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September 8, 2019 Sermon

"The Difficulty of Giving (And Hearing) Advice"

Old Testament Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 18:1-11


The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: "Come, go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words." So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. 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.Then the word of the LORD came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. 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, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

New Testament Scripture Reading: Philemon 1:1-21


Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.For this reason, 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. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother-especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

Sermon: "The Difficulty of Giving (And Hearing) Advice"


It’s not easy to give advice. Wait, scratch that. It’s easy to give advice. It’s hard to give advice that is followed. You know, the sort of advice that makes a difference. It’s hard to give that kind of advice.

Mostly because it’s not easy to accept advice. It’s especially not easy to accept advice that is unsolicited. And, really that’s the most common kind isn’t it?


Unsolicited advice? The kind where you really weren’t hoping for or expecting the unwelcome benefit of someone’s superior knowledge? That kind of advice? Yeah, that kind of advice is never easy to accept. But there is plenty of that kind of advice floating around.


Now, one would think that being a pastor would make it easier to give advice. But no. I’m in the same boat as anybody else when it comes to giving unsolicited advice. It bounces right off. It doesn’t matter that I have an actual diploma in my office that states plainly that I am a Master of the Divine, when I give advice that has not been requested, I might as well be talking to a fence post.


And really, that’s the way it should be. Too often, we are quick to judge the circumstances of other people’s lives. We are quick to assume we know all the ins and outs, the problems and the solutions, and with the benefit of our clear eyes and wise understanding, we are ready to jump right in and fix the problem.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work that way. Not for me, anyway. Maybe it works for you. That’s great. But the reality is, we can’t know all the angles of another person’s difficulty. We can’t know everything that’s going on, and yet, we presume to give advice anyway.


It’s no wonder the advice falls on deaf ears.


In our text today, the Apostle Paul is writing to an acquaintance of his, Philemon, from a prison cell. And he is not necessarily giving advice. He’s not even giving orders, the way we are used to Paul doing when he writes to the church. Rather, he is pleading. He is appealing to the angels of Philemon's better nature. He is asking Philemon to take an extraordinary spiritual leap of faith. And there is no guarantee his request will be honored.


And it’s quite a request. Paul is asking Philemon to free Onesimus, Philemon’s former servant. A servant who had run away from Phileman. Paul is asking him to welcome him home as a brother, and free him from his bondage. It’s a spectacular request.


And the reality is, Paul is in no position to tell anyone what to do about anything. Paul is imprisoned by the Romans, while Philemon is given permission under Roman law to do quite literally whatever he wants to do with the servant that Paul is returning to him. Philemon can keep Onesimus as a slave. He can yell at him. He can whip him, beat him, punish him in any number of other ways. In fact, given the circumstances under which Onesimus left, he could even crucify him. There are no limits to the freedom Philemon enjoys under the law regarding his returned slave. And most of Philemon’s community would support pretty much any punishment Philemon would inflict. After all, slavery is an accepted condition, a cultural norm of that time. It is woven into every part of the fabric of that society. In fact, to not take steps to thoroughly teach this feckless slave a lesson about faithfulness and dedication would be a gross neglect of Philemon’s responsibility. What would the world be like, if a slave could just willy-nilly wander off, and then come back as if nothing happened? Yes, Philemon’s neighbors were going to be watching to see what was going to happen. What would he do to send the message that this sort of behavior simply wasn’t going to be tolerated? They were depending on Philemon to set the standard by which their own slaves knew they would be treated, if they ever got it into their heads to try something like this. Now, Paul knows all this. He writes this letter in his prison cell, knowing exactly what will be going through Philemon’s mind as he reads it. He knows the dilemma in which Philemon will find himself, if he listens to Paul’s words. The world will not understand him. In fact, the world will punish Philemon, for not punishing Onesimus. Because this is just how the world works. And sometimes, you have to go along, in order to get along. And so, given the knowledge that Paul is putting Philemon in an impossible situation by asking him to forgive Onesimus, to welcome him home as a brother, to release him from his bondage as a slave, to extend to him the same hospitality and love that he would extend Paul himself, it is remarkable that Paul doesn’t make his argument more forceful. It’s remarkable that Paul doesn’t use more of his ecclesiastical weight to make demands. It’s remarkable, in fact, how gentle and careful Paul is in suggesting a course of action that is so completely against Philemon’s best interests. Mind you, he doesn’t make it easy on Philemon. There are spiritual appeals to a Christian ideal of love and forgiveness. There are references to those things that Paul has done for Philemon over the years. There are occasional pointed reminders of Philemon’s own relationship with Paul and with God. But there is no demand. There is no command. There is not a moment in which Paul asserts his authority as an Apostle, either in the name of Christ, or in the name of the church, to force Philemon to comply. It’s as though Paul, already bound by the chains of his imprisonment, binds himself even more by the carefulness of his words. And this is, for me, the heart of spiritual guidance. This is the heart of what it means to give holy advice.I know that for many folks, the role of the pastor is perceived to be one of telling people what to do. At least, that’s the look that I get whenever I tell people I’m a pastor. And we live in a culture where that might be a comforting thing for some folks. There is literally too much information out there. There are literally too many choices. There are too many ways of thinking about things, too many versions of reality competing for our attention. And there is a part in all of us that yearn for simplicity, for some way to cut through the noise and know exactly what it is that we’re supposed to do, what we are supposed to think, how we are supposed to live. And there are many pastors and well-meaning folks that are willing to step into that role and do exactly that. And there are too many sermons, too many self-help books, too many advice columnists these days shouting in every direction very specific instructions on what to do and think. But the reality is, it doesn’t work that way. None of us really know what’s going on in someone else’s life, not enough to give definitive advice on what they should do in every situation. This just not how life works, no matter how tempting it might seem. There is a reason that in Philippians, Paul says that we need to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in us, enabling us both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Those who try to take the responsibility of that work away from other people either do not know, or do not trust the Holy Spirit to be at work in the most obscure and unlikely places. And so, we see in this letter an example of how to truly offer spiritual guidance. It involves humility on the part of both people. Paul offers his words humbly, not from on high, but as a brother, and a brother in prison at that. Philemon, if he is to fully live into his calling as Christian, will have to let go of his own sense of pride and station in his community. If he listens to Paul’s appeals, he will not be thanked for it. He will be humbled by it.And above all, this sort of spiritual guidance requires trust. Paul trusts Philemon enough, not to just forgo using language of demand and control, but enough to send Onesimus back with the letter in his actual hands. He sends his dear friend Onesimus back to his former master, trusting that Philemon will do the right thing. This is an amazing gesture of trust. In addition, Paul pledges that if there are any remaining debts to be paid, Paul will pay them. Paul puts himself at risk along with Philemon. That if Philemon chooses to offer Christian forgiveness and welcome to Onesimus, and as a consequence is financially or in any other way punished for it, Paul will bear that cost. And this is the central difference between Paul’s relationship with Philemon, and the author of a self-help book, or the pastor that simply tells his or her congregation what to think or how to live. Paul invests himself in Philemon’s decision. He binds himself to the result of Philemon’s actions. And in the end, he expresses his desire to maintain his relationship with Philemon, regardless of what Philemon chooses to do. The self-help author, on the other hand, has no stake in the lives of the people reading his book. The pastor who tells his or her congregation what think, how to live, is free to walk away after the sermon. Their job is done. The people can either do it or not. There is no dialogue, no humility, no trust. And the awful truth is, telling people what they should do might work for a little while, but eventually it won’t, and then there is no relationship.This week, I would like to encourage all of us to think about spiritual guidance. I encourage you to seek the advice of a trusted friend about something that you are worried about. It could be anything, a spiritual matter, an emotional concern, a family problem. I encourage you to experience what it feels like to humbly bring your own heart to another person, and trust them to be careful with it. And on the other side of the coin, I also encourage all of us to think about how we give advice. Do we simply stand and deliver? Do we use the language of command, of injunction, of, “you need to do this,” or, “you should do that?” Do we separate ourselves from the problem, and speak as though we have no personal involvement in the matter? Or do we bear the cost of our own advice? Do we offer our words carefully, collaboratively, humbly, and in then, trust the Holy Spirit to work in the other person in ways that will be surprising for everyone? These are the challenges of giving and receiving advice. It’s very easy to resort to language that demands and judges. It’s very difficult to enter into a real dialogue with someone, and carefully and winsomely discern with that person the leading of the Holy Spirit. Because the reality is, advice that works for one person doesn’t always work for another. And there are some issues that aren’t quite as easy to sort out as they look on the outside.But above all, there is a mysterious part of spiritual guidance that has nothing at all to do with us but is entirely the work of God. There is work can only be done in the private space of our own hearts, in conversation with a Spirit that loves us, and wants the best for us. In the end that is the only voice that will speak to us in a way that change our hearts and our lives. It’s not the pastor, it’s not the spiritual guru, it’s not the self-help author, it’s not the advice columnist. It’s the voice of one who was willing to invest himself completely in the decisions that we make, taking the cost of those decisions with him all the way to the cross, and to the grave, and to the sky. This is the voice of one who knows what it means to do the right thing, even when doing the right thing seems impossible. This is the voice that calls to us to trust and live our lives knowing that we are not alone. Thanks be to God. Amen
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