Being shaped by the Potter
A Sermon for Sixteenth Pentecost, Year C
A few times during my life serving as a priest I have been asked, "How much does it cost to be baptized." Usually, it is well meaning and earnest new parents who ask me this. They want their child baptized and they know that every other aspect of being a parent costs something: childcare, vaccinations, diapers, car seats, and strollers. So they ask, "What will it cost us for our beloved child to be baptized? We are ready pay the price!" I usually surprise them when I say, "Nothing. The sacraments of the church are a gift from God, gifts are free . . However, it will cost your child the rest of her life."
Usually, I see a flicker of confusion and primal protectiveness flash over their faces. "Free? Nothing is free? Is this priest for real? And what does she mean about our child's life? Is she asking for our first born? She cannot have her!"
You see, the sacraments, the holy gifts for God's holy people, are available to everyone.
Baptism — Free. Communion — Free. Marriage — Free. Confession and Forgiveness — Free. Funerals — Free.
And . . at the same time, when we participate in the sacraments of the church we turn our whole lives over to God. All of these sacraments require that we be willing to give everything away so that God can possess us completely. Over the centuries, we have tamed these church rituals a bit. We have them with cake and pretty gowns and parties full of small talk — but the fact remains that we promise to turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as our Savior. We put our whole trust in his grace and love. And we promise to follow and obey him as your Lord.
I don't know about you, but that is a contract that you might need to think about before you click "Accept" or "sign on the dotted line." Living out the promises we make when we receive God's gifts may not cost us anything but it ultimately costs us everything. I know, what a paradox!
I think this is what Jesus was getting at when he startled the large crowd who had begun to follow him. Jesus was getting very popular. In Facebook terms, Jesus had a lot of likes, his twitter account was blowing up, he had more friends than anyone else . . but he also knew that they were not going to keep following him all the way to Jerusalem, to the cross and the tomb. These were good—time friends who wanted an invite to the party, but never stayed to clean up afterwards. So, Jesus decided to shake things up a bit.
"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."
Can you just imagine the shock on everyone's' face? "What did he just say? I think I may have heard him wrong. Everyone knows you are supposed to honor your mother and father, it's in the ten commandments!" And so they kept on listening.
"Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple."
Things are getting even crazier. Everyone believed that Jesus would save them from the oppression of the Romans. But now, he says we have to carry the instrument of death and torture of the Roman empire in order to follow him and be a disciple?
Jesus has everyone's attention now. Apparently, the cost of following him is breaking one of the ten commandments and carrying around our most feared death. At this point we are waiting for Jesus to back off or say he is joking, but he doesn't do that. Jesus is speaking in hyperbole. He knows that not everyone will have to hate their family members, but should it come to that kind of choice — you better choose Jesus over Mom and Dad. He continues to say shocking things about the cost of discipleship, comparing it to building a tower or waging war. Following Jesus is both a free gift of grace AND it will cost you all of your possessions. Faith in Jesus heals us AND it asks us to abandon our father in a boat at the Galilean shore. We are baptized into the life of resurrection AND we have to be willing to die so God can resurrect us.
Our pathway of discipleship is a paradox of finding perfect freedom only because we are enslaved to Christ. Looking from the outside, this makes no sense. Our human pride and individual identity recoils from the idea that we would submit ourselves to the will of another. And yet, if you have been on the inside of God's embrace, it is that very raw dependence and stark awareness that we owe our whole existence to the God who created us and cares for us — that empowers us and sets us free.
Go down to the potter's house with Jeremiah and learn what the artist already knows. Each time the clay is shaped and molded into a vessel full of purpose and unique identity, it can just as easily get an air bubble in the wall of the clay and the potter will smash down the pot, kneading and working out the flaws as the pot becomes a lump once more. This process is very effective, the potter can shape a new pot again and again . . as long as the old pot continues to see the letting go as a worthwhile loss.
Sometimes, life doesn't give us any choice about the cost of our discipleship. Sometimes, our clay is smashed down into a pitiful lump right before our eyes when we lose a job, a spouse, a parent, a child. Sometimes, our own fragile frame is assaulted with disease or brokenness and we are helpless to transform ourselves. This is when we most need the potter to work on us. This is the moment that the cost of our discipleship and the gift of our resurrection come together in the tremendous work of God's love, molding and shaping us into a new vessel.
In your lives, most of you, if not all of you, have experienced the work of the potter asking you to put your whole life into God's hands so that you can be remade. Right now, Ralph Thrash is asking the potter to mold and shape his ankle back into wholeness and health after a freak accident on his bicycle this week. He started out to bike to the gym, a well—worn path, and ended up in an medivac helicopter headed for shock trauma. His vessel was broken and the potter has been working hard these last few days. Eric Percy, who suffered a heart attack in July wrote on Facebook this weekend, "Well, it has been now two months since I woke up in the Heart ICU at York Hospital. I am still unpacking surviving a major heart attack before I turned 50. I have come a long way . . and know I still have a long way to go on this path to recovery. I know each day is special, even more so each morning. I am thankful for all the continue support and love from my family and friends. I am especially thankful for Helen who has literally walked with me on this journey." A side—note here, I live across the street from the Percy's and so while I'm walking the dogs at 6am, I cross paths with Helen walking Eric . . no leash, though. He continues to write, "We will have many more hills to conquer together. Tonight kicks off the marching band season in earnest for Stephen. For me, it will be a night that I play a very different role that I have in the past. Something new in a changed life."
Eric is being reshaped on the potter's wheel. Something new in a changed life. He is being made into a new vessel — I think God started with his heart. We are all being resurrected like this, IF we are willing to give our whole selves over into God's love and care. If we are willing pay the cost of discipleship, God gives us our life back made new in Christ. Amen.
—The Rev. Adrien Dawson
September 4, 2016