Pentecost 16/Proper 18, Year C
Texts: Deut 30.15-20; Philem 1-25; Lk 14.25-35
This is one of those gospel texts it is tempting to avoid. Jesus talks about hating our families, carrying our crosses, and then compares us to salt that, if it happens to lose its saltiness, is in danger of being thrown out entirely. It’s hard to know where to begin… so let’s start with Philemon.
I like the Paul’s letter to Philemon. Unlike Romans or Corinthians or Thessalonians, Philemon is a book that doesn’t delve into deep theological concepts or make us plow through the confusing run-on sentences Paul loves so well. And it’s short! How often can we say we read an entire book of the Bible in worship on Sunday? I especially like it today because rather than me trying to explain or defend Jesus’ words in Luke, I think this letter from Paul to Philemon actually shows us what Jesus is talking about. It’s a prime example of how Jesus’ teaching makes a world of difference in the life of actual people, not just theologians debating in books and ivory towers.
Unlike most of Paul’s other letters, which are written to communities, Philemon is written primarily to a person; and you can see the difference in how Paul writes it. Paul is famous for his ego and his bombastic tone; and yet in this letter to his friend Philemon Paul is humble, praising his friend and refusing to “command him to do his duty”—something which Paul is never too timid to do.
What little background we know about this letter has either been passed down to us through tradition or inferred from its contents. We know nothing of who Philemon was except that he was a man of some important standing and wealth. He must be the owner of some relatively successful business because he is the head of a household and owns slaves. Paul also addresses him as the leader of this church community.
We also know that Onesimus, about whom Paul writes, has been separated from Philemon, having been considered “useless” to him, (though not to Paul). According to tradition, Onesimus is believed to be a slave of Philemon, who has either run away or been sent away. Paul urges Philemon in this letter to receive him back not like a slave owner taking back a slave, but rather as one brother welcoming home another.
After Jesus himself, Paul is a great example of one who “carries the cross” with enthusiasm. Paul introduces himself in this letter as a “prisoner for Christ,” or perhaps even a “prisoner of Christ.” Imagine introducing yourself to someone as a convict; it’s not generally something to brag about! And yet, Paul claims his shameful status with pride, because he knows that he has been imprisoned for his work of spreading the gospel—for being a disciple. Therefore, even his imprisonment is an honor to him, because it is the result of his working towards God’s reign.
This is what it looks like to “hate” one’s family, friends and even life itself: Paul is willing to part with everything that he’s ever held dear on account of following Christ, because he considers God’s reign to be worth so much more than anything else he has. He is willing to endure whatever it takes—isolation, imprisonment, even death—to tell others about what God is doing in the world.
Not only that, he is urging in this letter that Philemon do the same. Philemon, as a slave owner, has every right to claim ownership of Onesimus, to beat him if he has run away, or to sell him to recoup his financial loss for such a “useless” slave. Paul, however, encourages him to waive these rights, which he models by giving up his own.
As a well-known and well-respected apostle, Paul could command Philemon to comply, citing scriptural texts and speaking with the authority of Christ himself, even threatening eternal damnation if he does not comply (all tactics he has used in his other letters!); but Paul does none of these things. Instead, Paul chooses to appeal to Philemon out of the love and affection that they have for each other as friends and as “co-workers” in Christ.
He does this by reminding Philemon of the love he has always shown all the saints and the joy and encouragement he has given to so many including Paul himself. He tells Philemon of the love that has grown between himself and Onesimus, and that he hopes Philemon will share this love with him as well. He even indicates that perhaps this was the reason that Onesimus was separated from him: so that upon his return, Onesimus and Philemon might enjoy a deeper, fuller relationship with one another; not as slave and master, but as brothers in Christ.
The system of slavery was a major institution that supported both Rome’s economy and, no doubt, Philemon’s own wealth; and yet Paul is here urging Philemon to “hate” it, to love Onesimus more than he loves his success or his honor or whatever debt Onesimus might owe him. Paul writes that he expects Philemon to “do even more” than what Paul is asking, perhaps hinting that Philemon ought to free Onesimus from slavery altogether out of Christian love.
This is the kind of discipleship Jesus is talking about, and why he is so harsh with his warnings in our gospel text. Being a disciple of Jesus doesn’t mean living our lives as normal with an added hour on Sunday morning for worship. True discipleship—true dedication to Jesus and the good news he brings—changes us; it causes us to ignore, turn down, or perhaps even hate all the things in the world that give us comfort, wealth, popularity and leisure for the sake of God’s love, God’s justice, and God’s mercy.
If Paul, already burdened with imprisonment and persecution, had decided to leave well enough alone and not get involved in this personal dispute between Philemon and Onesimus, he would be as useless to them as salt that’s lost its flavor. If Philemon’s faith did not compel him to welcome Onesimus home, to forgive him his debts, and perhaps even release him from slavery, his faith would be like bland salt; no matter how much he had, it would add no flavor to his life. What good is the bland salt of a silent Paul or a hard-hearted Philemon to the reign of God? They might as well be buried in the depths of history.
There is one more thing we can take from Paul, Philemon and Onesimus this week. Even though this letter is primarily between Paul and Philemon, we notice how many others are involved. Paul is writing on behalf of others and so that others will hear. This personal matter is being shared with a whole community, both as it is written and as it is read. We are a part of that community as we share these words today. It is a reminder both that the decisions we make affect the whole community, but also that we are not in this alone.
Philemon had to decide how to receive Onesimus, but Apphia and Archippus and the whole congregation were hearing Paul’s words as well, offering their support and advice, perhaps even pressuring him to do the right thing. Though it was Paul who sent the letter, he had the backing of Timothy and Epaphras; Mark and Aristarchus; Demas, Luke and others. The cost of discipleship is steep, but what makes the price worth it is the community we receive in return, and that the cost is sometimes split evenly among that community.
We don’t know how Philemon responded to Paul’s letter, but in the end, it really doesn’t matter to us. The fact that all those people had a hand in either writing or reading that letter and the fact that it was circulated around the Church for decades until it finally became a part of our sacred scripture speaks to the reality that for centuries, people have found in this letter a meaningful example of discipleship.
Though it may not matter to us, Philemon’s response certainly would have been a big deal to Onesimus. His future would be determined by whether he met an indignant slave owner demanding restitution or a forgiving brother offering hospitality. Which he would find waiting for him would be influenced by the faith of Paul, of Philemon, of Apphia and Archippus, and many others. For him, coming home and finding a welcoming community would have been a model of how one man’s “hatred” of his own household and the rules that governed it could give both of them new family in Christ.
That’s how God’s kingdom works. For everything we give up, for everything we hate and turn away from, we are apt to find those things tenfold: “houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields” (Matt 19.29). We catch a glimpse of this reality at the font, when, at our baptism, we are received into a broad new family in Christ; we get a foretaste of this reality at the table where we join with not only those gathered here, but with all the saints across space and time around one table to share one heavenly meal.
Yes, Jesus asks much of those of us who would follow him, but Onesimus can testify to how much disciples also receive from Christ.
I am taking some vacation time this week, which means two things. First, my sermon from today will not get posted until I’m back in the office next week. Second, this coming Sunday someone will be covering for Stephanie and me, so I won’t be preaching (or posting) again until August 14.
I hope you all are enjoying a pleasant summer!
Pentecost 14/Proper 16, Year C
Texts: Gen 18.20-32; Col 2.6-19; Lk 11.1-13
At its simplest, praying is just talking to God. There are many different ways to pray: through study and reading scripture, individually or together, with joy or sorrow, even silently. When we pray together in worship, often the language we use is very poetic and flowery, filled with large words and complexly structured in intricate sentences; but prayer can be as simple as a single sentence or word or even a sigh. It’s hard to do it wrong. And this is precisely why I find it interesting that today’s gospel lesson begins with Jesus’ disciples asking him to teach them how to pray. Read more…
Pentecost 6/Proper 8, Year C
Texts: 1 Kgs 19.15-21; Gal 5.1, 13-25; Lk 9.51-62
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” is on my mind this week as I read these passages of scripture and reflect on recent events. I think about this as I listen to Elijah calling Elisha to be his disciple and successor. I think about it as I hear Jesus respond to these three would-be followers. I think about Yeats’ words because as I listen to these stories, I hear Elijah and Jesus asking for people to follow them in the work of God with the same passionate intensity that we too often witness only in terrorists.
When Elisha asks for leave to kiss his mother and father goodbye before following, Elijah doesn’t seem to have any objection. “Go and return,” he says, “for what have I done to [stop] you?” Jesus, on the other hand, seems far more harsh and unyielding than Elijah. How can anyone be expected to follow Jesus when he seems to be asking them to forsake family, friends, homes and livelihoods in order to proclaim the reign of God? And yet, we know from experience that we live in a world where people are too ready to give up those very things, to strap bombs to their chests and take assault rifles into movie theaters and night clubs for the sake of the fear and hatred they feel towards others. Why shouldn’t Jesus ask for the same level of commitment? The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
Perhaps this is why Jesus demands so much of us who would follow him. Jesus is looking for people who have the zeal and the devotion and the conviction to work for all they’re worth to realize the just and righteous reign of God. If we are to do this work, we cannot be distracted even by family, friends, or livelihoods, because the powers of hate and fear and evil have no such distractions either.
But even conviction alone is not enough. Unlike the three Jesus encounters on the way to Jerusalem, James and John did give up everything. They left their nets on the beach and their father in the boat to follow when Jesus called them. They have that conviction that Jesus is looking for, but that doesn’t mean it’s always directed well. When they ask Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans like Elijah did (2 Kings 1.1-18), he rebukes them. Like James and John, our conviction can sometimes easily slide into violence, even without us realizing it.
In the wake of the tragedy in Orlando, many well-meaning people who are understandably and justifiably angered and saddened have been driven by their convictions to do good and ended up doing harm. Nobody has held a gun, but we have fed the hostility. We have lobbed the same tired arguments about gun control or mental illness or Islam at each other like grenades across the same stagnant political lines. The more “inclusive” members of our Church have aimed and fired allegations at our sisters and brothers who disagree, accusing them of violence simply because of their sincerely held beliefs.* In short, we have, in our passionate intensity, desired to call down fire from heaven on our perceived foes who stand in the way of God’s reign.
This entire story discipleship is framed in Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. We know what will happen to him in Jerusalem, and what he will give up for the sake of God’s reign. We know that he will endure the worst kind of violence there, and we also know that he will overcome it; not with more violence of his own—not with flames coming down from heaven—but with love for his friends and for his enemies, with obedience to God’s will and faith in God’s promise.
Days after the shooting in Orlando, Diana Butler Bass, a prominent Christian scholar and author, tweeted:
https://twitter.com/dianabutlerbass/status/742895262289526786Since I first read these words, I have wondered: what might that look like? What might it look like for us to “set our faces towards Jerusalem,” like Jesus did?
One place we might begin to look is in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. “The works of the flesh are obvious,” Paul writes, “…enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions…” “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”
If we truly believe that Jesus loves and works to save all people then being “radicalized by love” means that we should continue to stand up and even fight when necessary for what we believe to be right, but it also means channeling our anger, our sadness and our frustration into more fully loving the people we are tempted to call “enemies;” otherwise we only become part of the problem we intend to solve.
I think what Jesus is demanding of his followers is not the “passionate intensity” of the “worst” of us coopted and redirected by the “best,” but a complete and utter change of the script. As Jesus says, you can’t plow a straight line while looking backward. God is calling us to find a way forward, and we can only do that together, and that is difficult, frustrating work; so difficult, in fact, that it got Jesus killed. However, if we truly believe that God’s reign is for all people, then that’s the job ahead of us.
The second half of Yeats’ poem concludes:
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Yeats’ fears what ancient and primordial power might be about to be loosed on the world, and rightly so. He wrote this poem in 1919. After having witnessed the cruel powers and evil forces at work in First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, and political strife in his own native Ireland, and believing that the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity, how could he not fear what the future might hold?
And yet, as Christians, we trust in the promise that what “slouches towards Bethlehem” is no rough beast at all, but Christ himself, and with him, the reign of God in which all wrongs are righted and all hurts are healed. On some days, that hope seems truly delusional. We may feel naïve or ignorant to trust in a promise of wholeness when things fall apart all around us.
Or, we may feel that if we are to help bring about that reign of God, that we, too, must have the same passionate intensity of the terrorists and the murderers. Like James and John, we are ready to call down fire on those who would oppose the reign of God and prevent Christ’s work from being done. If God’s reign is to come forth in the midst of such violence and terror—even from Christ’s own followers—then the power and conviction behind it must be great indeed.
Thankfully for us, it is. Even on our best days, we may be unable to match the passionate intensity of the world’s hatred and fear. It’s not humanly possible to keep on plowing, to keep on proclaiming the kingdom of God without looking back. Thankfully, though the best among us may lack all conviction, there is one whose conviction is enough for all of us. The Letter to the Hebrews encourages us: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” (Heb 10:23) We may not always be faithful to God’s vision of love and wholeness, but the one who calls us to this work is. Jesus has a habit of calling broken and imperfect people—people like James and John—and using them to inch slowly towards God’s promised reign.
Do not misunderstand: this is not an invitation to “let go and let God,” but rather a call to redouble our efforts, to grab the plow with both hands, to be “radicalized by love.” Friends, the work is hard and wearying, and the field is full of rocks, but we do not work alone. When Elijah prayed to God in desperation, God answered his prayer by giving him helpers: Hazael, Jehu, and Elisha. When Elijah thought he was all alone, God assured him that there were 7000 yet who stood with him.
Jesus calls us to give everything we have, to set our faces towards Jerusalem, and then in the same breath he says to us, “This is my body, this is my blood, given for you.” Through baptism, we are joined to Christ—our weakness and faithlessness has died, and he now lives in us. We are able because he is able. Where our conviction ends, his takes over. Maybe the center cannot hold, but it is no rough beast that slouches toward Bethlehem to be born; rather it is the eternal reign of God that is preparing to bind up the broken pieces of our world. As the old proverb says, “When you get to your wit’s end, remember that God lives there.”
* I am specifically referring to numerous comments I saw on Facebook groups for my Church (the ELCA) of (more “liberal”) people accusing those among us who believe that homosexuality is sinful of being as bad as Omar Mateen. While I agree that this negative attitude towards the LGBTQ+ (especially within the Church) is harmful, this sort of name calling and sniping doesn’t solve anything or contribute meaningfully to conversation; it only puts people on the defensive and stops rational discussion. However, I have seen this sort of behavior generally in lots of other places. It’s easy to demonize the “others” who disagree with us, but that is not helpful for community.
Although it didn’t make it into the sermon, I found this story about Martin Luther King, Jr a great example of what I am talking about. On January 27, 1956, King sat in his kitchen in Montgomery, Alabama holding a cup of coffee, unable to sleep. The bus boycott seemed to be collapsing. His own life had been repeatedly threatened. He later recounted:
. . . I bowed down over that cup of coffee . . . I prayed a prayer and I prayed out loud that night. I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause we represent is right. But Lord I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.” He needed the word of this proverb. “Keep your hand on the plow…” (Samuel Freeman, Upon This Rock, 143).
And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me alone (ibid, 173).