Whose Vessel Do You Choose to Be?

Sermon delivered on Sunday, September 8, 2013, Trinity 15C, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you prefer to listen to an audio podcast of the sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 18.1-11; Psalm 139.1-5, 12-18; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14.25-33.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

In this morning’s lessons we are confronted with the mystery of how God’s sovereignty interacts with human free will. At first blush it is hard to find a common theme in our readings. What does Jeremiah’s enacted prophecy of the potter and the clay have to do with Jesus’ stern warnings to us about following him or Paul’s letter to Philemon in which he tackles the thorny issue of what to do with a runaway slave who is returning to his master? But a closer look reveals what our sovereign God is doing to rescue us and his world from the corruption of evil, sin, and death, and how we as God’s people might cooperate with God in this great endeavor.

In our OT lesson, God speaks to his prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah is to watch a potter working his clay and God intends for Jeremiah to use what he sees to instruct God’s people. The message is straightforward enough. God is the potter and God’s people Israel are the clay. But the clay is not shaping up in a way that is pleasing to the potter so that the potter is threatening to rework the clay into an entirely new vessel. We wonder what this could mean, especially as we start applying the potter’s warning to ourselves and our own lives. After all, who among us has lived entirely faithfully to God? Are we reading yet another passage about sinners in the hands of an angry God that tends to produce knots in the stomach of sensitive souls and cause the scoffer to scoff even louder about God being capricious and unjust?

Well yes and no. To be certain, God is expressing his displeasure with his people Israel and this is where we need to pay attention and remember that the biblical narrative is the story of how God is rescuing his world and us from evil, sin, and death. We must remember that God created everything good and then created humans in his image to be wise rulers over God’s good creation. But we didn’t quite get that memo and our rebellion against God’s good intentions for us and his creation made a splendid mess of things (Genesis 1.1-3.24). We are still living with the consequences of our sin and rebellion today.

So God called his people Israel to bring his healing love to his world. But as the OT makes quite clear, Israel turned out to be part of the problem instead of the solution. They simply failed to be the people God called them to be and this is where our OT lesson comes into play. God called his people Israel to be merciful, to act justly, and to walk humbly with the God who called them into existence. But Israel steadfastly refused to do so. This surely grieved God to the very depths of his heart and as often happens with humans, God’s grief over his people’s stubbornness and rebellion was sometimes expressed as anger. Anyone who has dealt with a stubborn or obstinate friend or family member knows exactly what I’m talking about. Now we see God warning his people Israel through his prophet and we can almost hear God pleading with his people, imploring them to turn away from their stubborn, rebellious, and self-centered ways, and start acting like God’s image-bearers before it is too late. Otherwise, God will have no choice but to rework the clay and do something new and wonderful with it.

Here we see God asserting his sovereign power as Creator over his creatures. We might not fully understand God’s ways and we are certainly free to challenge and even rebel against God’s plan to use humans to help heal and restore his good but fallen creation. But in the final analysis God’s rescue plan will go forward, despite what we do (or refuse to do), precisely because God is the sovereign Creator. To be certain, God gives us free will and allows us to freely choose how we will live our lives. But what will we do with that freedom? Will we choose to live fundamentally in opposition to God or in cooperation with him? This is the choice God is laying out to his people and this is the choice each of us must make today as God’s people in Jesus. This is the mystery of God’s sovereignty and human freedom and to help us better understand how each interacts with the other (although we’ll never understand the dynamics fully), we need to keep in mind why God called his people into existence—to help the kingdom come on earth as in heaven. That was God’s call to his people Israel and it continues to be God’s call to Israel reconstituted around Jesus today, i.e., to us.

So how does this fit in with our epistle and gospel lessons this morning? In our gospel lesson, Jesus confronts us with some startling warnings. What does he mean that we must hate our family members if we are to follow him? So much for the 5th commandment (honor your father and mother)! To understand this “hard saying” of Jesus we must again look at both its immediate and long-term contexts in which it was spoken. First, we must remember that Jesus said these things on the road to Jerusalem where he was going to die to atone for the sins of Israel and the whole world. We’ll return to this in a minute but for now we simply note that Jesus’ followers didn’t really understand what he was doing or why he would go to Jerusalem to suffer and die (cf. Mark 10.32a). Just as many people before Jesus did not understand God’s call to them to be his people, neither did many of Jesus’ followers understand his call to them to be his followers. Many of us still don’t understand today.

To help us make sense of this misunderstanding we must remember what were the expectations of Jesus’ contemporaries. We know that God’s warning through Jeremiah to do a new thing and rework his people came true. The kingdom of Israel was sacked and destroyed in the 7th century BC and the kingdom of Judah along with the city of Jerusalem and its Temple—the very place where God lived among his people Israel—was sacked and destroyed in the 6th century BC and its people sent into exile. But true to God’s promises, God did not entirely abandon his people. A remnant returned home to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple but God’s presence and glory never returned to the Temple as promised. As we can imagine, this caused great consternation among God’s people. Why hadn’t God returned to live among his people as promised? Using dates from the book of the prophet Daniel, some of Jesus’ contemporaries had calculated that God would return in their day and consequently  messianic expectations were rampant. When God’s Messiah appeared so would God’s glory return to live among his people.

Many folks, of course, believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah. But what did people generally expect the Messiah to do? Two things: To cleanse the Temple and defeat Israel’s enemies, in this case the Roman occupiers. So in today’s lesson we see Jesus telling his would-be followers what it would take to follow him. He tells them in typical cryptic fashion (a prophet cannot die outside of Jerusalem, after all!) that he is the Messiah but not the Messiah they expect. He would indeed go and pronounce judgment on the Temple. And he would wage war, but against the real enemy, against the dark powers, not the Romans. However, he would not wage war using conventional weaponry. To use the weapons of the dark powers would mean they had already defeated him. Instead, he would go to Jerusalem and give his own life for the forgiveness of sins, thereby bringing healing and reconciliation between God and humans and between humans themselves, and to defeat the dark forces of evil (Romans 5.10-11; 2 Corinthians 5.18-20; Ephesians 2.11-22; Colossians 1.19-23, 2.13-15). This helps us understand why perhaps he told the parables about the builder and king to the crowd (notice the echoes of messianic expectations here pertaining to judging the Temple and defeating God’s enemies that his followers would surely have heard).

And now we see Jesus warning his followers that anyone who wanted to follow him must be committed to the same course as he took. They were not to wage war in the conventional sense against the wrong enemy but rather against the real enemy through self-sacrificial love and service to others as he had done and was about to do supremely on the cross. Carrying one’s cross was not a metaphor in Jesus’ day. It was a brutal reality and following Jesus meant that some of those listening might be called to the same fate as Jesus—death on a cross.

This helps us better understand Jesus’ talk about hating one’s family. According to the idiom of the day, his listeners would have heard Jesus say that they must love him more than even their own family because there would surely be many in Israel who did not understand how Jesus would save Israel and therefore strongly oppose him (cf. Mark 3.21). In effect, Jesus was telling the crowd that if they believed he was the Messiah they would have to make some very difficult choices because following him would be no easy thing to do. This is why anyone who follows Jesus had better stop and count the cost first. Are we listening, St. Augustine’s?

Here is also where we see the link between the gospel lesson and our OT lesson. Low and behold in Jesus and his followers, Jeremiah’s prediction was coming true. God was indeed keeping his promise on a grand scale to put the clay back on the wheel and rework it into a new vessel. But it wasn’t what God’s people expected or even wanted, then or now, and consequently following Jesus would be costly because there would be fierce opposition from all sides. Are we listening, St. Augustine’s?

We see a practical outworking of God’s reshaped vessels bringing God’s healing love to the world in today’s epistle lesson where we see Paul imitating his Lord and acting as a reconciler between a runaway slave and his estranged owner. Just as Jesus stretched out his arms on the cross to bridge the gap between God and humans and among humans, so we see Paul offering to pay the debt for Onesimus so that he could be reconciled and restored to Philemon. We don’t see Paul barking out orders or making judgmental pronouncements. We see him appeal to a Christian to do the costly thing and be reconciled with a man who ran away from him and probably also stole from him. Of course, our natural human inclination (not to mention the law of that day), would be to punish the offender, and severely. But here we see Paul appealing to Philemon on the basis of Christ’s sacrificial love for the world, a real love that seeks the best interests of both parties, and Paul expects both Philemon and Onesimus to do the costly thing and imitate Jesus.

Acting as a reconciler—whether it is between us and another person or acting in the role Paul did with Philemon and Onesimus—is one of the hardest things we can ever do as Christians because to be reconciled to someone means we have to put aside the hurt or offense the other has inflicted on us and that is never an easy thing for us to do. Being reconciled to someone doesn’t mean we ignore the hurt that the other has inflicted on us. Instead, we fully acknowledge the hurt and then choose to not let it control us. This is how God dealt with our sin and rebellion and the resulting alienation between humans and God. And God calls us to do likewise in our own lives. Are we willing to put aside our anger and animosity toward those who offend us? Are we willing to risk being called weaklings and wimps (or worse)? Are we willing to “butt into” someone else’s business we care about and play the role of reconciler, even when the parties might tell us to butt out? These are questions we must fully ponder and ultimately answer because this is God’s will for us in Jesus—to be peacemakers and reconcilers.

Like the people of Israel in Jeremiah’s day, we can question God’s sanity and purposes and choose to rebel against them, futile as that is (even if it makes us feel better temporarily). But like it or not, this is God’s sovereign plan to use his people in Jesus the Messiah to help bring in the kingdom on earth as in heaven. Are we willing to use the freedom God gives us to cooperate with God’s plan of salvation or will we oppose it? Either way, it is going to be terribly costly to us and we must stop and count the cost before we embark on a particular course of action. Will we choose to follow Jesus and be reconciled to God while facing fierce opposition in this world but gaining eternal life? Or will we choose to escape suffering and persecution for Jesus’ sake only to find ourselves permanently separated from the Source and Author of all life? Being one of Jesus’ people is costly. But because God is in charge and has reconciled us to himself in and through Jesus, and equips us with his Spirit so that we are gradually turned into bona-fide builders of the kingdom who choose reconciliation over enmity, it also means we have Good News, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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