Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON
One of the deepest desires of our hearts is to “belong.” We want to feel accepted and affirmed for who we are. The good news is, God DOES accept and love us for who we are, and even better, created us for healthy community. God created Eve because it was not good for Adam to be alone. God’s chosen people in the Old Testament consist of the entire nation of Israel, not just one person. The Holy Spirit called us together as the church so that we would support, encourage, gently admonish, and pray for one another. We function at our best when we are in healthy, positive relationships with others, when we feel like we are integrated into this world.
The bad news is, if we don’t feel that sense of belonging in a positive way, we may express that community in unhealthy ways. Children and youth desperate to feel like they belong may feel pressured to try cigarettes, drugs or alcohol, premarital sex, or a variety of other harmful and possibly dangerous activities. Gangs and cults and militia groups often recruit the lonely, outcast, and “unloved” young people in our society, luring them with a promise of belonging. Adults, too, do desperate things as they scramble for that sense of belonging—we marry young or stay in a broken marriage because we’re afraid to be alone, we attain more and more material possessions in the hope that we will impress our friends and neighbors, we trade the hard but faithful path for a comfortable but unfulfilled life.
Our we’re on a mission from gods for this week focus on what it means to belong to God and be shaped by God, and to belong to a true community of Christian believers:
The lectionary picks and chooses verses from Psalm 139, but it is best read in its entirety. It is a striking affirmation of God’s love and care for each one of us. The psalmist repeats the word “know” or “knowledge” throughout the passage. God knows our thoughts, our behaviors, and our words. In other words, we are fully known by God. He knows the good and the bad, the joy and the sorrow, the faithful decisions we make as well as our transgressions. And He loves us.
In a world where our self-worth is so often based on what we achieve and what grades we get and how much money we make, this is both an affirmation and a challenge. It is affirming because it means that we don’t need to struggle and strive to earn God’s love. But...can we assert (and mean it!) that we are God’s sons and daughters, delicately knit together in our mother’s wombs? We belong to this loving God because He has claimed us and not because of anything we did to earn this “status.” Can we further affirm that Christ died for us because he loved us and that this, too, is a gift?
Our Jeremiah scripture is probably somewhat familiar. God is referred to as a potter in several places in the Bible (Genesis 2:7, Isaiah 29:16, Isaiah 64:8, Romans 9:20-24) as well as in our Jeremiah 18 passage. In these verses, the clay is considered flawed but the potter is reworking it to make a serviceable container. In the same way, God is reshaping the nation of Israel during the time of the exile. Although their sin distorts their shape (the spoiled clay), with God anything is possible (a useable vessel). But the people of Israel are expected to work with God to make this happen—to turn from their evil ways and follow God’s will. At the end of the passage, we find that they are not willing to do this.
My father, now that he is retired from his job as an art teacher, spends a great deal of time creating his own art. One of his great loves is pottery—anything from functional bowls and plates (and communion sets for his minister daughter) to colorful decorative pieces. However, it is not just his skill and determination that makes these beautiful pieces of art; the consistency of the clay makes a big difference. If the clay starter was mixed with too much water, it will slide around on the wheel; if there wasn’t enough moisture in the mixing process, the clay will crack. The clay has to be malleable and flexible enough to work with—in a sense, it has to “cooperate” with the potter. In our Jeremiah passage, we are reminded that while it is God who is the ultimate Creator, we must open our eyes, hearts, and souls to transformation and renewal. We must “cooperate” with God.
Our Luke passage speaks to how it is that we “cooperate” with God, and the costs involved with being a disciple of Christ. Here we are confronted with the hard truth that the Christian life isn’t a bed of roses. This isn’t a commitment to be entered into lightly. It’s about endurance. We don’t begin a building project without making sure we have enough money and boards and nails and whatever else we need. In the same way, Jesus doesn’t want us sprinting into the life of discipleship and then quitting because of a side cramp and shin splints. Then we become like the salt that has lost its taste—we bear the name “Christian,” but that is all the deeper our commitment goes.
We have all met people like this. When I worked at a Christian camp about ten years ago, one of my friends and co-counselors was a man named Mark. Mark had become a Christian the year before at an evangelism rally and was what we could call “on fire” for God. He was one of the most energetic people I had ever met. He was always memorizing verses upon verses of scripture, was an animated participant in our weekly Bible studies, and prayed so long at lunch time that I was sure the dinner bell would ring before he said “amen.” He was determined to share Christ with every single child at camp, and with some of us whom he didn’t think quite had the faith commitment God wanted us to have.
But halfway through the summer, he became so overwhelmed and disillusioned that he almost quit—not just his job at the camp, but Christianity altogether. We faced several obstacles one week in the middle of the summer—looking back, it appears that it was an attack of spiritual warfare. In an average week at camp, one or occasionally two children stood out as discipline problems. This particular week, over fifteen children (completely unrelated to each other) either ran off, physically harmed their counselors, injured some of the horses, and there was a plot by one group to drown the camp dog (who fortunately was a fast runner). Not that any of us had an easy time with this—we took turns praying and spent eighteen-hour days tending to the damage inflicted as well as preventative strategies—but Mark completely self-destructed in the face of this challenge. He had been sprinting so hard and fast that when he tripped over an obstacle, he gave himself a concussion. Since he lived near the camp, one of the year-long camp leaders took Mark under his wing and began slowly teaching him about the Christian life. The next year, Mark was a new person—still full of energy, but much more thoughtful and his spiritual life had a depth to it that it hadn’t had before. His saltiness had been restored, because he was much more aware of what true discipleship meant.
We all want to belong, and the Good News is, we do belong to a God who lovingly and delicately created each one of us. Our part of this Christian life is to cooperate with the One who created us and who wants to mold us into the image of Christ.
Pottery was for the ancient world what steel is for our world. Its importance for the people of antiquity can hardly be overestimated. Among the household objects manufactured in clay were mud bricks, lamps, toys, spindle whorls and loom weights, ovens, roof tiles, figurines, tableware, storage jars, cooking pots, and even jewelry. Large pieces of broken pottery were salvaged for use as writing material (ostraca). Because of the need for earthenware objects, pottery making was one of the earliest, most widespread, and most familiar of all the crafts in ancient Israel. The oldest ceramic forms found in the region date to the seventh millennium B.C. The pottery of Jeremiah’s day was of good quality when compared to the coarse and simple forms molded by hand during the Late Stone Age. The pottery of seventh-century-B.C. Jerusalem was mass-produced on pottery wheels in a variety of forms that were both utilitarian and attractive.
Jeremiah exploited the widespread familiarity with pottery making in an allegory that is the heart of this pericope. This allegory exploits the potter’s freedom to rework a vessel while it is still on the wheel. In the prophet’s day, most potters used the “fast wheel” to shape the objects they were forming. The fast wheel, invented in the latter part of the Middle Bronze Age (1650–1550 B.C.), consisted of two circular stones socketed into each other. The potter shaped the clay on the smaller of the two, which revolved on top of the larger and heavier one. The centrifugal force of the smaller stone allowed the potter to shape the wet clay into the vessel with the hands. After this was completed, the vessel was allowed to dry. The dry clay form would be placed on the wheel a second time for more delicate shaping. Finally the vessels were fired in a kiln (see Sir. 38:29–30). The firing changed the clay’s chemical composition and physical characteristics. Clay became synthetic stone suitable for a variety of uses.
The allegory makes the prophet’s intention transparent. He teaches that God’s freedom to deal with Judah and the nations is like that of potters shaping vessels on the wheel. If they are dissatisfied with the way the vessel is taking shape at their hands, potters will simply start over. The process of manufacturing ceramic forms is irreversible only after the pottery has been fired in a kiln. The point the prophet makes in this, the only specific reference to the potter’s wheel in the Bible, is that Judah’s fate and that of the nations are not fixed. Just as the potter can rework a vessel while still at the wheel, so can God alter the fate of both Judah and the nations (vv. 1–6). Given Judah’s desperate situation, this emphasis on God’s sovereignty offers hope. Despite the acute circumstances of Judah’s political and military situation, God’s power can change these as easily as a potter reshapes wet clay.
Verses 7–10 shift the emphasis off the absolute power of the potter over the clay. Here the focus centers on the clay and the way it determines how the potter will act. It is the quality of the vessel that determines whether the potter continues the process of manufacture. If the molded clay vessel has a pleasing shape, the process will continue. But it is at this point that the allegory breaks down. The prophet encourages the “vessel” to make certain that it is worth keeping—something that is, of course, impossible for a molded piece of clay. Jeremiah calls Judah to please the “potter” who formed it by making the correct choice between obedience and disobedience—a choice whose consequences are life and death.
While the first part of the allegory (vv. 1–6) underscores divine sovereignty over Judah and the nations, the second part (vv. 7–10) affirms that the people of Judah control their fate. This is quite an assertion given the political and military realities that indicate the opposite. The key to Judah’s future is that the people embrace the traditional Israelite morality—something they have neglected for too long. If they continue to neglect their moral responsibilities, they can be sure that God will effect their destruction. The passage ends with the prophet pleading, in God’s name, for Judah to repent. The prophet, however, offers no guarantee that the amendment will be effective. Will the potter start over with the lump of clay that is Judah or simply abandon the project entirely?
While the lectionary does not include verse 12 in the lesson, it is necessary in the book of Jeremiah. Judah fell to the Babylonians in 597 B.C. Ten years later, after an ill-advised uprising against Babylon, Jerusalem was sacked, the temple destroyed and its priesthood scattered, the semblance of Judah’s political independence ended, and many Judahites were taken away into exile. Verse 12 has the people rejecting their opportunity to amend their ways. What happened to the city, the temple, and the Davidic dynasty, then, is perfectly understandable. The potter simply abandoned his work.
Prophets like Jeremiah, who preached before the fall of Jerusalem, spoke to people they assumed were in control of their destiny. The prophets were countering a mythological worldview which held that human destiny was determined by events in the world of the gods. In that world, the gods vied for supremacy. The outcomes of these contests were visible in the ascendancy of one nation at the expense of others. If Babylon was the dominant world power, it must mean that Marduk, its patron deity, was dominant in the heavenly sphere. Most Judahites believed that Yahweh controlled their future in accord with the promises made to David. Judah’s flourishing temple rituals recalled those promises and assured the people about their future.
Jeremiah wanted to demythologize the way most Judahites thought about the future of their nation. That future—the prophet emphasized—was firmly in their hands. The clay, in fact, controlled the potter. The people of Judah controlled their destiny. The gods did not determine the future—people determined it by the moral choices they made. The prophet had already condemned Judah’s moral failures. Still, he assures his listeners that like a potter who scraps an ill-formed clay vessel to reshape it, they can reshape their future—if they amend their ways.
It will take little reinterpretation to have the prophet’s words speak to the “not me” generation. People today have become adept at finding some way to evade taking responsibility for the effects their moral choices have had on themselves and others. There is always someone or something else to blame: parents, genes, society, diet, music, peers, international corporations—the list can go on. The task of the preacher is to lead people to accept their moral responsibility for creating the world we live in—just as Jeremiah was trying to lead the Judahites to accept responsibility for their world. The prophet’s purpose, however, is not simply to assign blame but to offer hope. He assures the people of Judah that they can have a great future if only they repent—if only they choose obedience. While the prophet begins by affirming divine sovereignty, he ends by underscoring the power of moral choices. If the clay changes, the potter will change.
The lectionary uses this text from Jeremiah to accentuate the choice Jesus calls prospective disciples to make in the Gospel lesson (Luke 14:25–33). Jeremiah calls the people of Judah to act in accord with traditional moral norms. Jesus, however, appears to ask his disciples to go beyond these norms. He asks people to make a choice that appears to make no sense. Disciples are to hate the members of their families and even their lives. They are to give up their possessions. While the prophet was speaking about what the Judahites were to do to maintain their political independence and national identity, Jesus was speaking about something that transcends these concerns, so the response he asks of his disciples transcends what the prophet demands of the Judahites.
Still, both the prophet and Jesus assume that people can make choices. They have effective control of their future. The prophet has to demythologize a worldview that effectively absolved people of responsibility for creating their future. Too many Judahites believed they had no control over their future. All was in the hands of the gods. The people of Jesus’ day were not burdened with the mythological views of some of their ancestors. Still, Jesus had to persuade them that living in accord with traditional morality—while commendable—was not enough to respond to God’s new movement in their lives. This new situation demanded bold and decisive action. It involved making choices that seemed to make no sense. But from the perspective of God’s reign, the renunciation that Jesus demanded of the disciples was true wisdom. Like the prophet, Jesus challenges people to shape their future by the choices they make in the present. (Leslie J. Hoppe The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis For Sunday’s Texts, Volume One [2001, Grand Rapids, MI] p422–425)
As happened frequently in the daily life of a potter, the clay did not turn out right (v.4). Often in throwing the clay, some defect would become evident. The potter then rolled the clay into a lump to begin his task again to make a more suitable product. The chief point here is the power the potter had over the clay. The clay was in his hand and under his control. The defects were in the clay, not the hand of the potter. The potter’s perseverance must not be overlooked at this point in this passage.
Now Jeremiah is taught the meaning of the figure (v.5). The infinite power of the Lord is compared with that of the potter over his clay (v.6). Just as the potter remade the clay to conform to his purpose, so the Lord’s will and power continue to mold the nation until it is conformed to his plan. The Lord will never be defeated even if Judah turns from his way for them. There is a conditional element in his dealings with his people (vv.7–10). Repentance can always change the Lord’s decree of judgment. His threatening are never unconditional (v.8). The parallel between humanity and the clay must not be carried too far. Human “clay” is not passive. Upon a person’s repentance God can rework him or her into a vessel of honor. The position is not one of absolute fatalism (blotting out man’s freedom), nor is it one where God’s sovereignty is wholly dependent on man’s choice. Ultimately, no man is free. But God in his mysterious working in human life has ordered it so that humanity may choose. In this passage the point is neither denial or affirmation of human freedom. (Feinberg, C. L. Jeremiah. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel [1986, Grand Rapids] Vol. 6 p 490–492)
Not without good reason that this psalm has been abundantly echoed in many poetical compositions of different kinds which have used it as a model and have become a part of the treasure of Christian hymns. Even today its words are still felt to be a classical testimony to what the theologians intend to convey by such concepts as the omnipresence, omniscience, and omnificence of God, and this is because one of the problems which mankind has to face, which has continually been raised by men and which they have continually attempted to solve whenever the relationship between God and man occupied the thought of those who believe in him, is here discussed in the widest possible setting. It is therefore not surprising, especially in view of the general form in which the problem has been raised, that we light upon similar thoughts also outside the Old Testament, above all in India (Atharva Veda IV, 16) but also among the Canaanites and Greeks and in Islam; an external dependence of the psalm on other literary documents, however, cannot be conclusively proved. In contrast to these parallels the psalm shows its peculiar character, a character typical of the Old Testament, above all in the fact that the poet does not shape his thoughts impersonally in abstract theological definitions, but develops them in the sphere of his personal experience of the reality of God in which he sees his whole life to be embedded. It has not come about by chance that he clothes his thoughts in the unusual mixed form of a hymn and of prayer and speaks of God by addressing him on the basis of a personal I-Thou relationship and not by making objective statements about God to others. Even in those passages in which intellectual reflections go beyond the limits of a hymn the poet does not slip back into the ways of abstract philosophical thinking, but ponders over his theme in the light of his existence as determined by God. This method imparts to his words those fresh, lively tones which even today still directly touch the heart of the reader. It is not possible to assign a definite date for the composition of the psalm. Verses 23 f. (cf. vv. 19 ff.) and parallels outside Israel suggest the view that the psalm served as a preparation for the judgment which God was going to pass and so originally had its place within the sphere of public worship (cf. Intr. 76 f.).
Starting from his personal experience of God the psalmist develops his thoughts in stages which are determined by a certain thought-sequence and stand in an inward relationship to each other but are not arranged in strophes. Verses 1–6 speak of God’s omniscience; vv. 7–12 of his omnipresence; vv. 13–16 of his omnificence. The psalmist’s meditation on God’s nature is concluded in vv. 17 and 18 by his confession of man’s inability to comprehend God’s greatness. This is followed by a petition (vv. 19–22) for the destruction of the wicked which is not unrelated to the general problem, and the psalm ends in a personal petition (vv. 23–24) for a divine test and for God’s guidance.
It looks as if the poet himself is aware of the limitations and of the vulnerability of his position; the petition he utters at the conclusion of the psalm is evidence of this. He suffers from a feeling of inadequacy. The fact that he by no means fancies himself to be faultless but is vividly aware of how completely he is at the mercy of God’s testing and guidance, imparts to his song a conciliatory parting note. The psalmist has found in God’s omniscience the basis for complete trust in him. God, who sees into his heart, knows whether he walks in the way that leads to ‘torment’ (this is the literal meaning of v. 24a) or in the way that leads to life. And the one who is the Creator of all is the only one who can guide man in the way everlasting. As in Psalm 1 and in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:13 f.), we find used here the image of the two ways, one of which leads to destruction, the other to true life which as a life lived before God lasts for ever. By his confident petition that God may try him the poet draws the practical conclusion from his basic attitude to God which he has expressed throughout the psalm: man’s life is so wholly embedded in God’s knowledge and activity, that he is not able to present any achievement of his own of which he could boast before God or on which he himself could rely. And because the decision exclusively rests with God, faith and trust comprise the only possible attitude which man can adopt in his relation to the God who is omniscient, omnipresent and omnificent. (Weiser, A. The Psalms: A Commentary. (P. Ackroyd, J. Barr, B. W. Anderson, & J. L. Mays, Eds.) [1998, Philadelphia] p801–808)
The Message is simple and to the point, we all belong to God and at the same time we also belong to each other. Belonging is what we all need all of the time. And God gives us that. We need to work together on learning how much we belong.
Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON
Having a sense of belonging is a common experience. Belonging means acceptance as a member or part. Such a simple word for huge concept. A sense of belonging is a human need, just like the need for food and shelter. Feeling that you belong is most important in seeing value in life and in coping with intensely painful emotions. Some find belonging in a church, some with friends, some with family, and some on Twitter or other social media. Some see themselves as connected only to one or two people. Others believe and feel a connection to all people the world over, to humanity. Some struggle to find a sense of belonging and their loneliness is physically painful for them.
Some seek belonging through excluding others. That reflects the idea that there must be those who don't belong in order for there to be those who do. Yet a single instance of being excluded can undermine self-control and well being and often creates pain and conflict.
A sense of belonging to a greater community improves your motivation, health, and happiness. When you see your connection to others, you know that all people struggle and have difficult times. You are not alone. There is comfort in that knowledge.
Building a Sense of Belonging
To build a sense of belonging requires active effort and practice. One way to work on increasing your sense of belonging is to look for ways you are similar with others instead of focusing on ways you are different. Someone is much older than you? Maybe they have wonderful stories to tell and you love to listen to their experiences. Maybe you value making a difference and can contribute to their lives with your youthful strength. Someone has a different belief system that you? Maybe you both enjoy a good debate or you both value faith in God. Sharing your differences and still accepting the person creates peace. Acceptance does not mean agreement.
Another way to build your own sense of belonging is to work on acceptance of others. To accept others and views that are not the same as yours may require that you open your thoughts to the idea that there is value in everyone's thinking. You can find truth in even the most difficult-to-understand even though you may not agree. One of the best ways to communicate acceptance is through validation. Validation builds a sense of belonging and strengthens relationships. Validation is the language of acceptance. Validation is the acknowledgment that someone's internal experience is understandable and helps you stay on the same side, with a sense of belonging, even when you disagree.
Try saying yes to opportunities to be with others and then throw yourself in to whatever the activity is. Let go of your judgments. Judgments build walls. Focus on people. At a dinner and annoyed because you don't like the food? The food is not the goal. Connecting with others is far more important than the food or the noise in the restaurant. Gained weight and don't want others to see? Stop isolating until you believe you are worthy. No one is perfect. Others have their struggles with their health too.
Watch your words and your way of thinking. Some words create separateness and others promote togetherness. Other people don't need "fixing." They have strengths and offer their own unique contributions. Think community and acceptance.
If you are emotionally sensitive, remember that in general people suffer the same emotional pain you suffer, just not as intensely (most of the time) or as quickly. Also, there are many other emotionally sensitive people who struggle as you do. Being emotionally sensitive does not mean you don't belong. Work on not blaming yourself or others. (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/pieces-mind/201403/create-sense-belonging)
Belongingness is the human emotional need to be an accepted member of a group. Whether it is family, friends, co-workers, a religion, or something else, people tend to have an 'inherent' desire to belong and be an important part of something greater than themselves. This implies a relationship that is greater than simple acquaintance or familiarity. The need to belong is the need to give and receive attention to and from others.
Belonging is a strong and inevitable feeling that exists in human nature. To belong or not to belong can occur due to choices of one's self, or the choices of others. Not everyone has the same life and interests, hence not everyone belongs to the same thing or person. Without belonging, one cannot identify themselves as clearly, thus having difficulties communicating with and relating to their surroundings.
Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary argue that belongingness is such a fundamental human motivation that we feel severe consequences of not belonging. If it wasn’t so fundamental, then lack of belonging wouldn’t have such dire consequences on us. This desire is so universal that the need to belong is found across all cultures and different types of people.
Belonging to God provides a level of comfort that surpasses all others. It is consistent, pure, selfless, fulfilling, and everlasting. As His children, we can always rely upon Him for guidance, correction, protection, and salvation. His Word says He will never leave us or forsake us. Even in our darkest moments navigating this world, where stress and strife are lurking around every corner, He is with us.
All we have to do to experience this sense of belonging is open our hearts to the Lord. We don’t have to audition, interview, or sacrifice a rib. We don’t have to pretend we are perfect. He’s not the type of parent that’s difficult to please, nor does He hold our mistakes over our heads.
He has loved us enough to create a pathway to forgiveness by making a sacrifice of His own – the life of His dear Son, Jesus Christ. And, all we have to do is follow Jesus directly to the Father, to Whom we truly belong...for eternity. (https://abide.co/blog/belonging-to-god/)
My pastoral care professor from seminary always devoted part of a class to teaching us what to do when members of the congregation praised us. Going into the class that particular day, many of us noted that that seemed like a pretty small and petty topic to be discussing for an entire class period. But by the end, we understood why this was so important.
He began the class with a question: When was praise from members of our congregation real, and when was a means of “buttering us up” or perhaps part of a hidden agenda? He explained about the kinds of compliments that probably had hidden meanings. He also explained that it would be easy for us to fall into the trap of believing that our self-worth depended on what the members of our churches said about us. We could begin to depend on external praise or lack thereof to make us or break us.
Then he quoted from Psalm 139. We all were precious children of God, all gently knit together in our mothers’ wombs, but often we don’t live that way. He illustrated this by giving someone in the room a compliment about her purse, and her immediate reaction was to explain that it was old and she got it on sale and there was a rip in it. If that’s how hard we are on one of our accessories, my professor explained, then how much harder are we on ourselves?
Psalm 139 reminds us that we are beautiful, deliberate, precious children of God, and that we are all inherently good creations. No matter what we have done or not done in our lives, God loves us. Nothing can take that away. We belong to God.
Are we willing to be “reworked” in God’s hands, or are we too busy justifying our current thoughts and behaviors? How often do we, instead of apologizing or directly after apologizing for a misdeed, attempt to justify what we’ve done by explaining that this was just part of our personality? “I know I shouldn’t have yelled at you, but that’s just how I am.” “I know I said I would be here an hour ago, but well, you know I am often late.”
A new teacher at my high school once told our class that she had a tendency to be very sarcastic, and we shouldn’t take it personally if she said something inappropriate to us, and that we should know up front that she didn’t mean it. She said nothing about the fact that she was working on this issue, or she was trying to change, or that someone was keeping her accountable. She simply warned us.
Jeremiah teaches us that just as a potter reworks spoiled vessels to make them useable, the Potter wants to mold us, shape us, and transform us. But we have to be willing to be undone in order to be redone. We have to be willing to admit our shortcomings and want to change. We have to be willing to repent of our sins. To repent doesn’t just mean saying we’re sorry, but allowing God to turn us around.
Have you ever tried to pick up a child who doesn’t want to be picked up? Children learn at a very young age that if they let their bodies go completely limp, almost jelly-like, it is much more difficult for someone to pick them up off the floor. How often do we do this to God? How often to we say with our mouths that we want to grow in our faith, but with our actions say otherwise? We claim that we don’t have time for worship, but we have plenty of time to play golf. We claim we don’t have time to do a daily devotion, yet we find plenty of time to watch television. We claim we don’t have time to pray, yet we have plenty of time to chat on the phone with a friend.
Who doesn’t remember the popular Little House on the Prairie television show? Loosely based on the series of books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the episodes depict the joys and woes of the Ingalls family and the rest of residents of Walnut Grove, Minn, in the 1870s. In the very first episode, the Ingalls family moves to Walnut Grove and tries to set up a life. Having very little money, Pa tries to set up an account at Oleson’s Merchantile with the promise of paying off the debt as soon as he can. The Oleson’s, having been burned several times by other families who have skipped town without paying their bills, refused to give him credit.
Pa works several other odd jobs to buy lumber to build a house and to afford the necessities for his family. It is clear that he is practically working himself to death. On Sunday morning, Caroline
and Mary, Laura, and Carrie, go to church without him. Caroline justifies this by saying that she didn’t think the Lord would mind if he missed church just this once to get some sleep.
When the family comes home after church, they find Pa plowing and harrowing a field. At this, Caroline had had about enough. She marched up to him and chastised him not just for working when he should have been resting, but for missing church in order to work on the Sabbath. This was the Lord’s Day, she said, and no work was to be done. She was not going to let her husband dishonor the Lord. This was a day to read the Bible and pray, and to reset priorities.
What would it be like if today, we took time to check our priorities and see if they were truly in line with what God wanted for us? What if we took time to look at what we did, but also look at who we are? Are we so driven to achieve our goals that we ignore anything else around us? Are we so into what we want that we forget that we are creations, not the Creator?
How much do we value our possessions? What would it take for us to willingly give them up? Probably quite a bit. But Jesus is asking us to make him more of a priority in our lives than attaining the “newest and best” for ourselves. One member of my congregation said that to keep her from getting tempted to buy more and more for herself, she regularly goes out and purchases items for a local agency whose purpse is to help battered women escape abuse and get their own apartments. It humbles her greatly to realize that some people consider it a great gift to have a warm blanket and new bedsheets, or silverware and dishes, things she takes for granted.
I once heard an explanation about how the ticketing system for stage coaches worked. If you bought a first-class ticket, you could stay in the stage coach no matter what happened during the journey. If you bought a second-class ticket, then if the stage coach got stuck in the mud, as it easily could, you had to get out and stand by the edge of the road until the coach was freed. If you bought a third-class ticket, you were the one who had to help push the stage coach out of the mud! How many of us are third-class Christians, willing to do the hard work necessary to grow and be transformed?
Both the hero and the hoodlum are willing to give up everything, including their life, to achieve an end larger than themselves. Thus self-sacrifice by itself does not confer nobility. Only self-sacrifice that gives life to another is the hallmark of genuine greatness. This is why, in the words of another, we name our dogs after Nero and our sons after Paul.
Rather than dedicating ourselves wholeheartedly to God, as Jesus demands, we tend to maintain a firm attachment to material possessions. That is quite possibly the reason that verse 33 in Luke so abruptly concludes the lection. A shopping mall in North Riverside, Illinois, had a sculpture that somewhat subtly sought to critique that attachment we have. In Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces: Putting God in Place, Jon Pahl describes the piece of artwork that was known as Big Bil-Bored. The sculpture essentially looked like a triangular wedge, measuring thirty feet high, thirty feet wide, and two feet deep. It was entirely composed of discarded appliances and various household gadgets that were all welded and cemented together. Almost everyone in the community was in agreement that it was an eyesore. Not only did people object that the art was formed out of broken toys, car parts, toasters, and hair dryers, but they also were repulsed by the way that flocks of pigeons used the artwork as a “drive-by outhouse.” Author John Pahl interpreted the sculpture to be saying, “Here’s what a trip to this kind of a ‘sacred place,’ as advertised in billboards, will get you.” In essence, we are drawn to accumulate a bunch of stuff that eventually rusts and breaks, which we then get bored with and discard. The sculpture was designed and built by Nancy Rubins in 1980. After a lengthy controversy, the artwork was finally removed from the mall entrance in 1993. Pahl observes, though, that the piece offered a commentary on how we tend to get bored with so many aspects of our lives, which ultimately leads us to abandon and discard them. For instance, many get bored with other people or with their marriages, and they promptly eliminate them from their lives. In this passage, perhaps Jesus is asking us if we have become bored following him and if we might be thinking about pursuing some other pathway.
An Associated Press (1/13/04) report commented on how younger Americans prefer donating time rather than money. In a survey commissioned by Thriven Financial for Lutherans, a random telephone survey of 1,000 Americans found that 50% identified volunteering as more important than giving money, while 22% thought giving money was more important. A Harris Interactive poll that was conducted late last year discovered that there is a sharp difference in response to that question based on age. Of those aged 18 to 34, 58% indicated that giving time was more important. But of those aged 65 and older, only 29% agreed. Kurt Senske, of Lutheran Social Services of the South, surmises that young people are more hesitant to contribute to institutions because of all the recent scandals, ranging from Enron to the Roman Catholic Church. In the lectionary passage, Jesus appears to be indicating that both our time and our money need to be dedicated to his service.
If verse 33 shocks, you—where Jesus commands his followers to give up all their possessions—this recent finding might make it easier for you to part with your money. The British newspaper The Globe and Mail (5/24/01) reported that paper money is filthier than we may have ever imagined. Researchers in the United States collected dollar bills from various stores and sporting events and placed them under a microscope. Dr. Peter Ender and his associates at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio discovered that some bills were contaminated with staphylococcus aureus, bacteria found in the nose, and klebsiella pneumoniae, fecal bacteria. Almost all of the bills were contaminated with common germs, such as streptococcus, enterobacter, pseudomonas, and other common germs. Dr. Ender, in presenting his findings at the annual meeting of American Society of Microbiology, concluded that the time has come for true money laundering. More than 90% of the currency circulating in some of the largest cities, such as New York, San Francisco, and Miami, carried traces of cocaine.
According to David Callahan in The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead, as many young people consider the cost of reaching their goals, they determine that cheating is a price they have to be willing to pay. Donald McCabe, professor of management at Rutgers University suggests that most students would prefer to complete their schoolwork and exams honestly. However, he contends, since many students perceive that their fellow students are cheating in an attempt to get ahead, they decide to cheat as well in order to level the playing field. Similarly, a 1997 study that was conducted by a company that does pre-employment screening found that 95% of college-age people were willing to lie in order to get a job, and that 41% had already done so. A firm that conducts background checks reviewed 2.6 million job applications in 2002 and uncovered lies on 44% of them.
Strict and demanding statements like this from Jesus often tempt us to try and tame his words into a message that we find more palatable. According to Alister McGrath in In The Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture, the English word “bowdlerize” was first coined around 1836 to mean “to edit heavily someone else’s work, so that it conforms with your notion of propriety.” The word comes from Dr. Thomas Bowdler (1754-1825), who in 1818 published an edited version of Shakespeare’s works entitled The Family Shakespeare. The chief feature of the work was indicated on the title page: “those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.” Because of the success of that book, Bowdler went on to clean up the language in Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He likewise drew attention to the fact that he carefully omitted “all passages of an irreligious or immoral tendency.” Might we be tempted to bowdlerize these words of Jesus?
In The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey tells of a former pastor of his, Bill Leslie, who often commented, “As churches grow wealthier and more successful, their preference in hymns changes from ‘This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through’ to ‘This is my Father’s world.’”
In the ancient apocryphal Acts of Thomas, the life of the apostle Thomas is described as he ministered in India. One episode, recorded in chapters 17-29 of the text, relates how Thomas served in the royal court of King Gundaphorus. Over a period of time, the king gave the apostle large sums of money with the instruction to build a magnificent palace for the monarch. Thomas, though, took the money and gave it to the poor and needy people in the land. When the king finally learned of what Thomas had done, he commanded Thomas to be flayed and then burned. At almost the last moment, Thomas was saved when the king’s brother, who had just died, came back to life and told Gundaphorus of the wonderful palace that he had seen that belonged to him. When the king asked where the palace was, his brother told him that he saw it in heaven. The king then released Thomas, realizing that he truly had obeyed his mandate to build a palace for the king. When it comes to the resources that are put at our disposal, toward what goal are we seeking to employ them?
Are we ultimately concerned about pursuing the agenda that Jesus has in mind for us, or are we more concerned about following the agenda we have for ourselves? In The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey notes that when Michael Jordan first retired from basketball, the owner of the Chicago Bulls remarked, “He’s living the American Dream. The American Dream is to reach a point in your life where you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do and can do everything that you do want to do.” Jesus certainly is not calling us to live the American Dream, if it’s defined in those terms.
Jesus is reminding us that when it comes to our Christian lives, it is important to not only begin well, but also to end well. In The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Barry Schwartz explains some of the findings of Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman. He found that our remembrances about the pleasurable quality of past experiences is almost entirely determined by two things: how the experience felt when they were at their peak (best or worst), and how they felt when they ended. That “peak-end” rule of Kahneman’s is what we use to summarize our experiences, and we rely on those summaries when we later try to recall how various experiences felt. In a laboratory, participants were asked to listen to a pair of very loud, unpleasant noises played through headphones. One noise lasted for eight seconds. The other persisted for sixteen seconds. The first eight seconds of the second noise were identical to the first noise, but the second eight seconds, while still loud and unpleasant, were not as loud. Afterwards the participants were told they would have to listen to one of the noises again, but they would get to choose which one. Obviously the second noise was worse—the unpleasantness lasted twice as long. However, the overwhelming majority of people chose the second one to be repeated. Apparently they made that choice because both had identical annoying peaks but the second noise had a slightly less unpleasant end, and therefore it was remembered as being less annoying than the first. As we look at our Christian lives, it may be a mistake but we are largely remembered by how we peaked and how we finished.
The problem with many people is that their priorities have become skewed. A couple in Connecticut left their nine-year-old son in a car overnight by himself in the freezing cold so they could gamble at the Foxwoods Casino. Down in Mississippi, parents left their twelve-year-old in a car by himself overnight. But they weren’t totally uncaring. They left him with a loaded revolver in case he needed to protect himself.
The cable movie Freedom Song is set during the beginning of the Civil Rights era when young members of SNCC (pronounced Snick, standing for the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee) came to Mississippi to motivate and organize African Americans to fight for their rights. High schooler Owen Walker is intrigued upon meeting a SNCC worker come to the little town of Quinlan to begin voter registration work. Especially when the organizers gather together the teenagers and invite them to join the Movement, Owen is certain he wants to belong, even though his father Will objects. The SNCC workers force Owen and his friends to “count the cost” by subjecting them to a horrendous training session that involves the SNCC workers surrounding a student and cursing, taunting, and pouring ketchup and mustard on his/her head. The student is instructed not to retaliate in word or deed, but just to take the abuse without protest. Owen soon begins to think the cost is too high. It is hard enough to receive the cruel jibes of the pretend-racists without answering back, but when they dump condiments upon his head, he explodes in fury. They tell him he cannot join in their demonstration, that he would endanger the others if he cannot subject himself to the discipline of non-violence. Finally, his desire to participate proves stronger than his anger at mistreatment. Given a second chance at counting the cost, he succeeds in restraining his natural desire to retaliate. Soon he is in jail, sustained by his friends singing together their freedom songs, able to stand up with a newfound dignity in his quest for justice. There are tense moments with his father, but Owen perseveres, his example eventually winning over the older man.
A good hymn for the Gospel text is Charles Williams Everest’s “Take Up Your Cross, the Savior Said.” Everest was just 19 when he wrote it—and it was published that same year, 1833, in his book Visions of Death and Other Poems. The author went on to study for the ministry at Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut. Ordained to the Episcopal clergy, he served in the same parish in Hampton, CT, for his entire ministry. The first stanza paraphrases Christ’s invitation to “take up your cross” and to humbly follow after him. Encouraged not to let its weight “fill your weak spirit with alarm,” we are promised that Christ’s spirit will be with us. Thirdly, we are told not to “heed the shame” because Christ himself “accepted death upon a cross.” Everest sums up the message in the last stanza, stating that those who take up the cross and bravely face danger will be guided by it to “abundant life” and “victory o’er the grave.”
“Self-denial is indispensable to a strong character, and the highest kind comes from a religious stock.” (Theodore Parker, American Minister)
“Self-denial is painful for a moment, but very agreeable in the end.” (Jane Taylor)
“By these things examine thyself. By whose rules am I acting; in whose name; in whose strength; in whose glory? What faith, humility, self-denial, and love of God and to man have there been in all my actions?” (Jackie Mason)
“For anything worth having one must pay the price; and the price is always work, patience, love, self-sacrifice — no paper currency, no promises to pay, but the gold of real service.” (John Burrough)
“Self-sacrifice is the real miracle out of which all the reported.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
“The men and women who have the right ideals... are those who have the courage to strive for the happiness which comes only with labor and effort and self-sacrifice, and those whose joy in life springs in part from power of work and sense of duty.” (Theodore Roosevelt)
“Behold I do not give lectures or a little charity, When I give I give myself.” (Walt Whitman)
“By these things examine thyself. By whose rules am I acting; in whose name; in whose strength; in whose glory? What faith, humility, self-denial, and love of God and to man have there been in all my actions?” (Jackie Mason)
Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)
O God, in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we once again seek to enter into your presence. Please accept our offerings of prayer, song, and treasure as we come before you. May this be a time of renewal and recommitment as we hear your word in Scripture, sermon, and music. Amen
Holy God, we confess that too often we have answered your call with little thought. We too easily say, “Jesus is Lord,” without thinking that this means changing our old, comfortable ways. We prefer Christ without a cross; salvation with little change; grace but no commitment that might disturb us. We are drawn up short when Christ demands that we love him more than our own families. How could he have meant that? Thus we become lukewarm disciples, hesitantly following those commandments of his which we think are the least disturbing, while ignoring the harder ones. Forgive us. By your Spirit renew our minds and hearts, that we might count the cost of our discipleship. Please give us the courage to be willing to bear that cost. In the name of the One who went to the cross for our salvation, Amen.
O God, we would give you more than just our leftovers after we buy for ourselves our necessities and luxuries. May your Spirit continue to renew our hearts so that week by week the gifts that we bring may become a true sacrifice. We pray this in the name of Christ, who sacrificed even his body upon the cross for us. Amen.
Gracious and loving God, we have heard again the words of your Son, and they sting our ears. How can we “hate” our own families? Help us to understand this harsh commandment for what it is, a wake-up call to leave casual discipleship behind and become serious about sharing Christ’s call to love and live in him. Help us to become more fruitful in our witness, and more loving in our acts, that others will see him at work in us. Today as we worship you in the comfort of this holy place we know that some of your children are ill in hospitals or at home; some are lonely in nursing homes or the hovels of our slums; some of your children in need live close by, and others dwell in far off lands. And yet your Son calls all of them “neighbor.” Develop in us eyes sensitive enough to see those close at hand to whom we might reach out; and hearts large enough to embrace even those separated from us by oceans. We thank you for the church which is large enough to embrace and minister to all, near and far. We praise you for those times when sisters and brothers have eased our burden and sweetened our sorrow; and we thank you for the opportunities which the church offer to us to serve your Son. Bless the leaders of our church: may they be loving and bold in their service. We pray also for our nation and our leaders in White House and Congress, that they might seek ways of justice and peace, even as we pray for all nations, that they too will seek harmony and charity throughout the world. As we leisurely celebrate this Labor Day, may we find meaning in our work: alert us to the opportunities it offers us to witness to the love and justice of your Son, to the end that we will be not just making a living, but find through our work our calling to serve. Hear our prayers, spoken and unspoken, for we offer them in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.