For Sept. 8, 2013: Proper 18, Year C

The Reading            Jeremiah 18:1-11

As our reading from the book of Jeremiah continues, so do Jeremiah’s uncomfortable themes. Jeremiah compares the house of Israel—which can mean Israel as a nation or its rulers—to a lump of clay that is not shaping up as the potter intends: the potter can decide to destroy the piece and start over; so also, when the people of God fail to repent, can the Lord choose to apply correction.

The Response            Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17

“Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up.”

The Epistle            Philemon 1-21

Unlike most epistles, the letter to Philemon is a personal letter on a specific issue: the status of the slave Onesimus (the name means ‘useful’ in Greek), who ran away but has become a Christian with Paul. This letter was cited to support slavery in 19th-century America, since Paul never demands freedom for Onesimus—but it was also cited to support abolition, because Paul asserts that Onesimus is and should be beloved as a brother.

The Gospel            Luke 14:25-33

“‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sister, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.’”

 

Further thoughts

Some sets of Sunday readings have clear common themes—and they may make us squirm. If there is a common theme to the Proper 18 readings, it may well be “Watch out: God has plans for you, and they include change.”

Jeremiah reliably treats us to sobering observations, and this reading is no exception: just as a potter can decide that a particular cup taking shape under her hand just isn’t working out, so also God can decide that a nation—or a person—is failing to take the shape and role that God had in mind and therefore requires correction or even destruction. The affirmations of the psalm sound comforting… but there is the matter of God knowing me down to the level of cells and parts of atoms—which surely means that God must know even better than I what about me isn’t right and needs to change; sometimes that feels awfully exposed.

Paul’s letter to Philemon gently puts this into action. Philemon was a mover and shaker in the local Christian church and probably also in the secular community. He knew how society was supposed to work: richer and more powerful people issue directives to poorer and less powerful ones and have the absolute right to dispose of property just as they see fit. But here is Paul writing from prison—prison isn’t for the rich and powerful—suggesting that Philemon regard his “useless” slave Onesimus as his full brother in Christ, even to the point of sending him back to Paul. The letter is very skillfully phrased, and it must have made Philemon’s head spin.

Jesus addressing the crowds is much blunter. In a world in which social security of all descriptions consisted of one’s family and in which any number of biblical laws and dicta command otherwise, he says that his disciples must hate their parents and children and even their own selves. The English word hate has very strong emotional resonances; the Greek verb μισέω that it translates, as D. Mark Davis notes in “Holy Hating”, often is closer to ‘commit to something else decisively and deliberately’. It is easy to be part of Jesus’ crowd, but discipleship means being aware that the cost may include laying down everything else that one holds near and dear, and committing to Jesus anyway.

How I as a middle-class American cradle Christian am to do this, I do not know. I can only trust God to know.

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