Sermon: Shaped by God

Scriptures: Jeremiah 18:1-6, Luke 14:25-33 (Philemon)

Preached: Sept. 8, 2019 at Nottingham Presbyterian Church by Rev. Merritt N. Schatz


          It was a cold, early-winter Sunday afternoon. I was walking home after church to the flat where I lived with my landlady, though she was away for the weekend. A shabbily dressed older man approached me asking for money for food. This was unusual for our street. I explained that I did not have any money, but I could at least offer a cup of tea against the cold. The man gladly accepted my offer. I headed to our doorway. The man asked if he should wait there or come with me. Without thinking, I said of course he should come with – it was too cold to wait outside.

          As we mounted the stairs, I began to question myself. We were going to an empty apartment. What if something happened. Still, that thought made me feel a little better about myself. Taking a risk, I was. That is what I had just preached about, wasn’t it?

          As I quickly made a cup of tea, my second thoughts returned. What would my landlady say about the smell that was now in the flat?

          I can’t remember whether he asked about a bowl of soup, or if I just thought about offering one and then dismissed it. Either way, in my mind, I claimed we had no soup. The man was not a fool. There was certainly food that could have been offered. Nevertheless, the man expressed gratitude when I gave him the hot cup of tea. And then he did something that surprised me. He offered a blessing to God, as if this were a great feast. He drank his tea; we talked a little. Then he left.

          I cleaned the chair where he had been sitting, aired out the room, and then pondered what I had done…and what I had left undone. Had I just been visited by Jesus, and all I had offered was a cup of tea?

          This encounter, from over thirty years ago, flashes to my mind almost every time I read the Scripture from Luke. The passage from Luke sounds so extreme, fanatical, unreasonable. Could Jesus have really meant these words?

          Crowds had started to gather around Jesus. Some came to be healed. Some came to be forgiven. Some came out of curiosity. Some came for what they thought they could get – political power, money, influence. Some thought Jesus was building up to a dramatic takeover of Israel; that he would use his awesome power to kick out the Romans and establish a new kingdom.

          Jesus decided to set them straight. Jesus had been throwing challenges at people for quite some time. He challenged not only the authorities, but also everyday people with his call to repentance, his offering of forgiveness, and his commandments to live differently.

          With all these large crowds, Jesus looked around himself and declared, “Whoever does not hate father or mother, wife and children, brother or sister, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross, cannot be my disciple.” Hear this, and count the cost, said Jesus.

          Jesus’ words here were intended to shock, to shake the crowds from an easy complacency and to turn away those who were just along for the ride. Our hearts still want to shout, “But that’s not fair! Shouldn’t everyone be welcome?”

          When we look closely at the Scriptures, we find that there is little said about being fair – unless it is to remind us that allowing injustice and sinful behavior to continue is unfair. Yet, we have always wanted to determine fairness on our own scale of justice. This is not new with us. It is an age-old mistake.

          The people of Jeremiah’s time wanted to do the same. They responded to his warnings of destruction and exile with, “That’s not fair. Why is this happening?” So God takes Jeremiah to see a potter.

          As the potter works, it becomes clear that what is happening is not about fairness. If the clay is not functioning as it should, if it is not responding to the hands of the potter, it is the right of the potter to reshape the clay any way the potter desires. God also claims this right with regard to creation.

          The Israelites of Jeremiah’s time had forgotten who was in control, who had the right to set limits and to guide behavior. Rather than accepting the strong, shaping hands of God, they lived as if they shaped their own lives, and tried to shape God into a compliant deity who ignored their greed and selfishness.

          The large crowds who were following Jesus were trying to shape Jesus into the Messiah they wanted. They had visions of grandeur, hopes of political success, desires to be close to greatness.

          God will not be shaped by us. God will not accept our half-hearted, self-congratulatory efforts at following Jesus Christ as if they were the same as full commitment. We cannot shape or fool God by whatever brownie points we think we have earned. God is not bound by our concepts of fairness, thank God! God acts with justice AND mercy.

          Jesus asks of us no less than what Christ has undertaken to do on our behalf. Knowing the pain and risk, Jesus went ahead and confronted the authorities. Jesus didn’t just tell the crowd things would become difficult. He challenged them to pick up a cross – a symbol of criminality, scandal, shame, and pain – the same ignoble and painful reality which he would bear.

          Unless we are willing to walk in difficult and unpopular places, we cannot walk with Jesus – because that is where he is. Jesus walked with the poor, the hungry, the outcasts and gave them hope. Jesus also walked with the Pharisees, the rich and powerful, and gave them a different kind of hope – hope of a life shaped and reshaped by the love and justice of God. It is a challenging invitation which may be hard to face.

          Paul accepted the invitation, but he did understand how hard it would be for most people to do. It had been hard for Paul to do.

When did you last read the letter to Philemon? If it has been a while, or never, read it this afternoon – it is only one page long! What challenge this letter must have been to Philemon to read, and Paul to write! Philemon was a leader in the church; indeed one of the early churches met in his home. Paul considered him a beloved friend.

          This letter asks Philemon to accept a slave, Onesimus, who had run away from Philemon, possibly even stealing money from him. Paul may have met Onesimus in prison and there proclaimed the Gospel to him. It would have been a lot to ask Philemon to receive his slave back without any penalty. Yet Paul takes it further, and tells Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother.

          The hands of God had reworked, reshaped the whole relationship between Philemon and Onesimus. Philemon is to receive Onesimus as a brother, to receive Onesimus even as Philemon would receive Paul himself.

          We see the hand of God throughout this letter. Philemon is being asked to accept the return of one who had not only been lost, but who had run away and is now being restored to the one who has a legal claim on him. One who is beloved by Philemon has promised to pay Philemon any debt owed from this action by Onesimus. This restoration creates a change in more than one relationship.

          The debt owed by Onesimus is assumed by Paul. Paul quite cunningly reminds Philemon that, of course Paul won’t draw attention to the fact that Philemon owes Paul his very life. Philemon was reminded of his own debts relieved by Jesus who was revealed to Philemon by Paul. Philemon is reminded as well of his own restoration in relationship with God.

          What did Philemon say? What could he say? We assume because this letter is in the Bible that Philemon must have agreed to this arrangement. But we do not know this. Perhaps it has been left open-ended for a reason: that we might see ourselves as both Philemon and Onesimus. The end of our story is not yet written. God is still reworking, reshaping us.

          This, too, is the good news of the Gospel. A single failure, or even a lifetime of failures or disbelief, does not mean that God has given up on us. God can reshape the soul that offers only a cup of hot tea into an instrument of hope who will later offer a bowl of soup and a word of compassion or more. God can reshape the slave owner into a brother of slaves, the self-contained person into a worker for justice, and a timid person one who calls even the powerful to repentance. God can reshape our lives, and the life of our community.

          God is writing a daily letter to us, to each of us. What relationship does Christ direct us to change? Who does Christ call us to forgive or to acknowledge as our brother, sister, mother, father? To what ministry is the Spirit calling us, even if it seems crazy? This expansion of our understanding of our relationships with one another through our love for God is what Jesus is shocking us into by his refusal to allow our earthly relationships and understandings to shape our lives more than God’s love shapes our lives.

          God, the divine potter, is lovingly, mercifully reshaping us every day. God is smoothing the bumps, redirecting the wayward curve, and reminding us of the extraordinary cost God has paid to redeem us in love.

          Jesus’s challenge to us is more than fair. It is costly and loving redemption. Thanks be to God for this gift of reshaping!

© 2019 Nottingham Presbyterian Church
Connected Sound - Websites for the Barbershop Community