Readings: Jeremiah 18:1-10; Luke 14:25-33
We don’t know what’s going to happen.
We hear journalists say that a lot on the news just now – almost affronted that they can’t report the future with the same confidence that they discuss the past. And yet, surely that’s the point of the future. It hasn’t happened yet. We don’t know what’s going to happen, what actions will take place, what words will be said, what thoughts will be thought. How… wonderful!
These are the first days of a new academic year, of the new Martinmas semester. Thousands of new and returning students have found their way into these streets and new homes, with the prospect of a new year, or even a new degree stretching ahead of them. I can imagine the BBC’s Chief Education Correspondent standing in the dark outside the Principal’s House on the 10 o’clock News saying,
The truth is, Huw, we just don’t know what will happen in these students’ lives. We know what the timetable is for the Biology 1 Module, and we know the 31 October deadline for that English literature essay – but what will the content of that essay be? We just don’t know.
The future shape of our students’ lives, indeed all of our lives, is not yet known, has not yet been made. Who will I be friends with by the end of this year? By the end of this week? What posters will go up on my wall? What will I love about Biology1? What ideas will I encounter in studying Explorers and Revolutionaries: Literature 1680-1830? What gifts in myself will I discover in trying out a new sport I’d never even heard of last week? Shinty? Ultimate Frisbee? Quidditch??? What interests will I explore, sparked by next Sunday’s Freshers Fayre? With whom will I fall in love? Fall out of love? Have a rather curious on/off relationship with? How will my faith deepen, change, struggle, strengthen?
And so perhaps there is no better image from the Bible for today than a lump of clay. I didn’t select this image specially – the list of readings for today, the lectionary, threw it up. Clay. Soft, malleable, workable, unformed, but capable of taking countless different shapes, through pressure, through tools, and by being thrown on a wheel. Pots, cups, plates, vases, ornaments, heads, torsos, animal figurines, and countless more designs, shaped, thrown, painted, glazed and fired. From a lump of clay the possibilities are as limitless as the potter’s imagination. I have a good friend who is a potter – she made the baptismal font for the Chapel. And I know that when she begins with a lump of clay, she doesn’t know exactly how it will look, but she means it to be good, to be beautiful, to be useful.
That is the image which Jeremiah saw and worked with. Thousands of years ago he visited a potter’s studio much like my friend’s, and saw a potter working a pot being thrown on a wheel. And Jeremiah saw the most brilliant metaphor for how God works. God is like a potter, and his beloved people are like clay. He is our creator, shaping his people. As the wheel spins, he checks us, guides us and shapes us, with the loving power to reshape us, remould us, when we take a form which is not working. Could I suggest that this may be a helpful image for so many of us in chapel, as our lives take on a new shape in St Andrews? Or, for parents especially, back home with that sense of a lump of clay plucked out from our shape and put elsewhere? An image of divine involvement in our new lives.
Of course, it is an image that some will resist. It may seem to give too much power to the divine, when human beings should really find hope in ourselves. I was visiting a friend a couple of weeks ago in Wiltshire, and passed some school gates. The school’s sign had this strapline: Empowering students to be the source of their own success. Well, yes, nobody else took those exams that led to a place in St Andrews. But what of those other sources of that success – parents, grandparents, schools, teachers and friends, books and websites? What of God, who has been shaping us, throwing us, guiding us not just in the future but the past? Those of you doing a module in Shakespeare this year may encounter these words spoken by Hamlet:
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.
And believe me, there can be some rough hewing, some mistakes and struggles, during the course of a degree here, or any life. But I believe in that loving divinity shaping our ends.
Of course, all analogies break down somewhere. The thing is: plates don’t have consciences. Pots don’t make decisions. Vases don’t spend the evening listening to a friend who’s in trouble. We may be shaped by God, but we are people with a will, who have power to create, to love and to affect the world. The climate emergency is just one example of that spectacular power. And the lectionary for today recognises that too. In the gospel passage, Jesus describes a builder making a tower, or a monarch planning a military campaign. Jesus offers these images to help us understand how we should live, not so much as malleable clay, but as shaping the future ourselves, making our own lives. Jesus shows us that we have responsibility, to think, to plan and prepare. And students have significant responsibilities – to read, to experiment, to watch, to spend money, to love, to respond the climate emergency, to write. That may lead to a sense of vertigo – How do I make those choices? What will I do in those situations? How will I know what the right thing is to do?
Today’s gospel doesn’t really answer in a comforting way. It doesn’t say, don’t worry – be happy. Instead, Jesus speaks of our growing in character, facing these responsibilities. Leave your possessions behind, he says. Take up your cross. Be my disciple. In other words, we shape our future in the basic commitments we make. And these commitments, embedded in us, lead to us having a pretty good idea what to do when the pressures come. What are these commitments? Be generous. Be sacrificial. Be loving. Be just. Be faithful.
Many in chapel today will feel thrown. Thrown by that sudden sense (18 years in the making) that the child of our love is now a person in their own right, and is already looking over our shoulder at what’s next. Or thrown by that sudden sense (18 years in the making) that I am a person in my own right, and can look over the shoulders of parents and supporters at what’s next. And there are 9200 students here. And I don’t really know a single one. Gulp. Let me tell you, you can’t be friends with 9200 other people. One or two will do – and that’s not that hard.
Everyone’s clay is different. I cannot know what pattern, what glaze you’ll be fired with in the heat of St Andrews life – and it gets pretty sweaty in Club 601 in the Union. And any of us here may well feel thrown, and alone. But, bringing the Old and New Testament readings together – the Christian faith is that we are being thrown by a potter whose hands are loving, who is shaping us out of our clay into fine, beautiful earthenware. And as he shapes us, he invites us to work with his guidance, in generous lives, kind, faithful, committed to justice for the planet and all with whom we share it.
We’ve just got time to head back for a final comment from our reporter on the Scores.
Well, Hew, my sources are telling me that we can’t know for sure what will happen to the planet in 2050, to the country on 31 October, or tomorrow at the University’s Opening Ceremonies. But one particular source who’s been around for a while said privately to me that the clay here is in good hands, that no matter how rough the ends are that we hew, Hew, there’s a divinity that is shaping our ends. Back to you in the studio. I’m off to throw some shapes in Clan Warfare in the Union.