Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
Key words and phrases: potter, clay, count the cost
This is going to be one of those challenging weeks for preaching. Both the Jeremiah and the Luke passages have “hard sayings”—teachings that seem violent, vengeful, overly demanding, and out of character for a loving God.
Instead of using this week as an opportunity to take a lectionary break, we encourage you to wrestle with these texts. God’s people frequently need to be called back to God’s path. Our task is to show our people how we’ve been tempted down other paths and how we can get back on the Way (Acts 9:2 et al.). We also can remind them that following God was never going to be a leisure-time activity that we take up at our convenience.
In last Sunday’s Jeremiah passage, God put the people on notice. They had been wooed away by Assyrian gods. They had abandoned the law, which requires concern for the vulnerable. They had forgotten how God had carried them from slavery through the desert and ultimately to their own land—all the while making sure they were fed and safe.
This week, Jeremiah resorts to an overt warning. He tells the people about God’s leading him to visit a potter. The vessel the potter was attempting to create got spoiled, so the potter reworked it into another vessel, “as it seemed good to him” (v. 18:4).
A potter uses her hands carefully and sensitively. It’s a delicate matter to shape a clay pot on a wheel. This is truly the work of an artist. A slight change in pressure—or a change of mind—can result in the pot becoming ruined. Nonetheless, the potter can still turn the clay into something else.
“Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?” God tells Jeremiah. “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” (vv. 6-8). The image of the potter is apt, for God is also a creator. Like potters in particular, creators (and the Creator) can destroy what they have made and turn the material into something better.
This sounds like one of those “smiting” passages that lead many Christians to adopt the heresy of Marcionism, saying that they “don’t believe in the violent God of the Old Testament.” Yes, God is pretty severe in this book. Do we not, however, get angry when we learn of children being abused, the elderly being neglected, or the vile rhetoric of emboldened racist groups? I hope that we the faithful are angry about the damage being done to God’s good creation. Earlier in Jeremiah, we learn that God is angry about similar evils: the greed of religious leaders; false claims about peace in the land; oppression of strangers in the land, orphans, and widows; murder; lies; and the abandonment of the God who saved them in order to follow false gods who offer them nothing of real value. We know these evils still exist today, and I cannot imagine that God is any more accepting of them than we are.
Even when we acknowledge God’s distressing rage and threats of violence in this book, the threats are always accompanied by the offer of a second chance. Twice in this short passage (in vv. 8 and 11), God says the people still have a chance to avoid punishment if they turn from their evil ways toward God’s ways of compassion and justice. This God may be angry, but this God also repeatedly offers the people chances to repent and return.
“What we do matters to God, and God’s challenge of our particular sins can seem destructive, but God’s ultimate goal is creation and healing, not destruction and devastation,” says Bruce Epperly. He continues,
Our consumerism and anthropocentrism have led to forest fires and floods, symptoms of global climate change. Our greed has led to economic inequality. Our racism has led to ‘two Americas’ and ‘dog whistle’ politics that polarize rather than unite and render any forward movement an impossibility in the halls of Congress. . . . God wants us to see the error of our ways, and while the celestial surgeon’s antidote may appear harsh, as we are forced to be downwardly mobile, it is aimed at the healing of creation and the transformation of the human heart from greed and alienation to generosity and compassion.
("The Adventurous Lectionary," Aug. 26, 2016, patheos, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/2016/08/the-adventurous-lectionary-september-4-2016-pentecost-16/).
Jeremiah was telling the people to recommit to their covenant with Yahweh and abandon their attempts at a Yahweh-Baal hybrid religion. In today’s Luke passage, Jesus is no less demanding and no less harsh. “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,” Jesus says in Luke 14:26-27, and “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (v. 33). Yikes. This is one of those passages that challenge the idea of literal translation.
Even if this is to be considered hyperbole, as suggested by the New Oxford Annotated Bible—New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (Oxford University Press, 2010, 1859), it is still in the canon, and we still have to grapple with it. Of course, we should still practice the commandment to honor our parents. At the same time, we need the reminder that there is no Sunday-and-Wednesday only about following Jesus. Even serving on a church committee is not enough, for most members, to demonstrate their discipleship. It requires a life commitment.
Of course, this does not necessitate everyone’s becoming a clergyperson. The world needs more laypeople who are committed to continual growth and service than it needs clergy. Laypeople can be in more workplaces, community organizations, and neighborhood sites than many clergy. These are the places to find people in need of compassion and a relationship with the divine, and who seek ways to be a force for peace and justice. The practices of kindness and concern for the marginalized, as well as the honest, personal stories of faith, are far more influential than those of the “professional Christians.”
Counting the cost also entails sacrifice. What must we give up to commit more to God? What are those false gods we pursue that are taking time and resources (and personal opportunities for spiritual growth) from our life in the God of resurrection and new life?
“Discipleship is not just one more hobby or extra-curricular activity,” David Schasa Jacobsen says. “Would-be followers should count the cost, but realize that the cost is not the same as for the 5K-charity run or expanding the Sunday school wing. The cost must be counted, but is not of the same order. Discipleship has to do with the ultimate and not just the penultimate” (Commentary on Luke 14:25-33, Preach This Week, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2958).
This week’s readings do not provide warm fuzzies. However, they do urge us to make hard choices in order to grow as disciples, experience new life, and participate in building the realm of God.
Questions for reflection
- What needs to be reworked or even discontinued in your church so that something new and necessary can be created in its place?
- In what ways could your church limit its internal support committees to the essential ones and establish more ways to support people in practicing faith in the community?
- Who would you identify as the people most likely to adopt spiritual disciplines and ministries to the community—in the context of supportive, intentional groups? How might you invite them into deeper spiritual exploration and leadership in ministry with the neighbors?
Rev. Victoria Rebeck is a deacon and member of the Minnesota Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. She has combined her theology and journalism background in appointments to The Christian Century magazine, United Methodist Publishing House, Minnesota Annual Conference, and the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Her ministry has focused on pointing the church to the world's needs for compassion and justice. She is a board member of Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors, which provides quality legal assistance to immigrants, particularly those receiving lower incomes.