Sermon: My Overstuffed Briefcase

09.04.2016     Preaching Text: “The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.” (Jeremiah 18:4)

Jeremiah 18 makes a bold claim, though one that’s significance is possible to miss. God directs him to a local potter who is in the process of taking one clay vessel and reshaping into a wholly new vessel.

“The vessel he was making of clay,” he writes, “was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.”

The image is a vivid one. God is capable of taking human life and entirely reshaping it! Intellectually we get this. But do we actually believe it?

Of the many possible reasons for not believing it, two stand out. One is that the potter is doing all the reshaping. The clay is passive. God, in other words, the divine Potter, is completely in charge. Our sole task, as clay, is to trust that same God to rework us into something else, as seems good to him.

This is hard to grasp since we think we’re in control which, in fact, is the very essence of Original Sin. If the biblical witness is correct, this distorted perspective affects everything we do. Being in control, or self-centeredness, is our biggest problem, and to give it up is our greatest challenge.

The other reason to question Jeremiah’s story is perhaps a bit more nuanced. Deep down, my hunch is that we find it virtually impossible to believe that God cares enough to change us, or save us. We know too much about ourselves.

Not that we readily admit this to others, or even to ourselves. If truth be told, we’re not always too sure our ever-present weaknesses and failures qualify us for God’s attention, much less mercy. Does God love us? Truly?

I knew a pastor years ago who would ask grieving people how they were doing. The usual response would be, “I’m fine.” Not convinced, he’d add a follow-up question, “But how are you doing…really?”” This time, almost without fail, he’d get a more honest answer.

On the surface, we don’t always admit to grief. But if pushed, we’ll allow our pain to be known. In the same way, most of us know there are things we wish were different about ourselves. It’s just human nature.

But do we truly believe that God is willing and able to change us? Do we honestly think God will forgive us our shortcomings and change our lives? That, it seems to me, is Jeremiah’s point.

Now some of you have seen what a mess my desk is over at Broadbrooks. Others of you, fortunately, have not as yet had the ‘pleasure.’ But I wonder how many of you know about my briefcase?

Recently, whenever I would place it on a desk or table, it would fall over because it was overstuffed. Having finally had enough, I decided to clean it out and to separate the wheat from the chaff. It was amazing what I found in there!

One of the documents I found was written by one of my favorite authors, our son, Jonathan. He wrote it roughly 15 years ago for returning students at the college where he was a resident director. It was entitled: “Do-Overs”:

The older I get, the more I become convinced that little kids have got the right idea about lots of things.

For instance, remember do-overs? Weren’t those great? Whether it was a dispute over a kickoff return on the playground or a quarrel about a board game, everyone always seemed to agree to a do-over.

I worked a while back as a camp counselor for little kids, and found myself wondering if the do-over call was still respected today. I waited for an argument to break out during their beloved game of 4-Square (if you’ve ever worked with kids, of course, you’ll know that I didn’t have to wait long). Soon enough, a squabble developed over one of the innumerable house rules the kids have created. I let them yell for a minute or two, then spoke up:

“Hey guys, how about a do-over?”

They stopped yelling, thought about it for a second or two, then shrugged and promptly agreed to it. Because as kids, they knew the value of the do-over. It’s fair. Everyone wins. It’s the natural way of things.

So, you may be wondering what this has to do with you. After all, you’re college students, worldly and wise. Your childhood is a vague memory at best. Well, my point is simply this: It is never too late to start over. Kids know this. They’re well aware that no matter how many times they mess up, they’re usually allowed to learn from their mistakes and start again. Somewhere along the way, however, we seem to forget this, and soon we’re dwelling on our mistakes or abandoning hope for a better tomorrow.

But here we are, presented with a perfect time to call for a do-over…on our life. A new year, a new semester, a new chance. Didn’t have the best career in high school? Don’t dwell on it. Just do it right this time. Got your heart broken over summer? Now’s a great time to get a new perspective, and start looking for that special someone again. Were you a little short-tempered with your roommate last semester during finals? It’s never too late to apologize and start over.

In other words, it’s never too late to call a do-over. Because now you know, like countless little kids already do, that do-overs are fair. Everyone wins. And they’re the natural way of things.

Go ahead and call for one…the rest of us will think about it for a second, shrug and promptly agree to it…

God in effect shows Jeremiah that if Israel would but “turn” from its misplaced priorities and return to its Creator, God would “change [his] mind” (i.e. God would forgive and change its future).

To “change one’s mind,” as we know, is one way of defining “repentance.” And like any loving parent, God yearns for the opportunity to repent, to “change his mind” and confer upon his children the fullness of his mercy, his blessings, his grace. God, in other words, is constantly looking to call a do-over with our lives.

Years ago, while serving on the Church and Ministry Committee in Connecticut, we were asked to adjudicate a complaint that had been made against a pastor. His offenses, I would add, weren’t overly serious. In fact, I no longer remember what they were.

But I do remember the Regional Minister asking the Committee what we should do. I chimed in: “Christianity is a religion of second chances.”

The God of scripture is indeed a God of second chances, of third chances, of innumerable and countless chances. God never rejects a repentant heart. God always grants do-overs.

And so, in conclusion, as Jonathan reminded his students, today is the perfect time to call for one. Amen.