me.” That’s what Jesus is reminding us of. He is telling us that we are no longer identified with our family/tribe, but that like the broken pots in the recycle heap something new is going to emerge. Jesus makes new families the same way he created the world, he spoke them into being calling one daughter, one mother, another brother. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. The answer is that those who do the will of God are Jesus’s family. Paul turns Apphia into a sister, Timothy into a brother, Onesimus into a child. He speaks a new family into being.
This is a step away from the “Me and Mine” mentality that permeates so much of modern society. Even the Christian church has told us that the family is the most important social unit ever ordained by God. Jerry Falwell called it “the ideal unit,” but Jesus doesn’t care for it too much. At a minimum, he would expand its borders to include all who do the will of God. That should be a fairly large family. You might even say that it’s not a family at all, it’s just everybody.
Somehow, by the time it’s all over, all the clay, and all the people, and everything that’s ever been created will be redeemed. It’s the healing of the world for which we all work, wait, and hope… even when we’re in the recycle heap! Just as the potter never throws away a piece of clay, so God will not throw away any of us either, nor will God abandon the good work she has begun in you! YES, everything is broken. Be glad!
Linda McMillan lives in Shanghai, China.
Image: by Linda McMillan of Siem Reap, Cambodia, 2011
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Yangon is the first city of Myanmar. While it is no longer the official seat of government, it is still very much a capitol city.
The article in Patheos is called, “The Habits of Potters: The Lectionary for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost,” and it was written by Eric Smith. You can read it here.
Adelaide A. Pollard actually wrote the song, “Have Thine Own Way” in response to these verses in Jeremiah. The story is that she wanted to be a missionary in Africa but had trouble raising the funds for the trip. Feeling down about it, she went to a prayer meeting where she overheard a woman saying that it really doesn’t matter what God does with us, as long as it is God who does it. That night she wrote all four verses to the song. You can hear the song here.
Isaiah 29:16… You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, “You did not make me”? Can the pot say to the potter, “You know nothing”?
Psalm 138: 8… The LORD will perfect that which concerneth me: thy mercy, O LORD, endureth for ever: forsake not the works of thine own hands.
Philippians 1:6… being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
The story of the man who wants to bury his father and the story of the one who wants to say goodbye to his family are in Luke 9.
Matthew 12:48… He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”
“When you have a godly husband, a godly wife, children who respect their parents and who are loved by their parents, who provide for those children their physical and spiritual and material needs, lovingly, you have the ideal unit.”