First United Methodist Church
September 4, 2022
Rev. Lauren Hall
Reworked, Not Thrown Away
Do you think the crowds got smaller?
Luke shares that at this point of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, large crowds were travelling with him. Perhaps they were attracted to his brashness, or, his confrontational style with the Pharisees. Perhaps they were amazed by his ministry of healing. Or maybe they just loved the vision of the kingdom he painted, a kingdom where the normal class and status divisions fall away, and all are included.
Whatever the reason, by this time Jesus has become pretty popular. He has a following. And in response…he warns his followers that they really have no idea what they are getting into!
Their allegiance to him will cause division between families, require them to give up things that they value, and demand more from them than they can possibly imagine. Keep in mind that as Jesus says this he is marching toward Jerusalem and the cross! For these reasons Jesus tells them that they should count the cost.
All of which makes me wonder whether the crowds suddenly thinned, whether people lost interest or decided that the vision to which they had been attracted was nice, but perhaps not that nice.
Holy God, shaper of our hearts and minds, you have shown us the cost of being your people. Teach us your ways as we interpret your word. Share your teachings of life and death, for you love us as your people, and we love you as our God. Lead us into a deeper understanding, so that we may know and do your will. Amen.
Every once in a while, we read passages of scripture that seem violent, vengeful and out of character for a loving God. Both Luke and Jeremiah bring us a message this morning, and neither one really makes a person want to become a follower. No, the words contained in these scriptures are more for the person who has already chosen to follow Christ, and yet they remind us that God’s people frequently need to be called back to God’s path, but this calling has a cost.
In last Sunday’s Jeremiah passage, God put the people on notice. They had been wooed away by Assyrian gods. They had abandoned the law, which requires concern for the vulnerable. They had forgotten how God had carried them from slavery through the desert and ultimately to their own land—all the while making sure they were fed and safe.
This week, Jeremiah moves from a reminder to an overt warning. He tells the people about God’s leading him to visit a potter. The vessel the potter was attempting to create got spoiled, so the potter reworked it into another vessel, “as it seemed good to him” (v. 18:4).
If you have ever worked with clay, or watched a potter at work, then you know that it’s a delicate matter to shape a clay pot on a wheel. A slight change in pressure, an air bubble, a distraction, a change of mind – can result in the pot becoming ruined. But rather than throwing the clay away, the potter reworks it, either creating the original vessel, or something else that is much better. For Jeremiah, the image of the potter works because God is also a creator.
God does sound a little harsh in this passage. But do we not also get angry when we learn of children being abused, the elderly being neglected, or hear the vile rhetoric of racist groups? Earlier in Jeremiah, we learn that God is angry about similar evils: the greed of religious leaders; false claims about peace in the land; the oppression of refugees, orphans, and widows; murder; lies; and the abandonment of the God who saved them in order to follow false gods who offer them nothing of real value. We know these evils still exist today, and I cannot imagine that God is any more accepting of them than we are.
What we need to see in these passages, though, is that even when we acknowledge God’s distressing rage and threats of violence, the threats are always accompanied by the offer of a second chance. Twice in this passage (in vv. 8 and 11), God says the people still have a chance to avoid punishment if they turn from their evil ways toward God’s ways of compassion and justice. God may be angry, but God also repeatedly offers the people chances to repent and return.
Jeremiah was telling the people to recommit to their covenant with Yahweh and abandon their attempts at a Yahweh-Baal hybrid religion. The image of God as the potter shows us that God recognizes that the direction of the clay as it is being shaped is not going to bring out its best qualities, and so it needs to be reworked. As long as the clay is continually reworked by the potter, it can still be changed and made into the most beautiful version of itself. God may be frustrated with the people’s actions, but God knows that the true nature of God’s people remains. And so God keeps faithfully working with what is available, offering us a do-over, or a fresh opportunity to be re-molded by the love of God so that we can become the best possible version of ourselves.
In today’s Luke passage, Jesus is no less demanding and no less harsh. “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,” Jesus says (in Luke 14:26-27), and “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (v. 33). Yikes. What is Jesus really saying here? What commitment is he asking of us?
In the 1st Century, Christians literally had to be prepared to “hate” their family. If a person chose to follow Christ, they would most likely be walking away from the security of their families, and this was a real sacrifice. The family was central to Jewish faith, so when we hear Jesus’ challenge, we can assume that his words mean exactly what they say. Jesus seeks singularly devoted persons, undistracted by the cares of daily life. This may explain why many of his disciples were probably unmarried (though Peter is one exception). And, most of the women who approached Jesus were also single (cf. 8:1-3).
On the other hand, family members would certainly disapprove of Jesus’ instructions, since it involves a commitment that may detract from a person’s familial responsibilities in order to follow the prophet. In 1st Century life, many family members were engaged in the same family occupation. So, losing one of its members to religious interests could be detrimental to the family’s well-being. (Think about James and John, or Peter and Andrew – they dropped their nets to follow Jesus). But, as Jesus will stress elsewhere, it’s impossible to serve two masters (cf. 16:13). He uses love/hate language there as well. Jesus desires serious seekers with dedicated devotion.
Following Jesus’ death, it became dangerous to proclaim Jesus as your Lord, and people risked persecution and expulsion from the Synagogues. Therefore, if your family did not enter the church with you, then it was generally best to sever all ties with them. An observer might label this as hatred, but by separating yourself from your family, you actually preserved their ability to continue to own property and avoid persecution. In addition, if you did have possessions, it was common practice to bring these possessions to the Christian community to be shared and to be distributed to the poor. Jesus is pointing out to his listeners that although they may like what they hear, becoming a disciple required a costly and sometimes sacrificial commitment.
Even today, Christians in many countries suffer all manner of persecution and still have to count the cost – the cost of the treatment their children receive in school, suffering discrimination at work, and even risking physical harm and death. North American Christians generally don’t face anything like this. But what if we did? Would we still find this message of a kingdom where all are included – the lame and crippled and socially outcast and those we have labeled as unacceptable – either attractive or compelling?
As we enjoy this Labor Day Weekend and the launch of Fall sporting events, political campaigns, and other North American “rituals,” we also are called to consider the ways God might want to rework us.
And so, if we go back to Jesus’ words in our gospel this morning, what is Jesus asking us to “hate”?
- Traditions and rituals that propagate hatred and discrimination?
- Government regulations that support injustice?
- Environments and entertainment that support unhealthy habits, such as substance abuse, domestic violence, or sex trafficking?
- There are a lot of things that we hold dear that aren’t necessarily the best for the greater good.
What we need to hear in Jesus’ words to this crowd gathered in the ancient land of Israel is that to be a disciple of Jesus Christ means a complete change of priorities and pursuits. Discipleship is what happens when we allow Christianity to define who we are and therefore, what we determine to be important. This isn’t about our eternal destiny, Christ has already taken care of that. This is about the caliber and character of our Christian lives. We have to completely embrace God’s goodness, and make that goodness a part of who we are, before we can wholly commit to following Christ. Discipleship is demanding and like anything else worth doing, discipleship takes time, energy, work, and practice – in a word, it takes sacrifice. When we accept the yoke of discipleship, like the potter’s clay, we are reworked, not thrown away. Let us pray…
Prayer of Confession (Luke 14)
Merciful and Forgiving God, we have sought to follow you without counting the costs and we have fallen short in so many ways. You gave us a wonderful world, filled with beauty, power, and majesty, and we have ravaged it - tearing away at its gifts with our own greed and cowardice. We have not treated this world or one another with compassionate love. We have turned our backs on situations of need in which we could have been instruments of help, healing, and peace. We have neglected service to others and have focused our lives on accumulating things and status. We have chased after false gods - greed, power, fame. You are the potter, O Lord. You fashioned us, but we focused on developing our flaws rather than working with our strengths. Please forgive us, Lord. Help us assess our motives and intentions, even as we ponder our need for the journey. Refashion us to be your people, celebrating your love in service to others. For we ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord. AMEN.