The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 18, 8 September 2013

Jeremiah 18:1-11
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1-21
Saint Luke 14:25-33


Background: Philemon

This book gives us a glimpse into the private life of Paul and of his friend and “brother – fellow laborer” Philemon.  In the letter, Paul does not function with “apostolic authority” but rather as a Christian brother.  It may be that Philemon was a fellow leader in the Church, most especially a house-church in Colossae in Phrygia.  Paul identifies himself as a “prisoner of Jesus Christ” which indicates that the letter was probably composed during his house arrest in Rome around 62 CE.  The situation is complex.  We learn of Philemon’s wife (?) Apphia, and his son (?) Archippus, and of a run-away slave Onesimus.  This is the situation that Paul addresses in his letter to Philemon.  On one side stand the exigencies of Roman law, and on the other stand the Christian virtues.  Onesimus was converted to Christianity by Paul, and the relationship between the two men was most like quite close.  The book becomes an exercise in practical Christianity in the face of social norms and expectations.  The letter consists of four sections: a) Introduction (1-3), b) Thanksgiving (4-7), c) the main Body (8-22) and finally a d) Conclusion (23-25).

Jeremiah 18:1-11

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: "Come, go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words." So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the LORD came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.

This continues the Track I continuing reading from the prophet Jeremiah.  In this reading, the prophet comments on the symbolic aspect to his life.  This is a device common to prophetic literature especially in Isaiah and Hosea.  The initial phrase “The word that come to Jeremiah from YHWH” indicates a new sub-section to the work that begins here and ends in the twentieth chapter.  There is an uncanny attitude here akin to the context of Philemon, namely that in the ordinary things of life we can see and be informed of the sacred.  Here the common experience is the visitation to a potter (an image used of G-d as well).  The image of the fragile pot (if you have ever “thrown” a pot on the potter’s wheel you will well understand what I am referring to here) becomes an ample symbol of both global reality and national destiny.  G-d is pictured as the one centering the clay and shaping times, ages, and peoples.  In case the hearer doesn’t get the connections, Jeremiah indicates the symbolic connections – Israel, the clay, the Evil, shaped by G-d as well.  Repeated phrases from the call of Jeremiah (1:1-18) , “I will pluck up and break down” show the consistency of
G-d’s message through Jeremiah.  The bottom line, as always, “amend your ways.”

Breaking open Jeremiah:

1.     What do you do to actively form your life?
2.     How does G-d form your life?
3.     Have you ever thrown aspects of you life away, like a used pot?

Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 Domine, probasti

LORD, you have searched me out and known me; *
you know my sitting down and my rising up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.

You trace my journeys and my resting-places *
and are acquainted with all my ways.

Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, *
but you, O LORD, know it altogether.

You press upon me behind and before *
and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; *
it is so high that I cannot attain to it.

For you yourself created my inmost parts; *
you knit me together in my mother's womb.

I will thank you because I am marvelously made; *
your works are wonderful, and I know it well.

My body was not hidden from you, *
while I was being made in secret
and woven in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes beheld my limbs, yet unfinished in the womb;
all of them were written in your book; *
they were fashioned day by day,
when as yet there was none of them.

How deep I find your thoughts, O God! *
how great is the sum of them!

If I were to count them, they would be more in number than the sand; *
to count them all, my life span would need to be like yours.

In this psalm we meet the psalmist as an interior being, meditating on the graciousness of the G-d who creates.  Akin to Job’s description of G-d’s measuring and plumbing the heights and depths of the cosmos, so does G-d know the internal dimensions of thought and existence of the author (“you discern my thoughts from afar”).  In verse three, the psalmist refers to his “resting-places” or better yet his “lair” – a place for rest and sleep and the dreams that enable us to know our selves.  Even this, G-d knows.  In a phrase similar to the Jeremiah reading, we have the feeling of the Potter-G-d who shapes us, “You press upon me behind and before.”  It is in verse 12 that we begin to see the similarities to Job 10 especially beginning in verse 8.  The comparisons and poetry are quite lovely.  This psalm, which began with a psychological introversion, now continues with the wonder of the physical interior of humankind.  Womb, and “inmost parts” (kidneys – the organ of consciousness) are known by G-d, who both understands and creates them.  In the verse immediately preceding the passages on “my innermost parts”, the psalmist talks about darkness, an allusion to the womb where humankind is formed.  Existence and time are known by G-d, and the psalmist rejoices in that knowledge.

A suggestion:  Read the entire psalm so that the whole context of wonder might inform your study of the verses that the lectionary selects.

Breaking open Psalm 139:

1.     Do you ever get lost in yourself and in your existence?
2.     What do you find there?
3.     Is G-d there?


Deuteronomy 30:15-20

Moses said to all Israel the words which the Lord commanded him, "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. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the LORD swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob."

Although the words of this reading are placed in the mouth of Moses, their context and import suggest a much later date.  One commentator titles this section of Deuteronomy as a “Liturgical Address to the Exilic Community” (Deuteronomy 30:1-20).  When we read through Moses' address, which was what YHWH expected of him, we see themes and situations laid out that were faced by those who returned from exile with the release promulgated by Cyrus the Great (see note below).  What faces them is “life and prosperity, death and adversity”.  Such was the pattern before the exile, about which the prophets warned the people.  As if to make them aware of those by-gone days G-d places before them expectations: Observance of the Commands, Walking in G-d’s ways, observe the law.  What comes after that is life – life in the land.  In a classic prophetic “rib” pattern, heaven and earth are called to witness what G-d sets before Israel: “life and death, blessings and curses”.  It is classic covenantal speech that beseeches Israel to do one thing.  “Choose life!”

Breaking open Psalm Deuteronomy:

1.     Have you ever gotten lost in life?  What happened?
2.     How did you return?
3.     What role did G-d play in your return?

Psalm 1 Beatus vir qui non abiit

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, *
nor lingered in the way of sinners,
nor sat in the seats of the scornful!

Their delight is in the law of the LORD, *
and they meditate on his law day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,
bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; *
everything they do shall prosper.

It is not so with the wicked; *
they are like chaff which the wind blows away.

Therefore the wicked shall not stand upright when judgment comes, *
nor the sinner in the council of the righteous.

For the LORD knows the way of the righteous, *
but the way of the wicked is doomed.

It is as if the unknown soul written about by the psalmist here embodies what the Deuteronomist hopes of the returning exilic people.  In a sense the psalmist describes the ideal person.  All of its aspects shine with Wisdom – the common understanding throughout the Ancient Near East about life, mores, and virtues.  Here all of these portions of Wisdom are assigned to the ones who love YHWH.  They are compared to the “wicked” that are like chaff.  Another agricultural image describes the righteous – “like a tree planted by streams of water”.  Note, however that it is not an ideal tree always in bloom and with fruit – no, times and seasons govern these as well.  Real life is lived by both the righteous and the wicked.  The righteous will be given the way of life, a path not granted to the sinner.

Breaking open Psalm 1:

1.     What is the righteousness of your life?
2.     What is wicked in your life?
3.     How do you choose between them?

Philemon 1-21
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love-- and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, 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; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 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.

So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

If you have not done so, please refer to the Background section above. Our reading today consists of the bulk of the letter to Philemon.  Out of the heart of a common, everyday situation, Paul urges his brother in Christ to move beyond the norms that surround him in the Roman culture that informed daily life.  Paul asks Philemon to receive back his runaway slave, Onesimus, and then, like Abraham at Sodom, asks him to go farther and to send Onesimus back to Paul for “he is indeed useful to you and to me.”  In the privacy of their relationship, Paul pushes the boundaries of their relationship in Christ.  There is no preaching against slavery, nor is there any accusation about Philemon’s desiring Onesimus’ return.  Instead there is the request to understand this as a situation unique to these two, no three, Christian men.  Paul is able here to use the slave language to advantage, he who described himself as a slave to Christ.  Thus he describes the possibility for Onesimus as “no longer a slave but more than a slave.”  Paul does not push his apostolic authority, but yet implies a greater authority that ought to direct Philemon’s response, “Confident of your obedience.”   The authority is Christ’s.

Breaking open Philemon:

1.               When has an ordinary event in your life talked to you about your faith?
2.               What did you learn from that interior discussion?
3.               Did you make decisions based on it?

St. Luke 14:25-33

Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus; and he turned and said to them, "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. 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? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, `This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions."

We have been enjoying a continuing reading from Luke as well, and it might serve us well to remember what has come before this powerful pericope.  In chapter 13: The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree, the Cure of a Crippled Woman on the Sabbath, The Parable of the Mustard Seed, The Parable of the Yeast, The Narrow Door, and Chapter 14: The Healing of the Man with Dropsy on the Sabbath, and last Sunday’s Gospel, Conduct of Invited Guests and Hosts.  This is the context for the difficult sayings that confront us this morning.  We might be tempted to think of this as a family matter, and in a manner of speaking it is.  The family of reference is really the larger family of discipleship.  What is it, we ought to wonder, that Jesus really calls us to, and do we know the cost of it.  A quotation from Dietrich Bonhöffer comes to mind:

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Therefore the “hatred” of father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters” is not disaffection from persons we love, but rather understanding the even greater things that Christ calls us to.  If you review the parables that precede this reading you can see how Jesus reaches beyond family to those that were outside of the normal vision of social acceptance.  The final sentence is one that we do not wrestle with, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  We might wonder what the purpose of such a dispossession might be.  Is it for the resulting wealth to be given to the poor, or is it to focus us on the Kingdom and all those who are a part of it?  Thus the crippled woman, the man with dropsy, and the guests from the highways and byways become a signal to us of those who really belong, who are really our common treasure, and who represent the ministry that Christ calls us to. 

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How close are you to your family?  Who is in and who is out?
  2. Do you have a virtual family?
  3. Do you have a family in Christ?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts; for, as you always resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so you never forsake those who make their boast of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller


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