Thursday, September 16, 2010

Pentecost 15: Being Useful to God

For some time before the episode we encounter in today’s reading Jesus has had His "face set toward Jerusalem.” This idiomatic phrase means that He is about serious business; business that will take Him all the way to the cross. In today’s reading Jesus is being accompanied by a large crowd. They are enthralled with His teachings, delighted by the way He confronts powerful people, captivated by the healings, and pleased when He blesses scrapes of food and fills their bellies. No wonder there was a crowd, but Jesus wondered if they really knew the cost of discipleship and if they were willing to pay it.

And so Jesus challenges them. “You cannot follow me unless you hate your mother and your father and wife and your children and your brothers and your sisters and even life itself. You cannot follow me if you do not get rid of all of your possessions.” That is some strong talk. Taking Him at His word, more than one preacher has noted that Jesus would not have made a very good parish priest. One or two sermons like this and a rector can expect to hear from the wardens. If we took this seriously there would only be about three or four people left in the congregation and at least two of them would be self-deceived.

If you read on in Luke’s Gospel to chapter 18, Jesus is approached by a member of the ruling class who wants to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells the man that he must obey God’s laws, which the man indicates he has done all of his life. Seeing that the man is wealthy, Jesus then says he must sell his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow Him on the way. This the man is unwilling to do. In response, Jesus utters the famous statement that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven.

What comes next is what I want you to hear. Peter says, “We have left all of our belongings to follow you.” Jesus does not challenge the accuracy of his statement, but accepts it as truth by saying, “I tell you this: there is no one who has given up home, or wife, brothers, parents, or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not be repaid many times over in this age, and in the age to come have eternal life.” Now, we know from other places in the Gospels that Peter was married, had a home, and made a living as a fisherman. He had at least one boat and a supply of nets. And we know that after the Resurrection Peter went back home and went back to work. So it would appear that when Jesus says you must hate your family and sell all that you have He is speaking in hyperbole. He is going for effect. He wants those hanging around Him to know that His number one priority in life is ushering in the kingdom of God and it is to be theirs as well.

For many of them, and for us, that is still a tough sell. A wise saint (I don’t know who) once said that after God meets us as our friend God confronts us as our adversary. That God loves us as we are is a theme I have highlighted in sermons many times, including last Sunday. Yes God loves us, but the question is does God find us to be useful? How can I be generous as God is generous if I spend on myself all the money I have? How can I be compassionate as God is compassionate if I am unable to forgive those who have wronged me? How can I be loving as God is loving if my first priority is to meet my own needs? How can I walk in the truth as God is truth if I live my life as a lie? Yes, God loves you as you are, but that does not mean you are useful as you are.

In today’s New Testament reading we hear about someone who was “useless,” but becomes “useful.” Onesimus was a runaway slave. His name in Greek literally means “useful;” hence the play on words. After running away from his owner, Philemon, Onesimus finds his way to Paul. During his time with the apostle, the slave undergoes a dramatic transformation. He becomes a very real source of comfort and support to Paul who is imprisoned. But this new work will not be finished until Onesimus returns to Philemon and the act of reconciliation is complete.

It is like the wonderful image of the potter and the clay used by the prophet Jeremiah. God is about the work of molding and shaping us into something useful. You and I, we have our rough edges and our wobbly sides. We are a work in progress to be sure. And there are some aspects of our lives, our practices, our beliefs, our attitudes, our behavior, our priorities that simply need to be patted down flat by God our adversary so that a right and new beginning can emerge. You see, God who loves us as we are loves us to much to leave us as we are. God the potter wants to shape us into something beautiful; something (according to the poet of the 139th Psalm) that God has dreamed for you from before you were born.

If you believe this, if you believe that God has a dream for who you might become and how you might help to usher in the kingdom, is there anything you have or own that is worth possessing if it gets in the way of your being useful? Is there any relationship in this world that should not take a backseat to the molding work of the Potter? Is there are reason why the good work God has begun in you should be brought to a standstill?