Are any of you good at pottery? Or appreciators of pottery? Or good at watching other people make pottery? I have been to craft fairs over the years where there were people making pots on a wheel, and I loved to watch this lump of wet clay become something beautiful—a cup, a vase—something that curved out and back in again. I would watch the potter dip her hands in water and push her fingers down on the center, making the sides rise. Her fingers were key to shaping everything. Gradually it grew higher, rounder, thinner.
Sometimes the slightest wobble in the potter’s fingers made the whole thing warp beyond repair. The wheel stopped, the potter brought out a piece of wire and sliced the clay off the wheel. That one didn’t work out, but the clay could be used again.
As a kid, I signed up for pottery classes, ready to try my hand at shaping these beautiful objects. Of course, we didn’t start with the wheel. We started by slamming the clay on a hard surface to get all the bubbles out. We made coils and layered them together into little uneven cups to give to our moms for their birthdays. We rolled clay into slabs and made uninteresting wall vases to give to our dads for Christmas. Or ash trays—you remember all the ash tray projects we did in school?
Finally we got to try out the wheel. And I discovered that the potters I had watched at street fairs made it look easy. I finally succeeded in making a bowl, but it was very thick and heavy, not graceful. I painted it bright blue. It’s still around gathering dust someplace.
So I have great respect for potters who can take a lump of clay and turn it into something delightful, beautiful, and useful. I love the idea of God taking not just an individual but the whole nation of Israel and shaping it, like one big lump of clay. And even though God is a consummate potter, the nation of Israel is an obstinate lump of clay. Sometimes it wobbles and needs some reshaping.
Sometimes events in our own lives require reshaping of who we thought we were. It might be an individual thing, a personal tragedy, a failure. Where has God the potter helped to reshape you?
Or it might be on a larger scale, such as the Bahamas are experiencing right now after Hurricane Dorian, where whole communities have been wiped off the map and will have to be rebuilt from scratch. How is God present in such times, to support, to grieve, and to help the survivors create anew?
You may have noticed that we run into the image of a wrathful, angry God in this reading, a God who plots evil against the nations that don’t cooperate with God. I find this part of the imagery uncomfortable, because personally I don’t see God operating that way. The ways God is portrayed in the Bible reflect the frames through which the writers understood God. The writers were people of their time and place. I understand God through my own frame from this time and place. What I do see in this passage from Jeremiah is a God who keeps working with the clay until it is just right—a God who makes second chances and third chances and more chances than that for us to figure out what’s what.
God does not give up on the nation of Israel. In today’s New Testament reading, God does not give up on Onesimus either. That’s a through-line in the Bible: God keeps showing up for us, even when we’ve behaved in less than stellar ways.
Paul is writing to an individual named Philemon while Paul is in prison. Paul is writing to convince Philemon to forgive and even free his slave Onesimus. We don’t know what Onesimus did that set Philemon against him—maybe it was the act of running away, or maybe something precipitated that escape. At any rate, Paul can see that there is a spark of potential in Onesimus and writes this letter to Philemon to intercede on Onesimus’s behalf. Paul uses his best rhetorical skills of persuasion to convince Philemon to see Onesimus no more as a slave but as a brother, an equal.
It helps that Paul sent a copy of this letter to others in Philemon’s local community, so he knew they would be watching to see how he responded. Did you catch that? At the opening of this letter, Paul says, “To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house….” It’s like cc’ing all of Philemon’s cohorts on an important email. No pressure, right? And Paul does some more arm twisting in the body of the letter. Maybe this was less obvious back in his day, but it comes leaping off the page as I read it. Listen again:
Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 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…. So if you consider me your partner, welcome [Onesimus] as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account…. I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.
I especially love that last line, because in saying nothing about it, he has in fact said everything about it. Oh, by the way, just a little reminder that, ahem, I saved your life…. So just do this old man—this old, imprisoned man—a little favor. Not for my sake, or out of any sense of duty, but freely and voluntarily.
Right. This cracks me up. But the nugget here that is more profound is that Paul sees an opportunity for a second chance for someone whom others may consider useless. The name Onesimus means “useful.” Paul knows that Onesimus is indeed useful, just as God knows we all can be useful. Onesimus may have made a mistake. Give him a second chance, and he will be useful.
We have no record of how Philemon received this letter, or whether he decided to free his slave Onesimus. It’s a cliffhanger, and Part 2 of the story has disappeared.
So that begs the question: why include this brief book in the Bible? I suggest that both of these readings—about reshaping a pot and about freeing a slave—are about relationships and second chances. Relationships between God and God’s people, in covenant, shaping and reshaping, trying to get it right and committed to staying with it. Relationships between a slave and a master and how they might learn to buck the social customs and live instead as equals. How this slave who made some kind of mistake can get a second chance.
Perhaps this “little favor” that Paul is asking doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. In Paul’s day, slaves were sometimes freed. Some slaves could earn freedom for themselves and their families. And yet I think Paul is asking for something big. Free a slave and see him instead as a brother in Christ. Imagine how that little favor would play out in the pre – Civil War South. Philemon’s fellow plantation owners might be shocked, aghast. He might lose all social standing, even have people coming after him or refusing to do business with him. This is the revolutionary second chance Paul is asking Philemon to give to Onesimus.
Paul is asking nothing less than that Philemon imagine a world of equality and justice, of compassion and second chances, where every person is regarded as equal to every other person. No slaves, no second-class citizens, no untouchables. Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett and Elon Musk and migrant field workers and sweathouse seamstresses and prisoners and prostitutes and addicts all equal, all given second chances, all invited into relationship with God and with each other.
Imagine that Paul’s invitation is not just to Philemon but to us. Paul invites us to imagine love and justice enough to go around to everyone. Even the people to whom we personally don’t want to give second chances.
What would it take to make such a world?
Economic justice. We might have to reshape our entire society so that minimum wage is actually a living wage. In fact, we might have to reconfigure wages so that there is less separation between the one percent and the ninety-nine.
We might have to figure out more ways to build affordable housing so that people don’t have to live in tents or sleep in doorways.
What would it take to make such a world?
Racial justice. We might have to figure out how to heal the centuries-old wounds of racism and slavery, oppression and genocide.
We might have to figure out how to get past classism, sexism—and all the other –isms and xenophobia that keep people down, that put people in concentration camps at our border simply for wanting to be in this country—so that all can live into the full potential of who God calls them to be.
What would it take to make such a world?
Environmental justice. We might have to lower our carbon emissions and pump fewer toxins into our streams and air so that our planet can keep supporting everybody.
God invites us into relationship, to be open to shaping and reshaping. God invites us to work with God to shape and reshape our society and our nation so that it does live into its ideals. France talks about liberty, fraternity, and equality. We talk about liberty and justice for all. It’s easy to spout idealistic talk. It’s revolutionary to actually live into such ideals. Revolution takes practice and commitment. Revolution is about revolving, as in turning society around… turning the tables… spinning the wheel so that the most perfect, beautiful, useful pottery can be made. May we stay true to our relationship with God. May we be open to be shaped by that relationship, and through that relationship help shape everything else. Amen.