September 1, 2019, The Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

September 1, 2019, 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 this morning’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.

     One of the learnings I experienced while on pilgrimage to Assisi this past summer involved the unique character of clay. Frankly, I never gave that much thought before after all, in my opinion, clay iswhat it is. But, having seen for myself the beauty of Altars bedecked by ceramic tiles – tiles shaped from clay hundreds of years ago - I now 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, providedthat such is done with care, with love, and with gentleness. Otherwise, as every Potter knows, clay will break apart; it will warp, fall and ultimately fail. Clay gives itself in order to become something beautiful and life-lasting. I thought of that truth when reading today’s scripture lessons.

     The Prophet Jeremiah uttered some very strong words against the people of Israel. While our English translation of today’s Old Testament lesson reads, “I accuseyou” of unfaithfulness, the literal Hebrew is far more serious. In Hebrew, God says, “I have brought an indictmentagainst you because I have proofthat you have abandoned my ways, and therefore, slandered my name by claiming to be ‘mypeople.’ So, God says, I am taking you to court and you willbe found guilty.” And through Jeremiah, God reveals 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’tdowhat is good. You have forgottenyour promises. Even your priests don’t do what is right – they have chosen lives of comfort. Your shepherds – your political 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 in Jewish teaching, the Torah is far more than a list of rules, or laws and regulations. The Torah is the record of the Hebrew people’s entirehistory: 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, their love, 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 the hands of God. Jeremiah reveals that they have not just resistedthe shaping, loving and guiding hands of their Creator, butdefiedthose hands and chosen their own paths. They have pushed aside God’s fresh water – God’s life-giving words – pushed it aside into a cistern where that water, those words, grow stale and are 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 are failing and will soon fall apart. And the masses fail to realize 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 values, Jeremiah says, they have chosento do nothing. Wow! Harsh, harsh words.

     The Letter to the Hebrews exhorts the church to love unconditionally and to welcomeallinto its midst. Those are some heart-warming ideals. After all, I think everyone wantsto feel welcome. The writer says that God honors those for whom words – what we say with our lips – combinewith our deeds – what we believe in our hearts and demonstrate in our lives. Thatis a true religion – a faith put into action and that is the onlyreligion pleasing to God. As the Apostle James says in his letter to the Church (James 1:27), truereligion dignifies and cares for those in distress – especially the unwelcome and despised or dismissed of society – just as it also refuses to be taintedby a society that insists upon going its own way, insists upon saying who is and who is notwelcome. So, the writer to the Hebrews offers that people of truefaith, truereligion welcomethe stranger and sharewhat 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 churchlife. It is an exhortation to welcome and embrace God’s ways and values in our everyday lives simply as people of God. To practice what we preach or what we say by livingit in our hearts and in what we think with our minds. 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, Jesusis watching guests arrive for a banquet and observing how they jockey for the best seat or place with the highest honor. (One thing about Episcopalians, we certainly understand this Gospel: Episcopalians always arrive early so that they can get a seat at the back!)Yet, we soon learn that the host has ulterior motives in mind. He has 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 theirhome, or maybe they will do business with him. This story describes a “quid pro quo” arrangement (that’s where I do something for you, and you do something for me in return). Jesus uses this dinner party as an opportunity to proclaim that in God’skingdom, there isnoquid pro quo. The dream of the kingdom of God – you know, that kingdom which we pray will be tangibly present in our midst at every celebration of the 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 thehonoredguests at God’s table. Why? Because they know what it means to be thankful. Jesus says God’speople welcome everyonenot just with words, but in our houses of worship, in our homes, in our communities, and especially in our hearts and minds. Hospitality and welcome are at the core of what it means to be peopleof God.Now, I know this parish understands all of this and we try very hard to truly livethat kind of welcome hospitality. So like many of you, I have wondered what it is that God is saying to us in today’s scripture 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, for saying and doing what only God can say and do. But I find today’s gospel lesson offers anotherglimpse of why Jesus was put to death and here is where today’s readings begin to come together. Jesus upset the socialorder - the way society, the nation, believed God had ordained things to be. But Jesussaid separation, division, exclusion is neverof God. No. Jesus proclaimed that for people of faith there is nopecking order. Human-beings are equaland there is nothing we can do to make ourselves moreworthy before God except to embrace what God offers to allpeople in Christ – a relationship that calls us to love God andneighbor as deeply and passionately as we have been loved – loved without distinction, without restriction. Jesus stood up and said that making distinctions is unbecomingof God’s people. And he was killed for it. And that brings us back to Jeremiah and what I learned about clay in Assisi this summer.

     History tells us that the fall of the nation of Israel began its subtle journey long before Jeremiah arrived on the scene: long before her politicians 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 journeys of faith; faith journeys that proclaim one cannot truly love God if they don’t love their neighbor. They forgot what it means to practice truereligion.

     These are tumultuous days in our country and I find it all too easy to hear today’s lessons and think of them onlyin terms of our national psyche; to look to “the other” among us whether that other be a different political party or a person of a different heritage as the cause for society’s ills. No, that’s all too easy to do. Our lessons this morning urge us to go deeper than that: to look within our ownhearts 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, to the molding and shaping hands of God. For only when weare transformed from within will communities and nations be transformed once more.

     Our Collect this morning prays Lord increase in us truereligion, show us what that looks like, how it might change, mold and reshape us, and then nourish us with all goodness, and bring forth in usthe fruit of good works. Let us truly be the clay in your hands that we claim to be - and Lord, Lord let it begin withand in me. Amen.