September 4, 2022
With our second reading today we turn to the prophet Jeremiah. And I’m going to add verse 12 to our reading this morning. Listen as God continues to speak to you.
I added that last verse in the reading because to me it completes this prophetic allegory. I mean… it’s not normal in the real world for a potter to meet up with a willful and stubborn lump of clay that will not be shaped according to the potter’s will… but refuses and works against the potter with a will of its own. Normally… I would imagine… a potter sits down at the wheel and intends to shape… let’s say… a mug… but makes a bowl instead… that’s usually a result of the potter’s skill perhaps not being up to snuff more than the lump of clay working against the potter because it doesn’t want to be mug… it wants to be a bowl. I’ve never heard a potter say they had one plan, but the clay was having none of it… and forced itself into being a bowl… even though the potter was doing all they could to make the mug they envisioned.
When we read from these Old Testament prophets… these prophetic messages are often shaped as a dialogue between God and the people. The prophet, speaking on behalf of God, makes God’s will known… reminds the people of the good God requires… reminds the people of their obligations to God’s good as God’s people… that living in, through, and by God’s good is their purpose for being in the world… that being in God’s good is pretty much the same as being in the very presence of God. So… you have a prophet like Micah saying to the people before him… “He has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” But in the dialogue the clay replies, “It is no use! We will follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of our evil will.”
The question then arises… why does God not just take control? Why does God stay in conversation with willfully sinful people… and not take away the will of the people and take control of the clay and rework it and make it into exactly what God intends and be done with it? That seems to be the place where we often go to isn’t it? God is in control… therefore God ought to exert control. But I think our saying that again and again… well… not only does it seem to take away from what scripture points towards… but it helps to delude ourselves of our own evil will… to borrow the phrase. "God is in control” is a great way to avoid the introspection of our faith responsibility… of our willful disobedience of living into our purpose that is God’s good. It’s like saying… “the devil made me do it”. If the devil made me do it… then am I really responsible for my actions… for the choices that I make? If God is in control… then does it really matter what I do through my faith? Won’t God take whatever bad I can do… won’t God take that bad and doing God’s thing somehow convert my bad into a good? What responsibility do I have to God’s good… if God’s good is going to happen anyway. Pretty fatalistic thinking, isn’t it?
If that’s the case then having faith never means having to take responsibility… means never having to be held accountable. God will always come behind us and clean up our mess in the long run. I’m sure we can throw in a bad theological statement or two that turns heaven into some kind of dodge of the obligations of our faith.
I’m not sure if I can support that kind of Christian ethic, because we can easily see how it has helped us to rework ourselves into the vessel of our own plans. And that may be what Jeremiah is trying to get us to see today.
The good of the Law in the Old Testament was that it was the hands and fingers of God… it was meant to shape and mold the people. The heart of the Law was not about controlling the people… those aspects seemed to come along as the Law was added to and then the way it was used by those who liked to wield the power that the Law supposedly gave them. Remember the Pharisees from our most recent gospel stories… the Pharisees who can’t see the good of healing over the controlling aspect of how the Sabbath rules were wielded. Saints, there is the shame that comes to us from those working to control and use the rules as a leverage of their own power. And then there is the shame that comes from when we know we could have done God’s good… we could have loved kindness more… but we see instead the results of our own inaction… or worse what came about because instead of choosing to be the clay shaped toward kindness… shaped by God… we followed our own evil will… to borrow the phrase.
To control… is not a neutral act. To control to enforce the good… even as I say those words, you and I know that the control aspect invalidates the good that would come. If God took control of everything… that act of control… even by God… would invalidate the good that would result. There has to be a willingness of the people to embrace the good of God… a willingness to love that cannot come into being by being forced and controlled.
The story of Philemon… that Meg read… is a great case study for this way of ethical being. Paul is a great example of clay being worked and reworked by God… and here is a situation where the hand of God is reworking the clay with this theological idea of being one in Christ. Like so much theology… being one in Christ is an easy idea to express with beautiful words… it encapsulates the oneness that is created by grace… it speaks of equality in Christ even in the face of worldly divisions and distinctions.
In that letter we learn that Onesimus is a runaway slave belonging to Philemon. Onesimus is the legal property of Philemon and Philemon has certain rights by Roman law regarding his property. Onesimus has been with Paul and Paul is sending him back to Philemon with the hopes that Philemon will forgive this serious breach of law… and that he will send Onesimus back to him unharmed so he can continue to serve Paul. When Paul writes to Philemon, “If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.”… this isn’t just some turn of phrase… Paul is accepting the responsibility… financially and legally… as the one who has harbored a runaway slave. But… it isn’t that this letter presents an interesting testament to matters of property or slavery laws of the Roman Empire that caused it to be preserved in the scriptures. Again… this letter represents Christian theology in action. This is a real situation… with real people… with decisions that had to be made in real time. Just like when each of us is confronted with a situation and we must not only decide what is the right thing to do… but what is the Christian thing to do. Am I going to be shaped into a mug or am I going to insist on being the bowl… because sometimes… the right Christian thing to do is in opposition to our surrounding culture… or even our own self-interested instincts. In this letter the idea of oneness in Christ is applied to the reality of life in such a way that life’s reality is reworked.
The letter presents a compelling look at the demands that our own faith makes upon us… demands that threaten our authenticity as Christians if we cannot meet their challenge… if we cannot step up to the moment as Christians and speak the truth of Christ into the moment. Philemon is a Christian by the Holy Spirit through the work of Paul. So is Onesimus. And so, as Paul frames the argument, Onesimus is no longer a slave but more than a slave… a beloved brother in Christ. Through Christ, the reality of Philemon’s life has been reworked. In Christ, a slave… a person so much below him in social standing… has become a brother. A piece of property has become a brother. The value of Onesimus has changed… that is, his value to Philemon and how he bases that value has been reworked.
Throughout the letter, Paul walks a very fine line that runs parallel to the transformation of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus. Paul constantly refers to the relationship between Philemon and himself. He casts their relationship along the same lines as master and slave in terms of power. Here is the temptation to control. In the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus, Philemon holds the power. Roman law… the culture… is on his side. In the relationship between Philemon and Paul, Paul holds the power. And he makes sure to remind Philemon of this when he says, “though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty…” and later in the letter when he says, “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.” However, Paul wants Philemon to see his relationship to Onesimus in the same way as Paul has now cast his relationship with Philemon. Twice Paul refers to Philemon as his brother. And as a brother, he appeals to Philemon’s conscience and allows Philemon to make the choice. Paul treats him with the respect due to an equal… although he stands a little higher. In the letter, Paul is clear about what he wants, but in sending this letter in the hand of Onesimus his actions are backing up his words… “but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.” Keeping Onesimus with him, Paul wouldn’t have been able to have been as sincere in his desire to have Philemon accept Onesimus as a brother in Christ. Without Onesimus there in front of him, Philemon’s choice would have felt forced and resentment would likely have crept in. And Onesimus would always be that runaway slave and never a true brother. If Paul had made a command… the hypocrisy of it would have never stood. How does one make a command for equality? Equality is a matter of conscience. Standing before Philemon with this letter, Onesimus is the embodiment of Paul’s whole argument.
The hand of God applying pressure to the clay… working and reworking it into a vessel as seems good to God. A prophetic and ongoing dialogue. You know what is good and what is required. The clay pushes back at the potter’s shaping hand. But what if the justice required comes at a cost to me? The potter applies water and shapes further. Is this a kindness or will it be taken advantage of as a weakness? The clay pushes back. The will of God shapes and reshapes… works and reworks. The clay either forms or is spoiled in the potter’s hand. And then… the potter starts again. Amen.