Sunday, September 9, 2007

Time after Pentecost, Lectionary 23
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

For perhaps he was therefore parted from thee for a season, that thou shouldest have him for ever; no longer as a servant, but more than a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much rather to thee, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

The word ‘hate’ is defined in Webster’s as “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury, extreme dislike or antipathy, loathing.” If it is used as a verb it means, “To feel extreme enmity toward, have a strong aversion to, find very distasteful.” It is because we define hate in this way that we are shocked by Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel lesson. Surely Jesus does not mean for us to have extreme dislike and loathing for our parents?

This is why it is important to understand how words were defined in the days they were spoken. Jesus did say that we are to hate our mothers and fathers, but he was not giving us permission to make them our enemies or treat them with dishonor. “Hate” as it is understood in ancient Israel has to do with our priorities. To hate something meant to turn your back on it, to separate yourself from it. Jacob loved Rachel but hated Leah. Obviously, he did not feel a strong aversion to her since they made several children together. The passage simply means that Jacob put Rachel first, turning his back on Leah for Rachel’s sake. When Jesus calls us to hate our mothers and our fathers, our wives and our children, He is not telling us to abandon them or treat them poorly. He is simply calling us to put Him first, setting aside everything and everyone else for His sake.

There are no shades of gray when it comes to God. Either He is first or He is last. We can’t put him in second or third place with just one priority higher while the rest of the world is behind Him. If we choose Him, we hate – or turn away from – the world. If we choose something of this world, then we hate – or turn away from – Him.

In Deuteronomy we hear, “See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil.” The kind of life we will live is dependent on the way we walk in this world. If we love God and walk in His ways, we will see the blessings of obedience which is life and prosperity. “But if thy heart turn away, and thou wilt not hear, but salt be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them; I denounce unto you this day, that ye shall surely perish; ye shall not prolong your days in the land, whither thou passest over the Jordan to go in to possess it.” If we turn away from God, in essence ‘hate’ Him, we will suffer the consequences.

Many of our choices have no real consequences. It doesn’t matter if we have hamburgers or spaghetti for dinner tonight or if I wear the red or green shirt. It does matter how we live our life. It does matter if we believe in God or in ourselves. It does matter if we obey the commandments of God or if we decide to walk in His ways. These choices mean the difference between good and evil, between life and death. The consequences we suffer are not as some might suggest “the wrath of God.” He does not destroy those who are disobedient. In reality, we destroy ourselves by turning our hearts away from God. He does not leave us, we leave Him. Either we love Him or we hate Him. There is no in between. When Jesus calls us to hate everything, including our own lives, He is calling us to love God with our whole being.

It is interesting that Jesus would turn to the most important relationships in our lives in this passage. In Jesus’ day it was easy to see which false gods were turning the people’s hearts from the one true God. Rome was filled with temples to deities that had no real power. It is a little more difficult in today’s world because our gods aren’t necessarily the subject of myths and legends. Our jobs, our homes, our hobbies and sports are like gods to us. How often do we put a trip to the golf course or a child’s soccer tournament before worship? How many times do we give up on our bible studies or Christian fellowship because we have to work?

Even harder to see is how our families are the gods which we worship. Jesus brings this problem closer to home. The gods we worship were not just found in the temples of Rome, they are the flesh of our flesh. Our mothers and fathers gave us life. We become one flesh with our spouses. Our children came forth from our loins. Certainly human beings play a role in procreation, but we do not give life. The breath of life can come only from the Creator, our God. Yet, we put so much emphasis on our relationships with one another, as if life would not exist without us. We feel we owe our parents or children our lives and we put them before everything else. It is by God’s command that we become one with our spouses. How could it be wrong to love them? The problem is not that we love, honor and serve them. The problem is that we put them ahead of God. They become our gods.

Life with Christ means putting Him first. It means doing His will even when it will go against the will of our families and the society in which we live. It means being obedient to God when the world around us expects something else.

St. Peter Claver was a missionary to the African slaves sold through Cartagena, Columbia in the seventeenth century. He was born in Catalonia in 1518 and joined the Jesuits at age twenty. Alphonsus Rodriguez, the doorkeeper of the college, had a vision about Peter’s calling to be a missionary and he encouraged Peter until he agreed to travel to the Spanish possessions in Central and South America. The Spanish masters needed strong men to work the fields and gold mines and the minor rulers of the African coastal kingdoms willingly sold off their subjects and prisoners to slave traders. The ‘goods’ were taken to Cartagena to be sold. Despite the condemnation of the pope and Christian moralists, slavery was a thriving business. A thousand slaves a month made their way through Cartagena.

Peter Claver called himself “the slave of the negroes forever” devoting his life to caring for the needs of the slaves, both physical and spiritual. The slaves were often near death when they departed the ships from Africa, having traveled for a long time bound and crammed into the hull of a ship. Slaves, Negroes, were not counted as human; they were thought to be less than human. They cost pennies and sold for much, much more. It did not matter if half the slaves perished; the boat still brought profit to the traders. Peter realized that it was impossible to win the fight against the slave traders, so he focused on healing the sick and sharing the Gospel of grace with the slaves.

His mission made him plenty of enemies and it was not just the merchants who were against his work. Even the church accused him of indecent zeal, for many believed that he profaned the sacraments by giving them to the slaves who were less than human. He was rejected and humiliated, but continued to minister to the slaves anyway. He baptized and instructed in Christian faith more than 300,000 slaves throughout his life. He knew the cost of his mission and accepted it, sacrificing popularity and comfort for the sake of the lost souls to whom God had sent him to serve.

We see the issue of slavery from a whole different perspective in today’s Epistle lesson. Philemon is a slave owner, a master over the one called Onesimus. We do not know how Onesimus came to be Philemon’s slave. It is likely that Onesimus owed a large sum of money to Philemon or to someone who was paid by Philemon. When a person is unable to pay a debt with property or money, they pay with service. We do not know why Onesimus ran away or how he came to meet Paul. We do know that while Onesimus was apart from Philemon, he became a Christian under the teaching of Paul and he served the apostle in some way.

Paul writes to Philemon, not to deal with the issue of slavery. Perhaps he was like Peter Claver and saw the futility of dealing with the issue. Instead Paul deals with the relationship. Paul is concerned not just for his new friend and brother Onesimus. He was concerned about Philemon. There is a question of a financial matter involved in this story. Paul was so concerned for the welfare of both these men that he was willing to repay the cost to restore the relationship. He was willing to pay the debt to set both of them free.

The purpose of Christian faith is restoration and forgiveness. Philemon knew the power of God’s forgiveness in his own life because he’d become a Christian. He knew the transforming power of the call of God in the lives of those who believe. Onesimus also learned about the forgiveness that comes from faith through the teaching and concern of his new friend Paul. Onesimus, though still a slave, was something new – a brother in Christ to all those who believed in Jesus.

This is also a lesson about living our vocation in and through the faith we have been given. Philemon was master, Onesimus a slave. In Christ the roles of life may not change but the way we deal with one another does. In our own churches we often have people who are CEOs of a company and their employees worshipping side by side. That relationship reaches beyond the church door as the CEO is expected to treat the employee with Christian love and respect even in the workplace and vice versa, neither one taking advantage of their position in the church or in the world to set themselves ahead or above the other.

According to the letter, Philemon was living a life of faithful service for the Lord. Paul commends him for all he has done, boasting about his love for the other Christians. Philemon’s faith gave Paul such joy. With such faith, it would be easy to assume that Philemon would receive Onesimus as a brother in Christ. However, Onesimus was not an equal in that society. Whatever the reason for his slavery, there were rules about how he should be treated. The law gave Philemon the authority to punish disobedient slaves. It would be unjust and disruptive to the society in which he lived to do otherwise. This change in relationship for Philemon and Onesimus could also adversely affect other relationships between masters and slaves. Paul doesn’t command Philemon to set Onesimus free. Instead, Paul writes about forgiveness and reconciliation. “If then thou countest me a partner, receive him as myself.”

Paul suggests that Onesimus’ escape was part of a greater plan, a way for God to change hearts and lives. Perhaps it was intended by God for their relationship to be different. Paul writes, “For perhaps he was therefore parted from thee for a season, that thou shouldest have him for ever; no longer as a servant, but more than a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much rather to thee both in the flesh and in the Lord.” Slaves were not slaves forever. They served for a time and then were set free. The slave could then choose to stay with his master, to serve him willingly forever. Onesimus, in his new found faith and trust in the Lord, willingly returned to the life of servanthood for the sake of the Gospel of love. For him, it was the cost of discipleship. He turned away from freedom to live reconciled to his brother in Christ and master, Philemon.

Now Paul was writing to Philemon to encourage him to receive Onesimus, to grant forgiveness and be reconciled to him in Christian love. It went against everything he knew about business and the society in which he lived, but for him it was the cost of discipleship. To be a follower of Jesus means more than just words and even good deeds. It means more than giving up things like immoral behavior. It means hating your very life – turning your back on everything for the sake of Christ.

The message in today’s Gospel is harsh and hard. Jesus not only asks it of us, but demands it of those who want to be disciples. In this passage He was being followed by large crowds, a mob of people. Most of them believed in Jesus, at least to a point. They believed that He could do great things and that He was a charismatic and credible speaker. He had authority they had never seen in any man.

He told them what it meant to be a disciple. It meant putting Him first. The people in the crowds had not given themselves fully to Jesus. They could leave at any moment, to go home to care for the needs of home and family. They believed but had not committed themselves to Him. It is a very hard thing that Jesus asks. It is hard to give up everything, to turn our backs on everyone we love. I can’t imagine giving up the wonderful life I have been living. It is an impossible request from Jesus.

And yet, does the servant who stays with the master want for anything? No, as the master’s servant he had everything he needed – a home, food, work, clothes, family and friends. Jesus is not calling us to live a life with nothing as a monk or hermit. He is not telling us to become penniless wanderers. It is about giving up even your very life for the sake of Jesus Christ to be more than a follower. He is calling us to be disciples, putting Him first. This means dwelling in His presence and walking in His ways.

The psalmist writes that the man who lives by God’s Word is like a tree planted by the streams of water. This is not simply a matter of living a life that is righteous according to the Law, but instead is about living in a relationship with God. God does not come to us because we are righteous, but we are made righteous by living within His presence. We are given faith and grace – all we need to live. Dwelling in those gifts will keep us on the paths which God has made for us. Dwelling in those gifts means that we’ll avoid those things that will bring harm upon ourselves, our neighbors and the world in which we live. Dwelling in God’s grace means that we’ll not walk in the counsel of the wicked because we have His council by which to walk. Dwelling in God’s faith means we’ll not stand in the way of the sinners because we will stand in His love. Dwelling in God’s presence means that we’ll meditate on His Word, His Law, day and night.

Does this mean that we’ll separate ourselves from the world in which we live, hermited away to read the Bible constantly? No. It is not necessary to hide from the world. Instead we are called to take God with us into it. To do so, however, means keeping His Word in our hearts and in our minds. It means taking time daily for prayer and study, for renewing ourselves by drinking in the waters of life. All too often we think that we are strong enough, faithful enough, knowledgeable enough to live on what is already a part of our lives. God intends for us to be like the tree that dwells by the streams of water, drinking in His Word daily for life. Unfortunately, we are so easily distracted by the world in which we live. Our focus turns to the needs of our families, to our work, to our interests. That is why Jesus tells us to hate our fathers and mothers, our wives and children, our brothers and sisters and even our own lives.

We will not suffer the wrath of God for our poor decisions, but we’ll never truly know the blessings of grace if we turn our back on the One from whom true life comes. We will suffer the consequences of a life poorly lived. So God, in His love and mercy, calls us to put Him first in our lives so that He can love us and care for us as He has promised. Following Jesus comes at a great cost, even the world, but having Jesus to follow came at an even greater cost to our God. He paid the debt to set us free. In that freedom we are called to willingly serve Him, to turn our hearts away from the world to become His disciples. As disciples we’ll truly know what it means to be blessed, like a tree planted by the streams of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season. Our sacrifice will last but a season and we’ll soon know the blessing of dwelling with Him forever.

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