Jeremiah 18:1-11; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
Ordinary 23C; Proper 18
Can any of us, really, live up to Jesus’ expectations in the gospel reading this week?
Are we truly to hate life itself on account of our discipleship? Is this an example of Messianic hyperbole, or are we literally to hate those with whom we have the tenderest, closest ties? The trajectory of Jesus’ admonitions seems off, too. Hate mother and father, carry the cross, calculate the cost as if evaluating the viability of a massive building project, take stock of all the resources needed in order to wage a war. Also this: If you cannot give up your possessions you cannot be my disciples. Is Jesus setting us up to respond: “Oh, you mean all we must do is give up all our stuff, I’m into the Marie Kondo method already, I’m all set!” In that litany of disciple requirements, giving up our possessions sounds lightweight compared to the other instructions. And yet we rarely do even that.
Perhaps the root of the matter is not possessions per se or loving our families or enjoying life, so much as checking our loyalties and putting Jesus first – really honestly, tangibly first and before all else. Jesus, remember, is talking to the large crowd that is following him, the growing numbers of people enamored of his power to heal, intrigued by his ability to speak with authority. Word is getting around and Jesus’ social media platforms are exploding; the buzz about him is electric. The powerful want to get close to him. The suffering want to touch him. Everyone wants a selfie or an autograph, a souvenir or a story to share. Then, as now, human beings relish getting close to the famous, those they think are powerful, connected, those who may have the ability to influence others on their behalf.
Jesus, being Jesus and not us, does not relish the attention or adoration. He deflects it, directs it to God, makes clear that his path is not one of worldly glory, but the way of sacrificial love and costly service. Nothing is off limits when it comes to the price that might need to be paid as a result of being faithful to the God who holds nothing back from us. You still in?
Christianity in our context is certainly becoming more counter-cultural. No longer is church attendance expected. No mid-week or weekend hour is cordoned off as sacred. In fact, for many who are Nones and Dones, Christianity is perceived negatively or neutral at best. And yet, those of us in the pews or pulpits are not typically persecuted for our faith or punished for our religious affiliation. It is relatively easy for us to proclaim our allegiance to Christ without counting the cost or living in ways that mark us as different from the prevailing consumerism, capitalism and zeitgeist of our age. Of that list of requirements from hating our parents to giving up our possessions, we fulfill few, if any, of them. Is that problematic? Should it be? What do we do distinctively for Christ’s sake?
Even as I write this, I want to push back. I try to be ethical. I want my values to align with those of scripture. I teach my children to share and be mindful of others, to be grateful for their many privileges, to be advocates for the vulnerable and marginalized. I work to even be an example of some of these things, some days. But is that enough? It does not sound very radical compared to what Jesus outlines in Luke. It doesn’t equate with Jeremiah’s conversation with God the potter, either. I am not sure I have been radically reworked, transformed, made a whole new vessel as a result of my baptism, confirmation or ordination. That’s where the lectionary’s inclusion of Philemon offers some guidance. Paul’s letter to Philemon represents a test of the impact of being a follower of Jesus Christ. Paul is calling on Philemon to act differently, to bedifferent, to make choices counter to his own self-interest and to live in contrast to the ways of the prevailing culture. Paul reminds Philemon that our relationship to Christ tangibly changes our relationships to each other. Our discipleship shuffles and changes our real, lived priorities.
We could start with Philemon and use it as the lens through which to read Luke this week. What real-life scenarios are we facing that call us to be different? That call us to choose things that look to the interest of others? That require us to give up something in order that someone else will benefit? That reshape our relationships, loyalties, ties and priorities so as to reflect God’s love for the world and every creature in it? That make us stop and question our willingness to do the work, pay the price, take the time, make the sacrifices needed?
God’s call on our lives radically re-orders our values and visibly re-shapes our actions. Or it should. Like the people listening in the crowd in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus asks us to calculate the cost, evaluate what is needed, in order to take up our crosses and follow.
Certainly, there is no shortage of large building projects – literal and metaphorical – that our world needs. Safe, affordable housing, for example. Or opportunities for all children to learn and be the best that they can be. Healthy, accessible food in every community. There is much to build up in order for everyone to have abundant life. Are we willing to assess what’s needed and do that work in Jesus’ name?
Surely, there are evils on the scale of wars to be fought. Injustices spread like wildfire. Suffering grows like kudzu. Do we recognize our responsibility in combating all that inhibits God’s good news from resounding through creation? Are we willing to risk our very lives in order to make Christ’s victory visible to those who still sit in deep darkness?
We could start with giving up our possessions, those things to which we cling so closely, whatever they may be. We could read Philemon and examine our own relationships and see if they reflect the commitment we made to Jesus. We could pray for God to show us how best to serve and where we need most to love and know that discipleship is not about being an interested spectator or a curious member of the crowd, or a passive bystander, but an intentional follower, an active participant, a member of the household of God, a part of the crucified and resurrected Body of Christ. Are you still in?
- Have you ever watched a potter work? Can you imagine God re-shaping you and your community into something God can use? What might that vessel look like? What purpose will it serve?
- What circumstances in your life or in your congregation or in your community is God asking you to change in ways that reflect your commitment to Jesus Christ?
- Have you calculated the cost of discipleship? What does your discipleship cost you?
- Is our Christianity too comfortable? Why or why not?
- How is this text from Jeremiah good news? What about the reading from Luke, how is it good news?
- Read the news through the lens of Philemon this week. What does your status as a follower of Jesus Christ require of you to do about the issues reflected in the headlines?
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