The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, 8 September 2019

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

Track Two:
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1

Philemon 1-21
St. Luke 14:25-33

Background: Pottery during Jeremiah’s time

The pottery that was made during the United Monarchy (1000-586 BCE) saw improvements and refinements, using a red slip that was smoothed and burnished by hand. The pottery of the northern kingdom disappeared with the Assyrian assault and is not discussed here. Judean pottery, however was notably different and became more and more refined, especially through the use of a wheel burnish.  The slip (red or orange) was applied while the pot was still on the wheel, and then was burnished  by hand or using smoothing tools.

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.

Here Jeremiah uses an image that would be recognized by anyone at that time. Pottery was common to any household, and potters would have been seen in any city or town. The image and the application that Jeremiah makes of it would have been recognized from the Yom Kippur liturgy where this poem, piyut, would have been sung.

Like the clay in the hand of the potter
He expands it at will and contracts it at will
So are we in Your hand, O Preserver of kindness.
Look to the covenant and ignore the Accuser.

So God is seen as the potter, reminiscent of his forming of Adam from the clay of the earth at creation. What God is fashioning here, however, is judgment, and the implied command is that we as potters ourselves fashion (literally ‘throw a pot’) a new pot of faithfulness to God. Verse nine is interesting in that it repeats a theme from the call of Jeremiah, where God asks him to  To uproot and to tear down,
to destroy and to demolish, to build and to plant.” The difference here is that God is the actor – the one building and planting.” The choice is up to Israel. It can either choose faithfulness or other gods. God will fashion the appropriate response.

Breaking open Jeremiah:
1.     Who has formed your life?
2.     How have you reshaped mistakes?
3.     How is God a potter for you?

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 introspection of this psalm is probably only matched by the same thoughts on being the product of he Creator’s hand in Job 10. These are beautiful words, and it is unfortunate that the lectionary eliminates verses six through eleven. There is enough, however, to capture the sentiment of the psalm. Here is a reflection on God’s knowledge of us, similar that which Jeremiah expresses in his call, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.*” The image of the potter (from the first reading) can also be seen in verse four, You press upon me behind and before and lay your hand upon me.” The English here betrays what the psalmist may have intended, namely the shaping of the pot by the potter’s hand. The laying on of a hand is the potter’s hand fashioning the vessel on the wheel.

There is a parallelism in verse twelve with the “inmost parts” (the kidneys, in Hebrew) illustrated along side the mother’s “womb”. That theme is continued in verse fourteen, “while I was being made in secret.” The comparison of the womb with the “the depths of the earth” would have been a common comparison at the time – see especially the myth of Persephone, and the cycle of winter/spring.  The psalmist expresses wonder at his own individuality, being “wonderously made.” The reverie is closed with the psalmist wondering at God’s knowledge not only of his being, but of his days and acts as well.

Breaking open Psalm 139:
1.     Who in your life knows you best?
2.     With whom do you share the secrets of your life?
3.     How are you supported in your life?


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 theLord 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 opening line, “See, I have set before you,” is completed with covenantal language, “life and prosperity, death and adversity,” in other words the blessings and curses of a covenantal ceremony.  Indeed, in verse nineteen the heavens and earth are called to witness the agreement. Moses calls upon Israel to make a choice, between life and death, between a blessing and a curse.

Breaking open Deuteronomy:
1.     In what ways have you chosen life?
2.     Where is death in the choices you have made?
3.     What blessings and curses have you experienced?

Psalm 1 Beatus vir qui non abiit

1      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!

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.

The choice that Moses asks Israel to make, namely between life and death, is reflected here in the psalm. The examples are the peoples who have chosen life, and the Law of the Lord.  This is a fine example of a Wisdom poem. As such it is devoted not to any national understanding of how society ought to form itself and behave, but rather a more universal understanding, common in the ancient near east, as to how to live. None-the-less, the Law of the Lord still is a focal point.  The trees are planted by water, and they flourish with that relationship. This was crucial for trees planted in an arid climate. They were dependent upon being near water.

In verse four we are shown the example of the wicked, compared to chaff, the dry leavings of the wheat harvest. The knowledge that God has of the righteous, it is intimate. The verb “to know” should be taken with the knowledge of its sexual implication – an exaggeration of God’s depth of knowing.

Breaking open Psalm 1:
1.     What are examples of righteousness from your life?
2.     How about wickedness?
3.     What is the water that nourishes you?

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.

We have left Hebrews and with the lectio continua that is evident in the second readings during Ordinary Time, we now have a brief encounter with Paul and Philemon. The opening line, where Paul describes himself as a “prisoner of Christ Jesus” is unusual and may give us a clue to the theme of the letter – being a prisoner, and being a slave. Paul recognizes the difficulty of the conversation that he is beginning here. He characterizes himself as “bold”, and tempers his courage with what he sees as the wisdom of an elder. The emotional aspect of this request is further enhanced when Paul describes Onesimus as “my own heart.” The Greek word he uses is splanchna a word associated with the bowels and emotions.

Paul is caught on the horns of a dilemma. Deuteronomy 23:16 advises against sending back slaves “who have taken refuge with you.” Roman law saw no such advantage but demanded that slaves be returned. Paul seems to have opted for the latter. So he presumably leaves the decision up to Philemon, for Paul continues to express his need for Onesimus.

Breaking open Philemon:
1.     What moral dilemmas are you facing in your life?
2.     What might the Bible have to say about them?
3.     What might our culture have to say?

The Gospel: St. 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."

To regain your momentum in these difficult texts of Jesus, you may want to review Luke 12:54 – 13:9 (Proper 15C). Comments about needing to see the times for what they are, and the need for discernment, now give way to what the true cost is when following Jesus. The clear idea is one of detachment. It is Jesus’ typical ploy to upend social expectations and to rethink relationships. Thus what must be given up are dear things in our minds, parents, children, spouses, siblings, and life itself. This is not a mere turning away from such relationships – the word hate is used here. What is, then, the desirable relationship, the one worth having. It is having a part in the Kingdom of God. All other relationships then fall into line following that choice.

So we must ask ourselves, why this one community (the Kingdom) rather than the other community (the household)? We have to remember what the household really represented in the culture of Jesus’ time – perhaps in our own time as well. As the rich understand, the household – the family represent the effort to increase wealth and possessions. Just watch an hour of television commercials and you will understand this as a fundamental principle in our society. Jesus and Luke do not see this as life. Life in the kingdom is something entirely different. Jesus uses two examples to illustrate the cost of things – building a tower, and going to war. There is a cost involved, and if you cannot afford it – perhaps it is a thing not to be pursued. So what is the cost of our commitment as Christians?

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     What is your charitable giving like?
2.     What do you give to your church?
3.     What do you understand about Jesus’ demand?

General Idea;          On being a pilgrim – or Where are we going?

1st Indication:          Moving toward salvation in spite of our unfaithfulness (Track One - First Reading)

                                      Journeying toward the promise (Track Two – First Reading)

2nd Indication:          Walking with the Saints (Second Reading)

3rd Indication:          Walking without fear, knowing what’s about us. (Gospel)

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 forever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2019, Michael T. Hiller


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