Sunday, September 8, 2013

8 September 2013 - 16th Pentecost / Proper 18

Proper 18 / 16th after Pentecost — 8 September 2013
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls – 9:15 a.m.

[Track 2]  Deuteronomy 30:15-20  |  Psalm 1  |   Philemon 1-21  |  Luke 14:25-33

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.…So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  [Luke 14:26,33]

Okay, what do we do with that? 

Well, one possibility is to find some way to explain it away.  This has traditionally been what we’ve done with this text.  “This is hyperbole!  Jesus doesn’t really mean that literally!”  Well, yeah, maybe so.  But that leaves me squirming uncomfortably.  I don’t know about you.

Another possibility is to see what else we’re reading in the lessons this morning.  Oh, look!  Here’s the little letter of Paul to his friend Philemon, a member of the Christian community at Colossae in Asia Minor!  We only get that once every three years, let’s go there!

Paul is sending back to Philemon his runaway slave Onesimus, and he asks Philemon to forgive Onesimus and to receive him as a brother; and Paul hints not too subtly that Philemon should emancipate Onesimus, give him his freedom.

There’s no big doctrinal or disciplinary issue in this little note, as there is in most of St Paul’s letters that the Church has preserved.  It’s a very domestic, pastoral piece of correspondence.  But we can see in it some important assumptions about the way Christians are expected to order their lives and their relationships with other people.

Under Roman law, Philemon would have been quite entitled to be very harsh with young Onesimus—all the more so since there’s at least a hint in Paul’s letter that when he ran away Onesimus had absconded with some money.  Philemon has every legal right to pack Onesimus off to the salt mines—or worse.

But Paul not only asks Philemon not to be harsh, but he assumes that Philemon will not be.  For the relationship between Christians is not one governed by right or obligation, but one characterized by love, respect, cooperation, forbearance, patience, and forgiveness.  It would be some time before the Church would be in a position in the world to mount a frontal assault on the social institution of slavery, and very much longer before it would actually do so, but right from the very beginning the Gospel of Christ transformed the lives and the relationships of people even within the unjust structures of secular society.

And we deceive ourselves if we think that we can claim to be followers of Jesus Christ and yet not allow our lives and our relationships to be transformed to the core.  And this is the point Jesus is making in the Gospel today.

We have to be very careful about dismissing too lightly Jesus’ words.  Now in this case, Jesus is using an extravagant figure of speech typical of Hebrew and Aramaic rhetoric, yes — but let’s not think that he’s not quite serious about the point he’s making.  No merely human right or obligation or tie, no matter how close or pressing, has priority over Jesus’ summons to us to enter into the life of the Kingdom of God.  Living under God’s Reign inevitably means surrendering our natural worldly “rights.”  In Roman law, Philemon had some legal rights over Onesimus; Paul expected that Philemon, as a Christian, would not exercise those rights, because his allegiance was to a higher set of values.  “Rights” have to do with what is owed to me; in the Kingdom of God, the issue is what I can give.  That’s easy to say, but the transformation is radical, and as the world counts such things, the cost is very high.

Jesus talks a little about the cost accounting that his disciples must do.  Don’t start building a tower you can’t finish; don’t try to fight a war you can’t win.  (President Obama, please copy.  But I’m not going there today.)  And, Jesus goes on, don’t think you can be my disciples on the cheap.  Life in the Kingdom of God can be a very costly thing — as this world counts cost.  You can’t let anything get in the way, or be an excuse for dropping out, of your following Jesus Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life — not even your parents, not even your spouse, not even your children, not even the preservation of your own life in this world.  Understand the cost — if you enter God’s Kingdom, your life will be transformed.  Transformed how?  From a life of competitive striving to a life of open sharing; from a life of merit eked out to a life of grace freely received; from a life of jealously guarded self-sufficiency to a life of mutual interdependence; from the frenetic pursuit of happiness to the serene gift of joy; from the grasping after “rights” to the freedom of claiming nothing for oneself; from the stern requisites of our earthly justice to the warm yearning open love of God; from a clever plastic replica to the real thing — a human being in the image of God, fully alive, eternally alive!

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”  Marvelous words from the Book of Deuteronomy that we heard in the first lesson this morning.  We have to make a choice, we have to set priorities.  The fact that saying Yes to one thing means saying No to some others is a necessary lesson as we come to maturity.  If we want to live under God’s Reign, then we have to say no to the things which are contrary to life under God’s Reign.  Philemon could have exercised his earthly rights over his wayward slave Onesimus, but presumably he said No to that option for the sake of saying Yes to the richer and fuller life of receiving home a brother in the Lord.  (This may be the same Onesimus who later became Bishop of Ephesus.)  Many claims, obligations, ties, rights, reach out to hold us—often things which in themselves may be good.  But they are not ultimate; and whenever we give our ultimate allegiance to that which is less than ultimate, we ensnare ourselves in death.  We are no longer able to be Jesus’ disciples, for we have laden ourselves too heavily and we can no longer keep up with our Lord as he leads us into the Kingdom.  It’s a choice — it’s a choice we have to make.  It’s a choice we are making, every day of our lives, in every decision, in every determination of a priority, conscious or unconscious.  Do we really want the real thing—life in the Kingdom of God?  Are we willing to make the hard choices, to bear the cost?  “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live!”