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Wednesday, September 04, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Jeremiah 18:1-11 AND Psalm 139:1-6 OR Deuteronomy 30:15-20 AND Psalm 1:1-6, Philemon 1:1-21, Luke 14:25-33

I didn’t have any choice who my parents would be.  I didn’t have a choice about the color of my skin.  Whatever fates were at work I was destined to be born in northwest Washington state about 60 miles north of Seattle, the grandchild of grandparents who migrated westward from Minnesota when my mother was about a year old.  If you researched the history and culture connected with that heritage you would learn a lot about the forces that shaped who I was and am.

I could continue to list “accidents” of history, including major world events, over which I’ve had little or no control.  They have all influenced my outlook on life.  Have they determined every aspect of how I respond to life?  No!  The key word is “respond.”  I believe I have a choice in how I respond to the realities that come my way, indeed, that I even shape the effect such realities and events have upon my present and future.

That’s my take, but the debate about determinism and free will had gone on for millennia.  My primary academic work has been in the field of sociology which tends toward a perspective that says we are determined by the social forces and relationships that surround us.  One of my first assignments in college level sociology was to write a paper describing the social milieu that shaped my life.

I grew up in a denomination (Baptist) whose history leaned toward Calvinistic predestination (a theological word often interpreted to mean divinely directed determinism), although there are also Baptists who use the words “free will” as part of their defining name.  The Bible seems to offer mixed testimony in the debate.  Maybe all of that is why my own perspective affirms elements of both determinism and free will.  There are givens in life---and there are choices. 

In fact, even though most of us have been taught that God is an unchanging reality, I have come to believe that even God continues to choose.  In one of the lectionary readings for the coming Sunday, God twice says, “I will change my mind.”  (Jeremiah 18:8 & 10)  The God in which I believe is a conscious force in the very workings of the cosmos.  Creation is not finished yet and God, together with us, is still making choices.  The final outcome is not yet clear.  What the cosmos and we will become is still in process.  It’s up to us, God and us in partnership.  God cannot do it without us and we cannot do it outside the framework of larger purposes that define physical and moral limitations and consequences.

Let’s look at this week’s readings as they invite us into conversation about such things, perhaps encouraging us to choose.

The reading from Jeremiah could take us down other, perhaps parallel, paths.  The context is prophetic judgment upon the people of Israel because they have chosen evil ways.  Jeremiah was viewed as a traitor because he counseled “nonresistance.”  Military might and foreign conquerors could not destroy the presence of God in the hearts and relationships of the Hebrew people.

For us, such prophecies of judgment (evidenced in many of our recent readings) may raise questions about how injustice is called to account.  There is something within us that cries out for justice.  It is at work in the debate about how to respond to the recent Syrian use of chemical weapons against their own populace, including defenseless children.  Surely something must be done!  But does direct retaliation ever bring about a positive result?

The image used in this week’s reading from Jeremiah is that of the potter.  The Lord describes himself as a potter who can do with the clay as he chooses.  God can start over whenever God wishes, reworking the pot “into another vessel.”  (Jeremiah 18:2-4)  “Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.  At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it . . . Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you.”  (vss. 7, 11)  It sounds very deterministic.  God is like a potter with a plan that will be carried out no matter what.  Before we conclude, however, that things are set in stone, remember that this is the same passage in which God said, “ . . . if that nation . . . turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster I intended to bring on it.”  (vs. 8)  The reading concludes with these words:  “Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.”  (vs. 11)  Choice can change the course of events, even in Syria, so that there is building and planting (vs. 9) rather than destruction.

The reading from Psalm 139 also has a strong deterministic tone.  It speaks of a God “who formed my inward parts” and “knit me together in my mother’s womb . . . In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.”  (Psalm 139:13 & 16)  Many interpretations of these words deeply trouble me, including those which suggest that every detail of every life is predetermined.  At the same time, I am comforted and inspired by the words of the Psalmist when he says, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”  (vs. 14)  Basically the perspective to which the Psalm calls us is one of appreciation for the wonder of God’s creatures.  “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high I cannot attain it.”  (vs. 6)  I am content to realize that there are some things I cannot completely capture and comprehend.  “How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!  How vast is the sum of them!  I try to count them---they are more than the sand; I come to the end---I am still with you.”  (vss. 17-18)  It is enough to be astonished by it all!

The reading from Deuteronomy is one of the classic texts presenting God, through Moses, as declaring that we have a choice.  A similar message is spoken by Joshua in Joshua 24:15.  The call is to choose life.  “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity . . . life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”  (Deuteronomy 30: 15 & 19)  As in many of the Old Testament passages we’ve recently dealt with, one can read these words and see a petty vengeful God out to punish every human misstep.  I prefer to think of it as statement that calls us to be responsible for our choices.  We can choose attitudes and actions which build up or destroy.  It’s up to us.  We have a choice---and the choice continues in our personal and national and international lives today.  What if, first and foremost, we, our politicians, the leaders of nations, thought about life?

The second Psalm lays out the extremes of two approaches to life we can choose.  One is described as wicked while the other delights “in the law of the Lord.”  (Psalm 1:2)  Those who choose the latter “are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.”  (vs. 3)  I find that such sharp contrasts are not totally clear in the everyday life I live.  There are more shades of gray and more shadows.  Choices, however, are always there, and, to the best of our ability, we are called to choose life.

The Gospel lesson from Luke presents the matter of choice as counting costs.  Following the way of Jesus, the course of love and justice, is not always smooth and easy.  There are costs and risks.  It takes decisive courage.  It may even disrupt family relationships.  (Luke 14:25-27)  Jesus tells a couple of short parables.  One who is undertaking a construction project will “first sit down and estimate the cost, and see whether he has enough to complete it?” (vs. 28)  A king going to war will do the same.  (vss.31-32)   Isn’t that part of what’s going on right now in the discussion about appropriate response in Syria?  What is the cost of working for a peaceable kingdom that honors and puts into action the love revealed in Jesus life and teaching?

Finally the epistle reading is a testimony to the working of that love at a personal level.  Philemon is Paul’s only letter to an individual, one chapter long.  Philemon, a slave owner, is a “friend and co-worker” (Philemon 1:1) of Paul.  One of his slaves, Onesimus, has escaped and somehow found his way into Paul’s company where he has become a convert and a valued helper to Paul.  Paul even speaks of him as a son.  (vs. 10)

Like so many of Paul’s letters this epistle expresses the power of love in its opening sentences.  “When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints . . . I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.”  (vss. 4-5, 7)

Paul, of course, is reminding Philemon of that love because he is about to ask him to exercise that love in a new and radical way.  Somehow or other, Paul and Onesimus have come to a decision that Onesimus will return to Philemon.  Talk about an exercise in free will, in defiance of all that would seem to make sense.

But Paul is asking Philemon to make a choice as well, to accept Onesimus back, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother . . . If you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me..”  (vss. 16-17)  “I am sending him, that is, my heart, back to you.”  (vs. 12)  What a statement of equality!  And what a decision he is requesting of Philemon, a man of social stature who would be violating social custom if he treated Onesimus as an equal.  Paul’s appeal is “on the basis of love . . . in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.”  (vss. 9 & 14)

There’s an alternative to revenge and legalistic justice.  Philemon, and we, can make the choice of love, choosing life and planting the seeds of revolutionary change.  We’ve been witness to that power at work as we’ve heard the voices of those who were present and gave leadership when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., shared his dream 50 years ago in Washington, D.C.  It was more than a dream.  It was a call to choose, a call which still rings out from biblical times into the present.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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