Sermon - Ordinary Sunday 23 Year C - | RCL Resources Index | DBHome |

Invictus and the Potter's clay

Have you seen the movie "Invictus," directed by Clint Eastwood, telling the story of Nelson Mandela's alliance with the captain of the Springboks, the South African national rugby team? It was at the time of the Rugby World Cup in South Africa in 1995? In the early days of the reformed nation it was an heroic challenge they won against the odds in their home country. At the beginning of Mandela's Presidency, after the abolition of apartheid, he was concerned to unify the country, bringing black and white together in the "rainbow nation." But rugby had always been a white man's game in South Africa. When the Spinboks played another nation the majority back people of South Africa would cheer for whoever was playing against them. There was only one non-white player in the Springboks team. Mandela sought to encourage support for the team from the black majority and thus to strengthen a sense of national identity, bringing people together as South Africans all with a sense of national pride. He persuaded the national sports council to rescind a motion they had passed to require the Springboks to give up their name, and the colours they had been proud to wear. Mandela told them he wanted his former enemies not to have a grievance against the nation. It was better to make friends of them. He invited the captain of the team, François Pienaar, to afternoon tea and asked him about his philosophy of leadership. Pienaar said, "By examaple" and Mandela agreed it was a good way to lead, it was what he did; and then he spoke of inspiration and of how he had been inspired by the words of a poem from which he gave others hope during his long years of imprisonment. Later Mandela gave Pienaar a copy of the words which he said "helped me to stand when all I wanted to do was fall down". At a critical time at the beginning of the world cup tormament Mandela arranged for the team to visit the prison where he had spent 27 years, and in Mandela's cell we hear Pienaar reciting the words:

OUT of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Let's think about some of these words before I draw a contrast with the words of Jeremiah when he reflected upon the state of his country after seeing a potter at his wheel. It was our reading from the Old Testament today. We can understand that words in the poem like "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul" could be a powerful affirmation of a man's dignity when he is completely in the power of hostile forces as Mandela was in prison. He was not giving up. They could do what they like but they will not conquer him, like the poet who is thankful for his "unconquerable soul." But listen to how the poet said it: what is the source of this confidence? "I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul." What sort of a faith would it be to "thank whatever gods may be"? It is a little like the inscription Paul found in Athens: "To an unknown god," but more cynical. It is very different from Jeremiah's trust in the Lord. Indeed, the poem was written by an atheist - whose "whatever gods be" is sceptical and dismissive . No, his faith is only in himself: in "my unconquerable soul." And when he thinks of death, "the Horror of the shade" he does not look to a future life but defiantly asserts that "the menace of the years Finds, and shall find, me unafraid." Nor is he like Job struggling with God in a purposeful life but with blind fate: "the bludgeonings of chance" and yet his "head is bloody, but unbowed" - a phase that would ring down the years. "Under the bludgeonings of chance My head is bloody, but unbowed". "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul."

It is the poem "Invictus" written in 1875 by William Ernest Henley, the title of which was given to the movie Invictus about President Nelson Mandela and the South African national rugby team. That title, "Invictus", meaning "unconquerable", was not in Henley's original publication but was added by Arthur Quiller-Couch when he put it in the Oxford Book of English Verse of 1900. The poem had begun to gain status as a symbol on indomitable courage, both for the courageous individual and the nation: it was quoted by Winston Churchill in the dark day of World War II, when Britain stood virtually alone, "bloody be unbowed." Mandela's original use of it seems to have been for individual personal courage, but it took on a communal and national form when he took up its symbolism for nation building. In Britain a century earlier, a distorted expression of the same sentiment appeared in the nationalistic potential of such courage and confidence in the context of the British Empire at the height of its power. It remained in national and imperial consciousness from the nineteenth until well into the twentieth century - a poetic sentiment found in a more dangerous form in John Henry Newbolt's patriotic association of a "breathless hush" attending the tense conclusion of a school cricket team's struggle for honour which Newbolt drew in parallel with a different kind of honour. He linked such courage among schoolboys in sport with a deadly struggle in mature life for national honour in battle. If your memory goes back to the last of Empire days you will probably remember it, from school readers, if nowhere else. I learned to say it by heart:

There's a breathless hush in the Close to-night
Ten to make and the match to win
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play, and the last man in.
And it's not for the sake of a ribboned coat.
Or the selfish hope of a season's fame,
But his captain's hand on his shoulder smote
"Play up! Play up! And play the game!"

The sand of the desert is sodden red -
Red with the wreck of a square that broke
The gatling's jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed its banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks -
"Play up! Play up! And play the game!"

This powerful piece of propaganda was published in 1897 at about the time of Queen Victoria's great jubilee, just a few years before the title Invictus was added to Henley's verse. It suggested that the same sentiments could be taken into the political realm. It was the time of the Boer War strangely setting up the conditions in South Africa, after defeat, that were to lead to Boer nationalism. How wise Mandela was to see the potential of a bitterness in a second defeat!. From that Boer nationalism came the apartheid regime that Mandela was eventually to overcome. Such irony! Meanwhile the romantic nationalism of nineteenth century Europe, and it wasn't only British, was to end in the blood and mud of Flanders field, the bombings and millions of deaths in two world wars. When Mandela recited Invictus it was not in that tradition. Not for that sort of nationalistic emotion, but an expression of self confidence in the face of oppression, of human dignity after humiliation. Yet the affirmation "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul," suggests something else worthy of serious reflection. Let me draw a contrast with Jeremiah's parable of the potter's wheel.

Nowadays, when people don't live as close to the Bible as they used to, and do not use biblical expressions so much in everyday life, you would not be likely hear someone described as "a Jeremiah", someone prone to seeing the dark side of things, fearing the worst, prophesying doom. My mother and grandmother used to say "He's a Jeremiah." Jeremiahs are commonly thought to be deluded. But, the thing that matters about the prophet Jeremiah who warned of disaster facing his nation, is that he was right. The circumstances of the time were that the nation was under real threat from a great foreign power and within a few years it was in fact invaded. The temple was destroyed, the national treasure was taken away, the people were brutally subjugated, and large numbers, especially the elite, if not killed, were taken as captives to enslavement in the imperial power, Babylon. Jeremiah could see the cloud on the horizon, but he looked around and saw people asserting their own will, ignoring and even defying God as if they were saying "I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul." Any old god will do, and none of them matter much, for "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul."

So Jeremiah observed the potter take a lump of clay and work it into a vessel. He saw it spoiled and then the potter "reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him." The question for people aware of their own freedom to act as effective agents shaping their own lives is whether, and how much, we can be the potter to the vessel of our own lives, and how much we should yield our shaping to the Creator. God has given people the capacity to guide their own development and within limits to shape their own live. The question is how we are to use that power. As Jeremiah saw it, the vessel being shaped was the nation which had forgotten the sovereignty of God, thinking that they could work out their own future without regard to him. He was warning them that God was about to reshape them if they did not repent.

Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings. {12} But they say, "It is no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will." -- Jeremiah 18:11-12

That was how Jeremiah saw it - people insisting on their own will, asserting their sovereignty even against their creator. So the passage we read goes. It continues later in Chapter 19 to tell of the prophet taking an earthenware pot to the city gate and breaking it as he spoke of the danger to the nation The same idea, of seeing the Creator as the potter, was used by Isaiah:

You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay? Shall the thing be made to say of its maker, "He did not make me"; or the thing formed say of the one who formed it, "He has no understanding"? -- Isaiah 29:16

Woe to you who strive with your Maker, earthen vessels with the potter! Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, "What are you making"? or "Your work has no handles"? -- Isaiah 45:9

Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. -- Isaiah 64:8

(Actually it would be better in this context to say of God as the potter making the pot, You are our mother; for to create means to give birth. That is meaningful but not the message about creative pwoer of the potter.)

In New Testament times, Paul wrote to the Romans in similar vein to Jeremiah and Isaiah:

But who indeed are you, a human being, to argue with God? Will what is moulded say to the one who moulds it, "Why have you made me like this?" {21} Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use? -- Romans 9:20-21

That is something that it is very difficult for a modern man or woman to accept: that there is a given character to life -- that in our relationship with God it is part of our trust in him to accept what is given to us. To attempt to take complete charge is a lack of faith. Sadly, it is almost forced upon people when they give up belief in God altogether. It is no accident that in Henley's Invictus scepticism and fatalism precede overweening self affirmation. If the steadfast love of God the Creator is not there in the midst of life what other option is there but to assert that "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul."

I could stop there. It would be a neat conclusion, but too neat. We may not be our own exclusively, but neither are we on our own. Rather than make the individual alone, "The power of one", the sovereign power, "the master of my fate", a greater English poet said "No man is an island, entire to itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.... Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." Of course there is a danger in that too. We have noted already how communal and national identity can, when combined with ideas of absolute masterly lead to the horrors of war, but that does depend on limiting the identification of oneself with humankind to only a particular part or section of humanity, to family, tribe or nation. John Donne placed no limits on being involved in mankind. But seeing the communal aspect of it does shift the emphasis from individual self assertion and self esteem. It is not an accident that Jesus linked the love of God with love of our neighbour. We are not entirely our own and we are not on our own. Jeremiah was not talking about one person acting alone and getting into trouble as the captain of his soul, but about the nation heading for destruction as a consequence of the willfulness of the people as a whole.

1. We are not our own. The vessel in which we have our life in this world was made by God for a purpose. Moreover, it is a purpose for which Christ died. We who believe in him have merged our lives with his and belong to him.

2. Nor are we on our own. We do not have this life alone as individuals, but in relationship to others. The value of human life and responsibility for the stewardship of life is shared in a human community. For a Christian it is a responsibility shared in the fellowship of believers in which there should be mutual trust and support of one another to bear whatever burdens may fall on us in an imperfect world from which evil is yet to be banished.

From time to time people in our tradition of faith are called upon to renew their relationship with God. In the Methodist and then the Uniting Church in Australia we have used the word's of John Wesley's covenant service to let go of the defiant "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul" and say instead to God, "I am no longer my own, but yours". I wonder how ready we are really are to carry out such a pledge of devotion. As a preacher and pastor I have, in the past, been both keen and reluctant to invite people to make such a surrender of self, eager to see commitment to God's calling and yet reluctant least the words "I am no longer my own, but yours" say more than they can mean to the person saying them. Yet we do say such things to those we love: "I am yours." It is a prayer of hope and devotion when we say, in love, to God in the words of the Covenant Service, "I am no longer my own, but yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you; exalted for you or brought low for you; let me be full, let me be empty; let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal."

It can be done, and Jesus did call for it in the Gospel reading for today - I don't want to take time now to untangle the web of emotions in challenging family love and loyalty, except to say that the core of what the apostles remembered and taught was the challenge to make all other loyalties secondary to our love of God in Christ. That kind of giving up control is sometimes required of a true disciple. But it does not mean adopting the posture of a doormat. God calls us with our freedom and autonomy, the strength of character he has given us, to to follow him in love. The Islamic idea of faithfulness as resignation to the will of God, has something in common with Christian and Jewish devotion to God, but we follow Christ in a relationship with God, which is like the relationship he had with his disciple when he made a point of calling them his friends and not his servants. That is how he showed the nature of God and the kind of relationship God desires with us.

Another guide to that relationship which transcends more obedience can be seen in the epistle for today, concerning the slave Onesimus whom Paul was sending back to Philemon. We might think that perhaps Paul should have written an anti-slavery tract or at least have recommended that Philemon set his slave free, but no, he trusted to Philemon's discernment of God's love issuing in love of his fellowman, and said "you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother." Our surrender then to God, is in freedom, in a loving relationship. It requires neither abject slavery nor being the master of our fate and captain of our soul. So if I ask you, are you Invictus or the clay in the potter's hand, how do you answer?

The covenant from Wesley's covenant service

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will,
rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you or laid aside for you;
exalted for you or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty;
let me have all things, let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours,
to the glory and praise of your name. Amen.

Sermon - Ordinary Sunday 23 Year C - | RCL Resources Index | DBHome |