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Monday, August 30, 2010
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 OR Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Psalm 1:1-6, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

This week’s lectionary scriptures seem to be mostly about what it’s like to be in relationship with God, and the choices that are placed before us as a result. The images are a challenge at times—kind of scary even. Consider the image from Jeremiah in this week’s readings. God is a potter and we are the clay. (Jeremiah 18:6) While it can be spoken of as a metaphor, what is a metaphor but an attempt to capture some elusive truth using comparison? The truth here seems to be that God can do pretty much whatever God wants to us. We are clay in God’s hands. In fact, in this reading, God seems ready to break the clay down and start over again. (vss. 7-11) How does it feel when we think of ourselves as clay in the hands of the divine potter? In a chorus we ask the Spirit of the Living God to melt us, mold us, fill us, use us. Are we really that ready to put our lives into God’s hands?
Of course, as is usually the case in the message of the prophets, there is a choice. God’s intent is to build up (vs. 9) but it is dependent upon the choice of the people. (vss. 10-11) Isn’t it amazing that we are created with choice? Sometimes we’re overwhelmed with images of judgment in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament—but also in the New. Behind such images, however, is the reality of human choice. We choose ways that bring good results or ways that are destructive. Choice is always before us. How we use the power of choice is a profoundly spiritual question. Notice also that these verses are not addressed to an individual, but to an entire nation. The choices nations make are at least as consequential as those made by individuals. If that’s the case, then we’d better be paying attention to the choices our nation makes.
There’s one aspect of the image that Jeremiah doesn’t much develop. The story starts with Jeremiah watching an actual potter at work and realizing that God is like what. (vss. 1-4) I imagine that he was watching a potter who cared deeply about his or her work and kept at it, lovingly shaping and reshaping it until its full potential is realized.
Psalm 139 offers another image of intimacy with God. God knows every part of our being. (Psalm 139:1-6) Again, it’s kind of overwhelming and scary, but don’t we all long for someone to know us completely, every strength and weakness, even the most perverse aspects of our being, and still accept and love us? The older I get the more I realize that there are secrets within that no one knows, and certainly no single person who knows all there is to know about me. The great love chapter, I Corinthians 13, speaks of a time “I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Love and being “fully known” seem to go together.
This week’s reading from Deuteronomy takes us back to the theme of choice. We are called to choose between life and death. (Deuteronomy 30:15 & 19) We sometimes talk about something being a matter of “life or death.” My take on the spiritual journey we all travel is that the choices we make are all a matter of “life and death.” It’s not that we should agonize or be immobilized by every little decision, but somewhere in our awareness should be the realization that everything we do builds up or tears down, leads to life or death, figuratively or literally, for us and others. This passage says that “loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him . . . means life to you.” (vs. 20)
Psalm 1 is an idyllic description on one who chooses “life.” Someone I knew published a book entitled, “Life Comes As Choice.” This Psalm is another reminder of that truth, another occasion for us to reflect on what is means to be people with the power to choose and the consequences of our choices for ourselves and others.
The reading from Luke 14 is a sober look at the process of choosing. Choosing affects our relationships with our family, for example. (vs. 26) What happens when one partner has a job opportunity 2000 miles away? Choices can have monetary consequences. This job pays more than that job. If I want to get more education I’m going to have to come up with the money somewhere. Central to Jesus message as he spoke to the crowds on that day was, “Count the cost. Consider what you’re getting into if you follow me.” (vs. 29) I’m not sure I like the cost Jesus suggests. “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” (vs. 33)
Surely Jesus doesn’t mean it literally. In the context of life and ministry in his day, he probably did, at least for those who “hit the road” with him. Understanding what it might mean in our day and age seems a little more complicated. At the very least it is likely that living the life Jesus intends us to live means our first priority will not be getting the big bucks and accumulating all the possessions we can. The choice he puts before us is to carry a cross, i.e., to give ourselves in service to others. We may do that from a lot of different places in a lot of different places, but he has given us a principle to apply in the making of choices. It is the principle of love and service, symbolized in a cross.
The epistle of Paul to Philemon comes almost as a case study of choosing, presenting us with the challenge Paul places before his friend and co-worker Philemon. It is a letter of only one chapter, twenty-one verses long, yet it confronts Philemon with a choice which can put his social standing in jeopardy. Paul is asking his friend to defy a social custom of his day in a dramatic and visible way.
Slavery was a regular practice of Paul’s day. Paul is writing on behalf of Onesimus, a slave who escaped service with Philemon. Paul is writing from prison, where he is no stranger to bondage. Onesimus has become a great help to Paul during his time in prison. (verses 10-11) Now he is sending Onesimus back to Philemon. (vss. 12-14)
But, says Paul, I have a stunning proposal. I want you to take him back as a brother rather than as a slave. I, Paul, will pay whatever his escape has cost you, but then let’s put this slavery thing in the past. You and Onesimus need to start over on a new basis, on equal footing.
The seeds of revolution are sown. Philemon’s world will never be the same. And Paul makes it a matter of “love.” “I . . . appeal to you on the basis of love.” (vs. 9) Paul often thanks God for the people with whom he ministers, whose love he has observed in action. (vss. 4-7) And in the final verse Paul expresses his confidence that “you will do even more than I say.” (vs. 21)
Today’s reading calls us to choose life and shows us a power that can undergird our choices. Let’s encourage one another, confident that we can do far more than we might imagine.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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