|Lectionary||1st Reading||Psalm||2nd Reading||Gospel|
Notes on each reading
Comments on Jeremiah 18:1-11
The image of a potter forming something beautiful and purposeful from a shapeless lump of clay is universal across time and space. In the UK and USA there have been recent TV series ‘The Great Pottery Throwdown’ (BBC / Channel 4 / HBO), and of course there’s the famous pottery scene in the film ‘Ghost’ (1990) with Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze! In Jeremiah’s visit to the potter’s house, the emphasis is not entertainment or romance but God’s sovereign purposes in shaping and reshaping nations to his purposes. Jeremiah’s context of looming judgment and exile for Israel are not signs that God has lost interest or abandoned his people but that, even in their disobedience, he is taking this useless lump of clay and reshaping it for a future purpose. Perhaps the key phrases for us to apply in preaching today are v.8 ‘if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned’, and v.11 ‘So, turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions’. Although today’s context is very different, there are analogues between Israel’s abandonment of God’s covenant and pursuit of false gods, and the disaster and judgment we are bringing upon ourselves globally, nationally and individually, through overconsumption, fossil-fuel addiction, destruction of nature and the worship of self-reliance and greed. We as humans are, in one sense, no more than lumps of clay, Adam from ‘adamah’ (earth or soil), made from the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7). Without God’s breath, God’s Spirit, we are just clay-based, carbon-based life-forms. As humus-formed humans we need the humility to ‘reform’ our ways and our actions or, rather, to let the Divine potter re-form and re-shape us, as individuals, churches, and nations.
Comments on Psalm 139:1-5, 12-18
Psalm 139 is, not surprisingly, many people’s favourite psalm. Whereas Jeremiah 18 pictures nations as inanimate lumps of clay (albeit in the hands of the master potter), here we are individually known, personally shaped and crafted, both precious and significant. Along with Genesis 1:28 (created ‘in the image of God’) and Psalm 8 (‘a little lower than the angels’), this passage has been used to underscore a sense of human exceptionalism: the idea that humanity is fundamentally different from and superior to the rest of creation. Yet, that is not the purpose of these wonderful words. God’s detailed knowledge of, and personal care for each of us is not at the expense of God’s care and knowledge of other creatures. In verse 14 we read both, ‘I am fearfully and wonderfully made’, and ‘your works are wonderful’. God’s creative skill and intimate care are expressed not only for humans but towards every single aspect of creation, as Psalms 19:1-6, 50:10-11, 104, 15:9 and 148 amongst others all proclaim. What is most extraordinary and wonderful is that the God who is big enough to have crafted the vastness of the universe and the beauty of biodiversity can also know and love each of us individually. That should cause us to wonder, to worship and to respond in seeking to care, as God does, for our fellow humans and all our fellow creatures.
Comments on Philemon 1-21
Philemon is a short and unusual letter, written by Paul in prison. Most of it is not theology as such, but pastoral and ethical advice in the very specific context of slavery in the ancient world. It would be stretching this to apply it directly to environmental issues today, but what it does touch on fundamentally is how Christian faith transforms human relationships. Onesimus was a slave and thus, according to Roman law, no more than a possession to Philemon. There are hints (v.18) that he might have wronged his owner, perhaps running away or stealing from him. For that the penalty would be death, or at least severe punishment and servitude. Yet, in Christ, Onesimus is a new creation, ‘a fellow man and a brother in the Lord’ (v.16). Paul speaks of him as ‘my very heart’ and ‘a dear brother’ (vs.12, 16), intimate language he uses elsewhere only of Timothy. Paul appeals to Philemon to welcome him back as he would welcome Paul himself. Today we still live in a world of enormous inequality and climate injustice where Christians living in situations of privilege and power should feel challenged, like Philemon, to ignore their property or legal ‘rights’ and act with Christlike generosity and humility towards their dear sisters and brothers. Whilst politicians exploit selfish feelings to protect the wealth that rich nations have largely made at the expense of others, Christians should stand up, personally and politically, to show we follow a different Lord.
Comments on Luke 14:25-33
‘The Cost of Discipleship’, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was one of the most influential Christian books of the 20th century. Written in the looming shadow of Nazism, where the temptation towards self-protection through compromise was real, Bonhoeffer emphasized that there is no cheap Gospel. Living this out was to cost him his own life. In this Gospel reading from Luke 14, Jesus makes it clear that whilst grace and forgiveness may be freely received, discipleship comes at a cost. If we are to be disciples, to really follow Jesus, we are called to put him, and his Kingdom values, before all else. The examples Jesus gives address two areas which, then and now, can easily dilute our discipleship: family (v.26) and material possessions (v.33). Luke’s Gospel speaks more of Jesus’ family than any other yet Jesus speaks of ‘hating’ parents, spouse, siblings and children … and even oneself. Jesus often used hyperbole but, just as his words on plucking out your own eye if it leads you astray (Matthew 5:29-30), the meaning is not literally to hate, but to ensure family / eyes do not prevent our single-minded focus on following Jesus. As we apply this passage to following Jesus in an age of ecological catastrophe, injustice and over-consumption, Jesus’ words on giving up everything we have to follow him bring our biggest challenge. In Luke’s account, Jesus delivers these words whilst in the house of a prominent, and no doubt wealthy, Pharisee, so they have particular relevance to those of us from affluent and religiously devout backgrounds.
Suggested Sermon Outline: The cost of discipleship in a changing climate
‘Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. … In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.’ (Luke 14: 27, 33)
Talk about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s ‘The Cost of Discipleship’, the context of Nazi Germany, and how his own pursuit of following Jesus cost him his life. Fast forward to our current world, with a rapidly-changing climate. Give some topical examples from your own country, and from stories in the global news. Use the picture of the ‘burning bush’ (https://seasonofcreation.org) and the theme ‘Listen to the Voice of Creation’. What might God be saying to us through the groaning of creation? What are those most affected by climate change and ecological collapse saying to us? What does it mean carry our cross and follow Jesus in a time of climate change?
- We need to be re-formed: use the Jeremiah 18 passage and the image of God reshaping Israel (see notes above). The passage is mainly about nations, but applies also to churches / communities, and to individuals. The passage speaks of God relenting from judgment if the people repent, and God then literally re-forming them – reshaping them to a new purpose. Are we prepared to recognise our need and place ourselves in the hands of the potter
- We need to restore relationships: use Paul’s letter to Philemon concerning Onesimus to speak about inequality and injustice between slave and master then, and in global relationships today – between nations and individuals. Our hearts need changing to see migrants, refugees and our Christian sisters and brothers in the global South as ‘my very heart’ and ‘my dear brother / sister’. In Christ we have a new family – not based on ancestry and DNA, but based on being made new creations in Christ. Jesus’ strong words on ‘hating’ family should challenge us deeply about who we really care about.
- We need to reduce our addiction to stuff! Jesus very bluntly tells us: ‘those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples’ (Luke 14:33). Which matters more to us: our security, home, bank balance and pension provision, or God’s kingdom of justice and peace? Jesus was speaking in the home of a well-known Pharisee, somebody who was devoutly religious, including in their giving, and probably fairly wealthy. Today we have all the solutions we need to address the ecological challenges we face. The problem is not the science or technology. It is us. We can blame politicians or big business, but they ultimately answer to voters and shoppers. The problem is people. We are resistant to giving up our comforts, to reducing our addiction to air travel, to new tech (phones, TVs, laptops), to keeping our homes artificially hot or cold, to eating whatever we feel like. We place convenience before conscience, and comfort before God’s Kingdom.
As Christians we are called to follow Jesus, whatever the cost. Today, Jesus’ challenging words on money and possessions call us to take our cross and follow him. Follow Jesus to a life of greater simplicity, to being re-formed from our selfish consumerism into a new community which models the way of God’s kingdom.
Revd Dr Dave Bookless
Revd Dr Dave Bookless was born in India and has lived in multicultural Southall, London for over 30 years. He works for A Rocha International (www.arocha.org) as Director of Theology, speaking and writing about creation care, and has lectured in over 40 countries. He also serves as an Anglican priest in London Diocese, is a Catalyst for Creation Care with the Lausanne Movement, and has contributed to over 25 books.