By Linda Rex
September 4, 2022, PROPER 18—I know I will show my age by asking this question, but do you remember back when going to a water cooler, you would find a holder full of little paper cups in the shape of a cone? They might hold one small serving of cold water, but then they could not be reused more than once or twice because the water would soak the cup, causing it to leak.
Early this morning I woke up from a weird dream in which I was being sung a song about a paper cup. It was beautiful and I wish I could have written down the lyrics, because they were profound. But the point of the song was that I and every other human in this world are like paper cups—fragile and yet containing a valuable substance which is life-giving. Like the clay vessels which the apostle Paul talks about in 2 Cor. 4:7, we are fragile containers filled with the Holy Spirit, God’s real presence in us and with us.
So often, we minimize our worth and value as human beings, not realizing how absolutely precious we are. All we see is a little paper cup, plain, easily squashed, and short-lived. If we look solely at our usefulness, we may find that we have a small something to offer others—a life-giving drink that may do a little good when a person is thirsty. But we are in no way able to supply the real need of a person who has just wandered in off the desert, not having had a drink for hours.
I suppose we could begin to look at ourselves from the point of view of what we contain, rather than who we are as a container. Often, we want to focus on the presence of God within. But in Psalm 139 we read how God created each of us very carefully and he knows everything about us. He knows when we awaken and what we will say before it even comes out our mouths. And he knew us before we were born, and knew what we would become and planned for us to share life with him now and forever.
Like the potter the prophet Jeremiah was sent by God to learn from, our Lord has carefully fashioned each one of us, making us vessels who are able carry his very presence and power. (See Jeremiah 18:1–11.) And even though, like the potter’s flawed vessel, none of us have taken the shape God originally intended, Christ took our human flesh and reforged it into the shape needed to be true reflections of our Triune God, able to participate in a real way in all he is doing right now and in the world to come.
The thing is, many of us have a tendency to argue with God about his creative efforts. We tell God, “I have no interest whatsoever in being a paper cup. Why did you make me like this? Why was I even born?” (See Rom. 9:20.) I can understand how someone may feel this way when all of the experiences in their life up that time have told them they are somehow worthless or unlovable. But our everyday experience of life does not determine our value or worth—God has already declared our value and worth and lovability in Jesus Christ.
In the gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus was walking along, being followed by large crowds of people. Significantly, he turned around to face them and began to talk with them about seriously considering the cost of following him. He knew many of them did not realize the price that would be asked of him—crucifixion, and his followers—persecution. They were looking at him as the one who would deliver them from Roman oppression and make their life abundant and blessed again, where he was seeking to free them from an even greater oppressor—sin, evil, and death. They did not even see how they were being held in bondage by their flesh and how desperately they needed to set free, free to be who God always meant for them to be—those who loved him with their whole beings and who loved one another as themselves.
Can you see the connection? How often we get swept away into false view of ourselves and of why we are even alive! We get pulled way from the simplicity of what God meant for us to be all along—paper cups that would hold his life-giving water providing refreshment for others. We were never meant to be the Savior or Redeemer—that is why Jesus came. Our participation in God’s life is precious and of great value to him. And he will not stop until we are all gathered around his table—his very own adopted children in Christ the Father’s Son. Paper cups—adopted children. Isn’t that enough for us?
Jesus didn’t pull any punches that day—he told the people the stark and painful truth. He told the people following him that no one in our lives, not even ourselves, should be of greater importance to us than him. If there is anyone else who is of greater importance to us than Christ, then are we truly his followers or disciples?
He also said that we each have our own cross to bear—some place in which we ourselves must be willing to lay down our lives as Jesus laid his down. What needs to be put to death in us that Christ may live? Too often we make the profession of faith in Jesus, but then we want him around just to make sure we are successful, wealthy, popular or blessed in some way. We certainly don’t want him to ask anything of us. We don’t want to have to give up things we may be attached to, such has unhealthy relationships or habits. Why should we have to give up a good paying job just because what we are doing is unethical or destructive?
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us of the difference between following our Lord Jesus Christ and simply professing our faith in him. We need to take seriously Jesus’ words about considering the cost. When we plan to build a new home, often we don’t realize the extent of the details involved and all of the decisions which have to be made in order to complete the project. Imagine multiplying that by the thousands of decisions and millions of dollars needed to complete the construction of a modern-day skyscraper? The leaders and generals of Ukraine and Russia, we’d like to hope, are taking into account the cost of their war against one another—are they prepared to finish what they have begun?
In the same way, we need to take seriously our commitment to Christ. Why? Because Christ is the one, as God in human flesh, who took our little paper cup humanity and transformed it. He’s the One who did all that was needed for us to live the life we need to live, die the death we deserve to die, and to bring us into his own relationship with the Father in the Spirit. When we follow Jesus, we lay down all our possessions—our own effort to find life in this world, our own expectations, our own will, our own solutions to life’s problems—and we receive gratefully everything from him. Jesus is our life. He is our hope. He is our past, present, and future—the One in whom we live, move, and have our being. We gratefully follow him wherever he goes, no matter the cost to ourselves, because by the Spirit, he has included us in his life and love, now and forever, as beloved children of the Father.
Lord, thank you for inviting every one of us to follow you. Grant us the grace to count the cost of discipleship, but even so, to choose to follow you wherever you lead. Thank you for including us in your love and life. By your Spirit, make us true reflections of you, for the Father’s glory. Amen.
“Now large crowds were going along with Him; and He turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, “This man began to build and was not able to finish.” Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.’ ” Luke 14:25–33 NASB
[Printable copy: https://newhope4me.files.wordpress.com/2022/08/olitlife-in-a-paper-cup.pdf ]
[If you are interested in participating in a discussion group in the Nashville, TN area, or participating in a Zoom group, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org ]
By Linda Rex
March 22, 2020, 4th SUNDAY IN LENT—Recently I spoke with someone who told me that the recent tornadoes and Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak were sent from God to wake people up and to turn them back to him. As a pastor, I am often offered this opportunity to blame God for the bad things which happen in this world, but I am reluctant to give him responsibility for what is not his and which has its roots in our own brokenness and this broken world we live in, and the evil which is always at work in it and in us.
Don’t get me wrong—there are consequences to our choices. We have made and do make decisions which affect the planet we live on and the people who live on it. In this day and age, we often prefer to believe we can control and limit the affect of most things, but truth is, there are many things we can’t contain or direct. We find ourselves often at the mercy of physical forces and natural occurrences, deadly diseases, and even just human willfulness and evil.
Our response to all this is critical. We can take the common and comfortable road to fear, and respond with a more diligent effort to control and manage our circumstances and our world. Or we can acknowledge our need for strength and wisdom beyond ourselves, drawing upon divine resources to find the faith, hope, and love we need to deal with what is beyond our capacity and power to handle.
When Jesus walked by a man who had congenital blindness, his disciples asked him who had sinned—him or his parents? In the Jewish teaching of the day, the man’s blindness was due to his parents’ sin or his own sin (though that seems far-fetched since it happened when he was in the womb). Jesus said that his blindness was not due to a specific sin or sins, but was simply providing an opportunity to demonstrate the glory of God.
Throughout the teachings of Jesus, we find that he is quite frank about the need for human beings to have their eyes opened to the light of who he was as their Lord and Savior. He had no illusions about the human condition. We are sinners, human beings with a proclivity toward rejecting God and living in fear and disobedience. The issue with our humanity goes down into the very core of our being—we walk in darkness instead of in the light of God’s grace and love.
Instead of tragedies and natural disasters, and even blindness, being some punishment poured out on people because of their sins, Jesus sees them simply as part of our broken human condition. And that broken human condition has only one way of being healed—mixing the DNA of the living Lord Jesus Christ with our human clay and washing us in the waters of his love and grace. We can only have light in our darkness if we will receive the light-bringing treatment of Jesus and be washed in the living water, the Holy Spirit.
Just as this man who was blind from birth had to receive the clay Jesus made from spit and dirt onto his eyes and had to walk to the pool of Siloam and wash himself, we need to receive Christ in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, by allowing ourselves to be washed in the water of the living Spirit. We participate in Christ through the sacraments of baptism and communion because these are tangible ways we experience with gratitude the life-giving power and presence of the living Lord.
The man in this story who was born blind went through a process as he came to faith in Christ. At first, he was met by Jesus, who took the initiative in their relationship. Jesus offered him healing, but the man needed to participate in the healing process. The One who was sent by the Father, Jesus, sent this man to the pool of Siloam (some translate “sent”) where he was to wash and be healed. But at that point Jesus had not yet revealed himself as Messiah.
It is when this man was faced with explaining to the Pharisees what had happened that his faith in Jesus began to take form. When the miracle was brought to these leaders’ attention, they asked him what had happened, saying that since Jesus had made clay and healed someone on the Sabbath, he was a sinner, so he could not have done this miracle. The astute, formerly blind man saw the irony in the situation—he once was blind, now he could see, but the Pharisees were so set against believing Jesus was Messiah that they were willing to deny the reality of a genuine, incredible miracle of healing.
So the conversation went down the rabbit trails into the depths of the corrupt human heart, where these Pharisees, even when faced with the glorious truth of a blind man being given his sight, refused to believe, preferring instead to remain in the darkness of ignorance and unbelief. Sadly, Jesus had to tell the Pharisees that it was because they thought they saw that they were truly blind in the things which really matter, the spiritual realities. The man who was blind, however, came to see and believe who Jesus was as Messiah, and knelt down and worshiped him.
This weekend there are genuine and serious concerns at stake. Not only do we have the recent devastation with the tornadoes here in metro Nashville and in Putnam County, we now have real concerns about the coronavirus, which is making its way slowly into every part of our nation. We do not have control of any of these things, so it is easy to lapse into fear, and other unhealthy and unloving human responses such as hoarding, stigmatizing, blaming, and fear-mongering. We are being brought to the edge where we must choose between being truly human by loving and trusting God and loving our neighbor as ourselves, or being inhumane, less than who we truly are as God’s created and redeemed children, made to reflect his likeness as the God who is love.
What if we began to look at this time of crisis as an opportunity to see the glory of God? What if, instead of putting people and events into boxes, we opened our eyes to the everyday miracles of healing, transformation, and renewal which are taking place all around us? What if, instead of self-protecting, self-seeking, and self-indulging, we turned outside ourselves to help, serve, heal, comfort, and pray?
Are we going to remain in our spiritual blindness or are we going to confess the reality of our need to see what is really going on? Will we allow ourselves to be anointed in the humanity of Jesus Christ, washed in the flowing waters of the Spirit, and healed by the living Word at work in our world? Perhaps it is time to have the grace and humility to meet Jesus where he first meets us, in the middle of our darkness, offering us the light of life, the blessed gift of himself in the midst of our struggles and suffering.
Holy Father, thank you that we are not alone, but you are always with us in every circumstance of life. Hold us in our suffering, in our fear, in our loss, and in our illness. Lift us anew into life and wholeness. Rebuild, restore, renew, heal. Empower us for what we must face and carry us through. You are our life and our hope—enable us to trust in you in every circumstance, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” Psalm 23:4 NASB
“… for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light …” Ephesians 5:8 NASB
“Those of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things and said to Him, ‘We are not blind too, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, “We see,” your sin remains.’” John 9:40-41. See also John 9:1–41.