This morning is our last day of the summer schedule. Despite rumors to the contrary, this was not just a plan for Father Elias and I to get a bit more sleep this summer (although I appreciated the rest!). Among other things, our combined service at 9:30 allowed us to worship as one congregation, one Body in Christ. For, although each person’s faith is in part an individual relationship with the risen Jesus, our faith cannot be truly lived out alone, but needs collaboration in order to be fully activated. Thus, we are often called upon by God to place the needs of the community ahead of our own, or even of our family’s, individual needs.
Such sacrificial practice is well known to artists. No doubt you’ve heard of the term “starving artist”? No matter their medium – painting, sculpting, music, theater – artists know what it is to place the act of creating, and collaborating toward that creation, ahead of their own agenda, even their own identity. The act of creating itself involves letting go: it often requires breaking, molding, even scrapping an idea altogether and beginning again. This teaches humility.
I love the verses in this morning’s lectionary, because they remind us of this creative humility. We – as a people of God, as a Church, as the “Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement”, as our Presiding Bishop likes to call us – must be willing to allow God to mold, to remake, to transform us in order that God may use us.
We are not alone in the present need for transformation; Jeremiah is reminding the people of Israel, after the fall of Judah, that they must allow God to “turn them”, as on a potter’s wheel. The prophet goes on in the next chapter to talk about what happens to a broken jug – a piece that has become dry, and brittle, not malleable any longer – it cannot be mended. Which are we to be: a piece of clay in God’s creative hands, or an old and fragile jug which, once broken, cannot be revived again? I like to believe we are still able to be thrown.
Psalm 139 has great meaning for me on many levels. Those of you who have read my book know that its verses inspired a piece of vocal music which I commissioned by German composer, Stefan Hakenberg (its been sung in Germany and Italy, but has yet to receive its United States premiere!). While undergoing cancer treatments, surrounded by the deafening sounds of a nuclear machine, I thought about how God – more than any of the hospital’s instruments – knew me. God sees us: he is both immanent and omnipotent, both close to us and over all us. “You have searched me out and known me . . . you press upon me behind and before . . . “ This both comforts and overwhelms us and the Psalmist.
And God is not finished with us yet! Like a craftsperson, God continues to create us, and our world; even God’s Word – the living Word, the Logos – continues its process of creation, it perfecting in the world. Today’s Epistle reading gives us dramatic example of that.
Paul wrote this letter to Philemon in order to bring harmony to the early church, to help it heal and to grow. Yet, did you know that, in the 19th century, some used these verses in order to justify keeping human beings as slaves? Today, scholars and religious leaders point out that Paul first advocates justice between these two brothers, Philemon and Onesimus – Paul even offers to pay the debt between them – before peace can be achieved.
Because true reconciliation, true collaboration, true discipleship, requires something from us. Jesus gave his life for us, and asks that we give him our lives in return. The Gospel of Luke makes that painfully clear today. In terms that may be difficult for us to hear, Jesus lays before us the cost of discipleship. He asks the disciples – and each of us, in our own lives – to be willing to be transformed, to be molded, for the good of the Gospel.
German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who returned from the safety of New York to his homeland of Germany in order to resist the Nazi movement in the 1940’s, wrote extensively about “The Cost of Discipleship”. He talks this way about “costly grace”: “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which (we) must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs (a person their) life, and it is grace because it gives (us) the only true life. . . .Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
In today’s world, what does it cost us to become God’s clay, to participate in God’s constant process of molding and shaping us into his people? Well, to begin with, we are sometimes asked to get up early on a Sunday morning! What else? God may call us to try something new, to open our hearts and minds to a new perspective. We might also be asked to take a risk: to reach out to a neighbor, to share our stories, to give of our time, and talent and treasure even when things seem uncertain. That doesn’t seem terribly bad, does it? And think of the grace God offers in return!
Tomorrow as a nation we celebrate the labor movement, in who’s forming millions of workers around the world placed the good of the group ahead of the own individual needs. It was such solidarity that not only formed the Jesus Movement, but that continues to form it today. We are still a part of that same movement, that same Body, yet renewed, again and again and again. We are – all of us – turned and turned on God’s potter’s wheel, continually transformed, formed anew, for God’s glory and for the use of God’s kingdom.
Let us, with joy and anticipation, submit our lives to God, the ultimate artist, and give thanks for all of the beauty he will create in and through us! Amen.