Sermon for Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost Proper 18, Year C

Deuteronomy 30:15-20                                  Psalm 1                 Philemon 1-21                   Luke 14:25-33

          I won’t take the chance of embarrassing anyone here by asking for a show of hands as to who would have been able to list Philemon as one of the letters of Paul that is included in the New Testament.  It is a curious addition to the Bible; there are many letters (which we call Epistles) but none like this one – a personal letter sent by Paul to a friend and his family on behalf of a runaway slave in hopes of softening the man’s response to him. Other letters from Paul are much longer and address issues in the church – not this one. 

          This is one “book” of the Bible where I ask myself why it is included.   It is not about Christ, it is not about doctrine, and it is not about getting along with others in the church.  It is so short; it has not even been divided into chapters.  Our reader this morning, read all but the last three verses.  Those last three verses being simply an extended closing with greetings to Philemon from mutual friends.

          I have no idea why this letter made it into the scriptures, but I do know it is appreciated for the very fact that it is such a personal letter and therefore helps us better understand Paul.   In other letters, Paul says that in Christ there is no male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free.  Here, Paul is speaking of a slave as a brother in Christ, and he is asking his friend to accept him as such.

          The letter is an example of Paul putting his faith into action, while in prison.  It may not be about how church members are to treat one another, but it is about how we should treat others who are dependent upon us.  Paul, a prisoner, asks his friend to not only have mercy on a slave but to accept his slave as a brother. 

          To understand the full extent of this request, it is important to understand something about their culture.  Many people, who are unable to repay a debt, become slaves as a means of repaying what they owe.  They work as a slave until it is repaid and then their freedom is restored.  Like many of society’s practices established throughout history, this system is abused – as are many of the slaves.  Slaves have few, if any, rights.  A runaway slave can be punished severely, even killed without any repercussion to his owner.  Owners sometime brand runaway slaves on their faces.

          Slavery is a part of how people do business and Paul is not challenging it – only pleading for the humane treatment of this man.  From it, however, we can see that Paul has compassion, and he believes what he has written elsewhere, that in Christ there are no slaves, only members of the body of Christ.  Members who are to care for one another regardless of their status in life.

          Paul’s loving terms for Onesimus are in stark contrast to what Jesus says to the crowd in our reading from Luke today: 

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. 

This is another passage that leaves me asking why it is included in the scriptures.  It seems so out of place with everything else Jesus has been saying – or at least his teachings that it captures my attention.

          The fact is, we tend to focus on the teachings of Jesus we can understand – and the ones that support our understanding of God.  Being told to hate our father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even life itself, is uncharacteristic of the Jesus I know who teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Immediately after telling us to hate, he commands us to take up the cross and follow him if we wish to be his disciple.  I may not like the thought of taking up a cross, but I understand this.  Being told to hate our family and our lives makes no sense when taken literally. 

          Truth is, I may never be comfortable with the language Jesus uses here.  That is, in part, because I’m not a 1st Century Jew.  Hyperbole was used to convey a message.  Of course, we could say the same is true today when we listen to political speeches.  This is not typically associated with religious teachings.

Personally, I must set aside how I was raised in order to appreciate what Jesus is sayings.  I was raised to believe there is power in words, and to say I hated anyone was as offensive as taking the Lord’s name in vain.  So, just as slavery is offensive, so is the language Jesus uses.   In both readings, we must hear the message as one would have heard it in that day – not as 21st century Americans.  Paul writes to Philemon out of love for Onesimus; and Jesus says what he does to convey the necessity of loving him completely, if we are to be his disciple.  We must be willing to make sacrifices in order to follow Jesus.

          Getting past the initial portion of today’s Gospel, then, leads us into a teaching on “counting the cost” of discipleship.  Theologian William Barclay tells this story:

Once someone was talking to a great scholar about a younger man.  He said, “So he tells me he was one of your students.”  The teacher answered devastatingly, “He may have attended my lectures, but he was not one of my students.”

Barclay then writes, “It is one of the supreme handicaps of the Church that in it there are so many distant followers of Jesus and so few real disciples.”  Simply put, there is a difference between listening and doing. Listening can be done from afar, but real disciples respond to the word of God by doing what needs to be done.

          For us, this passage first asks us, “are we ready to put Christ first, to do first what God would have us do?”  And second, “are we truly Christians if we do not make the sacrifices necessary to be Christ’s real disciples?”  Have we, counting the cost of discipleship, determined it to be too much – too high a price to pay?  The final verse of today’s gospel reading is Jesus telling us, “None of you can become my disciples if you do not give up all your possessions.”  That’s a high price indeed!

          But before I send you home feeling like you cannot be a Christian because you are unwilling to turn your back on your family and sell all you have and give it to the poor, let me remind you that Jesus often exaggerated to make his point.   Yes, we must count the cost of discipleship and make sacrifices if we are to be real disciples.  But no, we should not leave today believing the only way to be a real disciple is to sell everything we have and give the money to the poor.  We have a responsibility to others and ourselves.  Being homeless does not make us real disciples.  Sharing our wealth though, however great or meager, is an expression of our love of Christ.  We cannot hoard our wealth and be disciples.  True disciples share.

Let us pray.

          Loving and gracious God, we give you thanks for the gifts we have received in our lives.  Help us to focus our attention on making this a better community in which to live by sharing what we have those in need.  Help us to follow the path to real discipleship. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.