We are the clay, and you are our potter; We are all the work of your hand.
These words from Isaiah echo Genesis, in the second chapter when God created the first human being from the dust of the earth. In Hebrew, the first human is called A-dam, the word for man. He is shaped from the earth, which in Hebrew is A-dam-ah. In Hebrew we can hear the deep linguistic connection between humanity and the Earth: Adam, and Adamah. It is as if in English we said that God created the first earthling from the Earth. Clay is dug from the earth; it is a form of earth. The image in Isaiah is a creation image of the potter shaping the clay. When a pot is complete and yet not decorated or fired, it is actually called a “clay body.”
There are several varieties of clay—earthenware, stoneware, porcelain—each with different strength and flexibility. They can be fired at different temperatures in the kiln, and they take different glazes so their surfaces will have a different color and luster.
When you hear that we are the clay and God is the potter, what do you imagine yourself to be? Are you a cup? Is your family a bowl? Do you imagine a large pot signifying the whole community? The original hearers of Isaiah would have pictured that large pot. They were less individualistic, more community-oriented than we are now.
I’m not a potter—I have tried throwing pots but never gotten the clay centered on the wheel properly. I’ve never managed to create the well and pull up the sides like an experienced potter. As hard as it is to make anything on the potter’s wheel—a large pot is tremendously difficult. Even if it is pulled up and shaped into a large vessel, it may not survive moving it off of the wheel. If the potter gets it safely into the kiln, it may not survive the firing and cooling. Even if it lasts through the kiln, it is still fragile. If that large pot, representing our community, falls on a hard surface, it will break. A hard surface like a street in Ferguson, Missouri.
Community is fragile, and our community is clearly broken. I don’t feel able to speak with authority about what is happening in our country right now, but I am not able to remain silent when I hear the Gospel proclaim we are to keep awake. I would like to share with you the voices I listen to for guidance:
Our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, published a pastoral letter suggesting how we can move forward after Ferguson. She says that racism is not unique to any city, state or part of the country. It is structural, and part of the foundation of our country. Skin color is the most visible representation of what divides God’s children from one another.
When Martin Luther King led the march on Washington in August of 1963, he stood at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave his Dream Speech. He said:
“We have come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now.”
The fierce urgency of now—August, 1963. The now isn’t over. It isn’t a temporal now—it is a Biblical now. The now that is still happening, until justice reigns.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Dr. King, said that we are all children of God, and that judging people based on the color of their skin is an eye disease.
And Jesus—who taught so much about how we are to treat one another—said that it goes beyond loving our neighbor as ourselves. Who knows how much we love ourselves? His commandment was that we are to love one another as he loves us—a love that transcends our own self-love.
We can listen to wisdom from our teachers, but we all learn best from our own experiences. I would like to share my personal experience about the brokenness of racism.
I have a friend I met in seminary, who is also an Episcopal priest. Edwin is so high energy I get a boost just being around him. He was always in the front row in class. Not yet thirty, he is a salsa dancer and a body builder. He went to the gym early every morning—once somebody asked him why he was always so happy at the gym at 6AM. His answer was: “Jesus!” When I was going to Boston to interview for my first call, I asked for his blessing and a recommendation to the Bishop. Edwin grew up in Boston. He said “absolutely! Tell him I sent you.” Bishops always ask this one question: “Is there anything you want to tell me?” This, while he gave me a piercing look over his glasses. I said just one thing—that Edwin sent me with his blessing. “Edwin!” the Bishop lit up. “He’s the best!” Turned out to be the easiest interview ever.
Edwin and I both served in the Diocese of Massachusetts, and last spring we went to Clergy Conference together, down on Cape Cod. On the last morning, he was planning to leave after breakfast to get home to his wife and baby. We were sitting with several other people, and there was a pitcher and glasses on the table. I poured water for everyone. When I tried to hand it to Edwin he recoiled. “I can’t drink water!” he said. I thought that was a pretty strong reaction to a glass of water. And then I suddenly understood. He had a three hour drive back to Dorchester. If Edwin had to stop to use the restroom at a fast food restaurant or a gas station, he would be seen as a young, muscular, dark-skinned man with shoulder-length braids. There might be something that would infringe on his dignity or safety. I realized in that moment that things could look very different to Edwin and me. I began to wonder if that glass of water was a right or a privilege.
I have another friend, Donald. He is the proud grandfather of two boys. As he puts it: “one white, one black.” He is deeply disturbed to know that his black grandson, who is one year old, is more than twenty times as likely to be shot by a police officer than his white grandson who is four years old. His question is: “How long, O Lord, How long?”
I don’t know about you, but when I break a pot or a cup, I throw it away. But that isn’t what they do in Japan. There, artisans glue to shards together with lacquer, and rub gold dust on the seams. They do this in appreciation of the authentic life of the vessel. They respect the brokenness and the repair. The gold becomes a vein on the body of the pot. The gold is a river on the topography of the pot. It is a clay body that has been restored.
If we can ever heal the brokenness, we won’t be able to hide the scars. And we shouldn’t. We should find a way to see them as beautiful. We should celebrate the fact that where there was brokenness, there is healing.
I don’t know what it will take to restore our community. I don’t know what we at St. Paul’s are called to do. I’m new around here—you tell me. We need to have conversations about this, and see what we can do to help heal the brokenness in our community locally and at large. If you are politically minded, be active there. If you are philanthropic, there are organizations working on this. And always, always we can pray, and care for each other as individuals.
We are called by the fierce urgency of now. Jesus says, “Keep awake.”