This is the message that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, 5 September 2004. The Scriptures were Jeremiah 18: 1 – 11, Philemon 1 – 21, and Luke 14: 25 – 33.
I subscribe to a magazine called Christian Century. It is an interesting magazine in that it provides commentary on a number of topics, religious and secular and sometimes where the two overlap. It has a section called “brief notes”, little snippets of information that may or may not impact on one’s life. And it provides some of the ideas that I use in my sermons.
One of those recent brief notes was about Will Campbell, a maverick Baptist preacher known for his civil rights activism. In August 1998, Sam Bowers, a former Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, was convicted of a crime committed in 1966. Then, Bowers and some fellow Klansmen torched the house of Vernon Dahmer. The fire killed Dahmer and injured one of his three children. Dahmer’s offense was that he had allowed blacks to pay their poll taxes (that insidious little device that kept poor people, black and white, from freely voting in some Southern states) at his grocery store. The case was retried in 1998 and reporters were surprised to see that Pastor Campbell had befriended not only Dahmer’s widow but also Bowers himself. In asking why he would befriend both a murderer and the victim’s widow, he replied, “Because I am Christian, damn it! (I have edited his actual remarks)” (From Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian and noted Century Marks in Christian Century, 7 September 2004)
This is the essence of Christianity, to love the sinner as much as we love all others. It is unfortunate that many Christians today are unwilling to express this same thought. We may be reluctant and unwilling to forgive the sinner but if we are to model Christ on earth, it is the one task that we have to undertake.
These are troublesome times if you are a Christian. These are times when the true meaning of the Gospel message is co-opted for a softer sell, in hopes of bringing people to Christ. These are times when people change the Gospel message to meet their own political agendas. These are times when the message of Jesus to love others, help others, to seek peace is forgotten and replaced by hatred, envy, rage, and war. These are times when we are called to think and act in different ways.
Paul’s letter to Philemon is predicated on that very thought. Under Roman law, Philemon can put Onesimus to death for stealing from him and for running away. But Paul wants Philemon to think in an entirely different manner, to think of Onesimus in terms of brotherhood and as a fellow follower of Christ. It is for Philemon a difficult choice. He is free to follow the law; he is free to follow his conscience. Which decision will he make?
Paul asks Philemon to stop and consider what he will do. Paul is not necessarily asking Philemon to free Onesimus or any other slaves that he might own. Quite the contrary, he wants Philemon to see that Onesimus, having come to Christ, is now more of a brother than a slave. It is this relationship that Paul wants Philemon to consider because it is similar to the relationship between Paul and Philemon.
Paul wrote that God was in a position to demand much of us. But he chose instead to send His Son. And His Son emptied himself of all His power to become a servant to us all. The glory of God is disclosed on a cross where, while we were yet sinners, disobedient to Authority, Christ died for us. Love that cannot be commanded is evoked by love. God is not the cosmic bully who demands our compliance with divine directives but rather one who risked unconditional love in perfect freedom, knowing that it might not be returned. The summons to a holy life comes not as a blunt statement from heaven but rather is evoked through the stark reality of the empty cross.
Paul’s notes to Philemon indicate that Philemon was free to do whatever he chose to do. But, if he were truly living in Christ, he would accept Onesimus as Christ would have accepted him.
Like Philemon then, there are times when what we as Christians are called to do can be easily done. But other times, the call is very difficult. We willingly accept the easy calls but hesitate when it comes to the difficult ones. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose voice and life showed us what it was like to be a Christian under Hitler’s regime, once said, “when Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” (“Jesus Creed” – What is the focus of spiritual life? By Scot McKnight in Christian Century, 7 September 2004) Such calls are the ones we would prefer not to answer; yet such is the call that is the very essence of today’s Gospel message.
The Gospel message for today tells us that large crowds were traveling with Jesus. After a rather shaky beginning in his hometown synagogue, Jesus’ message was beginning to catch on with people. Crowds were following and the crowds were getting larger every day. You can imagine how the disciples must have felt, seeing the large crowds and figuring that something was right. You can almost hear any one of the disciples saying, “Master, take a look at that crowd! We must be doing something right!”
But then Jesus stops and speaks of brother turning against brother, child against parent. He speaks of dying in order to live. He speaks of the cost that one must pay in order to be considered a true disciple. Can you imagine what would happen if any politician, Republican, Democrat, or Independent, were to tell the real truth and nothing but the real truth? As one commentator put it, they would never have to worry about an election campaign.
And that is exactly what happened in the Gospel message. As soon as Jesus spoke, in the very next verse, the crowds began to leave. To hear that families would split and that there was a great cost involved in following Christ was too great for many to hear. And unfortunate as it may seem, it is still true today.
I mentioned last week two grumpy old men who sought to keep Grace Church in St. Cloud in their image, rather than the image of Christ. I sought to counter some of their work, because I thought that the Gospel required we mirror the activities of Christ. One of these two men, Joe, was also president of the trustees and was the holder of the church’s safety deposit box.
While consolidating our church bank accounts, we had come to find out that the church’s safety deposit box was a personal rather than corporate safety deposit box and that Joe’s signature was the only one on the documentation. That meant that he could keep the church officials from accessing important church documents. Because we were moving all of our banking business to another bank, he had been asked to surrender the contents of the safety deposit box.
When he had not done so in a timely manner, a meeting of the Administrative Council was held following church one Sunday at the altar of the church. At that time, Greg, the Chair of the Administrative Council, told Joe that he needed to sign a document surrendering control of the safety deposit box so that the church could open the new account. Joe’s response was to physically attack Greg, choking him with his hands.
I jumped in between the two men and pulled Joe away from Greg. Greg was really in no danger from the attack as he was 6′ 2″ tall and a guard at the state penitentiary in St. Cloud. As such, he was trained to respond to such situations, and I feared that he would respond as he was trained. So, even though Joe and I did not agree, I sought to protect him. I was pulled off of Joe by one of his friends, told to keep out of the way and that anyway I was the cause of the fight. I have never really figured out how that claim could be made, other than it was I, as the chair of the Finance Committee who had discovered this problem with the safety deposit box.
That this took place was shocking, to say the least. But you also have to know that Greg was Joe’s son-in-law and after that Sunday, the family was irrevocably split. Joe, his wife and son left the church, and for perhaps five years they did not speak to Greg or his wife who was Joe’s daughter, leaving the grandchildren without grandparents. So, unfortunately, I know that the Gospel message is true.
I think that is why we do not like hearing the Gospel message for today. We are afraid of the consequences of what we will happen if we follow Jesus. And, I think this fear pervades how we advertise and reach out to people who need to know that Jesus is real and there is hope in this world of desolation, fear, and division.
William H. Willimon, formerly at Duke University and now one of the new bishops of the United Methodist Church, wrote about a pastor of a very large church who had removed the cross from the sanctuary of his church. He had done so because, in the pastor’s words, “We find that the cross is an impediment, a turn off, that it gets in the way of our attempt to reach people with the gospel.”
What on earth is the gospel that this pastor is attempting to preach? If this is true, and I have reason to believe that it is, then it is a good example of our dangerous willingness to reach the world at any cost. The trouble is that if the world ever gives the church a real hearing, we, as the church, will find that without the cross, we have nothing significant to say in return. Why bother offering a “salvation” that any other helpful social service agency can provide?
Social agencies provide the services that we sometimes need. It is clear, when you read the Gospel message that Jesus has no interest in meeting our material needs. Rather, he appears intent upon giving us needs we would not have had, had we not met him. He speaks of severance from some of our most cherished values so that we may gain what we do not have. But we rebel at this message for it means that we give up what we truly cherish, motherhood, family and self-fulfillment.
You have to wonder why, after thinking about what Jesus has to say, why more people do not stay away from church. He wasn’t saying that His was the way for nine out of ten who heard His words. He wasn’t saying that His was the truth we think we wanted or His discipleship was the life we seek. Clearly, Jesus spoke words that go against the desires and needs of the crowds.
We would rather hear words that make life easier, put a little lilt in our voice, a bit more sunshine in our lives. We like the blandness found in much of today’s spirituality because it does not call for us to do anything. It is no wonder that in the next verse from Luke for today, we read that the crowds began to get smaller. Even then, the path that Jesus gave was not a popular one. (Adapted from William Willimon’s notes for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost) We are not always prepared to hate our family or give up our material possessions to follow Christ. We are not always prepared to follow Christ, no matter what the cost.
But people came to hear Jesus back then because what He said was the truth. Not everyone left because they knew that in Christ there was a hope and a promise not found on earth or in earthly possession. People were willing to pay the price that would ensure them what they truly desired.
It is the cost of things that Paul is writing Philemon about. It is the same for us. If we are truly living in Christ, then we will do that which, under other circumstances, would seem unreasonable or unattainable. Like Philemon, we are free to hold on to all that we have but we cannot be true servants of Christ if we do. While people may be tempted to seek an easier path, they must know that there is no such path; there is no wide and easy path that one can walk.
It is hard enough to understand the message of the Gospel or the love for others that Paul writes about today under ordinary circumstances.
What will happen when people, seeking Christ, find out the true cost? We already know the answer to that question, for we have the reaction of the people in the Gospel. They will leave just as quickly as they came. And what will they do when they see the hypocrisy in the words of those who have preached exclusion, division, and hatred. I fear that they will never come back.
It occurred to me while I was working on this sermon that only those left behind when the crowds begin to leave would truly understand the cost of discipleship. They are the ones, who by their loyal and timeless service to Christ, see beyond the present. I also recognize that this is a highly ironic statement because there are some who say the ones left behind are the losers in the battle for the kingdom of God.
Just as Jesus spoke of discipleship in new terms, perhaps we need to look at this time in our lives in another way as well. In the Old Testament reading for today, we are reminded of the potter sitting at his wheel, shaping the clay for a new pot. . In one particular video that I use in my science education classes, there is a discussion of techniques of Japanese potters. The value of these vases that these artisans produce is never determined until after the firing of the pots. Only after the heat of the furnace has burned away the excess materials and hardened the clay is it possible to determine what it’s true value will be. It is that moment in the artistic process where the pot is put into the fire and hardened that determines what it will be.
The same can be said for us; we are shaped by the master potter and tempered by the fire. Our value is never determined until we have been tempered and hardened by the all-consuming fire that God puts into our lives. It is a long process, one filled with uncertainty. We have no way of knowing what will come about from our efforts, for only those who follow us later will fully appreciate our efforts.
What we do today is a continuation of what others started. What we do today is not for us but rather for those who come after us. Our journey, admittedly at times rough and complicated when we would have rather had it soft and smooth, began some two thousand years ago when Christ carried the cross to Calvary. Should we not finish what those before us started? Should we not finish what we have started so that others will have the same chance?