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The Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost | Proper 18 | St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin |4 September 2022 | Jeremiah 18:1-11 | Psalm 139:1-17 | Philemon 1-21 | Luke 14:25-33

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight O God who calls us to costly change.

Friends, happy Labor Day Weekend, and happy 13th Sunday After Pentecost. Today’s scriptures take us to a difficult place. They remind us of the very great demands that God makes on our lives if we choose to be disciples. They’re about how we’re called to deep change that will cost us.

In Luke, Jesus asks us to take up our cross with him, and to count the cost of following. In Philemon, we overhear St. Paul asking a Christian slaveholder to radically transform his relationships to people and property. In Jeremiah, we see the image of God as a potter, and we face both the fear and the hope that we can be remade. In Psalm 139, we pray with a poet who is hovering between terror and delight in being known by God. There’s no easy way here.

So today we’ll walk through each one of these words from scripture, and we’ll see what we can learn about the costly change that is demanded of us, and about the God who holds us in love through the terror and hope of it all.

We’ll spend a moment with our Gospel to set the scene. We’ll take a deeper dive into the cost of discipleship in Philemon. We’ll look at the good news of God’s transformation in Jeremiah. And we’ll let the Psalmist take us home to God’s love that carries us through every hard thing God asks of us.  

In our Gospel today, Jesus says discipleship comes at a cost: It will demand our possessions. It will endanger our most valued relationships. We talked about this a few weeks ago when Jesus said he came not to bring peace but division. Jesus isn’t telling us to be hateful toward our families here—I think it’s stark language to make a point about the high stakes conflicts Jesus will stir up, where we’ll have to take sides for God’s love. We’ll have to choose justice over false peace.

Jesus says that following him could even demand our lives. And some of the people hearing him in that moment did give up their lives for Jesus. Our context is different today, and not many of us now expect to suffer that kind of physical violence for our faith. But counting the cost is not a relic of the past. We are still called to a faith that costs us something. Jesus still demands deep change from us—change that leads to conflict and sacrifice.   

In our epistle, we see some of the deep change Jesus is talking about in action. St. Paul writes to Philemon about someone named Onesimus, whom Philemon had held as a slave, and he asks Philemon to change course.

There’s a lot we don’t know about Paul’s letter to Philemon. We’re overhearing one part of a conversation, and we try as best we can to piece together the story behind it. Philemon held Onesimus as a slave, and Paul sends this letter back with Onesimus to Philemon. Paul asks Philemon to treat Onesimus as a brother in Christ.

Reading between the lines, it’s likely that Onesimus had escaped from Philemon, and possibly stolen money from him in the process. Then on his travels as a fugitive seeking freedom, Onesimus met Paul and became a Christian. Another possibility is that Onesimus was traveling with Philemon’s permission to help Paul in prison.

It’s also not totally clear what Paul is asking Philemon to do when he asks him to treat Onesimus as a brother. Some readers think that Paul is asking Philemon to forgive Onesimus for running away and to treat him better when he returns to serve again.

There’s a good case that instead, Paul asks Philemon to formally release Onesimus and no longer hold him as a slave. He says to welcome Onesimus the same way St. Paul himself would be welcomed, and he says Onesimus is no longer a slave but a beloved brother. He cranks up the pressure by including church leaders in the letter. I want to believe that St. Paul was asking Philemon to free Onesimus.

But whether or not Paul had gotten there yet, we can trust that the liberating God we follow did not want Onesimus or any other human being to be treated as property. And it’s certain that Paul saw Onesimus as a fellow child of God before anything else. Paul asked Philemon to treat Onesimus as a beloved brother in Christ. That would have been a deep change, a seismic shift.

Changing this relationship meant a very practical cost to being Christian for Philemon. Philemon believed that another human being belonged to him as property, as a unit of labor to direct as he saw fit. St. Paul asked him to transform that relationship and to see Onesimus in all of his God-given glory and dignity as a human being.

Philemon thought he could own another person, and Paul asked him to transform that relationship, to give up what he thought belonged to him, and to see a beloved brother in Onesimus. That is a better life together in Christ; it’s good news. But it’s a hard change.

And friends, we are also called to transformations this deep and this costly and this liberating.  I wonder what that call to costly transformation looks like now, when we read a letter about an enslaved person on Labor Day weekend. I wonder what it means when we read a letter to a slaveholder here, in a church where many of us are financially comfortable and most of us are white. What costs of discipleship do we need to count here and now?

We might have different ideas about that, and I’m here for the conversation. From where I’m standing, it looks like a good start would be to shine a Gospel light on our relationships to labor and property and human dignity.

Those of us who are workers might need to reflect on how our labor lines up with dignity and flourishing for us and for the world. We might be called to individual changes or collective action or both to make our work better for us and for our fellow creatures.

Those of us who are white might need to reflect on how we benefit from the legacy of labor stolen from Black people and land stolen from Indigenous people in America. When we really dig into that, we might be called to give up things we thought belonged to us, in order to build a future where all kinds of people can flourish in their God-given dignity.

We all might need to ask some hard questions about who makes our clothes and who grows our food, and who does all the labor that holds up the lives we live. When we get far enough with questions like that, we might start to hear a call to change how we consume. We might hear a call to act in solidarity with those whose work sustains us. We might hear a call to move toward a world where we all can flourish.

We might hear a call that has a cost in our daily lives. And we might disagree on what exactly we’re called to do here, and what the cost of discipleship looks like in this moment.

That’s okay, and we can work with those tensions together. The world is complex, and it’s not always clear how best to follow Jesus when it comes to the practicalities of money and votes and labor and possessions and dignity and flourishing.

But we know for sure that following Jesus has a cost. St. Paul’s letter to Philemon tells us that the cost is high, and the cost is material. It’s not only an internal struggle or a spiritual battle (though we’ll have plenty of those too).

God will ask us to give up things that we thought belonged to us. The Gospel will ask us to embrace as beloved brothers and sisters and siblings the people we didn’t think were our kind of people. Discipleship will reshape our relationships, and it will impact our bottom line.

If it doesn’t, then it’s time to ask hard questions about the authenticity of our faith. If we’re not called to change in ways that matter, can it really be Jesus we’re following, or is it something else?

And this metric of realness doesn’t mean we seek out suffering, or that whatever feels good and easeful has to be wrong. I’ve preached before and I’ll keep on preaching: God’s dream for all creatures to flourish includes us. God wants us to be fed and free and full of delight.

When we baptize a new Christian, we pray that God will give them “the gift of joy and wonder in all [God’s] works.” God wants that for all of us. Our happiness is a good and holy thing whenever we can find it in ways that harmonize with other creatures’ flourishing too.

And the fact of it is that not all God’s creatures are flourishing right now. Some of God’s beloved children work in sweatshops. Some of God’s beloved children are flooded out of their homes as the climate changes. Some of the ease and convenience in our own lives comes at a cost to others who labor on our behalf, and at a cost to “this fragile earth, our island home.”

We need to discern our call and count the cost in this moment. Because there is a cost already being paid by others for the way the world works right now. So what cost can we pay to make it even a little bit better, as disciples of Christ? As people committed to God’s love for all creatures, what burdens might we lift from those who can’t afford what they’re paying right now?

Deep change needs to happen for all God’s creatures to flourish in their life and labor. Deep change needs to happen for us to honor the dignity of every human being and to help God’s whole creation flourish.

And friends, the good news is that the kind of deep change we need is possible. We are capable of being transformed. This is the good news behind Jeremiah’s oracle at the potter’s house. This is a stark call for repentance, but it contains a word of hope for us. In this image of God as a potter, the potter does not throw away the marred clay.

The potter does not give up when the shape goes all wrong. The potter takes the same clay and reworks it into a new vessel. And God does not give up on us, or on this world. No matter how far out of line things seem to have gone, no matter how impossible it seems to get from where we are to where we need to be, God is with us. God is transforming us. God is making us into something new and useful and beautiful.

In God’s hands, we are capable of deep change. This is the truth that the prophet Jeremiah offers us today, and it is a truth that is both hopeful and terrifying.

In some ways it would be easier if we could just say that change is impossible and move on. Being transformed is really hard. There might be dark times in our lives where we’d honestly rather be thrown away than be remade.

But God isn’t going to throw us away. God sticks with us. God loves us. God transforms us.

God is with us wherever we are in our transformation, still loving us and calling us and claiming us and changing us. God knows us, and God chooses to be with us wherever we are. Our Psalm speaks to that.

We find our Psalmist today hovering between terror and joy at God’s transforming presence. At first it seems like the fact that God is everywhere is a terrifying truth. At first it seems like the Psalmist wants to run away from being known by God: Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? There is nowhere to hide from God. It can be a fearful thing to realize that God knows exactly who we are, exactly where we need to change, and God is everywhere.

But eventually, the Psalmist finds a different tone about being known by God. The Psalmist turns to God’s lovingkindness, God’s care, God’s leading. There is a safety and a peace in being known and loved exactly as we are.

If I take the wings of the morning

And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

Even there your hand will lead me

And your right hand hold me fast.

The Psalmist realizes that God is everywhere, and that God is here to lead us and guide us and uphold us in love. God takes joy in us. And then, being known exactly as we are is a good thing. Encountering God wherever we turn becomes a source of hope and comfort for the Psalmist.

And we can claim that same hope and comfort, even as we count the cost of discipleship. God will never throw us away; God will remake us and our world. God loves us, wherever we are in our transformation. Even as God demands our all, God gives us the strength meet that call.

So friends, let us walk in that strength and love. In that strength and love, we discern together in community; we reckon the cost of this calling together.

We commit our own labor to God’s leading as we move toward a world where all work has dignity. We seek our own freedom and flourishing together even as we dare the deep change it will take for world where every creature can flourish and be free.

  The costly change to which God calls us gives life abundant, even as it asks us to give up what we thought was ours. God holds us in love through every conflict; God feeds us in abundance through every loss. Even when we feel ashamed or inadequate, God delights in us as God’s wonderful works. God beheld us as we took shape in the womb, and God continues to shape us and marvelously make us, and marvelously remake us.

And so, trusting in the deep love of God who made us and saves us and meets us on the wings of the morning, may we find the courage for costly change.

Amen.  

A Greek manuscript of the first page of Philemon in a neat, flowing hand. There is a geometric decoration at the top with some gliding.
The first page of Philemon from an 11th- or 12th-century Greek manuscript of Paul’s letters (MS 5116), accessed through the British Library’s Digitized Manuscripts collection.