Fashioned by God, refashioned by Jesus: A Sermon for Proper 18C, September 4, 2022

I have an old friend who’s a potter. We’ve pretty much known each other all our lives. Grew up in the same town, he was a year older, in my sister’s class and a friend of hers. We went to the same college and after graduation, he went back home and became the potter at the local historic village/ museum set up by a wealthy entrepreneur. I would drop by his studio every time I went home and if there weren’t many people around, I would watch him throwing pots as we would chat, catching up on our lives and other friends and acquaintances. Like all potters, as he is creating his art, occasionally things will go wrong. There’s a fault in the object he has on the wheel and he has to take it all back down, start over. There’s something mesmerizing about watching a potter at work

Somewhere, I’ve got a pitcher of his I bought at a college art fair many years ago. We also have a number of his more recent pieces. Over the course of his career, he has become adept not only at making useful, attractive objects but also at using glazes to create stunning works of art. 

This reading from Jeremiah is one of the most vivid and memorable images in all of scripture. It has also lent itself to reinterpretation and adaptation as the image of the potter and the clay has become a common way of thinking about our individual relationships with God, “You are the potter, I am the clay” goes the old song. 

But before exploring the image, let’s go back and get a bit of background. We’ve actually been reading about the Hebrew prophetic tradition throughout this season after Pentecost. We were introduced to Elijah and Elisha, then Amos, who was the first of the Hebrew prophets to have his words written down and recorded. Now we come to Jeremiah, who was active for around 40 years or more. He began his work in the 620s, during the reign of Josiah, who introduced a number of religious reforms, chief among them an insistence on worship and sacrifice in Jerusalem at the temple (the book of Deuteronomy reflects these concerns). Jeremiah’s prophecies address these same concerns, especially the tendency to worship other gods, the gods of Canaanite religion, Baal and Astarte

Alongside these religious concerns are the political ones. Judah, the southern kingdom is being threatened by Babylon. Eventually it will be conquered, the temple destroyed, and the religious and political elite of Judah carried off into captivity in Babylon. Under threat, the king of Judah wants to make an alliance with Egypt, something Jeremiah opposes and which contributes to his troubles (imprisonment and exile).

Against this context Jeremiah’s visit to the Potter’s House, and the Word of the Lord that comes to him there becomes quite clear. God is the potter, Judah the clay. God chose and called the people of Israel, created the monarchy, and nourished it. But their apostasy and disobedience have angered God, who will destroy them as a potter destroys a misshapen pot on the wheel. Nevertheless, if the people repent and turn away from the worship of false gods, God may restore them and recreate them.

While this may be the context for the original prophetic oracle—Judah’s apostasy and the existential threat to the nation posed by the Babylonian empire, there is significant biblical warrant for reinterpreting it as the Christian tradition has done, to think about our relationship with God as that of a potter and clay.

Indeed, the biblical story of creation lends itself to that interpretation—God created human beings out of the dust of the earth, fashioned the human as a sculptor fashions a sculpture. That sense of intimacy alongside the creative power of God is evidenced in the first verses of Jeremiah—words we heard a couple of weeks ago: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.”

That same intimacy and deep connection between God and us human beings is eloquently described in today’s Psalm:

Lord, you have searched me out and known me; *
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.

 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.

This sense of being shaped, created, formed by God may seem a long way away from the hard words Jesus says in today’s gospel reading.

In today’s gospel, Jesus seems to be making statements about family relationships that radically upend our feelings and ideas about traditional family ties. 

“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.”

What to make of this? On first hearing, Jesus’ language seems offensive, overly harsh. In its context, it may be hyperbolic, exaggeration. Jesus uses such stark language to drive home the point that if one wants to follow Jesus, be his disciple, nothing else should matter as much.

Our tendency when we hear Jesus say things like he says in today’s gospel reading, is to dismiss it. Either he can’t really mean what he says, or it’s so outlandish as to be completely irrelevant to our lives. And if he means it, then maybe I don’t want to sign on to this Jesus stuff, and anyone who does is crazy, which may be a judgment many of us make regarding others who call themselves Christian. 

But to do that is to let ourselves off the hook; to relegate Jesus to some hidden corner of our lives that is largely irrelevant. Jesus’ words challenge us to think about what he hold most dear, what our deepest commitments are, what are priorities and values really are. And Jesus’ words challenge us to reshape our lives in conformity to him, to reshape our relationships, commitments, and priorities.

We live in a messy world. We lead messy lives. We face all kinds of decisions in our lives that seem not to be clear-cut. We face choices at work that might seem the lesser of two evils; we wonder what it might mean to follow Jesus’ call. Whether the decisions are large or small, it’s about trying to be faithful day in, day out. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him. These words challenge us to follow him in all of our lives, in everything we do. They challenge us to get our priorities in line. They challenge us to see everything in light of the cross. Everything! All that we do, all of our values, our hopes and fears, the things we love most dearly lie in the shadow of the cross, by the love demonstrated by Christ’s outstretched arms, and by his call to follow him.

An onerous burden indeed. But even as we hear Jesus’ call to us, to take up our cross and follow him, even as we hear his words that we must hate father and mother, brother and sister, if we want to enter God’s reign, we also need to remember that the burden is not wholly on us. God is working in us, on us, as a potter works on clay, fashioning us into the creatures, the human beings, God desires us to become helping us, through the grace given us in Jesus Christ, to be the vessels of God’s love, pouring out that love into the world. Thanks be to God.

Guest Post: Fr. JF’s Sermon for Proper 17C, August 28, 2022

I want to talk with you this morning about having a second conversion. A second conversion you ask? What’s that? Well, I’m glad you asked. We know what conversion is in this our Christian context. That moment or season when I began to realize that God is Love, that Jesus Loves Me, and I began to get my head and heart around the mysterious simplicity of John 3:16 – For God so loved the cosmos that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting and abundant life. My first conversion in this light has been ongoing. That the Christian life is about death and resurrection and being drawn ever more closely to God by his Spirit. When I was a teenager, a period I lovingly and also cringingly refer to as my Billy Graham phase, in my vigilance and immaturity, I asked a priest friend of my parents if he was saved. He patiently and with great contemplative wisdom replied, “I was saved, I am saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved. This has been my perspective on my first conversion to this day. Day by Day. Maybe many of you can relate. 

Now, Let me tell you the story of my second conversion. I was 19 years old in my sophomore of college at Messiah University in central Pennsylvania, near the state capital of Harrisburg. I was a restless long haired wild eyed English Major, disenchanted by the versions of Christianity I was seeing all around me. The elitism, the favoritism, the overwhelming Whiteness and systemic racism I was surrounded by drove me to the arms of the nearest metropolis. Harrisburg. To poor neighborhoods and communities of color. I drove the ten miles – which may as well have been culturally light years away from the insulated separated culture of my alma mater. This is not to say that Messiah University was getting it all wrong. Their commitment to pacifism rooted in the Anabaptist tradition was very attractive to me, and some of my closest and most encouraging and affirming relationships I have to this day were forged at Messiah University. 

Nonetheless, On one day, I was driving on the square around the capital building, much like the square we are on today and much to my shock and surprise I saw a group of men and women gathered on the capitol steps, holding large signs which read, “Jesus was a death penalty victim”, they had a symbolic large metallic electric chair that had a crown of thorns mounted on the top of it. I slammed on my breaks, parked somewhere quickly, and just about ran up to the protestors to see more of what had sparked my interest in what they were all about. I wanted to know More of what drew me to this ragtag bunch on the capitol steps. Like a wide eyed child, I aksed one of the men holding a sign, “what are you doing?” he said, we are protesting the death penalty and demanding that Pennsylvania place a moratorium on executions.” This group exuded empathy and something else that I recognized and resonated with on a soul level, they were swept up in passion for justice. Justice. Justice for the poor. And a prophetic declaration that the system could and would be transformed toward justice for the poor by the power of the people aligned with the Holy Spirit. That society would and could be changed. I was dumbfounded. Who are you? What are you? I asked the burly man with the sign. He simply replied. “We’re the Catholic Workers”. That was the interaction that set me on a journey that would change my life indelibly and permanently. What I call my second conversion. My ongoing second conversion began to solidify there. With the Catholic Worker Movement and its house of hospitality in Harrisburg, PA. My second conversion was to solidarity with the poor and toward empathy and justice for them. As Dr. Cornel West said, “Justice is what love looks like in public”. To this we can and do endeavor, because it is intrinsic in the person of Jesus, that he transforms us toward solidarity with the poor. 

Saint Martin De Porres Catholic Worker House was located on Alison Hill in Harrisburg. At the time, Alison Hill was the poorest zip code in Pennsylvania. The Catholic Worker Movement began with Dorothy Day in New York City, during the Great Depression.  When Dorothy Day read the Gospel text for today, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed…” She took it literally. She invited the homeless, the destitute, the poor, the broken, the most vulnerable of our society into her home, and she cared for them. This spawned an International movement called the Catholic Worker which is marked by the Works of Mercy…clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, giving hospitality to refugees, advocating for the undocumented, and all the while asking why the naked have no clothes, why the hungry have no food, why refugees are pushed to the margins of our society and chiefly not offered hospitality….in other words, like Jesus, Dorothy Day wanted to uproot and transform not just individuals but also the systems of oppression which keep people poor, neglected, hungry and invisible. 

“When you give a banquet, Jesus says, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And give them the seats of honor. And you will be blessed…” This command from Jesus is not merely a nice and kind thing to do. This is way more and greater than just being a nice person. Jesus is pointing to a radical reconfiguring of society, of the caste system, and a transformative picture of the Kingdom of God. This is not metaphorical or theoretical, it is literal. “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed…”

Let’s start the reading of this Gospel text for today by acknowledging that it was downright amazing that Jesus was invited to this dinner party in the first place. Was it intrigue that caused the Pharisee to open his home and table to Jesus, or was it entrapment. We know Jesus was being watched closely by the religious elite, just hoping and waiting for him to slip up. Jesus accepts this invitation knowing full well that the stakes were high. 

What is the first thing Jesus does at this dinner party? He corrects the host! Then he goes on to correct the gathered elites who have chosen to sit in places of honor. Jesus says plainly, 8”When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place’, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” It is amazing that Jesus gets invited in the first place, because they must have known what was about to go down. Their plan to trap Jesus wasn’t going to work. Instead, he dissects and interrogates their entire social system that creates a hieararchy of class and caste. He appeals to the power of the Spirit to transform individuals who then transform systems to welcome and invite, and invite first and foremost the misfits and the most vulnerable of society. This paradigm that Jesus is invoking is also not a case of “Charity”… nor is it a charity case. There is not enough charity in the world that can fix the inequities and injustices of our world. It is the systems that must be addressed and dismantled. It is a deconstruction of abusive societal systems of caste, and it addresses the very roots of that abuse. 

In her book titled ‘Caste’, the origins of our discontent’ Isabel Wilkerson hits the nail on the head. And I find her understanding of the caste system in America to be spot on. She writes, “Caste is insidious and therefore powerful because it is not hatred, it is not necessarily personal. It is the worn grooves of comforting routines and unthinking expectations, patterns of a social order that have been in place for so long that it looks like the natural order of things.”  Wilkerson goes on to write, 

So where is the good news in this message? The good news is that the Gospel changes everything. It turns our long ingrained and abusive societal structures upside down. It invites the beggar to the feast. It means we are tasked and charged to be transformed as we transform the world around us toward empathy, equity, and justice. 

What does it mean for us here on W. Washington Avenue? Here in Madison in the here and now? What does it mean for Grace Church in the present? Well, I can see and feel the hand of God moving here in Grace Church. We are responding to our collective second conversion when we endeavor to bring land acknowledgement, justice and reparations to our Native brothers and sisters, when we partner with African American businesses and African American churches, when we begin to address the local needs of those coming out of jail and reentering society, when we welcome with open arms our LGBTQ brothers and sisters. When we take on the often painful demand of Jesus to examine ourselves as individuals and as a congregation as to where in the caste hierarchy we find ourselves and then to live accordingly. 

You see the church doesn’t need a bastion devoted to keeping the wrong people outside. It needs a family of huge hearted sinners who are committed to throwing open wide the doors and proclaiming, there is food here. Spiritual food and bread and wine, come and eat no matter who you are or what caste you find yourself in. The church needs a beggars banquet mentality. A second conversion character. One that, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.”  This is it a kingdom for the hungry. Let us reflect on that in our hearts as we come to the Lord’s banqueting table this morning.