Molding Our World 13th Pentecost
Jeremiah 18:1-11 Philemon 1-21
I can still remember an art class when I was in elementary school. I was given a lump of clay, and told to make something out of it. I really didn’t have any idea what to do with it, so I just pinched it into a little container shape, and scratched my name on the bottom. The next week, it had been fired, and I was told to paint it with some glaze. I got about half of it painted (I think I talked too much to my neighbors!), and then they fired it again. The next week, I was given this half-formed, half-glazed thing, and had to figure out what to do with it. I decided to give it to my dad. Now, imagine my surprise when, some time later, I visited my dad’s office and discovered it sitting on his desk—holding paper clips! Well, today, in my office, I have a little pot that was made by my son, Chris—and it holds paper clips, too! And I have a little ceramic snake (made by Erin) that sits on my windowsill and “protects my office from intruders.”
Anybody here have something similar? Yes, clay is part of our heritage, and making things from clay is an ancient art—creating things of beauty and utility! There’s just something about taking an unformed blob and somehow transforming it into something, working with it until it is satisfactory—yes, it’s very satisfying.
Our Scriptures for today are about the work God does, shaping and transforming our world. Jeremiah watches a potter, working at his wheel, and hears the word of the Lord describing God’s own self as a potter, and Israel as the clay in God’s hands. Then, in our Epistle, we hear Paul addressing a Christian slave-owner (named Philemon). Paul is telling him how to deal with a runaway slave named Onesimus. In his own way, Paul is shaping and transforming the way Christians looked at slavery. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Genesis account of CREATION, where God brings into being the earth and water and animals and people. And you can see, in your mind’s eye, God forming Adam from “the dust of the ground.”
But that’s just the beginning of our story—an unfolding story that shows that God is actively engaged in the labor of molding our world, just as a potter molds the clay. What I want to do today is to explore how God molds you and me, and also draws US into the business of molding God’s world. Let’s take a look!
God’s Hands at Work
There are at least two ideas about How God Is Involved in the World. The Deists believed in God, and that God was kind of like a “clockmaker.” God made the world, set it in motion, and from then on God has been “hands off!”
But the testimony of Scripture, and the witness of our own experience of God, show us that God is involved with us! God tells Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” You see a similar idea in Job 3, Psalm 51, Psalm 139, Isaiah 44—God is in the creating business. And all one has to do is read the Book of Acts—which is a thriller better than any novel—to see how intimately God is acting in our lives. When you and I listen to each other’s stories (and our stories are not yet finished!), we see God’s hand at work! Isaiah 64 says “O Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” We are all the work of God’s hand.
Now, according to our text from Jeremiah, you and I are being molded for God’s purposes. He says that God has plans for the people of God. God has plans for us! Of course, we have FREE WILL, and sometimes those plans have to shift depending on our attentiveness to God.
[And we would do well to remember that some lumps of clay are formed into objects meant for a very special purpose, while others of us are formed for a much more common purpose. But since GOD is the potter, who are we to disagree about our place in God’s design?]
Transformed versus Conformed
One particular text has been very important to me in recent years. Paul writes in Romans 12, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Paul is not suggesting that we transform ourselves, but that we BE transformed—allowing the hand of God to form us, to shape us. In this process, our minds are renewed, and we will better understand God’s will. We can choose to focus on God’s thoughts, God’s ways, God’s word. I really love Philippians 4, where Paul writes, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” You and I have a part in the process of transformation and renewal! We can choose what to think about!
Transformation of Relationships
In our Epistle to Philemon, we see the seeds of a relational revolution! Paul has been blessed, while in prison in Rome, with the company of a runaway slave—a slave by the name of Onesimus. His name means “useful” or “profitable” and Paul wants very much to keep this new Christian by his side. But he knows his owner, Philemon, a Christian man of Colosse. Paul knows that the right thing to do is to send Onesimus back to Colosse, back into the service of Philemon. But he sends a letter with him—a personal letter that begs Philemon to receive Onesimus more as a BROTHER in Christ than as a slave!
Now, I have always wondered why Paul never wrote a lengthy treatise against the institution of slavery. We all know slavery is bad, right? Last week, Melissa and I were watching a show in which a couple had an opportunity (in 1769) to inherit a very large plantation in North Carolina. But the property included 154 slaves, and they had no intention of owning slaves. Their first thought was that they would FREE the slaves—but then they found out that the law required that proof must be offered that a slave had performed some outstanding meritorious service (like saving a life) before he or she could be given their freedom. There was also a fee to be paid of 100 pounds sterling for each slave thus freed. Once they learned the impossibility of it, they simply declined to inherit the estate. Things are always more complicated than we at first perceive!
Paul did not write about the wrongness of slavery. Instead, he planted the seeds that would eventually dissolve it. He asked a slave owner to think of his slave as a brother, and to treat him the way he would treat Paul himself if he were there. This was a revolution in relationships! We hear an echo of it in Galatians 3, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
I want to give you just two quick examples that illustrate the possibility of transformation; stories of how folks have been transformed and then have been used by God to transform the world. The first is Nick Voyachic (“VOY-itch-itch”). He is a man who was born without arms or legs. There was a time when he felt helpless and hopeless, but now Nick is an inspirational speaker! He talks with kids and adults, and testifies that God can use anyone. “We are put in situations to build our character, not to destroy us!” (Reminds me of “Have Thine Own Way, Lord!”) And Nick affirms that, if one plan gets wrecked, we find ourselves eventually in a much more perfect plan! He says that the wonder of God is experienced when God uses us, imperfect creatures, to do God’s perfect will!
The second example is found in former “untouchables” who were once slaves in the caste society of India. Once they hear the Good News that they are children of the King, NO LONGER SLAVES, they set about bringing the liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ to other “untouchables.” And they are gradually REVOLUTIONIZING an entire society!
See, friends, God transforms us then gets us into the family business of transformation!
I’ll finish today by going back to our friend, the slave, Onesimus. Ready to hear “the rest of the story”? It’s really good! He was not only restored to Philemon, but became his BROTHER, and eventually he became the Bishop of Ephesus! It must have been hard to go back after running away, hard to face the possible consequences—but he had become “pliant clay” in God’s hands, and had discovered God’s good, pleasing, and perfect will.
Friends, God is already at work in your life. Will you and I be pliant clay in the Potter’s hands? I wonder what kind of wonderful purposes God has in mind for us? Let’s find out together!