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The Potter and the Clay

September 9, 2007

Philip Culbertson

Pentecost 15     Jeremiah 18:1-11


Opening prayer: Te Atua, tohu e, aroha mai ra, ki to whanau, kotahi, ko matou enei e. Amine.


Preaching to you this morning is a momentous personal occasion for me, because this is the last liturgical act I will perform in New Zealand, before heading back to the US to begin my semi-retirement. I’ve been here 15 years now, and for a variety of reasons, it is time, on the eve of my 63rd birthday, for me to leave. Excited as I am about where I’ll be a few months from now, I also am aware that there will be an enormous sadness about leaving this country. NZ has been very good to me over the past 15 years, and I hope I am correct in claiming that I have been good to NZ in return.


I’m also reminded that this is the third parish in which Glynn has invited me to preach. I preached for him at St. Mary’s Glen Innes, St Andrew’s Epsom, and now St Matthew-in-the-City. Glynn, you and your family have been good friends to me, and you’re among the many whom I will miss.


I was pleased to find Jeremiah 18 appointed as one of the lessons for this morning, because that text would offer me a chance to do what I most enjoy doing, both in the pulpit and in the classroom – to “muse” broadly across the fields of Biblical studies, rabbinic literature, psychology, gender, and popular culture.


I was raised in the 1950s in a traditional, though not very conservative, congregation in small-town Oklahoma – where the wind comes sweeping down the plain. As a child I was a romantic, and yet very uncomfortable in my own skin. I drew a lot of comfort from singing hymns in church, including two that make direct reference to Jeremiah 18:


“Have thine own way, Lord, have thine own way, Thou art the potter, I am the clay,”[1] and “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me, Break me, melt me, mould me, fill me.”[2] The metaphor of God as a potter who moulds and shapes us into something that is God-pleasing has been part of my spiritual life for a long long time. Indeed, it’s a relatively common metaphor for God in the Bible, for we find it not only in Jeremiah, but also in Isaiah, Lamentations, Daniel, Psalms, Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom, Matthew, and Paul’s letter to the Romans.


I suspect that the potter metaphor wouldn’t be quite so popular in the Bible if you and I hadn’t started off as Dirt. That’s what the word Adam means: Dirt. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all three tell the traditional story that we human beings started out as dirt, or dust, and God spit into us, making us into clay, and then moulded us as male and female. It’s only a short leap from God’s moulding us out of dirt and spittle, to a potter at the potter’s wheel, shaping a lump of clay. But a potter can’t make just anything out of clay; the potter can only make what the clay allows. As Biblical scholar John Bright points out, “The quality of the clay determines what the potter can do with it, so the quality of a people determines what God will do with them.” [3] Who we are as individuals, and communities, depends both on God’s intention, and the raw material God has to work with. I’ll return to that point later.


The Hebrew word which lies behind our English translation of “potter” is “yotzer’. [4] A yotzer is anyone who forms or fashions something, and quite literally means a “maker”. A maker, as metaphor or in real life, can be a man (yotzer) or a woman (yotzeret), and in fact, either of those terms can also be translated as “sacred potter”. The Biblical text uses only the masculine form, though in modern Hebrew the feminine form has become more common. In fact, there are modern Jewish prayers that refer to God as “yotzeret ha’adam”, the (female) creator of humanity. This whole conversation about God’s gender easily falls into what we call the “anthropomorphizing” of God, the imaging of God in human terms, because it is so difficult for us, as human beings, to think outside of human terms and descriptions. What is perhaps even more interesting is the way that the Biblical potter is anthropomorphized emotionally. God as potter is alternatively angry, mischievous, or deeply caring.


In the Testament of Naphtali, one part of an Aramaic document written in Syria about one-hundred years before Jesus, called the “Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs,” the image of God as a potter is expanded upon. For just as a potter knows the pot, how much it holds, and brings clay for it accordingly, so also the Lord forms the body in correspondence to the spirit, and instills the spirit corresponding to the power of the body. And from one to another here is no discrepancy, not so much as a third of a hair, for all the creation of the Most High was according to height, measure, and standard. And just as the potter knows the use of each vessel and to what it is suited, so also the Lord knows the body to what extent it will persist in goodness, and when it will be dominated by evil. For there is no form or conception which the Lord does not know, since he created every human being according to his own image. [5]


Now, this passage clearly anthropomorphizes God as one who thinks, evaluates, and measures, just as we humans do. This God is quite intellectual, perfect, controlled and controlling. Perhaps that’s why this God is called a masculine yotzer, rather than a feminine yotzeret! But it’s quite hard to imagine this yotzer making a mistake. And in fact, the metaphorical potter-God in the Bible apparently doesn’t make mistakes, because if the potter is unhappy with the pot, he simply destroys it, returning it to shards, or even to lifeless dust. Jeremiah favours that metaphorical picture, of an angry potter, one who changes his mind, who plucks up, breaks down, and destroys.


Sometime relatively soon after Jesus, the early rabbis argued for a different kind of potter: one who could make a mistake. The rabbis introduce a decidedly feminine image of a potter as a woman giving birth – perhaps the ultimate “maker” – by interpreting the two stones, the obayaim, which comprise a potter’s wheel as being like two thighs. In Tractate Sotah 11b, in the Babylonian Talmud, it is written: Another [teacher] explains [the word ‘obayaim’] in accordance with what is written. Then I went down to the potter’s house, and behold, he wrought his work on the wheels. As in the case of a potter, there is a thigh on one side, a thigh on the other side, and the wooden block in between, so also with a woman there is a thigh on one side, a thigh on the other side, and the child in between.


Elsewhere in rabbinic literature (Tractates Berakhot 31b-32a and Sukkah 52b), the rabbis argue that God despairs of the fact that he or she included the capacity to sin within the act of creating human beings. They argue this by combining three verses of Scripture. The first is Micah 4:6 – And whom I have wronged, a reference to the privilege of human beings to act insolently in God’s presence. The second is Jeremiah 18:6 – that we are clay in the hands of the Maker, and so the Maker bears the responsibility for “making” us come out right. The third is Ezekiel 36:26 – And I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh, meaning that even if God accidentally gave us the capacity to sin, God also has the power to remove that characteristic from us. This, then, is a potter who makes mistakes from time to time, who can be held accountable for those mistakes, who only mistakenly would ever put human beings to the kind of test that could result in being unloved, and who maintains a distinctly self-corrective relationship with humanity.


But a potter can also be mischievous. In the soundtrack from the movie Brokeback Mountain, pop crooner Rufus Wainwright sings a song called “The Maker Makes”.


One more chain I break

To get me closer to you,

One more chain does the maker make

To keep me from busting through


One more smile I fake

And try my best to be glad,

One more smile does the maker make,

Because he knows I'm sad


Oh Lord, now I know

Oh Lord, now I see

That only can the maker make

A happy man of me. [6]


This “maker,” in Wainwright’s theological statement, seems to be one who sometimes thwarts our desires, simply because he or she can, and in order to help us maintain a sense that we cannot make alone ourselves happy. But this Maker is also one who replaces our fake smiles with genuine ones. Only God can make “a happy man of me” sings Wainwright.


These three interpretations of “the maker” form a kind of theological anthropology. A lump of clay does not choose to fall into the Maker’s hands. The initiation for making comes only from the Maker. Or, as Mary Shelley cited in the introduction to Frankenstein, echoing the words of Paradise Lost: “Did I request thee, Maker from my clay, to mould me man? Did I solicit thee from darkness to promote me?” Yet, as John Bright points out, the meaning of our passage this morning from Jeremiah is that “The quality of the clay determines what the potter can do with it…” Even the air quality in a potter’s studio affects what happens with the clay. We might, then, view this metaphor of God as potter and us as clay not as a situation in which we are passive recipients, to be broken, melted, moulded, and filled, but rather in some sense we co-participate with God in the creation of who we are. And just as a fine piece of pottery takes a lot of time, and a lot of loving caressing to make, so do we humans. We start out as a lump of dirt and spittle, burst forth from the straining thighs of the wheel, and are slowly slowly become something that pleases the critical eye of God. With God, and over a life-time, we co-create beauty in our lives, and meaning within a community of faith.


When I am working in my other capacity, as a psychotherapist in private practice, I sit in intimate conversation with clients, and together, we attempt to find new ways to make meaning out of the events of their lives – meanings which will open up new possibility, and greater health. I’m a bit hesitant to apply the metaphor of “therapist” to God, though in then end, “therapist” simply means “healer,” and that is certainly one of the attributes of God, and for that matter, of one of God’s sidekicks, the archangel Raphael, which simply means “God’s healer”. Healing happens when power is shared in the therapy room. It doesn’t happen when I impose my interpretation of a client’s problems onto the client, and it doesn’t happen when the client is resistant to what I am saying. Healing happens “relationally,” when a client and I work together within the relational space to find new interpretive meanings that allow the client to heal and to move forward in life.


But there’s another important aspect of healing in therapy. When I was a small child, I believed that I could only bring my “good parts” to God. Fearing to make God angry, I was tempted to hide things from God. The God I knew as a child wasn’t nearly as smart as Santa Claus, who “knows when you’ve been bad or good.” I was so frightened of letting God know when I’d been bad, so I could stand in church and sing “Just as I am, without one plea,” and not mean a word of it!


I ask my therapy clients to try to bring all of themselves into the counseling room. For many, that takes a long time. Most human beings have secrets of some kind that they don’t easily reveal in the midst of important relationships. Yet therapy, like God-work, is only effective when we’ve brought the good parts of ourselves, AND the bad parts of ourselves, into the relationship, to try to make more constructive meaning out of it all. A potter uses the clay as it is. A potter works with the clay’s flaws and inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies. The potter-God that we Christians believe in can take all of those things, the good and the bad, and turn them into something beautiful, but only if we have presented all the parts of us within a relationship of trust. Like therapy, this takes quite a while for most of us – perhaps even much of a lifetime. As John Denver says in his song “Potter’s Wheel,” “The potter’s wheel takes love and caring, skill and patience, fast and slow.” [7] With patience, the potter and the clay can, together, create something that both find pleasing, and that each offers to the other. One of the many lessons I have learned in the past ten years of practice as a psychotherapist is that clients mostly want to be as healthy as they are capable of being, but the specific definition of that health is much more determined by them, the clay, than it is by me, the potter.


Yet the old images of the potter and the clay remain. Built into them is a sense of domination and oppression – the potter has all the control, and the clay can only remain passive, molded only as the potter wishes, and even destroyed as the potter wishes. This is one type of Christian theology, but I no longer believe it is a healthy Christian theology. Yet it persists, even here in New Zealand:


In 2002, New Zealand pop singer Brooke Fraser released her first CD, a “mini” recording that had just a few songs on it. One of those songs was called “Pliable.” Today, she tops the charts in New Zealand on a regular basis, and many of our students at the University are fans of hers. Brooke Fraser’s lyrics in “Pliable” take us, in a sense, full circle back to the old hymns “Have thine own way, Lord” and “Spirit of the living God.” I’m fascinated that a young woman in New Zealand thinks of herself in relation to God just the way that I did over fifty years ago. She sings:


I’m working to be pliable

Taken me in your hands and mould me

I’m yours, that’s undeniable

But I am weak, so take me in and hold me. [8]


John Bright’s claim, that the product which a potter attempts to make out of clay is determined as much by the nature of the clay as it is by the potter’s skill, takes us in a very different direction than Brooke Fraser’s lyric, that she is so weak that all she can aspire to is to be pliable in the hands of God. Such a claim might be typical of late-Victorian theology, which in a former American prayerbook taught us to pray at every eucharist: “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us.” I no longer believe this phrase, nor do I even think it is psychologically or spiritually healthy to teach people to pray in this manner. If we share God’s image, which is one of the foundational claims of the Bible, then we surely share God’s power. If we share God’s image, then we surely share God’s dignity. If we are God’s clay, we bring our own individual strengths and properties to the potter, and together work with the potter to co-produce a product of beauty. And if I cannot see the beauty in every human being I encounter, in the therapy room, a congregation, or a University classroom – in Darfur and Kabul, in Pyongyang and Teheran, in Suva and at the Sydney APEC conference, in Otara and Moerewa – then how can I stand in love and solidarity with those who inhabit this fragile and increasingly-interdependent world in which we live? In other words, I believe that the radical hope which Christian faith offers to the world is dependent upon our seeing the strength and beauty of the clay, as much as we see the power and skill of the potter.


Perhaps this has been one of the greatest gifts this country has given me during my 15 years here – to be able to see the beauty of all Creation through new experiences. Living here has given me the opportunity to admire not only


• the beauty of native trees and plants, but also the degree to which we go here to protect the potter’s inspiration;


• the dignity and indigenous wisdom of South Pacific cultures, but also the lengths to which many people in this country go to preserve and honor them;


• the curiosity inherent in the intellectual life of this country, but also the bravery that so many people express in exploring new ideas and ways of doing things for the health of all;


• the willingness of people here to take social issues seriously, but also the capacity so many people of this land seem to have to chuckle out loud at ourselves, and to show such genuine affection for one another.


These are rare qualities among the nations of the world. These are expressions of power, dignity, and beauty. I believe you have co-created these things with the Maker, out of your own strengths. I am a lucky man to have been invited to abide under your roof for so long, and to have become part of this beautiful vessel of the Pacific.




O Potter God, what a wonderful world you have made out of wet mud, and what beautiful men and woman. And we thank you, God, for initiating the co-creation of this marvelous world with us. As your hands twirl us round and round and touch us everywhere, shape us to be the most beautiful creation we can be, so that together, we and you, can model for others how wonderful it can be to be the work of your hands. Amen.



[1] The words for this hymn were written in about 1930 by Adelaide Pollard, a young woman from Iowa. She desperately wanted to go to Africa as a missionary, but was unable to raise the necessary funds. In these words, she is asking whether she is too proud and self-willed for God to use. Some years later, she did receive the funding to go to Africa to witness to her faith in God.


[2] The text and music for “Spirit of the Living God” were written in 1926 by Daniel Iverson (1890-1977), a Presbyterian minister. About this hymn William J. Reynolds wrote: “During January and February of 1926, the George T. Stephans Evangelistic Party conducted a city-wide revival in the tabernacle in Orlando, FL. Daniel Iverson, a Presbyterian minister from Lumberton, NC, spent several days in Orlando visiting with the Stephans’ team. The day he arrived, he was greatly impressed by a message on the Holy Spirit given Dr. Barron, a physician from Columbia, SC. Later that day Iverson went to the First Presbyterian Church in Orlando, sat down at the piano, and wrote this song. Miss Birdie Loes, the pianist for the Stephans’ team, wrote it out on manuscript paper. E. Powell Lee, the team song leader, was immediately impressed, and taught it to the people that evening in the tabernacle, and used it throughout the campaign (Reynolds, 1976, 199).” It first appeared in print in Revival Songs, 1926. In subsequent years it was erroneously attributed to B.B. McKinney in Songs of Victory, 1937, and the initial printing of the Baptist Hymnal, 1956. Due to the efforts of E. Powell Lee in around 1960, Iverson’s name was restored as the rightful composer.


[3] John Bright, Jeremiah, in The Anchor Bible series, Garden City: Doubleday, 1965, p. 125.


[4] William Gesenius, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, edited by Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951, p. 427.


[5] H. C. Kee, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, in The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha: Apocalyptic Literature & Testaments, Garden City: Doubleday, 1983, p. 811.


[6] Words and music by Rufus Wainwright, from the movie soundtrack for Brokeback Mountain.


[7] Words and music by Bill Danoff, as recorded by John Denver.


[8] Lyrics by Brooke Fraser, from her 2002 single “Better”. For more information about Brooke Fraser, see;; and Other songs that might be used to illustrate this theme are “Beautiful, Loved and Blessed,” by Prince, “Gypsy,” by Suzanne Vega, and “Only You,” from “Starlight Express” by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

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