Posted by: owizblog | September 11, 2019

Change Your Mind, and Disavow This Mess: Sermon, 8 September 2019, United Church of Bute

Jeremiah 18:1-11

1

Our choices, our decisions, are the raw material with which God works. Out of what we want, or think we want, out of what we do and don’t do, out of the situations we create, and out of the messes we make, God works what God wills.

The prophets of the Old Testament saw that. Jeremiah saw that.

We aren’t puppets. We aren’t pieces on some chessboard, inert and passive while God plays his games with us. We make choices, and the choices are our own. We make choices, and the choices are ours, and the responsibilities are ours, and the consequences are our responsibility, too – collectively and individually.

But God works with these, with infinite patience, and care.

Out of our choices, our decisions, our mistakes, out of our failures and our successes, out of the lies we sometimes tell, and the truth we sometimes need, and find, the courage to stand up for, out of the things that happen to us, and the way we respond. out of all these things God’s loving will shapes possibilities, and new realities, and brings a future that is different to the past.

Grace out of gracelessness, love out of lovelessness, just as, at the first, at the beginning of all things, meaning and sense and order and light out of chaos and shapelessness and darkness – these are the things God creates, out of raw materials that seem utterly unpromising.

And when things go wrong, God, like the potter, reworks, remoulds, recasts, like the potter taking the same lump of clay, and shaping it, working it, moulding it in his hands.

And the potter will encounter things in the clay he moulds and shapes – bubbles, imperfections, streaks of different kinds of clay, and bits and pieces that are barely there, but are enough to make the shape-taking vessel suddenly lose that shape, suddenly lose its symmetry and wobble, and collapse.

And the potter takes it, works it briefly in his hand, and slaps it down, and starts again. Same clay, same imperfections – but differently mixed, differently imperfect, if you like, so that this time the balance is different in the potter’s hand, and something new can take shape in his hands. And it needn’t be what was taking shape before. His skill, his responsiveness to the clay in his skilful hands, lets the potter judge that instead of a vase, a bowl might be better, or instead of a bowl, a vase.

2

God, says Jeremiah, is just like that potter. Or, perhaps, the potter is in a sense, in his activity, his creativity, his freedom, a bit like God.

Jeremiah is talking to a society that is set on a course which is going to be terribly destructive to it. Worse than that, Jeremiah’s society is one which believes that it can do these things, and make a success of them, because its specialness, its uniqueness, its difference from all other societies means that, in the end, failure is impossible. Plucky little Judah will come through!

Because Judah has a special relationship with God! Judah is Israel…

And Israel is special, untouchable, just needs to set its course, and God will guarantee everything. We’ll be fine. We just need to believe in ourselves. We just need to believe in our greatness. We just need to Make Israel Great Again.

And people who speak out against this, speak out against the direction that society is taking, speak out against the idea that there is something so special about this people, that it can make a pig’s ear out of things, and everything will still be all right, they will still come through – people who speak out against that are denounced as moaners and traitors, as nay-sayers and saboteurs.

And they are purged…

And how do we know this?

Because that’s how they treated Jeremiah.

Jeremiah spoke out against the blasphemous, idolatrous smugness that proclaimed that we’re special, God says we’re special, and that everything will be all right, no matter how stupid the policy we’re embarked on seems to be.

And Jeremiah spoke out against the policy Judah was pursuing, of trying to play off one great power against the other, of relying on an expansionist Egypt to the west, in a new, untested alliance, against the Babylonians to the east, with whose Empire Judah had an old, special, semi-autonomous relationship.

Jeremiah spoke out against relying on new so-called friends and allies, who would certainly have their own agendas, and goals, and would just use Judah for their own ends.

Relying on allies like that, who would sell you down the river for their own advantage – and why wouldn’t they? – is, says Jeremiah, like a man who takes a reed-cane to lean on, and it slips and stabs him through the hand.

3

Jeremiah says this, and much more.

Accept that you can’t shape things the way that you want. Accept that you aren’t a big actor on the world stage. Accept that if you turn to alliances with the big and the ruthless and the powerful because you think you are as big and ruthless and powerful as they are, but also more special, because God is always there to guarantee your status as the Best Nation In The World – accept that if you think like that, you are actually turning away from God, and leaning on your own arrogance, and pride and conceit.

Because God can rethink. God can rework. God, like the potter, can simply slap down the clay, and start again.

At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, 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.

You may think that you have God pinned down in the way you understand the world, and that God is the guarantee of your specialness, and that all you have to do is to believe that, and your specialness will see you through. Not God. It isn’t God who will see you through, but your specialness. God is only there to serve your specialness.

But it isn’t like that. And you won’t find God in the tiny way you understand the world. You won’t find God in the realizing of your ridiculous, high-flying fantasies, or your childish expectations that everything will go your way because you’re so special.

You will find God in your weakness, in your fear, in those situations in which what you give to God to work with isn’t your wonderfulness, your specialness, your unique greatness, but your failure, and your sadness, and your smallness and your brokenness.

That’s when the potter will take the clay, and shape it into something new, and different. That’s when, out of the collapsed pathos of the pot that didn’t work, the potter will start again, and with infinite patience, will mould something new, that only he can presently imagine.

Do you, says Jeremiah, want to be the potter’s clay?

Philemon

4

Onesimus the slave ran away. We don’t know why. We imagine that we do; “Which slave wouldn’t want to run away?” we ask. But Onesimus, having run away, seems to have changed his mind.

Or perhaps he was loaned to Paul, by his master Philemon. Perhaps he is now being sent back by Paul, having looked after him during Paul’s own imprisonment. We don’t know. Paul, Onesimus and Philemon know, so there’s no need for Paul to go into it, no need for Paul to explain background that the three of them already know, in what’s essentially a personal letter. And the Epistle to Philemon is a personal letter.

Paul’s sending the slave back, and the slave is going back voluntarily. But this has huge implications for the slaveowner – because Philemon professes Christianity.

And now he needs, not to receive back his slave, but to receive Onesimus, a human being, his brother.

Because if he can do that, they will both be living in a new world. Or, rather, they will be living in the corrupt, collapsing reality of the present, in terms of the greater, transforming reality of God’s loving will…

…in the world as it is, as though it were beginning to be the world as it should be, the world as God would, and will, have it be.

Nothing can ever justify the institution of slavery, even partially. Slavery is the embodiment of the belief that some people matter, and other people don’t. The ownership of another human being corrupts the owner even as it demeans the slave.

And it doesn’t change that in the slightest to note that some (very, very few) slave-owners were reasonably, or even very, kind to their slaves – because the owner was still the owner, the slave was still the slave, and the one mattered, and the other, in the end, didn’t.

Because slavery is always slavery.

Paul accepted slavery as a fact, because it was the way this world works, and he thought that this world was coming to an end imminently, along with all its institutions, along with slavery.

Now that’s a huge limitation of Paul’s. The evangelical opponents of slavery in America in the 1850s and the 1860s could have done with a little help from Paul. Wilberforce could’ve…

But we have to accept Paul for what he was.

And here’s Paul, with the escaped slave Onesimus, who is ready to go home.

5

So Paul writes his shortest letter, to Philemon, who’s a Christian.

And when you boil down what Paul says in his letter, it comes to this.

Onesimus has rethought. He’s looked at his situation, changed his mind. For his own, good reasons, he’s coming back.

Let him. But do more than that…

He wants to rework his life, and God’s in this.

So let him.

Give him the space. Give God the space, to rework all of this, to allow freedom and equality and brotherhood to emerge out of this pathetic, collapsing lump of a failed world.

You’re the one who needs to become different, says Paul to Philemon. You need to abandon the rights that being a slave-owner confers on you, your certainty and confidence in what you are, your sense of specialness and entitlement and importance in the world. Because you’re wrong about all of that.

You need to become something else, something bigger, something that points beyond this world of slave-owning and servitude, of privilege and entitlement, and disprivileged and inequality, this world in which some people matter and others just don’t.

And what Paul says to Philemon, he might as well be saying to us. You live in a word in which terrible institutions exist, a catastrophic, collapsing world of horrible iniquity and cruelty. But you need to live in this world as though it were another. You need to live in this collapsed pot, this failed vase of a world as though you were living in what comes after it. Because God is reworking the clay, and remaking this world.

You must, by your life and your living in the world as it is, witness to the God who shapes what comes next.

6

And it’ll cost you.

Luke 14:25-33

And so, to today’s Gospel reading. Jesus spells out to the crowds what it will cost to be his disciple, to live in the world as it is, according to the way the world should be and shall be. Make the calculations, he says. Are you up to this? Because the cost of discipleship is everything. It’s a putting-away of all those things that amount to conventional security and status in the world, all the things we think give us our place in the world. You will need to be remade.

And there’s another thread here, too. It’s this. If you are embarked on something that’s clearly wrong, that’s clearly not going to work, that’s clearly going to be damaging, and destructive, something that’s sheer folly – step away from it. Abandon it. Start again. Do something different.

Don’t tie yourself to the failure, and stupidity, and awful decisions of the past.

It’s how the potter works.

It’s how God works.

We really need to hear this today.

 

 

 


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