A tree whose hungry mouth is prest against the sweet earth’s
a tree that looks at God all day, and lifts her leafy arms to pray;
a tree that may in summer wear a nest of robins in her hair;
upon whose bosom snow has lain;
who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”
The texts for today speak about perseverance. In Jeremiah God promises to love and forgive people in spite of any past misgivings or sinful ways. Paul, writing to Timothy, reminds him that he must be persistent in proclaiming the gospel whether the timing is favorable or unfavorable, to convince, rebuke and encourage with the utmost patience in teaching. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus told a parable about a woman who continually went to a judge to plead her case. The judge is the metaphor for God, who continually hears the cries of people, who repeatedly come to God in prayer. God answers all prayers, but the greatest concern is, “How many will continue to seek God in their lives and live out their faith until Jesus comes again? Will any faithful be left?
2. practice endurance (vv.10-13). The world is going in many directions and Paul experienced multiple hardships for being focused on bringing people to God. Our faith and the grace of God enable us to continue in spite of our failures and sometimes faithlessness. When we die with Christ in baptism, we are raised to new life; a life that reigns with Christ as he reigns over the world. It is not an easy life but God is always faithful, even in our weaknesses.
3. avoid stupid arguments (vv. 14, 16, 23) Christians seem to get energized by arguing over minor points in the faith. Paul reminds Timothy that Christians should not wrangle over words that can ruin those who are listening. Such arguments can lead to “profane chatter” that leads people to be less than Christian. Paul urges Timothy to correct opponents with gentleness so that “God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth.” Licensed, God approved Christians should focus on things like the gospel, the Kingdom of God and the Word of God.
4. rightly explain the world of truth. Approved equals tried and tested in Greek. Wrestling with the truth of God as he or she studies the Scriptures and tests them out in his or her own life and all the while focusing on prayer and Bible study.
5. pursue purity . Just as a kitchen contains many utensils, some are used often and others are at the back of drawers; all can do their job if they are clean. All will become “special” utensils if they are ready for work.
The point of being an approved Christian worker is not for ourselves, it is for God’s work, to be used by God for divine purposes. We need to be clean and ready to be on the job. The license of faith we receive is not something that shines through in our wallet or purse, it is something that shines through us as followers of Christ. (Old song, “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Gonna Let it Shine”) We are to continue to work on our skills as part of God’s overall plan for changing us so that we can participate iwth God in changing the world. No trip to the DMV is necessary, only a daily commitment to doing our best for God and the mission to which we are called.
Years ago when I was a stay at home mom with little ones, I participated in the “Welcome Wagon.” It was a fellowship for new families moving into the area. We had a babysitting co-op, craft groups and dining groups ,which included a gourmet cooking group. If you have seen my kitchen, you know that I have collected cook books for over fifty years. One of my favorites at that time was called The Silver Palate Cook Book and it often called for various types of gourmet mustard: Dijon, coarse mustard with honey, mustard with Cajun spices and other tasty varieties. The mustard seed is very small and the plants grow into shrubs. Mustard seed is quite nutritious in that it is more than 40% protein. The mustard seed was used by Jesus as a model for the Kingdom of God, which initially starts small, like faith, and grows to be the biggest of all garden plants. Some of the recipes in my cookbook took a lot of faith to prepare but the time and effort were worthwhile in the end result. What matters to Jesus is not the quantity of our faith, nor how long it takes before it blooms but if we put our faith into service to build up the Kingdom of God.
Mark Sheerin is currently a financial planner for a wealth management firm in Atlanta, Georgia. He is chief operations officer and part owner, overseeing business for the company and implementing client portfolios. He used to work in third world countries for World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization that tackles the causes of poverty and injustice worldwide for children, families and their communities. He has been asked if working for the financially well off or for the poor is a greater mission? He wrote an article for Christianity Today. “If poverty is understood in terms of social constructs rather than economic ones, the playing field levels between the refugees and the investment banker. I did not come to call the truly faithful to the mission field, the less faithful to the pastorate and the barely faithful to finance,” said Sheering. Sheerin maintains that finance and feeding starving children both amount to good work in God’s eyes. Jesus’ mission was to conquer sin and its effects in all forms and in every place. Fighting against economic injustice through World Vision or through a financial planning firm are both mandated by God. Both tasks are valuable, both tasks seek redemption of broken systems and fallen people. Instead of digging wells, Sheerin now walks through the jungle of probate with widows. Instead of sponsoring children, his firm partners with families through difficult, end-of-life decisions.
Not everyone would agree with Sheerin’s conclusion, but most of us would acknowledge that a life of dutiful faith can be lived in many different types of employment and careers. Luke 17 is one of five places in the gospels where Jesus comments about a mustard seed. Three speak of the Kingdom of God being like a mustard seed (Matthew 13:1-32; Mark 4:30-33; Luke 13:18-19), one speaks to the disciples to explain why they were unable to cure a demon possessed boy (Matthew 17:20) and today’s text which responds to the disciples’ request that he increase their faith. Because of the size of mustard seeds, we tend to parallel this metaphor as a comment on the quantity of faith one possesses. NOT SO! Jesus is responding to the disciples’ request for more faith but their need is not for more faith, only a redirecting of the faith they have toward dutiful service to God rather than grandiose exploits.
There is not a heroic figure in this parable like the Good Samaritan, it does not tug at our heartstrings like the Prodigal Son, and no one gets shut out of heaven as in the Rich Man and Lazarus account. This parable has to do with “your servant,” who labors long hours in the field and is expected to fix dinner for his master before having any food himself. Point is: Does our servant deserve thanks for doing what is expected of him? Does your employer deserve thanks for giving you eight hours of work? NO and NO! Jesus says to the disciples seeking more faith, “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘we are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty’ ” (NIV). “Unworthy” really bites because it implies that no matter how much we do in service to God, we are only doing what is expected and it is impossible to do more than what is expected of us. We can never put God in our debt. In relationship to God, we are always servants. We do what we are told to do and should not expect special credit.
Even though the parable tells us not to expect divine thanks for serving God, there are times when someone says “Thank you” in a heartfelt way. When we see someone lifted from trouble because of our efforts or they relate some remark from a Sunday school lesson that helped them to make a positive career choice, we are uplifted and encouraged. It is nice to experience “warm fuzzies” occasionally, but in Jesus’ parable, he stresses that we should serve God because it is the right thing to do. Doing the right thing brings a satisfaction of its own. Today young couples work long hours and their bodies are in overdrive to achieve everything listed on their daily planners. Sometimes indoor household chores are divided and sometimes outdoor chores and the car care belong to one person alone. If either partner were to come home late, find the table set and pleasant aromas emanating from the kitchen, it would be greatly appreciated. Both people live in the house and keeping it clean, laundry done and meals on the table is shared responsibility. Why should either person be thanked for doing what is necessary to live decently? There can even be satisfaction in serving God when no thanks seems to be forthcoming. Responsibilities are part and parcel of any gift (When my kids were younger, I used to tell them that when they opened a gift, they were obligated to write a thank you note. If they did not want to write the note, do not open the gift! It was surprising how many notes they wrote), including the gift of faith which the disciples had sought from Jesus when they asked him to increase their faith.
The parable Jesus told invites us to see ourselves in relation to God as servants in our work, our church role, in moments of leisure and in the unexpected things that come to us and require a response. We do not earn our way into the Kingdom of God but we are granted entrance because of God’s graciousness to us.
There is an old story about a man seeking entrance into heaven based on good work and has been adapted to Mr. Sheerin’s experiences:
The man came to the Pearly Gates and asked St. Peter for admission. “On what basis?” Peter asked. “Well,” said the man, “I worked most recently in the world of financial management and I worked hard to follow God’s will.” “Yes,” said Peter, “But we expected that.” “Well, earlier I worked several years at low wages in the mission field. I tackled the causes of poverty and injustice in the Third World. I worked directly with children, families and their communities. I even helped people escape from human traffickers.” “We know” Peter said, “but that all needed to be done.” “I have worked hard to be faithful ever since God called me.” “And your point is?” said Peter. “That is all I have got! There is nothing more but the grace of God.” “Exactly,” said St. Peter, opening the gate. “C’mon in.” If mustard were like faith, would a little dab do ya? How big a dab do you need?
Sunny Day Sweepin’ the clouds away
On my way to where the air is sweet (sung)
Who knows what show this theme song has been sung on for the last 40 years? American children, at least those with televisions in their homes, have been exposed to these words of the children’s television series, Sesame Street. Kids love and parents replay the song in their heads at the oddest moments, tormented by its repetition. In fact, it ran through my head repeatedly from 1am to 3am this morning, just because I knew that I was going to sing it to you as part of my message this morning. My question to you is how would you get to this place? It has no official address.
In rural American there are still unnamed and unmapped roads. Just try looking some addresses up on Mapquest and see where you might be directed! Residents of McDowell County, West Virginia pick up their mail at the post office. The 224 residents of Bartley, West Virginia consider “the old grade school” to be a landmark, even though it burned to the ground years ago. Did you ever live in an area where they would give directions to someone’s home in the country: drive down Main Street, go pass the old train round house (gone for 40years) until you get to the dead end where the brickyard was (where they used to make bricks for the kilns in the three potteries–all closed and the brickyard had been gone for 35 years), turn right and cross the railroad tracks. Go two miles and turn left at the big oak tree. Turn right at the third driveway with white pebbles. To get from point to point, you follow well known hollows (hollers in West Virginia), dirt roads and dry riverbeds.
Times are a-changing and addresses are appearing in rural West Virginia; street names like “Git-R-Done Dr.”, “Beer Can Alley” and “Dog Bone Dr.” are materializing. The prophet Jeremiah wondered if the Israelites knew how to get to the Potter’s House to hear God’s words. The prophet found his way and met the potter holding a spoiled vessel of clay and he re-worked it into another vessel. Jeremiah recognized that the potter’s work was an illustration of how God was shaping the people of Israel. The clay in the potter’s hand was just like Israel in God’s hand. Jeremiah realized that God controls the fate of entire groups of people as easily as a potter manipulates a lump of clay.
Sometimes the clay starts looking crumbly, but improves. “At one moment, says the Lord, “I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it”(vv7-8). At other times, the clay starts out looking good, but goes bad. “At another moment,” says God, “I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it”(vv.9-10).
Jeremiah is reminding us that God is in control constantly working and re-working us into vessels that seem good to him. If we turn from evil, says Jeremiah, we will be shaped into something wonderful. If we persist in ignoring God and living selfish and sinful lives, we will be radically refashioned. Remember the old hymn, “Have thine own way, Lord! Have thine own way. Thou art the potter, I am the clay.” We sang it this morning. We are not so good at waiting as folks were one hundred years ago when the hymn was written, let alone “yielded and still.” We want to make and mold our own lives, instead of allowing ourselves to be made and molded. We want our own way, not the way of the divine potter. How can we get to the Potter’s House?
Steps to the Potter’s House:
1. Path to the Potter’s House begins with learning the right address. At this particular location, God is not expecting us to show up in some kind of perfect final form, nor is God waiting to jump on us to punish us for our sins. At the proper place on Potter’s House Lane, God shapes us into the people God wants us to be. We are permitted to be “works in progress.” There was a little sign by an artist that said, “Be patient with me, God is not finished with me, yet.”
2. Make a turn, turn from evil ways and God will change God’s mind about the direction to go. Turning and changing is the language of molding and making Nothing is fixed; everything is changing.
3. When you get to the destination, allow the potter to work with your clay as the potter chooses. Let yourself be shaped and re-shaped. Don’t worry about the shape you are in now. The potter can re-shape you.
Has your doctor ever told you that you are in great shape for the shape you are in? Do not fixate on the flaws of the past; the potter can purify you. Do not stress about the wrong turns you have made in the past; the potter can move you in a new direction.
Jeremiah 18:11 says to amend your ways, amend your doings. Allow the divine potter to make you and mold you, according to his will. Open yourself to being filled with the Holy Spirit until all shall see Christ only, always, living in me. Transformation is painful, because we like our old ways. We prefer our own doings and routines but waiting for God and yielding to God run counter to our daily routines.
Unless we find the potter’s address, we will never be shaped into the people God wants us to be. We will end up being less loving, graceful, hopeful, connected and content than we could be. We will never experience the truly abundant and everlasting life that we could enjoy. Take a turn toward the place where God will remold you. Do not be distracted by remote roads and dry riverbeds or pebble driveways.
Since Jesus was so opposed to the Pharisees’ interpretation of the Law and their hunger for power and authority, it is peculiar to me at first glance, that he would be receptive to going to a Pharisee’s home to eat a meal on the Sabbath. The Pharisees were always so willing to scrutinize Jesus’ teaching and activities, and were constantly looking for an opportune moment to trap him for what they perceived to be a violation of the Law. Luke says, “They were watching him closely.” However, the scrutiny was mutual in that Luke records Jesus’ perfect response, “When Jesus noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable” (v. 7), which became a prototype for the kind of etiquette Jesus was promoting for the Kingdom of God. Jesus had no patience with arrogant celebrations and/or behavior. He did not like prolonged, premeditated and excessive celebrations. He likened the parable to a feast. He cautioned participants not to sit down in the places of honor, lest someone more distinguished show up and give the host a reason to say, “Give this person your place” causing you to take a walk of shame to a lower place.” AWK-WARD! Jesus advises, “When you are invited, go and sit down in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit with you’ ” (v. 10).
The point of the parable is that in the Kingdom of God we come as shirt-tail relatives to the marriage feast of the Lord and discover to our amazement that the host has saved the places of honor for us. Rather than being last on the invited guest list, we are called “friends” of the bridegroom (Jesus) in the presence of all. Our true identity, says Jesus is not that of a distant acquaintance. We are among those who sit with the most High as Christ’s friends and equals.
This kind of behavior is not a sign of arrogance, rather it puts you in the Humility Hall of Fame, a concept which is an oxymoron and illogical. Our culture is teaching a totally different kind of action. Children want trophies just for participating in sports, not for winning tournaments. Parents expect their kids to be admitted to Ivy League colleges, even though only one in ten will get in. College students want A’s, not because they have studied hard and learned a lot but because they showed up for class and paid $3000 tuition for the class!
And what about reality television, full of people who become famous for outrageous behavior, not for any particular skills or achievements: The Real Husbands of Hollywood, Jersey Shore, The Bachelor, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, just to name a few. Jesus makes a prediction that should be heeded by the reality television stars and all of us. “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (v.11).
Senator George McGovern died last year, a Democrat who lost to Republican Richard Nixon. McGovern was no coward. He was a decorated bomber pilot in World War II, who served his country bravely and well. His staff urged him to talk about his war experiences, but like many veterans, he was reluctant to do so. He referred to himself as the son of a Methodist minister; a “good old South Dakota boy” who went off to war and had been married to the same woman forever. In short, he was humble. Maybe that humility served him well, because at the end of his life he was awarded the World Food Prize along with Republican Senator Bob Dole. Dole wrote in The Washington Post that “our most important commonality–the one that would unite us during and after our Capitol Hill service, was our shared desire to eliminate hunger in this country and around the world. As colleagues in the 1970s on the Senate Hunger and Human Needs Committee, we worked together to reform the Food Stamp Program, expand the domestic school lunch program and establish the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
Later, they worked in tandem to strengthen global feeding, nutrition and education programs. They jointly proposed a program to provide poor children with meals at schools in countries throughout Africa, Asia, Latin American and Eastern Europe, a program supported by both presidents Clinton and Bush, which now succeeds in providing meals to 22 million children in 41 different countries. McGovern and Dole, Democrat and Republican. Both fought in World War II. Both ran for president and lost, but neither are losers. Losers do not work together quietly and effectively to provide meals to 22 million children.
Jesus has concern for feeding the hungry, especially those who have no way to repay generosity shown to them. He says, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or brothers or relatives or rich neighbors in case they may invite you in return and you would be repaid” (v.12). Most of us have dinners or gatherings for exactly the groups Jesus mentions. We enjoy feeding them and being fed by them. But Jesus tells us to go a different direction and think of hungry children, whether they are 2 or 2 million. “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (vv.13-14). Feed those who cannot repay you, commands Jesus. Make lunch or dinner for these people, not folks who easily pay you back with a lunch or dinner of their own. And do not just make it a meal, make it a celebration!
As followers of Jesus, we ought to work harder to make Christianity the most popular institution in the land. Being a follower of Jesus is a counter-cultural game to play, one that is based on the belief that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (v.11). Anything and everything we do to serve others without expectation of a payback will be seen as a success in the eyes of Jesus, and will move us closer to the expected etiquette in the Kingdom of God.