Thoughts on Luke 14:25-33
2010-09-03 by Laurie McKnight
Jesus is talking about who CANNOT become his disciple. Aren’t we more familiar with religious (and other) movements where there is a constant membership drive? I belong to service organizations, to women’s groups, to sisterhoods, to cultural groups – and always one topic on every meeting agenda is: How can we get more members? In fact, often we tend to relax the “membership requirements” – oh, you don’t have to attend every meeting; you just come when you can. Oh, if you don’t have time to participate in a service project, that’s OK – just be sure to send in your dues. And if you know of anyone else who would be good for our membership, please let us know…. Even our church nominating committees are beginning to operate in this way. Jesus does not seem to have this concern about getting more “members” – more people – to follow him. Jesus seems to want to do the opposite in this pericope – not recruit more members, but make sure that those who follow him are truly following HIM – are truly on The Way – have made a commitment that will last through the weekend, that will last beyond the first doubt and the first persecution – and the next, and the next, and the next….
Jesus is being followed by crowds everywhere he goes, but all the people in those crowds are not his followers. Many are curious bystanders, onlookers, those wait-and-see kinds of people. Jesus is the most exciting thing to have come along in quite awhile – stories about him will circulate for days, weeks, months, even years (if only they knew!) – people will be talking about him for quite awhile. But for now, people are watching; not many are disciples. And that’s OK with Jesus. He is throwing up roadblocks, being radical again (he does that so well), giving a list of shalt’s and shalt-not’s to become one of his true followers. First, you have to hate your family. You have to leave them and maybe never see them again. Second, you have to carry a cross, a burden, when you walk with me. Third, you have to give up all your possessions; you have to get rid of everything you own. Still want to be a part of this party? Following me, Jesus says, is like building a complicated, expensive structure. Following me, Jesus says, is like going into a war you are sure to lose. Still want to come?
Maybe Jesus was not that callous and blunt when talking to the crowds. Maybe. But the idea of laying everything aside and following only Jesus is the goal. It’s a difficult choice; it’s a costly choice – which is why so many bibles call this section “The Cost of Discipleship.” It’s costly to walk with Jesus. Even today, in the 21st century, being faithful will cost some of us relationships with family and friends. It will cause us discomfort as we consider environmental and fiscal stewardship – trying to live green and not follow polluting, wasteful, consumerist trends, shopping at one store and not another, choosing where and how we spend our money. Following Jesus may cause us to rebel against our government’s policies and the powers that be. We may alienate ourselves from the world. It’s not easy, this following Jesus. It’s easy to say it’s rewarding. It’s easy to talk about the benefits of discipleship instead of the costs. But what do we feel?
I think we often feel lost in our lives today, which is why we pursue membership in all those other organizations. I think we sometimes feel out of sorts with our earthly family (and friends) and there comes a point when we ask, Is that all there is? The answer is No. Jesus is all there is. Jesus is all we need. God loved us so much that Jesus was sent to live among us and to die for us and our sins that we might live more abundantly and experience life eternal. Jesus invites us repeatedly to follow him, to experience God’s love, and to give that love away as we form a new family with all believers, an ongoing and ever-growing family, and as we act as the arms and legs, the hands and feet of God in the world, bringing the Kingdom to earth right here and right now. What other choice do we have but to follow Jesus? What other decision can we make? No turning back. No turning back.
Thoughts on Philemon 1-21
2010-09-02 by Laurie McKnight
This is a brief letter from the Apostle Paul to a friend and former slave owner, about his former slave, who is a new Christian and indeed, a brother in Christ to Paul. Images of usefulness crowd my mind (how are we useful to one another and to the kingdom?) – and what does it mean when one person works for another? Does one own the other? Is payment fair for the jobs performed? What is the nature of the employer-employee relationship?
Paul talks about commanding – versus requesting out of love. Paul bases his request, and also his advice, on the love he feels for both former slave owner and former slave. Paul advocates the brotherly relationship between the three men involved (himself included), and says he will pay reparations if any are needed. Paul is confident that Philemon, the former slave owner, will do the right thing by welcoming Onesimus, the former slave, back into his home. Paul is confident that Onesimus, the runaway slave, will return to his previous place of employment (his previous home) like the prodigal son, ready to be welcomed like a brother and a true friend in Christ. It’s a story about restored relationships. Paul is confident Philemon and Onesimus will do more than what he tells them to do. They will go "above and beyond."
My colleague and friend, Tim Haut (UCC pastor from Deep River, CT) has written this:“Among other things, this letter to Philemon is all about letting go, the ultimate task of our lives. It's about releasing the people we love into the care of others, and most of all, into the care of God, in the earnest hope that something will come back to us, that something will be there to fill the empty place. Ultimately the greatest letting go will be of life itself.” Can we let go of old lives – and new – and go to the place where we are loved and needed? Can we forgive when necessary? Can we receive/allow forgiveness when necessary? Can we allow a different persona to emerge in ourselves and others?
We don’t know how this story ends – if Onesimus goes back, and if Philemon welcomes him back. We don’t know if their relationships return to what they were, or if they are forged new. We don’t know if Paul ever sees these two again, so he can judge for himself the success of the forgiveness, the restoration, the relationship. We know the three of them, Christ-followers all, have now been united with all the saints – and there is the restored relationship we too can seek and we too will one day know.
Thoughts on Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
2010-09-01 by Laurie McKnight
I said earlier in the week that I was disappointed that the whole Psalm wasn’t included in the lectionary – well, at least the middle verses. I love those verses 7-12. Occasionally, I preach what is NOT in the lectionary – what’s excluded, and why it’s excluded. Aside from length, what do we lose when we truncate this psalm (or any scripture)? Maybe we don’t want to think or talk about going away from the Holy Spirit; maybe we shouldn’t be considering fleeing from the Lord, or hiding in darkness (literally or figuratively). So the bulk of this praise psalm addresses the omniscient God, who knows our thoughts, who knows the words on our tongue before we utter them, who has known us completely since before we were born. What a comfort. THIS is a God we can believe in; THIS is a God we can trust; THIS is a God we can praise – what else can we do but praise our wonderful creator who is with us until the end of our days – from before the beginning of our days right through the end? I quote from this psalm often in my pastoral prayer – especially if congregation members are reluctant to share prayer concerns. I remind them that God knows our worries before we give voice to them – God knows us inside and out – God knows our thoughts before we think them; God knows our feelings before we have them. God knows the names of those people we have refused to name aloud. God knows the names of children around the world who are nameless to us, but who are also all God’s children.
Also not included in the lectionary this week are verses 18-24 – where we talk about wickedness and hating our enemies. Perhaps the focus is just meant to be on the God who loves us and cares for us and hems us in – we have a place with THIS God – we are secure and we know where we stand. Perhaps we shouldn’t even have to think about our enemies or about the wickedness in the world. If we continue to look at God, to follow God, to seek nothing else but what has been provided by our loving creator, then the rest of the psalm – hiding from God and worrying about our enemies – is unnecessary. Sure, those verses are there to fall back on, should we need to, should we sin and separate ourselves from our amazing Lord.
And sin we do. Verses like this can be intimidating to those of us who are aware of our sinful natures and actions. Perhaps we lie in bed at night and replay a scene from our day in our head – and where do we picture God in the scene when we are acting at less than our bests – when we are not being our best selves, the people God designed us to be? It’s embarrassing – or it could be. It could be intimidating viewing God as our conscience (our Jiminy Cricket? Big Brother?) – it could be anxiety-provoking. But the good news remains: God knows us AND loves us, despite the all-encompassing knowledge the creator has of the creature. God will look for the wickedness within us and STILL lead us in the way everlasting. The psalmist knew this even before the Advent of Christ. Praise God! We are still with God to the end.
Thoughts on Jeremiah 18:1-11
2010-08-31 by Laurie McKnight
I am not a potter. My cousin’s husband, a family doctor, is a potter in his spare time. It relaxes him and feeds his artistic and creative side. Perhaps it’s more predictable than practicing medicine – more reliable? – and he can always get a “do-over” – he can always start again when he’s unhappy with how the pottery is developing. I know he takes pride in his work. All of the pieces that are made less well (most of which are destroyed and re-worked) inspire him to keep creating, until finally he is pleased with the result. He appreciates periodic success because he experiences frequent failure and disappointment.
Those well-acquainted with pottery-making know that the clay has to be wet and supple enough to work with. They know the clay must be in the center of the wheel – you must start out right or soon you will be starting over again. There is a “just right” mixture of sand and clay and water. There is the option to fire the pottery piece to give it a hard outer shell, to make it more durable and useful (but perhaps that also makes it more easily shattered?). Pottery pieces can be useful, or they can be decorative. What are we making? (Or who’s making us?) And for what purpose?
I love the little email legend about the 2 water jugs – it’s often attributed to Indian or Chinese culture – and each day the 2 pots are used to collect water from the river. On the way back to the village, 1 pot (which is cracked) leaks out much of its collected water, and this 1 pot feels badly about itself. But the owner of the pot notes that on the cracked pot’s side of the path, flowers are blooming, as they are watered by this pot every day. Even in our imperfections we can do God’s work. Perhaps our imperfections are what God intended. [search at http://www.google.com for broken+pot+water+flowers and you will find several tellings of the story.]
I also know the wonderful song, “Change My Heart, Oh God” by Eddie Espinosa, which holds the lyrics, “You are the potter; I am the clay – mold me and make me; this is what I pray.” [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CEtsHWFE6-w] There are so many appropriate images that meld with the idea of God as the potter and we, God’s creations – made from dust and water, made from clay. And we are tested (made perfect? or just hardened by the world?) by being fired. We are strengthened for the duties of life.
In the Jeremiah scripture – we read about the potter and the clay. We read that God may be happy in the creation of the people Israel, or that God may decide to break down and destroy. God may create evil to face us, to thwart us, to teach us. God may build us up or tear us down. God the potter may be satisfied or dissatisfied with the pottery we turn out to be. If we pursue evil ends, then God may send evil to meet us. We are to be the best, most useful pieces of pottery we can be. God designed and made us for just such a purpose, for just such a time as this.
Initial Thoughts on the Texts
2010-08-30 by Laurie McKnight
Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-6,13-18; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33 (Labor Day, 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Some interesting preaching choices this week. Some old familiar words that many of us have preached on many times before. Myself, this is already (only!) my 2nd time through the lectionary cycle, but even I want to say new things in a new way about a familiar passage. I know I am a different person than I was 3 years ago; I’m serving a different congregation than I was 3 years ago, and even if I weren’t, the people would be different in that congregation (internally and externally) after 3 years, themselves. So we look at the familiar again. AND we remember that it’s Labor Day weekend coming up. For some of us, that will mean that people are away and church will not be crowded. For others of us, that will mean that we need to focus on this American holiday and address it perhaps in song and in prayer (and maybe even in sermon). We’ll see. Let’s start with the Jeremiah passage.
The potter and the clay and God shaping us are wonderful images. We’ve heard those words of plucking up and breaking down before, too. The end of the passage devolves into evil, and a warning from God (through Jeremiah) to the people. Pollyanna that I am, I would probably stick with the potter and clay imagery, although choices and actions (or inactions) have their place as well. Not ruling out Jeremiah yet.
Wonderful wonderful psalm. What’s not to like? Well, maybe the fact that verses 7-12 are excluded, for they contain wonderful words too (“Where can I go from your spirit? You are there. Darkness is as light to you.”). This may be one I have my congregation read responsively, maybe even all of it. Especially based on the womb references that I used 2 weeks ago (August 22, 2010 – Jeremiah 1:5 and Psalm 71:6) – which pick up again here in Psalm 138:13. “Being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth” – how poetic! We know we are well-loved, and well-made. And at “the end” – we are still with God. What beautiful language; what inexpressible thoughts well expressed! Definitely pondering using this scripture reading.
Ah, Philemon! The shortest book of the bible, and not even all of it’s to be read (all but the last 4 verses are included!). For sentimental reasons (this is my dad’s favorite book), I might use this, but also because it’s a wonderful letter and congregations need to hear the story. It’s a little nugget, a little gem, and you can tell one whole complete story – not just a part of one. You can also educate them on pronunciations of some potentially difficult biblical names – I say Fie-LEE-mon and Oh-NEE-simus, but I’ve heard others pronounce them differently (PHILLY-mon and ONCE-simus). It’s up to you. This is a great story about accountability and responsibility and forgiveness and community and family relationships.
And Luke leaves us with these difficult sayings (more difficult sayings of Jesus). Hating our family members to follow Christ. Carrying the cross to follow Christ. Or even planning to go to war. Giving up all possessions. A real sense of difficulty. It’s a JOB, this being a Christian. We might even say it’s a BURDEN. Perhaps Jesus is trying to dissuade “fair-weather” followers…. Not loving Luke right at the moment, but have just finished reading Sara Miles’ book jesus freak, and she advocates that what you tend to want to stay away from is exactly where you need to go. So a-marinating I will go, to see if I am called to face up to this difficult message, when really I want to bask in the Psalm or go play in Philemon. We’ll see.
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