Clay in the Potter’s Hand

Robert S. Turner
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 28, 2016
Jeremiah 18:1–11; Luke 14:25–33

On the north side of Interstate 68, just outside of Frostburg, Maryland, sits a half-formed structure of rusting iron beams set up vaguely in the shape of a ship’s prow. A large sign next to the structure proudly declares in big, bold lettering, “Noah’s Ark Being Rebuilt Here!” This heap of iron has sat in that spot since long before Ken Ham opened his misguided “Ark Encounter” theme park in Williamstown, Kentucky, earlier this year. I first saw it twenty years ago.

The thing is, from that moment in 1996 when I was surprised and bemused by the sight of this alleged ark to the last time I passed that way—a year ago while traveling to northern Virginia—the site has not changed, as far as I can tell, one iota. For at least nineteen years the bold promise to rebuild Noah’s boat in western Maryland has gone unfulfilled. Why they have left up the sign escapes me completely.

Every time I pass that site I am reminded of the first parable Jesus tells in today’s reading from Luke. He says, “Which of you, intending to build a tower (or an iron boat), does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish’” (vv. 28–30).

Of course, Jesus is not talking about spurious building projects born of a need to make the Bible into a science textbook. He is talking about making the choice whether or not to follow him on the path of discipleship. These parables about the builder who can’t finish his tower and the king who sues for peace because his army is outnumbered sound very similar to another saying we encountered a few weeks ago: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). In each instance he is trying to discourage would-be disciples whose zeal exceeds their follow-through.

Unlike many Christian pastors and leaders who seem desperate to make the gospel as palatable and non-threatening as possible, in hopes of luring people into church, Jesus is always clear about the challenges and risks involved in following him. He is, after all, on his way to Jerusalem to confront the powers, a project that he knows could lead to big trouble for him and those with him. We know that he was right about that. Jesus is not offering a bait-and-switch—“Come on, it’ll be fun! Where we’re going it’s nothing but penthouse apartments and apple martinis!”—but rather a clear-eyed depiction of what likely awaits those who join him on his road. A painful and humiliating death, rather than a cushy life, is what lies ahead. At the end of the road is not a throne but a cross.

He tells them this explicitly in verse 27: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” If he were the pastor of a church, his colleagues would probably consider him a failure. You can hardly expect to pack the pews with a message like that. What you really need to do, Jesus, is to deliver affirming messages that provide practical tips for parents and show people how to live prosperous, healthy, victorious lives as members of God’s royal family. And put on a professional sound and light show to help you get the message across. Maybe put a Starbucks in your vestibule. Give the people what they want. Meet their “felt needs.” That’s how you grow a congregation. That’s how you keep the offering plates full and the budget funded.

It’s a pity, but Jesus doesn't take their advice. In fact, he ups the ante. Besides the familiar call to take up the cross, he throws in two more provocative requirements that are sure to thin the ranks even further. He says, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (v. 26); and, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (v. 33).

These two sayings are tough, albeit for different reasons. The first one presents a challenge because it sets up an opposition between two values that we usually consider compatible—our commitments to family and to our religious practice. The second one is tough because—well, because we don’t want to do it.

Let’s look at the one about hating family. The first thing preachers and commentators point out is that Jesus is employing a rhetorical device common at that time, hyperbole. It’s an exaggeration for effect, like when he talks about camels passing through the eyes of needles, or cutting off your hand when it causes you to sin. He does not mean for his followers literally to hate their families; he is simply setting up a stark contrast between their family loyalty and their loyalty to him. If the former outweighs the latter, you might as well stay home. You cannot be the whole-hearted disciple Jesus is looking for.

That’s true and all—about the hyperbole, I mean—but it may serve to obscure the radical nature of the pronouncement. Even if he doesn’t mean we have to hate our parents, or even unfriend them on social media, he does mean that he and his mission must take precedence over all family obligations. In that culture, it’s hard to imagine a more shocking suggestion to make. One’s individual honor is inseparable from the honor of one’s family, and one is bound by thick cords of custom and social expectation to make it the highest priority to care for one’s parents, siblings, spouse, and children. It could be that one reason Jesus got such a negative reception when he preached in the village synagogue in Nazareth, his hometown, is because in the townspeople’s view he had flouted all these conventions and brought shame on himself and his family when he embarked on his preaching career. As the firstborn son with at least one parent still living, to have left his home and his trade as a carpenter was about the worst thing he could have done. He is a bad son, and now he is encouraging others to be bad sons and daughters too.

Who does he think he is, anyway? He didn’t say you have to hate your family to serve God; he said you have to hate your family if you want to follow him. Isn’t that the same sort of thing that cult leaders like Jim Jones and David Koresh were notorious for saying? Where does he get off?

The answer is that Jesus identifies his mission so closely with God’s vision for the world that following him and being a part of the reign of God are in his mind one and the same thing. That’s why he’s able to make demands that would be the height of arrogance— blasphemy, even—coming out of anybody’s else’s mouth. His opinion of himself is borne out by the lengths he goes in his obedience to God, and by God’s vindication of him in the resurrection. So much so that before too many years pass his followers have begun hailing him as the Son of God, or even God Incarnate.

So apparently Jesus feels justified in demanding a greater allegiance than one owes one’s own family, but it’s not hard to imagine a lot of potential followers balking at this difficult and countercultural pronouncement. It’s even easier to imagine them bolting for the exits when he drops his second bombshell: “None of you can be my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

Wow. Even for his audience, which comprised the poorest of the poor in first-century Galilee, this is a hard saying. For us, even more so. I can see Jesus’s ministry colleagues off in the distance, sadly shaking their heads and clucking their tongues. We tried to tell him, they seem to say with genuine pity. Now look what he’s gone and done.

Of course, those guys would never even have told the two parables Jesus tells. Consider carefully before you begin the project? Calculate the likely cost of the venture before jumping in? Why on earth would you tell anyone to do that? The trick is to make the venture as comfortable and risk-free as possible; then there’s no reason to hesitate. They must be right; the reclining theater-style seats in their 4,000-seat auditoriums are full at all three services every Sunday morning. And there’s poor Jesus, left with his scraggly band of disciples as the crowds that had been hanging on his every word just days before head back home in a steady stream.

But Jesus knows something those preachers don’t. Or rather, he’s looking for something they aren’t. He is looking for unshakable, bone-deep commitment to the reign of God. He’s looking for people who will not fall away when the chips are down or, if they do, who have the grit to pick themselves up and get back in the ring. He wants people who know the cost of discipleship—that it costs everything—but who also know its value— that it is worth far more than anything they give up. He is looking for people who are ready to remove every obstacle to their participation in his mission; who are able to declare their primary allegiance to God and God’s reign, and not go back on their word; who have the courage and trust to give up everything for God—maybe even their lives.

He is a potter looking for the right piece of clay.

Six hundred-some years before Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah has an epiphany while watching a potter ply her trade. He watches her throw her clay on the wheel, work the foot pedal to set the wheel spinning, and begin using her hands to shape the clay, making it climb up as if by magic into the form she has in mind. At one point, however, something goes wrong and the bowl becomes misshapen, and she has to start over. Not with a new batch of clay, however. She simply kneads the aborted bowl back into a lump, throws it on the wheel, and goes to work again.

The feeling comes over Jeremiah so strongly in that moment that he is sure God is speaking to him, saying, “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? … Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel” (v. 6). Jeremiah understands God to mean that God has the freedom to change the divine mind about the fate of God’s people. If God has a plan for the people’s Page 4 of 4 prosperity, but they act wickedly, God is free to toss the lump of clay back on the wheel and go a different direction. Likewise, if God has willed punishment for the people, but they repent and begin doing right, God can and will call off the punishment and form a new object from that piece of clay. Jeremiah concludes by having God say, “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” (v. 11).

The metaphor of God as the potter and us as the clay is a powerful one, but, as with all metaphors, it eventually breaks down. The difference between a lump of clay and a person or group of people is that the clay has no independent will. It is entirely at the command of the potter, and the only way it can mess up the potter’s work is by being of low quality in the first place. It cannot choose to act contrary to the potter’s will.

We, on the other hand, are notoriously ornery. We have freewill, and we exercise it freely and willfully. We can choose to rebel against God’s plans for us, and we can choose to cooperate with them. The divine potter can only mold and persuade; God cannot—or at least will not—coerce us into any shape without our consent. That’s why Jesus is so careful about choosing disciples; he knows we need to be “all in” from the beginning, because halfhearted followers are almost certain to fall away when the going gets tough. In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul urges the church to be “living sacrifices.” As someone once observed, however, the trouble with living sacrifices is that they keep crawling off the altar.

In the song Alex and Jacob sang earlier, the narrator says, “Lord, if I’m the clay, then lay me down / on your spinning wheel. / Shape me into something you can fill— / something real.” It’s the cry of one who, like the prodigal son, has tried to call his own shots and failed utterly, and now realizes that cooperation with God’s will is a far superior long-term choice than resistance. This is human clay that is ready to be formed and shaped by the sure and loving hand of one whose wisdom and vision far exceeds his own. This is clay that wants to be made into something the potter will find useful.

In common Christian parlance, this is usually called surrender, and I suppose it is, but I don’t think we need to bring in all the negative baggage that comes with that word. God is not looking for hollow people too weak to resist any longer; God wants whole persons who are willing to cooperate with God’s purposes. God wants co-workers, not slaves. Jesus will not abduct us from our families or confiscate our possessions; he simply asks us to make our allegiance to him and his vision of the reign of God our highest allegiance. He wants us to lay aside voluntarily the clutter and trappings of the world that threaten to keep us from throwing ourselves on the spinning wheel and asking the potter to shape us into something real. Jesus is ready to go to extreme lengths, to give up everything, for God’s will, and he is asking us to be prepared to do the same. He wants our full commitment and, when you think about it, he’s done enough to deserve it.

So the next time the potter goes looking for a suitable piece of clay, will we be ready to volunteer? The next time Jesus calls—which, if you listen closely, could be right now— how will we respond?