St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
Collect: Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: "Come, go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words." So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.
Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. 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.
Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."
Having two children in the Youth Group, I can attest: Growing Pains are real. They are fascinating to watch, just not up close. And the emphasis is on Pains if you have to go through them, and even more if you have to grow through them. God bless’em both.
Growing pains are never easy, nor are they desired. But Growing Pains are part of life. Life is Growth, so Life is Change, and Change is Hard. So, I guess I am saying Life is Hard.
Now many of us avoid Change with all that is in us, but some of us embrace Change and run to that which is different. Temperaments are what they are. But even for those of us who run to embrace Change, we do have to change our ways. Unlearning, relearning is a struggle, even if it is something we want. Wanted Change beats unwanted, but it is never easy.
God bless little league coaches, the ones who have to show kids how to hold a bat, how to catch a ball, how to the basic tasks, because if not done right on the front end of things, the back end corrections are longer, harder, and more painful. Getting it right the first time is SO important.
In the Jeremiah reading for the day, we have this beautiful metaphor of the Potter and the Clay. The Potter is turning a pot and sees that something is wrong. He stops, undoes the work that has been done, and reshapes and reforms the pot before the clay hardens and is harder to work, or at worst must be thrown out and destroyed. The Potter does not want that for the Pot, and God most certainly does not want that for us. Let’s do it right the first time, let’s do it right now. Quoting: “Can I not do with you, O [people of God], just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand…”
God wants us shaped for the work we are to be about, and as we put God first in our lives, so do we. One of the beauties of the Episcopal approach to the faith is that we commit our Children to God in baptism, and trust that we “turn them right” just like clay on the Potter’s Wheel. But we also have a time of Confirmation, where we harden and affirm with them the work that begin in their younger days. We confirm the work of God in them, and we help solidify it in them before we send them out to face the world. The world will put them through the fire soon enough. They will be hardened soon enough. That is why there is hardly any more important work of the Church as we do in our Formation work in Sunday School, Youth Groups, and VBS. We are not teaching a class, we are forming and possibly reshaping lives! And in doing that what we do echoes in eternity!
So we come to the hard teaching of Jesus. We have to remember context, LARGE CROWDS were following him, many of them wanting to overthrow the powers that be, political and religious. And before they went any further, he wanted to be VERY clear. He set out that following him meant Change, wholesale, complete, and as we have discussed. Change is Hard.
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”Now we hear the harsh words. Hate family. Hate life. Take up your instrument of death. They are harsh words. Now in the semantics of the day, you love and hate. There is black and white. Subtlety and nuance where not what he was going for. In my youth I took this too literally. I took this in how we hear it today. Now Jesus obviously loved his family. His brother was a disciple. In his last moments, he asked the disciple that he loved (probably St. John) to look after his mom. So Jesus loved his family, and he would not demand something from us he did not practice. So what gives.
He is saying in STARK language what he says in different places in other ways. “Seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.” That is exactly what he is saying with the ‘hate everything other than being my disciple.’ It has to come first. With that everything else flourishes and blooms.
Think of it this way. When you have to care for someone in a medical crisis, there is an order of things. Is there an immediate danger? Is this place hazardous? Is there circulation? Is the Airway open? Can they breathe? Then you worry about bleeding, broken bones, and anything else. If you have a bear chomping on their arm, checking their breathing is going to be no good. That is what Jesus is saying to us.
What is First Place in your life? What gets the blue ribbon in your life? What goes on the calendar first? What gets the first check of the week? What comes to mind when you first get out of bed? Are you thanking God, or taking God’s name in vain for having to get up?
So that he is clear to the large crowds crying out his name, he makes economic and military metaphors. A man building a tower. A king going out to war. To both, he is clear. Count the costs. Know up front the price you will have to pay. And that is what he is telling his followers.
“So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
As we just moved, and we are still sorting through boxes and removing the extraneous, the unneeded, and the unwanted. Author Chuck Palahniuk in his dark novel Fight Club put it this way: “The things you own end up owning you. It's only after you lose everything that you're free to do anything.” Jesus did not want his followers encumbered by things, distractions, unhealthy ties. Everything else is supposed to come second place. Everything else needs to be second place.
I have to shake my head when I see the bumper sticker, “God is my Co-Pilot.” If God is your Co-Pilot, you are in the wrong seat.
The radical nature of the extent of what God expects of us is shown in our epistle reading. We read a whole book of the Bible this morning. And it seems so straight forward, but it is easy to miss how RADICAL, how POLITICAL the epistle reading is. Our commitment to Christ, as our Savior, our Master, our Lord comes clear when Paul demands of Philemon to FORGIVE and FREE his slave Onesimus. He could order him to do so, for what he has given to him, but Paul chooses a different route, in love he requests obedience. If it is not done in love, it is not of Christ. It is out of obligation and that invites resentment to slip in. Oh how the Devil loves resentment!
And what is the ask? A runaway slave, Onesimus, is being sent home to be free and to be welcomed as a brother. Now, in the church which was probably the one in Colossae, it met in Philemon’s house. [Onesimus and Archippus are both mentioned in Colossians.] If as a fellow Christian, Onesimus was welcome in the Church, it would have been one thing. But for Philemon, the scandal of this action would have had repercussions.
Paul is asking of him to put aside what was legally and culturally his right to do. He was being asked to entirely forget and let go what is the expectation, the norm, and the law. He is asked not only to forgive him personally, but to forego the money that he paid to buy Onesimus now that Onesimus is a brother in Christ. And think of the response from other slaveholders. He is setting a dangerous precedent for the status quo.
We do not know what Philemon chose. I assume, and it is an assumption, that it is included in Scripture and remembered fondly because Philemon did as was asked. We do not know. We never will. But that begs the question of us? When you are asked to do the hard thing, the impossible thing, what do you do?
St. Francis said, “Start by doing what is necessary, then do what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” May it be so.
Putting Christ first has implications:
- In our personal relationships (hate your father, mother, sister, brother),
- In our life and livelihood (forgive your runaway slave)
- In our social life (facing the scorn of not doing the expected to Onesimus)
- Taking up our Cross and following him, dying to self so that we can be fully alive.
As we look to the year ahead, we have so much where we are being asked to give it up to God, and trust that in our letting go, God will more than provide. May we do so with Faith and Joy. Amen