Homily for the 15th Sunday of Pentecost, Sept. 5, 2010
“Go down to the potter’s house – there you might be able to hear what I’m trying to tell you – or see it.” So the prophet Jeremiah perceived the Spirit of God to be telling him. So Jeremiah went, and in the potter’s workshop, he perceived the message God had to convey to the people.
I love reading the scriptural accounts of the quirky and mundane ways in which God’s voice became known to the people we call prophets. Scripture again and again offers the insight that not only is hearing God’s voice very possible, but we are invited to make our life an ongoing dialogue with the Divine. Admittedly, it’s hard to get past the Cecil B. DeMille-booming-voice-from-the-sky-impression. Rather than large and booming, God’s voice is actually very subtle, more often discovered in silence and stillness, and more likely to be picked up in an image or a dream or a powerful feeling, than in something loud and obvious.
Jeremiah obediently went to the potter’s studio, expecting he would get something significant from it. Where do we need to go to make ourselves available to God’s voice? Where might the word of God speak more clearly to us? Certainly people have often told me that they felt God speaking to them through something they heard or prayed or sang in church on a particular Sunday. Sometimes people have epiphanies while out in the woods or in their garden. Others create special places in their homes where they can be still and come to hear and know God; others go to retreat houses or spiritual directors with the specific intention of discerning what God is trying to say to them, and where they are being directed.
Psalm 139 asks God: “Where can I go then from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?” The implied answer is: there is nowhere you can go where God is not present. I was taught to go about daily life with a “homiletical ear,” allowing everyday experiences to speak to me and to shape my preaching, so that, everywhere I go, I assume God is there (as the Psalm suggests). Life then becomes a process of faith, seeking and discernment. That is exactly what Jeremiah does in the potter’s studio. Listening for God is often just a matter of noticing, of paying attention, of looking for significance, believing that the Spirit does communicate, and that there is something deeper going on in what is going on.
“Go down to the potter’s house” – because God can be perceived in the daily intersection of work and art, life and duty. Potters in that era were not unusual – any community would have had potters, who supplied people’s tableware. It would be like asking us to go down to a local factory, open to what God might reveal. In other words, God is in real life – everyday life – so you don’t have to arrange for a trip to Machu Pichu or the Himalayas to find it, it’s always right in your community, always right in front of your face. Apparently, the people of Judah at the time seem to have forgotten this, and had lost their sense of being aligned with God’s purpose, and honouring God with their life. Refusing to listen to the voice of the Creator is folly. There are times when the Creator and the creation are practically screaming for our attention, trying to persuade people to make better choices. The signs are always there, but too often realized only in retrospect. Jeremiah prophesied in such a time, but the historical record suggests that the people of Judah refused to divert from their chosen way, allowed their society to continue to disintegrate, and were destroyed by the Babylonians.
Today’s admittedly difficult readings urge us to consider our lives in relation to the Potter, in terms of whether our life is in process of producing a meaningful result. It is never enough for us just to have a job – it matters whether the job has value and meaning. Making a living doesn’t necessarily mean having a life. Jeremiah names the accountability that our Maker requires of us: we are meant to become something, and our lives are meant to serve a greater purpose than just survival. That kind of accountability is not always comfortable. We need to discover and serve God in the context of our daily work. Once we enter the Potter’s house, life is no longer the same.
A pottery studio was a good place to go, because pottery is a lot like life – it’s messy, there are frustrations and setbacks, it’s easy to get unbalanced, and it’s often unclear what it is meant to become. The great sculptor Michelangelo spoke of freeing what was inside the rock, allowing it to emerge: “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” But because we are not blocks of stone, it is essential that we consent to God’s shaping of our lives. Otherwise, God discreetly withdraws, waiting for our permission, our invitation. That is the essence of the freedom of choice which is God’s most precious and risky gift to us.
The Gospel today is largely about freedom of choice. First of all, just to be clear, we are not called to hate our families. At one point, Jesus critiqued the Pharisees because they used their dedication to God as an excuse for neglecting or abusing their parents (Mark 7: 9—13). Jesus was not about hatred – his Gospel was about the love of God and the need for human beings to embrace the kingdom. What Jesus was saying reflects the turbulent and dangerous times in which he was offering his radical message of transformation. Jesus was talking about what happens when you make really significant decisions, and the fallout that can occur. He was talking about priorities. He was warning people about the cost of true discipleship and making sure people understand that following God cannot be treated as something trivial.
The Gospel obliges people to re-define their sense of priorities and values. The epistle today gives us an image of what that might have looked like in the life of a man by the name of Philemon. The letter to Philemon reveals the kind of social re-ordering that began immediately in the wake of the message Christ proclaimed. Philemon’s slave Onesimus had run away, and had been re-captured, but while in jail, met the apostle Paul. Since Onesimus was a Christian, and Philemon was as well, Paul urged Philemon to look at the relationship and the situation from a new perspective. By categorizing Onesimus as his son or child, a brother in Christ, and no longer as a thing, or a function, Paul hoped to persuade Philemon toward a distinctly Christian way of doing things. For Philemon to re-consider and re-evaluate his relationship with a slave – with a piece of property – was the beginning of a social tsunami that would wash away much that the world thought in terms of status, relationships, and values. Philemon faced a difficult choice.
Paul carefully avoided being coercive himself, and demonstrated a gentle and compassionate use of authority that, if it had prevailed in the Church, might have led the Church in some very different directions, and perhaps avoided many of the problems of abuse that have persisted over many centuries, all rooted in a domination model. Regardless of what Rhonda Byrne (The Secret) says, life is not about bending the world to your will and whim. In the name of love, Paul encouraged and persuaded Philemon, knowing full well the difficulty of the choice involved. It would cost Philemon something to be a Christian, and that cost would not just be on a monetary level but would play out in Philemon’s social and family life also, exposing him to a great risk of being betrayed to the authorities as a Christian or a Christian sympathizer. Philemon could end up as the one dispossessed all too easily.
Christ’s Gospel was all about sharing the intense and personal love of God that he experienced and lived, and as such this Gospel challenges all those who might choose to love less than they might. Who, for instance, after getting married, would place their spouse in a lesser place than a parent or a hobby or a profession? You have to count the cost of significant choices, and moving into maturity means recognizing you can’t possibly make everyone happy with your choices. But not to make certain choices means compromising or avoiding who you are meant to become.
It all flies in the face of the very Canadian tendency just to go along – not to rock the boat or cause a fuss. But on a path between you and something life-giving, how much would you tolerate something standing in your way? Jesus reveals a different kind of ambition – ambition for the kingdom, ambition for connection with God, ambition for a real and rewarding life. Viewed this way, we might indeed hate someone trying to get in our way or deflect us from the path. Or put it this way: reflect on how you’d feel if you were a cancer patient and the cure became available, but some well-meaning person felt it was best to withhold it from you. Something very much like hatred might be your response.
Today’s Gospel raises questions about what it means to dedicate yourself to something – to discover a calling – rather than allowing the expedience model to win out. Rather than just fitting in, getting a job with whatever corporation they can, it would be helpful for people to explore the concept that they may be called to something, that they may have a vocation, some unique part of the story, some piece of the mosaic of life that only they can contribute. It might be helpful if people, like Philemon, were encouraged to view their vocation from the point of view of bringing Christian values like compassion, equality, kindness and grace to their particular arena of life.
Whenever you dedicate/commit to something it involves sacrifices. It is to recognize, as a potter does when working a vessel, that our choices change the future shape of life not just for ourselves but for others. I don’t believe Jesus means for us to despise our family. But he seems to say: be prepared to lose it, let go or turn your back on it – be prepared for people to misunderstand you and even for people close to you to shut the door on you. As you recognize that certain choices are too important to avoid, be prepared for some doors to close and others to open.
Nora Watson made the observation that: “most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us, like the assembly line worker, have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people” (quoted from The Reinvention of Work by Matthew Fox). It is important to believe we are doing something meaningful with our lives, that all the time and effort we put in amounts to something more than a security blanket, but actually makes a difference. The life of corporations today is such that people are burned up, damaged, and disposed of without so much as a blip on their charts and graphs – they are replaced quickly, and forgotten, because they are viewed as functions, as statistics, and not as persons, not as human beings. And yet we continue to define life by the jobs we have rather than by a sense of vocation or the relationships and dreams we have. Our life’s work is substantially more than what we have to do to earn a paycheque. I think what Jesus and the prophets are saying has to do with the struggle to bring our work into line with our sense of vocation. Too many people in our world do not have what might be called meaningful work. How can a society flourish when so many people are virtually enslaved in jobs and roles that discount or destroy their souls?
As Howard Thurman* said: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” I have a son who is struggling to find his way in life – trying to make the right choices. It’s tempting just to push him toward the first university course or job that promises benefits and security, rather than encouraging him to embrace the process of discernment and discovery that people of his age need to go through. It’s hard to get my ego out of the way so he can make choices that work for him.
What are we supposed to be doing with our lives? This is a valid question at any stage of life. What happens when we make a mess of it? How do we keep ourselves malleable enough that we can continue to grow into the vessel we are meant to be?
In the midst of a dusty pottery studio, Jeremiah experienced a moment of grace that, in turn, helps us make sense of the daily grind. Pottery-making is a good analogy for life because you have to work at it. It doesn’t just magically shape itself – it requires our participation and cooperation. It requires our ingenuity and a willingness to commit to choices.
Choosing what we do with our life is not easy. Thinking of it in terms of what we have to give as well as what we have to gain makes it even harder. We speak of vocation as heeding that still small voice that guides us toward our true purpose and fulfilment. We might speak of alignment as the process that brings life and livelihood together. Labour Day is about the connection between life and livelihood. It is about the importance of meaningful work, and the right and responsibility to make a contribution to a society. It reminds us that work is about people and it is important to honour people whose work brings life to others, not just through their jobs but in the labour of life we call vocation – whether as a mother, father, brother, sister or neighbour. Labour Day, in the light of the Gospel, is an opportunity to explore new connections between work and vocation. May God guide us in that very creative and rewarding process.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers
* Dr. Howard Thurman (1899 – 1981) was an influential African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator and civil rights leader. He was Dean of Theology and the chapels at Howard University and Boston University for more than two decades, wrote 20 books, and in 1944 helped found the first racially integrated, multicultural church in the United States.
RCL appointed readings:
Jeremiah 18:1-11 The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the word of the LORD came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it.
And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.
Psalm 139:1-18 O LORD, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them — they are more than the sand; I come to the end — I am still with you.
Philemon 1-21 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love–and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother–especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
Luke 14:25-33 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.