I asked Carol Shadle to join our worship leadership today because I wanted us to see a potter at work and be able to think about this image of being a vessel created by God.
Genesis tells us that God created everything that is, including the dust of the earth and that out of the dust of the earth God created us. The wisdom of Ecclesiastes tells us “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The prophet Jeremiah says, “Come to the potter’s house and see the potter can take the clay of a vessel that is ruined and rework it into a worthy vessel”. Paul tells us we have a treasure in clay vessels so we may know that an extraordinary power has formed us, filled us and is to be poured out of us.
In this image of ourselves as the clay and God, the potter at the wheel is the understanding that we do not belong to ourselves. We belong to God, who is constantly forming us, shaping us, supporting us, loving us, creating us, working on us, putting up with us.
And we are being formed for a purpose. In Paul’s time, in Jesus’ day, decorative elements might be added, but most every vessel had a purpose. A vessel was to be filled, to hold and to be emptied.
Paul tells us we are fragile formed vessels into which God has poured the extraordinary power of new life in Jesus Christ. We are vessels so that we can pour that new life out onto the world. As Paul says that through us “grace extends to more and more people with thanksgiving to the glory of God.”
It’s beautiful. It’s essential. It’s powerful. But it’s not easy. It’s difficult.
Carol tells me that before the clay comes anywhere near the wheel, the potter pounds the clay. Pounds it. Smacks it. Smashes it. She says it’s very liberating. The potter works the clay to drive out every possible air bubble. An air bubble can ruin a whole vessel. Put on the wheel with a foreign bit of air, the clay won’t take shape smoothly beneath the potter’s hand. If an air bubble manages to slip through the forming, when it comes time for firing, the air bubble will cause the vessel to explode.
When the potter is finally certain the clay has been refined, that it’s pure and ready, the potter throws the clay onto the wheel. Throws it. Right in the center. It’s a messy business. That’s why Carol did that before worship.
God puts some effort into forming us into vessels of new life. God leans hard into us to shape us. It doesn’t always feel good to us. It can feel like being pounded and knocked around. Getting out of us everything that shouldn’t be in us is an uncomfortable refining process. We want to hold onto our personal agendas, the habits that are comforting if unhealthy, whatever serves our needs. We like to secret away pockets that reinforce our worldview, our politics, our judgments of other people.
God wants to knock it out of us. God has to knock it out of us if we are going to be ready to be shaped into a useable sturdy, reliable vessel of new life.
And God puts us – throws us – just where we need to be. It might not be where we wanted or expected. We wanted something more comfortable, easier. A place with less risk or less responsibility. Fewer expectations. It can be a messy business getting us into position. Requiring confession and forgiveness. Being humbled, brought to our knees. We may have to be re-centered a few times.
But, where we are – wherever we are – God’s hands are on us, shaping us. Forming us into holy vessels.
Oh, we are not perfect. We are flawed. Carol tells me that this is a truth that she is still coming to terms with.
This is so hard for us. We are not perfect. When we claim that we are – when anyone claims that they are – the truth is not in us. It doesn’t matter! God has worked out what is impure; God has placed us, God has formed us and imperfect as we are – with all our flaws, quirks, and weaknesses – we are beautiful, and we are useable.
So we do not lose heart. We know that God is preparing us for an eternal weight – an indwelling – of glory. This glory is the extraordinary life of Jesus Christ. Out of the dust of the earth, he was fully formed in the image of God. He was beaten and battered, pounded and crucified. He was put just where he needed to be and formed by God, to be perfectly filled with new life, continually being poured out – poured out onto us. We are bearers of this priceless treasure. God has entrusted this good news to us, placing it within us, so that we can pour the new life of Christ out into the world.
At one point in 2 Corinthians, Paul says that we have an earthly tent we live in. The image of a tent was very near to Paul because he made his living making tents. He would have been familiar with how tents begin sturdy and sound, but then tatter and fray in the elements. I think that when Paul talks about the vessel of the earthly tent he is talking about our mortal frame, this physical body that we inhabit for some period. It shelters us while we walk this earth. It gets blown about by the world, until with time, illness, catastrophe it flutters apart.
But this idea that we are like vessels of clay speaks to the part of us that is eternal, created for a purpose. Paul tells us whether we fulfill our purpose – whether we pour back out what was poured into us – will be reckoned to us in the last days.
Carol told me this fascinating thing about clay. She said, “There’s not old clay and new clay. There is just clay.” There is just clay.
It doesn’t matter how old we are, how fresh, or how long we have been sitting around. It doesn’t matter that the flaps of our tents are grimy and tattered, that our flesh is wrinkled, and our frame is frail, that we’ve taken a pounding before or are still having the wind beaten out of us. God takes the clay that we are and loves us. Shapes us – to be filled with the new life of Jesus Christ. We are formed – flawed but beautiful – useable. Into us is poured forgiveness, love, calling, grace and the power of Jesus Christ. And like Jesus himself we are meant to be poured out – to pour out on others – forgiveness, love, calling, grace and power.
Think of our parched and barren world. Of the tired and dessicated people. Of weary neighbors, crumbling systems, starving communities and ruined nations. They are waiting for what you can pour out.
Don’t ever think that you have not been created for a purpose. Don’t ever believe that you are not filled with an extraordinary power.
God’s hands have formed you. Jesus Christ has been poured into you. From you pours out this extraordinary power of new life.