a sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 18C/Lectionary 23]
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Philemon 1-21 and Luke 14:25-33
“I have set before you life and death,” says the Lord, “blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.”
Choose life. Ha! If only it were that easy, right?
There is a famous psychological experiment using children called the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. This experiment has been studied and referenced for decades and has spawned countless memes on social media. The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment is actually a name given to a series of similar tests that were first conducted at Stanford University in 1972.They were devised to study the development of long-term thinking, decision-making, and delayed gratification in young children. The experiments all centered on the same simple strategy: a child about the age of 4 or 5 would be brought into a room and sat at a table where they were offered some kind of treat—usually a marshmallow but sometimes animal cracker. The person conducting the experiment would tell them they could have that treat then—the one laid before them—or wait another fifteen minutes and receive even more treats. They were allowed to play with toys while they waited or they could just sit still, but if they went ahead and helped themselves to the marshmallow before fifteen minutes was up, they would not get the additional treat.
As it turns out, waiting for even fifteen minutes was much too hard for many of the children. Many of them just went ahead and chose the marshmallow that was already before them, tempting as it was, even if it meant losing out on two marshmallows later. You know what that sounds like? That sounds like I should be wary of any children’s sermons from Stanford University.
But it also sounds like the Israelites when we meet them this morning. Poised at the edge of the Promised Land, they are presented with a choice. God has led them to this point so that they may wisely choose to life. God has steadfastly guided them through forty years in the wilderness,(and they’re going to have to wait just a little more before they’re done), and now God has brought them here, at the edge of the land, so that they may consider their options. God encourages them to hold back from following other gods and serving them, as tempting as they will be, seeing as how those other gods will be right in front of them all the time, and instead choose to love and serve God. If they do that, it will mean life and length of days. And, of course, we know how the story goes. They eventually enter their Promised Land and right off the bat struggle to choose life and keep God’s commandments.
When we meet Philemon today, by way of Paul’s letter to him, we find him being presented with a choice, too. Philemon is a relatively well-off and well-connected guy, known well to Paul, and we learn that Onesimus, Philemon’s slave, has run away. Somewhere along the line, Onesimus has bumped into Paul and become a follower of Christ. Unfortunately we don’t have any backstory hereabout why Onesimus ran away from Philemon, or how Onesimus came under the care and friendship of Paul. All we know is that Onesimus has somehow become a spiritual child to Paul while Paul was in prison. It’s like Paul is Onesimus’ confirmation mentor.
In a play on words of Onesimus’ name in the Greek, Paul says that Onesimus is now finally “useful” because he is no longer enslaved, but treated as a full human. Now it’s time for Paul to send Onesimus back to Philemon hoping that Philemon will receive his former slave as a brother in Christ. That is, Philemon will receive Onesimus not as someone he still owns and is in a position of authority over, but as someone he loves as a fellow Christian and is now equal to.
And there, we discover, is Philemon’s choice: take Onesimus back as he formerly was, a slave, as someone lesser-than, or receive him as a brother and see Onesimus as someone whose true worth is not bound up in what kind of work he can do under compulsion, but instead through the gifts that the Spirit has given him to share freely with the world. Can Philemon see past, perhaps, his own status and embrace Onesimus as a true equal? Let the old arrangement go and make room for new life? We never know what happens to Philemon and Onesimus and their relationship, but I imagine that it was pretty difficult for Philemon, given what social pressures he might have been under, to receive Onesimus as a free man.
In so many case, scenarios like this make choices about faith and life seem so easy, don’t they? Here’s one option…and then here’s the other. Now it’s your turn: just make a choice. Easy peasy. But if there is anything that I have observed throughout my days is that it’s so hard to make that choice. I have learned from people in recovery from the disease of addiction are very wise about this matter—that the act of choosing life and prosperity and health is a lot more difficult than most of us would care to admit.
One TikTok influencer I’ve run across several times is a woman in recovery from alcohol abuse. Just the other day she hit day 365 of sobriety—one whole year—and to mark it she made a post just sitting in her car talking about how she’s not going to make a big to-do about it because the next—day 366—will be another day to make the difficult but life-freeing choice to stay sober. She explains how she uses her TikTok followers as a community that helps hold her accountable. In the post she holds up the little token she received from her AA meeting as the humble prize that reminds her the journey will continue the next day and the day after that. Choices of faith can be difficult, even when they are framed in such basic and easy terms.
That’s why we should like how Jesus talks to the crowds in this morning’s gospel even though he says so many things that don’t initially sit well with us. We are to hate our family and even our very life to follow him. We are to carry the cross. We must give up all our possessions. What Jesus is doing is being honest about how hard it actually is to make choices. He’s being forthright with us about how the act of faith is arduous. It’s a procession, but not a parade. It’s a type of contest, but not a game. Jesus is getting real here about the choices and the calculations that necessarily come when one joins up for his journey, and while it sounds off-putting, it is ultimately to our benefit. It is to our benefit because all we often see in the moment is the sweet marshmallow of a charismatic leader forgetting something far better is to come.
That’s the issue with the crowds at this juncture in the story. They are ready to march right on into Jerusalem and take what they see is theirs, stick it to the Roman occupiers. More and more are signing on because Jesus feels like the popular and attractive option at this point.
And Jesus is now leveling with them…and with us. When he says we have to hate our father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, he doesn’t mean that in the emotional angry way that we usually imply with the word “hate.” It’s just a middle-eastern way of saying that in following Jesus we must be willing to detach ourselves from some of these other ties. We will find ourselves in situations where our faith will call our other relationships into question, kind of like Philemon and his relationship with Onesimus.
When he says we must hate our life he doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy a hot coffee, or a good beer, or the way our lover’s body feels, or the other things God has given us to enjoy in this good creation. What it means is that our devotion to Jesus will redefine and recalibrate our attachments and affiliations to all other things in life. It will change how we spend our money, how we use our voice in society, how we prioritize our time and talent. Our following Jesus will influence how we regard other people, people the world tricks us into viewing primarily through the lens of our privilege and status. The call to follow, you see, involves calculations, some long-term thinking that can take us off guard.
Here’s my question, though: But can we really calculate it all? Can we ever be sure of our abilities to account for all of the costs beforehand? Can we, standing in this moment in time, predict all the twists and turns that the journey of discipleship might take? Can little Eliza, or her parents, with the water still moistening her head, have a clue what all her faith will get her into throughout her life? Can the couple I married last weekend, standing in the most beautiful of settings, on the eighteenth green of a golf course, before their friends and family, have any clue about all the twists and turns their marriage will inevitably take, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health?
Can the congregation, emerging groggily out of two long years of a pandemic, have a clue what the new normal of ministry and church life will look like? Can we know every little detail, for example, what Sunday School for kids will look and feel like with a third of the teachers and half the kids we once had? There is some anxiety about this, perhaps, but this week several teacher volunteers emailed Pastor Sarah and said, “We’re ready to try this, no matter how different it will be.” As for confirmation mentors, this is the first year I’ve never had to go out and beat the bushes. We actually had two more sign up than we needed! In all of these cases, and in each of our choices of faith and following, Jesus today just asks us to stop and consider the work and suffering and prayer that will be involved.
And all of that will be possible because we’re following the one who does know the ultimate cost and he’s willing to pay it. All of the joys and new discoveries of these endeavors will come because Jesus will never abandon us. Jesus has you and me in his long-term thinking from the word go. That we can make these choices is a fact because Jesus has first chosen us. He is the man who builds the tower to protect us and he is the king who sends in his army of mercy and love to conquer us. It takes all he has, but he has calculated in his love that we are worth it. On the cross he offers his life to free us from all the bad choices we’ve made and declare us to be, like Onesimus, truly useful. In God’s eyes, we are always useful, always beloved, always a prize.
And when the going gets tough, and we feel in over our heads, and the choice seems too much to bear—the blessings, the curses, the life, the death, we meet Jesus again. We meet him again today and he comes along side us and reminds us: “you are a blessing, not a curse. Again today I choose you. Now get up, and let’s go.”
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.