Proper 18C, 2019

Jeremiah 18:1-11

Luke 14:25-33

The Rev. Dr. Kathy Kelly

Grace, Radford


The other day I was cooking and I broke one of my favorite dishes. It was a Blue Willow bowl.  I was upset. But that was silly. It isn’t very expensive to replace and I have several others like it. So, I adjusted my attitude and swept up the broken pieces. But I stopped myself, or maybe the Holy Spirit stopped me, just before throwing it in the trash can. Instead, I cleaned and dried the pieces and put them away in a box with another broken plate from another china set which I had set away hoping to possibly mend.  I think I will start a collection of such broken pieces and when I’ve collected enough, I’ll make a mosaic for a table top or garden ornament or something like that. And somehow just hanging on to those broken pieces caused me to feel whole.

I had the rare privilege to sit in a pew Friday night while I enjoyed (our Music Director) Mason’s (Gottschalk) piano concert. I also got to linger at the reception, which is different from my usual running around on Sunday mornings. And, I noticed a couple of things about our buildings, some details that often are not noticed. One was that, from a certain angle and lighting, I could see scratches on the hardwood floors in the parish hall. The other was a couple of places where there are burn marks on the backs of the pews in the sanctuary.

Now, you might think I would criticize or call the Jr. Warden or form a committee to investigate repair options. But, no, I instead delighted in these minor flaws. The normal wear and tear on the parish hall floor reminded me of all the many happy moments at coffee hours and receptions and Bible studies and prayer groups that have gone on in this place for over a hundred years. I imagined the years of laughter, joy, running children, embracing the bereaved, deep thinking and deep prayer that has gone on in these two rooms through those years. The burn marks made me laugh too at the thought of someone, perhaps a youth, accidentally leaning too close to the pew in front with an individual candle at a Christmas Eve or some other candlelight service. I imagined a fluster of activity and blowing out of candles in fear of destroying with fire the pew in front of you.

These are scars. They may be minor and easily overlooked, but like the scars on our bodies they indicate a memory of good times and bad times, happy Christmases of yore or the sadness of funerals or the many struggles this parish has endured for nearly 130 years, before any of us was here. (Even Bette Wright!)

And this made me think of the brokenness of the human condition.

We long for perfection, we long for everything to go right all the time, we long for our vision of what we should be or what this parish should be. We long for things to settle on the good times, for happiness to set in and stay there. But we know that’s impossible and we inevitably are disappointed, hurt, angry, and grieve over the losses along the way. I’m talking about what happens in life to every person, to every family, to every organization, and to every church.

We are scared.

We are broken.

And we need each other.

And we need Jesus.

In our reading from Jeremiah today we hear the lovely story of when the prophet was led by the Lord to the potter’s house where he saw the potter working on a pot. As usually happens on pottery wheels, the pot didn’t turn out right, it spoiled. So the potter threw the clay back into a ball and got more water and started over and formed the pot in a better way.

This is a metaphor for God fixing us. It is also a metaphor for repentance. The Lord says to the people through Jeremiah, “Turn now, all of you from your evil ways, and amend your ways and your doings.” To turn around is the basic definition of the word repent. The Lord is calling for repentance.

But we don’t like that part about God planning evil against God’s people and we especially don’t like that part about God changing God’s mind. So let me clear that up for you.

What gets lost in translation here is the context of that repentance stuff. The Lord is saying to Jeremiah, and to the people of Israel through Jeremiah, that God will meet us there, God will meet us at that turning around place. God is saying, “Repent, turn around and I will turn around too.” God will repent too. This is not suggesting that God is not omnipotent, that God sins, or that God wants evil to come to us. Rather, this is the Lord seeking for the people of God to turn and come back to the Creator. And God will turn too and meet us there. God will meet us wherever we turn, whenever we repent.

Just like slipping up with that bowl the other day, I am broken too.  We are all broken. We are fallible. We are all human and we make mistakes and we do the best we can and we struggle to make ends meet, and we struggle to get along, and we struggle to understand each other, to forgive each other.

And we struggle to love our neighbors.

Life is difficult.

But. As Christians we enjoy the benefit of repentance. We can always turn things around. There is always help from a brother or sister in Christ. God always meets us there. God always meets us where we turn. God always meets us where we forgive and love each other.

In this story from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is asking his disciples to consider the long term commitment of becoming a Christian. He cautions against these enthusiastic newcomers who erroneously think they are joining a parade to freedom without the cross. And we don’t like some of what Jesus says here any more than we like Yahweh telling Jeremiah that God plans evil against us. Jesus tells his followers to hate! Hate your family. Hate your self. Hate your life.

Jesus turns to the large crowds following him and proclaims, “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”

No one considers hate a fruit of the Spirit. Hate is usually viewed as the antithesis of love. Hate is bad, right?

The key to understanding this teaching is the word, hate however. This is the ancient Jewish way of expressing detachment, of turning away from bad things.

To hate something or someone meant to turn away from that thing or person or behavior. It was about turning away from temptation and sin. It was not about degrading that person or destroying that thing.

The use of this word in the time this story took place is not that of the emotion-filled word we experience in the scream, “I hate you!” Were that the case, this lesson would shatter all the biblical calls to love, to understand, to forgive, to care for others, especially one’s own family. Hating one’s own life is not a call to self-loathing, to throw one’s self across the doorway and beg the world to trample on it as though it were a doormat. Rather, what Jesus is calling for is that those who follow him understand that loyalty to him can and will create tensions within the self and between oneself and those one loves. And in such a conflict of loyalties, Jesus requires primary allegiance. (Fred Craddock)

We are not called to fix each other, we are called to love each other, we are called to follow Jesus. And following Jesus means living into our brokenness, just as he was broken on the cross.

I can’t wrap up this sermon with talking about the cost of discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century who was murdered by the Nazis in 1949, wrote about the cost of discipleship just a few years before he died. Bonhoeffer said that discipleship has been lost by the church. He taught this through the distinction between what he called “cheap" grace and "costly" grace.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus.

Cheap grace, according to Bonhoeffer, is to hear the gospel preached as follows: "Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness." In other words, we are once-and-done forgiven so we don’t have to change and keep on changing.

Costly grace, on the other hand, confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus. It comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels (us) to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him. It is grace because Jesus says: "My yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:28-30)

So, God called Jeremiah to remind the Israelites that repentance is not a once and done thing, that we must always be willing to turn again to the God who meets us in that messy place of brokenness. And Jesus tells us through this lesson the same thing. If we call our selves Christians then we have to realize we are following him to the cross. His body is broken. We are broken. And only through constant prayer and forgiveness can we even begin to pursue a path of healing.

Nearly two years ago, as we were preparing to join in mutual ministry with your call for me as your pastor, I wrote my first Rector’s Corner blog in our Grace Notes e-newsletter. With today’s readings in mind, I want to share that essay with you again today. It went like this:

There is an old story about a novice monk whose chore was to carry water. Each day he would place a large pot on each end of a pole and carry both pots with the pole across his shoulders.  The water source was at the bottom of a long hill.  After filling these earthen vessels, he would slowly walk back up the path to where he would fill the cistern.

But there was a crack in one of the pots.  Each morning, when he finally reached the summit this pot would be nearly empty and he would have to return to the bottom of the hill for more water.  In fact this caused him to have to work twice as much to complete his chores.

He complained to the abbot and asked for the broken pot to be replaced. The abbot denied his request arguing this was not good stewardship.  The novice argued the extra work kept him from more time praying.  The abbot argued that the work was also good for him.

In the end, the novice obeyed and returned to his routine.

As the seasons changed and Spring came to the monastery, many beautiful flowers grew along the path on one side. There had been no flowers here before. The extra time spent carrying water in a broken vessel had brought beauty to the path because the water that dripped all along the path as he carried it nurtured an unseen need.  This delighted both the novice and the abbot.

This story reminds me that at times our brokenness carries out the beauty of the Kingdom of God in surprising ways.

We are all broken in some way and long for God to fill those broken places.  But this is not the best way to seek the Kingdom because the Kingdom is more about community than our individual wounds.

As we begin a new era together in this part of the Kingdom, let’s remember to allow our brokenness to act as a window for the love of Christ. Let us share the work, share the healing and share in our delight of God’s creation and action in the world. I believe that if we open ourselves in this way, both as individuals and as the community that is Grace Church, that we will grow anew into a surprising beauty like that of the flowers on one side of the monk’s path. (Grace Notes, March 2018)

Friends, we are still on that journey. And we are still broken. And while we do receive healing in our faith all along the path to Christ, we will always carry with us some amount of brokenness. Let’s never forget the cost of discipleship, the imperative to turn, turn, turn, always turning back to the God who meets us there.