Benediction Online

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Following Jesus is not for sissies.

Jeremiah 18:1-11
Philemon 1-21 Luke 14:25-33

Today’s gospel reading is the same one that we have on St Benedict’s day and so it seems to have special significance for us, as the people of St Benedict’s. I find it humorous that Jesus paints a picture of someone who sets out to build a tower, (we might say a church) and doesn’t get his math right in advance so he doesn’t have enough cash to finish it. I imagine that building was rather simpler in his day so that one could be confident in advance how much a project would cost. Even with the relatively small kitchen and bathroom project we’re in the middle of, we’ve had some surprises and have had to ask y’all to dig a little deeper.

But it’s not actually a gospel about building projects. It’s a gospel about discipleship. Jesus was the big celebrity of his day. Wherever he went people followed, curious to see him, eager to hear what he might say and to comment on his actions. A lot of those folk thought it would be cool to be his disciples, so today Jesus is warning that it just isn’t that easy. Our old friend, Lois Felmlee, used to repeat frequently “Getting old isn’t for sissies.” Jesus’ message today can be summed up as “Following Jesus isn’t for sissies”.

Being a disciple is not about going to church to hear an uplifting sermon, sing some great hymns, have a good time with friends and come away feeling warmed. Those things are good and when they happen we praise God. But that’s not what it’s really about.

The reading from Jeremiah has the powerful image of God as the potter. Those of you who have ever taken a pottery class know that clay gets slapped around. You can’t just pick it up and make it into something beautiful, however skilled you are. You have to pummel the clay until it’s soft and malleable then as you work it there are often false starts especially if you’re working on a wheel, so again and again you bash it into a lump and start again until you have the perfect bowl or whatever you’re making. But that’s not the end – you have to let it dry out, glaze it and then fire it in a very hot oven.

Being clay isn’t for sissies. Jeremiah is to tell the people of Israel that God will treat them like his clay. If the church is God’s clay perhaps the upheaval we are going through today with conflict, decline and uncertainty is one of those breaking down times before the new pot starts to be made. If you and I are God’s clay… well, what can I say? Being clay isn’t for sissies.

The second reading was from the rather odd little letter to Philemon. This was probably included in the New Testament because it is a letter from Paul, but unusually it’s a letter to one individual, Philemon. Philemon owned slaves and one of them had run away. Normally that he would receive a severe punishment if he were caught, but Onesimus had connected with Paul and had become a son to him. So this letter is to ask Philemon to accept him back as a brother and in love, not in anger and punishment.

What a lot to ask! What was Philemon to do? What would his friends think if he didn’t punish this runaway slave? What would it do for morale among his other slaves? If they saw there were no repercussions, perhaps they’d all start running away. But how could he go against the apostle’s wishes? Did his new faith really demand that he let his slave walk all over him and come back scot-free?

God often asks us to do things and to allow things that seem wrong to us. Our little egos have definite ideas of what’s fair and what isn’t. Our little egos have definite ideas of how the world should be, and they are willing to defend their ideas at all costs. Runaway slaves should be punished. Period. Our society has definite ideas of what the good life is and even in the face of evidence that we are destroying our planet, we go on defending our way of life. Slave owners are powerful, slaves need strong discipline. Period.

My friend Chuck said to me yesterday, “It takes courage to play the hand you’re dealt”. I think he’s right. Each one of us finds ourselves in situations which are only partially of our own making. They are the results of decisions we have made, but they are also just the way things turned out and the result of God pummeling the clay. Philemon didn’t expect that his new faith would create such a quandary. Onesimus never imagined he’d be going back to his old master. I never expected to be a priest in California.

Often there are things about “the hand we’re dealt” that we don’t like and we fight against them, we lament, we complain and even become bitter. Discipleship is picking up our cross and carrying it. Discipleship is accepting that what we have is what we have, what has happened is what has happened, and asking for God’s grace to live serenely and fully in God’s amazing love.

God’s love is able to transform us and the hand we’ve been dealt. When we give it to her. And that’s not easy for us humans because it takes humility. It takes asking every day, “Not my will but thine be done”.“Have thine own way Lord, have thine own way. Thou art the potter, I am the clay.”

The more we are able to turn things over to God, the more we will experience the joy of God’s abundant life welling up inside us bringing new hope. Jesus warns us - Discipleship is not for sissies. It is not an easy road, it has many unexpected twists and turns, but it is the road which brings us the greatest joy and the greatest life, because it is the road we were made to walk. We can depend on God’s overflowing love to hold us and comfort us even when we are being pummeled.

Often people tell me “I know this happened for a reason”. We want to make sense of our lives, and especially our losses and griefs, so we look for a reason. We need look no further. Thou art the potter, we are the clay.

Following Jesus is not for sissies.


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