September 4, 2022

The Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost - September 4, 2022

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5, 13-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
From the Gospel according to Luke, “(Jesus said) Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me
cannot be my disciple.” I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

When I first read over today’s lesson from Jeremiah and Psalm 139, I thought, “Well, how cool
is this? I can build upon last week’s sermon about people of faith being clay in the hands of God,
about the humility of clay that allows itself, gives itself, in order to be reshaped and molded. And I
can use these texts to reemphasize God’s gentle work in our lives, reshaping us into the creation
God desires us to be.” I pictured a happy potter at his wheel having the time of his life creating
something absolutely beautiful and lasting, and doing so with ease. Then I turned to today’s
reading from Philemon with its story about Onesimus the slave. And I thought, “Okay … that really
doesn’t work with the clay story besides this is a tough passage to grasp, so let’s not go there” …
and quickly turned to our reading from Luke. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me
cannot be my disciple.” And I thought, “Hmmm. What on earth are these scriptures saying to us
and why on this day? So, I went back to Jeremiah and that image of the potter – you know, that
gentle image - and started some research.
The downside of research folks is that – just like studying scripture, going beyond the surface of
scripture – we might not always find or hear what we want to find or hear. And so it was with my
research about clay and the work of potters. I discovered just how difficult it is for a potter to make
anything. First of all, the clay has to be mixed with just the right amount of water. Too little, and
the clay will crumble and fall apart. Too much, and it becomes mud. Once the clay is mixed just
right, the potter has to pound it and pound it again and again to get all the air bubbles out of it.
Otherwise, it will explode when it is fired in the kiln. Then comes that shaping on the potter’s
wheel. I had no idea how hard that is to do. The potter has to hold the clay down the entire time
he or she is drawing it upward otherwise it will fly off the wheel. And I learned that more often
than not, potters stop halfway through because the object of their shaping is uneven, and they
have to start all over again. The truth is very few pots ever make it to the kiln. The work of a
potter is incredibly difficult and the only way to be successful at it is for the potter to truly love
what they do. And that love is key to understanding today’s scripture lessons.
Jeremiah uses the image of a potter at work reshaping something that has spoiled. It is
misshapen. It is useless in its present form. Potters constantly rework what appears to be spoiled
or useless clay and keep at it until it becomes right in their eyes. God tells Jeremiah, “This is how I
work with my people” and I stick with it because I love them. Jeremiah says God desires to shape
us into his people, but God doesn’t force us. Like clay in the potter’s hands, we have to give
ourselves and allow God to do this transforming and recreating work in us, and with us: A creating
work that the Psalmist describes as marvelous and wonderful. God tells Jeremiah that people can
change if they are willing to let go and be changed. And I will be the first to admit that letting go is
a risk, a sacrifice, and always seems to involve giving up something that is important to us.
In today’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus says that following him means
giving up everything: our possessions, our families, our closest relationships. And you see, here’s
the hard part about this: most people are known by what they have, what they own, who they are,
and who they know. Jesus says, we have to give all that up in order to follow him. I always worry
that this particular gospel reading will come up on a Sunday when someone visits our Church for
the first time. “Welcome to St. John’s/Holy Cross. Are you ready and willing to hate life, your
parents, and your spouse in order to be a member here?” Fortunately, that’s not what Jesus is
saying. What Jesus is saying is that following him takes a 100% commitment. There are no “part-
time” disciples in God’s kingdom. Following Christ is an all or nothing journey of faith. So, before
promising to follow him, Jesus says, consider what you are doing because there is a cost to
discipleship: It will require a complete change in one’s priorities, one’s values, and one’s pursuits.
Like St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, in Christ, we don’t just become nice people, or good
neighbors. We become “a new creation!” When we commit to follow Jesus, our lives change and
are reordered as the Holy Spirit, like a potter, works to reshape us into God’s people. Following
Jesus means ridding ourselves of everything that tends to control or possess us, so that God is free
to recreate and shape us into something new.
Now such a sacrifice is a lot to consider but then if that isn’t enough, Jesus goes on to say we have
to take up the cross, too. Note, he doesn’t say take up “a” cross like when someone’s dealing with
a troublesome family issue or chronic illness and we say, “Well, we all have our crosses to bear.”
The cross is not about our lot in life. It is not our cross. We carry the cross of Christ. And that cross
is a sacrifice: It requires letting go of what we are and have in order to embrace God’s ways and
values with all our hearts and minds. And that means letting go of who we are or think we are. Let
go of our desire to control our lives, and our desire to control even God, our desire to determine
who is welcome and worthy enough of God’s grace – you know – worthy like us.
But remember that last week’s gospel reading? Jesus said that in God’s kingdom all are equal and
worthy. All are the same. And to that end, either all are welcome by the grace of God to us through
faith in Jesus Christ or, none is welcome. Thus, in the words of the Late Presiding Bishop Ed
Browning, the church must never forget that God forever urges us “to draw the circle wide. Draw it
wider still.” And that is a wonderful image of grace and mercy. But, in today’s epistle reading, Paul
shows us just how difficult drawing a wider circle can be.
Onesimus was a slave who ran away from his master, Philemon. According to the text, he must
have taken some valuables with him and that made him an even more wanted and despised
criminal. Besides, he hurt Philemon deeply. Somehow, somewhere, Onesimus met Paul and
converted to Christianity. And by the mercy and grace of God, this fugitive became a new creation
in Christ Jesus - just like you and me.
Now, as a Roman Citizen, Paul was obligated under Roman law to return Onesimus to Philemon.
So, Paul sent him back but urged that he be received not as he once was, not as a slave or a thief,
but rather, as a new creation. In fact, Paul says, welcome him as a brother in Christ for that is
what he is. Paul says, “He who was once useless to you has become useful to me.” Like the father
in the story of the prodigal son, he who was dead is alive again. Such is the transforming power of
God who, Jeremiah and Paul affirm, can reshape and redeem anyone. And we love that message of
hope especially when we are Onesimus or the prodigal son, when we are the ones being redeemed
and reshaped into that image of Christ. But often we are like that older brother who resents
welcoming the prodigals to the table and celebrating them as our equals.
In this short story, Paul holds up a model of what every church should be like. For the truth is
there is a little Onesimus in all of us. We – all of us have made poor decisions, things we regret
and yet, by God’s grace we have been changed and not just invited but welcomed to the table.
Nevertheless, many people of faith today insist on being the potter. Insist on pounding the penitent
again and again, and do all the reshaping ourselves. We forget that the church is called to be a
refuge for sinners, not the bouncers at heaven’s door. We forget that we are called to love one
another as equally and as passionately and forgivingly as God in Christ has loved and continues to
love and forgive us. We are not the potters in God’s kingdom. No! We are clay just like everyone
and anyone else.
Paul reminds us that to draw that circle wide is more than being nice and smiling from a distance.
It means embodying the very love of God - the love of that Potter who never gives up on us. It
means passing the peace with those who have hurt us and embracing and engaging with them as
our equals and sharing our place at the table with them. It means recognizing, as the Psalmist
says, that the God who created the universe and our inmost parts, can reshape, restore, and
recreate anyone if we will humble ourselves and let God do God’s work. Once again, our scripture
lessons remind us that life for people of faith always seems to come down to a choice on our part.
Friends, following everything Jesus Christ said, taught, and showed us is often difficult. It is a
sacrifice, a commitment, and a daily and willing choice. To that end, may God continue to reshape
and mold who we are, draw the circles of our own hearts and minds wide, draw them wider still: In
the Name of God, our creator, our re-shaper, our potter, our redeemer, and our hope. Amen.