Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
“Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.”
We begin this morning with an understanding of the long history between God and the people of Israel who were bound together in covenant relationship. They were netted by a set of promises to another: the Lord God would be their God and the people would be God’s people.
Like almost all relationships, theirs was fraught with ups and downs, faithfulness and disobedience, a God who would lavish love and generous outpouring only to be dismayed, disappointed and willing to punish.
By the time we get around to our Old Testament lesson, God has sent the prophet Jeremiah (also known as the “weeping” prophet) to deliver yet another word of warning and correction, in essence: “You have reneged on your promise of faithfulness. Your loyalties are scattered all over the place. You build your idols and worship false god and your allegiances have turned inward. Turn from such things and return to me. Repent of your sins and if not, there will be dire consequences.”
This doesn’t seem like good news, does it? Most often the last thing we want to hear is someone telling us that we are wrong or have been wrong; that we need to straighten up our game or do better.
Jeremiah speaks to the nation – the collective people – not just to individuals. This reminds us that we too as a people, called Christians, bound together by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, have entered into covenant relationship with him and one another. Through our baptism, we are bound up together for the purposes of God with all people whether they believe as we do or not.
Our gospel lesson makes clear the complexity of that and defines what it means to embrace our discipleship. Jesus goes so far as to say that one must be willing to let go of everything, even our strongest and most enduring allegiances: mother and father, sister and brother, even one’s own life. He said to his followers, then and now, that before you set out or embark on this journey, one must first consider the cost.
“Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it good bye you can’t be my disciples,” is how Eugene Peterson puts it in the Message Bible.
Now, we have to wonder about that. How literal Jesus is being here, knowing full well that these people are gifts to us?
We are called to be good stewards of our families, friendships, our relationships, and ourselves. So much of our lives are centered around them, lived out and expressed through them at the day-to-day.
Still, this word pushes us. It pushes us further because sometimes, it’s easy to think that this is all there is, and they are all we need to care about. We think that we are safe here with these people and Lord knows we want to be safe. All bets are on ours; all roads lead to me and mine. It challenges us to think further about where we belong and to whom. Who exactly is my family? My kind?
Who is mother, father, sister, brother? It reminds us of the ongoing, all encompassing, ever demanding, constantly embracing conscious nature of being Christian that is not bound by tribe or familiarity, time or space. We might shake our heads and say it’s too much – no, I don’t have enough capacity for all of that. That’s the real reason that hate abides and we break one another. We just don’t have the capacity to do what God thinks we can: to forgive, let go, go the extra mile, to see one another with empathy and grace.
Noted theologian, Emilie M. Townes, has written, “In the process of becoming living disciples, we must, as Jesus states, also learn to give up all of our possessions – [which includes the possession of] our need to acquire, our yearning for success, our petty jealousies, our denigrating stereotypes of others, our prejudices and hatreds, and more – and follow the way of Jesus, as we place ourselves in an ever-treading potter’s wheel to examine our thoughts, words, and actions.”
She goes on to say, “At the heart of discipleship is transformation. The cost of discipleship is not just becoming accumulators of new information about life and living it fully, or changing our behavior in regard to Jesus’ teachings. The cost is engaging in a profoundly radical shift toward the ethics of Jesus with every fiber of our beings.”
Sometimes I hear people talk about the church – Church little “C” and church big “C.” I hear the disappointment and frustration, and I know it’s true or it could be true. I hear people say, “I’m just not going back, Church people aren’t supposed to act like that.” There are all kinds of studies about shrinking pews and our bishop talks about it constantly.
The Church has its ills, no doubt about it. There are issues of sexism, gender and racial bias. We fail miserably with full inclusion of our gay and lesbian, transgender brothers and sisters. And all too often we are silent on matters of justice for all and what that looks like. It’s easier to leave politics out of it than to appear partisan while people are treated miserably. It’s just not enough is it?
But passages like these shatter our disillusionment about what the “Church” is and what it is not; what it is “supposed” to be and not. It shatters our illusions of grandeur about what happens here and the enormity of the task before us as a people of God. Mere humans beings – all imperfect, all broken, all coming with our own perspectives, all wanting what we want; all becoming.
And perhaps what we ought to do is let go of our disillusionments and begin to see one another and the real work before us for what it is. We do our best but need to be reminded that at the end of the day, we are mere clay still in the potter’s hands. From the very beginning in the second creation story in the book of Genesis, God took dirt from the ground and shaped it into God’s own image and breathed into the breath of life.
And that same God, that Creator, that master craftsman, is still at the potter’s wheel working with dirt like us. That Creator is still creating, still taking what looks like nothing, what is inconsequential and insignificant, and creating something amazing and magnificent.
I say to you this morning: what might appear to be a shattered mess is not always a mess. You might be sliding in on broken pieces. There may be pain and sorrow, disappointments and pain, but the potter can still put us back together again.
God is like the consummate artist and never tires. Some of us may feel like we are being smacked around, like we are nothing at all: your household, your family, your relationship, your job, our denomination, our country. It might appear like somebody has taken hold of you and just dropped you down and your life is shattered into a thousand pieces. Somebody else might think that about you too.
Even when we break the covenant, when we go astray, when we turn our back and do our own thing, God still loves us.
And I love this about God: “Even when we turned away and our love failed your love, remain steadfast.” That’s what we say during the communion liturgy. When we turned away and our love failed, God’s love remains steadfast. We can count on it.
When mother and father, sister and brother, friends and colleagues all fail, God’s love remains steadfast. That’s why God is a sure bet in the long run.
It helps me to think of myself as clay in the potter’s hands – how about you? All that concerns me – the tiredness, the anxiety, the missteps and mistakes; all of those trials and tribulations, the injustices in our world, the things that break and break us are somehow being held together by a consummate artist who spends days and years slowly and gently, day after day, re-working the experiences of my life.
It helps me to remind myself that God can make something out of even the ugliest and tiniest fragments. Nothing is ever lost and our lives are being made and molded and transformed with every experience if we allow it.
Here is the invitation: if you need mending, if you need love, if you need forgiveness, if you need a new start, the potter wants to put you back together again.