Jeremiah 18:1-11 – The potter’s house: “Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, what the potter has done?”
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 – I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 – O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You formed me in my inward parts. I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Psalm 1 – Happy are those who walk not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the seats of scoffers… They are like tress planted by streams of water, that yield fruit in due season…
Philemon 1-21 – Nearly the entire letter to Philemon, I would read the last three verses as well. Paul’s ominous, “Prepare a guest room for me” indicates: I’m coming to check up on you to see if you followed through with my request. This letter proves that when Paul says there is no longer slave or free (Gal 5:28-29), he means it. He doesn’t mean we’ll pretend when we’re in church, that these very real social distinctions don’t exist. He means a very real upheaval in relationships in the very real world.
Luke 14:25-33 – Renounce family and possessions. Take up your cross and follow me. Count the cost. Don’t start a tower and then fail to finish it.
August 25, 2017 is the anniversary of Hurricane Harvey.
August 29, 2005 is the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
September 1, 2008 is the anniversary of Hurricane Gustav.
This week we have an irresistible selection of rich texts from which to choose.
In Jeremiah 18, Jeremiah is told to go down to the potter’s house and learn a thing or two. It would be a really cool this week to have a potter come and set up a wheel, using the images for the sermon. You could give out clay to every member, for them to roll around in their hands and mold during the sermon. Or perhaps just for the children in the children’s message. There are so many lessons. God shapes us and forms us in ways that are sometimes out of our control. We do not choose to be born. Our lives, our bodies are an unrequested, undeserved gift. We do not choose our hair color, our country of origin, our circumstances or our emotional makeup. So much is shaped by the Potter, whose hands continue to shape and mold us by events that are often out of our control.
This text is for the house of Israel. You will have to deal with theophany, because it is clear that God intends to bring calamity down on Israel if they don’t shape up. You can then speak of our imperfections. We are but clay pots, with cracks. I’m mindful of Leonard Cohen’s lyrics,
“There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
You could bring in Paul’s comments that have always moved me:
“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” 2 Corinthians 4:7
Luke 14 amplifies the theme of hospitality. Invite the poor and crippled to your dinner parties.
Deuteronomy 30 invites us to choose life! This is a passage of law, but a great place to start to lay the foundation for gospel. The commandments are given to us for our own good, the Deuteronomist tells us. We often forget this.
If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. (v. 16)
In Exodus, the commandments begin with this phrase: “I am the Lord your God. I brought you out of the land of Egypt.” It is as if God is saying, “Look, I am the Potter. I created you. I know how you’re put together. I brought you out of the land of Egypt. I have your best interests in mind. Pay attention… Love God. Love neighbor. Honor your parents. Don’t kill one another…”
But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. (vv. 17-18)
Keep these commandments so that you might prosper, so that you might have a long life. Or, you can pursue other gods of self-destruction and live in chaos. Your call.
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.
Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. (vv. 19-20)
Psalm 139 fits well with the Jeremiah potter’s text: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You formed me in my inward parts. I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Psalm 1 goes well with the Deuteronomy text: “Happy are those who walk not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in way the way of sinners, nor sit in the seats of scoffers… They are like trees planted by streams of water, that yield fruit in due season…”
The epistle is a complete departure from these texts. This undisputed letter from Paul is worth an entire sermon at some point. Why not now, in the wake of the 56th anniversary of the I Have a Dream speech? Consider talking about slavery. You can bring in our recent Declaration to the People of African Descent. Even though there are significant differences between the slavery of the first century Roman Empire and North American chattel slavery, the analogy holds.
This lesson is 21 verses, nearly the entire letter. Go ahead and read the whole letter. Then consider bringing in Galatians 3:28-29. When Paul says there is no longer slave or free does he really mean it? Does he only mean: Let’s just pretend these real-world distinctions don’t exist when we’re in church? Or is he suggesting that the life, death and resurrection of Christ call for the end of actual slavery, something that was taken for granted in every society ever?
Philemon settles the matter. Here we have the gritty, original Paul. The apostle insists the slave owner, Philemon, receive his escaped slave Onesimus (lit. “Useful”) home, not as a slave, but now as a brother. Paul’s ominous, “Prepare a guest room for me” warns Philemon: I’m going to be coming by to personally check in on you, and see if you done as I ask.
Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “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. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 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? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 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? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
Large crowds are traveling with Jesus, we are told in the first verse. Jesus attracted a crowd. Was it his phenomenal preaching skills or his healing ministry? Perhaps both? People today seem afraid to talk about numbers. Luke is not. Here Luke tells us Jesus drew a crowd. Earlier he told us Jesus had a crowd of 5,000. In Acts he will tell us 3,000 were baptized on Pentecost. The religious authorities may have it in for Jesus, but Luke wants us to know Jesus is very popular with the common people.
Then we get this very hard saying about “hating” your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters and life in general. We recently had a similar text, where Jesus said he had come to bring fire to the earth. That families would be split. I have no doubt that this was the actual experience of the church as both Jews and Gentiles took up faith in Christ.
Drawing upon Tannehil, Mikeal Parsons (Luke, from the Paieia series) points out that this is one of Jesus’ “anti-family” statements (8:19-21; 9:52-69; 12:51-53; 18:29; 21:26). This seems in direct contradiction with the commandment to honor your parents. This passage may be a warning to would-be Christ followers about the cost of discipleship. Following Christ means being part of a new community that may challenge other allegiances. Bonhoeffer is helpful here. “We must face up to the truth that the call of Christ does set up a barrier between man and his natural life.” (The Cost of Discipleship, p. 106) If you take a stand for justice, for example, you are risking everything. You might end up like Jesus, Gandhi, Lincoln or King.
Jeffrey, in his commentary, Luke, says this is a great example of Jewish hyperbole. Parsons and Danker agree. In Luke, Jesus is saying love of God supersedes even love of family. Hyperbole works well to get the attention of a large crowd. “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. Better to go to heaven with one eye, than to hell with two.” Someone in the back of the crowd: “Wait. What?” Of course Jesus is probably not proposing self-mutilation, any more than he suggests putting a camel through the eye of a needle, but it certainly gets your attention. Jeffrey suggests Jesus is making a rhetorical not literal point. If you decide Jesus is making a literal point and choose to preach on it, please, send me your sermon.
And yet, imagine converting to Christianity from Islam. How might that go with the parents and grandparents? Luke is preparing his people to be prepared for the backlash. Don’t expect this to be easy. In the Central African Republic, Fulani tribesmen told me about their conversion to Christianity. The family will disown family members who convert to Christianity. They will take away all their cattle. They will be left with no income. Lutheran churches in the Central African Republic know they will need to bring cattle to the baptism, to provide some financial support for converts, until people get on their feet.
Jesus warns his would-be followers to count the cost before they set out on this journey. Just as you would not start to build a tower without thinking it all the way through, take a moment and think through your discipleship. Are you willing to go the distance?
The last phrase is perhaps the hardest. “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (v. 33) Resist the urge to explain it away. In a wealthy, materialistic culture, this sentence will make us so uncomfortable. People who have spent their whole lives accumulating wealth, homes, and status, will balk the most. The urge to make it mean something other than what it actually says is nearly irresistible. While this is also probably hyperbole, overstating things to capture our attention, the preacher can take away its edge and power by watering it down. The real question to ask your congregation (and yourself), is this: What is standing in the way of me following Jesus? What do I need to give up?
Jesus invites us into a costly discipleship. If we preach grace without discipleship, we are missing a significant portion of Jesus’ message. Jesus invites us to recognize discipleship as a high-risk endeavor. This might be a good Sunday to talk about discipleship, and to ask people what following Christ really means. Pass out cards at the beginning of the service and ask people to think about, and write down what they think following Christ means. Later, address it in the sermon. Ask them to put them in the offering plate. Share some of the ideas in next week’s sermon.
The good news in all of this is the fact that we become truly free when we lay down our lives. “Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Cost of Discipleship,” Chapter 2)