Sunday, September 4, 2022
By: Kilpy Singer, Associate Rector
The other week, I went on vacation for a few days to the beach, and one of my favorite parts of going to the beach is visiting those cute local shops that have so much charm. So I was strolling around with a cup of coffee and stepped into a little bookstore, and as I was poking around the nick knacks and shelves, I came upon a section marked “Self-Help, Spirituality, Christianity”. I’m always curious about the Christianity section of bookstores and what authors they keep in stock, and I often see Christianity and Spirituality combined. That makes sense to me. But this addition of the Self-Help genre caught me off guard for a second.
I sort of stared at it, and thought about it, then had this sudden urge to say to anyone walking by “Wait, these aren’t the same. At all!” Now don’t worry, I was able to refrain from any kind of sidewalk preacher behavior or public embarrassment. But, since then, I’ve still been thinking about that moment, and I’ve kind of mourned this amalgamation of Self-Help and Christianity, because… they aren’t the same.
They’re almost opposite, really, because the story of Christianity is honestly a story about how self-help failed. We as humans were unable to save ourselves or will our way to God. That’s kind of the whole point of Jesus as Savior, Messiah. But somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten that our story is about how God helped us. We, my self-first included, big time, still try to help ourselves, to will ourselves to be better, to recreate ourselves and our story, apart from God, the true author of our lives. I mean, the amount of times I’ve started a new year, or decided to turn over a new leaf, and thought “This time I’ll read the right book, or I’ll listen to the right podcast, and I’ll finally make some good decisions for myself, and be better, and dig myself out of this hole.”
In our Old Testament passage this morning, Jeremiah is talking with God about a similar situation. The people of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, have struggled with self-reliance. They’ve gotten in this habit of looking to themselves, not God, which has led to all sorts of issues like prideful behavior, and idol worship, and exploitation of the poor. God’s a little fed up and worried what might happen if Judah keeps down this path. Because if they keep on cutting God out of the picture, it just might lead to their own destruction, or even the demise of all of Israel. So before that happens, God is giving them a chance to reroute their way by working with him, by relying on him, by letting him shape their lives, cause the self-help just really isn’t working.
Speaking to Jeremiah, God gets the message across through this incredible visual metaphor. This is truly one of my favorite images of God in scripture. God, the potter, is in his studio outback. He’s sitting at the wheel, his back hunched in this tired way that shows how long he’s been working, but his eyes are still focused and bright, so that you can tell just how special this piece of art is. His hands are strong from years of working and molding, but they’re also nimble and flexible since he never knows just how the clay might behave that day. Now this potter isn’t in the business of manufacturing some perfect, reproducible item. Rather, he’s more interested in working with those wonky, sort of stubborn pots. Now, they might require more sweat and toil at the wheel, but boy are they worth it.
The people of Judah made some big ol’ mistakes, but God knew they were worth it and never gave up on them. Like a potter reworking his clay, so am I able to work with you, God said to them. What a forgiving and gracious response to a messed-up bunch of people. I mean, it wasn’t the first time they’d worked themselves into a mess, nor was it the last. Because somehow, we humans continue to believe in this myth of self-reliance, generation after generation. Is it because we were taught that needing help is a sign of weakness? Or because we feel like we have something to prove about how successful we are to our parents, or our friends? Or are we just so afraid of opening up to someone else about our pain and our brokenness that we’ve convinced ourselves that we are the only ones? I’m not quite sure how or why it happens, but that’s what it’s like being a person, and we find our way into all sorts of situations, time after time. Yet the good news of Christ is that God always finds his way back to us, again and again, ready to lovingly reshape and remold us on his wheel.
Now, before I talk about more about pottery, I need to confess that I really don’t know that much about it, but thankfully there are others who do, like our own Mary Taliaferro. And I’ve also learned a good bit from the Japanese. Have you ever heard of Kintsugi, the art of repairing broken pottery? Well, when a piece of pottery breaks, these Japanese craftspeople don’t just call it useless and throw it away. Instead, they gather up the fragments and mend them back together with a kind of gold resin. And when they repair the item, they do it in this way that beautifully honors its breakage instead of disguising it. Because they’ve realized that a pottery piece’s imperfections don’t make it defective. Instead, the flaws and the cracks become a part of its story and its unique beauty
I couldn’t help but think of kingtsugi when reflecting on this passage, because both this art form and Jeremiah use pottery to shed light on this incredible spiritual truth. That our lives look a lot like clay. In the workshop, a pot may become slumped over, again and again, but it can always be taken back to the wheel and reworked into something new. Even if it has fallen off the shelf and shattered, it can be bonded back together in a new and beautiful way.
And no matter what shape we are in, or how we got there, or even if life has knocked us down and just about smashed us into pieces, we don’t have to worry about being thrown away or given up on, because God is there, loving us just as we are. And God is there, ready to help us. And God is able to take us and remake us, honoring where we’ve been and mending the clay of our lives back together with His grace. On our own, we can’t get very far, but thankfully our story has never been of the self-help genre. It’s always been a story about God helping us, reaching out to us and pulling us into his hands, continually reshaping us into something unique, and beautiful, and new, and loved, so so loved.