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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Ordinary Sunday 23, Year C
South Sydney Uniting Church
September 5, 2010

Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

Take up the cross and follow’

I read yesterday’s paper with the Gospel in mind. And two articles caught my eye. They are both about conversion – and each speaks of unconventional courage. In other words, each speaks of taking up a cross and following the Christ who is anything but a hero of conventional cultural/family values. And each speaks of waiting – in face of fast-paced change, quick fixes, instant gratification, short memories and short attention spans. Waiting. We might also hear the word as w-e-i-g-h-t-ing.

“Much of the work of writing novels … is the wait while change happens, and then the conscious struggle to be the person I need to be to write the book I want to write” (acclaimed American author, Jonathan Franzen). “I believe I have an internal coping mechanism which allows me to be at peace with myself … where I listen to my body … waiting for some message” (champion Indigenous-Australian athlete, Catherine Freeman).

The wait/weight while change happens. Waiting/weighting for some message. These are wonderful intimations of taking up and bearing the cross, and they can serve as refrains for us today as we examine our scriptures from Philemon and Luke …

Paul sees our commitment to Jesus the Christ as something that rearranges relationships. In committing ourselves to Christ, we are committing ourselves to those who make up the body of Christ, the church, and to living in mutual love with them, whoever they are …

Paul says he has heard good reports about the love that Philemon has been demonstrating. He speaks particularly of Philemon’s love for other Christians, and he describes this love as something that refreshes hearts, something that reminds others that life is worth living. And having given him this big compliment, Paul spells out what he sees as the next big step for Philemon. This step is one that tells us a lot about the radical, socially disruptive (unconventional) nature of love in the early church. Paul calls Philemon to treat a man named Onesimus as an equal, as a neighbour in Christ, when up until then, Onesimus had been a slave – Onesimus was Philemon’s property.

The wait/weight while change happens.

In a world where many find themselves increasingly isolated, and where politicians and advertisers play on fears and encourage the barring of doors, the call to live as part of a community that pulls down walls and encourages us to push beyond the shallows into the deep waters of love, is an exciting invitation. It doesn’t come easy though. Love is something that has to be worked at. Shallow love is easy and costs little, but the real challenges and rewards come to those who push beyond their comfort zones and invest some solid commitment to deep and grace-filled love.

Waiting/weighting for some message.

If we’re prepared to take that road, to follow Jesus into a new pattern and depth of loving relationships, we’d best be under no illusions that we’re likely to be thanked and applauded for it. Any time we take steps that are seen by others as socially disruptive, we can expect to be accused of irresponsibility and failure to do our duty.

This has been well illustrated in recent times with the debate over responses to those who arrive on our shores as asylum seekers. The majority opinion seems to be that our first duty is to look after the interests of existing citizens, and that we would be failing to do that if we allowed these outsiders in. The fear – and it’s not entirely without basis – is that every time we allow a boatload of asylum seekers into the country, we are sending a message to others that it’s worth the risk of trying to get here. Popular opinion says that if we let boatloads of impoverished and traumatised foreigners in, we will all end up paying for it in a reduced standard of living, because we’ll be paying for their upkeep; and in a reduced personal safety, because people traumatised by war can be unstable and dangerous. So, the argument goes, we owe it to ourselves, to our children and our loved ones, to keep those people out and make sure the country is safe and comfortable for our families.

When you advocate a love that turns slaves into equals and asylum seekers into citizens with the same rights as the rest of us, regardless of the cost, you are not going to be admired and applauded. The talk-back airwaves will not fill up with voices saying, “You can tell they are Christians by their love”. Instead, the voices will say that we are failing in our duty to love. They’ll say we are putting at risk the interests of those for whom we have the greatest responsibility, those closest to us. They’ll say that we’re failing to love our country, our families. They’ll say we’re a bunch of bleeding hearts who don’t care enough about our children’s welfare. They’ll say we’re advocating the destruction of everything our society holds dear, and that such an attitude has more to do with hate than love. They’ll say we are providing comfort to terrorists.

And that’s exactly what Jesus warns us about. In the original language and in more literal translations, the text of Luke 14:26 has Jesus saying that unless we “hate father and mother, spouse and children, sisters and brothers”, we cannot be his disciples. Obviously, this is a perplexing saying, because Jesus’ ethic of love makes it unthinkable that Christians should hate anyone, let alone those closest to them. However, such hyperbole was a common form of making a point in the culture Jesus lived in. A contrast would be exaggerated to its logical extreme to make its implications apparent. Thus Jesus’ words may simply be taken as saying: “Those who come to me cannot be my disciples unless they love me more than they love father and mother, spouse and children, sisters and brothers, and themselves as well.”

The wait/weight while change happens.

However, there’s a bit more to it than that. The overall context of the passage is about counting the cost of following Jesus, and that context suggests that the verse is not just about whom we love most, but about facing the consequences of whom we love most. Jesus is not just saying, “Love me more”, but warning us that if we really live like him, we’ll be accused of “hating” our families. That’s where it really begins to cost us. We may even be accused of it by our families, and then the cost is even more painful. To really love those who are not loved and welcomed by our society will often be interpreted as hating our society, the values it stands for, and the people in it.

Jesus says that if we’re not willing to risk being accused of hating our families and our community, then we haven’t got what it takes to follow. Real love involves risks. Real love lies beyond our comfort zones. And a new community founded on risky, socially controversial love is well and truly worth the discomfort and disrepute.

Waiting/weighting for some message.

Jesus has gone that way before us, and as we gather around this altar-table we are reminded that he was broken for it. We are also reminded that on the other side of the deep waters of disrepute, scandal and death, lies the promised land where the new wine of peace and mercy is poured. And with the bread and wine of scandalous love, we are nourished for the unpopular journey.

Let’s complete the homily together. Let’s attend to the work of conversion within us and among us – to the wait/weight while change happens – to waiting/weighting for some message. What have you experienced of such waiting/weighting?Amen.

Draws on reflection by Nathan Nettleton.