Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
I have long admired hand-made pottery. So when a friend who had been throwing pots for some time asked me if I would be interested in learning, I was more than enthusiastic. All of my exposure to wheel-thrown pottery indicated a serene, meditative act, and I could use a bit more of that in my life. The first day at the wheel, I held my newly kneaded lump of clay, eager for peaceful art-making, when my friend instructed me to raise up my clay in both hands and slam it down on the wheel.
“Slam?” I asked, perplexed.
“Slam,” she answered.
It took a few tries and her vigorous convincing that I should put some power into it, but eventually my clay was forcefully adhered to the wheel, secured against slippage. Next, she taught me to wet the clay, exerting pressure from the side of the lump with one hand, and from the top of it with the other. Between the spinning of the wheel and the pressure from top and side, she explained, the clay is forced to the center of the wheel, laying the foundation for an even pot. This was not the serene process I had envisioned, but instead, a work of forceful and radical re-shaping.
In our texts for this week, we catch a glimpse of our own forceful re-shaping at the hand of God. In Jeremiah 18:1-11, a word from the LORD comes to Jeremiah, directing him to the potter’s house. There, as he watches, a pot is spoiled in the potter’s hand, and the process of re-shaping begins again – knead, slam, and force to the center – to make another pot. Jeremiah is told that the People of God is like that pot. We are shaped in the hands of God, acted upon by power not our own.
Similarly, in our gospel text this week, we see Jesus at the work of re-shaping as he defines the requirements of discipleship. The masses seem to be following him closely, but are they? What will it take to be a disciple?
Hate your loves, count the costs, give up everything.
These dictums are not the meditative flow of wet hands over pliant clay, but rather feel to our lives like the violent slam and force to the center of a new and radical re-making. What are we to do with such hard instruction? Even if we resist the urge to soften it with appeals to hyperbole, what could it mean to hate our blood relations and even life itself? And why is such renunciation at the crux of discipleship?
Just prior to this pericope, Jesus tells a parable about a great banquet. Guests are invited, but in response to the invitation, each offers a reason why he must decline: I have land. I have oxen. I have a new wife. In each circumstance, the person possesses something; but it is equally true that he is possessed by something. Each is claimed, and with him, his time and energies. The owner of the house who is throwing the banquet becomes angry that his hospitality is rejected, and in turn invites those without possessions and connections, the poor and rejected, to the feast instead. They are free from entanglements and divided loyalties that would keep them from his table.
Jesus then extends the parable to those at his heels, insisting that the entanglements of claiming and being claimed prevent the going-all-in that is discipleship. The dilemma isn’t that he will not permit us to join in his work while we are so entangled, but rather that we are incapable of the work of complete loyalty to this new and in-breaking kingdom. We are not free to be claimed and re-shaped; we are portioned out, and what divides our loyalties will ultimately keep us from his table.
What could such a hatred of our loves mean in practice? First, it may be helpful to name what it cannot mean. In keeping with the ultimate thrust toward shalom that characterizes the new kingdom and the intentions of God for all people, to hate those we encounter cannot mean intentional acts of alienation and violence. Hatred here also cannot mean embracing a certain set of feelings, such as malice or spitefulness. Instead, the hatred and renunciation asked of us as disciples is a metanoia at the heart of our loyalties. We turn from advancing the interests of others and ourselves, to advancing the kingdom of God.
To hate in this context is to allow our communal practices and the rhythms of invitation to the table call into question what we truly find ourselves worshiping and reveal to us even our most subtle idolatries (even those disguised as love). Spoiled in the hands of false worship, our encounters with bread and wine and one another become the forcing-to-center vital to our re-shaping. To hate all else frees us to love only God. And in loving only God and pursuing the interests of only this new kingdom, we live free from idolatry, and free to steward well as an act of devotion the objects and connections entrusted into our care.
The first pot I ever made was spoiled in my hand, as were a long succession of others. All my early failures were due to the same two weaknesses: I was reluctant to slam the clay on the wheel with enough force, and the pot would pull away before I finished it, and I was too impatient with the time and exertion it took to center the clay, making for weak, uneven, and collapsing side walls. I was afraid to require of my clay what it needed for its own integrity as a pot.
In contrast, we rest in requiring hands. What feels like violence in the words of Jesus is in actuality nothing less than the precision of one who knows that in order to shape a kingdom and a people capable of carrying forth the testimony of his intended flourishing for all creation, the first actions must be firm and forceful, jolting, and radically different than our natural inclinations. The worship corresponding to our loyalties is what makes us. And so in his love, he demands of the church renunciation of all but himself.
May we, the vessel called church, in the midst of this task of holy hatred and our re-shaping, cry like the psalmist our praises, for we are being fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are God’s works–even us. May we know it very well.