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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Luke 14:25-33
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
Sunday, September 5, 2004
“Scattered, Smothered, Covered, Chunked, Topped & Diced”
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
September 5, 2004

Smashed things. I know some of you are on these “low-carb” diets, so you don’t do this kind of thing anymore. But in my opinion, one of the most perfect meals in town is a potato from MacAlisters Deli. They’re huge. I used to wonder, “Where do they find potatoes this big?” Growing near Oak Ridge, in the field by Y-12. Turn off the lights and you can eat by the potato’s glow. Then, with great relief, I found out these aren’t mutant potatoes at all. MacAlister’s just smashes two ordinary potatoes together. Which made me feel so much better about my health. If you order them right, they come smothered in brown gravy and bacon. They’ve changed their menu so you can also get a side order of Plavix.

But if you want the perfect potato, as any good Southerner knows, you have to go to Waffle House, where potatoes are a thing of beauty. At Waffle House (24 hours a day) you can get your potatoes turned into hash browns, cooked “scattered,” or “scattered and smothered”, or “scattered, smothered, and covered” – they have entries in the menu for each of these – all the way up to “scattered, smothered, covered, chunked, topped, and diced.” It’s a violent potato world, out there. If you want potato perfection, you can’t be a sissy about it. And in the end, dripping with butter, filled with cheese, onion, ham, and who knows what else, they’re a cholesterol catastrophe. But at least you go out smiling. Perfection requires extreme measures.

Jeremiah says, “The Lord told me, “Go to the potato shop.” I mean, pottery shop. “And when you get there,” the Lord said, “I will tell you what to say to the people.” Jeremiah said, “I went there and saw the potter making clay pots on his pottery wheel. And whenever the clay would not take the shape he wanted, he would change his mind and form it into some other shape.”
In its raw form, a ball of clay is just about as exciting as an uncooked potato. It may be round and smooth, unblemished and perfect, but so what? What good is it? A potter has to smash it and mash it, mold it and fold it, until it becomes something useful. And if the clay has a mind of its own and doesn’t conform to the potter’s wishes, the potter mashes it again, smothering, covering, chunking, dicing – until a work of true beauty emerges. It matters not to the potter if the original intention is lost. Between the work of his hands and the will of the clay, the imprint of the artist will come to light – if not the first try, then the next. These are tough, powerful images of some tough and powerful stuff. Smashing, mashing, covering and smothering.

There is a difference between prettiness and beauty. Turning something in its raw form into a work of true beauty requires extreme measures. Turning a person from a lump of clay into a man or woman of substance requires a makeover so extreme, it takes God to do it.

A lot of us are looking for perfection – smooth, unblemished perfection – at home, at work, or in ourselves. One of the biggest shows on TV is “Extreme Makeover.” And although I don’t like to admit it in public, I have watched it a few times. By the end of the show, these people – a lot of whom start out shaped like potatoes – by the end of the show they look like magazine models. I always wonder what happens to these people six months later. My guess is that it’s much easier to make someone “pretty” than to give them a life of true beauty. We idolize the perfectly pretty – pretty women, pretty men, pretty possessions. Somewhere near Idaho there is a farm association that idolizes pretty potatoes. (What else do you do in Idaho?)

Jeremiah and Jesus both call us out of our worship of prettiness, and into a life of true beauty. We may have to be smashed and mashed, scattered, smothered, and covered – but God will do whatever it takes to bring us to real perfection.
Carmaker Lexus has as it’s advertising motto: “The Relentless Pursuit of Perfection.” That’s a good one. It’s so much better than Yugo’s old motto: “Free Towing for 10,000 Miles.” A Lexus is a pretty car, but if you really want to relentlessly pursue its perfection, you’d better leave it in the garage. The doors will get dinged in a parking lot. You’ll buy a pizza and the grease will soak through and stain the seats. Your child will introduce the car to a variety of odors. And next year, there’ll be an advanced model of relentlessly pursued perfection, and where does that leave you?

The relentless pursuit of perfection is the carrot at the end of everyone’s stick. We know prettiness is only a dream but it’s a pretty dream, and it’s about the only dream on the market. So we get mad when we look in the mirror and see another wrinkle. We color our hair to hide the gray. We curse the teachers who slight us on our grades.
We look with envy at the neighbor who has both the time and money to make his lawn look like a golf course. We strive for an unblemished prettiness, relentlessly pursuing a goal that’s always just out of reach.

As Jesus gives his speech about how you have to hate your mother and father, hate yourself and hate all your possessions, I have an image of him holding up photographs with each one. You must hate your mother and father, he says, holding up an 8x10 glossy of the Cleavers -- Ward and June, Wally and the Beeve. You must hate your possessions, he says, holding up a brochure of the car that’s just outside the reach of your credit limit. You must hate even yourself, he says, holding up a photo of how you used to look, back in the glory days, before your waist formed a rain gutter for your hips. You must hate the relentless pursuit of prettiness that keeps you chasing after idols you can’t have, or don’t exist. Hate them. Why? Because God is not the prettiest body. God is not the bigger boat. God is not someone else’s vision of perfection, available now, with no interest until 2006. All those visions may be pretty, and their pursuit may be rewarding, sometimes even good. But they aren’t God.

So Jesus uses strong language and goes to extreme measures to say smash that graven part of yourself, hate that graven image, despise that empty urge. Smash it, hate it, replace it. Replace it with a relentless quest for the image of God. Instead of hating yourself for not living up to some worldly image, hate the image – and let God shape who you are.

If we’re honest with ourselves, how many of us have perfect lives – unblemished, smooth, and faultlessly pretty? We may want to project that image, but do we really have it? There’s a saying, “The only “normal” people are the ones you don’t know very well.” No one is as glossy as their photos.

More of us have Waffle House lives. We go through the days scattered, smothered, covered, chunked, topped, and diced. We get through with one day and then we do it again. It’s not always pretty, but we get by. We may not all have pretty lives, but all our lives can be beautiful. They say that beauty’s in the eye of the beholder. In this case, the beholder of our lives is our Creator God. God beholds who we are. God longs for a beautiful relationship. Truly beautiful things – a magnificent sunset, a work of art, a song – that which is truly beautiful directs us back to the Creator. We see the night stars on a cloudless night and say, “Wow. Praise God.” Or something like that. Beauty exists in service to its creator.

Prettiness, on the other hand, leads only to itself. Or, to a search for something even prettier the next time around. A relentless search for prettiness is idolatry, because God is totally left out of the picture. A pretty life may be smooth and unblemished, but what good is it? It serves no purpose except to point back to itself. And as such, it deserves to be hated.

The writer, Roberta Bondi, writes about the liberating moment in which she discovered beauty in her own life. She writes:
“I was away on a retreat recently when the mirror surprised me. Normally, I can hardly bear to see my own face in the mornings, so it was only by chance that I happened to glance into the mirror as I turned on the light switch. There was my face looking back at me. My wet hair was sticking up every which way, and water was trickling down the side of my nose. And I was smiling. Pleased with the person I saw there, I smiled in return.
Then it hit me. For the first time in my whole life, I was looking in the mirror and liking what I saw. I was happy at the sight of my own face; I was enjoying the shape of it, the appearance of my eyes and mouth, my nose and wet, silly hair. In that moment, I found myself beautiful.
I found myself beautiful? What a terrible thing for a polite person, especially a religious person, to say. But I don’t mean “pretty”; after all, “pretty” has no more to do with “beautiful” than “nice” has to do with “good.” “Pretty is measured against another standard. It is a comparative term, having more to do with what our culture tells us we ought to look like if we are to be desirable and successful in it. It is like grading on a curve: in order for one person to be pretty, 29 people have to fail to meet the mark. No, in these terms, I wasn’t pretty and never will be.
Beauty, however, is something else entirely. For a single moment, I had seen myself as God sees me and sees each of us, stripped of all the daily judgments we render against ourselves and each other for our failures to live up to our own and others’ expectations. In short, what I saw that day in the mirror was the image of God within me, which makes each of us beautiful just as we are. There is no grading curve when it comes to measuring beauty.”1

There is no such thing as potato perfection. There is no such thing as a perfect body, a perfect job, a perfect family, a perfect life. Momentarily pretty, perhaps, but not perfect. But even so, the scattered, smothered, covered, and chunked can be of service to its creator. In your life, you may have subtle blemishes, loud mistakes, or even some major mess-ups. Join the club. What is beautiful is realizing that the Creator can still make something out of you, something of even greater use because of your imperfections.

You bear the imprint of your creator. And because of that alone, you are a beautiful person. So what are we going to do with our imperfect lives, anyway? What would God want to do with us? That’s for you to decide and there is no perfect answer. Imperfect little old you can point the way to the God of perfect love. Even if you’re pretty smashed up. And that’s a beautiful thing.

1 Roberta Bondi, “Surprised by Beauty,” Christian Century, August 29-Sep 5, 2001. pg. 5.