Living in the Kingdom of God right here right now.

A Sermon for Proper 21; Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15, Psalm 91:16, 14-16, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31


In seminary class was asked to participate in an undergraduate sociology study. Everyone was given a date, time and place. I was running late, which was not unusual, even then. As I rushed down stairs, I heard, and half saw a student sitting there coughing. I noticed him, but he didn’t seem to be in any distress, didn’t seem to need any help, so off I went. I took the survey, which seemed kind of pointless; my undergrad degree is in sociology, and I still had some vague memory of how to do a survey. I later learn that the coughing student was the point of the study. The study was to see how many people would stop and help. It turns out that not many did, and fewer seminarians stopped than college students stopped.

One place Angie and I tend to act differently is folks stopped on the roadside with signs looking for help. Angie often stops to help. I rarely stop to help. She tends to take the signs at face value. I am rather jaded and wonder what the scam is. And I have to admit, her ability to see the child of God in anyone is a trait I admire.

Lazarus is the only character in a parable that has a name (Lose) (Hoezee, Luke). His only companions are the dogs that lick his wounds, and unlike today, dogs are held in contempt, just like Lazarus is held in contempt (Clavier). We don’t know how long the unnamed rich man, completely ignores Lazarus. We do know they couldn’t be more different; the rich man is covered in fine purple, and Lazarus is covered in open sores (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). The only time they are equal is that they both die. I expect even their funerals were different. The rich man’s funeral being a grand affair. Lazarus is thrown into a pauper’s grave, perhaps like the scene from the Beatles song Eleanor Rigby

who “died in the church
And was buried along with her name Nobody came” (Hoezee, Luke).

Then comes the great reversal.

The rich man is in Hades, that dark and dismal place in the very depths of the earth; the abode of the wicked (Gaventa and Petersen) being tormented by flames. Lazarus is taken by angels to be with Abraham. The ancient text reads “to be in Abraham’s bosom” and is most likely a reference to the intimacy between Abraham and Lazarus; it is a deep relationship (Lewis). The rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him some water. If you read closely the rich man calls Lazarus by name, he knows this dude. But even now the rich man treats Lazarus as a lowly servant; he refuses to see him as a brother in Abraham. Also, note how Abraham calls the rich man ‘child’ even as he refuses his request; raising the possibility that there is some equality between the rich man and Lazarus we don’t yet glean.

It is tempting to stay here and reflect on the evils of money, which in itself is a complex, simple topic. But that is not where Jesus leads the Pharisees (whom Luke refers to as lovers of money in verse 14). The story ends with Abraham saying that if the rich man’s brothers will not listen to Moses or the prophets, they will not listen to one who rises from the dead. It has an ominous sound particularly when spoken by the one who does rise from the dead. And remember, Luke’s audience knows Jesus has risen from the dead, just as we know Jesus has risen from the dead. So maybe we should start paying attention because Jesus’ story just may be targeted at Luke’s audience, which includes us.

I mentioned earlier that the rich man does not see Lazarus as a child of Abraham. Even though he knows his name, the rich man does not see Lazarus at all. He does not want to see Lazarus. Before you can have compassion for people, you have to see them, (Epperly). When we really see people, when we allow ourselves to learn their names, their stories, their history; when we see their faces, we risk feeling like Jesus so often has; compassion, that gut-wrenching impulse to act.

But we know this. We’ve known it for a long time, and in that time, for all sorts of reasons, we have gotten pretty good at censoring out all those events that create such impulses. The trouble is, even when this censoring is church defined, and it often is, censorship draws us away from who and what God is calling us to be and to do; and after the world passes us by, we discover that we have denied ourselves the opportunity to witness the resurrection moments, to be a part of resurrection opportunities (Lewis).

In fact, we deny ourselves the chance to learn the fullness of our identity. We are who we are through all the those who are around us. I am who I am, because of you. You are who you are, because of Lazarus, who by many other names, is in your life, our life, and when we censor them, we deny ourselves (Epperly).

As I was studying and writing, I continued to have vision after vision of folks whose plight I have censored. Yes, I have helped some folks over the years; but I have censored many as I followed the rich man out into the world. Knowing I have done so it is easy to fall into concern; perhaps even great concern, because as much as I like a fire I don’t want to be in a fire, so what are we to do.

Well if scripture creates, nope I created the mess, scripture just helps me see it, in any case, scripture can guide us, to a new light. In fact, that is what happens in the story from Jeremiah. For years he has been warning that if they did not quit, well, to be honest, quit acting like the rich man in Luke’s story, there would be serious consequences for Judah. They didn’t listen. They didn’t change their ways. And sure enough, there are consequences. The army of Babylon is at the gates, if not rushing the place walls. And suddenly, Jeremiah has the strangest vision, about buying a piece of land.

Sure enough, the next day his cousin shows up to offer him with an offer to sell the family land in Anathoth, which is less than ten miles northeast of Jerusalem (Epperly). Land sales in Jeremiah’s day is not a free market exercise; it is the exercise of family rights and responsibilities of succession to ensure that land stays within the family (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). And Jeremiah has no reason at all to buy this land; he is old; he has no children to pass it on to; Jerusalem has fallen; and everyone who is anyone is bound to be exiled. So what would you expect him to do? Certainly wouldn’t expect him to buy the land, which is what he does. He even orders his secretary to take extraordinary precautions to protect the deeds (Wines).

For Jeremiah Buying the land is a proclamation of hope, that there is a future. Buying the land is an act of faith, he believes God’s word revealed in his visions. Buying the land is an exercise of ministry, when you often do what you do even when you don’t see, because as Paul says “we walk by faith, not by sight.” 2 Corinthians 5:7 (Wines). In short, there is hope, because God is with us right here, and right now.

God wants us to hear and learn from Moses, the prophets and Jesus. God wants us to express confidence for the future, even though at the moment it is unknown (Hoezee, Jeremiah). God wants us to experience the abundance that comes from the community of the un-seeable, the disenfranchised, the hungry, the naked, and those who are in any way oppressed, who are all around us. God wants us to trust in the continuing power of resurrection; not just Jesus’ resurrection, but the resurrection of everyone and everything.

So where do we go from here? I really think in part we keep doing what we have been doing. I think we consider venturing into the neighborhood that surrounds us, one block, one neighbor at a time, inviting people to come share food, a flick, and fellowship on a Friday night. I think we pay attention to the moments we hesitate, and refrain from self-censorship, and reach out. I think we continue as best we can to follow Jeremiah by living in the Kingdom of God right here right now.


Clavier, Anthony. “What Separates Us From Each Other and From God?” 25 9 2016. Sermons that Work.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 25 9 2016. <;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 25 9 2016. <;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Proper 21C | Jeremiah. 25 9 2016.

—. Proper 21C| Luke. 25 9 2016. <;.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 6 9 2015.

Lewis, Karoline. The Bosom Of Abraham. 25 9 2016. <>.

Lose, David. Pentecost 19 C: Eternal Life Now. 16 9 2016.

Rossing, Barbara. Commentary on Luke 16:19-31. 25 9 2016. <;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Wines, Alphonetta. Commentary on Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15. 25 9 2016. <;.




Distrust, Fear, Disaster

A Sermon for Proper 20: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Psalm 79:1-9, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13


The earliest election campaign I can remember is the 1960 Kennedy – Nixon campaign. I recall the phrase “Nixon for President, Kennedy for King.” Fifty-six year later I / we are in the midst of another presidential campaign. Only I am paying less attention than I did all though years ago. I do my due diligence, but other than that I try not to participate. The effort is most apparent in how I deal with related Facebook postings, which is just to flip right on by anything that has the vaguest look of Trump-ish or Hillary-ish. Quite frankly I’m tired of all the vitriol. And in truth, I am very concerned about what is being revealed about the state and nature of our society. Last week David Brooks’ column titled The Avalanche of Distrust explores this morass.

He begins with the high degree of distrust both Clinton and Trump express in their campaign behaviors. He mentions their zero sum view of life. However, they are not alone; they were nominated by similarly distrustful people in convention. He writes: A generation ago about half of all Americans felt they could trust the people around them, but now less than a third think, other people are trustworthy. That distrust, in politics and in life generally, is … self-destructive. Distrustful people end up isolating themselves, alienating others and corroding their inner natures. Brooks continues, that in 1985 10% of people reported having no close friends, and in 2004 25% of people reported having no close friends. The lack of friends corrupts community bonds, and that corrodes intimacy. He believes the intimacy of social media is an illusion and does not build the friendships that lead to deep trust. The lack of friends and intimacy leads to a general loss of trust that leads to fear. In fearful societies, families are less likely to teach their children tolerance and respect. Moreover, the loss of trust that leads to fear leads to isolation and isolation leads to fear; and it becomes a vicious, destructive spiral (Brooks). It all sounds way to close to Jeremiah’s warnings when Babylon is already crossing Israel’s borders.

The people are fleeing from the advancing Babylonian forces, and they are trusting Jerusalem will provide safety It is a false sense of security (Gaventa and Petersen). In spite of her persistent sinfulness Israel expects God will have her back, and they are surprised when it is not so. There is a similar sense of surprise in the US today. We expect either a divine or some moral or legislative force to have our back and are surprised and outraged when we experience that it is not so. An example is the rampant greed in Mylan’s five hundred percent increase for EpiPen that has people demonstrating in the streets (Lipton and Abrams). About a year an ago, after Turing’s acquisition of Daraprim, CEO Martin Shkreli raised the price from $13.50 to $750; a 5,000% price increase (BBC). Everyone was outraged then. Like Israel, we want to know what to do about the threats to our security, be it physical as it is for Israel, or economic and social as it is for us. Jeremiah has a suggestion.

Woven into his prophecies Jeremiahs says Israel must stop pretending that nothing is wrong and acknowledge the wounds that she has caused. They must stop claiming they have the magic words or the special liturgies that will take care of everything. To begin restoring their security they have to listen to everyone’s stories; stories from all the various geographies, and ideologies, and politics, and cultures, and histories. They really have to listen to learn what separates them and us. They have to begin to see what makes “them, the others, so angry.” And maybe then they can begin to understand what makes us so angry (PortierYoung). Only then can they, can we, admit that there is no quick fix; that no king, prophet or physician or politician is going to fix this (Bratt). We are going to need help.

1st Timothy has a suggestion for a first step; that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity (1Tim 2:1-2). It was not unusual for Jews and Christians to pray for public authorities. The difference here is, the inclusiveness is grounded in the belief that God is sovereign and the savior of all people (Harrelson). Praying for the Emperor does not imply or promote loyalty or accommodation to the Empire. The suggested prayers declare God’s authority over all the world (Gaventa and Petersen).

I think this is a good start; however, I’m cautious that it is not enough. I recall the story of Israel asking Samuel to appoint a King for them, who will govern us, and fight our battles for us, just like other nations’ Kings do (1 Samuel 8:5, 19-20). We know how that turned out; a wayward Saul, an adulterous David, and a wise Solomon; who split God’s Kingdom in two setting up the bickering that sets up the pending catastrophe Jeremiah is in the middle of. By the way, this story ends with 10 tribes being obliterated forever, and two tribes exiled in Babylon. Yes, they later return to Jerusalem; but, this chapter of the story ends with the Romans destruction of Jerusalem to the ground. More is necessary and the only place left is Luke with this week’s story of a hero thief (Hoezee, Luke).

You know the story, a rich man’s steward has been a bit greedy and is about to be fired. To secure his future he has all his boss’s debtors write down their debts. We are surprised when the rich man congratulates the steward for his shrewd action. The story unsettles us because it just doesn’t sound like Jesus. Some details may help us understand.

Frist, Jesus parable is not an allegory, so don’t go trying to figure out who is who, it won’t help (Harrelson). The rich man is much closer to today’s Pay Day Lenders than anything else; which as you know are now illegal in AR. Although we don’t know, the steward may have gotten debtors to write the debt down to the original amount; or have them write off his over the top commission (Rossing). The rich man’s hands are tied by the steward’s actions. He does not dare reinstate the forgiven debts, because to do so he would forfeit his honor in the community, and that he would never do (Gaventa and Petersen). Still, what is it that Jesus sees in the dishonest steward’s behavior that is worthy of following?

I invite us to think back to last week and the parable of the tower builder and the King; both stories are about planning ahead. One commentator suggests that what Jesus sees as useful is the steward’s thoughtfulness that leads to his actions that shape his current future (Hoezee, Luke). This is a move in the right direction; however, it also raises the question; “Plan for what from what?”

Let’s begin with a more specific prayer for our leaders, and pray that they “might have wisdom and compassion and follow their ‘better angels.’” If you don’t recall the phrase “better angels” comes from the title of Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature in which he argues that violence has been diminishing for millennia and that we may be living in the most peaceful time in our existence (Goodreads). So, yes, things are difficult, but they not as dire as politicians want us to think, so perhaps we should pray that they quit trying to scare us to death or make us believing that only they can fix this or that problem.

 While we are praying for our politicians, perhaps we should pray for ourselves. Perhaps we should pray that we use our faith to shape the values we use in our daily lives as we run our households and peruse our work and our play (Epperly). In addition to prayer, we can go back to the beginning, back to Genesis and remember that we are placed on this earth to love and care for each other, not to separate ourselves from each other with wealth, status, or privilege, or whatever else (Lose).

After such prayers and such biblical reflection maybe we can see through the murkiness of Jesus’ parable and can come to understand that Jesus is calling us to use the talents and resources we have to build up the kingdom of God. Bankers should manage funds for the up-building of the Kingdom of God. Lawyers should practice law for the up-building of the Kingdom of God. That doctors and nurses should heal for the up-building of the Kingdom of God. That cashiers should engage customers for the up-building of the Kingdom of God. That teachers should teach for the up-building of the Kingdom of God. That students should study for the up-building of the Kingdom of God. That no matter what gifts and talents we have, they should be put to use with shrewdness, prudence and wisdom (Hoezee, Luke) for the up-building of the Kingdom of God (Pankey).

I rather suspect the first effect of our prayers that we will see is how our behaviors begin to change. I know it will be difficult, but God is strong. I know we will wander away from time to time, but God is merciful. I know it will take time, a long time, but God is eternal. Amen


Barreto, Eric. Commentary on 1 Timothy 2:17. 18 9 2016. <>.

BBC. “US Pharmaceutical company defends 5000% price increase.” 22 9 2015. 16 9 2016. <;.

Bratt, Doug. Proper 20CCenter for Excellence in Preaching Jeremiah. 18 9 2016. <>.

Brooks, David. “The Avalanche of Distrust.” 13 9 2016. <>.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 18 9 2016. <;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 18 9 2016. <;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Goodreads. “The Better Angels of our Nature.” n.d. 18 9 2016. <;.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Proper 20C Center for Excellence in Preaching Luke. 18 9 2016. <>.

—. Proper 20CCenter for Excellence in Preaching 1 Timothy 2:1-7. 18 9 2016. <>.

Johnson, Deon. “God is Good, All the Time, Proper 20(C).” 18 9 2016. Sermons that Work.

Lewis, Karoline. Being Faithful In Much. 18 9 2016. < 1/3>.

Lipton, Eric and Rachel Abrams. “EpiPen Maker Lobbies to Shift High Cost to Others.” 16 9 2016. <;.

Lose, David. Pentecost 18 C: Wealth and Relationships. 18 9 2019. <>.

Pankey, Steve. “A Parable About Talents?” 18 9 2016. Draughting Theology.

PortierYoung, Anathea. Commentary on Jeremiah 8:189:. 18 9 2016. <;.

Rossing, Barbara. Commentary on Luke 16:113. 18 9 2016. <;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.




Lost but Found


A sermon for Proper 19: Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28, Psalm 14, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10

Jesus’ parables of the one sheep and a coin are parables of lost and found. Years ago, before seminary was an idea, I got a phone call from Angie. The daycare had called, and our oldest daughter was not a school. They were checking because we had not called to say she was home that day. She wasn’t home. She should have been at school. They sent a driver back to her school. Angie called me; since I had a car phone, I left a client’s office, my briefcase on his desk, and headed to the school. Angie stayed put to coordinate. It turns out a substitute teacher had put G in the wrong place, and the van driver could not see her. Before I got to the school, the Day Care driver had returned to the school, found Ginny, and she was already playing with friends. She was found, and there was joy to go around. Not every story, of missing loved ones, ends like this.

Today is the 15th anniversary of 9-11. Do you remember where you were when you heard the story? I do. It started at home listening to the news as I dressed for work. I kept listening as I tried to work. After a while, I could not stand to be alone, so I went to the Sr. Warden’s office. Together we watched the South Tower collapse, and later we watched the North Tower collapse. Three thousand people died that day. Eleven hundred bodies have never been recovered (Hoezee, Luke). All week I have been wondering what we as individuals and as a nation lost that day, and in the immediate days and months that followed. With that has happened between now and then, I wonder what we have lost in the many, many years since. At times it has the feel of Jeremiah’s prophecy, which is a real bummer (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner).

Each verse from Jeremiah strips away an aspect of creation (Ellingsen). First water, then the wind, or spirit, the breath of God, followed by the light, and the land, and the people, and the birds, and fruit of the earth, one by one everything is laid waste (Portier-Young). Likewise, every event of that fateful morning: flight 11 crashing into the North Tower at 8:46, flight 175 crashing into the South Tower at 9:03, flight 77 crashing into the Pentagon at 9:37, the South Tower collapsing at 9:59, flight 93 crashing in a field in the Pennsylvania countryside at 10:07, and the North Tower collapsing, at 10:28; each event stripped away some aspect of our common identity (The History Channel).

This event, and those like it, compel us, almost force us to see the evil, we don’t want to see. And when we cannot, we are coerced to look again, this time, more closely, more critically, so that we will see the complexity of justice and discover “that evil is greater the sum of its parts” (Bratt) (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). There were some who pondered if such events are a sign of our not knowing, our abandoning God, as ancient Israel had (Jeremiah 14). Some pronounce that we are the fools who no longer believe in God, or at least that there are no consequences for ignoring God (Psalm 14), (Ellingsen). But, even as there may a truth in such doom, neither Psalm 14 nor Jeremiah’s prophecy leaves us in despair.

The Psalmist notes that the Lord promises to restore the fortunes of his people, and Jeremiah reveals God’s word “yet I will not make a full end” (Jeremiah 14:27). These words are reminders that as lost as we may get, we, and all of creation, are precious to God who will not allow us to completely destroy ourselves, each other or creation (Bratt). God, who promises this is not the fate, the destiny of human experience, continues doing what God does, even when it doesn’t look like it (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). And so we come to Luke’s recounting Jesus’ parables of the lost and found.

The story begins with Jesus is talking to sinners and tax collectors. The nearby Pharisees and scribes object. Sinners we understand, all of us can relate to sin. Tax collectors are more difficult; I like our tax collector. In 1st century Palestine, they are enemy collaborators, working for the occupying Roman Empire. They are also frauds, frequently collecting more than prescribed by the Empire (Ellingsen). Hence the objections to Jesus welcoming them.

There are some subtleties in Luke’s story. The emphasis of the parables is finding. It cannot be repentance because sheep and coins can’t repent (Hoezee, Luke) (Jacobsen). The action verbs reveal God’s agency; the sheep and coin don’t act, God acts (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). They story of the lost coin reveals that God is a relentless seeker. There is the story of Allan. Allan has been wandering from doorstep to shelter, to hostel and no one knows for how long. One night he stumbles into a Salvation Army Shelter. Someone comes through calling out for Allan Roberts. He looks up “I am, or I used to be.” “Your mother is on the phone.” “How, she doesn’t know where I am? “I don’t know, but if you are Allan Roberts your mother is on the phone.” She has made arrangements for him to fly home. “She hadn’t known where he was, she just called every shelter and hostel for months until she found him” (Hoezee, Luke). Allan’s mother is persistent; God is relentless. But why is God so relentless? One coin, one sheep, one person cannot be that a big deal? Or can it?

Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, teaches that neither the flock nor the sheep can be whole when separated. When we are separated from God, we are not our whole self (Epperly) (Benoit). The woman looks for the coin because all ten matter to her. Likewise, everyone, everything matters to God (Epperly). God is the champion of the lost (Hoezee, Luke). God is a seeker, everyone counts, you count. God wants to find you; God misses you when you are missing  (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner). But unlike you and I, who have limited resources, tire out, get distracted, or lose hope, God is limitless; the divine can seek all the lost at the same time, without distraction, and with eternal hope.


So, to those eleven-hundred families, to any family, whose loved one’s remains have never been found, to those who are lost, you are not alone; God seeks your beloved, God seeks you. And yes, events like 9/11, and other tragedies, do reveal the existence of evil. They do expose the complexities of justice. And yes, the causes that are part of such catastrophes are interweaving. They reveal something of our and the other’s relationships with God and each other. But such darkness is not the end of the story, God seeks, you, God seeks all of us in the knowledge that everyone, everything will be found, and creation will be complete, will be whole once again.

There is a calling in all this. my colleague, Steve Pankey points out that when Jesus ‘welcomes’ sinners and tax collectors, the deeper meaning of the word is ‘receives,’ a far for intimate word. Jesus puts his purity, which today we would understand as reputation and or social respect at risk. Steve ponders if we should go beyond being a welcoming church and be a receiving church. He ponders if we are willing to follow Jesus and risk our reputations, are we willing to risk being changed by those who just might be lost (Pankey). I ponder if such a risk creates moments for all of us to find God in the other, only to discover, that through the eye of the other, God is in ourselves, and thereby recognize that together we are known to God, that we have been found and that there will be, there already is, great celebration here and in heaven.


ABC News. “Heroism of ‘Man in the Red Bandanna’ Detailed in New Book by.” n.d. 11 9 2016. <;.

Barreto, Eric. Commentary on 1 Timothy 1:1217. 11 9 2016. < 1/3>.

BENOIT, ARLETTE. “Will you seek God today? Proper 19(C).” 11 9 2016. Sermons that Work.

Bratt, Doug. Proper 19C Jeremiah. 11 9 2016.

Ellingsen, Mark. Proper 19 | Ordinary Time 24 | Pentecost 16, Cycle C (2016). 11 9 2016. <;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary – The Seventeenth Sunday after. 11 9 2016. <;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Proper 119 C 1 Timothy. 11 9 2016. <>.

—. Proper 19C Luke. 11 9 2016. <;.

Jacobsen, David Schnasa. Commentary on Luke 1:39-45. 11 9 2016. <;.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 11 9 2016.

Lewis, Karoline. Dear Working Preacher Lost and Found. 11 9 2016. < 1/3>.

Lose, David. Pentecost 17 C: Joy! 11 9 2016.

Pankey, Steve. “More than Welcome.” 11 9 2016. Draughting Theology.

Portier-Young, Anathea. Commentary on Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28. 11 9 2016. <;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

The History Channel. “9-11 timeline.” 11 9 2016. <;.




Onesimus Labor

A sermon for Proper 18: Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33

Tomorrow is Labor Day which is set aside to honor those who literally build America. Among the builders, I include teachers, secretaries, house and grounds keepers, maintenance worker, and all those folks who get stuff done. They are not always who we think they are. Way back I remember Richard Dreyfuss in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Duddy was working as a waiter at a summer resort trying to make contact with important people. He wasn’t getting his orders out like he wanted to. He spoke to the maître d’, nothing changed. He spoke to the executive chef, nothing changed. He spoke to the resort manager, nothing changed. One day he noticed the cook had a bottle on a shelf just above the stove, which he drank from frequently. The day Duddy walked by and left a new bottle on the counter in front of the cook, and his orders came quickly. It is not always the people at the top who get things done.

The last 40 years have been a challenge for American labor, trade, and working folks; many are not doing so well. Income has been flat at best; many people have experienced a real decline in spending ability. The children of Baby Boomers and GenXers are the first to do less well than parents. To say why is difficult. There are complex economics factors. There are interweaving social issues that confuse explanations. International relationships and trade deals are problematic. Election season rhetoric doesn’t make things any clearer. All these and more are parts of a vague understanding, or non-understanding, of the state of American Labor.

As I see it, one of the biggest factors is the results of commoditization of everything; food is a commodity, heath care is a commodity, education is a commodity, and now labor is a commodity. Employers relationships with the people who work for them are more and more determined by what profit they generate. The commoditization of everything is a great loss to our society. It a major change from how Jesus, Paul and the Prophets understood faith.

Today we segregate our faith from the rest of our world. There is Church and our relationship with God. People talk about how “I love Jesus” or how “Jesus in my heart” and so forth. Then over there somewhere is the relationship with the rest of the world; customers, suppliers, employees, are all commodities we use to bring profit to us and the cost to them irrelevant. This is what Jesus is speaking to the crowd about.

These and related verses are often referred to as defining the cost of discipleship, and they are hard to hear. Who wants to sell everything you have to be a Christian? Who wants to ‘hate’ their parents, or siblings, or best friend? A language point; the word translated ‘hate’ means something more like “make a lesser priority” so you can make God’s purpose the greatest priority (Ellingsen) (Hoezee, Luke). If ‘hate’ means something slightly different, perhaps the rest of Jesus’ teaching is a little different.

Jesus is prodding the people to consider if their relationships are based on their relationship with God and Jesus or based on something else. He is clear that change needs to be made, and these changes will require sacrifices (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner). However, not all sacrifices are the same; some lead to death, and some lead to life (Lose). Gary Gunderson in Leading Causes of Life notes that we are good at seeing threats and responding to eliminate them, but we are not so good at seeing the causes of life and supporting them (Gunderson and Page). Jesus calls us to make sacrifices that lead to life. And yes, even these sacrifices are difficult (Lose). And the ethical decisions that emerge from these sacrifices, as full of grace as they may be, are not cheap (Epperly). To carry the cross is to carry the burdens of a life that is committed to bringing the Kingdom right here right now (Lewis). To carry the cross is making choices that require some wisdom, and being careful to be sure we don’t confuse family’ values with Kingdom values (Hoezee, Luke) (Jacobsen). Such wisdom requires that we realize, as Jeremiah is telling Israel, the choices are ours; the enemy doesn’t control this, God doesn’t control this, these are our decisions.

The treatment of trades, labor, working folk, customers, suppliers, and anyone else is what Paul is addressing in Philemon. Even though Onesimus may not have been a runaway slave, we must still acknowledge Philemon was, and at times still is, misused to justify slavery. After our confession and apologies, then we heed Paul’s words (Barreto). We must confront the same question Paul confronts Philemon with; how are we treating people? Do we treat everyone as a brother or sister in Christ? After deep reflection and honesty, we must deal with whatever we discover separates us from others. Carrying the Cross is a commitment to the radical reorientation of the community’s understanding of the Onesimuses of the world; employees, customers, suppliers, neighbors near and far, whoever we may commoditize as individuals or as a nation. These people are no longer merely a cog in the machine of “it’s just business”; they are now a beloved kin (Barreto). This means all of us in this room, in the parish, our community, our county, state, country, and in the world; who are so good at finding ways to put down, oppress, take advantage of, or commoditize Onesimuses to our advantage irrespective of the cost to them, are called to undermine whatever demeaning ways Onesimuses are viewed and treated as less than our friend in Christ (Hoezee, Philemon). Everyone struggles to build a Jesus like relationships and to receive everyone as a beloved relative. In Jeremiah’s words, by the work of our own hands we are all miss-shaped pots.

It is a foreboding thought. However, Jeremiah’s message is clear, Israel’s life is not fixed, Philemon’s and Onesimus’ lives are not fixed, our lives are not fixed. Our lives are like pots of unfired clay (Portier-Young). Nothing has been predetermined. When Israel turned from good to evil, disaster and destruction came. When Israel turned from evil too good, disaster and destruction are averted. When we turn from evil to righteous behavior disaster, and destruction will fade away (Portier-Young). Turning from evil to righteousness includes changing our relationships with the Onesimuses of the word.

There are competing forces that shape us as individuals and communities. We are formed through righteous beliefs and virtuous actions. We are malformed by greed, abuse, and raw ambition. We are persuaded by suggestion and temptations. Yet we are resilient, we do remarkable good, and are open to deep conversion (Portier-Young). Jeremiah tells Israel, the choice is theirs, walk in God’s ways disaster is averted; continue to reject her moral responsibilities and disaster is assured (Bratt).

Even though Jeremiah is speaking to individuals, his message is to the nation (Bowron). His message is also for us, as individuals and as the communities we are a part of. Therefore, we have a two-prong challenge seeing and changing our own behavior, and seeing and insisting the leaders of our governments, businesses, churches, whatever, change our communities’ and organizations’ ethics and behavior. And as much as I have fussed about it, this is the season to make that voice known, at the ballot box. So in the next 8 weeks or less, with conscious, prayerful discernment, glean God’s calling and then vote your conscious (Episcopal News Service).

It is easy to see doom and gloom on the horizon; there are enough talking heads spouting one form or another of the end of times. But, as I said, Jeremiah is clear, when we change our behavior the disaster we face will fade away. We should also remember that we are not alone. The 23rd Psalm walks us through the valley of the shadow of death, walks us through any darkness that threatens us, assuring us that God is always with us. Even as our strength wanes, we can trust in God’s strength … as we look forward to the resurrection and the life of the world to come (The Episcopal Church 357).


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Bowron, Josh. “What is God Calling You to Love? Proper 18 (C).” 4 9 2016. Sermons that Work.
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—. Proper 18C Luke. 4 9 2016. <;.
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