Sunday, September 5, 2010

Jeremiah to us: God is calling, and wants you back.

Proper 18 C Sept. 5, 2010
Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-17
Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

“I am the potter; you are the clay.”

Like a lot of the religious clich├ęs we hear, that can be heard in a kind of “happy-clappy” way. We are nothing; we give up all autonomy to God’s all-powerful hand.

Well, God IS all-powerful, and compared to God, we ARE but clay in the potter’s hand, but if we look more closely at two of our texts today – the one from Jeremiah and the one from the Gospel of Luke – I think we will also see that God does not want us just to give up and be nothing but some wet mud. God expects us to act and to live a certain way.

In our first reading, the prophet Jeremiah is struggling with how to interpret current events to the people of Israel. Their “current events” are quite gloomy – they have been invaded by the Babylonians, their temple destroyed, and they and their leaders carried off into exile. Everything they had built – all their glorious past and their plans for an even more glorious future – have been wrecked. They indeed are nothing more than clay smashed by the potter – they are an inadequate and imperfect first attempt at something the potter does not even want to keep on the discard shelf.

This potter has expectations of the clay: if it starts to repent and act in the way God wants, well there is a chance for it. If it chooses life, then it has a chance; if it chooses evil, then it will be smashed.

And in the Gospel – well, once again we read of a harsh and serious Jesus. This is Jesus the construction engineer, Jesus the military strategist. Jesus has great expectations of those of us who call ourselves disciples. We must cast aside everything in our lives that does not concern this task of building. We must be careful planners, and if our foundation is not secure, well, then we must be ruthless destroyers. We must take our clue from Jeremiah’s potter: smash the imperfect clay vessel if it cannot stand up to the expectations of the potter. We must wage only the war that we can win; if not, negotiate the best peace terms we can get.

What kind of good news is this, either from Jeremiah or Jesus? These are tough lessons. But if we look behind them, behind the high expectations that God seems to be laying out here, we find God who reaches out to us in love, and yearns for us to reach back. We find the God of creation, who has shown us mercy and compassion, the God who took us by the hand and loved us as a parent loves a child. This God yearns for us to act like that, too, to love God back but also to love our neighbors with that same compassion and mercy. If we were the clay, that is the shape the potter wishes us to take: a vessel large enough to hold all the bits of this broken and hurting world.

The prophet Jeremiah can talk a lot about destruction, about what we are not – about how we do not measure up to God’s expectations for us. But Jeremiah also talks about building and planting – even as the old established order is being smashed, he is beginning to imagine the new thing that God wants to bring into being. But Jeremiah is a prophet, not a predictor. Neither he, nor we, know what will replace the things around us that are coming to an end. We can only know that we are in God’s good and gracious hands.

What a contrast our psalm today poses to both Jeremiah and the gospel. The psalm tells of God the potter of the human form, the human form God loves and has created in the image of God’s own self. Having been shown such love and care in our creation, can we not understand how much God wants from us, to show this very same love and care to all around us as well?

Proper 17 C August 29, 2010 St. Paul’s Jeremiah 2:4-13

Psalm 81:1, 10-16 Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16 Luke 14:1, 7-14

When the people of Israel trudged out of Egypt all those many thousands of years ago, God expected something of them. Yes, God was generous, yes, God was gracious, yes, God provided, yes, God led them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, but really, this was not a free ride. God expected something of them.

The prophet Jeremiah is trying to explain to the people of Israel, now happily ensconced in privilege and luxury in the Promised Land, that God expected something from them when God led them out of Egypt and brought them to this place that they now call home. Jeremiah is trying to explain to them that God is not so happy with them now. Jeremiah is God’s mouthpiece, calling these people back to their first principles, to the events that shaped and formed them as the people of God.

This call to repentance and return would be fairly easy if the people of God were a collection of individuals. Stories of individuals who repent and return to the Lord are very popular – always have been. There was a tv show in recent years called My Name is Earl. Earl, kind of a ne’er-do-well, finds he has a winning lottery ticket, but at the same time he finds the ticket, he gets hit by a car, and has the revelation that this is a sign – that he should now spend his time doing good things, that his life was spared for this purpose. He turns his life around. Now, this is a comedy, not an inspirational show, so all of Earl’s attempts to do good things are played for laughs. But the theme of an individual who can turn his life around, can return to his origins as a good and generous person, does strike a powerful chord in our hearts.

Think also of the beloved holiday tale, A Christmas Carol, where miserly Scrooge – himself the very definition of greed and selfishness – gets hit over the head with the consequences of his miserliness. He wakes from nightmares on Christmas morning, a new person, determined to be generous to the people he knows who are in need.

The problem with these wonderful tales of individual repentance and change in direction are just that: they are individual. And of course, I suppose, we must all start somewhere, and the place we start is right here. I bet the people of Israel, whom Jeremiah is very busy scolding, -- I bet each individual among the people of Israel thought they were being good people, living good lives. They had really gotten into their good and prosperous life. Jeremiah accuses them of Ba’al worship – not worshipping God alone – which might be kind of like the search for good karma that Earl embarks on – kind of, I’ll do some good things, and some more good things will come my way.

But I don’t think that is quite what God had in mind. God called the WHOLE people of Israel out of Egypt – and as God called them, they BECAME a people. God wants a relationship with those people, not with a collection of individuals, but with all those people. If God was generous to them, God wants them – all of them, as a PEOPLE – to be generous with others. Thousands of years later, Jesus is preaching the same message: Friends, set the table and invite everyone in, and let least among you get the best seats. When Jesus delivered that little sermon on hospitality to his friends, in the back of their minds was the story of the deliverance from Egypt. “When I took you by the hand and brought you out of the land of Egypt,” they hear God say, in the back of their minds. One of the first obligations of this deliverance is to show generosity and hospitality to others – to show it to others as God showed it to them.

Today we baptize Aaliyah Naila. We make her a member of the household of God. She becomes one of God’s people – an inheritor of the deliverance from Egypt – and of the obligation to give to others the generosity and hospitality God showed to all God’s people.

And so baptisms are not private, individual things – they are public, group events. We are people-making here. We are adding to our collective. We are enlarging what it means to be the people of God.

And so to you, her family and friends, we join in this process of welcoming this little girl into something much bigger than a collection of individuals. I said this at the baptism we had a few weeks ago, and I will say it again. It takes a village to raise a child. It takes more than a mom and a dad, thinking they have to go it alone. It takes family and friends and neighbors and teachers and doctors and nurses and a faith community – it takes not just individuals, but the whole people of God to show generosity and hospitality and love to this little person, so she can grow up to be the kind of person who can show generosity and hospitality and love to others.