Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Year C
Sunday, September 8, 2013
Let us pray: O God, you speak to us in many ways – through tuggings at our hearts, pangs of consciousness, new perspectives to ponder in our minds, glorious vistas of your creation, and the still small voice that reminds us that you are here. May these words I speak be a part of the way in which we immerse ourselves in your presence. Guide them and use them. Amen.
A group of preachers is gathered in contemplation of the passages we just heard – struggling to find a way to make sense of Jesus’ warnings about the cost of discipleship – and the dire warning about family relationships. Is this really what Jesus is about – with a message destined to drive a wedge between family members? Aren’t families in enough stress and tension already without this kind of religious sanction for things to be even worse? Aren’t families among the most important relationships we will ever have, and don’t they provide the template for most of our moral understandings. What then could Jesus mean and what could this passage be inviting us to say?
Not coming to any conclusion about just exactly what Jesus or Luke was getting at, other than to come to the conclusion that being a follower is really hard work and fraught with strained relationships, one of the gathered group says, both facetiously and seriously: “That decides it, I’m preaching on Philemon!”
However, that did not decide it completely, for they still spent time talking about the cost that is a clear message of that passage from the gospel of Luke – what does it have to say about modern day commitment, about attachment to the Christian church, about membership versus attendance. It was noted that Jesus said these things to a large crowd. Was this a way of weeding out the fans from the followers. Was a certain part of the crowd there because they hoped to see some more mysterious miracles, or perhaps even experience a healing of their own – without the faith commitment that Jesus both invited and highlighted among those who were healed. Or perhaps they were there to see the fireworks that often erupted from these two very different religious authorities – the temple leaders and the Pharisees on one side and this upstart upsetter of apple carts – who sometimes disparaged the traditional religious authorities with piercing and direct reference to the will and ways of God – sometimes spotlighted by reference not to the religious leaders, but to the people that hung around on the edge – people with illness, people with little money, people who were spurned in the popular circles. Did Jesus turn on these gathering crowds and treat them with the same critique that he usually reserved for those same Pharisees? Was he trying to make sure that people got the message? This is not a dog and pony show – this is a life changing, life transforming, path I am talking about. If you get it, if you truly get it, it is going to require you to re-evaluate everything in your priority and value system. If family was important to you before, well then, believe me, this is such an important alternative message that it will make you re-think even those relationships.
Let me say that it wasn’t me that spoke the decision to speak about Philemon – but as it turned out, that’s what I’ve done. But it turns out that focusing on that letter from Paul to the businessman Philemon is not a way to avoid the same themes and issues. It’s a kinder, gentler treatment to be sure, and wrapped as it is in a third person letter we might think we can dismiss it by viewing it as interested observers. But as biblical commentaries remind us, things don’t make it into the scriptural record without being to and for us, as much as they are for the characters in the tales, stories and histories.
The letter to Philemon has achieved a certain fame because of its supposed treatment of the issue of slavery. While it does not specifically condemn slavery and whereas we know that slavery was a common practise for centuries beyond the writing of this letter, the case has been made that by calling upon Philemon to treat Onesimus as a Christian brother and by subtly urging Philemon to forgive the punishment that might normally be given to a returned runaway slave, Paul is calling followers of Jesus the Christ to the same kind of priority setting that is much more starkly presented in the passage from Luke.
The connection for me this week was made much more clear by the movie “The Butler” which we had occasion to see on Wednesday evening. Hopefully I won’t be a spoiler by talking about it, but let me summarize the film by saying that it follows the career of Cecil Gains – who went from being the son of a murdered slave to serve eight presidents as a butler in the White House. A major theme of the movie is the relationship between Cecil Gaines and his son, Louis – who have quite different approaches to the struggle for civil rights in the American sixties, seventies and eighties – the wedge between family members described by the passage from Luke. The movie viewer is left wondering which is best – the radical, in your face protests of the “Freedom Riders” and Black Panthers, or the slow and steady pursuit of civil rights through excellence, commitment and dedication. In my viewing this quite clearly represents the difference described by both of our Christian scripture passages today: the passage from Luke which describes radical transformation – to the point of threatening existing relationships and the gentle persuasion and appeal to goodness that is exemplified by the letter to Philemon.
Getting there – where the “there” is a faithful following of the way of God – in pursuit of justice, in pursuit of human rights, in opposition to prejudice and discrimination – is a multi-faceted journey – needing both the radical and strident push and the continual, but relentless raising of issues, especially among the holders and wielders of power.
A particular scene exemplifies this best as Louis Gaines meets with other protesters who have gathered to be inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. Louis expresses his frustration that his father, a butler in the White House does not do more for the struggle for civil rights, and that he is seemingly subjugated by the system to continue the exploitation and oppression that is so fiercely fought by the freedom fighters. But the preacher King reminds Louis that the movement needs people like his father who are changing the system from within – by showing up the system for its ignorance and prejudice and proving that there is no colour barrier in the pursuit of excellence, the commitment to hard work and faithful performance of work responsibilities.
Getting there is a lifelong journey. It is a journey of paved paths where the way is clear and a journey of rocky scrambling where the way is sometimes obscured and requires some decision making about the best way to go. But every step – whether it is the dangerous, risk laden one, or the simple first step on the rest of the journey – is a step on the path towards the faithfulness, the commitment to the justice that is God’s desire for all people. Yes there will be times when it is hard, and other times when we are gently prodded and pulled to follow along, but the journey is ours to pursue. Amen.