Rev. Dr. Molly T. Marshall
President, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities
September 4, 2022
Scriptures: Jeremiah 18:1–11; Philemon 1:10–21
It is a privilege to be at Plymouth this morning. I thank your pastor for this generous invitation to grace the sacred desk, as folk used to call “preaching.” Of course, no seminary president is worth her salt without a commercial. It is a good season at United; we are experiencing a “time of greening,” to use Hildegarde of Bingen’s lovely imagery. She speaks of the “greening” work of the Spirit, and United is sprouting growth in student body, faculty, staff, and mission. We thank you for your faithful contributions as a church and as individuals over the 60-year history of United. [Can you imagine that some of us are older than the seminary?!] Yours is a storied history as a congregation, and United is grateful for the lovely commencement ceremonies we have here as our “home church.”
The lectionary presents a challenge for the preacher this Sunday. You can tell that a committee worked on the Common Revised Lectionary, so I had to make some choices. I have decided that the Jeremiah and Philemon texts—as disparate as they be—offer us a way to thinking about how identity is shaped.
To be a potter is not an easy pursuit. One author has called it a “full-body endeavor.” It is messy practice, and it requires practice. I have heard the language of “throwing a pot” and I have observed that the studio has been the recipient of what is thrown! It looks that the wheel throws back. Potters have to tug on the clay, and potters may have to change plans when the tug of the clay demands it.
I have a friend who turns out lovely chalices and patens, mugs, bowls, and little oil lamps. He funds a ministry project focused on peace and justice in Africa with the proceeds. He talked about the resistance the clay presented to being shaped. He said that sometimes he stops the wheel after failed attempts and simply asks, “What do you want to be?” I love that, for it respects something of the autonomy of the material.
God sends the prophet to the potter’s house, and he receives a lesson that kindles his prophetic awareness. The potter working with the clay represents God’s involvement with Israel as well as God’s larger redemptive project with all the world.
What Jeremiah observes is the resistance of the clay and the flawed product. Yet the material remains, and God as potter can reshape it. Reworking it for usefulness is a collaboration, apparently, just as God is not through with Israel. The prophet perceives both the freedom and determination of God to continue to work with a wayward people as well as the responsibility of the people to determine whether they will be God’s useful clay.
Jeremiah’s prophetic career occurs during a time of aggression from Assyria, a major power in the Ancient Near Eastern world. Israel was a small country and served both as a crossroads for other nations and a place to acquire. In the 7th century BCE, Jeremiah had the unenviable task of warning the nation to put its trust in God, live lives of justice, refrain from abandoning its historic faith, and keep listening to God.
You may recall Michelangelo’s depiction of the “weeping prophet.” With his head in his hands, he laments the threats he sees on the horizon. His call to warn of the coming destruction of Jerusalem makes his message hard to offer, hard to hear.
One of the things I love about this text is that he perceives God speaking through the ordinary circumstances of life. Charisse Tucker poses this question: “Can we open ourselves up to the idea that there is truly no place, no person, no situation through which God is unable to speak?” All of it is holy ground.
When we think on this from an individual perspective, it encourages us to know that when damaged, we can still be reshaped by the impress of the Potter. Our mistakes, our betrayals, our failures are imbedded in the clay, but not thrown out. Indeed, a new form of identity emerges as we work toward restoration.
And that is what the story of Philemon is about. [I once had a student call the runaway “One-i-mus,” which set him to ask about “Two-a-mus.”] Paul is in jail, with a Roman soldier always in his presence or within sight, but he is free to receive guests and write letters. One of those guests was Onesimus, a slave that needs to return to Philemon, but Paul desires he return in a different status. You see, Onesimus—whose name means useful—have proven himself just that in his care for the aging apostle.
Evidently, he had become a believer because of Paul’s influence. No longer “useless” to Philemon, Paul appeals to this leader of the house church to receive him not as a slave, but as a brother in Christ. When folks get baptized, their status changes, as the white folks of Virginia feared when baptizing violently displaced Africans. Paul is challenging a Christian slave owner to defy the conventions and not require financial reparation nor return to a subservient status. Regarding him as a beloved brother in Christ is the reshaped identity Paul desires.
Paul actually requests that Philemon receive Onesimus with all the dignity and care that he would afford Paul himself as he “sends his heart” back in the form of the runaway. It is the work of divine grace to make useless persons useful; every person can express grace toward others and they can receive the transforming initiative to a good end.
So why did he send him back rather than simply condemning slavery? Paul wants them to create a new relationship that transcends legal requirements. The overture toward reconciliation speaks to a new identity for them both.
Can you imagine the response when this letter was read to the house church Philemon led? If you have been to a church business meeting you well know that introducing something unconventional is often met with strong resistance, yet congregations and individuals can change. As Philemon lived with a new reality in a highly structured society, he lighted the way for others to rethink the demeaning institution that separated persons in hierarchical ways. One is reminded of the line in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice:
How far that little candle throws its beams!
So shines a good deed in a naughty world.
This slight letter has been used on both sides of the argument concerning chattel slavery, perhaps without realizing how radical Paul’s intention was. It is tragic that white persons tended to lean on the apostle’s action in returning Onesimus to justify their practice or lingering prejudice.
God can reshape a flawed nation or a flawed structure, but not without the participation of those who seek God’s pathway of righteousness and mercy. Jeremiah’s prophecy came true—Jerusalem was destroyed—and to the best of our knowledge, apparently Philemon and Onesimus became brothers.
These texts ask us what is in our power to do. Are we willing to submit to reshaping of personal identity, relationship with others, and even our larger context? The Potter continues to turn the wheel, and the clay of our lives remains unfinished.