Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, September 04 2016, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Jer 18:1-11; Ps 139:1-5,12-17; Philem 1-21; Lk 14:25-33

In several of the gospels, as Jesus draws closer to Jerusalem, to the crucifixion which appears to be final movement of the narrative, he starts to make deliberately provocative and difficult statements, statements which seem to be designed to drive away those who are only casually interested, to make sure that those who continue to follow him have some sense at least of what they are getting into. Today’s passage from Luke is, obviously, one of those occasions; it is fair to assume that the large crowds probably got rather smaller at this point—in fact, in the sentences immediately afterwards, it appears that it is now mainly composed of “tax collectors and sinners”, the desperate, the despised, the ones with nothing to be proud of and not much to lose.

The exhortation to hate the members of your family is, I think, where contemporary minds struggle the most. This seems like poor and unkind advice, and indeed, taken at face value, it certainly would be. But there are some important pieces of context here. First of all, this comes directly after the parable of the great banquet, in which we are urged not to invite to our tables those who can repay us, but those who have nothing to give,who cannot invite us to dinner in return, whose company we would not particularly seek or enjoy, who cannot make our actions “worthwhile” in any reasonable sense. To some degree, Jesus is continuing on this same theme, reminding us that if we restrict our care to those who care for us, we are creating, not the kingdom, but a little closed circle of like-minded people; and, attractive as this may be, it is not what we are actually called to do. But we also have admit that, based on all his recorded sayings, Jesus didn’t have a great deal of time for the family as an institution, something which makes the fixation of the church on families and “family values” more than a bit ironic. Indeed, on the one recorded occasion when Jesus spoke well of marriage, the only thing he seemed to think was really good about it is that it breaks up the bonds of biological family.

Family can be many things, and a lot of them are good things. It can be an intimate community of mutual support, a place where we are loved and accepted, an emotional safe haven; and we are encouraged to think that family is always this, and only this. But the dark side of this is the family as the location of social control. We know we are meant to value family loyalty; and sometimes, we are told to value that family loyalty above what we know to be truth. How many people have been told not to take a stand for what they believe, because it would upset the family? Told not to call out a racist comment because it was spoken by a family member? Told not to come out, not to be a full and true self, because it would cause sadness and conflict in the family? How many people end up structuring their careers, their lives, around what their families want and expect?

This was even more true in the time of Jesus, when the family was perhaps the primary instrument of social control and power; family relations were overtly power relations, political relations, from the patriarch at the top to the slaves at the bottom—for nearly every Roman family included slaves. And debate among scholars has never quite settled, by the way, what the writer of the letter to Philemon is doing with family language here—is he asking that the runaway slave Onesimus be received back into a new peer relationship, as a free man, or is he using sentimental family language to gloss over the fact that he is really sending a slave back into slavery, and simply urging his owners to treat him more nicely, now that he is a Christian? Is the family language being used to allow the imagination of liberation, or—and I fear this is more likely—to lock everyone back into their places, but lay a light emotional veneer of kindness upon them? And how far do we do the same things now, baptize existing power relationships, sentimentalize them with talk of families and affection?

To break away from the family, in the Roman world, was huge, impossible; perhaps it was only marriage which offered even a faint glimpse of a different and creative possibility, the building up of new and chosen relationships of shared values (though very few marriages in that society could ever have really functioned that way). But it is not entirely different even now.

When Jesus tells us to love our neighbours and our enemies, he doesn’t anticipate that we will necessarily like our neighbours, or want to have backyard barbeques with the people who harm us. Similarly, when he tells us to hate our family members, he does not mean that we should dislike them personally, or that it is in some way Christian to be nasty and rude to your nearest relatives. And he certainly does not mean that every single impulse of rebellion or rupture is the prophetic leading of God. But he does mean that the structures of family loyalty, however sentimentalized, cannot be allowed to control us any more than any of the other structures of this world. We must break the closed circles, whatever they are. We must break into the arc of God’s confounding, demanding, embracing love.

For this world is a burning house; and our task, our collective task, is to rescue first of all not those bound to us by blood or law or affection, but the hopeless and the helpless, the ones who will not save themselves, the ones who cannot or will not ever thank us or pay us back. It is just as hard as it sounds; and it is our collective task because none of us can do it alone. It is the work a new community, brought together by chance and imagination, a chosen family of care.

And it is not something that should ever be taken lightly. In a society where many people more or less inherit church membership, precisely through their families; where it is not a rupture, not a counter-cultural choice, but a pre-made assumption—we can forget what it means, to follow the one who was crucified, the one who stood in the way of all the powers of his day and all the violence of which human beings are capable, and offered God’s own self in love. It should cost everything. To seek justice for the lost, love for the unlovely and the ungrateful, hope for the broken, none of this can be done without cost. It is a commitment absolute and fearful, a costly project which lasts a lifetime. It will take away our safety, it will exhaust us and make us outsiders, it may mean we are failures in the eyes of the world.

And it will mean that we ourselves are constantly reshaped and remade, like clay on a wheel. More than one prophet went down to the potter’s house in vision, and Jeremiah’s version is perhaps not the most positive—employing a rather savage sort of rhetoric, with God telling the people of Israel basically that they’re a bad pot and he’s going to smash them, which probably reflects the mind of the traumatized prophet more than the mind of God. And yet even in Jeremiah’s vignette, the potter continues to struggle with the clay, to make it meaningful and good; and it is notable that despite the language of breaking and destroying, it does seem that the potter is not actually finishing pots and then breaking them, something no good potter would be likely to do, but reshaping the unfinished mass, over and over, hoping still to transform it into something worthwhile; as we ourselves, in the hands of time and chance, in the hands of a God who knew us before we knew ourselves, may, if we allow it, be remade into something more like the selves we are called to be.

So we try to hang on, with the tax collectors and the sinners and all the other losers, all of us who have nowhere else to go, taking up the cross of this world’s pain and our own inadequacy, knowing the cost, here in the burning house. But knowing too that we ourselves are known, are held, that love made us and sustains us, that love walks with us. There may be much that we must give up, there may be much that is taken from us, and it may confusing and it may be lonely. We may never fully understand. But we are each of us made to be beautiful and good, to create a new and changed community, to do the work which must be done; and, like clay, to come from the fire stronger and more useful, not perhaps without flaws, but the shape of a new creation, the shape of life.