The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18), Year C.
Moses said to all Israel the words which the Lord commanded him, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.”Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love– and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother– especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
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. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.Philemon 1:1-21
I got a new phone about a week ago. I was glad to get it to finally be able to actually make phone calls at home, but this little modern marvel taught me something profound about myself that I feel that I must share with you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, for all our edification: I’ve got a really screwed up economic economic system when it comes to paying for applications. Let me set the scene for you because I’m sure no one else is like this. I’m setting up my new phone and think to myself, “I need a metronome” (as a side project I’m working on this radical new form of banjo playing called “actually playing in time with the music”, very experimental, it hasn’t even hit the indie scene yet) so I go into the app store and search for metronome and no less than 4,000 results show up. None of them actually use or spell the word “metronome” correctly, because apparently in this day in age nothing can be a thing unto itself. I pick out my application and my lizard brain is quite smitten by the flashing lights, the ability to change the colors, about 100 different ways to subdivide featuring rhythmic concepts I can scarcely conceive of all in the palm of my hand. I set it up and begin practicing when tragedy strikes — an ad pops up — bringing my banjo playing to a screeching halt. Pray for me brothers and sisters, those capitalist swines wanted me to pay 99 cents for an ad-free version of the program. 99 cents! I tried that most Christian of virtue, patience, and simply ignore the ads. But Satan was relentless in his assaults and I must confess that I succumbed and surrendered my 99 cents.
It is phenomenal how much we will put up with in order to feel like we got a deal or that we somehow “beat the system”. What should have been a simple transaction, a trivial cost for a decent product, became an elaborate dance between my tolerance for advertisements and my reluctance hand over one measly dollar. But that is the world we live in, right? Everyone is trying to game each other, everyone has something to sell.
Even God seems to be in on it. Look at our Deuteronomy reading: “See I have set before you life or death…choose life”. You have to hand it to God, that’s a pretty compelling pitch. Follow the commandments, love God and live, ignore them and die. The problem with this pitch is what comes next, when Jesus tells us what it means to choose life. “Unless you hate your mother and father, your wife and your children, your brother and your sister, your possessions, even hate life itself, you cannot be my disciple”. Jesus, I’m not going to lie to you, it’s going to be really hard to sell that. It’s going pretty far off-brand to say you need to hate your mother, father, brother, wife, children, etc. when this whole time you’ve been telling us to love everyone, even our enemies! So why the sudden shift? This is the kind of thing that will not only prevent you from selling your message to new markets, this is going to cost you followers!
The latest trend in marketing is to use social media “influencers” to push products. This can be done from simple product reviews, to more subtle techniques, like placing the product as an essential part of their “glamorous” lifestyle. These peoples’ careers live or die by the number of followers they can pull on various social media platforms. And if your thinking to yourself, “oh I don’t pay attention to any of that, they don’t influence me.” The numbers tell a very different story. 40% of people research products through social media, the results carefully crafted by these “influencers”. This strategy is so effective, that the money spent on influencers and other social media advertising grew by 32 billion dollars last year, and is projected to increase by another 62% this year. Perhaps the most frightening statistic is the number of ads we are bombarded with each day. The last time this was explored in a statistically responsible way was twelve years ago, when social media was just getting off the ground. The New York Times estimated that the average person was exposed to over 4,000 advertisements a day. It’s harrowing to think what that number might be today, now that companies know it works.
In a world so driven to sell you something, and if they aren’t selling something to you, you are being sold as the product (well, your data at least), everything becomes a pitch. We try to sell to our friends, family, and coworkers glamorous pictures showing how great our life is, even though people are lonelier than ever. Every product review claims to show an authentic opinion, even when it is entirely funded by the company. When everything becomes an ad, suddenly nothing is real anymore, and it gives us profound anxiety. When everything is an ad, we lose our trust in experts, and turn to conspiracy theory, we lose our trust in our neighbors, so we carefully select only like-minded people and form echo chambers. When everything is an ad, we lose trust in ourselves; we worry that we have become the ad, and we dare not share real belief, real duty, real love because we don’t know if our convictions are really our own, or carefully crafted to line someone’s pockets.
This is why Jesus gives his shocking comment on discipleship. In a world full of us advertisements, sales pitches, and influencers, Jesus has a very different approach. As soon as Jesus’ gathering of followers starts to grow, as soon as he has a chance to be an influencer, he chooses to be honest. He chooses to be authentic. He chooses life.
The word translated as “hate” in this context does not mean anger or hostility. However, Jesus is speaking with the conviction and firm belief that relationship with God must take precedence over every relationship in our lives. Even the most sacred between parents, children, spouses, siblings, and friends. When Luke was putting together his gospel this was a painful reality, there is a particularly well-documented experience in Corinth in Luke’s lifetime that pagans divorced their spouses who became Christian at an alarming rate. Jesus chooses such a strong phrase to describe discipleship because he wants to make it clear to all what it means to be his follower. Jesus isn’t making a pitch, he is speaking the truth, and observes that the world prefers a glamorous lie to an honest truth.
Unlike Jesus’ earliest followers we are fortunate enough to live in a time and place where the cost of discipleship is not as blatant as it once was. We often do not have to choose between our families and our faith, at least on the surface. Yet we still struggle to choose God over all others because we don’t trust ourselves, we don’t trust our beliefs. We live in fear of turning into an advertisement, that sharing our deepest self and our deepest conviction will drive people away. The glamorous lie is comfortable, and has controlled superficial conflict. Authenticity takes real risk, real sharing, real love for God and real trust that the good news of Christ saving the world is what the world needs in order to be saved.
So how do we love God authentically? How do we share the Gospel, choose life, without simply becoming an advertisement? Paul’s letter to Philemon gives us an example of sharing authentic love for God. We read essentially the whole letter as our second reading today. But Paul accomplishes much in just a few verses. The letter is Paul asking two things of Philemon. The first is what’s known in Rhetoric as the “small ask”, that Philemon forgive his slave and accept him as not a slave, but as an equal in light of their shared faith. The second is more subtle, the “big ask” because Paul is really asking Philemon to re-frame his entire understanding of the world, God’s love, social order, and what it means to follow Jesus. Paul asks these two things not through manipulating Philemon’s feelings, or trying to sell him something, but by working through their friendship. Paul puts it all on the line, “if you consider me your partner, you would receive him as you would receive me”. Paul, much like God in the Deuteronomy passage, is not forcing Philemon to his will, or trying to coerce Philemon, but simply laying out the truth. Real partnership with Paul means real partnership with Christ, and real partnership with Christ calls for all humanity to be seen as brothers and sisters in the resurrection. He is giving Philemon a choice, choose authentic life, or choose death.
Paul’s method for authentic change, rather than sales pitch, is to share the gospel. First by asking for something small, though not insignificant, and letting the other party choose to embrace the Truth, or to choose continual struggle. In that same spirit, this would be nothing more than a sales pitch if I did not ask something small, though not insignificant, of you, my brothers and sisters in Christ. I ask that you share your love for God and your love for one another through hospitality in this community and especially those who are new to it. The smallest form of hospitality, and also the beginning of authenticity is to share your name, which I have lovingly crafted into name-tags for you. What I ask of you may seem trivial and almost comically small, but it is merely the beginning. What I am really asking of each of you is that through hospitality and love in this community, that you be brave to share the Gospel of hospitality and love to the world. That by being a community here together, you share your love, and through you God’s love with the whole world. That you be free from fear and you gladly make the choice. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” Amen.