Jeremiah 18:1-6 & Philemon Labor Day Week-end
Elizabeth M. Deibert 3 September 2016
Labor Day week-end, the sign that summer is officially over. Monday provides one more day for people to refresh themselves before moving into the hard work of autumn. But Labor Day began in the late 1800’s as a day to celebrate the laborer, and all his or her accomplishments for society. It was a day created for the working middle class and poor – to honor their accomplishments. Unfortunately, much of the holiday’s original purpose feels a little lost in the day’s consumerism. Merchants and restaurants are not closed – many workers do, in fact, have to work on Labor Day.
But what I want to discuss with you today is the labor, the work, the identity, the primary vocation of everyone who is called by God. Jeremiah made it clear that God’s people are like clay in God’s hands. Hear now our reading from the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures.
The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2 "Come, go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words." 3 So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4 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. 5 Then the word of the LORD came to me: 6 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. (NRS)
Being a worker for God means being moldable, flexible, submitting to the authority and will and creativity of the One who molds you and makes you.
And we turn to the Epistle reading from the New Testament, one of the tiny letters of Paul to Philemon about a relationship problem between two brothers.
Paul makes it clear that Philemon has a responsibility to reconcile his relationship with his brother, Onesimus, for the sake of the good that can be done together in the name of Christ.
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, 2 to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 4 When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God 5 because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. 6 I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.
7 I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother. 8 For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9 yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love-- and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. 10 I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. 12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13 I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother-- especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22 One thing more-- prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you. 23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. 25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. (NRS)
Being a Christian makes forgiveness, mercy, kindness, generosity, love – mandatory in your life. Not optional. Oh, how often we pray the Lord’s Prayer and forget what we are saying. Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us. Forgive us our debts, our short-comings as we forgive others their indebtedness to us, their inability to repay us for our generosity. Forgive us our trespasses, our crossing the boundary in relationships, our coming over the line, as we forgive those who cross the line with us. We are not free to take God’s grace and mercy and live however we please. No, if you believe in the love of God, you are call to live like you do. Submitting to God’s will and God’s way. You are the potter. I am the clay. Mold me and make me, this is what I pray. Change my heart, O God. You cannot be an authentic Christian without a humble, ever-growing heart of love.
Asking for God’s forgiveness and seeking to forgive those who have wronged you is at the heart of the labor of becoming like Christ. Christ showed us the heart of God, because He was God in the flesh. He said from the cross, “Father forgive them.” And what was so unique about the message of the Christian Gospel is that it is for everyone.
The mandate of the early church was to go out to all the nations, not to close down and say, “This Jewish man Jesus came to be the Messiah for us, the Jews.” No, the hard realization that caused a good deal of conflict in the beginning was that this message of grace and love was not just for my people but for all people. That’s why being a Christian cannot really be anything but primary in your life. Jesus said, in the Gospel reading for today, something that will knock your socks off, if you really pay attention. We did not read it, but we will affirm it in the Call to Discipleship later. He said, and I’ll paraphrase, to make it easier to hear: “Don’t even bother following me, if you can’t love me far more than you love your family members. Don’t even bother calling yourself a Christian if your national identity is first for you. Don’t even bother trying to follow me if you cannot deny your own selfish wishes, stop clinging to all your possessions, and be willing to lay them down and suffer like me in order to show God’s love to others.
Jesus said that, and people still followed. Lots of people. People like Paul, who keep sharing the Gospel, even though doing so, lands them in prison sometimes. They were captured by God’s love in Christ, that they give themselves completely over to the Potter. And when you give yourself over to the Potter to mold you, the Gospel has the power to change all relationships – even ones where your brother has done you wrong. Paul’s insisting that Philemon treat Onesimus as a brother in the flesh and in the faith. Whatever the conflict between them is nullified by the sharing of the Gospel. Paul says, “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good we may do for Christ.”
The sharing of our faith is ineffective when we do not make peace with people, when we do not forgive and when we do not live with the humble gratitude and generosity required of one who has given his or her life over to God.
For example, notice what a difference it has made for the Roman Catholic Church to have Pope Francis, a man whose authentic Christian love and humility is clear, after so much abuse of power by priests that has weakened, sickened the church. Think about the damage that many hyper-protestant televangelists and other prominent, power-hungry, mega-church preachers have done to the Christian faith by their egos, their greed, and their scandals. All of the church has lost favor. But we cannot blame it only on them. We also must think about how we often fail to commend the Christian life by the way we talk and by the way we walk through this life -- our unwillingness to be merciful and forgiving, our lack of generosity. Paul says, “Don’t you see all the good you might do for Christ?”
Don’t you see that the spreading of the Gospel of Christ’s love depends on our living this radical life of love, so that others will see it’s amazing transformative power? Do you know why the early church grew so fast? Because people were living this stuff out, and it wowed people. Our love should be so much like Christ’s love, that people wonder what makes is tick. If we are loving like Christ, people want to be with us because we are so kind, so interested in them, so willing to care, so eager to weep with them and to rejoice with them.
Don’t you know that when people come in the door at Peace, they return if they feel loved by you? That loving and welcoming is the job of every person. Of course, we come to worship, we want to be inspired. But we also want to feel connected. We also want relationships that change us. We actually need relationships of accountability – even though we resist them, out of a fierce struggle to maintain independence. Paul has had that kind of accountable relationship with Onesimus and with Philemon. So he is able to say to Philemon I am sending you Onesimus, that is, I am sending my own heart. Whatever problem you have with him, set it down, put his debt on my account, and get on with doing Gospel work together. Because you see, as Paul said in his letter to the Galatians. “All the walls are down. There is no longer a division of male and female, no longer a division of Jew and Greek, no longer a division of slave and free.” This Christian love is the identity above all other identities.
So, my friends, this is why I believe that being saved by Christ is more than a one-time decision. It is a daily decision – to submit to Christ’s way of sacrificial love – or to go our own way. We can refuse to allow the Potter full control over us. We can keep putting valuable people and valuable possessions ahead of God (and we do!) or we can slowly but surely keep drawing closer to Christ’s love.
The more we live completely, whole-heartedly for God, the more peace we make. If we live for our own whims and wishes, we will have conflict with other people. If we live first for our nation-state, we will not respect and value people from other countries. If we live for our family, we will be overly dependent on their love for us, their appreciation of us. If we live to gain possessions, we will surround ourselves with wealth, but we will not find happiness because it will never be enough.
No, we were created to seek God first, then everything else can fall into place. When we humbly serve God, open to loving and accepting others as they are, then the world is a beautiful place. Richard and I actually saw a movie in the theatre this week-end. The Light Between Oceans was an beautiful story of love and sacrifice. One memorable quote comes from someone who dies in the story. Ostracized in his community, his wife asks him how he manages to be kind to people who are unkind to him. He says, “You only have to forgive once. To resent, you have to do it all day, every day. You have to keep remembering all the bad things.” This line remembered by his wife, years after he has died changes her, and by changing her changes a chain of events between other people. Forgiveness – Peacemaking sets off a positive chain of events.
Mother Teresa, who was officially canonized as a saint just a few hours ago said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” When asked about her nationality, she said, “I am everything. Every country I love and I am a child of God to love the humans….I see somebody dying, I pick him up. I find somebody hungry, I give her food…I don’t look at color. I don’t look at religion. I don’t look at anything. Every person whether Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist is my brother, my sister… Intense love does not measure. It just gives.”
Let’s challenge one another to be peacemakers in the spirit of Jesus Christ. In this world that tells us to fight for ourselves and our own people, in a society that teaches us to demand our own rights and protect our securities, what a radical thing it would be if we decided to be kind, generous, and merciful to ALL people. Imagine the difference – if this kind of sacrificial love began to take root and grow. It did 2000 years ago, and life has never been the same.