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 New Testament: Philemon (1-21)
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. Mike Kreutzer
There’s an old joke that many of you have heard before. “How many Episcopalians does it take to change a lightbulb?” The response: “Change! There’s no reason to change that light bulb! It’s worked just fine for us for years. My grandparents gave that lightbulb to the church. You can’t just go and change it!”
Change is difficult. But what people seem to fear the most is not so much change in the abstract as being changed. Yet that is what the life of faith is all about: being changed, being transformed in such a way that we more clearly and completely reflect the image and likeness of God.
Today, with our 22nd annual worship and picnic here in the park, we begin a new year in the life of St. Mark’s Church; and this is going to be a year of significant change. As it happens, today’s scripture readings are ideal places to begin in reflecting on that change and on change itself as the one constant reality of life.
At the time of today’s first reading, the prophet Jeremiah was standing outside the house of a potter, watching him work and rework a clay vessel. And it occurred to him that the image of a potter was an ideal one to understand what God was doing in his life and in the life of the people of Israel. God, the Great Potter, had formed them and was now in the process of re-forming them into something new, lovingly and skillfully remaking them in a way that they could not then perceive or understand. My guess is that they didn’t like being changed any more than we do.
And I have no doubt that Philemon, to whom our second reading is addressed, didn’t like at all the change that Paul was calling on him to make.
Those who attend our weekly Adult Forum know that in the New Testament, the letters ascribed to Paul are not in chronological order. They are in order by size: from Romans, the longest, to Philemon, the shortest. And Philemon is unique, not just because it is the shortest, but also because it is a personal note to a friend, although one meant to be shared with the church that met in his house.
At the time of the letter’s writing, Paul was in prison. Somehow he had met Philemon’s run-away slave, Onesimus, had shared the Good News with him, and had baptized him. Now he was sending him back to the slave owner, Philemon, with this brief but extraordinary letter. And in that letter, he asked Philemon not to punish Onesimus for running away and for what he apparently had stolen on his way out the door. But more than that, he asked him to welcome him back and to receive him no longer as a slave, but as a brother: as a fellow believer in Jesus.
That must have hit Philemon like the proverbial ton of bricks! Not punishing severely this runaway slave and thief was one thing, but accepting and welcoming him as an equal, as a brother in Christ – that was a radical and revolutionary change, one that threatened the whole social hierarchy that was so ingrained in him and in the world in which he lived. Slavery had been an accepted fact of life in the world since time immemorial, and even the bible clearly accepted that reality. But now, Paul insisted, God was creating something different, something new. And God was remaking the world and the people in the world in ways that, up to that time, would have been unimaginable.
Paul was asking Philemon to do what Jesus, in today’s gospel reading, calls on all his disciples to do: to put the kingdom of God above everything else, to allow himself to be changed to new ways of thinking and acting and living.
We don’t know whether or not Philemon acceded to Paul’s request. The fact that the letter was preserved and even canonized by the church seems to indicate that he did. Paul probably “sealed the deal” by adding, in the final verses of the letter, a mention that – oh, by the way — he intended to pay Philemon a personal visit. “I’m going to stop by and see how you and your brother, Onesimus, and the rest of the church that meets in your house are getting along” — just a little extra incentive; just a little extra pressure.
At the time of Jeremiah, God was at work re-forming Israel. At the time of Paul, God was at work re-forming Philemon – and the rest of the early church along with him. And now, during our new program year, God is at work re-forming St. Mark’s Episcopal Church as well.
So, what does the Great Potter want to make of this part of the Body of Christ during the year and years ahead? That is the question that you need to ask as you begin this time of transition, and throughout the transition itself. No matter what surveys and discussions included in the process might suggest, the real question, the most important question, is not what you want St. Mark’s to be in the years to come, but what God wants St. Mark’s to be in the years to come.
Changing and being changed can sometimes be hard. Over 400 years ago, Richard Hooker, perhaps the greatest Anglican theologian of all time, observed: “Change is not made without inconvenience, even from worse to better.” But change is what the life of faith is all about.
The 19th-century British theologian, John Henry Newman, taught: “In a higher world it may be otherwise; but, here below, to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” May God be with this wonderful parish during the coming year as God continues the work of changing it and of bringing it a little closer to all that God intends it to be.