September 8 2013 Proper 18C
The Rev. Kate Ekrem
Once when I was in seminary, I signed up for a course that was oversubscribed. There were too many people who wanted to take it. So, instead of taking the first 20 students who signed up or something like that, the professor had us all show up to the first class. Then she started giving us an overview of the class. How much reading, how many papers, how complicated the material was going to be, how she wasn’t going to spoon feed us and on and on. About half the people dropped the class after hearing all that, and then we were down to the right size. It was the best course I took in seminary, well worth all the work.
It seems like Jesus is a little bit like that professor in today’s Gospel.Jesus has been travelling around Galilee, feeding thousands with loaves and fishes, healing people and doing miracles. By this point, there were lots of people following him. Following him maybe because of what they could get from him. Free food, healing, the excitement of being part of a new movement.
Jesus turns to them and says, that’s all good, but it’s not the point. “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. … none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." I expect a lot of people dropped Jesus’ class after that.
It’s worth reflecting on if we, like that crowd, follow Jesus for what we get out of it. We get community, a sense of family and belonging, we get healing and comfort in hard times. These are all true and good and important, but they are not all. Are we able to see these things as the beginning, the introduction to something much bigger, more important, more costly, and more valuable.
I’m not sure Jesus is asking his followers to starve and be homeless. To give away our last crumb and live on the street. But he is asking them to do something at least as life-changing. To make the Gospel, sharing God’s unquenchable love with all people, more important in our lives than our livelihoods, our lifestyles, even our parents and our children.
If we want to follow Jesus, we need to be like Jesus, accepting the hardships and the difficulties that really loving all people – rich and poor, good and evil, friends and enemies, family and strangers – that really loving all of these people will inevitably bring us. At some point, following that path will lead us into conflict with our family, our jobs, things we thought we knew about ourselves or could take for granted.
That’s exactly what happened to Philemon. Philemon is the person to whom today’s letter from Paul was written. (Charlie) just read the whole entire letter, that’s it. Philemon was a good person, a follower of Jesus, a leader of the church in Colossea, some scholars think he may have been a bishop. He was a richer person, who like all rich people in those days owned slaves, and one of Philemon’s slaves was named Onesimus. And Onesimus ran away, it sounds like he also probably stole something, maybe some money from Philemon when he ran. And he ran to Paul, who is in prison, or perhaps more like on house arrest, and Onesimus spends some time with Paul and either is converted or is strengthened in his Christian faith. And now Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon, with this letter. This letter saying, I’m not going to tell you what to do, but you need to do the right thing. You’re a Christian, Onesimus is a Christian, he’s your brother in faith, not going to tell you you have to free him and forgive him, but, you know what you need to do.
Paul is asking Philemon to put his money where his mouth is. In a concrete, direct and very big way.
Owning slaves – or being a slave -- in the ancient world was as common as owning mutual funds today. It just was. It was the economic system of time. Paul doesn’t tell Philemon, you need to free all your slaves, or you need to help end slavery for all time. What he says is very concrete, just about the relationship between two people – Philemon and Onesimus, face to face, eye to eye, how are you going to treat this one person in front of you, do you or do you not recognize this person as your equal, your brother. That’s all Paul asks, but the answer has the potential to change everything.
Paul is asking Philemon to change his life. Asking him to be a disciple, to pay the cost of living a life in step with God and out of step with the world he lived in. His faith came into conflict with his life and he had to decide, would he pay the cost.
There are so many ways we struggle with the same question, how do we follow Jesus in ways that lead us out of step with our world. What does our faith lead us to do that probably seem weird or ridiculous to our neighbors. That are inconvenient and costly and force us to choose whether we’re going to go along with the way everybody else lives, or be different. Some things I know many if not most of you do – for example, spending a good chunk of your day in prayer or Bible study and a good chunk of your weekend here in church. Radically changing the way you use non-renewable resources to protect God’s creation. Giving away large portions of your income instead of spending it on yourself. Spending more money on clothes or food that is produced in a fair and healthy way. These are costly things and most costly of all may be to look our own Onesimus in the face, that person whom we are at odds with or whom we think has wronged us, to let go of our own assumptions and attachments and simply see them as a fellow child of God and let that change our hearts and our minds.
Paul asks Philemon to pay the price, to be a disciple, but he’s not asking out of coercion or force or even haranguing or guilt, he’s not judging him or saying you have to measure up. Everything he says is out of love. This is such an affectionate letter, full of reminders of the close relationship that Paul and Philemon share. He asks him to do this out of love.
Following Jesus, being a Christian, living out your baptismal promises, is not cost free. It’s not something that’s not going to change your life. The question is, is it worth it? The witness of scripture and so many saints down through the ages affirms that it is. Jesus and Paul and Philemon and Onesimus would tell us if they could, it’s worth it, it’s more than worth it. It’s the pearl of great price.