A reflection on the readings for Proper 18 C By The Rev. Jacqueline Schmitt
What a powerful combination of texts we have for this week:
• Jeremiah at the potter’s house, seeing the vessel in the potter’s hand smashed at its very making, in order that something else can be made.
• Jesus, harsh and serious, ripping disciples away from every tie that binds, other than following him; describing the building of the kingdom as something that requires sustained, disciplined and ruthless planning and execution.
The two metaphors come together in Jesus’ illustrations of what it takes to bring about the reign of God. The king, who wishes to wage war, evaluates the situation and pulls back – even negotiates a peace treaty – with an enemy which he cannot defeat. A tower cannot stand unless it is built on a firm and careful foundation. Like the potter who smashes the imperfect vessel – regret and remorse seem not to be part of the equation – God is altogether willing to bring down inadequate responses to the divine will in order that something new can come into being.
I am in the middle of my sermon preparation, and will just share some thoughts. I am not yet sure where to go with them all yet. For the past few weeks, I have been drawn to Walter Brueggemann’s work on Jeremiah. What took me there was the challenge of the first of these readings, two weeks ago – that God will pluck up and pull down, destroy and overthrow – and only then build and plant (!!) – how possibly to preach on this to a little down-and-outer congregation??
It helps to re-read Brueggemann now. It helps for him to categorize Jeremiah as (1) affirming the old Sinai covenant between God and the people, the covenant which the people of Judah have not followed; (2) articulating with powerful poetry the deep pathos of God – God who does not want just to curse and punish the people for their transgressions but yearns to stay in relationship with these people, yearns for so much more for them and with them; and (3) pronouncing a devastating critique on the temple-priestly establishment that thought they were above the judgment of God, that God’s favor was secure in them and their way of life. The new imagination which Jeremiah brings forth – even from that very first chapter, the snippet of the prophet’s call which we read in church – is that God has something entirely new in store for us. We can know that the new is coming even while we are still living under that establishment theology, that empire, that domination system that will only bring death, because it is so far from the covenant life of justice and mercy that God intends. We can know the new is coming only in our imaginations, only in our hearts, because not even Jeremiah the prophet was predicting or planning what that new covenant would exactly be.
All of us in “the mainline church” are facing a crossroads of judgment on our institutional life. In some places, like my little church, the crisis of unsustainability is here. Other churches have enough money or people to keep going as they are. Others have, blessedly, begun to take the leap into the imaginative new.
My husband preached on these propers (the BCP version) in 1995, part of a sermon to a little suburban congregation that was about to call a new vicar and embark on some ambitious plans to re-start and re-imagine who they would be as a congregation, in hopes to soon become self-sustaining and off diocesan support.
There are times in our lives when heroic and self-sacrificing decisions have a wonderful appeal. These times are moments of insight, are points of encounter with the Holy, are answers to prayer or are answers to searching for meaning in life which is to say again are answers to prayer, ours or someone else’s These are times when we are at our best and the same time at our worst These are times when we glory in discovering a truth and being true to that discovery, hang the consequences, the zeal of the convert, the newly saved, the newly convicted. Think about it; doesn't scripture support that position this morning?
Jesus says... and you quote scripture...sometimes out of context. Jesus says, renounce. The trouble with Christ here is that he is arrogant; with him there are no other loyalties. Family, Business, Nation, Self and all these considerations are important to any healthy person with a sense of self and an ounce of self-respect.
But look at Jesus own life and you begin to question: his family turned away, his nation rejected him, his friends fell away to one and then none! SO are we ready for this? Is this the kind of example we wish to follow? This is our leader, Our Lord, and he is not controlled or owned by nation of national self-interest, or by prayer in school or the right to life issue or by the Episcopal Church or the Roman Catholic Church or any other church. This is our leader and he is a real radical, he even requires us to renounce the self-satisfaction and tyranny of knowing that we have discovered the truth, that we are saved.
The church in question worked hard for a few years, and then it closed. That may be a fate facing many of our congregations. How can Jeremiah’s interpretations of the events which led to the destruction of the temple and the exile in Babylon help us discern the signs of our times, of what God is subverting and destroying? How can we find the peace of mind to allow God’s imagination to work in us, so we can see what new thing may be emerging?