What is God Calling You to Love? Proper 18 (C)

[RCL] Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

It’s not every day that we read an entire book of the Bible in church. Well, today is no different, but we do come awfully close to reading an entire book from the New Testament.

The book we read, almost in entirety, is Philemon. You may have never heard of it. It only makes an appearance in our calendar of readings once every three years, and that is usually around Labor Day; so if you have missed church that weekend, there is a very good chance you may have never read Philemon. It’s a shame because this little book packs a real punch that we, the Church, needs to hear.

First a little background: Philemon is among the shortest books of the Bible. The letters of first, second, and third John are a bit shorter; but Philemon is number four in the shortest book of the Bible category. It is one of the letters of Paul who wrote most of the New Testament.

Philemon is unique among Paul’s letters because it is written to an individual. In most of Paul’s letters he is writing to a community, a church, like the churches in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Galatia, and Philippi. But Philemon is written to an individual, Philemon by name, as it turns out!

So what we have in Philemon, as we have in all of Paul’s letters, is one side of a conversation. Paul’s letters are a little like overhearing a person’s cell phone call: we hear one side, and we can make out the main point of the conversation but we don’t know what the other one is saying, and we also don’t know why the call was made in the first place.

The letter to Philemon is a mystery, but we can learn a lot with a careful reading. First we see that Paul is writing to someone he knows and loves, Philemon. And not only that, Philemon has a church in his home. This is what the church looked like in the first several generations of the church, believers would gather in house churches. This model of meeting in homes is still practiced widely, especially in places where the church is under oppression and persecution as it was in the Roman Empire.

Since Philemon had a house we might surmise that he was wealthy. As we read along we learn that Philemon actually is quite wealthy because he owned a slave. That slave’s name is Onesimus (O-Nee-si-mus). At one point Paul says to Philemon, the slave owner, that he knows that Onesimus is useless to him. That’s actually something of a cruel joke because the word for useless in Greek sounds a lot like the name Onesimus. Paul likely might be chiding the Christian Philemon for considering and even calling his slave useless.

How Onesimus, the slave, got to Paul is something of a mystery. Paul says that he is imprisoned for the gospel. This is not a metaphor. Paul was imprisoned many times for preaching the improbable and, at that time, illegal gospel of Jesus Christ.

Historians have supposed three possible scenarios: the first is that Philemon, the Christian slave owner, has sent his slave Onesimus to Paul who is in prison, possibly in Rome. Perhaps Philemon sent greetings or supplies.

Another scenario is that Onesimus escaped from his master Philemon and fled to the bustling metropolis in search of Paul. Under Roman slavery it was possible for a slave to appeal to a friend or relative of a slave owner if the owner was abusing the slave; then the friend could appeal to the better nature, if you will, of the slave owner for the better treatment of the slave.

Finally, Onesimus simply could have escaped for good from his owner. This was perilous of course as slaves were not citizens and had very few rights. The slave owner, Philemon also would have possibly been financially ruined as slaves were quite expensive to acquire – anywhere from 300 to 3,000 denarii at the time, that’s somewhere between one year and ten years’ worth of wages.

In either scenario, through this letter, we see that Onesimus the slave has made his way to Paul, has apparently been converted to the faith, and now Paul is sending him back to Philemon.

Now, Paul gets a great deal of criticism from people today because he makes no attempt or statement to usurp, disrupt, or otherwise overturn the evil of slavery. In this letter, Paul does not lay out the immorality of Philemon’s engagement with the sinful institution of slavery. Why? Some scholars say that Paul, and others in the early church, may not have been able to imagine a world without slavery.

In the ancient world, slavery was so pervasive that everyone either knew a slave, owned slaves, or was a slave. But the ubiquity of a sin does not mean that the sin does not exist, what’s going on here?

As we read the letter to Philemon we see that Paul has great affection for Onesimus. He says that he has become his father. It is interesting because it seems that Paul is also something of a spiritual father to Philemon as well. It seems that Paul brought Philemon to faith in Jesus Christ, he says, “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self,” which of course is a passive way of saying, “You owe me, you owe me everything because I showed you the path to eternal life.” So being the “father” of both Philemon and Onesimus, Paul urges Philemon to receive the returned Onesimus not as a “slave, but more than a slave, as a brother.”

Here we see that Paul does in fact level a withering criticism and undermining of slavery. His critique though is not general or abstract, it is personal and relational. Paul is not necessarily trying to overthrow the Roman Empire’s slave trade. He’s overthrowing slavery for Philemon and Onesimus!

Paul, through the relationships that have been forged through Jesus Christ, is overturning one of the insidious, debased, and pervasive sinful systems of his day. We see in this letter to Philemon three people in a new relationship because of Jesus Christ, a relationship that moves across the insurmountable barrier of slave and master: “receive him not as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother.”

We don’t know if Philemon obeyed Paul or not. But we have the letter; and that means that the church, in her wisdom, guided by the Holy Spirit, thinks that what it has to say is worthwhile and is descriptive of what a Christian life should look like. It’s too bad though that we don’t have the next letter from Philemon back to Paul because, as revolutionary as Paul’s command to receive Onesimus as a brother was, it’s in the doing that is most interesting.

What would that reunion have looked like? “Here comes old ‘Useless,’” as Philemon called Onesimus, “Paul has sent him back, but I don’t like him! Now I have to love him?!” Or, what if Onesimus had in fact run away? Now Paul has sent him back. What’s Onesimus feeling now that he has to return to this slave owner?

Perhaps Philemon is humbled, humiliated and ashamed that his sinfulness in owning another human being has been exposed to Paul. The return, the reconciliation, is the hard part. It is one thing to be loving in the abstract, it’s quite another to be put arms, legs, and hands on our love.

So what about you? What is God calling you to love? What injustice are you called to reconcile in actual action? We need to get specific here, because the abstract is a temptation. Abstraction, keeping things general, is a way to keep loving reconciliation at arm’s length.

Systemic racism for example is something we all need to overcome through reconciliation. But we don’t individually address systemic racism; we find the one small way that we can undermine racism in our own small circle. Yes, fight the systemic sin, but don’t let your epic war replace the small ways you can fight in your own small seemingly insignificant way.

This is why the letter to Philemon deserves a wider reading, because it shows how all of us are born into sinful systems, but we can, through Jesus Christ, find the love necessary to reconcile broken relationships, not in the abstract but in the really real lives we each live.

Thank you God for showing us the path of reconciliation; thank you Paul for showing us one way to love; and thank you Philemon and Onesimus for showing us that broken relationships and great evil can be repaired through the love of Jesus Christ.

No go, and do likewise.

Amen.

Written by the Rev. Josh Bowron. Rev. Bowron is the rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte, NC.He holds an M.Div. from The School of Theology at the University of the South and is also currently working on a Masters of Sacred Theology there, with a particular interest in modern Anglican theologians. He enjoys a zesty life with his wife Brittany and their three children.  

Download the sermon for Proper 18 (C).

Freeing our usefulness, 16 Pentecost, Proper 18 (C) – 2013

September 8, 2013

Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 (or Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Psalm 1); Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

Imagine coming to church some Sunday morning and reading an entire book of the Bible. In fact, you just did.

Well, almost. To be exact, you just read, or heard read to you, an entire book of the Bible – minus four verses. So, for the sake of completion, here are the missing verses from Paul’s Letter to Philemon, from which our second reading today is taken.

“One thing more,” writes Paul in concluding his letter, “Prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you. Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”

And that is it.

With barely 335 words in the original Greek, the Letter to Philemon is one of the shortest – and some might say most fascinating – books in all Scripture. It could almost be an ancient text or email message. But in spite of its brevity, it is a useful and instructive work for us today.

Let’s take a look.

To begin with, scholars are universally of the opinion that this is one of the genuine Letters of Paul – not just a letter attributed to him. And it is the only one of his epistles that is addressed, not to an entire church or Christian community, but to an individual.

We do not know with certainty all the details behind the letter – who all the characters mentioned were, where the letter was written, or exactly when – but it is clearly an appeal on Paul’s part for one of his companions named Onesimus, a run-away slave who has embraced the Christian faith and found his way to Paul’s inner circle. Interestingly, his master or owner, a fellow named Philemon, is also a Christian – presumably a wealthy merchant of Colossae, and likewise a friend or follower of Paul.

Paul is here sending Onesimus back to Philemon along with this “cover letter,” asking that Onesimus be treated well upon his return and not be punished for his escape or for any damage he may have caused during his servitude. Paul pays tribute to Philemon with kind words of praise – what Martin Luther calls holy flattery – likely in the hope that, as many scholars have surmised, Philemon should allow Onesimus to return and continue his work and ministry with Paul.

Over all, the letter offers intriguing insight into the life of the early church – the implicit acceptance of slavery, for instance, and the fact that rich and poor alike make up the body of the church.

Curious, as well, is the name of Onesimus, the slave, which essentially means “useful” or “profitable” in the original Greek. It pretty much tells us how slave owners viewed their “property” in those days.

Paul, in fact, engages in word play with the name Onesimus or “Useful,” subtly but forcefully suggesting that Onesimus will be more useful or helpful now, continuing to spread the Good News of the gospel as his companion than as – one assumes – a common laborer or servant of Philemon.

There is also implicit irony in the fact that Paul, the self-described “prisoner of Christ Jesus,” is appealing for freedom and leniency on behalf of Onesimus, the escaped slave.

What to make of it all?

Though Paul appeals to Philemon to treat Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother,” there is little evidence that humankind has ever learned this simple lesson of human dignity and respect. While we might like to think that slavery today is a thing of the past, tragically it is still with us some 20 centuries after Paul wrote his appeal to Philemon; though we in the West are often blind to its existence and insulated from its devastating consequences. Meanwhile, few modern-day exploited workers have an Apostle like Paul to intervene on their behalf.

There is, by the way, no record of what actually happened as a result of Paul’s Letter to Philemon. Was Onesimus freed to continue his work with Paul? We simply do not know. We can only hope that Philemon was swayed by the Apostle’s words and granted Onesimus his freedom. Some ancient commentators even suggest that Onesimus went on to become one of the early bishops of the church. So, perhaps in some spiritual or deeper sense he became “useful” after all in ways previously unimaginable.

Whether we are rich or poor – entrepreneur, salaried or hourly employee, or unemployed – we, too, must become useful. By God’s grace, each of us has the freedom to use our talents and gifts in the service of others in need. “Useful,” then, is for us Christians no longer a pejorative term as it probably was at one time for Onesimus. For us, being useful means living the gospel. It makes us one in Christ and binds us each to the other. Yet it also makes us free – as paradoxically free as was Paul the “prisoner” and Onesimus the slave.

“Prepare a guest room for me,” writes Paul – ever the optimist – near the end of this brief letter from captivity, “for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.” Needless to say, we will never know if Paul got to use that guest room or not. Perhaps Philemon left the porch light on for him – just in case. But it is tempting to envision Paul, the former prisoner, sitting at table together with Philemon, the former slave-owner, and Onesimus, his former slave, gathered under one roof and sharing Christian fellowship and community – possibly even Eucharist – equals at last in the sight of the Lord.

Scholars sometimes wonder how on earth such a short and private correspondence as Paul’s Letter to Philemon could have survived the centuries and made it into the canon of Scripture. If nothing else, it is surely there to teach us once again the infinite value and worth of each individual person – no matter that person’s background, color, sex, age, language, dress, or social and economic status.

Any slave or “prisoner of Christ Jesus” could tell us as much.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedus, a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is currently chaplain of Saint Margaret’s Anglican Episcopal Church in Budapest, Hungary – a ministry of the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe. Please visit and “like” Saint Margaret’s Facebook page. Isten hozott!

Christ who promises to be present, Pentecost 12, Proper 18 – 2011

[RCL] Exodus 12:1-14 and Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Today’s gospel lesson is part of Jesus’ teaching about our life together in community, how it is that we are to live and love within the Christian community, especially when things go wrong. And because we are talking about human beings living in community, we can be fairly sure that things will go wrong.

Our Biblical story is quite realistic when it comes to the ability of human beings to get along. Even two people living in paradise can’t seem to manage it very well. Not only do they sin against God, they also turn on one another, playing the blame game. Once they sin, a gap opens up, not only between Adam and Eve, but also between themselves and God. In their shame, the human beings try to hide themselves with fig leaves from the gaze of their Lord, symbolizing their distance from the God who used to walk with them and talk with them in the garden. The effect of sin makes it hard not only for human beings to look each other in the eye, but also for them to encounter God face to face. And sure enough, as the story of the Old Testament unfolds, God makes fewer and fewer face-to-face appearances. Moses gets to see God, but the after-effects of that face-to-face encounter are too much for the Hebrew people to bear. It just becomes too hard, too painful for humans with our failings and flaws to look on the face of God and live.

But that distance doesn’t keep God away. That’s one of the reasons God came among us, as a flesh-and-blood human, to be with people face to face. Imagine the healing power present in the moment when Jesus looked Peter in the eye and said, “Peter, do you love me?” When he cupped in his hands the face of the woman caught in adultery and said, “Your sins are forgiven you. Go and sin no more.” When he healed the man born blind and the first thing the man saw was the face of Jesus looking at his own with eyes of love. When he appeared, face to face, with the women outside the tomb on that first Easter morning and said, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

The face-to-face encounters of Christians with Christ were not to end when he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. One of Christ’s gifts to us is the gift of community, where we meet our brothers and sisters heart to heart, spirit to spirit, and face to face. Christian community is that place, that way of being, where we know, and are known by, the Love at the center of the community: God, a life-giving, sacrificial, persistent love that calls us to reach beyond ourselves, to realize we are connected, woven together into one body, the family of God. Together, in Christian community we can share grief and joy, sorrow and victory, sadness and celebration. Christian community is a gift.

But it’s a gift we don’t fully accept. Living in community is hard. As that growing sector in our society, the spiritual-but-not-religious folks might put it, “Churches have too many people to deal with; we’d rather just be spiritual on our own.”

But Jesus taught that faith is not a private matter. Spirituality is not something we do individually. Our faith is not something we can go off and enjoy by ourselves all alone, sitting by a stream or walking in the woods. Those things and times of private devotion can feed our faith, but our life in Christ happens when we are gathered together, even just two or three together. That’s when Jesus said he would be with his disciples. Not when they are off alone and feeling holy.

Isn’t it easier sometimes to feel holy when there is no one else around? Life, as Christians, living together in a Christian community is not always easy. We are humans, after all, and while we may have God as our Ground and Guide, the Almighty never-ending source of love, for Whom nothing is impossible, we forget and fail and fall out of love with God and each other.

That’s why Jesus taught and Matthew wrote this eighteenth chapter of the gospel. It’s about how to deal with the fact that we fail. What ought we to do, what would Christ have us do, when someone in the community sins? When someone does something harmful to themselves, harmful to another, something that puts a distance between themselves and God, or between themselves and the community?

The first step is to go to them, face to face. Jesus says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”

Jesus’ teaching here is first about reconciliation, restoration of a brother or sister to the community. It is not about pointing out sin for the sake of pointing out sin. It is not about making us feel better or proving a point. It is about regaining a brother or sister. It is about living together as one family.

In some families, the illusion of harmony is more important than anything else. In some families, confrontation is to be avoided at all costs. In some families, the way hurt is dealt with is to pretend nothing happened, sweep it under the rug. In some families, silence is golden. If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all, and if there’s a problem, keep it to yourself.

Jesus’ instruction for his family is very different. In the Christian household, when your brother sins, you go talk with him in private. And if that doesn’t work, step two is to keep going back, taking other people along the next time, and step three is go back again. Do everything in your power to get your sister back.

If the person does not listen over and over again, then we are not to pretend that nothing has happened. If the person won’t let go of the sin, of what’s causing the harm, of what’s endangering the person or the community, then we are to recognize that one of our members has left the family. We are to notice and lament that our brother or sister is missing from the table. There is distance between us and we should best admit it, rather than pretend not to notice or let that person fester in our midst like an untended wound.

Hard teaching, right? Straight forward enough, but hard to act on, right? Often we prefer a love that is out of focus, filmed in soft light and hazy, not the holy love that takes action and risk and is willing to confront, in love, a brother or sister in Christ. And to confront someone, even in love, is scary.

John Wesley, the great eighteenth-century theologian, realized the risk involved when he used today’s text when members of his parish were gossiping, complaining about one another behind each other’s backs. He said of this first step of going privately to speak directly to someone, to confront him about his behavior, “Do not avoid it so as to ‘shun the cross.’”

Shun the Cross! That’s how hard it might feel to go speak directly, rather than taking the easy way out, using some of our more usual ways of dealing with conflict. You know those ways: Pretend it didn’t happen, try to just let it go. Meanwhile, be awkward around the person. A second strategy is the cold shoulder, avoidance. Don’t say anything to the person, but cross the street to avoid having to meet them. There’s a third strategy, called “revenge.” Never talk about what really happened, but make sure everyone knows somehow that person X is not to be trusted. Don’t talk directly with the person, but let your hurt and anger seep into everything you do and say, poison the air around you, and put more and more distance between you and the person who did wrong.

Distance. That’s the key word here, isn’t it? Community is about togetherness, realizing that we are all connected. Heaven is that place where nothing can come between us and God, between us and God’s love for us. Hell is about distance. In a sermon about today’s gospel reading, the writer Randy Hyde recalls that C. S. Lewis, in his book, The Great Divorce, imagines hell as a vast gray city. It’s a city inhabited only at its outer edges with rows and rows of empty houses in the middle, empty because everyone who once lived in them has quarreled with the neighbors and moved, and then fought with the new neighbors and moved again, leaving streets of empty houses behind them. That is how hell got so large, Lewis says. It’s empty at the center and lived in only at the distant fringes because everyone in it chose distance instead of confrontation as the solution to wrongs done against one another.

We’re back to that word: “confrontation.” It sounds scary, but it really means bringing people face to face, front to front, to talk and hear about what is going on between them. And this is just what Jesus recommends. It seems to be not only the best way to stop the spread of hell, but also the best way of following Christ. Jesus says our relationships with each other are worth it. And he should know. He went to the cross, to take on our sins, to wrestle them away from us, rather than say they don’t matter. He was willing to die and even come back so that we might be reconciled, so that we can come together face to face. So the least we can do is go, sit face to face, talk, listen, go back some more, bring more faces, more ears, let the person know they are so precious, we’re not letting them go easily.

What about when people refuse to acknowledge their sins, change their ways, come back into the house? What if their continued presence in the family would be harmful? Well, then, says Jesus, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Yes, they should be treated as those who are on the outs, those who are outside the family. And here’s the twist: those are the very people Jesus made a special focus of his ministry. He reached out to them with the message that they could turn away from sin, they could come home. Indeed, Jesus was known as a friend of tax collectors and sinners.

There is risk in meeting each other face to face. We might prefer to hide behind fig leaves or whatever is close at hand, rather than take the risks Jesus did. But the story of Jesus and his teaching shows us there is power and promise in meeting each other face to face, especially when we fall, when we fail, when we stumble or hurt. God, who knows every one of us, our weaknesses, our faults and failings, longs to draw us close to God and one another. Someday, maybe, we will even know the joy of seeing God face to face, without fear or shame. In the meantime, we can turn face to face with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and meet Christ who promises to be present when we meet face to face in his name.

 Download large-print version for MS Word

Written by the Rev. Drs. Amy Richter and Joseph S. Pagano

The Rev. Dr. Amy Richter and the Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano are a husband-and-wife team who serve as rector and associate rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Maryland.

Friends and Family, Pentecost 15, Proper 18 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Psalm 139:1-5, 13-17 (Track 2: Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Psalm 1); Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

Somebody once made the remark, “Friends are God’s way of apologizing to us for our families.”

One might ask, How shall we see our way through such a curmudgeonly statement into something edifying? However irritating the attitude, there is a grain of truth in this grouchy remark.

Today’s gospel reading is tough, but a tough gospel lesson is the only kind that can really do what it is supposed to do – proclaim the release of captives from a particularly formidable prison, the prison of a destructive family system.

So here it is once again, in not so many words: “If you don’t hate all your old family members, and even life itself, you can’t be my disciple.”

If we do that, what will we have left? Do we like the direction this is taking us? What good does it do to ridicule our traditional aspirations of being thankful for all that we have received from our mothers, fathers, their relatives, and the people they married? Why isn’t Jesus encouraging us, instead, to help and love our relatives?

We must patiently wrestle with these questions as we consider today’s gospel, and not run around them like an impetuous Ferrari driver behind a string of eighteen wheelers that happen to be blocking the view of our destination.

Often in the gospel, the prospect of discipleship or a commitment to follow Jesus as Lord involves requirements that are a little scary. Here we are being told to abandon our relatives – after all they’ve done for us. Does that seem like the right thing to do? Let’s be patient with ourselves and pray for the grace to be open to the surprising ways of God, so that God can move us ahead with our spiritual development into realms greater than what our past has equipped us to imagine.

Consider the family relationships of two people. Let’s call them Elsie and George. You probably know people just like them. Both Elsie and George came from backgrounds that were very limited spiritually. They assumed that their present and their futures would really not be much different from their pasts. They knew no angels. Their gift of faith had not been delivered to them.

Elsie was the daughter of a very depressed mother, a woman who medicated her depression with alcohol and then would spend days at a time in bed. Her mother’s husband abandoned the family before Elsie was in her teens. She had a younger brother and a little sister whom she loved and looked after. Very typically of the adult child of an alcoholic, Elsie felt she was the cause of everything that went wrong in her midst. In fact, she believed that she was the cause of her mother’s depression.

Similar in some ways was George. George was a gentle spirit who led a tragic life. He felt obliged to step up and expand on his father’s very profitable business as a consultant for factory plant managers. George hoped that if he took on his father’s vocation, his father would finally show George that he approved of him and would give him his blessing. George wanted desperately to have that. But George’s talents were quite different from those of his father. George was miserable for many years, and eventually the business failed and his marriage ended in divorce.

There were churches and ministries in the neighborhoods of both of these people. They sometimes even attended services. But neither Elsie nor George ever realized how God calls all people to understand themselves by a greater instrument than the familiar experiences of their pasts.

We, the human beings that we are, are a people who understand ourselves by the way we experienced and remember the support of, or betrayal of, our critically important relationships in the past. The late British psychoanalyst John Bowlby developed a theory that adult personalities are best understood by the quality of attachments they had in their childhoods. Bowlby believed that adults who, as children, experienced traumatic betrayal of their early attachments, needed healing in order to form the bonds of affection that are generally understood as necessary for healthy living in maturity.

Most of us were fed, clothed, and sheltered in the critical first decade of life by our families of origin. This can even be said of the people in Elsie’s and George’s pasts. We owe our physical survival to the people who raised us.

With that affirmation, though, we must realistically acknowledge that no family of origin is without flaws. Even in the Bible, we see examples of these flawed family relationships: chemical abuse, obsessive-compulsive behavior, domestic violence, pathological behaviors stemming from the hopelessness of unresolved grief, and destructive sibling rivalries are all there, along with their confessions and redemptions.

These flawed relationships are a part of our spiritual histories. Many of us have been guilt-tripped and otherwise manipulated by our family members. We may also have done the same to them. To get relief or perspective, some of us have sought out therapy. Others may attend twelve-step meetings.

Others may prefer to seek support from friends or blow off steam with drinking buddies. Because we seek relief by such activities, we find a grain of truth in that impious remark, “Friends are God’s way of apologizing to us for our families.”

There are friends who, in some ways, act like the Good Samaritan, who bind up our wounds and leave us prepared to think a little more clearly. And by the grace of God, there are other friends who are even more fully like the Good Samaritan, who stay with the broken ones, people like Elsie or George, so that their wholeness can be restored by discovering or recovering the baptismal way, the commitment to Christ’s way, and by understanding the true purpose of his or her existence.

We, as either the ministering, or the ministered to, as we begin our journey through the wilderness of life’s challenges, come to know what is really meant by Jesus’ tough language. As we travel with him, we learn that the flaws and sins in our histories, along with the destructive patterns of behavior they generate, are the things we are called upon to hate, not the souls of the ones who were victimized by them.

In the compassion that comes to us in our new life, we come to understand the spiritual blindness that infected both our relatives and ourselves. That is a far better thing than to let them do what they may have once done: define who we are.

 Download large-print version for MS Word

Written by the Rev. David Somerville
The Rev. David Somerville is a retired U. S. Army Chaplain with credentials in hospital work and the pastoral care of people with the issues of recovery and adaptation after a life-changing diagnosis. He has been in the priesthood for more than forty years, is currently interim priest in charge of Saint Athanasius Church in Brunswick Georgia in the diocese of his canonical residence. He enjoys model railroading, traveling, and tandem bicycle riding with his wife Sherry.

Counting sheep, Pentecost 15, Proper 18 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 or 1; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

It seems that Christians are obsessed with counting sheep. How often do you hear Christians of all stripes asking each other about the size of each other’s congregations? Often we hear folks asking, “How many do you have on a Sunday morning?” We marvel at so-called mega-churches. We feel good when we see a large crowd in church on Christmas or Easter and wish that it was like that every Sunday. A large crowd at a worship service is considered a success.

In our gospel teaching today, we hear that “large crowds were traveling with Jesus.” If Jesus were a good church programmer, he would have dispatched some of the apostles to get everyone’s name, phone number, and home address. He would have made sure everyone felt welcome. Perhaps he would have fretted over his sermons, making sure that each one was a practical, uplifting message that the crowd would come back for again and again. If they were singing psalms, he would have made sure the tunes were easy and appealing to the largest group possible.

Jesus wasn’t a good church programmer. This is because Jesus wasn’t calling crowds; he was calling disciples. Jesus wasn’t concerned with being popular; he was concerned with helping people transform their lives. Jesus knew that no matter the size of the crowd, it was all temporal anyway. It didn’t matter in the larger scheme. Jesus was leading people toward eternity, not temporal things like material success.

When Jesus sees the crowds, his instinct is not to wow them. His instinct is to make each person aware of the cost of being his disciple. It is this awareness of the journey that brings about transformation. He tells the crowd that unless they can detach completely from everything they are holding onto emotionally and physically, they can never really be his disciples. He tells them – and us – that we have to detach from our family systems, from our very lives as we know them. We have to be ready to take up a cross.

This is a familiar message to Christians. We know that this is what Jesus keeps telling us, but when we get overly concerned with our institutional success, we lose sight of the heart of the matter: discipleship.

Jesus is calling us again to consider the cost. When we do not consider the cost, then we are like a builder who makes no budget for a project or a king who makes no contingency plans for a battle; we are bound for lackluster results and frustration.

When we consider the cost of following Jesus, then we will deepen our spiritual lives. We will hold in front of our prayers our need for discipleship, not membership in an institution. When we make discipleship and not the size of the crowd the number-one priority of our life as a church, then we are about making disciples, not growing membership rolls.

When we are counting the crowd and not the cost, we get into the dangerous habit of thinking we are in control of the movement of the Holy Spirit. We begin to think that we can “grow” the numbers. We become proud in our endeavors to draw and keep a crowd instead of trusting in God with all of our hearts. We also get trapped in our frustrations at not being able to draw and keep a crowd. This becomes the major focus of our life together as a church.

God sends Jeremiah down to the potter’s house to make a point: God is the potter, we are the clay. We and our endeavors to be the church are in God’s hands. We are not called to manipulate and manufacture the outcome; we are called to be faithful as baptized ministers of the gospel.

We are to be the kind of ministers that Paul is asking Philemon to be: putting aside our past grudges and our need to be in control. Paul is asking Philemon to begin anew with Onesimus. Paul asks Philemon to do even more than he is asking him to do.

It’s our spiritual and religious task to become good, pliable, usable clay. God makes the pottery. We become good usable clay when we put scripture and tradition at the core of our community. We gather to study life-matters found in the gospel and the teachings found in our Catechism and Baptismal Covenant. When a community places these things at the center of its common life, it can’t help but grow and be fashioned into a beautiful and sustainable piece of pottery made by the Creator.

We also become workable clay for the potter when we apply reason to our study. We study in community so that we can hear and experience other points of view. This will make us grow inside; as we grow inside our discipleship blossoms. As our discipleship blossoms, we become more and more attractive to others. We become pieces of art made by our Creator that others admire and wish to become part of.

If we work primarily on our discipleship, then we will be prepared to minister to the crowd. Then we have something to offer them. Then we will begin to imitate Jesus. In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 9, Jesus sees the crowd and has compassion for them. He sees that they are helpless and harassed like sheep without a shepherd. He reminds the disciples that the harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.

We are called to be those laborers. We reach out to the crowd with compassion. When we encounter the crowd, we let them know that we are offering them the Good News: God in Christ has reconciled us to each other, to God, and to all of creation. We are new creation. We are the priesthood of all believers. We invite the crowd to join us on our pilgrimage. We show them, not tell them, how our lives have been transformed by the gospel and by the sacraments we celebrate. Each of us becomes a catechist. This is the cost of our discipleship. Drawing a crowd this way takes time. Many will turn away. But those who engage will engage deeply and profoundly.

Maybe then we can stop asking each other about numbers and start sharing with others the depth of our discipleship.

This is where we are headed with Jesus: eternal life. Eternity is a long time. Eternity puts all of our anxieties about numbers on Sunday into perspective. Jesus is calling us on a great adventure. It’s an adventure that is full of tension, healing, bold thinking, and new life. It goes beyond our Sunday worship out into our everyday lives. So, indeed, we seek out the crowds not to count them but to have compassion for them. Counting the crowd doesn’t make them stay engaged; showing the crowd our transformed lives brings them to Jesus.

Written by the Rev. Paul DeLain Allick
The Rev. Paul DeLain Allick hails from the plains of Montana and North Dakota. He graduated from Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in 1996, and for the past decade has experienced a wide variety of ministries in the Diocese of Minnesota, serving in Native American, African American, and suburban parishes, as well as campus ministry.