Getting the Name Right
A Sermon for September 8, 2013 at St. Matthew’s, Pacific Palisade CA
Based on Jeremiah 18:1-11, Philemon, and Luke 14:25-33
George H. Martin
I was in a Potter’s house once, only they didn’t make clay pots there. They sold them, along with books, and gifts. It was also coffee house and they served food. Most who were employed there had been homeless. It was a ministry of the Church of the Savior, in Washington DC and it was said to be the first coffee house ministry in any Christian church. The church was founded right after World War II by a newly ordained Southern Baptist veteran by the name of Gordon Cosby. He died this past April and he truly was one of the a saints.
He founded the church as an interracial community in Washington DC and through the years—get this—his dream was to keep his church deliberately small. Why? Well he wanted the emphasis on social action. And if you weren’t willing to engage one of more of the outreach ministries you could come to church on Sundays but you weren’t considered a member. An obituary on National Public Radio said that “One of the tenets of membership in the church was a commitment to service in the community. Members were required to work with the homeless at shelters and at the church-run hospice and medical clinic.” The focus was never to be on the church itself but always on the needs of the community.
One day, in the 1980s, I attended a Eucharist late in an afternoon at Potter’s House there in our nation’s capital. Folks came from government offices on their way home; Potter House employees were there. Street people were there. And Gordon Cosby preached on the gospel text where Jesus is talking about not judging others . It’s the text where said said, “Or, how can you say to your brother or your sister, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye?” [Luke 6:42 or Matt. 7:5]
Gordon Cosby gave us these instructions for communion. “We’ll pass the bread to each other,” he said. “And we’ll pass the cup around. As you turn to the person next to you please say, “Brother, or sister, please help remove the log in my eye, and not even see the speck in your eye.” And the bread was given to me in those words by my friend, and I turned. And next to me was an African-American homeless woman. I certainly didn’t know her world, but oh, how I needed to say, “Sister, please help remove the log in my eye, and not even see the speck in your eye.”
Jesus said some hard things, didn’t he?
And Jesus said in today’s gospel we should hate our own family. I can imagine what you thought when you heard that phrase. And what did you think when the gospel reading was that if you’re a disciple of his you must take up a cross? That reading went on: it suggested that disciples are like those who can’t finish what they start. Or like a King with an army that must sue for peace. That’s not us. We get things done. And then this difficult reading concluded with Jesus saying that disciples must give up all their possessions.
It’s wonder any of us are still here.
That story began with the reference that there were large crowds following him. Obviously they were soon to get much smaller.
Oh there’s so much in our lessons today. First there was Jeremiah in the Potter’s House. It was a place people visited frequently as their table ware was easily broken. And that’s the premise for the prophet to declare God’s judgment on the people and their faithlessness. It’s not a very happy prophecy that he offers, for destruction of the people is paralleled by easily broken pots.
And then there was the entire letter of Philemon—Paul’s letter to the owner of the slave Onesimus. And we read it knowing that for 1700 years of Christian history there was mostly silence about owning slaves. Not even Paul said it was wrong. It still continues albeit in some subtle ways. And maybe we ought to cringe knowing how we depend on so many goods we can afford which are made by cheap labor, mostly in working conditions that must feel like slavery to those whose choices for work are not what we would call real choices.
At least the revelation of Jesus changed Paul—Paul who wrote something in that letter that had to cause Philemon a little theological whiplash. For Onesimus, in Paul’s eyes, was no longer to be considered in the category “slave.” Paul called him a “beloved brother in Christ.” And he offered to Philemon the idea that is how he should be treated. We just don’t know the rest of the story though.
But you’re still wondering, and I am too, about that Jesus statement about hating your own family. And about giving up all your possessions.
So, did you know there was a time when Roman authorities received various letters from anxious parents about their wayward children. One letter said their son had become involved in a strange religious group. They’d taken over his life; he forsaken all his usual friends and his family. He didn’t participate in temple worship anymore. Couldn’t the government do something about this group?
Well—the wierd group the Roman authorities was suppose to investigate in the third century were the Christians. [“Why family values isn’t a good idea.” by William Willimon]
Still, isn’t the church suppose to help us be better parents, and improve life in our families? In answer to that question, I’d be the first to answer yes. Only I know something about families and so do many of you. I was raised in a family that tended to see “logs” in the eyes of folks who were different than us.
I was raised in a family where I had an aunt, who was never identified as my aunt. She was baptized Katherine and called KK. My mother was about five when KK was born, and when KK was three something happened. They never knew. Only she grew physically, but stayed at about the mental age of three all of her life. By the time she was 10 or 11 she was in a state institution where she lived for over 70 years. As a little kid I met her just once. What I realized this week, and it brought a tear to my eyes, is that I was never asked to send her a birthday or a Christmas card. Never asked to help wrap a present for her. My grandmother, I heard, visited her. My mother did the same. But KK wasn’t really part of our family.
Families in the world can sometimes be like that.
Only that family that knows Jesus as the Christ, is to be at the very least a different kind of family. That’s why Gordon Cosby asked us to share the bread and wine with those words of Jesus about the logs in our eyes. It’s where the prophetic word is needed. Thank you, Jeremiah. Thank you Paul for seeing Onesimus as you beloved brother in Christ. Seeing one another through the eyes of Jesus.
I’ve mentioned before that I went to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Minneapolis as a young 32 year-old rector in 1975. Soon I met Margaret, who I mentioned in a sermon earlier this summer, for she was a force to be reckoned with. While we disagreed about so many things, we were friends—because of Jesus. And in the front pew of that congregation you would find Bob and Diane sitting together every Sunday. Each had real mental and physical challenges. There were happily married and had the support of both of their families. And they definitely needed help. It was sometimes hard to understand them, but one thing was clear to all. They were a legacy of a special Sunday School class run by that parish in the 1940s for intellectually challenged children. They loved that parish, and they knew they were full-fledged members of that parish, worthy to sit in that first pew, and to not only stand in that communion line, but often, be the first to receive.
But that Jesus said we should hate our family: It’s hard to comprehend. That’s what it says in Greek. I learned from Lester that the Aramaic known to Jesus probably was the word for “love less.” Thus it’s about what comes first. Even so, it’s difficult to comprehend the challenge of Jesus about not giving our highest loyalty to family—I know I can’t make sense of it.
But then I looked at the context of this passage inside the Gospel of Luke. I looked at the stories that came before and those that follow this most difficult of all passages.
Before this reading, there was a large banquet being given and the invited ones tried to get the best seats. Missy preached on this last week. Jesus, as the rather rude guest, complained about the desire some had to sit up front and have the best places at the table.
The dinner party advice given by Jesus? “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends or your relatives….[Instead] invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.”
The next story—the one before that causing all the trouble today? It’s about a Great Dinner and all the invited guests, say Yes they are coming, and then offering flimsy excuses decline at the end. What’s the host to do. Jesus says he is “…to go out into the streets and bring in the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.”
Sounds like we have a pattern here. And then right after this most troubling passage we have four parables, two of which are on the docket for next Sunday. Next week though you don’t get the first two parables in Luke chapter 15. First there’s a sheep that’s lost, and a party that happens when the lamb is saved. And then a woman loses a coin, finds it, and holds a party for that. The parable you will hear next week is about a party for a younger son who really messed up his life, but to his father’s great relief returned alive. There’s a great party for that wayward son. But then at the end of the story it seems his older brother, was feeling cheated and was resentful. He wouldn’t come into the party. His father went outside to plead with him, but we don’t know if he accepted his father’s plea. Oh it sounds like some family things I know all too well. Maybe you do too.
So as difficult as the vision of Jesus gets for us we know it’s not about success. It’s not about being able to control our lives and make everyone perfect. It is about a certain kind of dependence and trust in God’s love and mercy. And it’s really a challenge to a world where people claim a prior identity based on some tribe or even national affiliation.
How could Paul see Onesimus as “beloved brother in Christ?” We’ll it was Paul who also told the church in Galatia that in Christ, this new family, created through the death and resurrection of Jesus, must not be shaped by the usual distinctions known in their world. He said, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. “ (Gal. 3:28)
Paul knew his friends in that church would be so identified by those categories in the world at large—by their own families and friends. But they were called into a new reality—what Paul said over and over again, was the body of Christ, this unique kind of family. And what we can hope and pray that we are this body of Christ.
I want to conclude with a couple of things: first is the observation by Stanley Hauerwas, who is a theologian and social ethics professor at the Divinity School at Duke. If we are made part of the body of Christ, which is the sacrament of Baptism, then Hauerwas said, “We have become part of a new kingdom that makes it possible for our loves to be the basis of peace rather than the source of violence.” [“Hating Mothers as the Way to Peace”, p. 19]
What bother’s me the most about some of the family stories I’ve heard, and some of their secrets? It is just how much violence takes place in so many families and how many are hurt in the process. Often it’s just verbal. Or maybe it’s the silence that shuns. Or the love that is withheld.
The other story, the one Jesus told. The one we remember. That’s different. It’s about the blind seeing. The lost being found. The least who discover they belong in the front of the communion line. And logs from eyes that are removed by love. That’s our story.
Now I’m going to conclude by telling you about the letter I wrote to President Obama this week. First a little context. I have great respect for those who serve in our military. Some days you may even see me wearing a Navy hat, which I do out of respect and honor for my nephew who died four years ago on the Eisenhower, a carrier in the Navy, while on duty in the Arabian sea in reference to our current war in Afghanistan. My grandfather and my father were veterans. I’m also a certified Police chaplain and value the work of those peace officers with whom I serve. The letter I wrote wasn’t from St. Matthews, just me, as a pastor. In my letter I asked President Obama to refrain from striking Syria with military weapons. And I went on to urge that we make an extraordinary investment to help those two or three million refugees with a kind of humanitarian effort that truly shows our American character to the world.
You and I may disagree about the best diplomatic or military strategy. I’m no expert in those areas. I know I may have crossed a line in this sermon for some by sharing what I just did. But I felt it important in the context of a sermon on discipleship to mention this.
For me, it boils down to my faith in Jesus, and my knowing that violence rarely, if ever, works. I’m basing my life on a love that overcomes all fear and all divisions. And that love, true to the example of Jesus, is marked by peace. I used to have to a log in my eye about this as well, but no more.
Oh, one more thing about my real family. Caroline and I are blessed with four children. The first born, we called her Katy, and she became a Kate. Some of you met her on my first weekend I was here. I was so pleased you could meet her. Her real first name? It’s “Katherine,” spelled with a “K,” just like my mother’s younger sister, my Aunt KK. I was a very young father, when Kate was born, but with Caroline’s help, we got the name right. Amen.