Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, September 4, 2022

YEAR C 2022 pentecost 13

Pentecost 13, 2022
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Well, I might as well come out and say it.  I sure wish somebody else were preaching this morning.  But when the readings seem difficult, we just need to try to figure out what’s really going on here.  So, today I’m going to have us look closer at Paul’s letter to Philemon and the words of Jesus in Luke’s gospel, because I think they’re both telling us a similar thing.

First off though, have you ever seen the Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises?  There’s a scene where these prisoners are trying to climb out of a pit.  And each time someone tries, they tie a rope to them, in case they fall making the final jump.  But the rope prevents them from actually making that final jump, and so they always fall.  It’s not until the young character tries it without the rope that he is able to make the final jump to freedom.  The thing that everyone thought was keeping them safe was actually the thing that prevented them from being free.  Keep that story in mind as we move forward here.

In today’s gospel reading, we have to look carefully at a couple of key words and phrases.  And the first of those is the word that gets translated as “hate.”  As we heard, Jesus says, “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.”  This is a case where the chosen word is too extreme for the original Greek word; but there isn’t a substitute in Greek.  The Greek word misw’ in this context means something like, the one not chosen.  Like if you asked whether I wanted coffee or tea and I said, “I will have coffee and hate tea, thanks.”  I don’t despise tea, I just prefer coffee.

So when Jesus says we must hate our families and even our own lives, he is not saying that we should despise them or wish them harm.  He is saying we have to be willing to give those up to become his disciples.  To choose Jesus over all else.  Or, to return to the Batman example, to jump without the rope.  We think the rope gives us security, but it also prevents our being free.

We can see this more clearly in the two examples he gives.  At first blush, these seem like practical advice when it comes to building towers and fighting wars.  Which is our first clue that they are not practical advice about building towers and fighting wars.  Jesus is using these two examples to show us how we normally act.  He’s saying, “Here is how business is usually conducted, and I am anything but business as usual!”  

Both the examples he gives are answers to the question, “What’s in it for me?”  How will I maximize self preservation and avoid embarrassment?  How do I get the largest return on my building investments and retain the most land in a conflict with another nation?  What kind of rope should I tie to myself before I make the dangerous jump to freedom?  Jesus is saying, “You normally make this kind of careful calculation in order to save yourself, but I am telling you that you cannot save yourself.”

And then Jesus says, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  It’s not a rule or a barrier to being his disciple.  He’s just stating the way things are.  He is not saying, give up all your possessions and then I will let you be my disciple.  No, rather, what he’s saying is that your possessions will prevent you from being my disciple.  The possessions are like the rope in the Batman movie.  You cannot be free unless you “hate” the rope.

And Paul’s letter to Philemon fits nicely with this whole idea.  But from the start, I just need to be clear that the slavery involved here is not necessarily the same as the slavery we imposed on people from Africa at our country’s founding.  We don’t know the details, but it is likely that Onesimus is more like an indentured servant than a kidnapped and abused person.  And that’s important to remember, because it’s not like Paul is sending him back to a cotton plantation in Georgia to be whipped and beaten.

So, Paul writes this letter to Philemon with a very strange tone to it.  It sounds a bit like the grade-school principal offering a kid the chance to admit to having done something wrong.  “You know, George, I could get the other kids to rat you out for breaking the classroom window with a snowball, but I’m giving you a chance to do the right thing, George.”  That’s just a totally hypothetical example from, say, Beech Avenue School in Niagara Falls, NY back in the 1970s.

Paul writes, “though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.”  You know, I’m giving you the chance to do the right thing here, son.  But here’s what I find really interesting about this whole letter.  Paul could easily have just kept Onesimus with him, wherever he is.  He could have commanded Philemon to let Onesimus go by keeping him by his side.  And yet, Paul forsakes, gives up, or “hates” Onesimus so that he might be truly freed by someone else.  There’s the sure win of keeping him safely by Paul's side, but then Onesimus would never actually be truly free.  Only in risking his fate to Philemon can things be put right.  It’s a huge gamble, and yet it’s the only way.

What Paul does is like starting a tower without counting the costs.  It’s like going into battle against an army that will overwhelm you and take your land.  It’s like climbing up out of a pit without a rope.  THAT is the cost of discipleship.  Truly forsaking all and taking up your cross to follow Jesus.

And where does taking up our cross lead us?  Well . . . to death.  All of us face certain death.  Oh, we might subconsciously think we can work around it, by clinging to our youth.  We might obsess over eating better food, getting more exercise, plastic surgery, whatever.  Adopting good habits might help us live longer, sure, but eventually we’re all going to die.  And that’s where it all comes together for us.  

All the things we cling to in this life will be left behind when we die.  All the possessions we have collected, and all the people we love, and even our mortal bodies.  You can’t take it with you.  And all of those things we hold dear are like the rope in the Batman movie.  Like the careful planning before starting to build.  Like holding on to Onesimus rather than sending him back to Philemon.

Because at the grave, none of that stuff matters.  Only Jesus matters.  Only Jesus will reach down into each one of our graves on the last day and pull us up to freedom and resurrection.  All we have to do is let go of everything, and . . . well, in death we have no choice in the matter.  The great equalizer will ensure that we have nothing to hold onto but Jesus.  There is no rope.  We are holding onto Jesus.  And the best news of all is that Jesus is holding onto us.  We need not fear death because we are disciples of the one who has destroyed death.

We have Jesus, and Jesus has us.  And nothing else matters.


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