Readings: Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139 1-5, 12-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33;
Last week we heard that we should not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, because some people, like Abraham our ancestor in faith, have occasionally entertained angels unawares. This week I want to remind you that some of those angels might very well be inside of you being brought out, sometimes painfully, by the Creator who does all things well.
In our lesson from Jeremiah, God shows the prophet a potter in his shop, making useful things with clay. Perhaps Jeremiah remembered the old Israelite creation story in which the Lord “forms” (it’s the potter word) the man out of dust. In this story, the potter is dissatisfied with the shape his pottery is taking, so he starts over and uses the same clay to make something else.
Central to the meaning that Jeremiah wants to get across is the idea of turning, of repentance. When the potter finds that what he’s making is ruined, he “turns” or “repents” and makes something different. The call that God issues to the Israelites is a call to repentance, a call for them to turn from their evil ways, and if they will turn then God promises that He will also turn from the course of judgment that He has set. It’s a call to a radical change, and the piece of pottery that will emerge afterwards will be different from the one that might have been possible before it was ruined. Different, but not worse. The skill of this Potter are such that the remade vessel is never second-best, but always simply best.
The Gospel lesson articulates the call to radical change like Jeremiah, but now draws our attention to how difficult and painful it can be. In Luke’s telling, Jesus says to his hearers that anyone who wishes to be His disciple must hate their father and mother, hate their spouse and their children, hate their brothers and sisters, even hate their own life. That’s strong language! Matthew’s version of the same saying (Matt 10:37) makes it a matter of degree: “Anyone who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” But here in Luke’s version, it’s more stark and it’s this very starkness, the scandal of it, that makes it powerful. Now I don’t think we should understand that He’s calling His hearers literally to hate their families — after all this is the same Jesus who earlier in Luke commands His followers to love even their enemies, to do good to them even if they don’t appreciate it (Luke 6:27ff). But if we allow Jesus the teacher to say shocking things, and allow ourselves to be shocked by them, then we can see that this is a call to discipleship and a radical one.
The really important thing, the thing to which Jesus goes on to call us, is carrying the cross and following Him. He doesn’t say here anything about dying on that cross; he talks about carrying it and following Him. What does it mean to carry our cross? I think it means putting ourselves like clay into the hands of the Potter and trusting Him to re-form us into something good. This Potter doesn’t just work the clay into a shape and then let it dry. He keeps working the clay, adding water, re-shaping it, crunching it back into a ball and starting afresh. I don’t want to push that analogy too far — it’s only an analogy, after all — but I do think the point of the story is that we should trust the process and trust the Potter to make us better than we are now.
Here’s another way to think about it, the Philemon letter. When St. Paul wrote his letter to Philemon and Apphia and the church that met in their house, he used the language of love. They’re a wealthy couple who have a church that meets in their house. They love Paul and are beloved by him. They have refreshed him and met his needs enough times that he’s truly thankful. These are people who are noteworthy for their hospitality, for their active good works. It’s hard to imagine a more laudatory description of them than we get here in this little letter that barely fills a single page.
They were also slave owners. In his letter, Paul calls on Philemon to receive the runaway slave Onesimus back not as a slave but as full fellow-citizen in the Kingdom of God. He could have commanded it, but he wanted them to welcome Onesimus freely. Why didn’t St. Paul, while he had this opportunity, simply declare that slavery was wrong and forbidden by God? Surely he knows that slavery is against the very heart of the God who created all peoples. Why didn’t he say so? I don’t know the answer to that, but what I do know is that it shows to this virtuous Christian couple, and the Church meeting in their house, that God still has a way for them to go, bearing a cross, being smashed and re-formed by the potter.
Philemon and Apphia no doubt thought of themselves, as Paul obviously thought of them, as persons in full receipt of God’s mercy and grace, thoroughly acceptable to God and beloved by Him. They may not have even conceived slavery as the moral evil that we now know it to be. Nowadays it’s impossible to imagine anyone who could, with a clear conscience, be a serious, committed Christian and own slaves. But slavery was a blind spot for them, as it was for many Christians in the United States not that long ago.
I have absolutely no doubt, none, that we have similar blind spots, aspects of our culture and character that God will re-form, so that in a few hundred years people will say of us, just as we say of the early American Episcopalian slave owners, How could they have thought that was right? What aspects of our culture and character will need that reform? We probably have some ideas, but some things will be surprising, because they’re blind spots. All we can do is trust the divine Potter to re-shape us into the right kind of vessel, and follow Him, enduring the pain of the re-shaping, wherever He leads.
I also have no doubt that if we will commit our whole energy to the following of that painful way, what will emerge in us will be something better even than angels. What the Divine Potter will make us will be something before which even the angels themselves will bow in reverence. It will be the very likeness of the crucified and risen Christ, in us. That, my friends, is a pearl of great price indeed, a glory worth enduring any pain, a hope that subordinates all rival affections. It lies within us already, and we long for it to emerge pure like gold from a furnace. Look for it in yourself; look for it in others; and when you glimpse it be thankful. Amen.