Jeremiah 18:1-11, Luke 14:25-33
Someday I plan to take a pottery workshop. I’ve always wanted to learn to “throw” a pot, to work the clay on the wheel. I’m fascinated by the ability of artists to take lumps of clay and turn them into beautiful pieces. The passage from Jeremiah picks up on that imagery – reminding us that the modern “art” can be traced back to much earlier human civilizations. “So I went down to the potter’s house,” Jeremiah said, “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 it seemed good to him.”
Jeremiah likened the potter’s work to God’s work with the community that was Israel. “’Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?’ says the Lord.” He hears God’s judgement on Israel. “At one moment I may declare concerning a nation of a kingdom, that I will pluck it 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.” The passage ends with, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.’”
“God’s gonna get you!” Isn’t that the way we hear these judgement passages? Or, sometimes, we might say, “This is the Old Testament God. The New Testament God is merciful.” (Dismissing the God portrayed in the Old Testament was declared a heresy in early church days! Dismissing that God is dismissing God!) Jesus certainly did not dismiss the God to which the scriptures witnessed. So, we need to wrestle with these difficult passages. What is God saying to us? What judgement do we need to hear? What are the consequences of that judgement?
Scholars have noted that we tend to hear this familiar image in a personal, individualistic way. “Have thine own way, Lord, have thine own way. You are the potter, I am the clay,” it says in the old, old hymn. The newer hymn that we will sing shortly also hears this passage in an individualistic way. “You are the Potter; I am the clay. Mold me and make me; this is what I pray.” That hearing, that interpretation reflects our cultural bias. In our western societies, we tend to rank individuality as the goal. However, Jeremiah spoke and wrote not to individuals but to the nation, to the community that was the House of Israel. Jeremiah was addressing a nation in trouble – a nation on the verge of catastrophe at the hands of invaders. The vision was, scholars say, much broader than the personal piety which is often the way faith is interpreted today. Jeremiah was speaking about God’s judgement on a nation, which was at the same time, a community of faith.
Professor Sally Brown wrote of this passage from Jeremiah that it tells us that God is deeply invested in our communal life – and that community is broad! The imagery of the potter also indicates that God’s relationship is robustly dynamic. Now, that doesn’t mean that personal piety doesn’t have a role, a part, a significance in the life of the larger community. But never can faith be reduced to a “me and my God” approach that does not consider the broader context – neighbors, communities, nation, nations and the creation itself.
When I was in Pennsylvania I got involved in community organizing. It was presented to the church I was serving as a way of finding and developing a new vitality. One of the basic understandings of the parent organization was that as people discerned their basic concerns, they would find a new unity with others and be able to work for a stronger community. One summer, early in the organization’s life, each church was challenged to come up with a concern and develop an approach to address that concern. I hoped that the congregation would look at the neighborhood in which it was located, a neighborhood from which they had become disconnected. The neighborhood had a growing drug problem. People in the church were often afraid to be at the church in the evening. Being concerned about their neighborhood and the well-being of their neighbors seemed like a good goal. But, the congregation chose a different concern. They decided to fight, instead, for themselves – for preferred parking. I was away when they went to city hall and asked for privilege – at the expense of their struggling neighbors. And city hall granted their requests. Instead of working toward the health of the neighborhood, they contributed to its fracturing. They didn’t realize that their well being as a congregation was tied up with the well-being of the neighborhood in which they existed. They thought that their “individual” freedom to practice their faith could be pursued without regard for others. There was a fundamental flaw in that organization’s approach. Their emphasis on individual concerns at times blocked the ability of individuals to perceive communal concerns.
I said earlier that I’ve always wanted to try out the potter’s wheel. I’ve heard of church services where this Jeremiah passage is demonstrated by having a potter present, working clay on the wheel. The congregation gets to see the artist at work. Now, more recently, I’ve seen a wonderful commercial that shows someone taking a pottery class, sitting at the wheel. The clay flies. Soon we see everyone covered by the mess. I’ve been told that the commercial is an exaggeration, but we know the potter can’t do the work without getting dirty. The potter learns the clay – what will work, what won’t work. The potter creates with an awareness of what the particular clay will support. In Jeremiah’s reflection, God never gives up. God just changes the creation – working something new when the original intent no longer succeeds. God judges –but not to completely destroy.
God has been called, by some, the Great Innovator. Maybe we could also say God is the Great Artist who takes the medium that is available and creates something new, something functional and something beautiful. Yet, that is no easy task. It costs God to be deeply invested in this world. That cost is evident in the story of Jesus – the beloved Son – who came to earth to create a new way of relating to God and each other, and ultimately paid with his own life.
In the gospel lesson for this morning, Jesus spoke about the cost of discipleship. I met a woman, years ago, who had decided that she knew the cost of discipleship. “I send $25 dollars to the Presbyterian Church in town every year so that they will be obligated to have a funeral for me when I die,” she told me. She didn’t go to worship. She wasn’t a member. She had no interest in the work of the church. She had no interest in the lives of her neighbors or the well being of her community. But, she paid a minimal cost so that the minister would be obligated to her.
But Jesus tells his disciples that it is no easy thing to follow him. It will cost them. But his description of the cost is strange to our ears. He doesn’t speak of money – not here. (Elsewhere money often appears as a concern.) . 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 disciples.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book Cost of Discipleship wrote, "…Discipleship betokened the separation of the disciples from all their old ties, and an exclusive adherence to Jesus Christ." So, discipleship is the separation from old ties – putting following Jesus first. It is not just fitting faith into already busy lives; it is making discipleship the priority that informs all other aspects of life. Discipleship directs how it is we live.
Bonhoeffer goes on to reflect, "Does their separation from the rest of society confer on them special rights and privileges? Do Christians enjoy power, gifts and standards of judgement which qualify them to exert a peculiar authority over others?” For many the answer in our society is “YES!” But, Bonhoeffer’s answer is a resounding “NO!” On the contrary, disciples have to recognize that following Jesus means getting involved in the messiness of the world to share, to demonstrate the love we have known in and through Jesus the Christ.
This is Labor Day Weekend. The Department of Labor says that the purpose of the holiday is to recognize the contribution of the nation’s laborers, of its workers. It is a timely reminder as we struggle with issues related to labor in our nation today. And, as we think about labor, we should not think merely of our own nation. We are dependent on the labor of many outside our country. We need, constantly, to ask ourselves if laborers are being treated fairly, justly – even compassionately. That is a question to ask about the laborers in our own country and those around the world. The church has a strong history working on behalf of those the world has used and abused. The church was part of the movement to limit child labor and to set limits to the number of hours people should be forced to work. It was a voice in the efforts to set fair wages in our own country. Again, the work never ends. We struggle in our own day – both in our own country and as we look at the ways we are enter-twined with the economies of other nations.
God calls us to be re-worked and re-shaped so that the justice concerns of God can be revealed in new times. `It is out of love that God reworks and reshape a and reforms us, to be the new creation that more fully reflects the good world God intends for us and for all people.