Broken Vases

Sunday 9th March 2014
Year A, The First Sunday of Lent
St Peter's, Woodmancote
Jeremiah 18:1-11
Luke 18:9-14

In recent years there have been at least two celebrated cases of broken vases: the first happened a few years ago when a man, descending the stairs in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, tripped over his undone shoe lace and careered into a 'priceless' Ming vase, smashing it to smithereens; and in a case earlier this year a Florida artist deliberately smashed a 'priceless' vase at a Florida art exhibition as a protest against imported art. What unites these two cases is not the smashing of the vases, as this was the result of what you might call opposite causes, an accident and a deliberate act, but the characterisation of the two vases as 'priceless'. We can take this two ways, depending on which side of the transaction we are on: either the vases are so beautiful that the owner won't part with them at any price, or the price that the owner is asking is astronomical. This, surely, is an example of what Jesus means by the "cares of this world". It's an interesting phrase because it implies something beautiful begun in innocence which becomes ensnared. There is a particular danger in the cold beauty of aesthetics.

I once knew a very fine potter in Minneapolis from what was called the 'utilitarian school; by which it was meant that the potters made jugs to be used, not to be looked at. I sometimes think of him when I review our Suzie Cooper tea service that never gets used. But some of the Utilitarian School has shifted into fancy jugs that share the fate of the Suzie Cooper; and you can imagine a collector of vases starting modestly and then buying a bright-looking thing which turns out to be worth millions; and suddenly the whole nature of collecting shifts from a curiosity to a greed driven obsession.

Thinking of which, how different these priceless vases are from the vessels made down at the potter's to which God sends Jeremiah: "Just as the clay in the potter's hand," says the Lord, "so you are in my hand." This is a kind of simple morality that most of us today do not go along with; our earthly fortunes, we feel, are not tied up with our behaviour. If we are unfaithful to God, we think, this does not mean that we will suddenly lose our new car; and if we are collectively idolatrous, the country is not going to be invaded by a foreign army, which was how the Jews understood the way that their lands was continually ravaged by external forces. Jeremiah himself was a witness of the sacking of Jerusalem and the sending of its people into exile; and it was a commonplace of prophets to blame the ruin of Judea and Israel on their own people's idolatry.

But that is why it is so difficult for us: we don't feel threatened and, sadly, most human beings react better to threats than they do to calls for voluntary, self-motivated goodness; but that is what we are called upon to undertake. As Easter children, we are freed from the bargains that the Lord struck with his Chosen People and which they found it so difficult to keep in spite of the threats. But we are more than Easter children, we are Pentecost children, too, and so our self-motivation isn't really 'self' at all, it's induced by the Holy Spirit working in us and through us. We are the pots in the hand of God, rough and ready as the publican and not shiny and self-assured like the Pharisee; and that's the Pharisee's problem. His holiness gets in the way of his humility.

It might have been easier, at a superficial level, when people believed in the fires of hell, and even a dragon-like creature called Satan, or the devil, to keep to the straight and narrow, but there is no going back: we are left with our comfort and God's lack of coercion, perfect conditions for the cold and aesthetic rather than the rough and homespun. .

Nonetheless, we ought to be careful not to romanticise the Publican nor to belittle the piety of the Pharisee; we simply need to realise that there is some of each of them in us. But it's the polish, the finish, of the Pharisee that is more likely to bring us smashing down than the near incoherence of the Publican.

Now, for all I know, there is a mass murderer sitting among us; but I doubt it. Our sins are not usually terrible sins of commission. We are usually mild mannered enough, not prone to violence; occasionally just a little covetous or selfish but hardly thieves. If most of us could be said to be active sinners it would most probably be in the area of presuming to judge others and in being uncharitable in our speech. But the gifts of civilisation, of good manners, of etiquette and cultivated behaviour, nice in themselves, frequently lull us into a sense of well-being that obscures the real world from us in spite of the bombardment from the media. So I hope we all took notice of the recent calls from church leaders to consider the sufferings of the poor. It might shock you to know that 90% of Christians in this country, against the indications of their leaders, believe that the poor have brought poverty on themselves.

Lent is a very good time for doing some spiritual gardening, it's a time to cut the thorns back so that the delicate plant of our spirituality can grow so that it is better fed from God's soil and better warmed by God's sun. It is a time for looking at our habits and our well-worn ways to see what purpose they serve; it is a time for asking ourselves whether we are doing enough or whether we make ourselves so busy that we think that we are doing too much; it is a time for reform and renewal. But perhaps this Lent is the right time to make a special sacrifice to right a wrong; if we give up alcohol or chocolate for Lent it might make us trimmer and healthier but what good is that to the poor?

As imperfect vessels in the potter's hand, we should not be dazzled by supposedly priceless vases. When we examine ourselves carefully we might find a hair line crack; or we might even find that we are chipped!