Sermon delivered at Ballard First Lutheran Church, Seattle, WA
Maddy and I would like to thank you for your awesomely warm welcome, especially the flowers and the lovely care package we found in our apartment. We’ve been venturing out to different spots and using the gift cards, and really beginning to settle in here. So thank you, again.
And thinking about welcome, and being preaching for the first time. You know, everyone, my urge climbing up here having shaken all of your hands, having received your warm welcome—the urge is to do everything perfectly right, and to please all of you! And to hit this sermon out of the park.
But reading about Jesus wanting us to hate our families and renounce possessions, the honest truth is that these three readings really confuse me, they’re upsetting and more than a little confounding.
So, this morning I would like to take a simple look at the three lectionary readings together: from Deuteronomy—from the Old Testament, from St. Paul’s letter to Philemon, and from the Gospel lesson according Luke, all together, simultaneously, and see what they are saying about our relationship with God, and God’s relationship with Us.
And I’ll say from the get-go there is a complicated and paradoxical core to these Scripture readings. It is the idea of choice. Do we choose God? Do we choose life? Can we choose to become disciples of Christ?
Are we capable of accepting the risks of following a crucified God? A God who is raised to new life, yes of course, but the suffering of the Cross always looms between us and the resurrection.
Let’s walk through these readings together.
So, A little context for this reading from Deuteronomy— The Israelites have been marching around in the wilderness for 40 whole years. 40 Years! The Promised Land is in sight. That goal of their escape from slavery in Egypt—the promise that God made to Abraham and to Isaac and Jacob. This is the biggest possible deal for the Israelites.
And in our reading this morning, God says IF—a big if—if you obey the commandments of the Lord (by loving the Lord, we know the commandments, right? Don’t do hateful things to your neighbor, love God only, mmhmm), do these things and you will keep the land.
The land here I think is more than just land. It is an image of all things good. A good relationship with God, Pastures of plenty, Safety, Happiness, The American-Dream sort of, for these 40-years-wandering Hebrews. So God is making this a choice. God says, “You have a choice here!” and a word from this Scripture reading sticks out to me. “Today” You have a choice, today, to choose life, to choose God. Who wouldn’t choose life??
Today, you all chose to come to Church, to pray with your brothers and sisters, to thank God for God’s goodness, and to receive God’s bounty in the Lord’s Supper. Today! In some ways this reading is very hopeful, you know, it makes us feel like we made the right choice. [Ok… feeling good! Here we are.]
What’s more: Earlier in this chapter from Deuteronomy, a couple verses before the section for today, God says, “It’s not hard!” God says, [quote], “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away…the word is very near you to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”
Ok, God! I choose life! Who on Earth would choose death? An easy choice, right?
But, (there’s a big but here) if you know your Hebrew Bible, your Old Testament, You might remember that, well, once the Israelites got to the Promised Land things did not go well. And starting with the Book of Joshua after Deuteronomy, through Judges, and through all the stories about the Kings of Israel and Judah, up until the Exile, it’s a long story of Israel’s bad decisions.
The story ends in woe.
The Israelites, for better or for worse, lose the land. They get violently kicked out by foreign conquering powers. Their temple is destroyed.
Did they choose death?
I thought God made the choice easy? If they lost the land, then how easy was the choice then? I’m stuck on this.
This one passage by itself seems like a clear cut thing. Choose to follow the commandments of God. Choose this and you’re ok. But looking at this passage as a part of the entire Bible makes it more complicated. A lot of biblical scholars think that this very book, the book of Deuteronomy, was written much later than it purports. And that this thing I’m stuck on, apparently the Hebrews were stuck on as well. Written at a time when the Kingdom of Israel was in eyes the of some going to hell in a hand-basket—and breaking all of God’s commandments, and the land was slipping away.
Some believe that all this “choice” talk is all an explanation after the fact. If we take this passage from Deuteronomy in that context, it seems like the cards are stacked. The Israelites thought they had chosen God, but when adversity came, they re-wrote the story (so-to-speak) to say that they were being punished. So where is the choice?
Ok, Let’s turn to Paul.
The context for this one—Paul is in prison for being publicly Christian. Paul was moving around in the Roman Empire telling folks about Jesus, maybe 20 or 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection—this was a time when the Roman Empire was pretty hostile toward Christians. It killed and tortured them at the worst, and at best they were completely misunderstood and lived in the shadows.
A Christian way of life that we modern, American Christians might not be able to relate to very well…
So, from prison Paul is writing to this fella named Philemon because Paul has bumped into Philemon’s run-away slave named Onesimus. Paul is writing to say that he is returning Philemon’s slave—who Paul has converted—and to say that he has grown very fond of him.
So Paul is expecting Philemon—who according to customs of the time would have been very angry and wrathful towards Onesimus (and, furthermore, killing or punishing Onesimus would have been completely within his legal rights)—to restore Onesimus’ freedom, and treat him as beloved brother. Hm.
What does this have to do with choice? Well, many Biblical scholars don’t quite know why this very small letter—we read the entire book today, it’s just a little guy— is included in our Bible. Maybe this is the important part: Paul reminds Philemon that he must behave mercifully toward Onesimus out of voluntary love—out of voluntary love.
But twice Paul intimates that he could force Philemon—Paul says he might command Philemon in Christ—to do the counter-cultural thing that he asks. But, Paul won’t. He won’t force him. Paul writes, “in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.”
This is reminding me of God’s presentation of choice in Deuteronomy. The important thing is that Philemon chose to be graceful to Onesimus. But wait. Paul is being so manipulative if you look closely. It’s like when right before someone insults you they say, “Well, no offense, but you’re a terrible person.” Whaddya mean ‘No offense’? What?
Paul says I could command you, and you do owe me your life in Christ, (presumably because he converted and baptized Philemon), and Paul says I’m confident in your obedience, but having mentioned that, I won’t mention it.
Where is the voluntary nature of the choice now? Philemon is completely stuck, he has no choice. Or if he has a choice, it’s to choose to have no choice. Is that confusing? I’m confused.
You see what I mean about these readings?
Something we might hold very dear to us about our faith is that it’s a choice that we chose. That given the option of God vs. no-God, we chose God. These readings today are complicating that picture of voluntary faith I think. These readings might be suggesting there is a back and forth between God choosing us, and us choosing God.
Maybe you’re not used to preachers telling you that their confused. Or that Scripture says two things at once. But Christianity is a confounding thing sometimes. And we are all, I believe, called to struggle with this thing called Faith.
Ok, so, bear with me now.
Let’s plow into the Gospel reading and draw some conclusions.
Jesus, too, talks in some paradoxical terms. In today’s Gospel from Luke Jesus seems pretty sober at first. “Many” people are following him the text reads—that makes sense considering all of the crazy miracles and healings Jesus has performed up to this point. So imagine a huge crowd, a messy throng of people of all ages. He’s got his 12 with him, and then there’s 12-hundred or maybe even 12-thousand all around. Some more context: in this Gospel according to Luke Jesus is now on his way to Jerusalem, toward what only he knows is the Cross and his agonizing death. Jesus wants these large crowds to understand what God is like and what following God entails.
Jesus seems at first to be warning his followers about the choice they are making. But if we look a little closer are these crowds really choosing yet? They are just following out of sheer delight and amazement. Maybe you remember when your kids were very young, or if you yourself have some young kids. Do little ones actually choose to want McDonalds, or candy, or toys or whatever? Or are the commercials and the social pressures to want these things just too overwhelming for their developing brains? In this reading, Jesus seems to be warning these amazed and delighted people.
Jesus says if you choose to continue to follow me some harsh things are going to happen. He says the way you see the world will forever change. So what is Luke’s Jesus saying are the conditions of the choice?
In Deuteronomy, our Old Testament lesson, God says the conditions are if you do the commandments then you get life and prosperity. Here Jesus says almost the opposite. He says hate your family, hate life itself, and renounce all your possessions, and only then you can be my disciples.
This is curious, if not kind of horrifying. Because the choice from Deuteronomy is to choose life. And if I’m not mistaken, here Jesus is saying that to choose discipleship is basically to choose… death.
It’s all flipped around. It’s confusing!
I wonder if it’s possible that the “life” from the Old Testament reading, is not the “life” we think it is. But then Jesus goes on to make a pretty logical example: No one builds a tower without enough supplies because it’s embarrassing, it’s silly. No one builds a condo without enough plywood, it’s bad for business. And, Jesus notes, no one fights a war they can’t win, because then the loss of the soldiers is just pointless and pitiful. It’s just a waste.
Maybe my reading is wrong here, but Jesus seems to me to be kinda sad here.
He’s saying: “Nah, you’all can’t finish this tower, and you can’t win this war. You just do not know what will happen to me in Jerusalem.”
And who can say they have chosen this path of discipleship? Not even Jesus’ own disciples were perfect followers. Every one of them at the cross scattered and denied him.
Just like the Israelites broke their covenant with God and lost the land.
Just like Philemon, Paul may speak of choice, but he simultaneously commands with compulsion.
What started as readings about choice, have turned to reminders, I think, of our paralysis in the face of God. Do these lessons really end in confusion then? What is God saying to us about choice and discipleship?
One of my favorite professors from seminary has written: “Our minds are constantly trying to bring God down to our level rather than letting [God] lift us into levels of which we were not previously capable.” This seems so relevant to these readings.
What happens if we look at these three images of choice from Scripture with this idea of God lifting us in mind. As opposed to us grabbing and yanking God down to us with our good decisions, with our good behavior, what if God is not something we puzzle out and bring down to us?
God is a three-fold person who grabs us and brings us up into God.
Luke tells us very clearly that if you follow Jesus, you follow him to Jerusalem, to the cross; to powerlessness. But as we read on in the Gospel of course, we learn that no one can follow Jesus this way. That after Jesus goes alone into death, Jesus comes back, and visits his disciples, and eats with them and forgives them.
This sounds an awful lot like Sunday morning. Jesus shows up, God forgives us, God joins us at the table. So, God in Scripture reminds us that as simply Humans we stand to lose everything. Everything from relationships to possessions to our lives.
But scooped up by God, and baptized as Christians and followers of God, we also stand to gain everything in a new and different way.
These readings show just how complicated a thing it is to choose to follow God today, to Choose this “Life” today, and everyday. You have to ask yourself, is it our choice alone to figure out God, to please God, or does God lift us up in a kind of Blessed Confusion?
Thinking back to Paul’s letter to Philemon. Paul is not saying you have to do this good thing, Philemon. Paul says, now that God has chosen you and you have chosen God, It is not your duty. Instead, you get to do it. It’s a privilege, it’s freedom.
We have to trust, somehow, against our better judgment, that behind the Cross is the Resurrection. That behind what feels like our choice, God the Holy Spirit is guiding us. And, yet, behind what may feel like God forcing us is still our choice.
Christianity is a confounding thing sometimes. And we are all, I believe, called to struggle with this thing in us called Faith.