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Pentecost 15 Proper 18C RCL September 5, 2010

Pentecost 15 Proper 18C RCL September 5, 2010

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

 This morning, Jeremiah makes an analogy. God is the potter and the people of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, are the clay. In his analogy, the potter has control over the outcome. If the clay is uncooperative and the potter thinks the vessel will not turn out well, the potter can mush the clay together and begin again. Judah is not being cooperative with God, They have strayed. But God the potter is portrayed as being willing to give them another chance if they show signs of wanting to shape up.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is still on the way to Jerusalem and death. He is trying to be clear about the cost of discipleship. Following him would cause all kinds of difficulties. There would be outright persecution by the Roman Empire, and there would also be rifts with family and friends. When Jesus talks about hating our families, scholars tell us the word might better be translated by saying that his followers must be willing to bring dishonor to their families. The new faith would not be held in high esteem in society at large, and following Christ could bring shame to one’s family. It could also bring death in times of persecution.

The Letter to Philemon is the shortest epistle in the New Testament. There is a great deal that is not made clear in this letter.  Paul is in prison.  Scholars tell us that he is either in Rome, Ephesus, or Caesarea. There is reason to think that he is in Ephesus because that was the major city in the province where Colossae, the home of Philemon, was located. Philemon and the other people mentioned in the letter, are part of a house church in Colossae. We need to remember that church buildings did not happen until the third century after Christ.

Onesimus is a slave who belongs to Philemon. Some scholars think Onesimus has run away; some think he may have stolen something from Philemon, but, in any case, Onesimus has gone, probably to Ephesus, and has found Paul in prison and, through Paul’s ministry, Onesimus has become a follower of Christ.

According to the laws of that time, you were supposed to return a slave to his master. Paul is doing this. He is sending this letter with Archippus, and Archippus is escorting Onesimus back to Philemon.

Paul is following the letter of the law, but he is also adding several dimensions to the situation. First of all, in the course of teaching Onesimus about the faith, Paul has grown to love this young man as a father loves his son, and Onesimus has become useful to Paul in his work. Incidentally, Onesimus means useful in Greek.

Paul is probably under a type of house arrest. It appears that he can receive visitors; obviously he can write letters, and he continues to carry out his ministry from prison. Paul writes to Philemon, “Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother…So, if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”

In those days, if there was a dispute or problem, a third party often was asked to intervene. Paul is doing this, and he is saying that, if Onesimus has done anything wrong, Paul will make up for it.

Paul says that he had wanted to keep Onesimus with him so that he could be of service to Paul during this imprisonment but he preferred to do nothing without Philemon’s consent.  At the end of the letter, Paul writes, “Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”

Renowned scholar and theologian John Know of Union Theological Seminary in New York offers some fascinating and compelling ideas on this letter.  He believes that Paul, with great care and delicacy, was asking Philemon to free Onesimus and send him back to Paul. Dr. Knox has come to this conclusion through extensive research into other documents, particularly the letters of Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch in Syria.

What we think happened is this: Philemon did honor Paul’s wish. He sent Onesimus back to Paul in Ephesus. Onesimus was an eager student and he became one of Paul’s assistants, together with people like Timothy, Titus, and Silas. These assistants became leaders of the Church in the years after Paul died (65 A.D.)  One of Ignatius’ letters, written in 110 A. D.,  mentions that the Bishop of Ephesus, a man named Onesimus, came to visit Ignatius when he was in prison! There is good reason to believe that Paul asked Philemon to send Onesimus back to him and that Onesimus became one of Paul’s most valued assistants and eventually was called to be  a bishop. This might explain why, out of all the hundreds of letters Paul wrote, this letter, which is addressed to an individual, not to a church, was saved when people were figuring out what, out of all the writings available at that time, should be placed in the Holy Scriptures.

Paul does not come out and say slavery is wrong.  But this letter makes it clear that, in the church, as he says in Galatians “There is no slave nor free, no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, but we are all one in Christ Jesus.” In the church, we are brothers and sisters. No one should dominate anyone else. There is a new order. 

This letter has great significance for us so many centuries later. Yes, we now realize that one person cannot own another, and that is very good.  But we are also called to treat each other as equals, as precious children of God, as beloved brothers and sisters. This thinking is at the center of the life of Grace Church, where there has been and is such attention to making sure that everyone is valued and included. We do not have slavery today in the United States, but there are so many ways in which there can be subtle or not so subtle power differentials. The gentleness and care and love with which Paul offers his proposal to Philemon should mark all of our interactions as Christians.  So often, the quiet, considerate, thoughtful request or idea, rooted and grounded in prayer, has so much real power and seems so true because it is so true.

Through the intervention of that skilled and visionary pastor, Paul, a slave becomes a bishop. What a story. St. Francis de Sales once said, “Nothing is so strong as gentleness. Nothing is so gentle as real strength.”


Pentecost 14 Proper 17C RCL August 29, 2010

Pentecost 14 Proper 17C RCL August 29, 2010

 Jeremiah 2:4-13

Psalm 81:1, 10-16

Hebrews 13:1-8, 13-16

Luke 14: 1, 7-14


As one commentator notes, out first lesson is a cross between a lawsuit and a lovers’ quarrel.  The year is 626 B. C. The prophet Jeremiah, around 18 years of age, is called by God to tell the people that, after God has faithfully protected them so that they could journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land, the people have chosen the worthless Canaanite god, Baal. Baal was a fertility god. He was said to be the god of rain, which obviously is needed for the growth of crops. The people of God have abandoned the living water of true faith in order to build cisterns to hold the rainwater of Baal.  Rulers and religious leaders had drifted far from God’s values.

Just before our gospel passage for today, Jesus does another healing on the Sabbath. This time he cures a man of dropsy. The Sabbath is always a celebration of God’s leading us out of slavery to freedom. Healings help people to be free.

Then Jesus goes to the home of a Pharisee for a meal. He notices that the guests are choosing the places of honor.  In those days, the men would recline on cushions. The head table was in the center. There the host and honored guests would recline. If someone distinguished arrived late, which, according to scholars happened quite frequently, he would be placed at the center with the host, and another guest would have to move from the center table of honor to the outskirts of the feast.

Jesus offers a bit of practical etiquette by telling us to go to the lowest seat. In that way, the host can always call us to move to the center table if there is room. But Jesus is telling us about a wedding banquet, and this gives us a signal that he is talking about the heavenly banquet. He is talking about his kingdom, his reign, his shalom.  In the shalom of God, the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind will be at the head table, at the place of honor.

Today we read our last selection from the Letter to the Hebrews. The author is summing up.  Written at the end of the first century after Christ, the letter is to a congregation of Jews who have adopted the new faith in Jesus of Nazareth. They have suffered persecution. They have been imprisoned.  It has been anything but easy.

The guidance offered in this passage involves the Christian community.

They are to love each other, no matter what. They are to show hospitality to strangers. Scholars tell us that this refers to Christians who were traveling from place to place. In those days, travel was extremely dangerous.  The Christian faith was spread by people who had to travel on business as well as by missionaries like Paul and Timothy and Barnabas. Visit those in prison. Many members of the congregation had been there, or were in prison when the letter was written.  Be faithful in marriage and in committed relationships. Be careful about the love of money. Be content with what you have. Do good, share what you have. 

The people of Jeremiah’s time, at least the leaders, were drifting away from God. The members of the congregation addressed in the Letter to the Hebrews were trying to live their faith. And that’s what we are trying to do as well.

The writer of this inspiring letter says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Through him, then let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name.”

Retired Episcopal priest Gray Temple writes of this passage, “The work of actually praising God and meaning it is transformative: it changes us. Here is how it works. You come to resemble what you admire. People who admire money get green and crinkly. People who admire computers grow user-unfriendly. People who admire youth get juvenile. People who actively and deliberately admire Jesus Christ come to resemble him as he actually was and remains today, unchanged from age to age: generous, merry, tender, fierce, courageous, somewhat mischievous, fully open to others….” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, p. 16.)

There is a beautiful old hymn which goes like this:  “Turn your eyes upon Jesus/ Look full in his wonderful face/And the things of earth will grow strangely dim/In the light of his glory and grace.”

If we “turn our eyes upon Jesus,” if we focus on him and worship him and ask him for guidance in all things and seek to do his will, and do his will to the best of our abilities, with his grace, we become more and more like him, as individuals and as a community. It’s amazing but true. He lives in and through us. We do as he would do. That’s the journey. That’s the goal. He is alive in us.

Dear Lord, Help us to grow into your likeness more and more each day.


Pentecost 13 Proper 16 C RCL August 22, 2010

Pentecost 13 Proper 16 C RCL August 22, 2010

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

In our first lesson today, God tells the young prophet Jeremiah that God knew Jeremiah even before Jeremiah was formed in the womb and that God had called Jeremiah to be a prophet before he was born. Jeremiah tells God that he can’t possibly carry out this ministry because he is too young. But God puts God’s hand on Jeremiah’s mouth and puts God’s words in Jeremiah’s mouth.

This lesson applies directly to you and me. God had us in mind even before we were born. God created each of us in our uniqueness and called us to our ministries and gave us the gifts we need to do our ministries. Like so many of God’s servants who say they aren’t good enough or strong enough, we may feel inadequate, but we are in good company there. Time and time again, God calls people, and they say, but there’s no way I can do that, and God gives them the gifts they need. God does that with us, too. Each and every one of you is ministering to the needs of others in your daily lives. Each of you has amazing gifts. If I began to name them, the list would go on and on. But at the root of all the gifts which you folks show forth in ministry is that wonderful gift of seeing what others need, seeing what could lift up someone who is down, seeing ways to reach out to others who are struggling, offering a listening ear and a caring heart, helping people to belong, helping people to be a part of things. We may feel inadequate to do our ministries, but God gives us the grace and power to share God’s love and care with others.

In today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, we begin with the early experience of God during the time of the Exodus. The general belief was that one could not see the face of God and live. God was, in a word, terrifying. When God came to Mt. Sinai to give Moses the Law, there was fire and thunder and a cloud which covered the mountain. Moses had to put a veil over his face when he came down from the mountain so the people would not see the light of the glory of God which shone on Moses face and die.

Now we are able to meet God face to face in our Lord Jesus Christ, the mediator of the New Covenant. God has come to meet us. God has come among us. God has become one of us, fully human as well as fully divine. Yes, God is a God of justice. And God is also a God of mercy and compassion.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. There is a woman who has been crippled for 18 years. She is bent over and cannot stand up straight. As a woman and a person who was ill, she was considered doubly unclean. People would not associate with her. This woman does not go up to Jesus and ask for help. Jesus notices her, even though she is the least of the least—a woman and a cripple. Jesus calls her over and says, “Woman, you are free from your ailment.” He lays his hands on her and she stands up straight and begins praising the Lord.

The leader of the synagogue gets upset that Jesus has done a healing on the Sabbath. We need to be careful not to be anti-Jewish when we think about this situation. We in the Church can get legalistic about things, too. Think of the furor about the new prayer book (1979) or the new hymnal (1982), or the various other upsets that have happened in the Church.

Jesus responds with a classic rabbinic argument that goes from the lesser to the greater. Everyone knows that we will take our ox or our donkey from the manger and lead it to water on the Sabbath. Doesn’t it make sense that we would free this daughter of Abraham from her illness?

Yes, it is important to have Sabbath time, time for rest, recreation, and refreshment. But Jesus calls us to remember the meaning of rules, not turn them into new forms of oppression. Here is God’s own child who has been isolated and ill for 18 years. God wants her to be whole and a full member of society.

This gospel is new in the Revised Common Lectionary. One of its many points is that God wants people to be healed and whole. God does not want people to suffer from illness or isolation. The ministry of healing is a crucial part of our life together as a praying community.

Barbara R. Rossing writes of this passage: “By calling to the crippled woman and healing her, Jesus affirms the importance of the physical body and the importance of health. Morton Kelsey, who writes about the changes in the attitude of the church toward spiritual healing through the centuries, notes that of the 3,779 verses in the four Gospels of the New Testament, 727 relate specifically to healing and another 31 verses refer to miracles that include healings. Contemporary attitudes toward spiritual healing are complicated by the questionable practices of some healers and televangelists who prey on the vulnerable. At the same time, spiritual healing and healing services that invoke the presence of the Holy Spirit on behalf of those who are suffering are part of a long tradition within Christianity.” Rossing, New Proclamation, Year C, 2001, p. 174.)

Our prayers for healing make a huge difference. There is substantial research which shows that people who pray and people who are prayed for do better during and after surgery and during recovery from illness. We are called to pray with deep faith that God’s healing power is always at work in people’s lives and that healing will take place, often in ways we could not imagine.

God works through researchers, doctors and nurses, and everyone on a medical team treating a patient. I almost laugh when people talk about the conflict between religion and science. There is no conflict. God gave us brains so that we can find cures, find the right treatment, and do whatever is necessary to help people be whole. In our prayers for our brothers and sisters who are ill, let us remember this gospel and let us remember that our Lord wants everyone to be whole.

Loving and gracious God, thank you for loving us even before we were born. Thank you that nothing can ever get in the way of your love. Thank you for your healing, which makes us wounded humans whole. Help us to have unshakeable faith in your healing power, which helps us to stand up straight and lift our voices in praise to you. In your Holy Name we pray.