September 3, 2016: Jeremiah 18:1-11, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33
Reverend Melissa Hall, St. James’ Episcopal Church
Tower of Power
Good morning friends. Today we are going to start with a party game called truth or dare. And since I am up here, which puts me in charge, I will pick which we will do. So on to truth!
We will start gently with the truth. How many of you like receiving gifts?
Okay, now how many of you have re-gifted a gift? Raise your hand.
Liar, liar pants on fire! Statistics show that at least 36% of us have re-gifted.
I have done so and I am about to do it again.
Rev. Audrey, you know how much this picture of Carmen Miranda here means to me, but I hope you will accept this as my Labor Day gift to you! She will look great in your office.
Today’s scripture readings are all about gifts that are given and gifts that are received and gifts that are re-gifted. Turn to the story of Paul, Philemon and Onesimus.
Paul is returning the gift of Onesimus, a slave, to his owner, Philemon.
Now we don’t know if Onesimus was sent by Philemon to help Paul in his old age and imprisonment, or if Onesimus was an escaped slave, who sought refuge with Paul. But the bottom line here is that the gift, Onesimus, is being sent back. However, the terms of the gift have been changed.
Paul writes: “ Formerly Onesimus was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, 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; 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.”
Now I think Paul misspeaks here when he says that in the past Onesimus was useless to his owner, Philemon. On the contrary, a slave is all about being of use to his master, as the master decides the fate and the day-to-day activities of the slave.
But now this Onesimus, whose name translation means “useful”, is being re- gifted to his owner and his usefulness has an entirely different implication.
Paul reminds Philemon that in Christ there is no male or female, Greek or Jew, Slave or Free. He says that Faith in Christ levels the playing field and in Christ,
Onesimus is not a slave, but a brother. Paul hopes that Philemon will receive him as such, as an equal member of Philemon’s household, no longer a servant to the household, but rather along with Philemon as a servant to all in Christ’s name.
We are not told whether Philemon does as asked and receives Onesimus as an equal, or whether he punishes his slave for escaping and places him back into servitude, or - better still - whether Philemon re-gifts the gift and does a most Christ like thing, releasing Onesimus from slavery, thus allowing him his freedom. The use of this gift from Paul is Philemon’s to decide, and we are never told the fate of Onesimus, and how Paul’s gift was received.
That theme continues in our Gospel as there is more gifting going on. Jesus offers the gift of God’s Kingdom to his followers, but that gift comes with some serious consequences and demands and sacrifices. 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. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
Jesus is telling them you can choose this path, but the path comes with an enormous price, the disruption of family and household, the abandonment of the old ways of living, and here’s the kicker; the relinquishing of all your possessions. For a true disciple, Jesus says, once that path is taken there is no turning back.
So receive this gift cautiously and with eyes wide open.
Now if it were me, I suspect I would have asked Jesus for some prayer and ponder time before I made such a choice and commitment. I think you can all relate to this challenge.
That moment of having to make difficult and sometimes impossible choices is not unfamiliar to anyone in this church.
That’s what life is, a series of choices and opportunities presented, and finally a direction to be taken, that means another choice must be left aside, another path denied. It isn’t always easy, is it?
So what is to be done? How do we navigate through life making the right choices with integrity, and at the same time maintaining self-preservation?
Here is one approach: There is a preaching story told about an old man standing on a crowded bus. The young man standing next to him asked, “What time is it?” The old man refused to reply. The young man moved on.
The old man’s friend, sensing something was wrong, asked, “Why were you so discourteous to that young man who was asking for the time?” The old man answered, “If I’d given him the time of day, next he’d want to know where I’m going; then we might talk about our interests. If we did that he might invite himself to my house for dinner. If he did, he’d meet my lovely daughter. If he met her they would both fall in love. I don’t want my daughter marrying somebody who can’t afford a watch!”
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could see the consequences of our actions or the events that swirl around us before we took them? It would surely save a lot of wasted time if we understood that the paths we were considering as a life choice weren’t the right ones to lead us to our happy place!
For instance, turning down a particular high paying job because it won’t be the road to being the top dog. Cancelling that second or third date because this person turns out to be an emotional land mine for you. Perhaps choosing not to live in the most expensive community because the taxes will ultimately bankrupt you and the narcissistic community values will spiritually erode you. That would be so helpful, knowing first, but usually life doesn’t work that way, and many times we seem more reactive than selective in the choices we make to the gifts that are offered up to us. Things, people, and opportunities come to us all the time and it would be great be able to say yes to those moments that will benefit us most, and no thanks to others.
Jesus tried to teach the disciples that before you choose to follow me, consider the cost of discipleship. And he begs the question of them: “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?”
Now its ironic and funny that Jesus should be asking them about building a Tower, because if we had an inkling about the demands and costs of presiding over the care of our WW1 memorial Tower, we may never have built it in the first place.
In these past months of construction and escalating costs, I have often day dreamed this scenario in which I sit down with Mr. Luchars, the donor who first funded our Tower. Mr. Luchars I say, you don’t know this, but 100 years from now your gift of a tower is going to cost Saint James’ church a million dollars, so maybe you want to build it down the street as Saint Cassians instead!
Its fun to imagine but oh what a sad thing that would be, because Mr. Luchars’ gift of our Tower has become more then stone and mortar and 13,000 lbs. of bells.
It stands as a monument of thanksgiving to those who served this country in WW1, and as a memory marker for those seven young people who did not return, and most importantly, it is a clarion call that we must first do peace, before resorting to wars that send our children into harms way.
The cost of our presiding over this Bell Tower, this community monument, is financially astronomical, but each time those bells ring, we re-gift our community with the assurance that Saint James’ church stands here as a sign of Gods unconditional love. It is our testament that justice for all must be done before self-need. It is our witness that kindness is not a platitudinous bromide but a moral and spiritual compass, and it is our commitment that no matter what you believe or who you are that all are welcome in this place.
It is hard and impossible work sometimes to be a Christian, to accept that gift of the Gospel offered by Christ that may at times seem to demand more of us then we are getting in return. But oh what a gift we have been given, and what a small price we have been asked to pay to be here together as God’s Church and God’s witness in the world.
So standing in the shadow of that enormous scaffold outside our doors, I pray this: May the Saint James’ bells ring forever. May God’s loving voice of peace and justice always be heard in their song.