The Rev. Dianne O'Connell 

 Jeremiah 18:1-11

First Congregational Church

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

September 5, 2010

Philemon 1-21

2,298 words

Luke 14:25-33




Or Words to That Effect


Good morning.  It is very good to be here.  I want to thank you for the opportunity to be your interim pastor and let you know how much I look forward to getting to know each of you. 

You may understand I’m a bit apprehensive today.  I’ve been fretting about the content of this first sermon for a couple of weeks now.  I read some of the excellent sermons prepared by members of the congregation this summer and wondered if I could ever offer as much hope and insight on life as you have already given one another.  Probably not, but it did seem proper to give you some idea of what my philosophy of ministry might be and where I might come from theologically, just not overdo it.  So here goes.

When I told my mother years ago that I wanted to be a preacher, her response was, “How presumptuous of you!”  And she was right.  It is presumptuous to think you might have just the right words and thoughts that even a small number of people came to hear on a given Sunday morning.  It’s partly because we come to the House of God for different reasons at different times in our lives.  We come to be with friends. We come to be comforted or encouraged. We come for spiritual development, whatever it take for each of us to draw closer to God.  Some of us come to be intellectually challenged while others of us need guidance and support for various life problems.  All of us, I bet, come for the music – but some of us like traditional hymns, some like praise or gospel songs.

Some people need to be reassured that God loves them.  Others want to focus on a set of rules to live by. Some want opportunities to serve others, improve their communities and help usher in the Kingdom of God. Some come to worship that God and give thanks for their lives, no matter how rugged those lives may seem to others.  

There are many ways to be a Christian as there are reasons for coming to church. Some of us are activists, some are mystics, some are priests and others are prophets. Some of us are a little of each. 

Sometimes I see my own Christianity in terms of colors,  Normally I would not think of myself as a flashing red and black Christian, for instance. So, I was as surprised as anyone when the one word that re-surfacing in my mind as I prepared this sermon was REPENT!  I’m not a “fire and brimstone” red-and-black preacher, but I don’t think of my faith in terms of pastel pinks and violets, either. It is not all peaceful in my world, although I continue to strive for a sense of calmness and oneness with my Creator.  I think my Christianity encompasses the whole spectrum of colors, vibrant and challenging sometimes, calm and cooling at other times.  Today, I’m feeling a bit Orange. And I’m hooked on this word Repent. 

Most preachers when commenting on Jeremiah chapter 18 are going to reflect on the potter’s wheel and the clay pots and talk about the firm, but loving, hands of God never giving up, but continually molding us into the kind of pots he would like us to be. And it’s true, this is a major part of the message for today and the focus of our liturgy. So I’ll get to the pots here pretty soon.  In fact, I even brought one which I’ll show you. But first I do want to say that I find more drama in this passage than just the potter’s wheel.  God is not particularly pleased with the House of Israel.  In fact, he is saying through his prophet Jeremiah, that he has the nation in the palm of his hand all right, but he’s about ready to squeeze it and destroy it – like a potter can squish a ball of clay!

REPENT! Jeremiah suggests.

Perhaps, you can see the little familiar cartoon Jeremiah in white robe with long beard, carrying his placard: REPENT. Disaster looms, Jeremiah tells his people, unless changes are made, both on the national level and on the personal level.  Someday I may preach a political sermon, but not today. Today, the assignment is big enough just taking Jeremiah’s call as a call to personal reflection and change.

The traditional Webster Dictionary approach to the word “repent” focuses on “regret”, or turning one’s back on a wrongdoing of some sort, reforming one’s life.  But a theological understanding of “repentance” or metanoia takes the process further than just regret.  Regret for past wrongs, lingering angers and disappointments, lost opportunities, poor decisions, that’s just the starting point.  It’s really much more exciting than that. 

A fuller understanding and experience of Repentance involves a whole changing of one’s mind and outlook, an opportunity to embrace thoughts beyond our present limitations, a sense of adventure and challenge to respond to God’s call in a new and different way. When we begin the repentance process, we become whole new people. Turning away from the negative aspects of our lives is not a single act, it’s a whole new life, based in joy and hope, with a clearer understanding of what we should be and are able to be. In my experience, it takes daily reflection and a daily re-adjustment in outlook, purpose, even personal communication style, but it is an opportunity to be a Potter, to repair a pot or make it better.

So, I’m suggesting that, while repentance may start with sorrow and regret, it should progress to joy, to optimism, gratitude, a faith that change really is possible.  Otherwise, what’s the point?

All those people who flooded to the Jordan to be baptized by John the Baptist, weren’t coming out of a sense of hopelessness.  Regret yes. Fear, maybe.  Weariness. Absolutely.  But not hopelessness.  They came because this burly, bug-eating, prophet talked straight to them, promised them a refurbished, sparkling-clean soul, and a new beginning, if they would take time to figure out what had gone wrong, ask God for some guidance, hook up with some other folks who were looking to figure out the same things, and to resolve to live life differently. 

Some 25 years ago, when I was just starting seminary, I took a workshop, sort of a pottery workshop.  The first evening, each of us was given a ball of clay and the lights were turned out.  We were told to hold our hands and the clay under the table and to mold a pot without looking at the clay.  The pot was to represent our Very Being.  The lights were kept out for probably thirty minutes as we each worked our clay never seeing what we were actually forming.  Well, eventually, the lights were turned on and we were allowed to see our pots and ourselves.  (hold up my bowl)  Mine was tiny and lop-sided, cracked, and generally weird-looking.  What’s more, it leaked.  Other people had made elegant pots, with flaring rims, long necks, even pedestals.  Everybody had been given the same amount of clay, but some folks just were more talented than me in making impressive bowls. 

After the workshop, I carefully packed up my pot, and brought it home, trying not to let anyone see it or make fun of it.  But there was no way I was going to throw it away.  If it was my “Very Being”, I was going to look after it – and as you can see, I still have it today.  I think of it every time I hear references to God the Potter, or God the Patient, All-Knowing Craftsperson.

This image of God as All-knowing Maker of Human Beings is carried out in the passage from the 139th Psalm, where David pictures God as knitting him together in the womb, knowing from the beginning everything about him and what was ordained or pre-ordained for him. Those of you who knit may take some pleasure in knowing that God knits, too.  It is quiet, creative work. And it might have been enough to stop our reflections this morning right here – but the Scripture lessons don’t stop, there is more. And it included tougher stuff.

The New Testament and Gospel lessons this morning remind us that following God’s will for our lives will not always be easy.  There is a cost to discipleship, as Dietrich Bonhoffer wrote before his execution.  The sacrifice can be short term or can involve permanent loss, even martyrdom.

Saint Paul is pushing the envelope pretty hard when he writes his letter to the slave-owner Philemon, who is a believer and also owns the house where the little Christian group in his town meets. Paul is sending a slave back to Philemon, the slave’s owner.  We aren’t told that Onesimus is a runaway slave, but we get the strong impression that he has been absent without leave for some time, working along side Paul.  Paul wants him officially freed so that Onesimus can continue to help in Paul’s ministry.  But to free Onesimus has greater ramifications than just being a hefty donation to the church – slaves were expensive commodities.  What would the impact be on Philemon’s other slaves when they learned that Onesimus had been freed?  What would Philemon’s friends in town think of him?  How would they treat him at the next Chamber of Commerce meeting?

We don’t know what Philemon did in response to Paul’s request, but Paul seems pretty confident that he will get his way – even asking Philemon one more thing – prepare a guest room for me, please, because I’m planning to move in with you for a while.

After receiving Paul’s letter, Philemon probably sighed, “When I became a Christian, I had no idea it would be so expensive.”  Paul would argue that he should have known, that he should have thought it through.  Committing oneself to a Christian way of life is not a halfway matter – maybe it doesn’t happen all at once, maybe it takes years of revision and remolding, but eventually, Philemon, you’ll be called upon to do the right thing, regardless of personal cost.  And giving Onesimus his freedom would be the right thing to do.

So we’ve heard from the Prophet Jeremiah, the Psalmist King David, and the Saint, St. Paul.  That leaves for us this morning, the words of Jesus, as offered to us by Luke.

The gospel lesson is also a hard one.  “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”  What is Jesus talking about here?

Well, Jesus is not talking about being emotionally at odds with our families, filled with animosity and spite.  Language changes.  The meaning of words change. The love-hate comparison is a call to make a clear choice about what’s really important to us.  What Jesus is saying is that as much as we might love our families and our own lives, what’s really important is our relationship with him. It’s a big commitment.

Jesus suggests another step before making the decision to follow him.  He says it’s like the builder of a great tower or a political leader planning a great war. We must first sit down and calculate the cost. If the builder or the king determines that the price is too dear, then perhaps it is best not to start the project at all.

Now, Ms. Interim Pastor, you might say, that can’t be right. Didn’t Jesus say he’d take us just the way we are?  That he loves us just the way we are?  That perhaps the journey is the important thing, not the destination.  Is it not better to have tried and fallen short, than to have not tried at all? Yes, I believe these things wholeheartedly.  But I also believe that once we have committed to the journey, we’ve committed to the remolding process no matter how long it takes.  As the process goes on, we may look the same on the outside, but our understanding of the world around us and our place in it will change.  My little clay pot from 25 years ago is still cracked and lop-sided, doesn’t hold water any better than it did long ago, but it has been well-used over the years in group discussions, ceremonies, and now as a sermon illustration. God made something useful out of this pot after all.

So as I’ve prepared my thoughts for today, I’ve decided that maybe the word REPENT does have quite a bit of baggage. It for sure doesn’t cover the whole process and it needs some clarification. The political leaders in Jeremiah’s time had certain issues calling for repentance.  The business leaders and religious leaders had their issues.  But what about the average farmer, the average worker, those folks – and we’re among them – those folks we honor on a given Labor Day?  They, no doubt, had there own individual concerns and their own individual need to take a moment to repent, too, to turn around, to think about their life in relation to God, and to change course accordingly. That’s what being a growing, maturing Christian is all about.  Maybe when we march along with the little white-robed, bearded cartoon prophet, in addition to RE-PENT, our placards should read RE-THINK and RE-COMMIT!

What does this have to do with the first Sunday of the new church year?  Or the first sermon of a preacher coming out of retirement?  Well, for one thing, we have the opportunity to re-pent, re-think and re-commit together. If even for a few months.  And with the Lord’s help, this could be both a challenging, and a joyful experience.  Amen.


Benediction:  The Irish Blessing
May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields and,
Until we meet again,
May God hold you gently in the palm of His hand.


Prayer of the People


God of Love and Grace, you have called us to Re-pent, Re-Think, and Re-Commit to this journey we are on together.  Empower us to always seek your Kingdom first, while keeping us safe in the knowledge and faith that your promise to protect us, guide us, mold us will never fail.

We ask your blessing and healing power for those among us who are facing illness; those of us who are grieving.  We ask your protection for those among us who are traveling.  We give you thanks for the good things in our lives and in the lives of our loved ones.

On this Labor Day weekend, may we also remember that you have blessed us with both labor and rest. We thank you for all those who work hard at their jobs for the good of society. But Lord, our economy is wobbly. Guide our leaders, as we search for ways to shore up that economy and provide work for those of us who are unemployed or underemployed.

O God, remind us that we are not only members of our families and communities, not only citizens of our nation, but also citizens of your world. Teach us, Lord, to pray for our brothers and sisters everywhere; that we be so consumed in love for them that we may feel their needs as much as our own.

We pray for people and places on  your earth where hope must be sustained:

·        for the miners trapped in Chile.

·        for the Palestinian and Israeli leaders currently engaged in another round of peace talks,

·        for the flood victims in Pakistan,

·         for the people of  Iraq and Afghanistan.

We offer these prayers knowing that we are not separate from any person, place, animal or bird.  We are not separate from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and all life within those waters; we are not separate from the churning waters of a hurricane.  We are affected by every event, every war, and every healing that comes to our planet.   As we pray for others, we pray for ourselves, for we are all one. Creator come dwell within us, calm us, heal us, change us, bless us.  In Christ Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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