Work in Progress

Jeremiah 18:1-11 | Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 | Philemon 1-21 | Luke 14:25-33

God tells his prophet Jeremiah to go down to the potter’s house. Before God says anything more, Jeremiah watches the potter working at the wheel. If you’ve ever worked with clay, you know it’s more intense than watching.

This clay that you’ve kneaded and pushed and shoved is slammed onto the wheel. Then you dribble some water from a sponge onto it to get it more workable, easier to move. The goal at the early stage is to get it centered in the wheel. If it’s not centered just right, the whole thing will be difficult and likely turn out lop-sided, which is more often than not what happened to me when I worked with clay as a hobby years ago. 

But when you watch someone who has developed their practice, they make it look easy. With strong and certain arms and hands, they center the clay on the wheel, and the clay spins like an ice skater, balanced and fast, slowing at will, ready for the next move without falling over.

This doesn’t mean that a perfectly centered piece won’t go awry. An imperfection in the clay, being too wet or too dry . . . anything can cause the piece instantly to wobble into a mess. So the potter begins again to collect it into a centered mass to be reshaped, reworked, still working with the same clay with which he began, hopefully with patience. 

I don’t know how often I thought about this passage from Jeremiah while sitting at the wheel, looking down at my hands, trying to will the clay to be centered. It was a euphoric feeling when the clay got centered, spinning perfectly in the middle. I hoped my life was centered, spinning in alignment with God’s will. Interestingly, Casey and I were working with pottery right before I went to seminary. As I worked with the clay, I was very aware of how much like clay I was, vulnerable, navigating through forces unseen, being shaped along with my own discernment into something yet unknown to me. I still feel this way, as I’m sure we all do as Christians because our journey isn’t one from birth to baptism to perfection and then to death. Created as perfectly as we are, just as we are, we get wobbly along this journey through life. We get off-center, too greedy, too self-righteous, and often self-destructive. We might be an uncentered mess, but we’re not without the hope of repentance, of being rebuilt, reshaped, reformed, and restored. We can be re-created, even resurrected, into the whole person God intends us to be from before we were born.

Richard Rohr talks about “order, dis-order, and re-order” as the process through which we go to experience transformation and reach true change in our life. Gone through intentionally, the re-order can be done oriented toward God, granting us resurrection experience, new life. We rise to be shaped as someone good and useful for the kingdom here and now. We can hear the words from Jeremiah as very dark, with God promising destruction for God’s people, but we can also hear the hope in the people’s option to repent and turn toward God. The people can turn away from the abandonment of God and turn to walk in God’s way. They have the opportunity to be reworked and transformed. 

This theme of transformation continues in Paul’s letter to Philemon. What starts out as a very complimentary letter turns into a serious request and expectation. Philemon and his household and home church are asked to receive Onesimus back to the house not as a slave but as a brother. I imagine Philemon’s heart sinking, the wheel coming to a screeching halt. We witness a moment of decision in slow motion. Scholars presume that Onesimus fled as a slave and was captured. Paul, who probably encountered Onesimus in prison, adopted him as a child in faith, and, knowing the man’s story, Paul writes Philemon to propose that he receive Onesimus back into the household as an equal in Christ. Talk about opportunity for transformation! Scholars can’t affirm that Paul wanted Onesimus to be granted complete freedom, which is what we would want him to mean. Slavery was a social construct of the time that we cannot deny, but our faith and tradition has certainly come to interpret a life lived fully in God through Christ to be one of freedom and true love of God and neighbor, which leads us to uphold the freedom, rights, and dignity of all. Paul affirms that Onesimus has been transformed by his belief in Christ, and now Philemon has a decision to make which will reveal how much his life has been transformed by Christian love: does it indeed transform all his relationships, including those with whom he has enslaved.

In our gospel lesson, where do we see things being reworked and transformed? This lesson can be challenging. Jesus uses the word we translate as “hate,” and if you’re like me, that’s not a word we use lightly.

Jesus lays out what is required to be a disciple. Speaking to the crowd, he says that if they want to be a disciple, they have to “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters” and “even life itself.” Also, a disciple has to carry the cross and follow Jesus. The crowd at the time didn’t know what we know now. What we know is that to carry the cross and follow Jesus means to carry a great burden even unto death. We end this lesson with Jesus saying that to become a disciple, we have to give up all our possessions. 

What we really need is a transformation of this lesson into good news!

Thankfully, the good news for us is that we have everything we need to be disciples. Our collet says, “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts.” Our psalm reminds us that we are “marvelously made” and that God has knit us together in our mother’s womb. God has searched us out and knows us–our sitting down and our rising up, our thoughts and our ways; God knows us altogether.

So also does Jesus know the crowd to whom he speaks. Remember that he has just left the dinner with the Pharisees, where he was among the invited guests, likely the privileged people in the community. Perhaps these people are among those who follow him, but maybe others from the community also follow him, people who have a lot, people like Philemon who have households and the ability to hold church in their home and provide hospitality to those gathered. Jesus tells these people to “hate” those whom they would hold near and dear and even life itself if they really want to be disciples. If we hate something, we completely detest it, are almost if not completely repulsed by it. Maybe we don’t realize how much we hate something until we encounter it and feel physically sickened by it. Maybe Jesus wants the crowd to hate their attachment to the way things are, their attachment to protect and preserve “me and mine.” Rather than all the stuff we think we need in our lives, what Jesus knows we need is our whole heart, our whole self, without extra baggage. 

Like Paul telling Philemon to exercise Christian love in receiving Onesimus into his home, Jesus is telling the crowd and even us to let go of all our superficial attachments so that our life might truly be centered in Christ. Yes, we navigate in our familial relationships and society, but our Christian family is so much bigger. The human family is likewise our family, deserving and worthy of our love as siblings, as children of God.

Our very life as we think it should be, when it is reworked to be aligned with God, is no longer our own. We are not coerced into obedience to God, but because we love God so much, love one another, we want to be obedient to God. We want to reach out to our neighbors in Christian charity, in true love, and share what God has graciously provided. We want to carry the cross we are given to bear and to follow Jesus even to the grave.

Jesus uses strong language that definitely gets our attention, but it’s not our attention that Jesus wants. Jesus desires a transformation and sincere disciples. If we allow his words to rework our thinking, our perspective, we realize that if we detest the social structures that make us overly protective of what we think is ours alone, then we can transform our worldview to see the great human family, all of God’s children, wonderfully and marvelously made. With Christian love, we want everyone to have access to that which helps them thrive, and we will reach out to our neighbors, even strangers, to uplift them, even if it challenges what we thought we knew or understood.

All Jesus asks of us is ourselves. Love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves. “Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts.” Sometimes we need a transformation of our own ways of thinking, and God knows this, too. We are enough. Centered in the love of God through Jesus Christ, we have all the perspective we need to live a life that is transformed by that love. When we encounter those moments in our life when we are conscious that the decisions we make have the opportunity to reflect our love of God, we have immense power to give witness to our life as a disciple. Thanks to God’s infinite mercy, God keeps us on the wheel even when we mess up, guiding and shaping us when we listen and allow it, holding us in infinite love and strength.

The human vocation is to be true co-workers with God and stewards of creation. 

~Denis Edwards

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Calling All Christians

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a | Psalm 51:1-13 | Ephesians 4:1-16 | John 6:24-35

One of my downtime go-to’s, like many people’s, is to watch a show on Netflix. If I could, I’m sure I’d be one of those folks who binge-watches an entire season or four in a day, but my life doesn’t really allow for that. So I enjoy watching a show now and then, and I really like it when I get to share that time with my family (which is usually when I watch something). Recently, a new season of “Anne with an E” came out, and I’m delighted to watch this show with my daughter. Not only do I feel like it’s created beautifully, but it takes my love for Anne of Green Gables from when I was a child and gives me a medium to share it with at least one of my children. In this new series, they’ve taken lots of creative license to flesh out the characters and further develop the side stories that I don’t recall in the books (most likely because they’re not there). One of those stories is about Gilbert Blythe, with whom Anne has a love-hate relationship in their adolescence. The series portrays him attending a birth in a foreign land where the ship he’s working on is at port. There’s something in his presence of mind, skill, and success in that moment that plants a seed for what’s to come, that being his interest in medicine and his eventual profession as a doctor. One might say that he has a “calling” to be a doctor, just as I have a calling to be a priest, Krista a musician, others teachers, nurses, attorneys, care-providers, parents, analysts, managers, and on and on. We all have a vocational calling, whether we are able find it and live into it or not. We have gifts, talents, and skills particular to us to help fill a need in our world.

But have you ever thought about your spiritual calling, “the calling to which you have been called,” as the letter to the Ephesians says? Each of us has been called to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” and to participate and grow in the Body of Christ in love. Fortunately, this calling aligns with our mission: “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.”

Chances are, we don’t sit around the dinner table and check in with each other about how we’re doing with this calling, with our mission, but that’s why we come to church–to get a Word from God and be fed by Jesus. Because we know that things are out of kilter in our world, in our lives, and as we strive to live a life centered and grounded in Christ, we know we need not only God’s continual mercy but also the help, protection, and goodness that comes from being a part of something much bigger than ourselves.

While I hope it’s not the case for any of us here, we know that there are people for whom the story of David resonates. David, as called as anyone, if not more so because he was chosen by God to be king, is a leader of nations, is beautiful, mighty, and powerful: so powerful was he that he not only had what he needed, but he took what he wanted. He did not ask God’s consent in taking Bathsheba; we don’t have account that he even asked Bathsheba’s consent. David certainly didn’t ask God about taking Uriah’s life, either. David, called and anointed to be king over Israel, in our reading today gets called out by the prophet Nathan. Perhaps it was only through a parable that David could so quickly judge, so blinded and ensnared had he become to his own wrongdoing. But when the wrong of another was understood, then Nathan held up the truth of the matter like a mirror, saying in all boldness and righteousness: “You are the man!” David admits to Nathan: “I have sinned against the LORD.”

It’s easy for us to see how David had disrupted the unity among God’s people, going against the calling of our lives lived in God. What’s done is done, but we hear in Psalm 51 the repentance, David’s turning toward God in prayer. It’s easy to imagine the voice of a king, so proud and powerful, actually taking on the posture of body and spirit with humility and gentleness. When any of us lose our way, that’s what repentance and reconciliation offer us, the means through which to acknowledge the error of our ways and the path toward a life lived worthy of our calling as children of God.

Many of us get on unstable ground when we start thinking of our worthiness of God’s grace and mercy. I attribute this largely to the fact that many of us were taught that God’s grace and mercy are conditional; only if we do or don’t do certain things are we assured to receive God’s blessing.

Fortunately, God is greater than our fragile egos and misshapen theology.

Even though Jesus seems to be getting a little irritated with the masses, his compassion never wavers. They came to Jesus in their illness, discontent, dis-ease, and/or curiosity. They were fed, and Jesus calls them out for coming back to him for more food to fill their bellies. (Maybe they’re even more like sheep than he originally thought!) But these are children of God, too, who are called to be fed and nourished by Jesus Christ. These are people for whom Jesus came to show the Way of Love; they are people called to live in unity, giving glory to God. The thing is that the people don’t know their power. They probably don’t know their worthiness, either. In a culture where only the high priests approach the altar, where sacrifices were required for atonement, where there were probably more limitations as to what one could do rather than possibilities, it’s understandable that they wouldn’t see their potential, their calling to be a vital part of the spiritual presence on earth.

I wonder how many people feel that way today. Or, if people do open up with humility and gentleness, patience and love, I wonder how many are overwhelmed and turn away from the suffering and turn toward the imaginary stories on t.v. from the comfort of our homes.

No matter what we’ve done or what we don’t know, we all now know that we are called–from our baptism–to lead a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called. We are born of the image of God to maintain the unity of Spirit in peace and to build up the Body of Christ–the Church–in love. It’s so simple that it’s hard because we might find ourselves like Paul, a prisoner in the Lord, bound in willing servitude to glorify God, freely giving our lives over to God’s will.

There’s not one right way to do this.

At the vestry retreat we had last weekend, I asked our Vestry if they had ever done a spiritual gifts inventory. They all just kind of looked at me, and our Senior Warden kindly reminded me that their vocational world isn’t necessarily like mine, where my vocational and spiritual callings are intertwined. I also asked if the Vestry had thought about their leadership strengths and weaknesses in relation to their service in the church. Most hadn’t, even though many have been using their strengths already. The first step, though, was creating an awareness of gifts and strengths that are readily available, if not already in practice. Next steps include identifying where, when, and how those gifts might be shared or required.

In all this talk of “calling,” we’re likely to miss the crucial component of listening. David’s pride could have prevented him from hearing and truly understanding Nathan’s parable. Jesus’s call to the people that he is “the bread of life,” that all who come to him will never be hungry and all who believe in him will never be thirsty, could have–and may have–turned away those who only had ears to hear promises of fast food and quick fixes.

So as you’ve listened this day and been made aware of your spiritual calling to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace and to build up the Body of Christ in love, what do you hear the Holy Spirit stirring within you? What gifts do you know that you have? Are you curious to know more? (Because we’ll do a similar spiritual gifts inventory in Christian Education within the next year.) Do you need the exercise of repentance and reconciliation to get back on track, or do you just need to engage in the knowledge that your life–each of our lives–have value and purpose in building up the Body of Christ?

God knows I don’t have all the answers for myself or for each of you, but God knows that I am a willing participant and patient shepherd, fed and nourished like you by Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.

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Jesus Feeds His People

Sermon at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 2 August 2015

The Scripture Texts for Proper 13, Year B, Track 2  are:

Exodus 16:2-4,9-15 | Psalm 78:23-29 | Ephesians 4:1-16 | John 6:24-35


Jesus has a way of attracting the crowds, doesn’t he?

It’s true that if you offer food, people will usually come, and those who have a specialty tend to gain loyal followers. Jesus always seems to get his hands on some bread. We don’t have accounts of him making it (I’m sure there’s a Martha or Mary on hand for that), but Jesus will take the bread, give thanks for it, and share it with those around him–whether it’s five or five thousand people.

We can imagine breaking off our portion of the loaf, dipping it in the oil, enjoying the company of others. There is such contentment in being fed, being comfortably full. There’s no doubt that Jesus fed his people.

But the contentment of being full wanes as hunger rolls around again. After their digestive lull in which they seemingly miss Jesus walking on water, the crowd of five thousand wakes up to presumably realize that they are hungry again and that their meal ticket has moved on.

With a nagging and growing hunger, they pursue Jesus, the one who not only healed people but fed them. When they catch up with Jesus, he confronts their hunger head on. They don’t really want to talk about a prophet or rabbi; they want some more food.

When Jesus offers the true bread from heaven, that’s what the people want–the good stuff that endures for eternity and gives life to the world.

“Sir, give us this bread always.”

I wonder if they could comprehend what they were receiving.

I am the bread of life,” Jesus says. “Believe in me and never be hungry, never be thirsty.”

Really, Jesus? Just believe and hunger goes away?

Do you want to be the one to explain that to one in five children in the U.S. who suffers from food insecurity, children who don’t know where their next meal is coming from? It’s no wonder the people started to ask for another sign, because it’s crazy talk to ignore the needs of our bodies. We have to be physically nourished to do any kind of work, and we have to work to provide nourishment to our families.

We spend a lot of effort just trying to survive.

But you know, the crowd is listening to Jesus.

In his presence, they attend to his words and hear his promises to give life, to do the will of God, and never to drive away those who come to him or to lose those given to him. He promises eternal life and resurrection. (This is primarily in the verses we skip between this week and next in the lectionary.)

We’re listening hard, just as they must have been in Capernaum.

Our bodies are not eternal. Jesus knows that. Jesus lived in the flesh, in the confines of the physical body. We all are bound to the temporal world and live and die as mortals. Jesus knew and knows our hunger in the physical body. Jesus knows hunger, knows pain as we know it, though on a scale that we cannot fathom.

Jesus knows hunger as we know it, and maybe he saw it as one of the few ways we can understand true desire, true longing.

If you have ever felt within you a fullness of life that swells your heart and threatens to overwhelm you with joy because you feel Love, then chances are you have been in the presence of Christ. There is a fullness and wholeness that come from being in this presence that envelops us with a peacefulness that does pass all understanding, and words fall short.

Stillness. True contentment. Things of the world tend to fall away. Remember hunger? Aren’t you hungry? Oh, yes. But there’s plenty of food, enough for everyone. So content are we feeding on the presence of Christ, the bread of heaven, that we eat a bit and pass it around. There is an abundance, which is enough for everyone.

When we operate from this place of abundance, we are in the good days, quite aware of Jesus in our lives. “Give us this day our daily bread,” we pray. We do the work of believing, as Jesus said, so that we can be fed with enough to live in this precarious balance between the temporal and spiritual. We come close to loving God, neighbor, and self, living in right relationship with each other.

But we are of this world, and our awareness shifts in any given moment, our focus easily distracted. It’s natural to get hungry and need to eat. It’s wonderful to be full, take a nap and go into what I call digestive auto-pilot. What isn’t in our best interest is to be separated from God. Separation sets us up for bad days.

We can get separated by lack of belief sparked by tragedy or apathy. We can get in our own way. As soon as we put ourselves first, focus on what we want, think we are in control or can judge others, we lose focus on the presence of Christ that is still, as always, right before us. Unless we sustain our belief in the one whom God has sent, we will hunger, we will thirst. There are many ways to suffer. We can be so hungry that a snack pack looks like a feast and so empty that we can eat and eat and never get full, the void being so great.

We need to be reminded sometimes that our heart and soul has known the fullness of Christ and was created in God’s image. Having known the peace of God, we want to return to it, we long for it. We ask for ourselves and for others, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

It’s already been given. It’s up to us to see it, and we don’t have to look far or try to imagine anything. It’s here and now. We can expect to see Jesus, if we first believe he is here. Those of you at Women’s Institute heard Bishop Stephen Charlston say that in matters of Spirit, we are more accurate to say “believing is seeing.” It is up to us to do the work to find the bread of life in our midst. It is our responsibility to do the work of believing.

I know that wherever I could have gone after seminary, I would be able to find Christ, but I can’t imagine being anywhere else right now. In this place, the hard work of believing is being done, and that belief radiates from our very being.

As I get to know you better, you’ll teach me the ways you sustain your faith, how I can work with you to strengthen our belief. I look forward to what we’ll learn and share together in the upcoming Faith Journey class, to which all are welcome. Already, in this place, I see life being shared. With gratitude and generosity, our abundance is shared with those who come searching.  Look at the eyes of those who are working and of those who are searching, and we cannot help but see that Jesus is here.

Any and all of you who were here Thursday night in body or spirit know the power of this community, the significance of coming together to be fed. Hope and healing were on the menu that night. Nearly two hundred were fed.

There’s plenty more to feed, and there’s more than enough to go around.

Jesus is still feeding his people.

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