A Reading from the Book of Jeremiah (18:1-11)
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.
Psalm (139:1-5, 12-17)
1 Lord, you have searched me out and known me; *
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
2 You trace my journeys and my resting- places *
and are acquainted with all my ways.
3 Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, *
but you, O Lord, know it altogether.
4 You press upon me behind and before *
and lay your hand upon me.
5 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; *
it is so high that I cannot attain to it.
12 For you yourself created my inmost parts; *
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
13 I will thank you because I am marvelously made; *
your works are wonderful, and I know it well.
14 My body was not hidden from you, *
while I was being made in secret
and woven in the depths of the earth.
15 Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb;
all of them were written in your book; *
they were fashioned day by day,
when as yet there was none of them.
16 How deep I find your thoughts, O God! *
how great is the sum of them!
17 If I were to count them,
they would be more in number than the sand; *
to count them all, my life span would need to be like yours.
The Letter of Paul to Philemon
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. One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke (14:25-33)
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.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Now I know why George wanted to preach on last Sunday’s gospel reading and go on vacation this week! Words that we heard last week — words about welcoming “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind,” and being “blessed… in the resurrection of the righteous” — sure beat words about hating everybody around you including members of your family! These sayings that we heard in the first part of today’s gospel reading seem to contradict everything that Jesus has said about loving all people: friends and enemies alike.
This is the kind of reading with which some people tend to take a “saltwater approach”: first you water it down, and then you take it with a grain of salt. That’s one way of approaching it. But a better way is to consider the cultural context and ways of speaking that were common in the time and culture in which Jesus lived. In that context, for example, “to hate” something or someone often meant “to prefer something or someone else more.” It had to do with priorities in life, with a sense of what is most important.
That way of reading a passage of scripture can be very helpful in drawing out its real meaning. But it can also, at times, be used to water down something that needs to be taken full strength. An example of that is today’s first reading: the encounter of Jeremiah with the potter.
When the prophet talks about God completely reforming God’s chosen people, we usually think, first of all, about other people: you know, those people who really need to be re-formed. When it comes to us, we, naturally, are pretty good already – not perfect, but pretty good. We don’t really need a Divine Potter to re-form us in some major way, maybe just a Divine Plastic Surgeon to make a little nip or tuck here and there.
And yet the God we see in the scriptures, the God who is active over the course of thousands of years in human history, is constantly re-forming, remaking God’s people. And, as far as I can tell, that God has not yet gone into retirement. God is still remaking the world, and God is still remaking us: the church.
Today is the 16th time that St. Mark’s Church has begun a new program year with this celebration of Praise and Picnic in the Park. And I think this might be a good time for us to pause for a few minutes and think about some of the major changes that God has brought about over the years in the church as a whole and in this parish in particular. Over this period of time, what has the Divine Potter been up to? How has that Divine Potter re-made us as a church, and where is that Divine Potter still at work: how is God remaking us now? I can think of three major changes: three major re-forms that God, the Divine Potter, has brought about in the church during the life of St. Mark’s and during the past few decades in particular.
First: at one time, most of the emphasis in churches and in their members’ personal spirituality was directed toward another world, to life after death. Our goal in being a Christian was to get to heaven when we die. There were certainly Outreach or Social Action committees in churches; a few dedicated people who worked to address the needs of the poor with some financial support from the parish as a whole. But the next life was our focus. That emphasis is still present in many of our older hymns, mostly those from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Over the years, however, God has brought us back to the focus that Jesus had and that the early church shared with him. It is a focus on this world and on re-making this world to be more the way that God intends it to be. With Jesus and his first disciples, we have come to recognize that this is the world, and specifically, this is the community, in which we are charged with building up the kingdom of God. Jesus, in his most famous prayer, asks that God’s kingdom might come on this earth, just as it already is in heaven. It is in this spirit that are celebrating St. Mark’s 75th anniversary with the theme “The Community in St. Mark’s Church and St. Mark’s Church in the Community,” looking, as I did in my article in the current issue of Lion’s Tale, at the many ways that St. Mark’s parishioners are living their faith each week by service in and to the community.
Secondly, although we Episcopalians have always been open to welcoming people from many church traditions, God has been at work in the church opening us up to welcome and incorporate into full participation in the church a much greater variety of people than we once did. Over the past decades, we have witnessed the inclusion in the leadership of the church a much greater diversity of people without regard to their race, gender or sexual orientation. That transition has not always been easy. Sometimes, when the Divine Potter is at work, the clay fights back. It takes some people longer to adjust to changes than others. As Thomas Paine once remarked, “Time makes more converts than reason.” As time passes, and as we and people who seem to be different from one another get to know one another personally, we come to recognize all that we share in common.
Finally, God has been at work in the church, helping us to re-learn what the first disciples knew: that God in Jesus came, not to call people to a private, one-on-one relationship with God. Instead, God has always called a people and has called individuals to be members of that people. St. Paul referred to that reality as the Body of Christ. While we have always had our Book of Common Prayer, some of its prayers and own our approach to them, once led us to focus on a private encounter with Jesus during our worship, mentally shutting out everyone else. Even during the reception of Holy Communion, which by its very nature is the least private time of all, we tried to keep ourselves mentally isolated from one another.
And yet the story told in the scriptures has always been one of God calling men, women and children to be part of something greater, to be part of a people who are interdependent on one another, even and maybe especially in their relationship with God. And that people, in turn, exists for the sake of the rest of the world, serving, in the words of the book of Isaiah (42:6 and 49:6) as “a light to the nations” so that God’s “salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
We have a wonderful role, an awesome role to play in the life of our community and of our world: showing the world by our words and by our example what the kingdom of God is like and helping to transform the world for the coming of that kingdom. To enable us to accomplish that overwhelming task, God, the Great Potter, forms and re-forms us again and again. God does not allow our human limitations and frailties to get in the way of the work that has been entrusted to us. In fact, they serve as reminders of where the real power in our life and ministry comes from. As St. Paul once described it (2 Corinthians 4:7), “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
As we begin yet another program year in the life of St. Mark’s Church, we pray that God would continue to form and re-form us time and time again, making of us earthen vessels that are capable of containing and carrying God’s life and love to all those whom we are called to serve.