If you come to one of our weekly Wednesday Eucharists you might see my favorite communion set. The plate and cup, or chalice and paten as we call them, are very simple pottery. I brought them back from El Salvador after watching artists shape them on a potter’s wheel. The artists worked in a cooperative shop in San Salvador called Shicali. Shicali was founded in the late 1970s by a group of disabled artists. Together they decided to create a shop and school for other disabled folks to learn a craft. The morning I visited, I watched a blind artist reach into a bin to find clay. He then felt his way to the wheel, while holding the hand of a blind boy. He was teaching the boy pottery.
The boy smiled as he felt the wet clay slip through his fingers. The experienced artist helped him to mold the clay, shaping it into a communion cup. Since I was spending the little over a week in town with a church group I was leading, I asked the woman minding the storefront if I could come back later and pick up the chalice, after it had been fired and glazed. She agreed, perhaps noting that any time they had a church group visiting, she might want to have an artist shaping church-wares, good marketing.
“Just like clay in a potter’s hands, so are you in my hand” says the Lord. Now, there’s no denying that Jeremiah’s reading takes a bit of a dark turn. Have you ever heard that term “Jeremiad?” It means a thorough haranguing because you’re doing something wrong. Jeremiah is famous for this sort of thing. The prophet is trying to get the people’s attention, calling out the injustice perpetuated by society. The prophet’s call is important, but don’t miss the image Jeremiah gives us for God. As a potter shapes the clay, so God shapes us. Don’t let the power God has to shape our identity get lost in the rest of the difficult text.
There’s difficulty in the Gospel this morning as well. I’m not sure if the committee that picks the readings for Sundays in church does this on purpose, but this lesson, “You can’t follow me unless you hate your family” seems to come up a great deal on holiday weekends. You know, when your family might happen to be in town, having a little together time on vacation. Maybe you even bring them to church to hear, “hate your brother and sister and mother and father.” There’s a difficulty in this reading. Jesus wants you to leave everyone and everything you know behind?
Groucho Marx once famously said that he wouldn’t want to be part of any club that would have him as a member. The joke plays on our strange desire, as a people, to be part of something exclusive. When I lived in Alexandria, Virginia during seminary there was a bar so exclusive that it didn’t have a sign outside the door. There was just a blue light bulb, and you needed to know the password for the night to get in. I’ll admit, it was a thrill to be admitted upstairs, that is until I saw the price of a single cocktail. Exclusivity, it turns out, comes at a cost in a consumer society.
But that’s not what Jesus is looking for here. If you can’t see from looking around you, Holy Communion isn’t exactly an exclusive club. We’re not a community that thinks you have to look or act a certain way to be part of Jesus’ band. All are welcome, wherever you are on the journey of faith, whoever you are. All are welcome.
Jesus’ words are difficult words this morning partly because he reminds us that while ALL are welcome, not less than ALL of you is required. Following Jesus means putting your whole self on the line, your whole self. Jesus doesn’t just want your Sunday self. Jesus doesn’t just want the best parts of you. All people are welcome and ALL of you will be required.
The difficulty isn’t just family and exclusivity. The final line of the Gospel this morning, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” is tough. It is also badly translated. We’re not off the hook for possessions. They’ll be other sermons about those. Jesus asked the rich young ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor, after all, which may be why the translators chose to use “possessions.” But this line from Luke isn’t well rendered. The word “possessions” doesn’t appear in the Greek. What Jesus really says follows on his first statement. If I might be so bold as to offer my own translation, it would be this: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give over all that you are.”
What does it mean to give all that you are?
The teaching here is about identity. To follow Jesus, we need to know what we’re in for. To follow Jesus is to be lost to the world. It is to give ourselves away. The Jesuits have a good way of describing what Jesus is talking about. The Jesuit Volunteer Corps is the Catholic forerunner of our Episcopal program “Deaconess Anne House,” in North St. Louis where several young adults live together in a church-owned house for a year. They volunteer in nonprofits and churches around the city and spend a great deal of time together in prayer and discernment. The motto of the Jesuit volunteer corps is this: “Be ruined for life.”
Spending a year of your life in service to others, spending that year praying, and discerning, and reading the Bible, they reason will ruin you. It will ruin you for living just to make a profit. It will ruin your ability to bring a lawsuit against a neighbor who is encroaching on your lawn. You’ll be ruined for life in a world that focuses on the bottom line and on individual rights over the common good. So, they tell young adults, much like Jesus tells his followers, “count the cost.” Brooklyn Payne, one of our young adult members just landed this week in Panama with the support of this congregation to spend her year in The Episcopal Church’s international service corps. When she gets back, we’ll have to ask her if she’s ruined.
This is the tension that Jesus is really naming this morning. His word choice is odd, “hate your brothers and sisters…hate life itself” is a strange way to name the tension, but I believe this is it: There are multiple claims on our identity. We all exercise different identities. We are mothers, sisters, brothers and fathers. We are workers, and some of us are bosses. We are citizens, and hopefully we are also voters. We are consumers, and millions of dollars a year goes into defining that identity for us. There are so many layers to our identity.
But there is only one identity, only one, that merits a total claim on us. Think about it. No child wants the totality of their parent’s identity. It may seem like it when they’re toddlers, but by the time children become teenagers they want less and less from their folks. No sister wants all of who you are. No boss wants their employees to bring their FULL self to work. Good employers want their workers to have a healthy life outside the office. The only identity that merits ALL of us, is our identity before God. When we let other people define us, we tend to shrink in our sense of selves. When we allow God to shape our identity, we have a tendency to expand our horizons.
Just listen to the psalm this morning:
For you yourself created my inmost parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I will thank you because I am marvelously made;
your works are wonderful, and I know it well.
I like to call Psalm 139 the “Runaway Bunny” psalm, from the children’s story about the little bunny who tells his mother he will run away, and his mother assures him that if he runs away, she will follow. The principle is the same. God pursues us. God is present to us. God is always with us. God knows us better than our family, better than our lovers, better than we know ourselves.
We belong to God. Jesus’ difficult words this morning are not about creating an exclusive club. In America it often seems the opposite. Christianity often seems defined by its exclusivity. In his latest book “The Great Spiritual Migration,” Brian McLaren asks: “What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion?” He goes on: “Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life?”
I am not convinced that Jesus would recognize a great deal of American Christianity. Jesus would probably shake his head at our religious institutions the way he shook his head at the institutions and officials of his own day. When people here tell me they have difficulty with this teaching or that teaching, when folks say to me, “I have issues with the Creed” (the one we’re about to say), I often smile. Following Jesus means putting all of who you are on the line, for the sake of God’s loving welcome for all people. Any system of belief that has been used to exclude can give rise to doubts when we conceive of Christianity as a “just and generous way of life.”
When I serve Communion using that chalice I brought back from the potters’ shop, I think back to the teaching that was going on in that studio in El Salvador. Down there the Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t apply. There are few wheel chair ramps in the developing country and even fewer accommodations for people with visual impairments. The older artist didn’t lecture the boy about proper technique. He guided the little fingers over the clay, you could see the adventure and the promise ahead. A child who had few prospects suddenly had found a path, a potential way through life, a calling that could help him be of useful, even to make art. But the teacher didn’t tell him with words, he helped him discover that way with his own hands.
Often where the world sees a social problem, God sees a beautiful work of creation. All of us belong to God, and All of who we are is shaped by God. Christianity isn’t just concerned with the ideas in your head or the club you belong to. Following Jesus, it turns out, leads us on a journey that demands our full participation. If we are present, we can discover more deeply how to love, how to live justly. We can even discover who we are made to be.