Sermon Seeds: A New Identity
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 18
Jeremiah 18:1-11 with Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 or
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 with Psalm 1 and
Philemon 1-21 and
Sample sermon on Luke 14:25-33
A New Identity
by Kathryn Matthews Huey
As usual, the scholars disagree about this passage from Scripture, a letter from Paul to a wealthy church leader named Philemon about the return of his runaway slave, Onesimus. At the very least, Paul’s message sheds light on the tension that occurs when we shine the light of the gospel on our culture and, intentionally or not, expose its injustices. Even if Paul is not asking Philemon to free Onesimus, we can read between the lines and experience the discomfort that arises when we relate to one another as “brothers and sisters” in Christ, but somehow, at the same time, accommodate gross inequities in social position. Maybe it’s uncomfortable, but surely it’s a good and appropriate kind of discomfort, the kind of discomfort that unsettles and eventually dislodges injustice from its entrenched places of power and privilege.
One can see that the gospel may cause all sorts of problems between friends, colleagues, and church members if we really take it to heart. Perhaps Paul anticipated trouble when he was writing this letter, because everyone seems to agree that it’s masterfully written not to offend but to encourage and even to cajole—gently—a church leader to do the right thing. From our 21st-century vantage point, we might be tempted to think that these first-century Christians were somehow less enlightened about such things than we are. After all, slavery was common in those days, an ordinary and accepted part of life. They probably didn’t even think about it, we might say.
However, in Paul’s Jewish roots are the beginnings of resistance to this evil. His own people were slaves once, so it was not permitted in his faith to have Jewish slaves for life, and there were legal provisions for their release. Ironically, life was so harsh in the Greco-Roman world that being a slave was often the only alternative to starving to death, and there was at least hope of being free one day. Robert A. J. Gagnon provides historical perspective on slavery in that time that nevertheless does not shy away from reading a prophetic message in Paul’s words. Gagnon sees in this missive a call to Philemon to free Onesimus because it’s the right thing to do, not just for his own spiritual welfare but for that of his church community as well (The Lectionary Commentary: Acts and the Epistles). Writing to the church (or as we might say in this day of email, “cc-ing” the church), Paul makes this a question for the whole community, not just a private affair between him and Philemon, with Onesimus waiting for a verdict.
It seems obvious that, to Paul, this is a life-and-death matter. If it weren’t such a serious subject, the reader might be tempted to laugh when Paul “innocently” says, “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self”! In fact, Paul even suggests that what his friend does to the slave, he does to Paul himself (v.17). He also offers to pay any costs Philemon may incur. We’re reminded of those great people, those great saints, who have stood in for slaves, captives, and condemned people, like Maximilian Kolbe, who took the place of a man condemned to death in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Paul may not have become a slave, but he wanted Philemon to look at Onesimus, and to see Paul. Could it be that Paul is calling his readers (including us today) to see every human being through the lens of the gospel message of freedom and dignity, to shine the light of the gospel on every situation and then to listen for how God is still speaking about every cultural practice and in every moral question?
On the other hand (remember, scholars don’t agree on what is happening here), Lisa Davison argues persuasively that Paul is not at all requesting that Philemon set Onesimus free but instead is asking that Philemon send the slave back to him. Philemon, after all, owes Paul, who hopes that his friend will give up his slave willingly, but that he will do it whether he wants to or not. So Paul lays “a guilt trip” on Philemon, and “plays the ‘age card’ and the ‘suffering servant card'” to get his slave back. Like many others, Davison recognizes our contemporary discomfort at Paul’s lack of judgment on the practice of slavery itself, but reminds us that Paul is a product of his times, as he lived in a world in which slavery was not only “common,” but “almost a necessary evil” (New Proclamation Year C 2010).
No matter which scholars are correct (and we of course will never know exactly what was in the heart of Paul about this question, but can only read between the lines), a lively and important conversation can be prompted in the church after reading this little letter from one good Christian to another, almost two thousand years ago. For example, as John Dominic Crossan points out, this is not a cultural-political-legal question about slavery in the ancient world of Rome, but a spiritual one for followers of Jesus who embraced the teaching of Paul in Galatians 3:28, the baptismal formula that baptism abolishes all those old distinctions: “Could the Christian master Philemon own the Christian slave Onesimus?” (God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now; this book provides particularly helpful background on this text, as does Crossan’s book with Jonathan L. Reed, In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom).
We might consider then what practices, customs, and traditions would fall before the power of the gospel, no matter how comfortable we are with them because they are, after all, part of the culture in which we live. Slowly (much too slowly, for sure) and inexorably, the gospel’s power made it clear to Christians, for example, that owning another human being was an offense before God, no matter how skillfully “good Christians,” church-going Christians, relied on biblical references that seemed to accept slavery.
Whenever I lead a tour of our national offices here in Cleveland, one of the highlights is always time spent in the beautiful Amistad Chapel, named after the chapter in the life of our church when our Congregationalist forebears stood up for the captives of the slave ship, La Amistad, when they were able to rebel and make their way up north, to Connecticut. One day, the tour groups included pastors from our local churches as well as visitors from the World Council of Churches. As we stood around the table shaped like a captain’s wheel, two pastors in the first group shared how deeply moved they were when they visited Ghana and the historic sites there, where captives were shipped off to America in slavery, and now they stood in a place that remembered not only the ordeal of those captives but also the bold and courageous witness on their behalf by those whose efforts often cost them the comfort and friendship even of their own church families. The second tour group included visitors from the Netherlands, South Africa, Latin America, and Germany who were attending a conference on racism and the churches. Their questions were probing, and we had a thoughtful—and painful—discussion about the role of the churches in justifying and reinforcing the practice of slavery in the United States two hundred years ago. Today, our churches are speaking out in condemning the practice of human trafficking, and our voices can be raised—like Paul’s—on behalf of those held in bondage even in this “enlightened” age.
In the same way, the spirit of the gospel has much to say about the dignity of women, for example, no matter how many references may appear to support women’s subjugation or exclusion from church leadership, including ordination. The change in women’s status, also late in coming and not fully “here” yet, is supported by the gospel, and yet many religious institutions are catching up with secular society in recognizing it as a good thing. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said that the church should be the headlights, not the tail lights, in such matters, but too often this is not the way things happen. It seems that the church itself needs to constantly examine its practices in light of the gospel, just as we shine it on our culture.
The language Paul uses evokes “gut feelings,” not just intellectual arguments, and not just sentimental attachment to this one particular person, and the question Paul raises is one of deep significance. This is going to cost Philemon: it will exact a price, not just in monetary terms but in his sense of place and in his relationship with this person, who will hold a new place in his life, not as a slave but “a beloved brother” (v. 16). How does a radical change in relationship that eliminates privilege and advantage feel to those involved, on both sides? Is such a change even possible? How deeply embedded are our assumptions and sense of place, in our daily lives and in the global context? What challenges lie in this text for us, personally and communally? What discomfort (even if it is a “good” kind of discomfort) lies between-the-lines for us as Christians shining the light of the gospel on our culture and on our lives?
There is another lesson here, about the task of calling one another to faithfulness, to be true to who we are as followers of Jesus. In a sense, that’s what Paul is saying to Philemon. If we remember who we are as followers of Jesus, won’t that have an effect on our choices and the way we live? If holding a slave and not showing mercy is unworthy of a Christian, what things do we do today, perhaps without thinking, that keep us from living up to who we are, even if our cultural mores find them acceptable, as many people found slavery acceptable in Paul’s day? And how do we lovingly and sensitively call one another to faithfulness, as Paul exhorted his beloved friend Philemon? Perhaps, for example, our descendants will look back on the way we treated and used up the gifts of God’s creation, or the ways we have waged war upon one another, and shake their heads in bewilderment at our lack of faithfulness to who we are as people of faith, as followers of Jesus.
I’m wondering about those crowds following Jesus. That’s how today’s Gospel reading starts out: “Now large crowds were traveling with him and he turned and said to them….” I’ve heard it said that the burden of fame that celebrities complain the most about is that they lose their privacy. Wherever they go, people follow them, approach them, and even infringe on their personal space.
Jesus, of course, was bound to draw a crowd. People had heard about him, and some of them had even witnessed his miracles. He healed many people and even brought several back from the dead. He forgave people their sins – and he got into big trouble with the powers that be, standing right up to them and speaking the truth about the way they distorted God’s will for humankind. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus claimed that his mission was to bring good news for the poor, to proclaim release for the captives, and to let the oppressed go free…and we know there were plenty of poor people, plenty of captives, plenty of the oppressed, around in those days, weren’t there?
And so large crowds followed him. What do you think they were looking for? There must have been quite a mix of motives, I suspect. Some people must have been drawn to a teacher who would stand up to those high and mighty religious leaders who put heavy burdens on the people, separated some folks out as unclean – isolating them not just religiously but in every other way – leaders who argued fine points of the law but missed its heart: to love God with one’s whole being and one’s neighbor as oneself.
There must have been some folks who were thrilled to see this kind of confrontation, and hoped for more. There must have been people who were oppressed, captive, and poor, who longed for Jesus to touch them and heal them, or to say the words they needed to hear – “Go, your sins are forgiven.” Maybe some people just wanted to see a miracle or two – the way we watch movies for those amazing special effects. And undoubtedly there were at least a few pickpockets, skeptics, and spies from the empire in the mix.
But don’t you think that there were at least some people who wanted more, who wanted their lives to be completely transformed, people who wanted to follow Jesus not just for a little while, but to become his disciples, his followers, all of their lives?
Now let’s look at this from Jesus’ perspective. Gospel passages often begin with words similar to these: “and great crowds were following him…” Sometimes, Jesus would look at the crowd and feel compassion for them, because he knew they were hungry. We remember these stories, when Jesus fed the masses with a few loaves and fishes, or another time, when Jesus saw the crowds, sat down like a traditional Jewish teacher, and told the crowds that the poor, the meek and the sorrowing are blessed in the eyes of God.
This time, however, Jesus doesn’t feel compassion and feed the people, or feel moved to speak transcendently beautiful words like, “Blessed are the peacemakers…” No, this time Jesus seems annoyed and impatient. He is on his way to Jerusalem, after all, where he knows he will face death. It’s inevitable, with the way things are going. He knows he is going to pay a price for telling the truth and for living the truth.
He wonders if those in the crowd can do the same. He turns and speaks hard words: “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.” As if that’s not hard enough, a few verses later, he even says we have to give up all our possessions, too – all our stuff!
There it is: the speech that’s right up there with “Love your enemies” on the list of hard sayings of Jesus. We might wonder if Jesus really meant it – or even hope that he didn’t mean it, but I have a feeling Jesus pretty much meant everything he said, whether we understand what he meant or not.
So. Is this teaching enough to make us walk away, sadly, like the rich young man, because we, too, “have many possessions”? It’s tempting to give up on the possibility of answering such a demanding call because we are obviously not going to sell or give away all our possessions. We’re not going to live, literally, on the street or on the land, without working for the things we need for ourselves and for those we love and are responsible for. And we’re not going to hate our parents and children and spouses – nor do we really believe Jesus wants us to. Hating anyone – especially those we ought to care for the most – directly contradicts the persistent, consistent, foundational ethic of love that Jesus preached. So let’s take a closer look.
We begin with a translation issue. The meaning of the Semitic word translated here as “hate” is not the venomous feeling or orientation of the heart that directly contradicts the gospel, but rather a way of expressing detachment or a letting go of something. Jesus did not mean that we should literally hate our loved ones, or that we could live without any of the things we need. We could say that he was using hyperbole – exaggeration for effect – and the effect ought to be powerful upon us.
The real question for us may be this: Is it easier to turn away from this demand of Jesus because it seems impossible than it is to let go, to detach from, the primary importance we have given too many things in our lives – something we actually could do? Are we willing to give God primary importance in our lives?
Today’s scriptures remind us of who and whose we are: we belong to God, and that affects the way we belong to one another (See Charles B. Cousar, Texts for Preaching Year C). It also affects the way things “belong” to us. If we belong to the God who has known us, according to Psalm 139, since the first moment of our existence, the God who holds our lives and knows their length and their inexpressible value, the God who searches out our path and our lying down and is acquainted with all our ways, the God who hems us in, behind and before, and lays God’s own hand upon us…well, then, how can we not expect to relate differently to everyone and everything in our lives? How can we ever think that we can “possess” anyone or anything? Rather, we acknowledge that everyone and everything belongs to God – the earth and all that is within it, as Scripture says. Recognizing and honoring God above all leaves no room for idolatry, the great sin of biblical times…the great sin of our time, although our idols may bear different names: money, status, military might, youthful appearance, success….
Now, as we mentioned, Jesus is speaking not to a few close disciples but to a large crowd that is following him. Some in the crowd are probably looking for a parade – they’re drawn to something different, something interesting, a diversion from their humdrum lives, if only for a while, and then they’ll return to things as they were. Some in the crowd are hungering for a showdown, and they see Jesus in a kind of march toward Jerusalem, where he will face off with the powerful: this will be Galilee versus Jerusalem, peasants versus power, the lay people versus the clergy, the Jews versus the Romans, Jesus versus the establishment! They’ll run, though, at the first sign of trouble. (See Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation.)
A few people may sense that Jesus is on his way to die, and perhaps they feel they’re joining a funeral procession, even if they can’t – or won’t – go all the way to the cross with him; they’re just paying their respects. Little do they realize that the path leads only by way of the cross to an empty tomb – to God’s final word of love’s triumph over death. And so many fall away, including at least for a while, the closest disciples of all. Little do they realize that, ultimately, the path leads to joy, difficult as it may be on the way.
Perhaps we can read Jesus’ words, then, as a warning against enthusiasm without commitment. He uses practical illustrations – a king preparing for war, a person about to build a watchtower – in order to urge those who are following him to consider whether they are willing to pay what has been called “the cost of discipleship.”
What would happen in the United Church of Christ if, in our new member classes, we looked at those who seek to join our community and said, “Do you know the cost? Are you ready to carry your own cross?” And what if we looked at ourselves, each Sunday morning, each morning of our lives as disciples of Jesus, and asked ourselves, “What are we doing in this crowd? What did we come to see? What is it that we want? Are we prepared to pay the cost?”
Have we only come to pay our respects to a funeral procession? Are we stirred by a parade, only to fall back into our lives, as they were? Or are we going to join Jesus on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to those showdowns, when life will win over death, when love will triumph over hate, when joy will have last word? Are we ready and willing for our lives to be transformed?
My friends, God is still speaking to us this very day, cautioning us against easy discipleship, easy enthusiasm, and our cluelessness about the cost of following Jesus here, in our world today. There are still plenty of us who are poor, plenty of us who are captive to so many things, plenty of people who are oppressed. The showdowns are still happening, or needing to happen, and the cost may be high.
Religious authorities still separate out some people as unclean, as unacceptable, and separate them from the life of the community, even though we know that all of us belong to God and therefore, every single one of us has a place at the table God sets.
Those with much to lose may stall our every effort to share more graciously, more justly, the goods that God has abundantly provided to us all. Our passionate proclamation of God’s love and hospitality, of the reality of grace in our lives, may bring down a firestorm of opposition.
Excuses will be offered, delays will be attempted, and arguments will be made to keep us from doing what needs to be done. But, as people of God, we will not be deterred. By the power of God at work within us, we will pay the cost, whatever it takes. We are on our way to joy.
God’s great vision, God’s great promise of shalom, the fullness of peace that includes healing, wholeness, and justice for all, is our dream, too. In Jesus Christ, God has spoken a word of truth that will not be denied, a word of forgiveness that will heal us, a word of love that will not die, a word of grace that will transform and renew every corner of creation, including every single child of God.
We have this good news, this treasure, in earthen vessels, in our own hearts…shall we go forth, then, into this hurting world, and share it with all of God’s children, no matter the cost?
This sermon was preached at Lake Avenue United Church of Christ, Elyria, Ohio, in 2004.
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.
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
O God, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O God, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days
that were formed for me, before they existed.
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.
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 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, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
Happy are those who do not follow
the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of God,
and on God’s law they meditate
day and night.
They are like trees planted in streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for God watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will perish.
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.
Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “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. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading (Series 1) through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings (Series 2). It is suggested that a congregation choose one option and follow it.