Jeremiah 181-11; Psalm 139:1-6,13-18; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
On the front page of this morning’s paper is an article about Craigslist. Craigslist is the free online advertising service. Even your church uses Craigslist. We’re trying to sell two burial plots that were gifts to the church.
Craigslist has been under attack because of its adult advertising section. Critics have accused Craigslist of promoting prostitution and abuse. In response, this past week Craigslist shut down the adult section of its website.
As you might expect, the issue at the center of the argument has been freedom of speech. This is something Americans do. We ask, “What are my rights and how can I defend those rights?” Whether its freedom of speech, freedom to own and carry handguns, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly or any of many other rights that we feel entitled to, we ask, What are my rights and how can I defend those rights?
There’s very little mention of individual rights in the Bible. In fact, the biblical writers might say there’s no such thing as individual freedom. All of us are slaves to something—or someone. The only question is: Who—or what–is my master & how will I serve?
Jesus once said, No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. This morning, we hear something like it: 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. We must choose.
If I say I hate something—or someone—it means I intensely dislike it. The word “hate” that Jesus uses had a different meaning in his day: It means choosing to be loyal to one thing over another.
This is hard for us in a modern democracy to understand. We’re not used to having to choose one thing instead of another. For example, most of us here this morning would say, “I’m loyal to God and my country. I’m loyal to God and my family. I’m loyal to God and my community, to God and my church.”
This is quite different from what Jesus teaches. When he says that in order to be his disciple we must hate family, he’s saying that at any given minute we have to choose. And if our loyalty is to God then there will be times when we will appear to be disloyal to country, & family & community.
In the teachings of Jesus, we find that there is very little individual freedom. The most important freedom we have at any given moment is to choose who—or what– will be our master.
This is the point Paul makes in his letter to Philemon. Philemon is a Christian but he’s also a slaveholder. His slave Onesimus has run away to Paul, who is in prison. Paul wants to send Onesimus back to his master but Paul pleads with Philemon to treat him not as a slave but as a Christian brother. Paul’s message is, Philemon, who is your master? Is it God, or is it yourself? Is it God, or is it your property? Is it God, or is it your rights as a Roman citizen? Is it God, or is it your need for justice? Is it God, or is it the law? Which is it, Philemon? Who—or what—will you serve?
Jesus doesn’t make the question any easier for us than Paul made it for Philemon. 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. Slaves of Jesus must choose. If we choose Jesus, there are times when we will appear disloyal to the people and things we love.
It’s no accident that Jesus speaks of family relationships. He came from a pretty large family & knew how difficult those relationships can be. Stories in the New Testament show us that there were times when he appeared disloyal toward his family in the name of loyalty to God.
Which might lead us to ask: Are there times when it might be necessary for us to seem disloyal to family in order to be loyal to Christ?
Reading the newspaper, I often come across stories about some young person who’s gotten into trouble with the law–could be anything from theft to murder. And there’s often a quote from a parent, saying something like, He’s a good boy; he’d never do anything like that. Or, if the parent has the means, they’ll bail the kid out of jail. You remember the recent story about the “Barefoot Bandit,” & how his mother stuck by him and defended him even during a long string of crimes across the country.
Once in a while, though, you’ll read about a parent who says something like, Well, maybe some jail time will do him good. That would be one of the hardest things for a loving parent to do. Such a parent might sound disloyal to some.
But Jesus said, Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. The cross that he speaks of is never some misfortune that happens to us beyond our control. It’s not an irritating person in our life. It’s not some disease or other condition we didn’t choose. No, the cross is suffering we experience on the basis of loyalty to God, freely chosen. In the example of a father whose son is in jail, the cross the father bears is not his wayward son. The cross is the suffering that the loving father accepts as the price of not rescuing his son but allowing him to stay in jail.
Families face countless opportunities to choose their loyalties. Will I be loyal to my alcoholic relative by making excuses for them or enabling their addiction? Or, am I willing to appear disloyal by allowing them to suffer for the choices they make? Do I blindly follow my parents’ beliefs and values in order to please them? Or, am I willing to appear disloyal by choosing different beliefs & values for a new time, consistent with new ways in which God is being revealed? I know a man who made the decision to tell his father he was gay. The father went into a rage. His son seemed to him disloyal. But the son said, Dad, either love me & accept me as I am or this father-son relationship is over. Fortunately, a few weeks later, the father chose to accept his son. Love always costs something.
These can be painful choices. Carrying the cross is painful. There’s no guarantee of a happy outcome, either. The addicted person may continue to make poor choices, doing harm to themselves and others. Relatives may even decide to cut off contact. But the cross that Jesus carried had no happy outcome, either. He was crucified and killed for the choices he made.
How we manage family relationships can set the tone for how we make choices in other areas, because Jesus requires us to choose our loyalties in every area of life. Christians ask, Who is my master & how will I serve? Where loyalty to God is concerned, it’s never both/and. It’s always either/or. We’re free to choose.
But as Paul had great confidence that Philemon would choose his loyalties well, so also we worship a God who has confidence in us. And when we choose poorly—as we sometimes do–still we have a God who loves us, who assures us that we are… forgiven.