Let me tell you about a summer Sunday some years ago at the church I served in Richmond. The choir was off and the music director asked one of our teenage acolytes to sing a solo at the Offertory. I heard them rehearse and it was absolutely splendid. During the service, however, things went south at the beginning of the solo and never quite recovered. It was not awful, but neither was it good, and we all shared in the young singer’s sense of failure and pain.
She and I stood next to each other as the congregation sang the Doxology at the Offering. I leaned over and thanked her for her solo. I don’t remember exactly how she responded, but it indicated she realized it had not gone well. “Would you like to try again,” I asked? “Could I,” she replied, surprised this was an option? “Absolutely,” I said. She did not hesitate in her response. So I asked the congregation to be seated and announced the young lady wanted a second chance. The director scrambled for her sheet music while the soloist took her spot. Her second attempt was beautiful and flawless and her redemption and triumph radiated through the congregation.
In childhood games they call it a “do over”. In golf it is called a “Mulligan.” In football they replay the down. It’s the reason every pencil has an eraser. Sometimes in life some things don’t go the way you want them to go. “Let me try again.” “I want another crack at it.” “Let’s take it from the top.”
Beyond the moments that get away from us, beyond the one juggled ball in ten we fumble, and beyond life’s unseen banana peels we slip on, there are times when we downright blow it on matters of consequence – intentionally, completely, perhaps even willfully. And it may not be a one-time occurrence either. It may be engrained in our personality. It may be life-style choice. It may be a part of yourself simply out of control. Change, if it comes at all, comes only after hitting bottom – through a crisis in your job, your health, your relationships, or even your legal freedom. Sometimes such an experience is described as being beaten down and having to start over.
In today’s reading from the Old Testament we hear God’s word to Jeremiah as the prophet watches a potter rework a lump of clay after the first attempt at fashioning it goes awry. “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as the potter has done,” God asks? “Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, says the Lord.” It is a message aimed not at a person but to a people; containing both judgment and grace, condemnation of what is and hope for what can be.
God’s refashioning of the people of Jeremiah’s day will begin with a military siege, result in merciless deaths and massive destruction, and grind into generations of exile. It is no painless, antiseptic process. It is a tremendously costly, both for the clay beaten back into a lump as well as for the Potter who has invested time and energy and creativity and hope in what turns out to be a flawed product. But the good news is all is not lost is: God is the God of ‘do overs’, mulligans, and replayed downs. Mistakes can be erased and we can try again.
When God looks at the clay that is our society and measures what we are becoming, what do you suppose the Holy Potter senses the need to do: reshape a little here and there or pound us down into a lump in order to start over?
I have mentioned before a book by Jonathan Sacks (a British author and rabbi) called Faith in the Future in which he writes about a concept called ‘Moral Capital’. It is not his idea, others have written about it as well. It is the notion certain moral behaviors benefit not just the individual, but also society as a whole. Moral values like justice (from which we derive truthfulness and trustworthiness), temperance (from which we derive moderation and self-restraint), and benefiance (from which we derive the values of self-sacrifice and giving) are a few of the virtues which have contributed to the moral capital of our society. As people manifest them personally in our common life, the world becomes a more humane place to live. And just as saving money builds up your financial reserves for a rainy day, a surplus of moral behavior has a way of carrying forward into the future and exerting its influence during dark times.
Rabbi Sacks, along with many others, contends we are living off of the moral capital of those who came before us. The ethics and integrity that undergirded Western Civilization and made for conditions where humanity could flourish are eroding away. We are like a cut flower whose beauty is diminishing due to its rootlessness. The signs are everywhere: broken homes, spiraling debt, a growing dependency on substance abuse… you know the list. According to Sacks, even faster than we are using up our natural resources, we are depleting our moral reserves. He is saying something I think many of us sense: we are not leading good lives and the future does not look bright.
Though it manifests itself in new ways, our society’s need for moral reform itself is not new. As clay, we are always being reshaped by the Holy Potter in order to more closely resemble God’s dream for the human family. We now live in a Post-Christian era where for the first time since the fourth century the Church’s authority no longer holds sway over society. Far from defeat, this puts us in a situation similar to the Pre-Christian era when the Church’s ability to live out the Gospel flattened into a lump the clay that was Roman and pagan society in order for something closer to God’s dream for all people to emerge. We in the Church today are called again to this kind of work and this kind of witness.
When God looks at the clay that is you and what you are becoming in this life, what does the Holy Potter sense the need to do – reshape or pound down?
In today’s New Testament reading we hear about someone Paul says was “useless,” but becomes “useful.” Onesimus is a runaway slave. His name in Greek literally means “useful;” hence the play on words. After fleeing from his owner, Philemon, Onesimus finds his way to Paul. During his time with the apostle, the slave undergoes a dramatic transformation. He becomes a very real source of comfort and support to Paul who is imprisoned.
But, in Paul’s mind, the new pottery will not be complete until Onesimus returns to Philemon. God’s work with Onesimus will not be finished until he and his former master are reconciled and standing on the same level as brothers in Christ. For this to happen, not only does the clay that is Onesimus need to be reworked, but also the clay that is Philemon as well as the clay that is Paul.
It is a wonderful testimony to what the Potter can do. God is about the work of molding us and shaping us into something useful. You and I, we have our rough edges and our wobbly sides. We are a work in progress to be sure. And there are some aspects of our lives, our practices, our beliefs, our attitudes, our behavior, our priorities that simply need to be patted down flat by God – the adversary of all that is not holy – so that a right and new beginning can emerge. You see, God who loves us as we are loves us too much to leave us as we are. God the Potter wants to shape us into something beautiful; something according to the poet of the 139th Psalm God has dreamed for you from before you were born.
Each of us is a work in progress. I take this to be good news. God desires to work on you, and in you, and (hopefully) with you to make you more and more reflective who God has created you to be. Do you believe this, that God has a dream for who you might become and how you might be useful in making the divine dream a reality? Do you believe you are clay in the hands of a skillful and loving Potter? Do you believe in the possibility of a mulligan for your foibles and failures in life? Do you believe in do overs for shaky solos and for shattered souls?