Proper 18C: Reshaped

Potter's WheelFIRST LESSON:  Jeremiah 18: 1-11

Read the passage from Jeremiah

Once again this week, the prophet Jeremiah presents us with a treatise on judgment, a reminder of what God has done for us in the past, and a call to awareness of what God is doing for us now and what God expects (and apparently is not getting) as our response.  This image of the potter is one of the best-known passages in Jeremiah.  It is comforting to think of God’s hand in our lives, shaping and molding us into what God envisions us to be.  Jeremiah observes this process at work and he begins to see it as a great analogy for the relationship between us and God.  He sees it as the way that God works with nations, with communities, and with each of us as individuals.

Here, God’s people take the role of the clay and God is the Divine potter.  This Scripture is specifically addressed to the “House of Israel”, the people of Judah who are the only remnant remaining of God’s covenant people.  And yet, using the metaphor, sometimes the pot gets marred and misshapen (or perhaps even “overshapen”) on the wheel; sometimes it doesn’t look like what the potter had envisioned at all.  According to the prophet, even the people of God, those who God had intended to plant and to build the Kingdom of God, those who God had called to do God’s work in the world, can suffer the same quandary on the potter’s wheel, becoming misshapen and not shaped to be able to be what they were meant to be.

Remember that a covenant relationship is conditional.  It can be broken by either party.  So the people can choose not to respond as they should and the vessel that the potter began can be destroyed.  The misshapen clay can just be thrown away and a new one put into its place on the wheel.  And the writer of Jeremiah is clear that God has every power to do just that.  But at the end of the passage, we are given a glimmer of hope.  If the people turn, repent if you will, and turn toward God, God, too, will again turn toward them.  Redemption is there for the taking.  And rather than throwing away the misshapen clay, the potter will begin again, adding water (yes, that is an allusion to baptism), and shaping the material into something better than it was in the first place.

I think the point is that the clay is not controlled by the wheel (or the world), but by the potter.  And the potter, the Divine artist, allows the clay to shift and move on the wheel so that the being that is buried deep within itself might be allowed to grow and mature on its own and become what it was meant to be.

It’s a scary ordeal.  What if it doesn’t work out?  Can God start again and mold humanity once more, perhaps into something that is more in line with who we are supposed to be, with who that image of the Godhead represents?  But God has chosen to do something different.  Rather than throwing the clay away, God takes it again and again and again and reshapes it, remolds it, and when the water begins to dry, God adds a little bread and a little wine along the way.  We call it redemption.  God just sees it as a normal act of gracious love toward all of God’s children, the act of saving them from themselves.

 

  • What is your response to this passage?
  • What does this metaphor mean to you?
  • So what does this call us to do?
  • What stands in the way of your yielding yourself to be shaped and molded by God?

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  Philemon 1-21

Read the passage from Philemon

The letter to Philemon (which most scholars think was actually written by Paul) is the shortest and probably the most neglected of Paul’s letters. The letter is supposedly from Paul to a wealthy church leader named Philemon about the return of his runaway slave, Onesimus.  There is some disagreement as to whether or not Paul is arguing for Onesimus’ freedom from slavery or his acceptance back into slavery without recourse from Philemon.  Some have surmised that perhaps Onesimus was sent by Philemon to serve Paul while Paul was in prison.  But it now seems that Onesimus is perhaps a fugitive.  The details are not really obvious, but Paul is obviously attempting to renegotiate the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon, two individuals of unequal status who are certainly brothers in Christ.

Although the letter to Philemon contains no major Christological images, it is nonetheless grounded in an understanding that we live in and for Christ. It is “in Christ” that Paul commands Philemon to “do his duty” so that Paul’s heart might be refreshed. This language of “in Christ” is a reminder that it is by the spirit of Christ that we live and are brought into a relationship of kinship with one another. It is because of this kinship relationship that Paul can dare to “command” Philemon, challenging him as a brother. Philemon is praised for his faith—that is, trust in and loyalty towards—the Lord Jesus.

Now remember that most scholars believe that Onesimus also served Paul, and yet Paul does not see him as anything less than a person.  He loves Onesimus and yet Paul was possibly accepting of a social system that allowed one person to be “enslaved” to another.  It’s a hard thing for us to understand. And yet, Paul’s appeal is on the basis of love.

The letter to Philemon challenges us to discern, in and for Christ, what is the right thing to do. It would be easy if doing the right thing was, for example, taking out the garbage, or helping an elderly person cross the street. It is another when the right thing involves a radical transformation of social relationships: of learning to see people that time and experience have led us to view one way in a completely new way. It is another thing when this radical transformation of social relationships asks us to give up what we have come to view as our rights: to willingly let go of privilege. It is another thing when this letting go of privilege leads us to assume a relationship of kinship—of obligation—with those whom we have formerly viewed with suspicion because we now recognize that we are bound together in Christ.

This short letter gives us a view of the social systems that were in place during Paul’s life.  But it also gives us pause to re-look at the social systems that are in place during our own time.  What does it mean to call someone a “brother or sister in Christ”?  Does it mean to overlook differences or to try to alleviate them all together?  Or does it mean that the diversity that is among us is the way God intended it to be, the way God intended to bring in the very fullness of the Kingdom of God.

 

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • How do you react to the idea that Paul is possibly advocating for the freedom of one who may have served him as a slave?
  • What message does this passage hold for our time?
  • What does it mean to call someone a “brother or sister” in Christ?
  • What do our social systems say about us as Christians?
  • We tend to be comfortable with saying that slavery is wrong in this 21st century context. But what other “enslavements” do we allow to exist?  How could this short letter speak to that?

 

 

GOSPEL:  Luke 14:25-33

Read the Gospel passage from Luke

This is, needless to say, not an easy passage.  Give up all our possessions?  You’ve got to be kidding!  We need that stuff!  But discipleship is hard.  It’s meant to be that way.

At this point in Jesus’ ministry, the cross is looming so the cost of discipleship and what it entails is moved to the forefront.  As Jesus journeys toward Jerusalem, he is expanding his message of discipleship as sacrifice to those beyond his discipleship circle. In these two parables, unique to Luke, Jesus is not discouraging people from following him. He is discouraging them from following him without realizing or counting the cost.

The verse about hating one’s family members, while harsh, is really just a way to heighten our awareness of what this commitment to Christ means.  “Hate” in the ancient world was more a degree of shame.  If one deserted one’s family beliefs or ways of doing things, one would bring shame upon the family in that social system.  But this is truly single-minded devotion. Jesus is asking people not to “hate” their families, per se, but to weigh the beliefs, systems, and ways of living that their familial structures expect and perhaps be prepared to walk away from some of them (which would, in that culture, incur shame on the individual from that family)

We are to count the cost before we commit.  God’s love provides us with the perseverance and energy to follow Jesus as we live in and into that kingdom (a kingdom that may be in conflict with the political and familial structures in which we are accustomed to residing). We need to view this passage in the context of Luke’s gospel which repeatedly emphasizes the compassion of a God who seeks out and saves the lost, who stands ready to forgive the sinner.   We are not excluded because it’s too hard to earn an entrance; we rather exclude ourselves when we reject the invitation.

The grace of God is not cheap grace. It requires a response. It requires that we let go of everything else.  Earl Ellis claims that “Jesus’ purpose in telling these two parables is not to dissuade prospective disciples, but to awaken half hearted followers to the disastrous consequences of such a path.”  These parables depict a man staring at a foundation he can’t build on and a king contemplating a war in which he is outnumbered two to one. It is a reminder to count the cost before heading down the path, to make sure that we can “afford” to follow Christ.  After all, it means giving up everything else.  It means being willing to go all the way on the journey.  You can’t “sort of” follow Christ.  It doesn’t work.

As the cross looms ahead, the writer of Luke is escalating the depiction of what this Christian walk is.  It is time to decide.  And it’s time to get dressed for the party!

 

First of all, if anyone can get me the address of the lectionary compiler whose great idea it was to have the “hate your father and mother” and “give away your possessions” Gospel lesson hit on the first Sunday of the fall…that’d be great.  I mean, for real?“Welcome back everybody, and especially welcome to all our newcomers today…now on to hating your parents……See you next week?”

Second of all, this lesson is amazing, because Jesus nails it.  The Anglican Church in Baghdad has been bombed five times in the last three years. (Their recent First Communion class remarked that they knew that Jesus was with them, because he protected them from terrorists.) Churches in Egypt—Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican—are being burned and bombed. Two Orthodox bishops in Syria have been abducted, and their fate is unknown.

Being a Christian in the western world may be challenging at times. (I mean sometimes people have the audacity to wish us “Happy Holidays.”) But, in many places in this world being a follower of Jesus comes with costs. Brutal costs.

For some of the earliest Christians, and in some places today, following Jesus means turning away from your family and having your family turn away from you. For most of the apostles, being a herald of the Resurrection meant they were hunted down and put to death.  Sometimes we make our faith out to be this thing where blessing after blessing just showers down on you. Like everything in life just gets “better” and “easier.”

No.  I mean, it IS a blessing, but sometimes those blessings are hard to see. It’s why our faith’s symbol isn’t the smiley-face, but the cross.

What Jesus is telling us in Luke 14:25-33 is that if we’re going to become a follower we need to first estimate the cost. If you were going to build a tower, you’d do that. If you were going to war, you’d do that. (?!)  If you were going to buy a new suit, start a new business, write a new book, or start a family—first you’d sit down and realize how hard it would be, if you could afford it, and whether or not you could withstand the moments of desolation that sometimes don’t seem to stop their relentless crush.

We estimate costs all the time. Is “this” worth the money, the time, the risk? We look at the positives and negatives, and then we make a decision.

Here, Jesus is saying that when we choose to follow him we shouldn’t rush to make a decision. We should first estimate the cost. Because while his grace and love are free—while salvation doesn’t cost us a dime—following him means taking up our cross.

And so, there’s something fitting about this passage hitting on the first Sunday of a new fall.

Welcome back. I hope the summer was good. If this is your first time here—if you’re a “prospective member”—or if you’re an old timer with your name on a pew…welcome. But, remember that this pew, this hymn, this life with Jesus at its center comes with a cost. For real. (“For Real”, by Rick Morley, August 28, 2013, available at http://www.rickmorley.com/archives/2736, accessed 1 September, 2013.)

 

 

  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What is bothersome about this passage for you?
  • What message does it hold for us today?
  • What does this mean for us who have so much in our lives?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. (Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak)

To show compassion for an individual without showing concern for the structures of society that make [the individual] an object of compassion is to be sentimental rather than loving. (William Sloane Coffin, Credo, 23)

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow upon ourselves.  Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)

 

 

Closing

 

Thou takest the pen—and the lines dance.  Thou takest the flute—and the notes shimmer.  Thou takest the brush—and the colors sing.  So all things have meaning and beauty in that space beyond time where Thou art.  How, then, can I hold back anything from Thee?  Amen.

(Dag Hammarskjold, 1905-1961)

 

 

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