Thursday, December 6, 2018

What can we say September 8, 13th after Pentecost?

   Jeremiah 18:1-11. Jeremiah is told by God to “Go to the potter’s house.” Last time around in the lectionary cycle, I did. I visited a potter in her studio, wrote a sermon with her, then brought the potter to my house. My sermon was a conversation with her – and in a couple of our services, she actually worked on a pot right in front of us! (Listen here - it was amazing!).

   The language potters use is theologically suggestive. Clay gets spoiled, so the potter reworks it. If it’s wonky, the potter has to redeem it. The potter is never sure how the pot will turn out; the clay “talks back” to the potter. The clay is passive – but has its own life and nature that can resist the potter!

   The potter strives to open up the clay. Keeping the clay centered is key – and two hands are required to shape, reshape, begin again, refine. The outside must conform to the inside. Hard clay is a challenge – and so the potter adds water (so can we think tears? Baptism?). The clay gets exhausted – and so is set aside for a time (can we think John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer, “Let me be employed for you or laid aside for you”?). Time, patience, practice are required. The potter continually learns from each new pot. And you can’t force the clay. You let the wheel do its work, its force being more pivotal than the hands, which merely shape.

   Pottery is frustrating – and Jeremiah pinpoints that moment the potter (God) wants to start over and make the clay into something new and different, so resistant is Israel to God’s way. Israel is wonky, needing redemption. Israel and all of us need to interiorize Augustine’s famous thought: “O Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” Not just as individuals either! – but as a people, as the family of God.

   We give out Bibles to third graders this Sunday - so the potter idea probably won't fly. I may use as a bulletin cover a photo of some of our family's favorite pottery - and I'll tell how they came from different places, different pottery shops I've visited, but all required shaping, time, love, etc., and try to ponder then how the Bible over time is like the potter toiling over us to make us into something amazing, unique, lovely, useful.

   Philemon 1:1-21. I’ve never tried this, but you can preach a whole sermon on a whole book – which is nothing but somebody else’s mail. Paul wrote a letter pleading with his friend to liberate his slave Onesimus. This little window into shared social responsibility in a world that does not share our social commitments is telling, instructive, and probably exemplary. To whom might we speak regarding the fulfillment of the Christian vision? What word might each of us bear as an invitation to a different way of life?

   Paul alludes to the church meeting in Philemon’s home – so he must have been a man of means. A sermon could build on home-as-church (with Merton’s admonition that “Christians should have quiet homes,” places of peace, solitude, prayer and reflection). Paul also indulges in much flattery in his long warm-up to make his pitch for Onesimus. God’s kingdom is a social flattening, an end to every caste or pecking order. The rhetoric astonishes: he once was useless to you, but now is useful once more – but not in the way you’d imagined (as a returned slave!). He is now your brother – and useful thus in converting your soul!

    Some story will come to you that embodies this. I may tell what happened recently with our dear friend Dorothy Counts Scoggins. In 1957, Dot was the first African-American sent into a white school in Charlotte. And they sent her alone! The drama is commemorated now in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington. Recently, two Girl Scouts, 5th graders in that very same building Dot entered 62 years ago, erected a bench and plaque in her honor. When she arrived for the dedication, dozens of children waved signs saying You are welcome here now! We love you! – whereas she’d been spat on, hit and mocked 62 years earlier.

     Or you have the funnier moment in Forrest Gump when Bubba’s family made a fortune and went from serving as the hired help to hiring help… but that’s not quite on point, is it?

   Luke 14:25-33. No sweet Jesus here, inviting hatred of father and mother. We can handle the text, but dare not ignore it. Francis of Assisi is one of a horde of Christians who shattered their own families in order to follow Jesus. The moment Francis, being sued by his father Pietro, gave all he had back to him and swore his sole allegiance to God as his Father. I know I have a very personal story that fits this mold - and the question is always whether to tell something so personal and agonizing or not. It embodies the text quite vividly, but can distract from the main point?

    This taking up the cross isn’t grimacing and praying hard or doing without a few things for Jesus. Joel Marcus, in his great Anchor commentary on Mark, directs us to what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had to say about going to death row in the Gulag – which is what taking up your cross would have meant: From the moment you go to prison you must put your cozy past firmly behind you. At the threshold, you must say to yourself: My former life is over, I shall never return. I no longer have property. Only my spirit and my conscience remain precious to me. I can’t re-use those words often enough in preaching.

   Jesus eases back a little from death row to counting the cost of building a tall tower. If I have time, I’ll refer to Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth, in which Tom, the mason, ruminates on what it means and requires to build a tall cathedral: “He had worked on a cathedral once. At first he had treated it like any other job. He had been angry and resentful when the master builder had warned him that his work was not quite up to standard: he knew himself to be rather more careful than the average mason. But then he realized that the walls of a cathedral had to be not just good but perfect. This was because the cathedral was for God, and also because the building was so big that the slightest lean in the walls, the merest variation from the absolutely true and level, could weaken the structure fatally. Tom’s resentment turned to fascination. The combination of a hugely ambitious building with merciless attention to the smallest detail opened Tom’s eyes to the wonder of his craft. He learned about the importance of proportion, the symbolism of various numbers, and the almost magical formulas for working out the correct width of a wall or the angle of a step in a spiral staircase. Such things captivated him.  He was surprised to learn that many masons found them incomprehensible.”  What if we thought of our life with God, our pursuit of holiness, our determination to be the church, in such thoughtful terms?

   One wrinkle though. If we ponder the cost of building, we might assemble lots of wood, bricks, shingles, nails, carpenters, painters, etc. – whereas the cost of discipleship, the cost of a holy life, is more divestment than assembling. You unload the stuff you have. Well, maybe you do keep the carpenter!

   {Pottery and Dorothy Counts photos by Lisa Stockton Howell}

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