The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

How does change happen?

Change is at the core of our Eucharists. In the Great Thanksgiving the celebrant prays:

“Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him. Sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace…”

The change in the bread and wine: that’s the simple part. The change in us (“sanctify us”)—how does that work? One of the images Scripture uses is that of potter and clay. From Isaiah we hear “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” (64:8). And texts in the Wisdom of Solomon (15:7), Sirach (33:13), and Paul highlight the potter’s freedom to do with the clay as he wills. From Romans: “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one object for special use and another for ordinary use?” (9:21). The meditation in today’s psalm runs along parallel lines: “For you yourself created my inmost parts; / you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”

From the way Paul uses the image in Romans we might conclude that we have as little to do with the change in us as we have in the change in the bread and wine. Which is why we need Jeremiah. If we listen to what Jeremiah is saying—as opposed to what we assume he’s saying—what we hear is that the potter is responsive to what the clay does.

“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.”

When it comes to change in us, our choices matter.

That, of course, is what drives Jesus’ words in our Gospel reading. Hyperbole is one of Jesus’ favorite rhetorical tools, and here, in the style of Moses’ final speeches in Deuteronomy, he lays out the either-or: disciple or not, life or death: your choice. And sometimes we need that sort of wake-up call.

But most of the time, I’d guess, we need something other than the sledgehammer—which brings us to our reading from Philemon.

I recalled this letter a few weeks back. Philemon’s slave Onesimus had run away, ran into Paul, and become a Christian. Paul is sending Onesimus back with this letter, in which he appeals to Philemon to receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” “Welcome him as you would welcome me.”

The stakes are high for everyone. Onesimus: the owner’s free to do whatever he wants with his property, so returning to your owner might look like a monumentally bad idea. Philemon: he’s a Christian, but one look at Onesimus may be enough for him to revert to business as usual. Paul: Paul can write inspiring letters: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27-28). When push comes to shove, is that true?

The stakes are high, which makes Paul’s approach all the more surprising. In much of our experience, the higher the stakes, the greater the coercion. Come April 15, Washington does not appeal to me to file my tax return. And it’s easy to take the absence of coercion as evidence that the issue isn’t important. For the state that’s often true; for Paul—or God, for that matter—no. Paul values Philemon’s freedom—God values our freedom—too highly to coerce, even when the stakes are high. (Not that Paul won’t get pretty close to that line, even while trying not to cross it!)

So Paul points toward the desired outcome: that Philemon receive Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” “Welcome him as you would welcome me.” “Knowing that you will do even more than I say.” But Paul leaves the details—all the crucial details—in Philemon’s hands.

How does change happen? Paul’s letter to Philemon is an important model. The safe thing would have been for Paul to keep Onesimus away from Philemon. Paul—and Onesimus—choose to give this slave-owner Philemon the opportunity to contribute to this “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” business.

Let me take the “so what?” in two different directions.

Paul’s encouragement to Philemon to let his Christian identity shape his conduct: who knows what that might inspire if we stay awake? My home parish, St. Dunstan’s, aware that the church sits on property previously belonging to the Ho-Chunk, put together a Land Acknowledgement Task Force a while back, which concluded that simply saying “Sorry ‘bout that” was insufficient. So, starting this year, there’s a $4,000 line item in the annual budget—under building, not outreach—to go to the Ho-Chunk. It’s a step.

The way Paul appeals to Philemon is probably a helpful model for us as we interact with each other regarding the important stuff. Paul really cares what Philemon decides. He’s not shy about appealing to their shared history. But he wants Philemon’s decision to be free, not coerced. You could do worse than read Philemon together with your new rector!

The psalmist prayed “I will thank you because I am marvelously made; / your works are wonderful, and I know it well.” Philemon, Onesimus, Paul, you, me: all marvelously made, all terribly vulnerable. And our ever-hopeful God sends us together into the coming week.

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