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Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

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

Take up your cross, the Savior said, if you would my disciple be; take up your cross with willing heart, and humbly follow after me.

What a wonderful rallying hymn for us as we gather today on Labor Day weekend, the hinge between summer and fall. A whole new year spreads out before us, and here we are with willing hearts, gearing up to begin the journey. Ready to pick up our cross and follow. Ready for that cross, the one we’ve identified, the nice small one that fits in our pockets and doesn’t inconvenience us too much, that doesn’t draw too much attention or look weird. That cross. Where was that, exactly? Oh right, here it is, tiny and gold, fashionable even. Phew. Ok, I’m ready. Where are we going?

But hang on. What was it Jesus was saying in that gospel we just heard? Something about hating your family, waging war, building towers, and giving up all your possessions, and that’s how to be a disciple? Maybe this cross won’t fit in our pockets after all.

Many of you noted the NY Times piece last Thursday on the Anglican Church in Australia, and its ongoing divisions over human sexuality. The piece had some inaccuracies, it must be said, in particular mixing up some comments by Archbishop Welby. And actually, if you were paying attention to the fact that the Lambeth conference was happening this year – when all the bishops of the Anglican communion around the world gathered together outside of London – you may have noticed that there weren’t really any notable statements or decisions on human sexuality this time. Rather, most of the bishops affirmed the complexity of the issue, and the real, deeply held theological convictions that go into the diametrically opposing views across the church. But the bishops also found so much common ground, about the love of God, the life-giving good news of the gospel, and the need to reach out in mission and ministry to the world. It’s hard to hold all that together, more than a newspaper piece can do. St Michael’s, and the Episcopal Church that we are a part of, unequivocally affirms the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people, in marriage, ordination, and the life and leadership of the church. And yet within the family of the church we share with others who strongly oppose that. Whether institutionally we will be able to do so for much longer is still an open question. It is complicated to follow Jesus, and even more so to stay in community with others who believe they are following Jesus too.

So in that spirit, I’m drawn to the epistle we heard today, the letter to Philemon. It’s not often that we hear a whole book of the Bible read aloud at once, but today we did, or nearly all of it. This short little letter is a masterpiece of artful persuasion and diplomacy. The story, at least what scholars have pieced together, is this: Paul is writing to Philemon on behalf of Philemon’s slave Onesimus, whom Paul has met while in prison, and whom he has converted to Christianity. Pause to note that slavery was prevalent in the Roman world, with possibly up to 20% of the population enslaved. People were enslaved for a wide variety of reasons, including capture in war or debt, and were regarded as the property of their owners while enslaved, sometimes subject to physical and sexual abuse. For the early Christians, slavery obviously became problematic, as both enslaved people and masters might be part of a worshiping community, brothers and sisters in Christ. So with this Onesimus, who, it seems, escaped from his master Philemon’s household with stolen goods – and yet who now is part of the Christian community, as is his master. So Paul finds himself in a rather delicate situation, with this new disciple who has stolen from a fellow Christian and should make amends, but who is still legally enslaved by this fellow Christian. Paul has to do something, and so he writes this letter and sends it along with Onesimus back to Philemon, appealing to Philemon to forgive his slave.

Paul doesn’t come out and tell Philemon to free his slave. But he artfully reminds Philemon of the debt he owes to Paul, the very saving of his soul. Paul allows Philemon the opportunity to act ‘on the basis of love,’ to voluntarily act out of generosity and charity towards one who has wronged him. It’s Philemon’s free choice to act appropriately, but Paul is pretty clear what behavior he expects of him. And to bring the point home, in the last lines of the letter (the part we didn’t hear), Paul asks Philemon to prepare a guest room for him, as he intends to visit shortly – probably to see if Philemon has indeed done what Paul is asking of him. And he sums up with greetings from Epaphras, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, who are all obviously up on the situation and waiting to see whether Philemon behaves as well. No pressure.

But that’s the whole of the epistle. On the surface, it is merely a letter, an artifact of church life, of a few individuals working out a complicated issue amongst themselves. And yet it made it into the New Testament canon – someone must have found something important for all of us in this letter. (That someone, by the by, may actually have been Onesimus himself – there was later a bishop of Ephesus named Onesimus, who was responsible for collecting many of Paul’s letters together …it may well have been the same person.)

The gospel passage, by contrast, seems so stark and absolute. ‘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.’ Luke is the only gospel to state it quite so starkly – in Matthew the parallel passage says only that the disciple must love these things less. But in Luke, Jesus says ‘hate.’ Here’s the cost of being a disciple, Jesus says: actively turn away from your family and your obligations to them, lay down your life, and, oh yes, give up all your possessions.

But aren’t Christians supposed to be all pro-family and stuff? The thing is, family meant something very different in Jesus’ culture – families were complex webs of obligation and inheritance, units of social cohesion that kept everyone in their place, doing what was expected of them. You simply didn’t do something if the family didn’t agree with it; the honor and wealth of the family depended on the individual members playing their appropriate roles. And you didn’t even have an identity outside the family – a free-floating individual person without family ties was either highly suspect (if he was a man) or completely ignored (if she was a woman). So deciding to follow a charismatic rabbi, believing him to be the Messiah, radically changing your life because of what he taught and did – all of that meant breaking quite dramatically with the power your family exerted on you and the power you had because of them. Loving your spouse, children, father, mother, because they are children of God like you – and not because they and you are bound together by power and obligation and need – that’s still a pretty challenging idea, even in our individualistic culture. Consider the cost indeed.

Which brings us back to that letter to Philemon. I think the reason it ended up in our scriptural canon, as something to be read in church on a Sunday, is that it describes so well the tension of living the Christian life in community. Even as the gospel spread through Paul and the other apostles, they were having to work out just what it meant to people’s lives as they preached it. Jesus didn’t prescribe a whole new rule of life in minute detail – he laid down a challenge, showed us what it looked like in his life, and left his followers with the Holy Spirit to help them figure out for themselves how they would live it. That’s why we’re still having arguments about the Christian teaching on things like abortion, or gay marriage – Jesus didn’t lay out what to do in every situation. The early letters we have from Paul, writing even before the gospels were composed, show those early followers in the midst of that figuring. Philemon, who according to Roman law has had his possessions stolen by another of his possessions, is now called to realize that this possession, this slave, is his brother. ‘Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while,’ Paul artfully writes. And you know how Philemon will have to respond, being on the receiving end of a letter like this one, and with Paul on his way for a little visit.

In our honest moments, we can all think of ways our lives don’t quite match up to the absolute clarity of Jesus’ teachings, ways that we are heavily compromised with our wealth, our possessions, our relationships. But sometimes we need others to help us see that truth, hard though it may be. And we can certainly honestly see ways we are not freely loving and caring for all of our siblings in Christ, in our own families and in the larger family of the church. Family is complicated; the church family no less so. As we grow in the faith, we constantly come up against our own limitations and blindness – not least of all in how we deal with one another.

But we don’t do this journey all alone; and we don’t do it all at once. We come to church to work on our stuff with other people; we join small groups to know one another more deeply; we reach out to Christians and other neighbors around the world to keep learning, sharing, and growing our understanding of God’s desires for us. We carry our cross together, with one another, with God’s help. Awkward and messy as it might be.

Our hymn’s second verse says it well: Take up your cross, let not its weight fill your weak spirit with alarm; God’s strength shall bear your spirit up, and brace your heart, and nerve your arm. God’s strength will help us; God’s strength, through others, will carry us. Amen.

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