Jer. 18:1-10; Luke 14:25-27, 33 (MSG)
South & New Life Presbyterian Churches – September 4, 2016 – LABOR DAY SUNDAY
The Reverend Deborah Fae Swift (PCUSA)
Jeremiah 18:1-10 The Message (MSG)
18 1-2 God told Jeremiah, “Up on your feet! Go to the potter’s house. When you get there, I’ll tell you what I have to say.” 3-4 So I went to the potter’s house, and sure enough, the potter was there, working away at his wheel. Whenever the pot the potter was working on turned out badly, as sometimes happens when you are working with clay, the potter would simply start over and use the same clay to make another pot.
5-10 Then God’s Message came to me: “Can’t I do just as this potter does, people of Israel?” God’s Decree! “Watch this potter. In the same way that this potter works his clay, I work on you, people of Israel. At any moment I may decide to pull up a people or a country by the roots and get rid of them. But if they repent of their wicked lives, I will think twice and start over with them. At another time I might decide to plant a people or country, but if they don’t cooperate and won’t listen to me, I will think again and give up on the plans I had for them.
Luke 14:25-27, 33 The Message (MSG)
25-27 One day when large groups of people were walking along with him, Jesus turned and told them, “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s own self!—can’t be my disciple. Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple. … 33 “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 disciple.
Well, I have to say that it’s GREAT to be back! And my thanks to Summer, Jane, and Katrina who did the preaching while I was gone … as well as to our Deacons and Elders who monitored all of the Pastoral Care concerns. We are greatly blessed to have such leaders here in our midst.
The two readings today are very rich, but I want to start with the one from the prophet Jeremiah. Along with Isaiah, he is one of the MAJOR prophets in Hebrew scripture. Of all the prophets – major and minor – “Jeremiah comes through most clearly as a person, ruminating to his scribe Baruch about his role as a servant of God …with LITTLE good news for his audience.[i] He was writing around the time just before, and at the beginning of, the Babylonian Exile and the destruction of Solomon’s Temple. The fall of Jerusalem. And is often seen by our Jewish brothers and sisters almost as a second Moses.
He was an amazing guy and it is from his writings that Christians came to see Jesus as the new and fulfilled covenant with God (see 1 Corinthians 11:25 and Hebrews 8:6–13) is based on Jeremiah 31:31–34).
But what we need to know for today is that this book “depicts a remarkably introspective prophet, impetuous and often angered by the role into which he has been thrust.”[ii] He doesn’t especially WANT to be the voice of God … the messenger to his people. In his own way, he fights with God like many of us do.
Jeremiah [keeps warning] the people while pleading with God for mercy on their behalf, until finally God orders him to “pray no more for this people.” He engages in extensive performance art, walking about in the streets with a yoke about his neck and engaging in other efforts to attract attention. It’s no surprise that he’s taunted and when he retaliates, he’s thrown in jail. At one point he’s even thrown into a pit to die.”[iii]
In other words, this guy did what God wanted him to – against his own WISHES – and because of his message, he was NOT particularly well-liked at the time. Often he attacked other prophets of his day … and he was living in perilous and chaotic times.
So it is Jeremiah who shares this image with us that God is the potter and we are the clay. We are to be made and re-made … shaped and RE-shaped into that which God WANTS us to be. We are to be the hollowed out cups and pitchers … bowls and URNS designed to HOLD and share with others the life-giving waters of God’s love for us.
And, y’know … it’s an interesting thing about pottery. Sometimes you can drop it and nothing happens. We’ve all had that happen, haven’t we? We knock something off the counter expecting it to shatter and nothing happens … not even a chip.
But SOMETIMES, you just brush UP against something – in the dish water, maybe – and it breaks apart!
That’s the nature of these earthen vessels of ours. Sometimes we’re tough and strong … almost indestructible no matter what comes to hit us in our lives … and then at other times, we’re vulnerable and able to be fractured with the slightest touch.
It’s true for us as individuals.
It’s true for our relationships.
It’s true for our nation.
It’s true for our environment.
It’s true for our church.
I will admit that I felt all of those things in the last month while I was away from you.
I had exhilarating highs like when I was swimming in Lake Blackstone in Canada, near the Georgian Bay … swimming in a pristine, glacially-created lake on quiet, lapping waters, and a LOON swam with me – only twenty yards or so away.
I had challenges with being patient with some people … not to mention trying to get everything done on my home. You remember what that’s like – “Oh, I’m on vacation so I should be able to get every. Single. Building Project. And Home Repair done that I have been trying to do for the last eight years!!! LOL
And if I’m really honest with myself – it was a time for God to be re-fashioning this cracked pot. (I often feel like a “crackpot” but this is different.) This was being aware of God mending some broken places and putting NEW additions on to the shape of this vessel.
It’s been a GOOD vacation, but I haven’t been just a lump of clay.
Two years ago I thought I was gearing up for life as a single gal alone in my house. Now I find myself living with not one, but TWO beautiful, talented and kind young women. My family has grown and I have a new daughter as our family friend, Concetta, has moved in for a year or more.
My life is REDEFINED, yet again.
The potter is at work.
In today’s Gospel lesson, we read from Luke that we are to let go of mother, father, children … those people and things closest to us … those things that DEFINE us … if we are to follow Jesus. Well, I don’t know about you, but almost NOTHING strikes fear in the heart of this little Mama more than thinking of becoming disconnected from her children.
The thing is that I don’t really think that is the ESSENCE of what Luke is saying.
What he’s telling us is that nothing can be more important to us than our relationship with God … or, in the context of Jeremiah, we cannot hold on to our current SHAPE. Who we are … how we define ourselves … how we LOOK … even how we THINK … have to be malleable and FLUID. We have to not only ALLOW ourselves to be recreated and reshaped by our encounters with the Sacred, we have to SEEK that.
That goes for our PHYSICAL nature as well as our INTELLECTUAL and SPIRITUAL natures.
My idea of being an empty-nester? – as appealing and scary as it may have been a year ago – I had to let that GO because God was re-fashioning … re-PURPOSING my cracked pot. I was MEANT to say YES! and to EMBRACE the changes that were coming my way.
Those changes meant letting go of some things – needing to change the furniture around in my home to accommodate another person, for instance … letting go of where I liked to do some of my writing and reading because now it’s “shared space.” But the GIFTS that come from the three of us working together in this shared environment more than offset that.
I .. my family … and my HOME … have all been re-shaped and re-molded into something new!
Y’see … we’re ALL cracked pots.
We get nicked and chipped by LIFE.
People say unkind things TO, or about, us.
Relationships end. People die. Our hearts get broken.
We take “hits” financially.
We take “hits” to our egos.
Some of them may be deserved. Many are not, but we can’t do anything to stop them … they’re part of being human.
What we CAN do is choose how we will react to those hits.
We can go to God and say, “Remake me … refashion me … re-MOLD me into the person that YOU want me to be.” It’s kind of like our famous, dangerous prayer, “Put us where you want me and show us what to do.”
The thing about pottery is that every time something is broken and mended, it becomes stronger at the broken place than it was before the fracture happened. It’s also true of bones … and true of hearts. It’s true of relationships that have healed. The EFFORT that went into FIXING them helps them to withstand the knocks and bruises.
And it’s also true that we become DEFINED by the cracked places. We recognize each other by the nicks and the patched places.
The same is true with the changes that happen when we’re placed on God’s potter’s wheel.
The thing is that for those of us ON the wheel … it’s CRAZY and chaotic. We’re spinning around and around … we lose track of where we are … we lose our bearings … everything is flying by. All we can DO is sit tight and stay there, knowing … HOPING … that when it comes to a stop, we will be okay because God’s hands have been SHAPING us and making us into something that’s new and better suited for what lies before us.
Isn’t that a great image?
I might HATE it when I’m swirling around on that wheel … but I can rest assured that I’m in God’s HANDS – the hands of the Potter – the hands of the Artist – the hands of the CREATOR – and there’s no place I’d rather be.
So there I was on my vacation and I found myself thinking about all of you, of course … praying for you every day. Wondering about your families … your anniversaries … your own travels. And in the middle of it all, I find myself talking with God a LOT about MY ministry and MY family … about MY calling and how am *I* supposed to be more like Jeremiah … or Isaiah … or Paul … or Jesus.
I’m thinking and praying about our CHURCH … how are WE being re-shaped and re-molded to have a different purpose in life!
I’m thinking and praying about our WORLD … our NATION … the elections and how terribly divided we have all become … how much HATE and FEAR and all of the -ISMS have taken over public discourse.
Yesterday I had a really deep and wonderful conversation with Malik. Some of you don’t know him. He’s my 17-year-old godson who is African-American, growing up in the inner city of Rochester and is starting his senior year at Wilson this week. He’s one of the captains of the football team this year and they suffered an embarrassing loss to one of the Greece high schools on Friday night.
In the course of this conversation I found myself talking with him about how when I was 20 I told my brother that I wanted to have 5 kids and adopt them all … and that they should be from different backgrounds and cultures … different parts of the world. Now here I am … in my 60’s … and I have five young people (ages 11-19) in my life – and more importantly in my HEART.
God has RE-FASHIONED my life.
It’s totally different from anything I could have imagined when I was in my 20’s.
They say that “life is what happens when you’re making other plans.”
Well … what is it that WE … our church … our fellowship … our Acts of Faith … what is it that WE are doing while we’re making other plans?
We might be planning on the new Monroe Milers season or on CLASS ACT resuming this week.
We might be PLANNING on Back 2 Center or Sing for Joy!
But what is it that we’re DOING while we’re gearing up for those things?
THAT’s what life is.
That’s what our CHURCH is.
Sometimes it’s crazy and chaotic.
Sometimes we feel dizzy from all the spinning around …
But those are the times when we are on the potter’s wheel and God is creating something new and wonderful out of us … mending the broken places … finding new functions for us …
Those are also the times when we will feel the tugs to stay as we are … to stay connected to the comfortable “families” that we are part of – whether they are families of thoughts and values … or families of “the way we’ve always done it” … or families of people and places … and those are the times when Jesus invites us to follow HIM …
And y’know I LEARNED something this vacation …
We are really GOOD at paying attention and trusting God.
We’re not perfect.
We still complain and get scared sometimes. We still fuss and worry. But in the end, we really DO step out in faith. As a COMMUNITY of faith, we urge each other onward and we remind each other of God’s ongoing presence and forever-love … we are not perfect and we have a lot of broken places.
We are cracked pots and broken pitchers … but we are FIXABLE and still USEFUL so we allow God – maybe we even INVITE God – to put us back on the potter’s wheel and mix it up a little, knowing that we will come out of this better than we started out.
Frankly, that’s the hope that I hold out for our nation right now, too.
Things are chaotic and dizzying.
I choose to think that God is re-molding us for something better.
Things are disorienting and from our position on the wheel, they’re flying by. We are gracing for something to hold on to that will give us stability and we FORGET that we are GROUNDED … not by what’s out THERE but by what’s in HERE. We are ON the wheel and God is re-MAKING us … re-CREATING us … re-PURPOSING us for our highest ideals. We must NOT hold on to the things that have made us SECURE … we must be seeking out the HIGHER good … the NOBLER purpose … the values of our FAITH that call us to be GOD’s people … to be the Body of CHRIST and his COMPASSION … his JUSTICE … his LOVE in the world.
And when we do that, we will find that we have been turned from cracked POTS into beautiful VESSELS of God’s righteousness in the NEW covenant that was forged in the kiln of the Potter.
May it be with us as you wish, Oh Holy One ….