Thursday, September 1, 2016

Discipleship, Acceptance, and Choices

Every once in a while the Lectionary gives us three readings for a particular Sunday when all three main readings follow a similar theme.  This is one of those weeks.  It is Labor Day weekend so I don't know how many people will be in worship to hear these scripture passages read and a sermon based on them given but we will share the Good News with whoever comes to listen.

Perhaps it being a holiday weekend makes these readings even more appropriate because the theme that they have in common is on Discipleship or what it means to actually follow in the steps of the one that we claim calls us to be Christian.  Maybe a holiday weekend reveals in a way the priorities that many of us have in our lives. Where will we be on Sunday in a holiday weekend?  What will we be doing on Sunday morning at 9:30 a.m.?  (That is when we have worship.)

The reading from Deuteronomy is one of those passages where the speaker in the text is challenging the hearers to make a decision as to what they will do in response to the covenant renewal ritual that is happening once again.  "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."  (Deut. 15:16)  One long sentence lays out the choice the people of Israel have to make.  Follow and serve the LORD and enjoy life and prosperity or turn to other gods and find ruin.  This reading is about all choice and the choice that is given to the listeners seems cut and dried.

Then, the Gospel lesson is from Luke 14 where Jesus is talking to a crowd of potential followers and his words are harsh.  He is trying to let them know that the cost of following him may not be easy.  He tells them to choose whether they can truly follow him, above anyone else and all else, or not.  He says they have to put him first, above "father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself..." (Luke 14:26)  The cost of discipleship is one that requires dedication before all other relationships.

Jesus does not stop there though.  He also says the cost of discipleship requires one to love him without regard to the possessions that one may have.  "So, therefore, none of  you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."  (Luke 14:33)  Putting one's relationship with God above what one owns is another costly measure of discipleship, Jesus would teach.

Jesus gave two examples from life of people who had to count the cost of the decisions they would make.  If one were to build a tower, then he would need to know in advance if he had enough resources to finish it before beginning to build or open himself up to ridicule from others for having a half-built structure.  Also, if one were a king who wanted to wage war against another king, he would need to consider if he had enough troops to conquer the enemy or else he should ask for a peace treaty.  Decision making requires careful consideration of the consequences of the decision.

Finally, the epistle reading this week is from the book of Philemon, one of the shortest books in the New Testament.   It is a letter written by Paul to a wealthy member of the early church who had a slave named Onesimus who had run away and whom Paul had taken in to the quarters where he was being a house prisoner.  He was asking Philemon to accept the runaway slave back, but not as a slave, but as a brother and fellow Christian because that is what he had become during the time he had been with Paul.  Paul wanted to just keep Onesimus with him but knew he had to return him to Philemon but with this letter asking for Philemon to forgive Onesimus for running away and to accept him as a fellow Christian and not as a slave.

Again, there are decisions to be made.  Paul decided to write Philemon and risk offended his friend by interfering in his personal business.  Paul also decided that he loved Onesimus too much to let him return to his owner and risk physical punishment and perhaps even death.  He wanted Philemon to make the decision on his own to be gracious to this runaway slave although he states in the letter that he could order him to do the right thing based on his authority as a leader in the Christian movement.  The epistle does not give a conclusion to the matter but allows the reader to reflect upon it and think about what it may mean to our own lives.

Decision making, serious matters, things we all encounter in our lives.  Do we take that job that will require uprooting our family and moving far away from home because it offers a better salary or an advanced position?  Do we join the military because we think it is the right thing to do to serve our country and provide a better way of life for ourselves?  Do we marry a person that we have reservations about because all the preparations have been made and we think we cannot back out?  Do we continue to go that school or university where we feel lost or oppressed or overwhelmed because it is expected of us by someone we know?  Do we speak up on the behalf of someone we know who is being abused or mistreated by a person or a social system or keep quiet so as not to cause trouble?  All are serious matters that need much personal reflection and prayer.

Jesus and Paul and the writer of Deuteronomy instruct us to consider the choices and make a good choice based upon what we know about the life and teachings of Jesus and the commandments God gave to the people of Israel to follow and the wisdom contained in acts of kindness and generosity.  Then, to decide, after prayerful consideration, and trust that God will be with us in the decision we make.  Decision making is not always easy but we know we do not make our decisions totally alone.  We are informed by the experiences of others on the journey of life as well as the Spirit of God that speaks to us and for us in our times of trial.  When we ask for wisdom, we will always receive it.  The answer we receive may not be the one we were seeking, but it will be the one that is best for us.