Old Testament: 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.
The Response: 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 Gospel: 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
Sometimes in life, if we are open to new insights, seemingly ordinary events can open our eyes to a greater reality and to God working in new ways; and we might just be changed.
The prophet Hosea (1-2) reflected on the painful circumstances of his life, on his repeatedly unfaithful wife; and he recognized the fact that Yahweh had been suffering in the same way due to the unfaithfulness of his “wife,” Israel. Amos (8:1-3) looked at a basket of fruit, a sign that the fullness of the harvest had come; and he recognized that the fullness of Israel’s corruption had come, and that Yahweh was about to bring on them a harvest of destruction. And, in today’s first reading, Jeremiah (18:1-11) stood at the shop of a potter, watching what he was doing and observing how, when the vessel that he was making turned out distorted, he would rework it into something new; and he recognized that Yahweh, the Great Potter, could do the same with Judah – and with us. All of them were able to look at the seemingly ordinary experiences of life and recognize in them parallels to what was happening in the world in their time, and to the new things that God was doing.
In today’s second reading, St. Paul endeavored to help a fellow Christian, a man named Philemon, to see another new thing that God was doing: how God was transforming human relationships and calling people to a completely new way of thinking and of relating to one another. It was a mindset and a worldview that contradicted all that Philemon and others had been taught and had come to accept as right and normal in the world. But now, in Christ, God was turning people’s worlds upside down. God still is.
In this case, at issue was the relationship between masters and slaves. Onesimus was a slave, owned by Philemon, a Christian living in Colossae in modern day Turkey. Either his master had sent him on an errand to wherever Paul was being held in prison, but he had never returned home; or he had run away on his own. In either case, the master had a right under Roman law to inflict severe punishment on the slave.
But somehow, Onesimus had met Paul; and in that encounter, he was converted to the Christian faith and was baptized. Paul thought about this new, maybe at that time unique, situation and realized that God was doing something new and completely unexpected in the relationship between a master and a slave. Both were now believers. The two of them together shared life in Christ. And that fact led Paul to make, what must have been at the time, a shocking request. He asked Philemon to receive Onesimus back “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.”
Fulfilling Paul’s request would have gone completely contrary to the way of life in which Philemon grew up, to the accepted notion at his time of “the way things are supposed to be,” to the ingrained values that people accepted as God-given and immutable. In light of our Jeremiah reading, we could say that God was ready to re-form, to re-fashion, to re-make Philemon, the way that a potter re-makes a vessel.
God has continued to do that, time and time again. And it has often been just as difficult for people to accept those changes, to have God re-fashion them, as it must have been for Philemon and others to accept the totally new, and previously unthinkable, thing that God was doing.
I was talking with someone this summer about some of the former clergy who had served churches in this area. One name that came up was that of the late Gordon Price, an amazing leader both in the church and in the community as a whole.
One time back in the summer of 2003, I was taking a couple of weeks of vacation, and Gordon was filling in for me here on Sundays. That happened to be the time when a major controversy erupted in the Episcopal Church over the election of Gene Robinson, an openly gay, partnered priest, to become a bishop. I was tremendously grateful that Gordon had been here on that Sunday; he was probably the perfect person for that moment.
From those who were present, I learned that he spoke to those in attendance about the fact that he was at least one of the oldest priests in the diocese, if not the oldest. And he told them basically, “Do you think this is a huge change? I’m probably older than any of you. Let me tell you about the changes that I’ve seen in my lifetime.” And he proceeded to talk about the furor that had erupted in the church when women were first allowed to serve on Vestries and in Diocesan Conventions, not to mention the beginning of the ordination of women as bishops, priests, and deacons. He spoke about the upheaval that took place over the church’s support for the Civil Rights movement. He reviewed the increasing identification of the church with the poor and the marginalized, advocating for their rights and insisting on the responsibility that the rest of us have to address their needs. And each time, as he reminded those present, there were those who strongly opposed those changes to what had been the commonly accepted idea of “the way things have always been” and “the way things are supposed to be.” As expected in church circles, there were those who tried to use scripture to buttress their arguments and to insist that the church had no right to change from what it had supposedly “always” done.
But in every case, he insisted, we realized later that God had been at work re-forming us, re-working the church to recognize new aspects of the radical new thing that God had done and was continuing to do in Jesus, transforming the way we viewed one another, and changing the relationships that we had with some of God’s other children. The Great Potter of Jeremiah’s time, the Great Potter who had called Philemon and Onesimus into a new way of relating to each other, was and still is at work in the world, refashioning us into new vessels of God’s life and love.
So where is God calling us now? In what way is God seeking to re-work us now? Those are key questions. But maybe the most important one for us is “Are we willing to allow God to do that: to re-shape us into vessels of God’s life-giving and all-embracing grace?”