Choose Life: A Sermon for 13 Pentecost, Proper 18
Our lessons today are about the cost of discipleship, which includes making sacrificial choices about establishing priorities in our lives. In our first lesson, Moses is addressing the Israelites as they are preparing to enter the long-awaited Promised Land after the forty-year journey in the wilderness. Moses urges his disciples to “choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.” Moses reminds us that following God involves our own choice. And our faithful response will almost always require a sacrifice.
Our Psalm poetically presents the choices that God’s people have to make – the choice between a life of righteousness and wickedness. In the first Psalm of the psalter, right out of the gate, the message for God’s people is about the choices we will be presented with in our lives. The cost of discipleship involves making the right choice, even when it is difficult.
But it is our two lessons from the New Testament that give us an idea of what these difficult choices might actually look like in our day-to-day lives. Jesus doesn’t mince his words when he says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” And what might carrying the cross look like for Jesus’ followers? In one of his least beloved statements in all of the Gospels, Jesus says, "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.” Back then, and still today in some parts of the world, choosing Jesus had profound financial, familial, and social implications.
But I think that it is Paul’s letter to Philemon that might best demonstrate what sort of difficult choices we are faced with as followers of Jesus. Writing from prison, Paul is sending Philemon’s escaped slave, Onesimus, back to him. But Paul is urging Philemon to take Onesimus back as a free person of equal status. The grounds upon which Paul is making this request aren’t social or political; they are theological. Paul refers to Onesimus as “a beloved brother-- especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” As Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, in Christ “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” In other words, in Christ, all of the world’s labels and distinctions take a back seat to one’s baptismal identity.
This letter tells us that Paul has some sort of authority over Philemon, but Paul says that he wants to place the decision of how to treat Onesimus in Philemon’s hands. Paul doesn’t want Philemon to feel forced into freeing Onesimus. Paul wants Philemon to choose based on his own conscious, informed by his own faith in Jesus Christ. But while Paul isn’t directly forcing Philemon to free Onesimus, he is certainly making a strong case when he says, “So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.”
If Philemon is astute in his faith, he should notice the rhetoric Paul is using. In other words, what Paul is saying to Philemon is what Jesus says on behalf of us to his Father in heaven– “If your people have wronged you in any way (and we have), or owe you anything (we do), charge it to my account. I will repay it.” And that is exactly what Jesus did for us on the cross. He took our debt and made it good...not because of who we are but because of who he is. So Paul is appealing to Philemon on these grounds. And now, Philemon has a tough choice to make. Paul has laid it out for him, and has appealed to their personal relationship which is grounded in their faith in Jesus Christ. If Christ was willing to take humanity’s sin upon him, and if Paul was willing to make good on Philemon’s debt to him, can Philemon do the same for Onesimus?
We must recognize that this must have been a terribly difficult choice for Philemon, because to take Onesimus back as a free person would have had a huge financial impact on Philemon. Onesimus was Philemon’s property in which he had made a financial investment. Onesimus provided free labor for Philemon. So freeing Onesimus was also a financial decision for Philemon. Letting go of that investment would have been the cross that Jesus told his followers that they must carry. What was more important to Philemon, his financial status or his relationship with Paul and his faith community? Sadly, we don’t know how the story ended, or what Philemon decided to do.
But Philemon’s story is our story as well. As followers of Jesus, we have difficult choices to make. Of course, when we hear Philemon’s story with our modern ears, there is no question in our minds as to what the right thing to do is in terms of slavery vs. freedom. I don’t think anybody here would find the choice difficult in terms of is it right or wrong to own another human being. But, the question becomes more difficult when we frame it in terms of finances. In the United States, during the era of chattel slavery, many slave owners came to believe that slavery was indeed an immoral institution. But they couldn’t bring themselves to act on it, and free their slaves, because it would result in financial ruin for them. The way the agricultural economy worked in the South, nobody would be able to compete and make a living if they all of the sudden had to pay their labor. The only way out would be to sell the family farm and start a new career and way of life.
Today, the choices we are faced with might be more subtle, but we still have choices to make. And these choices can affect our lives, finances, and relationships in such a way that they indeed become our cross to bear.
If not already, I believe that we as a global community, nation and individuals are soon going to be faced with making significant sacrifices in terms of environmental sustainability. In order to preserve God’s creation for the generations that follow, our entire economy will need to shift away from dependence on fossil fuels. The automobile industry will continue to have to make major investments in research and development, and we will have to be willing to pay more for our cars – on the front end at least - and perhaps own fewer of them. Communities like ours that have no legitimate means of public transit will have to invest in that area. And those of us who are accustomed to the convenience of driving by ourselves in our own cars might have to learn an entirely new way of getting around. Neighborhoods will once again need to have all they need – schools, churches, and a grocery store – within walking distance. And for this to be possible, communities will need to invest in sidewalks and bike lanes so that walking and biking is a safe, viable option. All of these changes will require us to re-order our priorities, which will include a willingness to spend more money than we are used to spending on ways to make our communities, homes, and workplaces more sustainable.
Until we as a nation get to a place where the issue of environmental sustainability is no longer viewed as a political issue, we will remain in gridlock. As Christians, I think that it is important for us to see this as a deeply theological issue, grounded in our belief that God created the earth, and gave us dominion over it, with a responsibility to care for it as good stewards.
It was the Christian Church that led the way in the Civil Rights Movement. And I that the Christian Church should be a leader in the environmental sustainability movement as well. This is an issue that conservative and progressive Christians should be able to agree upon if we can keep the conversation grounded in scripture and theology and away from politics.
From the beginning of time – as early as the Garden of Eden - God’s people have had choices to make. That is our God-given free will. And oftentimes, the righteous choice will involve sacrifice. Jesus himself had such a choice to make, and he chose to suffer and die on the cross so that we might have life. As followers of Christ, the legacy that we leave will be based on the choices we make. As Moses said to the Israelites in the wilderness, let us choose life so that we and our descendants may live.