This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley UMC for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, 9 September 2001. The Scriptures were Jeremiah 18: 1 – 11, Philemon 1 – 21, and Luke 14: 25 – 33.
When I first read the scriptures for this week, especially the passage from Jeremiah, I could not help but think of the irony of having these scriptures during the week that school started. I also thought of that T-shirt that grandparents give their grandchildren that has the caption, "Be patient with me; God isn’t finished with me yet."
As we begin this year, I can’t help but note how people will expect great things from the educational system yet expect it to be done at a minimum of costs. Over the past few years, I have found it amazing that people will cry out that our schools are failing, both in general education terms and in terms of the moral education of children, yet they are not willing to pay what it costs for education to be valuable. It reminds of the other T-shirt which points out that "it will be a great day for society when schools have the money they need and it is the defense department that has to have a bake sale to get the money for the new bomber it wants.
And when people call for an increased emphasis on morals in the schools today, I have to ask, "Where are the parents? Where is the church?" Speaking from the classroom side of the fence, it is very difficult to teach moral values acceptable to all parents when someone is likely to find a problem with what you teach. I have found over time that while many parents criticize the way things in turn demand that nothing be done to change the way their own children are taught. Teachers have enough to deal with and it is time in this society that the church and parents take part of the burden in seeing that our nation’s children are raised in the proper environment.
While Jesus was speaking of the cost of following him, he used the analogies of completing the construction of a tower or the fighting of a battle. When we look at the education of our children, we must look at it from the same viewpoint. What cost are we willing to pay so that our children’s education is complete. And that education cannot be completed on a Monday through Friday basis. Education occurs everyday, even when our children are not in school.
In a sense, Paul spoke of education when he wrote to Philemon. He spoke of the traits and characteristics we should have because of our faith.
Paul pointed out that he had heard great things about Philemon’s faith. Christian character is shaped by our faith in God and our love for people. These, as Paul repeatedly emphasized, are the basic building blocks of a Christian life. Love is a natural result of true faith in God. In making these two characteristics the foundation of our life, we find corresponding traits of motive, attitude, and activity.
Our best example of motivation comes from Paul’s appeal in verses 8 and 9. Paul appeals to Philemon to be merciful to Onesimus, solely on the basis of love. Paul admits that he has the right to demand that Philemon do the "right" thing but he wishes that Philemon would be motivated to do so by the right stimulus.
"Rights" are not important considerations in the New Testament teachings about the Kingdom of God. In fact, as Paul wrote, as Christians we have lost certain rights of retaliation and are expected to forgive. We are the stewards of God’s grace and blessings. Our response to situations should be motivated more by Christian love than a desire for retaliation.
We may say that we love our neighbor but it will be our attitude that shows whether or not we are truly motivated to do so. Our actions are clearly derived from both our motivation and our attitude. How we act will say more about who we are than any words we might say.
Thomas Steagald wrote that whenever he heard or sang the hymn "Have Thine Own Way, Lord", it reminded him of the little Baptist Church in Milton, TN, where he grew up. It was the type of chapel that I remember seeing many times when I would visit my grandparents in North Caroline, the type that was on the side of a dusty road that bisected the old white frame sanctuary and the cemetery where the old-timers of the community were buried. Like many churches of that period, it had two front doors that, from a distance looked like sad, spaniel eyes. Each door was for an aisle, and the women and children would go through one door, the men through the other. In the old (really old) days, it was said that you count determine the number of men who attended on any given Sunday by counting the cigarette butts on the ground outside the men’s door and divide by seven.
Steagald was, and perhaps so were you, reminded that through the singing of hymns like "On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand," "Onward Christian Soldiers," "Rock of Ages," "I Will Sing the Wondrous Story," that we gained our understanding of what it means to be a Christians. The images in that hymn, of the potter and the clay, come from the reading from Jeremiah that we read today. God told Jeremiah to go down to the potter’s house to hear God’s further word. When Jeremiah gets to the potter’s house, he sees the potter working on a lump of clay. But while making the pot, the clay gets spoiled and the pot is ruined. But with skill and perseverance the potter makes another pot. The former intent becomes an actuality. The life we live is like that; instead of having others do the work, it is necessary for us to see things through. Instead of criticizing others for their inability to complete the task, we need to complete the task before us.
We are like the potter fashioning a pot on the potter’s wheel. I had a friend who was a potter and he pointed out that until the pot was fired, there was no way to tell what it would be like. Working with the pot on the wheel was the only time you had to make sure that it would turn out all right. Once it went into the oven and was fired, it was through.
Our actions, however minor we might think they are, are what the children see. It is by those actions that they learn. When a child is baptized in this church, we as a congregation agree to live in such a way that they will see whom Christ is and what Christ means. When someone joins this church, we are reminded that we are asked to work for the church, by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service. When our actions, our motivations come from Christian love, then our children will grow in Christian love.
That is why we have communion. That is why the table is an open table. Because God loved us enough to send his son, we are to share in his blessings. Because that love is for all, the blessings are for all. Each day, we go through live reminding others of what Christ means to us. The challenge before us continues to be to live a life in which others see Christ.