Lectionary 23C (September 4, 2016)

“Whoever does not hate father, mother, wife, children, siblings, even life itself cannot be my disciple.” What do I hate? I hate the Baltimore Ravens. And I have good reasons. My hatred is perfectly rational and grounded in empirical evidence. I can show you position papers if you want. I am a Ph.D., for crying out loud! I know what I am doing! Football is not a “safe” topic, for me and for many others. As George Carlin once said, “In football, during the game in the stands, you can be sure that at least twenty-seven times you were perfectly capable of taking the life of a fellow human being.” Is that the hate Jesus wants? Carlin of course famously compares football to baseball, and notes the “kind of picnic feeling” in the stands at a ballgame. Baseball is usually a “safe” topic. (I know that it doesn’t seem to apply if we’re talking Dodgers fans versus Giants fans, but that’s an anomaly.)

For many of us Church was always a place of safe topics, or at least was supposed to be. And there are plenty of churches offering safe topics. I don’t mean safe places in which to discuss tough or controversial topics; I mean safe topics. The relationship with Christ is broken down to one-on-one, and is wholly spiritualized. Faith becomes all about how I can succeed in life. How can I get ahead? Today’s text from Deuteronomy can be read this way: If you do the things listed in the Law, God will bless you and you will have nice things. If not, God will curse you and take away the nice things. It is almost a caricature of the religion we attack in adolescence, and yet it is “safe.” It is safe enough that often when folks leave the church, they continue believing this way just without God. Of course the world is not that simple.

If we dig into Deuteronomy 30 just a little bit, we find complexity. The text probably comes from the reign of Josiah. A century before Josiah, Assyria forced Judah to become their vassal. But lately, Assyria has been having problems, and the army and the tax man don’t really come around anymore. Egypt, the other big power, she ain’t what she used to be, either. So Josiah wants to assert Judah’s power, to move away from having to show obeisance to Assyria’s gods. Instead of turning to Egypt’s god’s, we’ll become a truly independent state. So he appeals to Judah’s national epic, the stories of flight from Egypt and entry to the promised land. Deuteronomy reflects a desire to recover and reconstruct Judah’s past, and is delivered as sermons (from Moses) exhorting the people of Judah to embrace Josiah’s reforms. This isn’t about me leading a good life and getting rich; it is a political leader promising success to those who follow him. For the record: Josiah’s plan for Judah goes wrong when he is killed in battle by the Pharaoh, Judah crumbles and falls to Babylon, and Israel’s theologians are left trying to figure out who is to blame. So it also turns out to be a formula that doesn’t work.

We can—and many do—read Deuteronomy 30 in this “prosperity gospel” sense—do the right things and God will prosper you—but the reading fails. It fails in part because Deuteronomy 30 is about a group and not individuals; it fails in part because it is too simplistic a view. God is actively participating in the lives of over 7 billion people on Earth, and that’s just the life we know about. Is God really gonna put me ahead of billions of other if I pray a certain way? And what about the ones who pray in the same way but don’t get ahead? Am I to reject them? No. The faith of Christ always points us to the neighbor, not away from him. And that makes things complicated.

The Letter to Philemon is as good an example as any. Philemon, the man, is is wealthy enough to own slaves and a house that serves as a meeting place for the Church in his city. Paul brought Christ to Philemon. Now, Paul is in prison (somewhere) for preaching Christ. In those days, prison is a hole they throw you in while they try to figure out what to do with you. They don’t take care of you. Paul depends on having people visit him with food, a change of clothes, whatever. Well, Paul gets a visit from Onesimos, who is Philemon’s slave. Onesimos becomes Paul’s helper, bringing him food, news of the world, maybe running errands for him. This is great for Paul. Onesimos isn’t visiting because Philemon sent him, but because he has run away from Philemon, and hopes that Paul, as Philemon’s patron, may help him. We don’t know what happened in Philemon’s house; we only know that Onesimos decided his chances were better with a guy currently in prison than they were with Philemon. While Onesimos is lying low with Paul, Paul converts Onesimos to Christianity. We following so far?

Then, Paul gets the idea that he is going to send Onesimos back to Philemon with a letter saying Philemon (as a Christian) should not own a Christian slave, and should free Onesimos. Paul wants Christian community. Paul knows that he can force Philemon to free Onesimos, or can just free him himself as Philemon’s patron. But Paul wants Philemon to want Onesimos to be free. So Paul appeals to the freedom Philemon has in Christ. Philemon knows that he is freed from sin and is filled with the Holy Spirit to refresh the saints. And he knows that in Christ there are no divisions, no ranks or factions, but only brothers and sisters in Christ. So how can a Christian own a Christian? Paul asks Philemon to accept Onesimos—who ran away probably because Philemon wanted to kill him—to accept him as a brother, not just in Christ, but legally; he offers to pay for whatever damages Onesimos caused; and he mentions he wants the guest room made up because as soon as he gets out of jail he is gonna come see how well his idea is working. Paul puts all of this in one letter, addressed to the whole congregation, and likely read aloud in worship the next Sunday. That must have been an interesting morning.

There is a deeply personal element to what Paul does: Christ is offering Philemon freedom from carrying whatever issue he’s got with Onesimos. Christ is saying, “Phil, this is consuming you and is preventing you from having a full relationship with another human being, and while it might seem easier just not to talk to him it would be better for you to let go.” There is also a deeply communal element to it: Christ uses Paul to tell the church at Philemon’s house, “Christians should not own other Christians, because Christians don’t put themselves ahead of other people.”

Paul wants community in Christ, and community in Christ means not ranking ourselves, either by our own private tally of who has wronged us, or by officially recognized social divisions. The faith is not a matter of getting ahead. And that is what Jesus is talking about when he says we must “hate.” “Hate” here does not mean seething anger over wrongdoing—perhaps what Philemon feels toward Onesimos; rather, hate is meant in the archaic hyperbolic sense of not showing preference. In Christian community, we do not rank our friends, family, or even ourselves above others. More than that, we actively work not to rank our friends, family, or selves above others. It’s not simply a matter of not asserting ourselves. It’s a matter of asserting the equality of all brothers and sisters in Christ.

That is why we have rainbow flags on our doors and have reaffirmed our Reconciling in Christ status. So many churches claim that Christians are ranked ahead of the LGBT, that it is not enough just privately to shake our heads; in Christ, we lift up the LGBT as equal to all brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s why working in Valparaiso for racial justice matters. Our city’s history of redlining and its current difficulties in racial matters both internally and in the broader Northwest Indiana context are such that we cannot privately bemoan the situation and then go about our business; so in Christ, we lift up people of color as equal to all brothers and sisters in Christ. The same goes for any people or group maligned in our culture: women, the disabled, those struggling with addiction, the depressed, basically that whole list of people for whom we pray every Sunday. In Christ, we lift them up as equal before Christ.

Lifting up those the world ranks low is not a “safe topic.” But it is the topic to which Christ calls us. When Philemon accepted Onesimos as a brother, Philemon’s house became a very interesting place to hang around…and Philemon walked closer with Christ because of it. So too, our walk is never simple, but it is close to Christ when we walk in community, equal before Christ.