Year C Proper 18, September 4, 2022
St. James the Less Episcopal, Ashland, VA
“In the Potter’s Hands”
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.
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love-- and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother-- especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
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."
Good morning, friends. Tomorrow is Labor Day, a day set aside for the common person, the working person, to celebrate the fruit of their labors. It came from labor activists and labor unionists who demanded a federal holiday recognizing the contributions workers have made to America's strength, prosperity, and well-being. This is a good thing.
And today when we pause and slow down for a day, we can extend our Sabbath, and appreciate what we have. But I would invite you to also ponder this Labor Day weekend the work of the Lord in our lives.
We may see the work we do for God and our end of things, but the Lord is at work in our lives and, I believe, the Lord is at work on US, our very selves. When we give ourselves over to God in baptism, we invite God in, and allow God to make Godself at home. But it is more than that. We give our hearts, souls, and minds to the Almighty, and that is a dangerous thing. Dangerous to the way things are. When we give ourselves over to God, we give all we have and all we are over. And in today’s readings we will hear a lot of that “all or nothing” language. It sounds harsh, but it only does if we are holding back from what God would have us do, from who God would have us be.
Do not shut down your ears, friends. And open up your hearts.
It is a rare occasion when I preach from the Old Testament lesson. I will often make mention of it, along with the New Testament reading, but I feel like Jeremiah gives us a hook that enables us to read better the seemingly harsher statements of Paul in Philemon and Jesus in Luke.
God gives Jeremiah the imagery of a Potter’s House. And urges him to go down and take a look. Too often we leave the object lessons for Children’s Messages. I have often found that we all learn better from the concrete, than the abstract. In other churches where I have served we have had a weekly children’s moment, and the concrete object lesson stuck weeks after very often, much longer than any sermon I tried to give.
So God gives Jeremiah a message to share with Israel that resonates still today. We can see it. You may even be able to feel it. God spins the image of the clay in the potter’s hands. He is making a vessel, and upon or nearing completion sees that this was not his intent, not at all what he wanted. So the Potter takes the pot while it is still malleable and begins again. Adds a little water, puts it back on the wheel, and does with it as the Potter will. The clay is in the Potter’s hands.
We are the clay. We, when we give ourselves over to God, are put into situations that are no longer up to us. We are clay in God’s hands.
If you are like me, that sounds uncomfortable at best, scary maybe. It no longer allows us to promote our ego, or our prejudices, or our power, or our possessions before anything else. It is God’s way that comes first. And that wrestling, it does not stop. Remember the name Israel means those who wrestle with God. On this side of heaven I am not sure we ever arrive. I have called myself a Christian for over 40 years, I have been ordained three times (third times the charm, I hope) but every morning I must decide “this day whom [I] will serve.” Or to put it in Jeremiah’s analogy, today will I be the clay in the hands of the Potter? Will I be open and malleable for what God needs me to do, who God needs me to be this day?
That is so easy to say yes to in church on a Sunday, but on Monday morning, Tuesday, Wednesday, when I roll out of bed and put my feet on the floor, who am I following? Whose path am I on?
This idea that nothing is off limits when we place ourselves into God’s hands is what is happening in Philemon. Onesimus was a slave to Philemon, and he ran away. He claimed his freedom in Christ, and ran off. Even for a good reason, to help Paul in his ministry, Paul realized in the world that they lived in that there were repercussions. Now this book has been used to justify slavery, as in “See, Paul said he would pay for him, so slavery is okay.” I do not, I cannot, see it saying that at all. But Paul was showing how he took Jesus’ words to hate his worldly possessions in favor of the Kingdom. He was willing to pay for Onesimus if he had to, but he was appealing to Philemon’s best self.
And Jesus does the same. He is a story teller. He uses exaggeration to make a point. Do we own stuff?
Yes. Of course.
Do we love our family, especially our moms?
Yes. Of course.
But Jesus is saying that all this comes into play in our commitments to Christ. “Give up” all our possessions is not so much about poverty as it is about control. “Hating” our family is about our priorities, not despising anyone. Our stuff is no longer “our stuff.” Our loved ones are no longer just “our loved ones.” Nothing is off limits when we place ourselves into the hands of God.
One thing that I so appreciate so much about you all, is how St. James the Less takes care of me and my family. But in that care, you also do not project unhealthy expectations onto my family. You let my kids be kids. You let my wife be who she is. Now they help a lot, acolyting and doing the service recording and other things. They do it because this is their church, too. But for me to be the best priest for you all, I needed to be a member of the community and the use of the rectory enabled us to be here amongst you. It took a commitment of both of us. We both had to go all in for this to work, and I and my family are so appreciative. And it enables me to of you, and not just with you.
And that is what I think Jesus is saying and doing here. He is telling us the expectation, “Are you all in?” He talks about a building project, or waging a military campaign. You cannot leap a chasm in two leaps. You have to commit to make it. You cannot go half in and make it.
We received news this week that we have finally gotten our building permit for our pavilion out back. This has been a LONG time coming, 9 months. Before we committed to even starting the project, we planned and prayed. We knew we would have to do a capital campaign to pay for it. We knew that we would space it out over years to make it possible to do the work we have spelled out. It took faith to commit. It took planning and considering all our options to make sure we could accomplish the goals. We had to have the funds to pay for the steps along the way, as we had money coming in to accomplish our commitments. Could we do it realistically? Could we float the payments, even as the money came in? When we knew that this was realistic, and accomplished our desired goals, we committed. We signed contracts, and shook hands. And this week we break ground. Our vision becomes reality. Thanks be to God, and to you all for your patience.
God has a dream for you. It will cost you. It will cost you the status quo. It will require work. It will require being uncomfortable. It will be better than you can imagine.
For any dream to come true you have to be able to see it in your mind’s eye, just like the Potter’s vision of the vessel they want to make. They have to see it to be able to make it. God sees your best self and wants to make it so. It takes committing to the work needed, and malleability, though you may be set in your ways like that pot that needs to be reworked. And after all that, vision, commitment, and hard work, a work of art can be made real. We just have to trust the Potter, and put ourselves in the Potter’s hands.
We do it because God loves us. And God’s desire since the Garden of Eden is to make God’s home with us, and be at one with us. The beautiful conclusion of John’s vision in Revelation ends this way, God’s dream since the very beginning itself.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them and be their God;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
Do we see this in our mind’s eye? Will we commit to the costs it will demand? We will hand over the keys and trust in the outcome?
If we believe God is love and wants the best for us, how could we not? Chew on that, friends. And happy Labor Day weekend. Amen