This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 12th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 2.4-13, Psalm 81.1, 10-16, Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16, Luke 14.1, 7-14). Teer is one of the pastors serving Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including cafeteria tables, podcast listeners, satisfaction, the matter of words, the intersection between art and theology, daily psalms, strange hospitality, marriage, books on the parables, and the Supper of the Lamb. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Doom Won’t Last Forever
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent [C] (Isaiah 43.16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3.4b-14, John 12.1-8). Alan is the lead pastor of First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including record breakers, timelessness, keeping Easter in Lent, Makoto Fujimura, laughing in church, terrible testimonies, tremendous transformation, clarity (or the lack thereof), authorial soliloquies, and John Daker. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Narding Out
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.
Have you ever seen Norman Rockwell’s 1957 painting “Lift Up Thine Eyes”? It portrays the sidewalk outside of a cathedral in a busy city in which all of the passersby have their heads bowed not in reverence but in distraction.
You can see the burdens of the world in their posture and in their gaze but behind them, up toward the doors to the sanctuary, a solitary church figure is replacing the letters on a small sign that says “Lift Up Thine Eyes” and no one seems to be getting the message.
The painting haunts me.
It haunts me because life, it seems, has done its worst to the people passing by. Shuffling to and fro they carry the burden of their burdens – some are on their way to work, other are perhaps looking for work, and all of them can only see what’s right in front of them: a dirty sidewalk trample upon by countless footsteps.
And yet, what haunts me most is the fact that even though the painting was completed 64 years ago, it is still just as relevant today! Simply put a smart phone or an iPad in every person’s hand and you’ve got a modern Rockwell for 2021.
It should come as no surprise that many of us have spent far more time on devices over the last year and a half than we ever had before. The pandemic cloistered us away from one another such that the only way we could really interact was through a phone (that most people no longer even use as a phone!). This dramatic increase in usage has led to the dramatically ironic arrival of Zoom webinars on “Zoom Fatigue”, silent meditations apps only accessible as podcasts, and week-long digital conferences on the dangers of devices.
I was talking with someone the other day and she casually remarked about how hungry she was, and when I asked what she had for lunch she responded: “I was so busy on my computer that I forgot to eat.”
And it’s not just our addiction to our devices – getting rid of them, or hiding them away for a few hours a day, doesn’t rid of of the weight of the world that we carry around all the time. We carry the expectations we place on ourselves and the expectations the world places on us. We carry the sins and the shames of our past (and our present). We carry the terror of tomorrow and the fear of the future.
And yet, when we return to Rockwell’s painting – the majority of the scene is in reference (and reverence) to something more. The top portion of the painting displays doves (a sign of the Holy Spirit) almost floating in the air, the saints of the cathedral stand in defiance to the burdens of life, and the church door stands awkwardly open barely beckoning anyone to discover what’s on the other side.
Perhaps what the people in the painting need is an interruption – a person who can meet them where they are and who can show them where they can be, a person who can break into their brokenness to bring relief, healing, and even joy.
Thanks be to God, then, that that’s exactly what we get in the person of Jesus Christ. For, God looked down upon our sins and our shames and chose to become one of us in order to redeem and rectify us. God still looks down upon our imperfections and our shortcomings and calls for us to lift up our eyes not to unattainable achievements or superior morality or continued suffering, but instead God calls for our attention to be lifted to the Cross, to the One who lifts us out of our navel-gazing and into the strange new world made possible by God.
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The 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. Then the world of the Lord came to me: Can 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. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation of a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoke, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment 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. Now, 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.
Metaphors can be messy.
And don’t get me wrong, metaphors make the world go round. We use them ALL THE TIME, even without realizing it. Some are obvious, like saying, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” And “He has a heart of gold.” We say those thing to imply something about the nature of something using words or descriptions that aren’t real or even possible.
When a big cloud rolls overhead we know that domesticated animals are not going to fall down upon us and we know that if we looked inside the chest of even a truly decent person we’ll find blood and muscle and sinew, not one of the most valuable substances on the planet.
And yet we grow comfortable with metaphors because we use them all the time. But every metaphor has a limit and every metaphor can be messy.
Jeremiah speaks of a vision and moment given to him by the Lord about the potter and the clay. This has been a beloved scriptural metaphor for millennia and communicates a lot about who God is and what God does. Like a potter with clay God knows God’s creation intimately, gently, and purposefully. God desires the best result from the work put in. God shapes and molds exactly the way God wants to.
It’s a good and fine metaphor. Like all metaphors it expresses something with words that help bring about a different or perhaps fuller understanding.
But this metaphor is really messy, in more ways than one.
Here’s the good: God as the potter harkens back to some of the earliest verses in scripture about God forming Adam out of the earth, out of dirt, perhaps even out of clay. We, as the creation of God, are formed and shaped in the image of God to live freely and fully on the earth.
And, like clay, God’s fingers can smooth out any and all of our imperfections such that by the end of our formation, we are exactly as God intended us to be.
Moreover, God never gives up on God’s art. No matter how much we resist the shaping, God can always leave us out to dry if we are too wet, or add a little more water if we are too dry. God can even smash the clay back into a ball and start all over again if God wants.
But our God, the divine potter, will make beauty of our brokenness.
Sounds good right?
Well, here’s the bad: God as the potter implies a total control over creation such that if there is something wrong with the world we’re left with a question: Why didn’t God fix it? We, the creation of God, formed and shaped according to God’s purposes, do all kinds of bad and horrible stuff on the regular. And even if we are met with moments of malleability, most of us continue to do things we know we shouldn’t or avoid doing things we know we should. Which means that either God isn’t a very good potter, or God desires us to be bad.
Moreover, the Jeremiah texts makes it abundantly clear that God looks specifically at our wrongness and threatens to bring evil upon us unless we amend our ways. God therefore stops seeming like a potter and instead appears like the divine torturer waiting to bring down punishments until we get in line.
Metaphors are messy. And every metaphor has a limit. But this is the one communicated to Jeremiah by God, and by Jeremiah to us.
When we read these words, when we imagine God sitting down at the wheel fashioning each of us in our own unique way, it’s hard not to feel like we all need to shape up. The potter has seen our messed up characteristics, our choices, decisions, words, and is going to do whatever the potter can to get something out of our nothing. Which, though it sounds hopeful, is also kind of terrifying.
It’s terrifying because the potter can destroy the clay whenever the potter wants. So, friends, we need to start behaving ourselves and hopefully prevent the destruction that God is holding over our heads.
Or, to put it in simpler terms, if we don’t fix what’s broken in us, God is going to smash us into oblivion.
Today, if we think about potters, we usually conjure them up in our minds as pensive, kind, and gentle people. My sister is a ceramicist and in her daily life she is nice and loving, but when she sits down at her pottery wheel, she is anything but. She becomes her own force of nature, throwing her whole body weight into the machine and into the clay until something comes out of all the effort. Clay splatters everywhere and she had to construct a make shift wall around the wheel just to make sure clay didn’t fly all over the room.
Working with clay is an inherently messy endeavor. You’ve got to get not just your fingers but your arms and whole body into it. And one false move can bring the whole thing down. If the clay is too dry it won’t move under your fingers, if the clay is too wet the clay won’t hold its shape, if the wheel spins too fast the structure will fall in on itself, if the wheel spins too slow it won’t remain symmetrical.
And Jeremiah, with this metaphor, speaks to the people of God a word about their clay – they need to fix themselves. And not just themselves as individuals, but as a community. God desires the reshaping of the community such that the community can serve God’s purposes in social, political, and even economic ways.
And God is gonna get what God wants. God means to shape us in ways that we can barely even imagine and definitely in ways that go way beyond what we typically think about in terms of church maintenance. I mean, does God care about the fact that we just celebrated 60 years as a church? Probably. But does God care about the ways we interact with the community such that everyone can hear the Good News? Definitely.
God works in our lives all the time, drying us out when we’re so soggy with our own self-centeredness, dropping the water of compassion on us whenever we feel alone, or hurt, or afraid. God even uses people like us to be the drying or watering agents for the people around us, both familiar and strange.
And God has to do this work over and over again because there is something fundamentally wrong with our clay, with us. We can call it sin, or selfishness, or any other number of things. In this text Jeremiah draws attention to the fact that our clay is messed up because we can resist the hand of our potter. We can choose to align with God’s purposes or we can go against them.
But if you’ve noticed, I’ve already started to shift the metaphor around a little bit. That’s why its so messy. You see, Jeremiah makes it abundantly clear, through the threats of destruction, that we’ve got to change the condition of our condition. Jeremiah speaks about the choices being made that affect not only the present but choices that will have consequence in the far and distant future.
The difference is this: Who is ultimately responsible for shaping the clay? Is it the clay itself, or is it the potter?
Because here’s where the metaphor gets the messiest. If the responsibility is solely on the clay, well then friends, prepare yourselves for destruction. Sure, we can make little changes in our lives, we can try to love God with our whole heart, mind, soul, and body, we can try to love our neighbors as ourselves. We can put a little more money in the offering plate than we did the week before. We can reach out to our literal neighbors and invite them over for dinner. We can volunteer at the local homeless shelter. We can donate canned goods to local food pantries. We can do all sorts of stuff, stuff that will make the world better around us. But at the end of the day, we’re still the same clay.
We will always be sinners in need of God’s grace because that’s who we are. God, in ways that are confounding, chose to make us free. Free to act with God or against God. It is a beautiful and messy gift but one that make life all the more interesting and exciting. We are not puppets being pulled along by some puppeteer up in the sky (another messy metaphor).
We are dirt. Dirt that has been given life by God.
Should we try to be better and do all sorts of good things? Absolutely. The world would do well to have some more decent acting people in it. But, at the end of the day, we can’t change our clay. Only God can do that. And that’s where the metaphor of the messy potter with the messy clay comes into its fullest.
God is determined to shape communities whose ways of worship and prayer and life-living bear witness to the redemptive and graceful purposes of God. This isn’t something we can, or have to, do on our own. God is God because God is the one who can always make something of our nothing. God can raise new and beautiful things even out of our ruinous self-indulgent and indifferent practices.
It’s not up to us on our own, but it’s God who works in and through us to reshape the world around us. God speaks to us through the words of scripture, or a song, or a stranger so that we can start to imagine a new and different world. God uses people and places and things to dry us out or wet us down until we start to spin smoothly on the wheel of the potter.
Working with clay is messy. If you’re not careful, and frankly even if you are, clay can get everywhere and into everything. It is messy. And so is grace.
As the unmerited gift of God, grace is given to all regardless of earning or deserving. Which means that grace is there for the best of us and for the worst of us. That’s a ridiculously messy theological proposition! In just about every other part of our lives we make it all about what we’ve done or deserved. We judge people on what job they have or what school they went to or where they go on vacation or what kind of clothes they wear. But in the reality of God’s kingdom, none of those things matter. Grace is given regardless of circumstances. It is not expensive, it’s not even cheap, it’s free.
At the end of the day, a potter will step away from the wheel covered in the art that was used in creation. Even in the world of messy metaphors there is something beautiful and strange in the knowledge that our divine potter became clay for us in the person of Jesus Christ.
God was willing to take on exactly what makes us what we are so that the artist and the art would become inextricably tied up with each other, forever.
It doesn’t get messier than that. Amen.
From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pray before those who fear him. The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord. May your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.
“How can we get young people to worship?” I get asked this question all the time. Because I am young and involved the church, many assume that I have the secret to unlocking the riddle of putting younger people in pews. The truth is, I have no answer to the question. For me, it is as simple as discovering God in a place and time such as this, and therefore I return week after week because it provides the strength for my own discipleship. I don’t know what to do to get younger people to worship other than doing what we do well.
However, some believe the key to growing the church can be found in contemporary worship. The belief goes that traditional worship styles with stained glass sanctuaries, organs, and hymnals, no longer connect with people and give life.
So, contemporary services strive for the opposite, instead of traditional church architecture they meet in auditoriums or gymnasiums, instead of stained glass they use projectors and screens, instead of an organ and hymnals they use a rock band and display lyrics on the screen. Many church planters believe this is the future of worship, that if we want the church to grow we have to be willing to let go of the past and embrace the future.
I’m not so sure.
Interestingly, many young people are finding themselves drawn to traditional worship, while contemporary services are regularly filled by the boomer generation. Why? What we discover in traditional worship is unlike anything we encounter during the week. Worship is supposed to be different than our daily lives and fill us with God’s grace. I could go on an on about the importance of listening to the organ and singing our faith from the hymnal, but I’ll save that for another sermon series. This month we will take time each week looking at the Stained Glass of our sanctuary and wrestle with how they convey the Good News to us today.
We begin with what I call “The Methodists.”
The first window contains the mother of Methodism Susanna Wesley. Born in 1669, Susanna was the twenty-fifth of twenty-five children. Her father, was a preacher of sorts who rebelled against the status quo of the Church on England and he consistently encouraged his daughter to study books from his library (against the conventional wisdom). Susanna eventually married Samuel Wesley, a clergyman from the Church of England and gave birth to 19 children, of which only 10 lived to adulthood.
Because her husband was often busy with the responsibilities of the parish, Susanna was left to raise and educate the children on her own. They all learned Latin and Greek and were well informed in classical studies.
The image in our window shows Susanna teaching two of her sons, John and Charles Wesley. She took seriously the need for her children to be raised with a proper education and also put a tremendous emphasis on raising them in the faith. I don’t know for sure why the artist chose this particular representation, but I imagine it has something to do with an episode during her life when her willingness to engage her children sent them on a path that led to a renewal within the church, and eventually a new church.
The story goes that her husband was gone in London for a period of time, and a guest preacher was brought into the local parish. After a few weeks of particularly sub-par sermons, Susanna decided to assemble her children on Sunday afternoon for her own services. It would begin with the singing of a psalm, then Susanna read a sermon written by her father or husband, and concluded the worship with another psalm. Word about the services began to spread and people started to ask if they could attend. At the height of her Sunday afternoon services, over two hundred people were attending regularly, while the Sunday morning service at the local church dwindled to nearly nothing.
Susanna, like the psalmist, believed in the importance of remembering and returning to the Lord. She took time each week to educate her children, and the local community, about God’s dominion so that future generations would be told about the Lord.
Whenever our eyes fall upon this window we remember that we, like Susanna, are called to nurture and teach and love those around us. John and Charles Wesley would eventually grow into the men who sparked a theological revolution. Charles will always be remembered for his hymn writing (all of the hymns we are using this morning were written by him) and John would become the founder of Methodism.
This window helps us to remember that we can serve the Lord by sharing the Lord with others. Our words are powerful and they can be the spark that ignites a revolution of the heart.
The second window portrays a grown John Wesley during the height of the Methodist renewal movement. Born in 1703, he was raised and taught by his mother and followed a call to ministry within the Church of England. However, John grew disenfranchised with the way the church was being run, he saw pastors who were following a career path rather than giving their lives to Christ. He saw people fighting for positions within the church rather than submitting to the will of God. He saw hypocritical preachers rather than people seeking holiness of heart and life.
After a particular string of episodes that left him filled with doubt, John Wesley had his heart strangely warmed during a small service on Aldersgate Street in London. He wrote in his journal: “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” (The Journal of John Wesley, 35).
The glowing heart in our window is a reminder of his conversion experience. From that point forward he felt called to spread scriptural holiness of heart and life throughout the lands and helped to form small groups through the country to help disciples grow in love of God and one another. The moment of heart warming encouraged him to see the world as his parish. Rather than being limited to a particular time and place, John Wesley listened to the Spirit’s call and moved according to God’s will.
John, like the psalmist, believed in the importance of remembering the Lord’s works even to the ends of the earth. He understood Jesus as Lord and did whatever he could to share the love he experienced in his heart with other people.
Whenever we take in the beauty of this window we remember that we, like John, are called to feel and experience God’s pardoning and loving nature. Having our hearts strangely warmed is at the heart of what it means to follow Christ and give our lives to discipleship. Yet, once we feel this assurance like Wesley did, we cannot just keep it to ourselves. If it really is something that transforms our very lives then we should be willing to go even to the ends of the earth to help others remember the Lord.
The gift of God’s love is something worth sharing with others just like John did. Our words are powerful and they can be the spark that ignites a revolution of the heart.
Our third window displays Francis Asbury, the symbol of American Methodism. John Wesley discovered Asbury while a young man in England and encouraged him to become a circuit riding lay-preacher for the renewal movement. He was remarkably successful as a preacher even at a young age.
In 1771 Wesley sent lay preachers to continue the movement in the colonies including the young and talented Francis Asbury. However, by 1777, at the height of the American Revolution, all but one, Asbury, would return back to England. For Asbury the kingdom of God was more important than any human nation, and nothing would stop him from following his call.
Asbury became the de facto leader of the movement and spent the rest of his life traveling on horse back to spread scriptural holiness. When he arrived in the colonies there were 600 people participating in Methodist ministries. By the year of his death (1816) there were more than 200,000 members (2.3% of the population) making it the single largest Christian tradition in America at the time.
Why was he so successful? In our stained glass we see Asbury holding a bible and riding on a horse. He had a strong and fundamental belief that the Lord was calling him to reform the continent, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land. Asbury was willing to go wherever whenever with only the Word of God to guide his words and actions. He traveled so widely across the landscape that at one time he was the most well known man in America simply because of how much he traveled.
Asbury, like the psalmist, believed the people were hungry and yearning for something greater than themselves. He understood that if he was willing to bring the Word to the people, that they would feast and be satisfied. He gave his life to the mission of spreading holiness so that people would praise the Lord.
Whenever we gaze upon this particular window we remember that we, like Asbury, have a responsibility to help people feast on the Word. Going out and meeting people where they are is fundamental to the kingdom of God. If we are content to just wait for people to show up with their questions and hopes, then we will be disappointed. This window gives us the encouragement to give of ourselves for other people just like Francis Asbury was willing to do.
The gift of God’s grace and mercy is something worth sharing so that others might feast and be satisfied. Our words are powerful and they can be the spark that ignites a revolution of the heart.
What we do in worship, how we understand discipleship, and even why we gather for communion was largely determined by the three Methodists in our stained glass. From Susanna’s Sunday afternoon lessons, to John’s heart-warming experience, to Asbury’s commitment to mission of God, we are who we are because of what they did. However, if we call ourselves Wesleyans or Methodists, it is fundamentally important to remember that we are first disciples of Jesus Christ.
These three Methodists followed Christ and their lives were results of their discipleship. It was through their reading of scripture and persistent prayers that they started a revolution within the greater church and brought the Word to people to tell them about the Lord.
When we come to gather at the Lord’s table in a few moments, let us remember that Susanna, John, and Asbury all gathered at a table such as this to feast on the Lord and receive the strength for their discipleship. Wesley in particular believed in constant communion, doing whatever he could to experience the Lord’s grace at all times. If you want to know God’s grace and love, look no further than this table.
But after we feast, what shall we do? Shall we return to the busyness of our lives and forget the importance and value of finding holiness? Will we limit the power of the Lord to Sunday mornings at 11am?
Or will we take the bread and cup and let it nourish our souls for the work of discipleship? Will we pray fervently for the Lord’s will to be done? Will we go out into the world to tell future generations about the power of God?
Now is the time for a revolution of the heart. Amen.
This Sunday I will be preaching about Peter’s peculiar desire to make three dwellings for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses on the mountain during the transfiguration. In his words, I believe, was the desire to remain on that mountain in order to continually experience God’s radiance. However, life is full of both mountaintops and valleys. It was good for Peter to experience the transfiguration; it was not good for him to try to prolong it.
Raphael’s The Transfiguration captures the incredible contrast between the mountain and the valley. The top of the frame witnesses to the glory and radiance described by the synoptic writers, the beauty of that striking event. The bottom shows the tragic need and suffering of the disciples.
The image serves to help connect the two seemingly opposed experiences. Our lives are made up of both joy and suffering, righteousness and sin, success and failure. It is in a painting such as this that we are reminded of the true value of the incarnation; God came in the form of flesh in Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, to be celebrate with us in our triumphs and weep with us in our sorrows.