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A Labor of Love


Passage: Jeremiah 18:1-11

Speaker: Rev. Sarah Macias

Flour, Cream of Tartar, Water, Oil, Food Coloring, Salt. With these ordinary ingredients, readily available from her pantry, my mother would create what appeared to my five-year-old self to be a miracle. I distinctly remember her making large quantities of this most wonderful recipe for us to enjoy at Vacation Bible school. 

She could have dropped by the store - grabbed a few packages off the shelf on the way to church. It certainly would have saved her some time and some trouble. But homemade is always better, isn’t it?   

Flour, Cream of Tartar, Water, Oil, Food Coloring, Salt…the ordinary ingredients that when mixed together in the right way will make play dough modeling clay!

I can see her now, leaning over the stove, stirring these ingredients in the pan while we watched them transform before our eyes. As its consistency became more solid, she would then pour it out. We would be tempted to touch it. We would need to wait. But as soon as we could and while it was still warm, we would take it in our hands and begin kneading it, working it, playing with it.

Older sisters remember things better, so I asked Nancy about this play dough memory.

Where were you? – “In the kitchen.”
Who was with you? – “You were – and Mama.”
What did you like about it? - “I liked the process of making it. It was a hands-on tactile activity of creating something that was fun.”

Those were the days.

In addition to homemade play dough, we made other things in an imaginary kitchen next to the windbreak of trees at the edge of the field near the clothesline. Here is where we practiced the culinary arts of mud pie making.

A low to the ground, well- weathered stool made a perfect table. Placed upon this working surface would be a worn-out aluminum cake tin that had seen better days, a couple of mismatched utensils, and a jar of water. The working material was an unlimited supply of dirt provided by the plowed-up field.  

If you have lived here long enough, you know that the black gumbo soil of north Texas – when it is wet – can become a sticky, heavy pasty clay.  

Older sisters remember things better, so I asked Kathy about this mud-pie memory.

“It was quite a process,” she said. “You mixed it, worked it, added a bit of water to it before it hardened too much. In fact, it was really more the process than the end result that I think was most enjoyable.”   

I wonder if that might be the case for the Potter whom we visit today. Before our arrival, the process has already begun. A glob of mud has been scooped up. Not in a tidy and timid manner with gloves on. No, this Potter has clearly dug down deep into the muck. There is no protective lining between the Potter and the Clay.

From this intimate interaction, fingerprints will reveal themselves on the Clay. And dirt stains will linger on the hands of the Potter. Neither the Clay nor the Potter will leave this encounter unaffected by the other.  

As the Potter leans over the wheel, ever hopeful to see what possibilities that the Clay will express, throwing the clay into the center apparently is important in getting started. In fact, a YouTube video says that “if the clay is off-center, it will only make your life more difficult.”

There is the physical center of the wheel that the YouTube video describes but could there be a spiritual center at play as well?

Centering Prayer is the practice inspired by Thomas Merton and more recently Richard Rohr. Beyond thoughts, emotions, or words centering prayer is more than a conversation, but for many is felt to approach pure communion.

Centering is important to the Potter and to the work done at the wheel.

And it is work! Day in day out, never ending work. But it is work done without any consideration of benefit or reward. A labor of Love - and Affection.

Wendell Berry - poet, farmer, and conservationist – was asked to come to our nation’s capital and deliver The Jefferson Lecture in 2012— one of the highest honors we give for distinguished intellectual achievements. With a lifetime of writing about the problems facing our nation and the earth, he stepped into the lecturn and offered what is considered to be the greatest speech of his career.

It was a message of hope and healing in spite of despair and brokenness - It was entitled “It All Turns on Affection.”  Berry spoke about centering ourselves on an “affection” for the particular places in which we are planted, and the community created through that affection.

In community – in communion – our lives are linked together in such a way that we can’t help but affect one another.

John Muir understood this on a grander scale when he said, “try to pick out anything by itself, and you find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

This is true in our world, in our country, in our state, in our neighborhood, in our church and our ministry partners through whom our church is affiliated. -- We are connected to each other through our connection to the Potter whose wheel of affection – a labor of love – is turning still.

The word of the Lord that is heard by Jeremiah and is told to us today is a message not so much to an individual but to a community.  -- A community in covenantal relationship with God and, through God, with one another.

“So are you in my hand, O house of Israel.”

House – a dwelling place; a household. bayit in the Hebrew Bible – oikos in the Greek New Testament. Oikos being the term where we get the prefix eco like in ecosystem.

The Noble Research Institute in Oklahoma offers advice to farmers in how to be good stewards of their land by paying close attention to the ecosystems present and how to encourage them in their processes of regeneration. An article they published is entitled “How to Keep Community Dynamics Healthy on the Ranch” (this is what my reading material consists of nowadays).

An eco or oikos-system is a community of interdependent, symbiotic relationships – dynamic and always changing. Over time, there are changes in microbiology, plant and animal life. There is succession, decomposition, and rebirth.

The community structure and composition of the Clay changes. The wheel continues to turn and the Clay, o house of Israel, is worked and is re-worked

But what play dough artists, mud pie chefs, and potters will all tell you - Clay is not always cooperative. It can disappoint - can dry out and crack - become rigid and stubborn.

There are reasons why Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet. These were the conditions of the people of Judah, the last remnant of Israel. And there had been so much hope.

After enduring the reign of oppressive rulers like Manasseh who erected altars to other gods and led his people to do more evil than ever before (according to 2 Kings), there was a brief period of transformation A reformation really during the reign of King Josiah when someone was cleaning the closets in the temple and found – the Book of the Law; what we would later call Deuteronomy.

Oh my gosh, we are not supposed to have other gods before our God.

Oh my gosh, these idols could be a problem.

Ten times – oh my gosh.

They had misplaced their covenant - but now they have found it. What a renewed sense of hope there must have been. 

But even after being shaped, formed, and reformed, Clay is sometimes not cooperative. It can disappoint.

A recent book by Brian McLaren that the congregations of two pastor friends of mine are discussing is called: Do I Stay Christian? – A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned.

All of us find ourselves on the spectrum sometimes, don’t we? Doubters, Disappointed, Disillusioned.

One question the book identifies is what effect the largest, most successful religions on the planet is having on global well-being – on climate change, economic inequality, racism, and other forms of hostility.

And on a personal level, why do so many Christians change so little?

The book says that pastors start blaming themselves. “Maybe if I were a better preacher.” Then the parishioners: “Maybe if I studied the Bible more, prayed more, gave more money.” --- It’s almost stewardship season so maybe I should stop right there.

But then the self-blame becomes too much, and we start blaming each other. The book continues - “Maybe if we had a younger, more dynamic and spirit filled preacher.”

Or, maybe we need a drum set. Maybe we need screens. Maybe, Maybe – ten times maybe.

We are prone to chase shiny objects, aren’t we – to fall into the capitalistic trap of competition with other churches – to be manipulated by distractions that can knock us off-center….

I didn’t read the entire book, but I did have to jump ahead and see how it ended. The closing chapter is called “Stay Human.”

It says, “To be or not to be better humans. Maybe that is the question….a way of being human that is pro-justice, pro-kindness, and pro-humility.”

Humility – humus – soil – malleable clay – especially when it is warm. Not hot. Not cold.

It is quite a process. And the Potter is in it with us. In the Doubt. In the Disappointment. In the Disillusionment….Don’t you know?

It is love and affection of the Potter that may guide the clay but Love never controls.  

With countless opportunities and good reason to turn the Wheel off and call it a day – pick up the disobedient Clay and chunk it – the Potter thinks about it - but leaves enough malleability in her own self to change her mind.

Look at your hands. Look at the face of the person on your right. Look at the face of the person on your right. Look all around this room. 

You – me – Us…We are the raw, ordinary materials – found at the back of the pantry shelf and brought to this moment.

We are the muck in which the Potter is digging deep even right now in hopes that something beautiful and useful will emerge.

We must be an interconnected, open and interdependent ecosystem, O house of Israel – O House of Royal Lane - a household which holds all the possibilities that the Potter has imagined and perhaps some not even imagined yet.   

The wheel continues to turn on affection – for you, for us, for the world.

The wheel continues to turn as we are worked and re-worked.

At the center of that wheel is a table. On it is a meal – made ready for us now. It is contained in vessels formed from Clay to a people who continue to be formed by Affection.

 Thanks be to God.