Listen to the sermon here:
I do not enjoy crafts. When my children were small and they needed parent volunteers to help with school projects, I would offer to do anything but “prep work.” “Prep work,” for those of you who have never volunteered at Sunday school, generally means cutting about 50 circles or triangles out of construction paper to be used for young fingers to draw and glue on. If you are me, not only do your circles come out looking like triangles, but there is also some kind of mathematical formulation that guarantees that my irritation level rises to that of my cutting incompetence. Also, I have found that teachers of young children frown on tears and blood-drops on their project paper.
So when I attended a retreat and was given a ball of clay and the instructions to shape something that represented my ministry, I rolled my eyes, sighed deeply, and tried to get out of it. Unfortunately, it was a small retreat and there was no escaping the dreaded spiritual craft project. Since I was in discernment at the time, I decided to make a chalice to symbolize my desire to become a deacon. However, I could not for the life of me construct a functional glass stem. Every one of my attempts looked approximately like a hippopotamus sitting on a giraffe leg – and, without fail, the glass bowl part would completely flatten the delicate stem. Needless to say, as the stem leg got flatter and wider I became more frustrated, which culminated in the creation of something that looked like a very round wine glass sitting on a flat plate.
When we got back together in the large group, people spoke movingly about their artwork and the process that led them to create it. They drew lovely and thoughtful connections between what they had made and where they were on their spiritual journeys. By the time they got to me, I was mortified. What was I supposed to say? -that my primary spiritual reaction to the project was frustration – or that I couldn’t make my hands do what I saw in my head? I felt both artistically and spiritually stupid.
Then, before I could even begin to make up something about how my stumpy glass with the separated stem represented my spiritual life, one of the participants who knew me -and of my struggles in discernment – said, “Oh Deb – Look! You made a paten and lavabo bowl. You really are a priest!” I was dumbfounded – because when I looked down and saw what was in front of me, I knew that she was right. I had, without any planning or desire, constructed what was clearly a lavabo bowl – a liturgical implement used to wash the hands of priests – and a paten – which is used to hold the bread that is blessed and distributed by priests. God had taken my resistant fingers – and my resistant heart – and made me see that my true identity – an identity I had yet to embrace – was not that of a deacon, but of a priest. And God did it despite my best efforts to resist it. And God forced me to understand what I had done by speaking through the spirit of someone I loved.
That’s what happens when we allow ourselves to be God’s clay – to be molded and shaped as God wills – which is not necessarily what we want. And God’s will is that we should be good – not just as individuals, but as nations, kingdoms – and worlds. That’s what God sent Jeremiah to tell the house of Israel –that they were denying his will so she was going to take their miserable human lives into her creating hands and squash them like badly-made play-do people. Because despite God’s best efforts, the house of Israel had become spoiled vessels – and God had decided to unmake the very shape of them and to rework them into something better.
That’s a scary idea – to think that there’s some kind of power out there that can simply undo you. It’s the kind of idea that keeps people away from churches, that threatens our very American sense of autonomy and power. It’s also kind of demeaning –to think of ourselves as simply being the raw materials of someone else’s art work. We consider ourselves to be creative, generative, and talented. We are the builders and shapers of the world – not the ones being molded and shaped. We know what’s best for us – and for other people too.
Or so we think. But maybe the truth is that the statues we have erected of ourselves and the things we love are not honors, but idols. After all, it is easier to worship gods that represent what we already value than to question whether those values are worth honoring.
Philemon, the recipient of the letter from Paul that we heard today, valued his membership in the Christian movement – but he also valued his house and his slaves. So we shouldn’t be surprised that he was angry and unhappy when his slave Onesimus ran off. What is surprising is that Onesimus ended up becoming a Christian too -and that he was so beloved by Paul that Paul asked Philemon to choose not only to forgive Onesimus, but to welcome him back as an equal – not because slavery is wrong, but because Onesimus – once a useless and dishonest slave – could now be a useful and honest brother to Philemon. Rejecting his claim of ownership of Onesimus and accepting him as his brother molded Philemon into a wiser and more forgiving Christian, just as Onesimus had been molded through Paul into a useful and beloved Christian – but both men had to allow themselves to be completely re-shaped by their growing Christian belief for it to happen.
I bet it hurt. Because allowing yourself to be re-made in ways that you never imagined can be pretty painful – and messy. Clay is, after all, nothing but fancy mud. But if God is willing to get his hands dirty trying to make us better, shouldn’t we be willing to labor in the dust with him? Isn’t that what Jesus has been asking us to do in gospel story after gospel story all summer long? – to acknowledge our spiritual poverty and relinquish our unwarranted pride. Even so, in today’s gospel story Jesus goes even further. He tells his followers that they have to give up everything – friends, family, home, safety – whatever it is they love most –if they want to follow him. There is no in-between – because not only do they have to give up what they love, they have to actually hate it. That is the cost of discipleship. That is what it means to be Christian – for all of us.
Or maybe you’re thinking that God doesn’t need you to give up anything for your faith. Maybe you don’t have to change. If so, you need to look again at the world around you – because whatever evil the house of Israel was doing has nothing on the people in this country who punish others for the color of their skin –who ostracize people for exercising their faith –who kill simply to make people believe what they think is right. And while I am perfectly willing to believe that no one in this room is doing any of those things, I know that none of us is doing enough to stop it. Because if every Christian in the world actually gave up everything that is opposed to the way of Jesus Christ, evil like that would disappear.
That’s what Jesus is asking us to do; not to renounce everything we have, but to hate anything that keeps us from God. And that includes, “our need to acquire, our yearning for success, our petty jealousies, our denigrating stereotypes of others, our prejudices and hatreds, and more. [We have to put away the possessions and obsessions] that keep us…from the Christ-like walk to which Jesus invites us…. [We must] place ourselves on an ever-treading potter’s wheel to examine our thoughts, words, and actions.” If we can do that – if we can divest ourselves of those things that separate us from God, then we will be good clay. That’s all we have to do, because the good news is that it is not up to us to torturously mold and shape ourselves into what we think we should be. It is only up to us to be what we were created to be – a marvelously made, lovingly fashioned, and intimately-known child of God. God is the potter. We are the clay. Mold us and shape us Lord, that we may become the good work of your hand. AMEN.
Emily Townes (2010), “Theological Perspective on Luke 14:25-33,” in Bartlett, David and Barbara Brown Taylor (Eds.), Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, [Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press], p. 46.