Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand…”
Most of the time, when we think of the image of God being the potter and we being the clay, we are inclined to think of gentle molding and subtle corrections, making us gradually better but entirely still ourselves. But if we look carefully at today’s lesson from Jeremiah, it’s not quite that way. God summons the prophet Jeremiah to go watch a potter working at his wheel. And what does Jeremiah see? For some reason, the vessel that the potter is working on is messed up—and the potter takes it, he’s decided it’s beyond tweaking, and he smashes the vessel completely into a new lump. Then using that clay he commences to start a completely different vessel.
Perhaps that’s a bit harsh, but that’s what you get for opening the book of Jeremiah—he was in the business of saying hard truths during hard times. The judgment of God in those days was not letting the people of Jerusalem and Judah off the hook—and yet in all times we are accountable to God to live lives of justice and to follow where God leads, even when that may change who we are. Being changed by God is like this pot that was pushed back in to a lump of clay. All change involves destruction of something. The vessel the potter was making had to give up its entire form so that the clay could be used again and a different pot would be made. People usually try to avoid that. Most people will agree that changing is okay—in theory—as long as they don’t have to give up A, B, or C.
But to be Christians, that is, to be disciples of Jesus, we have to change and that means that, like it or not, we have to give up A. B. and C. This is what Jesus says at the beginning of today’s Gospel: “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.” –the notes in the commentary I was reading sum this up well: “the language here is strong…the term “hate” is the opposite of “love”—the terms denote attitudes and modes of action, not emotions. The point is not how one feels about parents and family, but one’s effective attitude when it comes to a choice for the kingdom.”
In other words, Jesus chose the toughest A, B, and C to challenge people to change and enter the kingdom of God. In order to have abundant life we have to accept the death of some old shapes, and things that we hold on to. The parable today about the guy building the tower is an example—how many times do we see someone start on a project and think that they can be successful just because of their brains and good looks, without seeing the obstacles or making sure they have the resources it takes? The person who fails to build the tower, fails because they are too proud and attached to their idea. The person who lives abundant life is alive through the ability to accept reality, and be willing to give up things that might be valuable and change according to the love of God.
Today’s epistle is virtually the entire letter to Philemon, the shortest of the letters of St. Paul and the only one addressed to a single individual. I hesitate to talk about it, because there is so much in it, so much subtlety in the persuasive interchange between the elderly apostle and his old friend Philemon, and because the subject matter raises so many deep questions, particularly on the issues surrounding slavery. I cannot do justice to this in a brief sermon. I do want to point out that Paul’s reason for writing the letter is to challenge his friend Philemon to change. Philemon as a wealthy citizen had all the legal rights in this situation, and we know that wealthy citizens are generally unwilling to hear anything that would imperil their economic rights and prerogatives. Yet Paul says, “…you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother…So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” This personal letter survives. Perhaps Philemon did heed Paul and give up his property right.
It is frightening to give up things, to see what we know converted back to a lump of clay without knowing what God will form out of it. But we do know that the love of God in Jesus forms us into a living body that brings that love into this world.