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Jeremiah 18:1-11;Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; Philemon 1-21;Luke 14:25-33
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
September 8, 2019 –Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
God gave humanity the freedom to choose our own path. We receive that freedom as individuals. We receive that freedom as nations. We receive that freedom as humanity.
But it is not without its limitations. If we choose to believe that the world is flat…it is still round. If we choose to believe that the sun revolves around the earth…it is still the earth that revolves around the sun…and not vice versa.
So the Bible tells us that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. You can believe what you want, but it must be true if it is to endure.
Those who practice wisdom have good understanding. It is fools who despise wisdom and instruction. So get wisdom, and whatever else you get, get insight. Proverbs.
Jeremiah shares an insight with us again this morning. He hears the Lord tell him to go to the Potter’s house and I will show you something.
He goes to see what the Lord wants him to see. He goes with open eyes, open ears, an open heart…and open doors. He has eyes to see and ears to hear.
The potter is working with clay and what God shows him is that God has free will, too. Just as Israel has sworn faithfulness to God and then went their merry way…when things got so good…so, too, the God who has sworn to protect and defend them…can choose…another path if…and when…they become bad.
And we are clay in God’s hands as surely as the potter is the supreme arbiter of what he is going to make of the clay. The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord.
We have free will, to be sure. We can be kind or callous. We can be faithful in our relationships or we can get what we want and let the devil take the hindmost.
But it was true when my grandmother was a little girl, it was true when I was a little boy and she said it to me, and it is still true as I stand here…all you have is your Good Word.
God is not to be trifled with. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. If you want to be known for your honesty, you need to be honest. If you want to be known for your kindness, you need to be kind. If you want to be known for your trustworthiness, you cannot say one thing and do another.
We have transactions with people we are never going to meet again, but we need to build relationships, one transaction at a time, with everyone who is going to be a member of our community… whether that is Bigfork, our church, our nation, our world…or our God.
In fact, it is the person we will never meet again that gives us our first lesson in building relationships. If it goes well, there will be another… and the transaction will grow into a relationship.
Otherwise, we should expect to be scraped off the potter’s wheel and thrown back into the raw lump of clay God seeks to shape into a true and faithful community. Holy and true…and what is true is holy.
There is forgiveness, to be sure. There are second chances, just as surely…Look at the Apostle Paul who persecuted the church before Christ confronted him, called him, shaped him and sent him out into the world to start a little movement …full of the flame of truth…that is now called Christianity.
Paul was always and everywhere grateful for this chance to get insight…and I think that shows through in our epistle this morning.
We read a whole book in the Bible today. It is a brief written by a lawyer…Paul…or a prayer written by a man of God…Paul…asking for a second chance like the one he got at Damascus.
It is not written for him. It is for another…who has sinned…and now sees the light. Welcome him. Celebrate his coming. He is yours in truth as well as in law. Be kind. It will make you greater for it all,
Philemon has had a slave run away. The slave, Onesimus, finds Paul… or Paul finds him…when Paul is in prison, and they recognize each other. We don’t know why he ends up there, but Paul instructs him in the faith and Onesimus, in return, serves Paul and serves him well.
So Paul has three choices. He can keep him to serve him while he is in prison, he can say nothing and let things unfold as they may, or he can send him back to his friend, Philemon.
Let’s be clear about this. In Paul’s day a slave was the property of the master. The master can do as he wishes with the slave, not as if he were a person, but as if he were a used up newspaper.
To give you some perspective, Meriwether Lewis took his slave, York, on the great 1804-06 exploration of the Louisiana Purchase, the Corps of Discovery.
York did all the work that any of the other members of the Corps did. He suffered in their hardships, including an abiding uncertainty as to whether they would ever get home alive.
In addition, York was the first African American the Indian tribes of the Plains they met had seen. In the great Charlie Russell painting, Lewis & Clark meeting the Flatheads, which hangs in the House of Representatives chamber in Helena, there is a great commotion.
It is not about the gifts the Corps presents. It is about the first Black man they had seen. He facilitated the expedition in more ways than one. He made strangers stop and think.
He was as different as the white man. Let us wonder about this before we take action. He was their ambassador…their peacemaker… their best ‘hello’.
When they returned, York asked Lewis…in view of the great service he had been to the expedition…for his freedom. Lewis had him whipped…for asking.
So imagine, if you can, what awaited Onesimus upon his return to his master, a runaway, without having the claim of extraordinary service York had…except to Paul. But Paul sends him back.
This is an extraordinary document we read today. Paul pleads with the master to be merciful to the slave, as clay might ask for mercy from the potter or Israel might as for God’s grace…and he might ask for Christ’s forgiveness.
Paul asks Philemon to exercise his power to choose…as if he were God watching a disobedient nation he had saved…in a superhuman way.
Free will does not give us the power to make the wrong decision. We had that before we realized…before Adam and Eve…that we had a choice…at all…in things.
Free will…like the free will that God can exercise in ways that are beyond our understanding…is the gift of being able to make the right decision…perhaps even finding choices that had would not occur to mere mortals…because we come with open minds…open hearts… and open doors.
For a master to receive a slave back after he had run away…and to receive him generously…like the father of the Prodigal Son… increases the range of human possibility.
When we can imagine more, we can accomplish more. Perhaps the greatest thing that free will does is to release us from the instincts we were slaves to when we were mere beasts. We begin to see past tomorrow…over the horizon line.
“So, if you really consider me a partner,” Paul writes to Philemon, “welcome Onesimus as if you were welcoming me. If he has harmed you in any way or owes you money, charge it to my account. I, Paul, will pay it back to you.”
He is begging him to do not only the right thing…but a better thing than anyone could have been expected to do…just as God does things…enters into human history …in breathtaking ways…to call us to better works and a better life.
But Paul does something even more powerful…more meaningful…than to point the way to a better day for all humankind. Listen to him: “He is especially a dearly loved brother to me. How much more can he become a brother to you, personally and spiritually in the Lord!”
A slave is set free in Paul’s heart… just as Abraham was….just as Israel was…just as all of us have been in Jesus Christ.
He is not a slave to be whipped as Lewis whipped York. He is a brother to be treasured and trusted and empowered to make the house of Philemon a legend forever.
Philemon has that choice open to him…just as we all have that choice open to us. Anyone who has wronged us…offended us… embarrassed us…can be called back into our household…can be forgiven…and can become our testimony to all the world of our own great potential…that we still seek even when we are in pain… because we can see the world as something larger than ourselves …
It is when we are humble that we can become great. It is when we do what the world would consider to be a foolish thing that we can become wise.
This requires courage…the kind of courage that Christ talks to us about this morning. We are called to keep our eye on the prize. It has to be our highest priority. Nothing can come between us and it. By building others up, we build our world up…we build our world up.
We serve those who do not deserve it. We forgive those who do not deserve it. We empower those that the world has thrown away…
And the world blinks at what it sees and looks more deeply into itself. Maybe there is hope after all. If we will give our sisters and brothers cause to refresh their hearts in Christ…there will be a new heaven and a new earth.
What would you do if you were the potter Jeremiah visited and your clay was too wet or too dry? What would you have done if you were Philemon and your slave ran away?
What would you have done if you met Jesus along your way some day and he had said, “Come, follow me.”
God has given us free will…and God’s only begotten son…to give us the power to refresh our hearts…in Christ.
It is a free gift. Unwrap it. Unpack it. Give it away, as Christ gave himself to you.
O Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world through us… through me…this day? Amen