Sacred Soil


Formed from Dirt
September 20, 2015, 10:15 am
Filed under: Sermons

clayI have this great picture of Jeanie (that she has forbidden me to post, so I’ve chosen another), taken on a day spent with our friend Barbara. Barbara is a potter, and on the day of the photo, Jeanie had decided to give it a try.

Pottery is fundamentally a tactile experience–folding and kneading the wet clay, working in just enough moisture that it becomes pliable, distributing the water so that it is spread evenly throughout. It’s good exercise after a day of frustration. Once the clay is ready, it takes a steady and patient hand to coax the clay into formation.

At Barbara’s direction, Jeanie held the ball of clay steady in her hand and tossed it onto the wheel, firm and hopeful. Then she turned the wheel on with her foot and began to shape the clay–desperately seeking its center.

Turns out this is one of the most difficult aspects of pottery–finding the center. To begin, you have to move the mound of clay to that perfect spot in the middle where it can be pulled and teased into other shapes. If you’re even a little off, as you pull up on the clay, the slightest wobble will send shards of wet sloppy clay flying across the room.

As any new potter would, Jeanie struggled to find the center–and as a result, that ball of clay kept getting smaller and smaller, slipping through her fingers, splattering across the room, her clothes, her glasses. Till finally the adventure descended into a mud fight. That’s when I grabbed my camera.

In our texts for today, the disciples were also struggling to find their center. After a long day of hearing Jesus talk about how he was going to die, the disciples, tired of being confused and disoriented, they decided to talk about something they were pretty sure they understood: who was the greatest.

Though, it’s clear from our text that they disagreed about the particulars of the answer, as each placed himself squarely in the middle of that wheel.

But, Jesus knew that kind of center wasn’t going to hold. It couldn’t. Imagining the disciples jockeying for their role as the greatest… well… seems to me that that mostly a bunch of mud flinging, splattering. I think Jesus knew, we’re not going to be able to form anything out of that…

And so, he sits down, calls the twelve to him, and then places a child in the center. A kid. Right in the middle.

Now this is unexpected. Perhaps even odd. I get that these disciples (who are always messing up) shouldn’t be at the center. I get that their desires for greatness are merely egomaniacal dreams. That makes sense to me. But, what’s odd is that Jesus didn’t put himself there at the center, you know, as the son of God. Rather it is a child, right there in the middle.

Now, I think it’s tempting to view this image much as we view pictures of Santa Claus. Sweet Jesus, holding a small child in his lap for all of us to admire and adore. Cue the sappy music; find the soft-focus lens.

But I don’t think that Jesus did this to be cute or sentimental. For one thing, this doesn’t fit with any other picture we have of him. He’s not a sappy guy. Especially as Mark portrays him. Just ask that withered fig tree, or the money changers in the temple.

Instead, I think Jesus was putting vulnerability in the center. Our very own fragile nature. Our capacity for heartbreak and hope, all that makes us small. I think he was telling us that our vulnerability is the clay of greatness, the mixture of sand and dirt and water that can form beauty and possibility. All those things that leave us utterly defenseless.

This is something that parents know especially well. To love someone small and fragile, someone who needs our protection—it is as if that little one walks around with your own heart beating outside your chest, exposed, naked. Their bruises are your own, their cries for help pierce through you, as your own body echoes with their pain. To love a child means to take on their vulnerability as if it were your own. Because it is.

This is what Jesus was placing in their center. Not a cute baby. No, Jesus placed there the very thing the disciples would call “least.” The reminder that we are all as children, all fragile, all in need of loving care.

He was clear; this center is held by our brokenness, not our capacity to earn money, not our skills in time management. Certainly not our college degrees. No, Jesus places in their center, our center, our shared capacity for heartbreak and hope, all that makes us small and fragile.

And then he tells them, tells us, welcome this little one, for in so doing, you welcome me. In welcoming this vulnerable, fragile one, you welcome God.

And if you think about it, we’ve known that for a while. God is found in brokenness.

We find our God among

  • those who come here for PADS, our emergency shelter;
  • Syrian refugees who desperately hope to escape the cruelty of war,
  • those who fear their homes,
  • those whose work feels meaningless.
  • Those who rely on others for their daily care.
  • With all of the vulnerable, all of the least,

Our God is there, calling us to re-center, to refocus, to turn from our own self-serving need to be the “greatest,” and seek God among the least.

Turns out, this is why our God came to dwell with us in the first place–because God’s own heart broke in our vulnerability. God’s own self ached with our pain. The echoes of our cries piercing God’s very own body. And knowing this, God wanted us to know there is hope and possibility far beyond our capacity to imagine. Indeed, God came to us, experienced our vulnerability even to death, God’s very own death. And in so doing showed us life and beauty beyond measure.

Throwing pots is messy. Dirty. To make a pot means embracing the dirt–that which we might call the least. To make a pot means tending to its form, nudging and shaping, nourishing with water. It requires patience– prayer. It means knowing when to pull, when to push, when to rest the clay. But first, it requires a center, a grounding, a place from which to move and grow, a place from which to form.

And this is what our God has done for us, for all of us. We who are small, we who are more fragile than we would ever like to name. God has gone to the heart of our own brokenness, our own vulnerability, taking it on with God’s own self. And this is a free gift– nothing we asked for and nothing we earn. And yet, we are invited to see, to tend to the heartbreak of the world, to our own heartbreak and seek God’s very self at the center.

For we are formed from this clay. From this dirt and sand and water that God has breathed life into us that we too may go and love what God has loved.

Amen.