Sunday, September 5, 2010

Pentecost 15-C, Proper 18 sermon: Faithfully malleable

Lectionary: Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5,13-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

Change happens. It’s part of life. It’s part of being alive.

C. S. Lewis once said, “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.”

Certainty, familiarity, and predictability are comfortable and can tempt us to resist change. Now it’s true that some changes are better than others and it can be hard to know which is which – but that’s where faith comes in.

For God’s people there is nothing to fear in change. We’re in good hands. As we heard in our Old Testament reading, The LORD says to Jeremiah: Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words. So Jeremiah goes where God directs him. And there as he watches the potter reforming a pot that has spoiled on the wheel, Jeremiah hears the voice of God say: Can I not do with you…just as this potter has done? Just like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

Telling the people through the prophet Jeremiah (twice, to be sure we hear it) that God’s plan is not fixed, God says: I will change my mind. God’s mind changes in response to our choices – in response to our faithfulness or our faithlessness.

That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?

On the downside, this means that we can never fully ‘figure out’ God’s plan - it’s a moving target. So we can never be absolutely sure we know what to do to get it all right. But we aren’t called to be right. We’re called to be faithful. As we prayed in our Collect: Grant us O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts…

On the plus side, this opens to us an amazing truth: that what we do and how we live has an impact. What we do and how we live matters and affects the plan of God…or is that a downside? Not if we are like clay in the hands of our Potter - clay that is moist and malleable on the wheel where it is formed and re-formed into a vessel of the Potter’s design.

Have you ever worked with clay? You have to keep pouring water over it and kneading it to get the moisture deep into the clay - because clay that gets too dry becomes rigid and unusable. If we choose to be rigid, we must realize that we have also chosen to make ourselves unworkable by the Master Potter, who honors our choices, even when they are regrettable ones.

Thankfully God, has promised to be faithful to us, and IS faithful to us, even when we haven’t been faithful to God. And we aren’t faithful when we become so rigidly attached to something that we refuse to change or to allow God to change us.

When we find ourselves attached to anything, we need to remember what Jesus said in today’s Gospel. Speaking to large, enthusiastic crowds of followers, Jesus says: 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. You can almost hear the hearts of these people drop with a thud. But it gets worse… Jesus goes on to say: Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple… and none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. That’s a hard lesson!

Those things we attach to - our possessions - include things like houses and cars; but they also include things like our job, our reputation or status, our independence or our need to be dependent. We can be attached to our secrets, our self-image… even our ideas about God. Jesus says that to be a disciple we must give up all of these and trust in God alone. We must voluntarily accepting suffering, even in the face of injustice – as Jesus did - and shift our priority of loyalty (which is how the word ‘hate’ translates) from self and family to God. We do not come first. They do not come first. God and God’s will for all of us comes first. Only then can we be called a disciple.

Once upon a time I was sitting in quiet prayer and study when the rectory doorbell rang. My dogs went crazy doing their protective, dog-thing: lots of noise and running around. I answered the door confident that whoever was there had heard the ruckus and knew I had 4-legged protection if I needed it.

On the other side of the door stood a large African-American man in a uniform with a name-tag. He introduced himself and launched into his spiel about a risk-free plan for controlling the cost of monthly gas payments. I interrupted his presentation and informed him that this was a rectory belonging to the church across the street, and anyway, it didn’t use gas as a utility.

He looked at the church and looked back at me and said, “Oh. OK. Are you the pastor’s wife or something?” I smiled and said, “I’m the pastor.”

I never know how news like that will go over, so I waited and watched while he decided how he felt about it. As it turns out, he was delighted and immediately our conversation changed. “What is your mission statement?” he asked. When I looked at him kind of blankly he said, “What do you stand for? What do you believe in? I mean, are you followers of Jesus Christ who said ‘I am the Way and the Truth and the Life?’” He’d obviously never met an Episcopalian before!

Finishing the quote he started, I said: “’Jesus said, ‘I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’ (John 14:6).” Then I added, “Jesus also said, ‘No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me. And I will raise that person up on the last day.’ (John 6:44).”

It pays to know a few Bible verses.

We shared a short conversation on what we believe as Christians, quoting the Bible often and faithfully. Though we were obviously speaking from VERY different denominational perspectives, we were truly and wonderfully grounded in and united by the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.

We shook hands as we said good-bye, and suddenly, the man erupted into prayer. His prayer covered me with holy love and I received it gratefully, saying “thank you” to him and to God as he continued to pray. When he finished praying, we embraced. We were no longer strangers, but members of one family – Christ’s family – having been reconciled by the sharing of the Gospel.

This encounter made very real for me the opening of St. Paul’s letter to Philemon which says, When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. How proud Paul would have been of this man, this disciple.

I was blessed by my encounter with this disciple. A wonderful feeling had filled my heart. It was an experience of oneness with God and another human being that broke down all divisions, all earthly barriers, and inspired me with hope.

We are continually being formed and re-formed by God into disciples. As we grow and change according to God’s plan for us, I pray we will be asking ourselves the same questions this man asked me: What is our mission statement? What do we stand for? What do we believe in? Are we followers of Jesus Christ? How will people know?

I pray also that God will help us maintain our malleability, so that we can be molded and fashioned into the kind of disciples who can create moments where oneness with God and another human being can be known and experienced through us, where we can inspire others with the hope that is the truth of the Gospel.

Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts… that we may hatch and learn to fly on the wings of your mercy.

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