Posted by: owizblog | September 8, 2013

Sermon, UCB, 8 Sept 2013: Passive Aggressive Pottery

Jeremiah 18:1-11

Luke 14:25-33



Faith is born when God lays hold of us and and calls us to follow and be new and be changed.

To stay where we are is to refuse to go with God.

To stay what we are is to refuse what God will make of us, and to refuse what must be made of us.

For us to refuse to be changed is for us to refuse God.



I’ve said to you before that the trains of thought that take you out googling when you’re preparing your sermon lead in strange directions. I drifted from today’s readings, by strange byways, and, as always, learned some unexpected things.

Apparently there’s such a thing in America as a “cookie cake.” It’s basically a big, big biscuit with icing on it, often with a message to mark a special occasion. I came across the story of a woman who used to complain that her husband had never, ever surprised her with a cookie cake for a special occasion.

The following day was her birthday, and her husband surprised her with a cookie cake. Unfortunately, he took the gloss off the surprise with the message beautifully and carefully iced onto it. “Are You Happy Now?”

Passive aggression. That’s the theme of the website I found that on. When we feel powerless and resentful, and when we retaliate by doing things grumpily, unsatisfactorily, with a bad grace and a bad attitude. When we make ourselves difficult to work with, because we’re angry, or contemptuous, or both.

When we turn ourselves into a big, obstructive lump because we feel we are in the hands of others, and we resent it.

File that away.


It’s not hard to guess what else I’ve been googling this week, with this Jeremiah reading coming up in the Lectionary for today!

And in my trawling of the net, I came across a site called Peter’s Pottery – and a page on the site called “Learning By Failing.” I like this chap, and his page. He doesn’t give up. Potters are like that. They have a very particular take on what we’d call “failure.”

I’ve never tried my hand at pottery. I’d like to… In fact, I’d really like to! It looks to me like one of those human activities that could be as much fun when it goes wrong as when it goes right! Youtube is full of video clips of pots going spectacularly wrong! And there is the hope of progress – though I imagine that with clay on a wheel, too, there are people who just never get it, never hit on how to work with clay. But I might be one of those who progresses! I’ll need to give it a try.

It seems that for the potter, sometimes, the materials just can’t be made to work. Sometimes the potter’s skill will seem to founder on a piece of resistant gloop, on a lump of clay that just won’t be worked with.

And then, the potter can start again. With the same lump. Turn it into something else. Mould it in a new way, work it up for a new function, so that the play of imagination over the individuality, the qualities, of this lump and the experience of failing with it factor into the potter’s new intention. The potter works with the resistance of the clay, as well as its promise.

And nothing is fixed until it’s fired!

Jeremiah must have wandered by a potter’s shed one day, with his mind filled with contemporary reality. For him, that would have been a society full of injustice and social division, a society ruled by attitudes, and steered by policies, that were rooted in selfishness and greed. And there would have been geopolitics in the mix too, because Jeremiah has lots to say about the dangers of tying Judah’s stance in the world of the late seventh and early sixth century too closely to Egypt, of looking to one big power bloc to offset the clear threat of another, the empire of Babylon.

And where is God in all of this? Well actually, Jeremiah has a very clear sense of where God is in all of this, or, rather, where all of this is in relation to God. It sits in his hands. That’s what the community of the realm of Judah won’t and can’t see. That what is out of their hands is in God’s hands, and if they are, as they proclaim so loudly, God’s own people, then what that means is that they are not absolved of responsibility.

They are God’s people, not because they are amazingly special, or intrinsically wonderful, or have an unbreakable contract with God. They are God’s people because God has called them to be, and because of their response.

Faith is born when God lays hold of us and calls us to follow and be new and be changed.

To stay where we are is to refuse to go with God.

To stay what we are is to refuse what God will make of us, and to refuse what must be made of us.

For us to refuse to be changed is for us to refuse God.

So, thinking of all things in God’s hands, and – to risk stretching things a bit far – of his own people, his own society, as a big, sticky lump, Jeremiah passes the potter’s shop. And he sees what happens to a big, sticky lump of clay in skilled, shaping hands. And he sees failure and collapse. And he sees the potter start again, change his plan, change the design that is never completely in his head, but exists somewhere between the potter’s head and his sensitive, cradling hands, discerning the reality of the clay, sensing what can be made of it and with it.


We get this powerful image wrong if we think of it as an image of power and powerlessness, the power of the potter and the passivity of the clay, the omnipotence of God and the powerless passivity of Israel. The whole point of the image is that the clay is both passive and resistant in the hands of the potter, it thwarts certain designs, not because of what it wants, that’s in contradiction to the will of the potter, but because of what it is.

The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him…

Yes, as seemed good to the potter – but only after he has already worked with the clay, interacted with this lump, let it reshape his thinking, work out what was going wrong…

The potter’s relationship with the clay – which the clay could never initiate – is what gives the clay its form and shape, brings it to life. Clay doesn’t talk or think, but there is a dialogue between the potter and the clay.

And that’s as far as this image goes. It’s a parable.

“Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.”

I can change my mind. I can work with you, and find that you won’t let me work with you, so I can work with you again, and do something different with you.

There’s no hint that Jeremiah’s potter can’t do something – something skilled, something that is the expression, not of the potter’s power, but of his creativity, of his love of his craft expressed lovingly in his work with the clay, to make a pot that he will love, and loves into existence.

It’s the resistance, the dull, stupid, passive-aggressive resistance, of the clay, that makes it look as though the potter’s craft is all power, and the clay is the very definition of powerlessness. The potter takes the shapeless, lumpen clay and forms it and shapes it, and works patiently and lovingly with it, and makes it into an expression of his loving patience. And the clay resists that, and won’t let the potter do what first he wanted. So he starts again, because he is the potter and this is the clay, and the clay won’t let the potter do what he, with his skill and loving patience, wants to do.

So he starts again. And he makes something different, something that embodies his conversation with the clay, in which the clay is grudgingly, stupidly saying its partial, passive-aggressive “Are you happy now?” And the potter says “No…” and lovingly starts again.

Faith is born when God lays hold of us and and calls us to follow and be new and be changed.

To stay where we are is to refuse to go with God.

To stay what we are is to refuse what God will make of us, and to refuse what must be made of us.

For us to refuse to be changed is for us to refuse God.



Passive aggression. The young king of passive aggression was Harry Enfield’s comedy character Kevin the Teenager, whose resentment towards his parents, their very lightly-held authority over him, the minimal “we all have to live in the house together” rules they tried to impose on him, were met with a treacly flood of passive aggressive “Oh, all RIGHT!” co-operative non-co-operation.

“All RIGHT, I’LL tidy my room, because YOU CAN’T BE BOTHERED!”

And then, there’s that quintessential adolescent phrase “You’re not the boss of me.”

I even managed to track down the quotation in which it occurs first, in a book of ancient and dry-looking sermons from New England!

“His sister was going to put her arms around him, but he whirled, and facing her with a very angry face, snapped — “Let me alone; you are not the boss of me now, I tell you, and I’m going to do as I please.” I think we get the gist…

And that’s what today’s Gospel is all about. It’s about an attitude that’s not a million miles from passive aggression. I didn’t sign up for all of this. I don’t like the demands that this makes of me. And by the way, “You’re not the boss of me!” Nobody is, however much they boss me about, and however much I can’t do anything about that, except be passively aggressive about it…


Jesus has called people to come with him. And we know that there are various times in the Gospels when they grumble about that. This isn’t what we expected. This isn’t what we signed up for. This is hard stuff, hard teaching, a hard and unreasonable ask. This is more than we can get our heads around. This is dangerous! This is unpopular in powerful circles, this makes him look awkward and difficult and challenging, and makes us look like that, too. We find this difficult and challenging. Grumble, grumble.

And Jesus says here, in today’s Gospel reading, you’d better take stock. If you want to follow, you’d better do the sums. You’d better work out what you think this is all about, what it’s really all about, and whether it’s worth it. Because it’s no good going along for the ride, and finding that this is really about the Kingdom of God, and its righteousness – and its demands, and its challenge, and its unpopularity, and about taking up your cross and following, because that’s what following me means. It’s no good signing up because you think it’s all about getting God on your side, and finding out that it’s about taking the side of the Kingdom in a world that definitely, radically, isn’t the Kingdom.

Take stock, says Jesus. This is what you signed up for. It’s what I’m inviting you know to sign up for. It isn’t easy, and bits of it you won’t like, but if you start and then stop half-way, if you get all resentful and grumpy when things get tough, you will look a twit.

“Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.”

The potter invites the clay to be more than clay. Jeremiah watches the clay decline the invitation, and the potter gently but firmly insist. This clay is to be more than just clay.

And we are called to be more than shapeless lumps, and more than resentful putty in the hands of an omnipotent power, so that we can only register our existence, our selfhood, by sullen passive aggression and resentment. God calls us to be shaped into what we can’t imagine. And God challenges us not just to say a resentful “All right…” but a responsible, adult yes. Jesus challenges us too weigh it all up, and accept the enormity of getting up and following where he leads.

We aren’t lumps of passive, shapeless clay. God forgive us if we make ourselves so.

Faith is born when God lays hold of us and and calls us to follow and be new and be changed.

To stay where we are is to refuse to go with God.

To stay what we are is to refuse what God will make of us, and to refuse what must be made of us.

For us to refuse to be changed is for us to refuse God.

We can be as grumpy and resistant as we like. But God doesn’t leave it at that…

God doesn’t stop working with us. We can say “No!” We can say the grumpy, I-hate-this, Oh-all-RIGHT, passive-aggressive “Yes…” which is really a “No!” Or we can right now, do our sums, see that it costs, see that it won’t be easy but demanding and challenging – and then see what it’s about, what it’s really about, and say, without any sort of reservation, our adult, free, “Yes!”


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