The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, 4 September 2016

Track One:
Jeremiah 18:1-11
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17

Track Two:
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1

Philemon 1-21
Saint Luke 14:25-33

Background: Pottery

That Jeremiah should use the images of and knowledge about the potter, as a way of describing Israel’s relationship with YHWH should not surprise us. This means of storage, cooking, and later decoration was the bedrock of civilization and it is the means by which we can identify peoples and tribes, in their distinctive potteries. The creation story itself relies on the notion of the potter as well, as Adam is formed from the earth and given the breath of life.

In the Fertile Crescent, human beings were making pottery from ca. 7,000 BCE on. We can see its earliest manifestation at the Hassuna site (a tell near ancient Nineveh) where archaeologists have found a slab-built pottery that was undecorated and not glazed using a low fire and reddish clays. In the next 1,000 years, the potter would become more complex in terms of clay composition, building techniques, and decoration. The potter’s wheel first appears sometime around 4,000 BCE (although some argue an earlier date). This devise revolutionized pottery production allowing for greater productivity and a variety of styles that could easily be replicated. The introduction of the kiln, and clays that allowed for a higher firing temperature also expanded the production of pottery.

Track One:

First Reading: Jeremiah 18:1-11

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: "Come, go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words." So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

Often the prophet uses the stuff of daily life, names, incidents, professions, and materials, to illustrate the divine point to be made.  What Jeremiah observes in the potter’s work is the infinite possibility that the clay represents. Israel, the clay, thus is a product of the potter’s (God’s) will. Once God’s sovereignty is understood, then a series of “If” “then” statements show what God promises to do.

If I will pluck up and break down
If I declare that I will build and plant (a nation).
If that nation turns from its evil
If it does evil in my sight
Then I will repent of the evil I intended.
Then I will change my mind about the good I had intended.

Thus the broad scope of both God and Israel’s options are displayed and discussed. It is not only Israel that the potter shapes, but its destiny and the consequences of its actions as well.

Breaking open Jeremiah:
1.     In what ways has God formed you?
2.     Who are the others who have formed you as well?
3.    How do you form yourself?

Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 Domine, probasti

     Lord, you have searched me out and known me; *
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
2      You trace my journeys and my resting-places *
and are acquainted with all my ways.
3      Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, *
but you, O Lord, know it altogether.
4      You press upon me behind and before *
and lay your hand upon me.
5      Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; *
it is so high that I cannot attain to it.
12    For you yourself created my inmost parts; *
you knit me together in my mother's womb.
13    I will thank you because I am marvelously made; *
your works are wonderful, and I know it well.
14    My body was not hidden from you, *
while I was being made in secret
and woven in the depths of the earth.
15    Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb;
all of them were written in your book; *
they were fashioned day by day,
when as yet there was none of them.
16    How deep I find your thoughts, O God! *
how great is the sum of them!
17    If I were to count them, they would be more in number than the sand; *
to count them all, my life span would need to be like yours.

The intimacy of God’s knowledge of us Jeremiah demonstrates in the potter’s knowledge of the clay. It is a similar intimacy to that which refers to in his call as a prophet. Thus the psalmist has knowledge of God’s knowledge – a knowing of what God has perceived in the psalmist’s life. If we were to have an inkling of what it is that God knows about us – what would we learn and know? The wonder and awe that comes upon the created when there is an insight into the Creator. Thus we experience his reverie at knowing both God and self.

Breaking open Psalm 139:

1.        What does God know about you?
2.        What do you know about yourself?
3.        What might you change?


Track Two:

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Moses said to all Israel the words, which the Lord commanded him, "See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 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. 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. 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."

The author wants the reader/hearer to understand the complexities of the contrasts that form the relationship and covenant with God. He greets Israel with the first of them, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” There will be more such as “good” and “evil”, “blessings” and “curses”, “prosperity” and “adversity”. In short, Israel is given the opportunity to choose a place in the whole spectrum of a relationship with YHWH.  In a sense, the people are a new Adam and Eve facing the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” Rather than being expelled from the Garden, they are being invited into the Garden, the Land Flowing with Milk and Honey. There are witnesses to the nation’s choice – the heavens and the earth, in other words the whole of Creation observes what Israel will choose. The final advise of Moses is to “choose life”. The whole Judeo-Christian enterprise is an exploration of that choice.

Breaking open Deuteronomy:
1.     What choices does life offer you?
2.     Do you have any regrets?
3.    What do you hope to choose?

Psalm 1 Beatus vir qui non abiit

     Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, *
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!
2      Their delight is in the law of the Lord, *
and they meditate on his law day and night.
3      They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; *
everything they do shall prosper.
4      It is not so with the wicked; *
they are like chaff which the wind blows away.
5      Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes, *
nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.
6      For the Lord knows the way of the righteous, *
but the way of the wicked is doomed.

If Moses has given the people a sense of choice, then the psalmist celebrates the choice that the righteous have made. There is a contrast here as well; the choices that the evil have made – and the consequences of both of these choices are examined. This is a wisdom psalm, and aside from our theological understandings of this text, we can see here the common understanding of life that was common in the Ancient Near East – it pays to be good. There is a multiplicity of images that held the hearer to understand the choice: trees planted by water, chaff, walking on the journey, attending to or standing within a group. The intimacy of the last verse is just that. The knowledge that God has of the righteous is like the “knowledge” that sexual partners share – the intimacy is that deep.

Breaking open Psalm 1:
1.     With whom do you keep company?
2.     Whom might you better avoid?
3.    What influence do you have on others?

The Second Reading: Philemon 1-21

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love-- and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother-- especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

In Philemon we enter a very difficult social construct. If we believe that we have removed ourselves from understandings and remedies to slavery, then we haven’t read our newspapers, or listened to the political discourse in this country. We need to wonder what Paul’s purpose is here – to keep the status quo, or to indicate a kind of change that is necessary amongst Christians. The question of slavery was not an item of discussion for either Romans or Greeks – it was a settled issue that had the bulk of Roman and common law supporting its conclusions. Nor is the issue distinctly Gentile in nature. Israel allowed for slavery as well.

In the situation at hand – a slave is commended to the master from whom he has escaped (?) been released (?). Paul’s purpose is to know what is the right thing to do. He bases his recommendations on the relationship that he has with Philemon, calling him a “partner” (the same term that he uses for Titus). What he proposes is that Philemon take back his slave Onesimus, and not just take back, but to “welcome him as you would welcome me.” That seems terribly direct and unequivocal. It is clearly Paul’s expectation that his directive be followed so that his heart might be refreshed in Christ.

Breaking open Philemon:
  1. Have you witnessed slavery?
  2. Have you ever taken back a friend that harmed you?
  3. What are your thoughts on what Philemon should do?

The Gospel: Saint Luke 14:25-33

Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, "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. 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? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' 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? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."

When we last heard from Jesus he was making radical recommendations about whom we might entertain at dinner. Now he moves even farther in his radicalism. Dietrich Bonhöffer posed the question as he explored “the cost of discipleship” and that is exactly Jesus’ approach here. The costs are painted in bold terms, “hate father and mother, wife and children”, “have life itself”, “carry the cross”, and “give up all your possessions.” It all seems impossibly clear. There is, I think, a zen to all of this. As Meister Eckhart said, ““Only the hand that erases can write the true thing.” Jesus is asking for a clean tablet of experience so that we might be disciples and to follow. Time after time it is noted that they left all and followed him. Such costs are difficult to discuss in a time when Christianity in its various forms is the norm, rather than the departure.  Perhaps we need to make it the departure.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What have you given up in life for the sake of your faith?
2.     What have you taken on?
3.    What is a cross for you?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller


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