Jeremiah 18:1-10 (with reference to Genesis 1 and Psalm 139)
A rabbi named Zusya was on his deathbed with all his disciples gathered around him. He drifted off to sleep but then work suddenly with a loud cry. “Oy, such a terrible and auspicious dream I have had!” he exclaimed and his disciples drew near to hear.
“I dreamt that I had died and gone to heaven. And as I stood before the Judgment Seat of God, I became afraid that I had not done enough with the life God had given me. As I waited, I became certain that God was going to ask me, “Zusya, why weren’t you Moses or why weren’t you Solomon, or why weren’t you David?”
When God appeared to me, I was not asked, “Why weren’t you Moses?” I was not asked “Why weren’t you David?”
Instead God asked me a more terrible question: “Why were you not Zusya?” And I did not have an answer.
Throughout human history, human beings have been preoccupied with the question: “Who am I?” And with every generation’s question, the philosophers of that generation try to answer. Euripedes told the ancient Greeks: “There is just one life for each of us: our own.” In the Middle Ages, Erasmus told his followers: “It is the chiefest point of happiness that a man is willing to be what he is.” Goethe wrote: “If God had wanted me otherwise, He would have created me otherwise.”
This quest continues into the 21st century – with a twist. Stop by the “self-help” section of Barnes & Noble and you can clearly see that, at least in the USA, we seem to be on an endless quest of discovering who we are, trying to change who we are, or trying to figure out how to become the person we really are but have been covering up for some time now. In the United States, the quest to create the “real me” takes us on a journey from Botox to Viagra, from Porsche Carreras to Hum-vees, from Pritkin to Atkins to the Zone, from Dr. Phil to Anthony Robbins to Oprah. It seems that we have the same obsession as Rabbi Zusya: that when we stand at the judgment throne, we will be asked: Why weren’t you more beautiful? Why weren’t you thinner? Why weren’t you more self-actualized? Why didn’t you look more successful? As a congregation, perhaps we fear that God will say: Palo Cristi Presbyterian Church, why weren’t you Valley PC? Why weren’t you Central PC? Why weren’t you First Congregational?
Of course, none of us here is on such an absurd quest. Of course, none of us has experienced a mid-life crisis or high school peer pressure or co-worker envy. NOne of us has wished to be the kind of parent of homemaker or selfless volunteer that our neighbor is. None of us has ever, ever looked at our bodies and yearned to be sleeker, stronger, less gray, more… whatever. OK it’s true; I’m pushing the sarcasm envelope just a bit. But I think we need to push ourselves on this point because as residents in the USA, we are vulnerable – and not just to some terrorist threat from a group of extremists. As Christians who reside in this country, we are in danger of succumbing to the culture of the perfect, the culture of the beautiful, the culture of have-it-all. It’s a culture that unfortunately has deep roots in our Puritan work ethic that for about 400 years has told us if we work hard enough, if we try really, really hard, we can have, be, do anything we want. David Brooks talks about this as the “prime directive of this generation: Thou shalt construct thine own identity.” (Bobos in Paradise)
The problem with our culture is that it is next to impossible to attain whatever image of perfection we hold in our minds. No matter how many times we “reinvent” ourselves – change careers change lifestyles, change whatever, no matter how much botox; no matter how many steroids; no matter how many books we read, how many classes we take, how much money we make, how many so-called life-changing experiences we have, we cannot do what everything around us tells us is possible. We cannot make something of ourselves if that something isn’t there to begin with.
That might sound discouraging. Too depressing. We have been raised to believe that in America, anything is possible and that if someone isn’t successful, it’s because they haven’t tried hard enough or because they’re lazy or because they just want a free ride. Yet as much as we’ve been taught to believe that, all we have to do is look at our own family histories and I’ll bet every one of us will be able to see that we have been told a big lie. Think for a moment about your own family’s past. Have there been failures? Squandered opportunities? Struggles of every kind? Of course. Perhaps your family, like mine, has more “ugly people” than “beautiful people” in it. We don’t have to think too long or too hard to realize that even now, there are very few people among us who can actually live up to the ideals that we strive to reach. I believe it is that awareness, that deep seated realization that creates such anxiety in the majority of folks in this country. No matter how hard we try, we simply cannot live up to the vision of the perfect life that has been presented to us by Wall Street and the mainstream media.
This business of identity creation is not new. When Jeremiah was speaking to Israel, they, too, had begun to create a new identity for themselves. They had forgotten all that God had done and were beginning to act a though they could live without paying attention to the one who created them. After all, they now had mighty kings who ruled their land. They formed treaties with foreign powers. They had lived in that land long enough to adopt lifestyles and cultures of the people around them, even worshipping the gods of those with whom they did business. It was a show of good will, after all!
The vision God gave to Jeremiah – the vision of a potter at his wheel – was an attempt to remind Israel who was in charge. They had grown used to their independence – to forming their own future – to creating and recreating their identity. But God called them sharply back: “You are just like the clay in the potter’s hand,” God said, “and I will do with you just as the potter does. If the pot turns out badly, I will start over and make another pot. If the pot turns out to be the wrong shape for my purposes, I will reshape it. If the pot isn’t the right size for my needs, I will reform it. But I will not leave the pot on the wheel and walk away.”
All the worry and fuss about who they ought to become – who they were trying to be in that world – came down to this one point: These were God’s people, created by God. God formed them from a barren couple – Abram and Sarai – a people who had been no people at all – just a small tribe of herding folk. From that nothing of a beginning, God formed a great nation. And the minute God’s people forgot that, God destroyed the clay pot of Israel by throwing them into exile and began to create them anew. At the end of the day, their efforts to recreate themselves left them feeling just as worried about their future as before.
It’s a lesson we still haven’t learned. The yearning to find ourselves isn’t erased by our anxious striving. Yet even in the depths of this anxious striving that the words of God spoken at the dawn of creation are whispered into our hearts: “Let us make human beings in our image, make them a reflection of our nature.” The psalmist is right. We are “fearfully and wonderfully made” in the very image and likeness of God – the creator of all. If that is our baseline – why would we ever want to change who we are? The problem is that we are not hearing these words in a vacuum – we are not able to comprehend these words at the moment of our birth and by the time we can grasp what they might mean for us, we have already begun the process of creating our own identities after the image and likeness of what someone else has told us is the next best thing. It’s easy for us to become distracted by listening to what the world thinks we ought to be or by what our church or family or community traditions tell us we should be like. The poet, ee cummings said: “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle which any human being an fight; and never stop fighting.”
It is hard work – a battle – to claim and live into what God has created in us. But there’s great hope for us – really good news as we hear God’s word today. When we take time to discover ourselves – our true selves – the ones that God created in the image of God’s very self, we will find that God is right there with us, shaping us on that potter’s wheel every moment of every day of our lives – making us into something truly wonderful. Amen.