by Rev. Dr. Krista S. Givens
Today we continue with our series called “The Character of a Christian” – investigating what it means to be a follower of Jesus in this troubled world. Today we explore the biblical idea of personal transformation: the idea that we can change – we can adapt, we can evolve, we can be better than we are today – this is a foundational concept of being a follower of Christ. For thousands of years, followers of Christ have gone through a process of personal transformation – John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, called this process “The Way of Salvation”. It begins with our recognition of our need to change from our sinfulness and then God works in us in a variety of ways, justifying us, assuring us of God’s love, our repentance and God’s mercy, our “backsliding” and God’s continual forgiveness…
With God’s help: we can change. And both prophets in our scriptures lessons give us insight on how to do that.
Let us begin the answering of this question by looking at our prophecy from the book of Jeremiah, chapter 18.
Here in Jeremiah 18:1-11, we have God instructing the prophet to go to the potter’s house and there we are shown an image that explains how God works:
3So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.5Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 7At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, 8but 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. 9And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, 10but 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. 11Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.
This is a well-known analogy of how the Lord deals with the people, as a potter molds and shapes a pot on a spinning wheel. But it is interesting to me that if you look at this passage you will see many examples of how God will destroy us on the wheel – I will change my mind and destroy the pot, I am shaping all kinds of evil against you, at one moment I may declare a nation and pluck it up! But nowhere does it say, “Mold me and make me” …. Only once does the text present a life-giving image of creation we so often attribute to this text. In verse 9, 9And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant… But that makes it sound like God is haphazard in his actions. But through the image, we, as readers, infer that if God is like a potter, yes God can destroy but also create; God canpluck up and also plant; God can shape evil and also God can shape good!
But in this analogy, God emphasizes the important role that God’s disciples play in achieving God’s goals. God and the nation of Israel had entered into a covenant, a partnership, and the purpose of the partnership is in fulfilling God’s mission. We have work to do too – in our own transformation: we have decisions to make, paths to follow, words to put into action! And that’s where our text from Luke comes in:
In the gospel lesson from Luke, Jesus is also talking about God’s mission, encouraging others to be a part of God’s mission. But in doing so, Jesus doesn’t emphasize the joy that comes in fulfilling God’s mission. Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples how proud they will be of themselves; Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples how when one chooses to follow God life is full – even if one’s purse is empty; Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples that following God brings meaning to one’s life, purpose to one’s actions and focus to one’s everyday living.
Instead, Jesus tells them to hate their family, to carry their cross and to give up their possessions. Why?
Jesus’ use of the phrase “hate your family” is disturbing and makes us question Jesus’ motives… Why does he say this? Well, first, we must understand that the way the ancient Jews understand this phrase is very different than the way we do: “hate” is an expression meaning “to turn away from, to detach oneself from,” rather than our animosity-laden understanding.(1)
This understanding of “Hate” is also seen in a text from Genesis, as author Brian Stoffregen explains: “In Genesis, we read in one verse that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah (29:30), but in the next verse, it literally says that Leah was hated (“unloved” in NRSV, see also v. 33). Leah was not hated like we usually use the word, but Jacob simply loved her less than he loved Rachel. Jacob didn’t have an intense dislike for Leah. In fact, he had seven children with her after these verses! (2)
Therefore when Jesus is calling his disciples to “hate their family” he is calling them to turn away from their families, to detach themselves from the security of their homes, their familial structure and to enter into a new family; to love their new family more than their family of origin; to dedicate themselves to serving God and to cut themselves off from everything that holds them back: family, obligations and possessions.
How does any of this ceramic talk or “hate your family” talk relate to us? Because God is calling us to be a part of His mission, too. We are God’s people and are charged with extending the love of God to others. We are called to transform ourselves and help God to help transform others.
And Christianity is a movement that is all about transformation. At Easter time we sing a hymn called the Hymn of Promise (Hymnal 707) and it’s lyrics go like this:
In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree;
In cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free!
In the cold and snow of winter there’s a spring that waits to be,
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.
God can see the promise in us, and it is our challenge as humans and Christians to refine ourselves into what God sees! And the good news is that we don’t have to do it alone! There are others in our lives – angles and messengers – who can see what God sees in us! Others who can see the beauty, the hidden talents, the potential God has hidden in us. I share with you a story about one such angel:
I was stuck on Step 9: I made the list of people I had harmed while I was drinking, but now I needed to go to them and make amends. Everyone – my family and friends, the people in my group and my sponsor, told me this would help…. But I was skeptical. And I was afraid. But I wanted to change, and this was a part of it. I had not been sober since high school and the first person I hurt, was my bus driver, old Florence.
Florence was the old woman who drove me to school for all the years of my youth and childhood. Everyday. At 8:00 AM, Florence would drive up and honk for me and the kids from my street! One honk was not enough for Florence, she honked and honked until we all made it to the bus. Each day, as I made my way to my usual seat, she made some snide comment like “Well, I hope you did your homework, young man.” I sat on the bus for 30 long minutes as Florence picked up the rest of the kids, and drove us all to school. Each time a child entered the bus, she would greet them with the same or similar comments: “Good morning, Joey. , I hope you did your homework, young man.” Some kids, based on her comments, were frightened enough of her to finish their homework on the bus on the way to school.
As my addiction troubles got worse, I would forget to pack a lunch for myself and and Florence had this box of sack lunches behind the drivers’ seat of the bus … “You can take one of these, young man.” She said as I left the bus, and on the days I was too hungover to think about lunch, I was forced to eat one of old Florence’s sack lunches. It was nothing but an apple, an old bag of airplane peanuts, a can of tuna and some stale carrots!!! It was awful.
One morning, after a night of binge drinking, Florence honked for me at 8:00 in the morning and I rushed to get myself together enough to go to school, while she kept honking and honking and honking. But when she said “Well, I hope you did your homework, young man.” – I LAID Into her! I called her every bad name I could think of, disparaging her age, her attitude and her awful sack lunches, and then I threw my backpack out the bus door, stomped back into my house and went back to bed. I graduated high school by the skin of my teeth, but I never took the bus again. I heard Florence honking each morning, but each honk was a reminder of the awful things I said and the awful person I was…
So, I was surprised to see her obituary in the paper 12 years later, as I was pondering Step 9. I guess I won’t be able to make amends to Florence in person but it felt right to go to her memorial service. “Maybe that would count! “I thought.
It was strange to see some of the kids I knew from high school – we were all in our early 30’s, some were parents, some with careers… and me, just trying to get my life together. We sang the hymns, prayed the prayers and listened to the pastor speak, and then, people began to share their memories of old Florence. There were the standard “she was a saint” speeches and memories from her family and friends, but I could feel my heart warmed as I listened to of the stories my fellow-students.
One woman talked about what an angel Florence was: “Each day, come what may – rain or shine – Florence was there to take me to school.”
A guy I’d known during high school talked about Florence’s sack lunches – that some days, those lunches I considered awful, were the only food he had to eat. Her daughter stood up and shouted from her pew: “My mom stayed up each night making those lunches! She saved the peanuts from each flight she took, just so she could fill the bellies of “her kids” on the bus.”
One man stood and extolled the times Florence would help him with his homework during the 30-minute bus ride. “Without her, “ he said through tears, “I would never have gotten through high school!”
In her own way, in small steps, with the talents and equipment and supplies she had access to – old Florence was making a difference in all of our lives. She was helping to mold us into the people we would become! And it took some of us longer to understand the role she played in our lives:
- Even when we didn’t believe we could do it, Florence would help us with our math skills or our English homework.
- Even when we didn’t want to go to school, Florence honked until we showed up – encouraging us to be present, that somehow by being there, being in school, we would learn what we needed to succeed.
- Even when we lacked the resources to go to school, Florence would show up with her basic lunches, and her encouraging words and her persistence and “her kids” would complete school.
Unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see…
We may have an “old Florence” in our lives, and if we are lucky, we have more than one: people that encourage us to be better than we are, people who see our potential even when we don’t! People who believe in us, believe we can change, believe we can be the people God created us to be! And we need those people in our lives to help us change, improve, evolve.
And we can be “Old Florence’ to others –seeing how God sees, encouraging others to grow, being present to people in need.
It is a challenging path, to be a disciple of God, to be involved in God’s mission. But inherent in those challenges is the possibility that we will be a part of God’s amazing work in this world – transforming ourselves, one by one and helping others live into the promise God is revealing in us. Today, as we go forth from this place, may we invite God to “mold us and make us” into true disciples and may we look for others to help us along the way. May it be so today and always, let us pray:
- Brian Stoffregen, found on http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke14x25.htm