August 28, 2022

August 28, 2022 - The Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14
From today’s Collect, “Increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and bring forth in
us the fruit of good works.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Perched high up on one of the cliffs of Mount Penna - about 70 miles north of Assisi - lies the
expansive “Sanctuary of La Verna” – a Franciscan Monastic complex known for its numerous
chapels, walkways, guesthouses, and places of prayer and meditation. It is also known for the
incredible beauty and intricacy of its bright blue and white ceramic tiles that bedeck every altar –
tiles shaped from clay hundreds of years ago – tiles detailing the life of Christ and his followers
throughout human history.
You know, I never gave clay much thought until I visited La Verna. For me, clay was just clay. But
gazing at these incredible works of art helped me understand why clay is described as the most
humble material in the world. See, clay is willing – and that is the key word here – it is willing to be
shaped, molded, fired and tested, provided that such is done with care, with love, and with
gentleness. Otherwise, as every Potter knows, clay will break apart; it will warp and ultimately fail.
Clay gives itself in order to become something beautiful and life-lasting. I thought of that truth
when reflecting on today’s scripture lessons.
The Prophet Jeremiah uttered some very strong words against the people of Israel. While our
translation of today’s Old Testament lesson reads, “I accuse you” of unfaithfulness, the literal
Hebrew is far more serious. In Hebrew, God says, “I have brought an indictment against you
because I have proof that you have abandoned my ways, and therefore, slandered my name by still
claiming to be ‘my people.’ So, I am taking you to court, and you will be found guilty.” And here's
the proof of that indictment: God says, “I brought you out of bondage, through the red sea, through
a wilderness where I gave you an endless source of fresh water and brought you into a good land of
plenty and yet, you don’t do what is good. You have forgotten your promises. Even your priests
don’t do what is right – they have chosen lives of comfort. Your shepherds – your civic leaders –
have chosen what is expedient rather than what is just and true. Your Prophets have outright
ignored my words altogether. And you have done nothing about it. You have forgotten the Torah.”
And we need to remember that the Torah is far more than a list of rules, or laws and regulations. It
is the record of the Hebrew people’s entire history: the story of their faith journeys, all those good
and poor choices they made, all those lessons learned about living in right relationship with God and
neighbor. It is their life, their lore, and their identity. Jeremiah proclaims they have forgotten their
Torah and yet still claim to be God’s people, claim that they are clay in God’s hands.
Jeremiah points out that they have not just resisted the shaping, loving and guiding hands of their
Creator, but defied those hands and chosen their own paths. They have pushed aside God’s fresh
water – God’s life-giving words – pushed it into cisterns where that water, those words, will grow
stale and be forgotten. Jeremiah says that soon there will be no water at all, no proof of God’s
presence in their midst whatsoever because those cisterns are cracked and quietly bleeding away.
Like clay that resists shaping, they, too, are failing and will soon fall apart. And the people don’t
grasp just how far they have drifted away from God’s paths, God’s justice and truth. And while
some have noticed what’s going on around them, noticed the chipping away of their nation’s values,
Jeremiah says, they have chosen to do nothing about it. Wow! Harsh, harsh words.
The Letter to the Hebrews exhorts the church to love unconditionally and to welcome all into its
midst. Those are some heart-warming ideals. After all, I think everyone wants to feel welcome. The
writer says that God honors those for whom words – what we say with our lips – combine with our
actual deeds so that what we believe in our hearts is demonstrated in our lives. That is true religion
– a faith put into action and that is the only religion pleasing to God. As James says in his letter to
the Church (James 1:27), true religion dignifies and cares for those in distress – especially the
unwelcome and despised or dismissed of society – just as it also refuses to be tainted when society
insists upon going its own way, insists upon saying who is and who is not welcome. Thus, the writer
states that people of true faith, true religion welcome strangers and share what they have with
them. In so doing, they recall that Jesus said when we serve others, we serve him. But I believe
this passage is not simply about church life. It is an exhortation to welcome and embrace God’s
ways and values in everyday life. To practice what we preach or what we say by living it in our
hearts, minds, and through our deeds. That kind of living, thinking and believing is what it means to
be “people of God”: what it means to be clay in the hands of our Creator.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is watching guests arriving for a banquet jockey for the best
seat or place with the highest honor. (Now, Episcopalians usually smile at this situation because we
tend to arrive early so we can get a seat at the back!) Well, we soon learn that the host has ulterior
motives in mind. He invited these guests not because he wants them to share in a wonderful meal,
but rather, because he hopes that they, in turn, might honor and praise him for being a great host,
or maybe return the favor with an invitation to their home, or maybe they will do business with
him. He is offering a “quid pro quo” arrangement (that’s where I do something for you, and you do
something for me in return). Jesus sees what’s going on and uses it as an opportunity to proclaim
that in God’s kingdom, there is no quid pro quo. The dream of God’s kingdom – you know, that
kingdom we pray will be tangibly present in our midst at every Holy Eucharist – the dream of God’s
kingdom is where the poor, the lame, the crippled and blind – those who cannot possibly do
anything in return, those who by 1st Century standards were considered sinful, beneath us, and
certainly unwelcome in our homes – are the honored guests at God’s table. Why? Because they
know what it means to be thankful. Jesus says God’s people welcome everyone not just with words,
but into our houses of worship, into our homes and communities, and into our hearts and minds.
Hospitality and welcome are at the core of what it means to be people of God. Now, this parish
understands that, and we try very hard to truly live that kind of welcome hospitality. So, what is
God saying to us in today’s lessons?
The gospels tell us that when Jesus was brought to trial, he was accused of blasphemy for
healing on the Sabbath, for pronouncing forgiveness from sin and offering absolution, and for
saying and doing what only God can say and do. Luke offers another glimpse of why Jesus was put
to death and here is where today’s lessons begin to come together. Jesus upset the social order -
the way society, the nation, believed God had ordained things to be. Jesus said that separation,
division, exclusion is never of God. No. Jesus proclaimed that for people of faith there is no pecking
order. Human-beings are equal and there is nothing we can do to make ourselves more worthy
before God except to embrace what God offers to all people in Christ – a relationship that calls us to
love God and our neighbor as deeply and passionately as we have been loved – loved without
distinction, without restriction. Jesus said that making distinctions is unbecoming of God’s people.
And he was killed for it. And that brings us back to Jeremiah and the uniqueness of clay.
History tells us that the fall of the nation of Israel began long before Jeremiah arrived on the
scene: long before her leaders blatantly denied God’s justice and truth; long before her priests and
prophets ignored God’s calls to live differently. No, the nation began its decline when the hearts and
minds of God’s people ceased to be humble and in so doing, forgot the Torah of their own lives;
their own faith journeys that affirm one cannot truly love God if they don’t love their neighbor. They
forgot what it means to practice true religion.
You know there’s a tendency to hear today’s lessons and think of them solely in terms of our
national psyche; to look to others as the cause of society’s ills. But our lessons urge us to go far
deeper than that: to look within our own hearts and minds; to once again acknowledge that God’s
people, those who practice true religion grasp that they are clay - clay that must give itself, give
ourselves over and again, to the molding, shaping, and loving hands of God. For only when we are
transformed from within, beloved, will communities and nations be transformed for the greater
good of all.
Our Collect this morning prays Lord increase in us true religion, show us what that looks like,
how it might change and reshape us, and then nourish us with all goodness, and bring forth in us
the fruit of good works. Help us be the clay in your hands we claim to be. And to that Collect let us
add “Lord, help us remember that true religion must begin with and in me.” Amen.