Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-18, Luke 14:25-33
We have three scriptures today that look at who we are in relationship to God. The Jeremiah passage appears condemning – saying that God will tear down and destroy the evil nation. Psalm 139 is a psalm of comfort that reminds us that we are known before we are even in existence, and that God is beside us in all that we say and do, with us, creating us, supporting us. And finally we end with the passage from Luke which seems to say that we cannot be accepted as disciples unless we give up all we have, including our families.
So how do we reconcile these three passages together? How do we understand who we are to this God who loved and created us, who knows us inside and out - with passages that appear to condemn who we are, our limits and our failings, as completely unacceptable?
Our self-esteem in the Western World is very fragile. And I think there are a lot of reasons for this. For one thing, we are slow to forgive. We like revenge. We like vengeance. We are not just slow to forgive others, we are slow to forgive ourselves. Despite the Lord’s Prayer that we say every single week, and for some of us a whole lot more often than that, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us,” none the less, we struggle to do this….with others and with ourselves.
But second, I think that passages like today’s passage from Jeremiah and today’s passage from Luke make us feel that there is nothing we can do that is “enough”. Looking specifically at the Luke passage, from Feasting on the Word, “Three times in this passage, Jesus says that without definite decision, a person cannot be his disciple. First, he requires a person to hate parents, spouse, children, siblings, and even one's own life. Second, he commands carrying the cross and following him. Third, he demands the giving up of all possessions. Even if we soften his word "hate," Jesus still leaves us with his requirement that we make family ties and normal self-preservation subordinate to following him. The pastoral work of the Christian community involves a clear and frank acknowledgment of the great challenge, the fearsome requirements of becoming and doing what Jesus expects of us.” Jesus also declares that we shouldn’t even begin becoming his disciples unless we are prepared to go all the way. Discipleship costs. In fact, it will cost us everything . So much for family values. And so much for loving others as yourself. It feels when we read passages like this that there is nothing we can do to be accepted and acceptable. How many of us are able to “hate mother and father”? For those of us who take passages such as this seriously, these words hit, hard. Are we ever going to be enough for God? Will we ever be accepted or acceptable?
And then we read passages like the one from Jeremiah. And it would seem that maybe the pain we undergo is a punishment because we aren’t enough, because we haven’t given up enough, because we still care about our stuff, the people in our lives and even our families? So we ask, are the things that are happening punishments for what we have done? When we are going through difficult times is it because we have done evil? And what makes it even harder is when we don’t know what it is that could have led to such pain and punishment. When we search and search our souls but cannot find what it is that we have done that would deserve the hardships we endure. “What did I do to deserve this?” we ask. “Why me?” And it is not just we who do this. We want life to be fair, so we can impose on others reasons for their suffering as well. For example, I had a person this week inform me that the reason my family life has been so challenging these last three years must be because I did something horrible in a past life. The person is familiar with the life I have lived now, can’t find a reason why all of this would have happened to me based on anything I’ve done in this life, and so has made it “fair” in her mind by declaring that I did wrong in my last life. I get it. And passages like the one from Jeremiah make it all the harder to accept that sometimes things just happen because life is not fair.
Brian Konkol, Chaplain of Gustavus Adolphus College confronts these ideas. He said it this way, “One of the intellectual foundations of Western thought is "Cogito ergo sum," or "I think therefore I am." This statement from René Descartes has greatly influenced modern life, especially in the west. It assumes that human existence can be self-reliant, and gives birth to various terms in the English-language with "self" as a prefix. For example, we often hear of self-confidence, self-conscious, self-expression, self-criticism, self-deception, self-defeating, self-denial, self-discipline, self-esteem, self-expression, self-importance, self-improvement, self-interest, self-respect, self-restraint, self-sacrifice—and the list goes on! Amazingly, the equivalent of these "self" words cannot be found in many non-Western languages, which reveals a great deal about our continued fascination with (and celebration of) the so-called "self-made woman" and/or "self-made man." In wonderful contrast to "I think therefore I am," the African philosophy of "ubuntu" states, "I am because we are." Among other things, ubuntu recognizes that individual autonomy is impossible; a person is only a person through being in relationship with other persons. In other words, all people are products of their environment, and thus all people have to rely upon others each and every day. While ubuntu recognizes personal initiative, drive, and the ability to shape our surroundings, it also acknowledges that relationships shape existence, and thus connectedness is essential to a full understanding of life.”
The “clay” that Jeremiah describes in today’s passage, the clay that is remolded and remodeled in this is communal. It is not individuals who are being molded, remolded, plucked down and built up, but God’s will for God’s people. God’s will is being remolded for a community as the community responds or fails to respond to God’s call. God is the same, but God’s actions and plans change, or as today’s scripture said, “If that nation turns from its evil, I will change my mind.” God interacts with us according to how we interact with God. Additionally, the image we are given today from Jeremiah is of a potter who took the clay and did not throw it out when it became marred, but rather shaped and created it into something new and beautiful, something God thought it was best to be. God does not throw out the community, but recreates it, using the clay that already exists – the people who already exist – and making God’s will for it into something better.
Still, this may still sound harsh. But the God of punishment isn’t the God I experience, which isn’t to say that God fails to hold us accountable. I do think God, and life hold us accountable. There are consequences for our actions, and sometimes those are devastating and hurtful. We make mistakes with people and those mistakes can deeply affect our relationships, no matter how much we apologize or strive to make amends, for example. We live in a world that sometimes we cannot fix the mistakes we make, and sometimes we have to live with those consequences. But it is also true that many of the bad things that come to us as individuals are undoubtedly the results of the world we live in, the communal world, the world of our communities and our nations and our earth. Bad things happen all the time, not always because of individuals, but individuals remain affected.
Where is God in this? Well, that’s the other part of this. I do think that God calls us, every time, to learn from the painful experiences, to grow closer to God and closer to what God calls us to be, what God intends for us to be. I can’t put that in a context of punishment, because for me God’s call to make us better, God’s desire for us to grow, is out of love and out of grace.
Malachi 3 reminds us: “ But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.” Because God loves us, God will call us to change, God will remold us, God will refine us. Not comfortable. But if we can see our trials as opportunities for growth, they can be gifts and blessings.
Looking once again at the Luke passage, we need to remember that discipleship is a process. We are all “becoming” disciples, which means that there will be times when we put the needs or demands of other people or ourselves above God. Eventually, we hope not to do this because, as we will discover, when we put God first, the needs of those around us get met. But this really is a process of becoming a disciple. It takes time, it takes commitment to love both God and God’s people. But also, as Bonhoeffer says, "The call to discipleship is a gift of grace and that call is inseparable from grace." Therefore, even as we struggle to be disciples, it is God who gives us the ability to do that, to grow in discipleship and faith.
So, returning to the self-esteem question, are we enough? Are you enough? Well, we are enough that God loves us more than anything. And we are enough that God continues to work with us in becoming the most whole we can be. And that should be the highest comfort indeed. Who are we to judge ourselves as unforgiveable? Who are we to judge ourselves as not good enough? Who are we to fail to love ourselves as our neighbors when God loves us more than anything? So hear the Good News. You are loved. By none other than GOD! That makes you valuable, and worthy and wonderful. God loves YOU. And that is an amazing and wondrous blessing indeed.