I was the leader of the service last Sunday - it was a service of Holy Communion, with reserved sacrament. As a Licensed Lay Minister, I am able to lead these services: it really is a privilege! I'm sorry I'm late in putting my sermon on the site: no excuses. I just forgot!
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 - Psalm 1 - Philemon 1-21 - Luke 14:25-33
It seems to me that the readings today are all talking about choices.
The reading from Deuteronomy is taken from Moses’ last address to the people of Israel: they are on the very borders of the Promised Land, the land that God has been leading them to over many years, through the wilderness where time after time, patiently, God has been teaching them lessons, and sustaining them through adversity. And here they are. Moses knows that he will not be entering this land of milk and honey with them, but he stands to remind them once more of God’s word: Follow me, be faithful to me, and I will give you all that you need. Turn your back on me, and the consequences will be dire.
Those who wrote Deuteronomy, and those who read it afterwards would recognise that Egypt represented captivity, but not just physical enslavement but also spiritual enslavement to idolatry and its ultimate hopelessness. The response given by the people of Israel to this choice would shape the nature of their future relationship with God. So, when they are called by God to “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” this refers to much more than physical life. The language of ‘life’ embraces good health, blessings, happiness, and fruitfulness. It also carries the sense of living, over the course of one’s entire life, in steadfastness and righteousness. Opposed to the good life is the one who chooses another path, who does not hear and turns away from God to other gods. For the former, the consequences will be prosperity, numerous offspring, and a life filled with blessings. For the latter, there will be only death
Unfortunately, the people of Israel failed to listen to God’s voice in this final sermon of Moses. That first congregation, on the border with the Promised Land, could have rooted themselves where the soil was good for growing, but instead their disobedience led to defeat at the hands of their enemies, and subsequent exile.
The Psalm too speaks of those choices: do you “follow the advice of the wicked” or “delight [...] in the law of the Lord?” Those who follow God are given that reward of being like trees planted by streams of water, and that everything they do shall prosper. I do think however, that we need to be very careful about how we take that verse – everything they do shall prosper. It sounds as though, as long as we follow God’s promptings, everything in the garden will be rosy. Nothing will go wrong. It is by taking verses such as these literally that the rather hideous “prosperity Gospel” ministries have grown up: those churches that claim that if you are a good Christian, you will become rich, you will be able to afford a good house in a good neighbourhood. Basically, that one’s faith in God is linked to one’s material wealth and physical wellbeing.
But we know that this is not the case: surely the example of Paul should give one pause for thought. He had faith beyond anything most of us could ever hope for, and yet he was neither materially wealthy, nor was he physically strong. In the reading from Philemon, he talks about how Onesimus has been a helper to him during his time in prison, physically weakened, and how he longs to keep this fit young man close by, to continue to support and help him.
But Paul knows that he needs to let Onesimus go, to allow him to return to Philemon, where he will, as Paul hopes, be accepted into the household once more. We don’t have any idea of what went wrong between Onesimus and his master, but we do know that not only is Paul being given the choice regarding whether he holds on to Onesimus or not, but Philemon is being asked to choose between hanging onto bitterness and anger over whatever Onesimus did in the past, or offering forgiveness to this young man who has become such a useful worker for Christ.
In a way, Philemon is given a choice between holding onto his past life – continuing to hold a grudge against Onesimus – or moving forward into a new life, working for Christ with this young man at his side. The Israelites too were given a similar choice: to move forward into a new stage of their covenant with Yahweh, to step into the Promised Land in obedience to him, or to hold onto the disobedience and sinfulness of their old lives wandering in the desert and succumbing to temptations to worship false idols.
And I think this is the choice that Jesus is offering to his listeners in the reading from Luke. It is a hard reading, using stark language that shocks us. Is Jesus really telling us to hate our family? To capture the attention of his listeners, he uses the imagery of crucifixion, of battles, of mockery.
But in the end what he is doing is offering us a choice:
Do we hold onto our past lives – here represented by family – or do we choose to reject our old ways and to go forward with Jesus? Of course, Jesus isn’t saying we must reject our family and our friends, but what he is saying is that we must weigh up what following him will cost us, and if we decide to follow him, then he comes before all others. And he warns us – it won’t be easy.
In using the imagery of picking up one’s cross, Jesus is telling us that we need to understand that actually, for those who delight in the law of the Lord everything we do may not prosper – at least, not in the accepted thinking of the world. If we decide to follow Jesus then everything will NOT be rosy, we will be asked to do hard things, we may be asked to face hard decisions: but if we are faithful to God, then he will be faithful to us.
During the second part of 2017 I had been feeling that I had rather let go of God, and I had been praying that I would find a way back to him. In November of that year I went to the COMB organised Vocational training conference in Budapest. During the days there I not only became more and more aware that God was going to ask something big of me, but that through this I would become closer to him. I felt very excited, a little apprehensive, yes, but excited. What would it be? Was he going to call me to ordained ministry? Was he going to ask me to take a bigger part in Christ Church? How was God going to bless me, and prosper me?
How? As some of you know, it was in December 2017 that I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Blessing? Prosperity? I don’t think this is quite what the prosperity gospel has in mind!
But, actually, yes. It was a blessing. It was a cross that I had no choice about, but it was through the experience that I became closer to God once more. It certainly wasn’t the way I’d have chosen, but I do believe that it shows that while we may not understand the way God calls us to follow him, it will bring the peace, and the prosperity, that the world does not understand.
The radical language used in Luke reminds us that the choice that Jesus offers us is uncompromising: change your lives but be aware that there is a cost to this discipleship. It may cause consternation in family and friends, there will be competing loyalties. It may cause division and unrest, but at the very heart of what Jesus asks of us, is love.
It’s a challenge, but it is an exciting and rewarding challenge. Faced with a world where many people are finding themselves increasingly isolated and where politicians and advertisers play on their fears and encourage them to bar their doors and lock out the world, the call to live as a part of a community that pulls down the walls and encourages us to push beyond the shallows into the deep waters of love, is an exciting invitation indeed. It doesn’t come easily though. Love is something that has to be worked at. Shallow love is easy and costs little, but the real challenges and the real rewards come to those who push beyond their comfort zones and invest some solid commitment and some solid work into building deep and grace-filled love.
If we are prepared to take that road, to follow Jesus into a new pattern and depth of loving relationships, we need to be under no illusions. Do not imagine that we’re likely to be thanked and applauded for it. Any time we take steps that are seen by others as socially disruptive, we can expect to be accused of irresponsibility and failure to do our duty. But this is what Christ asks of us when he calls us to follow him. Forget what others might say, Jesus says, forget who you were before: what are you going to do now ?
Maybe you have not quite made the decision to follow Christ – the words recounted in Luke are hardly persuasive and reassuring! In many ways they are off putting: it will be hard, says Jesus. You must be prepared to face opposition and indifference; you need to be ready to see beyond your own pettiness and prejudice to love others who do not love you. Think about it, says Jesus, but then take up your cross and you will be led into ways of peace and prosperity that the world can only dream of.
And if you have already put your hand into the hand of God, and promised to follow where he leads you, then perhaps you need to remind yourself to stop yearning for the prosperity of this world, but to look forward again to what it is that Christ offers us: he offers us a part to play in creating a world where God acts with steadfast love, justice and righteousness. He calls on us to do his work in bringing about the Kingdom of God.
It will be hard; it may ask of you more than you thought you could bear; but it will be worth it.
Lord God We find freedom when we commit ourselves to doing your will on earth as it is in heaven;
we find freedom when we live our lives in harmony with your justice and peace and mercy.
We find freedom when we embrace your way of living; a way of living that is defined by love
Help us to always choose your way. Help us always to choose life. Amen.