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).