Monday, September 6, 2010

First on hate, then on Paul

(A sermon preached on Luke 14:25-33 and Paul's letter to Philemon, given at All Saints Littleton on 9/5/2010)

“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."

When Jesus drops an “H-bomb”, a preacher is compelled to respond...

I want to talk about today’s Epistle reading, but I have to first address the Gospel. It’s not okay to take a chance that someone will leave with the idea that Jesus says it’s necessary and desired for people to hate others.

There are various thoughts concerning this text. Some believe that hate is a poor translation into English from the Aramaic. Some think that these are Luke’s words, not Jesus’. Some scholars believe “hate” means “love less than”, while others link the statement to the conflicts we have when truth confronts love.

I’m not sure of any of this, but I firmly that Jesus is not saying to hate your mother, father, spouse, children. siblings, or life itself.

The key for me, is the word “possessions”, at the end of the passage.

Look closely again at the list: parents, wife, children, siblings, and life. What’s missing? The husband, the father. Technically in the first century, the head of the household possesses the rest.

What I think Jesus is saying that even while our society values certain possessions as signs of blessings, the pursuit of them is morally bankrupt. It’s bound to fail, and it’s not the road of discipleship.

Emille Towns writes:

“In the process of becoming living disciples, we must, as Jesus states, also learn to give up all of our possessions---our need to acquire, our yearning for success, our petty jealousies, our denigrating stereotypes of others, our prejudices and hatreds, and more---and follow the way of Jesus, as we place ourselves on an ever-treading potter’s wheel to examine our thoughts, words and actions. These possessions keep us further and further from the Christlike walk to which Jesus invites us in discipleship.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, David Bartlettand Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, 2010, p. 46)

Now that I’ve done my duty concerning this morning’s Gospel, I now wish to turn to perhaps Jesus’ most influential disciple of all time: Paul.

(Not you Deacon Paul, the Epistle writer.)

Here’s a quick rhetorical question: do you still even remember this morning’s Epistle reading?

Certainly it would have been trumped by the Gospel this morning, but it’s my observations that most Episcopalians have a special scale concerning Paul’s Epistles.

There are the “greatest hits”: Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor 13:7)

There are the benign passages that often seem to ramble, but no harm, no foul.

And then there are the passages that make you wince, that have been used to beat good people up through the centuries.

Paul is problematic for so many of us who hear his words regularly in church. As we hear these excerpts of his letters, many of us our bound to wonder if Paul is the most dour man in history. People must think. “How can this devoted man be so out of touch with Jesus’ message?”

It is easy to dismiss someone whose commentary on particular practices, like women speaking in worship, comes from 2000 years ago. There are, in fact, many things in his letters that can now be easily disregarded, because frankly, the particulars do not concern us.

But before some of you get angry with me for daring to say such a thing, let me tell you why you can safely dismiss certain conclusions in Paul’s letters without dismissing Paul.

Communal living is not easy: especially in times of persecution, newness, and uncertainty. There are lots of things that caused great strife and tension, sometimes even trivial things. Division threatened not just the way of life, but also invited higher authority...namely, the clamp down.

So these young Christian communities looked to Paul: a dynamic, compelling personally that spoke with passion and authority concerning Jesus. They wrote letters, or sent messengers, or had someone observe what was happening, and looked to Paul for guidance.

All of Paul’s letters are responses to what was happening. They are one side of a correspondence. What we have are Paul’s attempts to help a fragile group of people to stay united in trying times.

Retired Episcopal Priest Gray Temple writes:

“Few of us bother to notice that Paul’s first letter to Corinth replies to a stupid letter they have written to him (1 Cor. 7:1), that it is a party in Corinth, not Paul himself, that wants to veil women, or that they, not Paul, wants to hush women in church.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, 2010, p. 40)

What we get as a whole from Paul’s letters are thoughtful responses to the challenges of first century Christian living. In Paul’s responses, there are great insights, there are moments of brilliance, and truth be told, there are accounts of petty fights, compromises, and disappointments.

Thankfully, Paul weaves his foundational understandings into his letters: “There is no longer Jew and Greek, there is no longer slave of free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) This seems to be the ideal, and trumps when Paul chooses a more conventional opinion on a particular controversy.

Still, it’s hard to get to know Paul: the things he is called to respond to limit our picture of the person.

This morning’s letter to Philemon, however, is an exception. It is a short letter: we heard all but the last four lines of the letter this morning.

What makes the letter so critical in our understanding of Paul is that it is not a response to someone else’s letter. Instead, it is a letter from Paul to an individual concerning a situation Paul is directly connected to.

Paul writes to Philemon, a man of some power and wealth, concerning a slave named Onesimus. Both men have become Christians, in at least some part thanks to Paul.

There are some sketchy details that will never be known for sure. We do not know how things came about: Onesimus could have originally been sent by Philemon to help Paul in prison. Onesimus may have run away from Philemon. It’s even possible he stole more than himself.

We also cannot tell for sure what Paul is asking for. Paul may be asking for Philemon to allow Onesimus to return to his slave position without punishment. Paul may be asking for Onesimus to be allowed to return to assisting Paul. Or, Paul may be pleading for Onesimus’ freedom from slavery.

Regardless of the unknown details, what we have here is a thoughtful, compelling, and very human letter from Paul that shows a glimpse of who he really was.

Instead of my telling you this morning what this letter means, it is my request this morning that you get to know the Paul behind this morning’s letter. Observe Paul’s hand in righting relationships. See his concern for both Onesimus and Philemon, and discern what he hopes for them. Consider what Paul is teaching about power and dominance, and what it has to say to us in today’s world.

What does Paul mean when he says of Onesimus, “I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.” Or when he hopes of Philemon, “Refresh my heart in Christ.”

If you have questions about details, by all means ask me, or read what other people have written.

Then tell me what you think, in conversation, by email, through Facebook or the blog.

I’ll do my best to collect and share what we all come up with: and perhaps together we can see Paul in new light.

I’ll send you off with these words from Gray Temple:

“It is way past time for conservative Christians to recognize Paul’s profound challenge to our (juvenile) moralizing aimed at other people. He would have none of it.

It is also way past time for progressive Christians to recognize that Paul is far out ahead of us---and is not only braver than we are but more loving.

Paul is God’s gift to us. It is time we make his acquaintance and risk taking him up on his dares.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, 2010, p. 42)

1 comment:

LKT said...

Oooh! I love the way you handled the hate. And that insight into who's not in the list...I'm going to remember that.