Anthony S. Kill September 18, 2016 16th Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Jeremiah 18:1-6; Luke 14:25-33

Today’s gospel passage starts right out with one of those ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus.
‘You can’t be my disciple unless you hate your family, hate your life,
take up your cross, and give it all up.’

By now I’m sure some of you have heard enough sermons on these sayings of Jesus
to know that “hate” in the way Jesus sometimes uses it in the Gospels
is a Semitic expression that means “to turn away from, to detach oneself from,”
It’s really not calling for animosity or rejection between family members;
rather, perhaps, it’s calling for a certain detachment or separation from them.
In a sense, Jesus is saying, we need to be identified with something more than
our family tree or our heritage or our relatives’ contributions or accomplishments.
He’s saying we need to be committed to a goal
beyond our immediate bonds and obligations and everyday concerns.

And perhaps that’s what Jesus is suggesting about our all our goals and plans
– even about our best goals and plans;
even about our church’s goals and plans.
If true discipleship in following the way of Jesus is not our ultimate goal,
every other goal is a false idol.
If we don’t acknowledge that God is the one and only potter of our lives,
all our plotting and planning is in vain.

If striving for growth in your church’s membership is rooted only
in a desire to be bigger and stronger as a congregation,
then your striving is in vain.
It must be rooted in the conviction that people around you need to hear
the good news of a loving, forgiving, nurturing all-inclusive God,
and you have the obligation and opportunity and the privilege
to be the vessel of that living water.

If the upkeep and cleaning and improvements you make to the church
are only for the sake of your own building
and your pride in this beautiful historic edifice
then your labor is in vain,
You’ll have the proverbial half-built tower.
Instead, your goal must be maintaining a church
to be a beacon for all who need the light of Christ’s grace and God’s love.
That’s the kind of tower you need to maintain:
a bright and sturdy lighthouse for those cast about on the stormy seas of life.

I’d like to turn our attention to that first reading from the prophet Jeremiah.
It’s a powerful image of how God works in our lives – our individual lives,
and the lives of our congregations.
I included a Thought for Reflection in today’s bulletin. I will often do that.
Allow me to read it aloud as well.
This from a 2nd-century theologian Irenaeus,
who was bishop of what is now Lyons, France.

It is not you who shape God;
it is God who shapes you.
If then you are the work of God,
await the hand of the Artist
who does all things in due season.
Offer the Potter your heart,
soft and tractable,
and keep the form in which
the Artist has fashioned you.
Let your clay be moist,
lest you grow hard and lose
the imprint of the Potter’s fingers.

And I’ll share another poem that reflects on this image.
It’s by Yvonne Morland, from the Iona Community in Scotland,
and it’s titled The Cup,

We come, original clay to Your hand,
ready to be moulded to Your purpose,
wet with the living waters.

Humble, we submit to the power of Your will,
we begin to spin into life.
Awry and out of balance,
we long for your centring touch
yet resist on first contact.

Full of the words and images of the world,
we swing this way and that
till Your firm hand grasps us, pulls us back,
draws us to the centre,
spinning into rings.

Yielding, we spin, begin to sing,
picking up the rhythm,
rising and falling
becoming smooth
forming and filling

Slowing, we spin,
vessel we become,
vessel to be shared,
full of the living waters.

These readings remind us how we as believers and spiritual seekers
are called to be open, to be molded into the vessel that God wills us to be.
“Molded to God’s purpose” as Morland’s poem puts it.

Now that’s true about us as individual Christians,
as we strive to understand God’s will for us,
to better be and become the instrument of grace that God calls us to be,
but it’s also true for us as congregations, as a gathered community of believers.
And I think it is especially pertinent during a time of transition in a congregation,
such as this interim time between pastors.
It is a time to ask, ‘Who is God calling us to be in the future?’
‘What kind of vessel of grace can this congregation become
in the next phase of our church’s long history?’
You can remember and celebrate the vessel of living water you have been,
and the vessel of ministry you are now at this point in your history,
even as you ask ‘What new history will we make, by God’s grace?’
‘And what kind of pastoral leadership should we seek
to lead us into this new and challenging and exciting future?’

The church isn’t called just to serve the members of the church,
or to grow the membership,
or to take spiritual care of the people who are already here.

This congregation, like every congregation is to be a house of disciples,
an instrument of service, a vessel of living water for the larger community
– the larger community of North Andover, and of Greater Lawrence,
and of the Merrimac Valley, and of God’s whole wide world.

So in this time of transition, you will be encouraged to ask other questions as well,
Questions such as:
‘How has the community around us changed over the years?’
and ‘How can we serve that new community now?’
As the lawyer asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor”
Who is the neighbor we are called to love and serve now and in the years ahead?
Who is God calling you to become, as a church molded to God’s purpose,
a vessel of living water for the community around you?

But be warned:
If God is the potter, and we are the clay, you may indeed find yourselves being shaped
and molded into someone you did not expect to become.
Being molded anew means being changed. God the Potter may surprise you.
In fact, God the potter will always surprise you, individually and as a congregation.
Surprise you with some new grace, some new vision, some new challenge or blessing
that you did not expect to find in your path.

So, plan to be changed this year.
Plan to be a different person by 2017 or 2018 than you are now.
Plan to be a different church in a year or two than you are now.
Not just a year older, but changed in your heart and soul and identity.
If you encounter and follow the Living Christ this year — and I certainly hope you do
— you will carry some new crosses and find yourself carried on new pathways,
some worn and familiar, some brand new and strange.

Some doors may close that you’d hoped would be open,
and some securities and comforts that you take for granted in your life
may cease to be so secure or comfortable.
But other doors will open, and new opportunities and visions
will emerge on the horizon, even as the old disappear in the distance.

And if this church a faithful vessel of God’s Word in the world,
then here is one of the places that you might meet that living Christ in your life.
Not just here in the sanctuary on Sunday morning
( though I certainly hope Christ will meet you here too!) but in the life of the Church:
–in the late hours of a church meeting;
— in serving a meal at a Lawrence soup kitchen
–in the invitation to join a new committee
or to help with a project that you’ve never done before;
–in a mission opportunity or a challenge of stewardship;
–in a needy neighbor, or a new face in the pew.
–in the harder questions of your increasingly independent children,
or the loneliness or sorrows of your aging and ailing friends or loved ones.
Let your soul and your spirit – your very self – be formed and molded
by these moments into the shape of the saint
that God intends you – and you uniquely – to become.
And let the spirit of this gathered congregation be formed and molded
into the spiritual body that Christ calls the church to become,
re-molded, renewed and transformed in every generation
Then you together will be that vessel of living water, that instrument of grace,
that lighthouse of refuge for all who seek life in abundance,
life everlasting, life in the realm of God.