Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
It’s been said many times that a pastor has two jobs: to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. Having just heard today’s readings, I’m guessing you know what my job is today. With all of these lessons about sacrifice, there’s no way around it: I’m about to afflict the comfortable.
For starters, today’s Gospel reading point us toward the cross. We have to remember, of course, that the disciples would have known about crosses in general—crucifixion was a favorite method of execution for political prisoners in the Roman Empire—but they didn’t know how intimately, how personally, they would come to feel the pain of a cross. They didn’t yet see it as a sign of God’s love and pain. At this point in Luke, Jesus is still walking toward Jerusalem where he will be crucified, not in order to make God love us, but because God already loved the world so much that Jesus was willing to sacrifice everything for us. The cross is just ahead.
And as he walks toward certain execution, Jesus calls his followers to be willing to sacrifice as well. Unlike the king who counts the cost before going to war, or the construction workers before embarking on a building project, Jesus says that his followers cannot weigh their options. Instead of accumulating what they need to be ready, they will have to let go of everything in order to be disciples. While the word “hate” jumps out at us, Biblical scholars suggest that Jesus was simply being hyperbolic to prove his point. Nonetheless, it doesn’t make it easier to hear that we are called to love Jesus above all else, including family, including life itself.
It’s hard to instruct you to sacrifice. I know so many of you already live sacrificially—parents giving up some of what they want in order to provide for your children (or vice versa), students and employees giving up free time to study or to enhance your careers. Many of you sacrifice some of your income for the sake of God’s mission through the church, as well as offering up your time to attend worship, meetings, confirmation class, choir, circles, and other church-related activities. I hope that some—even most—of these sacrifices are made joyfully, that these decisions feel like choosing life and not death when you make them. But not all choices are so clear. Sometimes we are presented with choices where the options are complex, fuzzy, less distinctly “good” or “bad.”
One example of a challenging choice comes from Philemon, today’s second reading (and yes, that reading was the entire letter). Bear in mind that slavery was both legal and common at the time that Paul wrote this letter to Philemon about Onesimus, Philemon’s slave. Onesimus has apparently run away and is now with Paul. Paul is sending him back with this letter which suggests—in an arm-twisting way—that Philemon should no longer regard Onesimus as a slave, but as a brother—and cc’s the entire congregation on the note! Paul pulls out all the stops in convincing Philemon to set his slave free, including offering to pay any debts that Onesimus might have incurred. He vaguely warns Philemon he’s going to check up on him by suggesting that Philemon prepare his guest room. Finally, as the cherry on top, Paul writes, “I say nothing about your owing me even your very self.” Maybe Paul saved Philemon’s life, physically, but it’s more likely that he’s talking about bringing Philemon into the Christian faith.
In other words, while he acknowledges that it will cost Philemon, Paul doesn’t leave much room for him to make any choice other than setting Onesimus free. The price might be monetary—or perhaps a loss in status. It might be the difficulty of re-negotiating his relationship with Onesimus, moving from treating him as a slave to treating him as a brother. In any case, Paul makes it clear that in order to make the choice for life, a costly transformation is required of Philemon.
From our vantage point, freeing a slave seems the clear Christian choice. How could anyone claim to own another human being made in the image and likeness of God? No matter how clear Philemon’s choice seems to be from this distance, we must humbly recall that not too long ago, the buying and selling slaves was commonplace in this country too. And we have to admit that even now, we, too, daily make choices that are consistent with the culture, but are obviously inconsistent with the Gospel we profess to believe. Sometimes choosing life is difficult, and requires sacrifice.
Consider what you have done so far this morning. Perhaps, like me, you began the day by having some coffee or juice and putting on some clothes. Maybe you checked your email or spoke to someone on your phone. In the first half-hour of your day, you have already made dozens of choices that meant life or death for someone else, and you didn’t even think about it. Are the clothes you are wearing made by laborers who were paid a living wage for their work, or were they sewn by children in a sweat shop? Since farm workers are among the most abused workers in the US, can you be sure that the workers who picked the fruit for the juice you drank were treated fairly and respectfully? Did the farmer who grew the coffee beans for your cup of joe see any of the profit? Or (as is often the case) did their crop go through a series of middlemen who reaped most of the rewards? Are the electronics you use made by multi-national companies who avoid paying their fair share of taxes in the countries where they operate?
See? Just in the first hours of this day, we in the US have already, willingly or not, participated in a system that is emotionally, economically, and spiritually destructive to many other people. So what can we do? If we attempted to buy nothing but sweat-free and fair-trade products, deliberating those choices would take up a huge amount of time, and some items we want—maybe even some we need—would be completely off-limits to us. And just try to navigate the tricky trail of trying to figure out where your bank banks!
In an ideal world, laws, trade agreements, and labor contracts would protect everyone and ensure decent working conditions, equitable pay, and respect and dignity for all workers. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a world where we make the choice for death for others on a regular basis and don’t even know it. And even if we do know it, we don’t know how to fix it. We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.
The cross is real. Suffering is real. No matter how willing or unwilling we are to sacrifice for others, sometimes we are going to be confused, overwhelmed, or just make the wrong choices. But the good news is that Jesus knows this about us and still cherishes us and claims us. Jesus’ own sacrifice assures us of God’s love and forgiveness, no matter what, freeing us from the burden of always having to make the right choices.
So, freed to live and love as best we can, let’s be as intentional as we can about choosing life in an ambiguous world. It will cost us, we have to be clear about that. But we can choose, for example, to buy only fair-trade coffee or chocolate, so that we know the farmers who grew the crop were paid well. We can choose to support workers struggling for better pay, benefits, and affordable housing in which to live. We can buy a loaf of bread from the Just Bakery program, knowing that the price tag is significantly higher than we’d pay in a grocery store. And in the most literal way possible, we can advocate for freeing slaves by encouraging our legislators to curb human trafficking for sex or labor that goes on daily in this nation we call “land of the free.”
We are not perfect disciples, but we are powerful. Freed by Christ from the penalty of choosing badly, we have the agency to live our lives with attentiveness and compassion. It will cost us something financially, emotionally, physically or in other ways to live with our hearts and eyes wide open. It won’t always be comfortable. It won’t always be easy. But, my fellow-Philemons, some sacrifices are required of those of us who call ourselves disciples of Jesus.
~Pastor Susan Schneider