Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

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Friday, September 30, 2016

for Cheryl Bower, February 3, 1944 - September 23, 2016

Cheryl Bower, A Celebration of Life
Isaiah 25:6-9
Revelation 21:2-7
John 6:37-40
Preached October 1st, 2016, in celebration of the life of Cheryl Bower

Jesus says: “This is the will of him who sent me, I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Most of you here today knew Cheryl better than I did, since I’ve only been at St. Timothy’s for a couple months now.  And though I worked alongside Cheryl a few days a week, I did not really get to know her as so many of you did.  But I did come to know some important things about her, and I want to tell you what I saw.

Of course, Cheryl was here on Sundays, since she was the organist and provided the music which so uplifted our spirits each week.  But she was also here on Wednesdays, for our more intimate noon service.  Each week when I came in to begin that noon service, I was always surprised to see her sitting in the pews.  Until last week, when I was surprised not to see her among the congregation.  Cheryl did not have to come to those Wednesday services, but she obviously wanted to.  Hers was a quiet faith, steady and confident.

Each Sunday, following the sermon, we all stand together and say the Nicene Creed, the profession of our faith.  Cheryl always stood up for that and faced the Altar alongside me right here.  I never saw her stand during other parts of the service, but she always rose for the Creed.  And she always spoke the words from memory.  Hers was a confident faith, known and proclaimed.

And, speaking of Creeds, in a few moments, we will say a different Creed together: The Apostles Creed.  We use this one at funerals because we use this one at baptisms.  You could say it brackets our lives as Christians.  And for the same reason, we light the Paschal candle and place it next to the baptismal font at funerals, to remind us that—as Paul says—we were baptized into Christ’s death, and this means we will also be raised in a resurrection like his.  Cheryl’s was a Sacramental faith, lived out in the cycles and mysteries of the church of Christ on earth.

Today, we remember Cheryl’s faith: quiet, confident, and sacramental.  And today we gather to celebrate the gift of Cheryl’s life in all of our lives.  We come together to remember her faith in God, but also—more importantly—to be reminded of God’s love for her.

Though she is lost to us here, she is not lost to God.  Jesus says: “This is the will of him who sent me, I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”


Saturday, September 24, 2016

YEAR C 2016 pentecost 19

Pentecost 19, 2016
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

When someone asks you a question, you give an answer, and they sometimes follow up with, “How do you know that?”  Back in the old days, people actually agreed on sources of authority, so you could say, “Because it’s in the encyclopedia,” or “because I read it in the Journal of American Medicine.”  I don’t want to get off on a tangent—particularly since I just got started—so I’ll simply make the point that it is still true that citing sources of authority is still key to making any kind of successful argument.  (This is why basing a college paper on facts you gleaned from wikipedia will get you a failing grade.)

If someone asks you, “How do you know Jesus rose from the dead?”  You might say, “Because the Bible tells me so, and I trust the Bible to contain all things necessary to Salvation.”  Well, probably not that last part, since it is part of a priest’s ordination vows, but you get the point.  Using the Bible as a source of truth requires that we share the faith that the Bible is an authoritative source, in matters of salvation.  So, if someone asks me why I believe in heaven, and the Kingdom of God, I might say, “Because Jesus talks about them, and promises to be there with us.”

And I can then point to specific examples, like the thief of the cross who was promised that day that he would be with Jesus in paradise.  Or, when Jesus says I am the Resurrection and the Life. Whoever believes in Me, even though they die, yet shall they live again, Or, John 3:16: For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son, that whoever should believe in him shall not perish but have everlasting life.

What I would NOT point to as proof of the existence of heaven is this reading we just heard from Luke’s gospel.  Today’s reading is not a justification for the existence of heaven or hell, because it is a parable.  It is a metaphor, an allegory, a story told for the purpose of telling you something else.  Whatever you get out of this gospel reading today, I want to discourage you from thinking it proves the existence of heaven or hell.  Because it is a parable.

And in case we have forgotten, Hades is from Greek mythology, not the Jewish faith.  The unnamed rich man goes to Hades, which no one listening to Jesus considered to be a real place.  For Jesus to say the rich man is in Hades should be a red flag to us that Jesus is not telling a true story, or trying to describe what happens after death.  Point being: If someone asks you how you know whether heaven and hell exist, do not cite this parable as your proof text, because it is a made-up story, intended to make a different point.

So, now that we know not to use this parable to prove the existence of heaven and hell, let’s move on to other ways it gets misused.

There’s a strong pull to use this parable as a way to scare people into being more generous.  Truth be told, it’s sort of the default way to look at it.  Rich guy ignores poor guy; poor guy goes to heaven, rich guy goes to Hades.  Don’t be like the rich guy.  Amen.  And then I could give you a list of charities to support, and you’d feel confident you’re not going to hell, and you will have saved yourself by your good works.  Which should raise another red flag.  We are not saved by our good deeds.  We are saved by Jesus.  How you treat the poor is not what determines your eternal destiny.  But, this particular parable can seem to lead us down that road, unless we walk it back.

So, let’s walk it back.  The first mistake is to automatically put ourselves in the place of the rich guy in the story.  As I’ve said many times this past month, we should not automatically assume we are in the parables at all.  But more importantly today, I want to assure you of this: You are not the rich guy in the story, and here’s why . . .
You have a name.

You have a name.  As we read this parable from Jesus, there are two main characters.  There is a rich man who is dressed in purple.  And there is Lazarus.  A rich man feasts sumptuously every day.  And there is Lazarus.  A rich man has everything he could possibly want except a name.  And there is Lazarus.

Some of you may recall that for centuries the Rite of Baptism was commonly called a “Christening.”  And you may also recall that what we now call our first names were once known as our Christian names.  In the 1928 version of the Book of Common Prayer, just prior to baptizing the child, the Minister turns to the parents and Godparents and says, “Name this child.”  The connection between a first name and being baptized is very strong in the history of the church.  In baptism we are adopted into God’s family and given a name.  And there is Lazarus.

Here’s another thing about this parable, which requires a quick look at the Greek root.  Lazarus does not seat himself at the gate of the rich man.  The verb in Greek is ebiblAto, from the root ballo, or toss.  And it’s passive.  Meaning, Lazarus has been tossed at the rich man’s gate; he doesn’t go there on his own.  Lazarus does not do anything in this story.  He doesn’t beg, he doesn’t place himself at the gate.  The only active thing he does is wish for some scraps from the table.  Lazarus wishes.  That’s all.

Meanwhile, the rich man carries on with his life, never noticing Lazarus, never thinking of him, or caring about him, or having anything to do with him.  The rich man is in complete control of his life and has not a care in the world, because he’s just so purple-wearing rich!  You are not the rich man in this parable.

But when you hear this parable, you probably put yourself in the place of the rich man, right?  Or, at least compare yourself to him?  Asking yourself questions like, “Am I doing enough to help the poor?”  Or, “Will I be sent to the mythological Greek underworld for ignoring that homeless guy I saw yesterday?”  Two things about that:  First, the rich man has never seen Lazarus.  Sure, he’s been tossed outside his gate, but there is nothing in the story that says the rich man saw and then ignored Lazarus, or in any way mistreated him.  There is no interaction between them, and—more importantly—the rich man is not being punished because of something he did or didn’t do to Lazarus.  The rich man goes to Hades because . . . well, we aren’t even told why . . . Karma, maybe?  And second, you are not the rich man in this parable.

And there is Lazarus.  You know what’s interesting about Lazarus?  Jesus tells this parable about some vague rich man who goes to Hades, and about Lazarus who suffers through life and goes to be with Abraham.  Here’s the thing about Lazarus: Jesus knows his name.  Lazarus has a name, and his name is known to Jesus.  He is not a nameless poor guy who died.  He is Lazarus.  Jesus knows the name of the one who suffers.  Jesus does not know the name of the rich guy who has everything he needs.  But Jesus knows Lazarus, the one in need.

So, where are we in all this?  What does this parable mean for us?  Well, I suggest we forget about the rich man and we take a closer look at Lazarus.  You and I are not the unnamed rich person, dressing in purple, and destined for the land of the dead in Greek mythology.  I would say you and I are more like Lazarus, carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.  And you might well ask me, “How do you know that?”  And I would answer, “Because Jesus knows your name.”

You have been claimed as God’s own in baptism, and sealed with the cross of Christ forever.  Like Lazarus, you have done nothing to earn salvation, other than rely on the one who can save you.  The one who will send angels to carry you into the arms of Abraham.  The one who knows your name.

And that same Jesus comes to meet us today in this meal of bread and wine.  And, again, you might well ask me, “How do you know that?”  And I would answer, I know that Jesus will meet us here, because Jesus has promised to be here—every time we gather together—to give us strength for the journey, and healing for our souls.  You are invited to this meal, because Jesus knows your name.


Saturday, September 17, 2016

YEAR C 2016 pentecost 18

Year C
Pentecost 18, 2016
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
Psalm 79:1-9
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13
Preached at St. Timothy's Church, Massillon, OH

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I want to start by telling you a short story that will not be familiar to you:

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Cinderella whose stepsisters teased her all the time.  One night, her fairy godmother sent her to a ball until midnight.  In her rush to leave, she left one of her glass slippers behind.  The next day, one of the king’s servants took the shoe to the local Goodwill store.  And Cinderella grew old and sad.

That’s how we expect life to be.  And that’s why stories like this would not be memorable.  We wouldn’t tell this story to our kids, would we?  We want fairy tales to tell us how life could be, or how life should be, or even how life might one day be.  There’s a certain way to tell these kinds of stories.  And they’re supposed to encourage honest hard work, and to discourage dishonest lazy cheaters.  Fairy tales are the place where innocent prisoners are set free, the poor become rich, and the dishonest get what is coming to them for breaking the rules.

We want our stories to fit our idealized worldview.  A place where good is rewarded, and evil is punished.  Fairy tales get passed down to us because they work like this.  Bad children are eaten by wolves.  Good children are saved by lumberjacks who happen by.  We want our stories to reward good behavior and to punish bad behavior.  A good story ends this way, with lazy animals starving and hard-working ones surviving, and cheaters getting cheated.  The cruel proud king marches through the city naked, and the ugly duckling grows into the most beautiful swan.  We’re so used to fairy tales endings, we think every kind of story should end that way.  Which leads us to the parables of Jesus . . .

Many of Jesus’ parables end exactly how we want them to end.  The lost son comes home, and the greedy man dies with his barns filled with grain.  The fruitless tree is cut down and burned, and the widow who searches long enough finds the coin she had lost.  On the surface, we don’t find these parables jarring because they fit our fairy-tale blueprint.  We can get by, imagining that Jesus is telling fairy tales, reinforcing the beliefs we already have.  Good people get rewarded, and bad people get punished.  And then we can all tell our children to be sure they act like the good people, lest they get punished.

And, Luke doesn’t give us many contradictions of that way of thinking . . . until today.  But go back to the beginning of Luke’s Gospel and we get the Magnificat—Mary’s song where she sings that God has thrown down the rich and lifted the poor.  Luke’s gospel more than any other fits our thinking about justice.  God, like Don Quixote, will fight for the right, without question or pause, and be willing to march into Hell for a Heavenly cause.

But then we get today’s reading from this same gospel of Luke.  This past week, more than any other, is when the preachers around the world say, “uh oh.”  Let me sum up for you:

A guy is so bad at his job that he is about to get fired.  Rather than humble himself digging ditches, he goes to the outstanding contracts owed to his boss and reduces them by 50%, so these people will be grateful and take him in when he is out of work and homeless.  The guy’s boss says, hey, good thinking!  And THAT certainly surprises us!  But surely Jesus will set everybody straight by having the guy get hit by a bus or something, right?  I mean, Jesus is not going to condone this kind of behavior, is he?

Well . . . it’s hard to say WHAT Jesus is thinking here.  We get three different statements, and all of them are unsettling . . .
First: Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into their eternal homes.  WHAT?
Second: If you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you true riches?  HUH?
Third:  You cannot serve God and wealth.  Okay, THAT one we get.

And the temptation is to ignore the first two and go with the third one—the one that makes sense to us: You cannot serve God and wealth.  But what do we do with the first two?  Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into their eternal homes?  And isn’t Jesus implying that this guy has done the right thing with the money owed to his boss?  What is going on here?        

Well, for starters, I will tell you what my professor said in seminary when we came to this passage from Luke.  I raised my hand in class and asked, “Um, is this the same Jesus we were just reading about in chapter 15?”  She smiled and said, in her British accent, “Well, George, the parables are morally ambiguous.”  That was meant to answer my question, but of course it didn’t.  So I said, “But this isn’t ambiguous; this is just plain wrong!”  She stared at me for a moment and said carefully, “The parables of Jesus are not fairy tales, George.”

Not fairy tales.  So, okay, we shouldn’t expect the stories from Jesus to be simple little tales where everything turns out right and good and perfect.  But shouldn’t we at least expect them to make sense?  We don’t need a perfect little bow on top, but can’t we expect some ethics?

Well, let’s look at what might be going on in this story.  And, admittedly, the emphasis is on MIGHT . . .

Lots of commentators make the claim that the guy who’s about to be fired is only writing off the share of the debt that would’ve been his commission.  And that’s possible, but not certain; it’s kind of hopeful thinking, if you ask me.  I mean, it would make it easier for us to swallow, right?  At the same time, and maybe more importantly, he is definitely taking a chance on hospitality instead of money.  What do I mean by that?  Well, even though it’s still a story about money, and self-interest, and possibly cheating, the guy who’s about to be fired is still putting his hope in people.  He’s still saying, “When it’s all said and done, my hope lies in my neighbor, rather than in my money.”

But, then, isn’t he trading money for hospitality?  Is he maybe, you know, buying friends?  Maybe, sure.  But at the same time, he’s turning them from debtors into peers.  He’s making them his equals in some way.  They’re no longer required to pay him back; a favor is optional.  A financial debt is a contract, and must be repaid.  Hospitality is a choice they can make, one way or the other.  They don’t HAVE to pay him back or welcome him into their homes.  In a way, he has set them free.  In a way, the guy who is about to be fired has given what little he had coming to him in order to set the debtors free.  Maybe they’ll respond as he hopes; maybe they won’t.  Either way, he gave up all he had, and has lifted the poor, freed the oppressed, set the debtors free.  Hmmm . . .

Robert Capon, an Episcopal priest, and my favorite writer, says the way to look at parables is to look for Jesus in them.  Never assume that God or Jesus is the king, or the manager, or anyone in authority.  Look for Jesus in the one who sacrifices.  Look for Jesus in the one who gives up his life for another.  More importantly, don’t assume that you and I are somewhere in the parable.  The gospels are about Jesus.  The parables are about Jesus.  It really is all about Jesus, the one who saves us.  The one who writes off our debts and is commended for acting shrewdly.

And we, of course, expect certain things of a Savior.  We expect Jesus to be born in a palace.  We expect him to grow up to sit on a throne and rule the nations of earth.  We expect him to use his awesome Jedi powers to escape in the Garden of Gethsemane.  We expect him to take that wooden cross like a sword and smash his captors’ heads in.

We want Jesus to climb to the highest tower, and to bring the glass slipper to the least likely candidate.  We want him to slay the big bad wolf, and turn each ugly duckling into the most beautiful swan.

And instead, we get a conniving employee who cuts the master’s bills in half.  We get a Jesus who will stop at nothing to redeem those who don’t even know they owe a debt.  We get a Jesus who gives up everything in order to lift those who have debts they cannot pay.  A Jesus who is willing to meet us in simple bread and wine, at an Altar in Massillon.  We would not expect Jesus to meet us here, but he does.        

No debt is too small or too big for Jesus to take on.  All those fairy tales do in some way point to this same kind of Savior: one who will climb any mountain, take on any foe, even rewrite our debts owed to the manager.  But the parables also offer us a glimpse into the sacrifice of Jesus, his willingness to meet with debtors and forgive their debts.  And that same Jesus meets us faithfully at the Altar, in bread and wine.  You are welcome at this meal, because Jesus has made you acceptable.  Jesus has written off your debt, and has come to live with you in your house and in your life.  So, yes, it’s true:  The parables are not fairy tales, but they are good news.  Very.  Good.  News.


Wednesday, September 7, 2016

YEAR C 2016 elie naud, 1722

Year C
Elie Naud, 2016
Daniel 6:10b-16, 19-23
Psalm 30
Matthew 15:21-28

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Elie Naud was a French Huguenot born in 1661.  The French Huguenots were Protestants in a time of intense Catholic persecution, and Naud spent time in the Bastille for his faith.  After being released, he came to America and after switching to the Anglican Church, focused his efforts on educating Native Americans and the children of slaves.  He was able to get Parliament to pass a Bill requiring slave owners to have their slaves’ children baptized and instructed in the Christian faith.

In 1712, slaves rioted in New York, and it was widely held that Naud’s education of slaves was the cause of these riots.  There were threats made against Naud’s life, for fueling these riots.  But he held firm to his mission of educating Negroes and Native Americans, under protection of New York’s governor.  Still, he faced the claim that Christian knowledge “would be a means to make the slave more cunning and apter to wickedness.”  He continued on in his efforts, eventually winning over critics and gaining support of the local councils of government and prominent citizens.

Elie Naud wrote hymns and poetry throughout his life, and died September 7th, 1722.  He is buried in the churchyard at Trinity Church, Wall Street in New York City.

So, why do we have this Gospel reading assigned for today?  It’s an especially difficult text, where Jesus says to the Syrian woman, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.” The Jesus we tell our kids about would not call someone a dog when she asked for a favor.  The Jesus we gather to worship does not dismiss people with rudeness when they come to Him for help.  She begs him to cast a demon out of her daughter, and he says, essentially, “Your kind doesn’t deserve the food that the humans eat.”  What is going on here?

It is hard for us to understand the extent to which this woman is kept at arm’s length in her culture.  While we consider it bad form to discriminate on the basis of gender, in the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day it was considered good form to do so.  No respectful Rabbi would ever have a conversation with a woman.  A Jewish leader in Jesus’ day would not speak to a woman, let alone have a religious argument with her.

To the people who had gathered around Jesus in that house, this is high drama.  Everyone around that woman--her whole culture--says that she is worthless, pointless, unloved, undignified, down and out, less than human: unclean.  She has been cast aside by a society that finds its own value in pushing others down.

It is human nature to seek our own sense of worth by way of denying someone else’s.  We naturally assume that not everyone can be valuable.  Not everyone can be the teacher’s favorite.  And if you win, I lose.

This is what economists call a zero-sum game.  The pizza is only so big, and every piece you get means I get one piece less.  While that zero-sum game is true for bottled water and fossil fuel, it’s crazy to apply it to things like love and acceptance and dignity.  As parents know, you swear you could never love anyone as much as your first child, and along comes a second, with plenty of love to go around.  There is enough love for more than one child.  Love expands as it is given away.  The more we love, the more capacity we have to love.

So, back to Syria.  This woman comes to Jesus and asks for help.  You know what you expect Jesus to say, right?  Jesus is supposed to say, “Your faith has made you well.”  Or he is supposed to say, “Truly I tell you, this day, you and your child are forgiven.”  At the very least Jesus is supposed to say, “Go and sin no more.”  What Jesus is NOT supposed to say is “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

The thing is, everyone around Jesus would be nodding their heads in agreement with this.  The whole system was based on keeping some people down, and a Syrian Gentile woman is at the bottom of the heap of humanity, just above lepers.

But here’s what I think is going on.  Jesus is leading the crowd along by appealing to their corrupt system.  They certainly agree with these harsh words spoken to a desperate woman.  They’re all saying, “Yes, in our zero-sum game world, there is only enough bread for the children of Israel.  No dogs allowed.”

It’s like Jesus is doing a magic trick for children.  “Hey kids, you can’t give the children’s food to dogs, right?”  And all the children nod and laugh at the absurdity of anyone who doesn’t know these obvious laws of nature.

At which point Jesus takes a step back, the spotlight switches to the Syrian Gentile woman who says, “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”


And here’s why that works: In the presence of Jesus, food multiplies (remember the loaves and the fishes?).  In the presence of Jesus, things reach their full potential (remember the mustard seed turning into the tallest tree?).  In the presence of Jesus there is so much extra that the crumbs that fall under the table are enough to sustain life!  In the presence of Jesus the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead come back to life, and the ones who were cast aside are raised up and welcomed in.

This woman comes to Jesus and he accepts her.  All the societal pressures of the time would be pushing her away.  In her desperation she dares to defy all that pressure, maybe risking her own safety.  Maybe she comes in ignorance, unaware of what she is doing.  But I like to imagine her knowing exactly what she is doing, having prepared her case in advance.  Jewish law requires helping the needy.  Supporting the widow and the orphan.  Helping a person in need.  She comes to Jesus and proclaims, “I am a person.”  She has value merely by existing.  Which is exactly the value you and I have.  The same value all people of all time have.  We exist, and that makes us worthy of the redeeming love of God.  Jesus finds you worthy of redemption exactly as you are, no matter what you have done, are doing, or will do.  You have value because, you are.

Because of Jesus, the mere crumbs from the table are enough.  Any bread is enough when Jesus is in the room.  Crumbs will do.  Just as the crumbs from this table are more than enough.  The bread at this altar is enough to sustain us, to bring healing, to assure us of God’s unending love and acceptance.  And because of Jesus, at this table, all are welcome.  All, are welcome.  You, are welcome.


Saturday, September 3, 2016

YEAR C 2016 pentecost 16

Year C, 2016
Pentecost 16
Jeremiah 18:1-11
Psalm 139:1-5, 13-17
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Well, in today’s gospel lesson we can take away three basic points about life as a Christian . . .
You should hate everybody you currently love, you should avoid half-finished home improvement projects, and you should negotiate with larger groups who want to kill you.

Okay, but here’s the good news:  You only have to do those things if you want to be a disciple of Jesus.  All that stuff is in the context of Jesus’ saying to the crowds, “Those who do not pick up their crosses, and sell all their possessions, cannot be my disciples.”  Okay, I guess I left those two things off the list.  So there are now just five things:  Hate everyone, negotiate with bigger armies, don’t overbuild, pick up your cross, and sell everything you have.  THEN you can be Jesus’ disciple.  So, if that’s clear to all of you, there’s a sign-up sheet on the table in the back, feel free to wait in line after the service today.

Okay, obviously we need more information here.  Because, on the surface, these requirements  are going to scare people away, turning us into the incredible shrinking St. Timothy’s Church.  Could Jesus really be saying, if you’re not ready to do all this stuff, then don’t bother showing up?  Is this gospel reading just a massive barrier to the front doors of the church? I mean, who would join a church with these membership requirements? 

Something doesn’t make sense here, I think you’ll agree.  And I think a crucial point to consider is that there’s a difference between a barrier and a cost.  Barriers keep people out.  Barriers tell people what they must do or be in order to come inside.  There are no barriers to being a disciple of Jesus.  There are no barriers to coming to this table.  You are welcome here, just as you are. 

But there are costs to being a disciple.  There are risks in following Jesus.  There are things that will be different once you are following the path that leads to life.  But it is important to understand that these words from Jesus today are warnings, not barriers.

So first let’s go back to the first reading for today, the one from Jeremiah.  God sends Jeremiah to the potter’s house to hear God’s word.  And Jeremiah sees the potter working with clay that has been ruined.  And the potter reforms the clay into the shape he wants it to be.  The clay has the wrong form.  The wrong shape.  But it is still clay.  It is still in the potter’s hands.  The clay still has the potter’s undivided attention.  The potter is going to form the clay into the vessel that it needs to be.  But the fact that the shape of the clay is wrong does not make it any less clay.  And, the shape does not matter, because the potter can reform the shape.     

Being in the wrong shape is not a barrier to the potter’s touch.  But the warning is here too:  the potter will reshape the clay.  The warning is that the clay will not remain misshapen and broken.  The warning is that the potter will make the clay into what it was meant to be, and that means not being what it currently is.  The clay will be changed.

And then let’s look at today’s Psalm that we read together.  Psalm 139 is often used by some folks for political purposes.  And whatever you may think about that issue, let’s try to focus today on what it says, not on what we wish it said. 

“You have searched me out and known me; you discern my thoughts from afar.  There is not a word on my lips, but you, O LORD, know it.”  If you’re anything like me, that does not sound like good news.

The first five verses of this Psalm are a celebration of God’s intimate knowledge of us.  And notice I said “celebration.”  The fact that God knows you intimately is nothing to be afraid of.  In fact, it’s something to celebrate.  It sounds opposite of common sense though, doesn’t it?  It seems ridiculous to think it’s good news that God really knows us, or—God forbid—that we would want God to really know us.  But, rather than try to hide from God (think of Adam and Eve), rather than think we need to be afraid God might find out who we really are (think, “that’s me!”), these verses celebrate the fact that God knows us completely, inside and out.  And here’s the second part of that Psalm:

I will thank you because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful, and I know it well.  My body was not hidden from you, while I was being made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth.  Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb; all of them were written in your book; they were fashioned day by day, when as yet there was none of them.

Where else do you find that kind of intimate knowledge of something?  Well, one place is in something that has been crafted by hand.  If you’ve ever built something, or made something, or painted something, or written a poem, something you labored over . . . that is a thing you know intimately.  Others look and see a table, but you know every square inch of it, inside and out.  Others look at a painted blue wall, but you know every nook and cranny of that wall’s surface.  Others look and see a knitted sweater, but you know every fiber of yarn that makes the whole beautiful garment. 

Or, going back to that Jeremiah reading, others look and see a piece of pottery shaped by the potter’s hand, but the potter knows that he has taken the clay from a ruined pot and made it into something wonderful, perfectly suited for what it was meant to be.  The potter knows every molecule of that clay, and it is fearfully and wonderfully made.

And do you see the connection to today’s gospel here?  Jesus is saying, if you’re going to be my disciple, count the cost of what that means.  You might need to give up more than you bargained for in order to be reshaped.  It’s not a barrier to being his disciple; but it’s a cost of being his disciple.  God has been transforming us, and God is going to transform us even more, shaping us to be what we are meant to be, rather than what we are, or what we once were.  In church-speak, we call this process “sanctification.”  To you and me it means, God will make us into what we are meant to be.  However that may change us, and wherever that may lead us.

We’re clay, and will always be clay.  But sometimes we’re in the wrong shape, and the potter will mold us into the shape we are meant to be.  It might mean selling all your possessions, sure.  But probably not.  It might mean hating your own family, sure.  But probably not.  God will shape each of us differently, and that means different things for different people.  However, what it definitely always means is picking up your cross and following Jesus to Jerusalem.  Understanding that God is going to make you into exactly what you are meant to be.

Which leads us into that tiny little epistle we heard this morning called “Philemon.”  One chapter.  Not much to look at.  Not much to see there.  Sometimes even used as a justification for slavery over the centuries.  It’s a crazy little letter.  Paul is writing to a slave-owner named Philemon.  Paul clearly wants Philemon to set his slave free.  But, as Paul says, “I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.”  What is Philemon’s good deed?  Well it’s obvious to you and me.  Philemon needs to give up his possession.  (Which, to our horror, is another human being.)  But Paul does not say, unless you give up your possession you cannot be a disciple of Jesus. 

Instead, Paul relies on the process of sanctification.  That is, God is going to change Philemon’s heart; God is going to re-shape this slave-owner.  Paul could insist that Philemon free the slave, but Paul knows that the words of Jesus are true: being a disciple of Jesus means you will be willing to give up your possessions.  Not a barrier, but a statement of fact.  Being a disciple of Jesus means being willing to give up your possessions.  All of them.  Paul knows full well that Philemon IS a disciple of Jesus.  And that’s why Paul writes in confidence, knowing that a disciple of Jesus will be changed, molded, sanctified. 

We have no record of what Philemon did with Onesimus his slave.  But I’m guessing as a disciple of Jesus he did in fact do what Paul knew he would.  Philemon certainly did the right thing, because he was already one of Jesus’ disciples.  And Jesus’ disciples give up their possessions, and carry their crosses.  It sounds crazy, but it’s true. 

You are a disciple of Jesus, and God is shaping you into exactly who you are meant to be.  And part of that reshaping is responding to the call to this altar, where God feeds us, strengthens us, and bends each of us just a little bit more into being who we are meant to be in this world: knitted together, molded into shape, and completely known and loved.  Sharing this meal together continues to shape us into what we were meant to be: the redeemed Disciples of Jesus, proclaiming God’s good news to the world.