September 4, 2016 — 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; Luke 14:25-33
Ordinary 23C; Proper 18

The lectionary brings us sobering texts this week.

Jill Duffield's lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook's email list every Monday.
Jill Duffield’s lectionary reflections are sent to the Outlook’s email list every Monday.

The prophet declares that we are putty in God’s hands, our agency not limited but nonexistent. Any moment God may decide to pluck up and break down and destroy or, alternatively, at any moment God may build and plant. Not day by day, but minute by minute, our fates are in the hands of God, no less than clay in the potter’s hands. I am not too keen on this image of God. I like better the Lord of Psalm 139, the One who searches and knows us, hems us in, behind and before, makes us fearfully and wonderfully.

What is curious, however, is that both Jeremiah and Psalm 139 are proclaiming the very same truth. We belong to God. God is our creator. God sustains us. God’s power and purview and providence are total. While terrifying in Jeremiah and comforting in the appointed Psalm, the descriptions of God’s sovereignty are two sides of the same coin. The omnipotent God should evoke fear, or at least awe and respect, as well as praise and joy. If we truncate the scriptural witnesses and fail to hold Jeremiah and Psalm 139 together, we mischaracterize God.

If we don’t understand that God has the power to pluck or to plant, then the God we worship is ineffectual, weak and under our control. However, if we don’t know, too, that the all-powerful God knows us and loves us, then the God we follow is a capricious tyrant. We need both sides of the one coin in order to understand both God and ourselves. We need both Jeremiah and Psalm 139 if we are going to have ears to hear Jesus’ words to us in Luke. We need to know God as both powerful and compassionate, omnipotent and merciful.

Jesus’ claim on us is total and our response should be commensurate to that claim. Like Jeremiah and Psalm 139, Luke 14:25-33 declares the unequivocal reign of God in our lives. The Luke text in the Greek repeats “and” seven times in verse 26. Here is a clunky version, “If anyone comes to me and not hates the father of himself, and the mother and the wife, and the children, and the brothers, and the sisters, besides and even the soul of himself, he is not able to be a disciple of me.” There is no exclusion, nothing off limits. All of our loyalty belongs to Jesus, nothing and no one can come before him if we are to be his disciples.

Our God is indeed an awesome God and our response to God’s power and might and providence and omnipotence and, and, and… had better be more than a shallow appreciation or a flippant acknowledgment or a partial obedience. We are to love God with all of our heart and all of our soul and all of our mind and all of our strength, even when such love comes with cross-bearing. But what does that kind of all encompassing response to God look like?

It looks like building a huge tower, stone by stone, for years. An “and, and, and” kind of faith takes time, resources, effort, commitment and a willingness to keep going even when there isn’t much sign of completion.

“And, and, and” discipleship entails risks, no less than those of going into battle. The stakes are great, not unlike high-level negotiations with the most powerful of kings.

“And, and, and, and, and” kind of following means renouncing interest in much that the world values and that we value, too. When we choose to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, we are saying no to chasing status, success, money, fame, admiration, popularity, personal fulfillment and much more. Our focus, our loyalty, our singular goal is faithfulness to Jesus. Following with all we have and holding nothing back from the One who holds nothing back from us requires that we seriously, intentionally count the cost and decide if we are willing to ante up.

None of this resonates in our culture. Not really. We live in a context where choices abound almost without limit. Ours is the culture that touts self-made men and women as those to be emulated. We collect possessions, consume goods, throw away not just stuff but relationships. We no longer build cathedrals that take lifetimes to complete; we create virtual worlds that can be manipulated endlessly on a whim. Battles, war, kings – not many of us have experience with these outside of “Game of Thrones” or “Call of Duty.”

Jesus needs some 21st century analogies for discipleship because the ones in Luke just don’t resonate.

But what if we put it this way? What if we asked ourselves and those gathered for worship some simple questions: What have you devoted your life to completing? What is so important to you that you refuse to give up on it? When have you made a sacrifice for the sake of someone or something? What are unwilling to compromise?

These are the questions that expose both our core values and our potential idols. Some of us have devoted years to our education. We worked on those degrees even when it cost us time, money and relationships. Many of us are uncompromising when it comes to reaching career goals. We are willing to miss the family dinner because the meeting is critical. We move to wherever the job requires in order to get the promotion. No doubt, most of us would list parents, children, spouses, friends as those we refuse to give up on, even when they hurt us or require seemingly endless attention, resources and patience.

Even all these belong to God. Even these are subject to Christ. Jesus is Lord of all. Nothing is ultimately ours: not our degrees or our family or our money or our lives or anything else in all creation. Every “and” and every “or” is putty in God’s hands; every word on every tongue is so valuable and beloved that even after the cost was calculated, God sent Jesus Christ to bring redemption to completion.

We worship a God, in the words of The Scots Confession, “who is eternal, infinite, immeasurable, incomprehensible, omnipotent, invisible … by whom we confess and believe all things in heaven and earth, visible and invisible have been created, to be retained in their being, and to be ruled and guided by his inscrutable providence for such end as his eternal wisdom, goodness, and justice have appointed, and to the manifestation of his own glory.”

Everything is in God’s hands. Do we recognize that truth? Do we live accordingly? When we answer those questions about what matters most to us, where is Jesus on the list? Our father and our mother and our spouse and our children and our brothers and our sisters and life itself belong to God. The good news is that our God, even after calculating the cost, brought our salvation to completion. Why would we then want to follow anything or anyone else?

This week:

  1. What does it mean to “carry the cross”? How do we use the phrase “cross to bear”? Is that common usage what Jesus is talking about in this text or not?
  2. Are there any contemporary analogies akin to building a tower or going to war with a king?
  3. Is the image of God as the potter threatening or comforting? What other biblical passages describe God as a potter? How do those texts inform your reading of the Jeremiah text?
  4. Is Psalm 139 comforting or threatening? Often when it is read in worship, verses 19-24 are omitted. What is lost when those verses are left out? How does the ending of the psalm shape your reading of the entire psalm?
  5. What is the cost of discipleship in your life? In the life of your congregation?
  6. Does our following of Jesus ever come to completion?

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