Sunday, 8 September 2019

Trinity 12: Life and Death choices

Audio version here

“You’ve got to hate your family” says Jesus in today’s Gospel. What?! That’s not what we come to church to hear, even if Auntie Mavis is rather irritating!  Whatever happened to family values, or loving your neighbours – and surely that includes your family?

Has Jesus gone mad?

Of course, there is more to this than meets the eye – you expected me to say that – but this sounds like pretty shocking stuff, and in a week like the one we’ve all had, watching our politicians tear each other apart, and with no end in sight, we may not feel in the mood for such a tough message. It’s more love we need, not more hate.

I doubt whether Jesus’ first hearers found this any easier to hear than we do, so why does he say it?

“Large crowds were travelling with him,” Luke tells us. They were travelling with him, tagging along to see what he would do next. But Jesus knew perfectly well that many of this crowd were going to melt away when trouble came, as it inevitably would. You don’t have to be the Son of God to work that out. It’s what always happens when the Next Big Thing comes along, whether it is Greta Thunberg or the latest Soap star. They are pushed up onto a pedestal, whether they like it or not, the embodiment of our hopes and dreams, but rapidly knocked off again, or simply forgotten, when they don’t deliver the magic solution to our problems. The truth is, of course, that there are no quick fixes. It takes hard graft and steady commitment not just from one superstar, but from all of us, to see the changes we need, and even then, it will turn out to be more complicated than we hoped, with reverses and failures along the way. But that’s not the message we want to hear, because it means work and possibly suffering for us.

The people Luke wrote his Gospels for, around AD80, knew that all too well. They’d witnessed the imprisonment and death of many of the first disciples at the hands of the Roman authorities. On top of that, the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70  and expelled its Jewish inhabitants, forbidding them to live there. This included the Christians, because they were just another Jewish sect at this point. This catastrophe created a crisis of faith for the Jewish people. Every group fought with every other group, blaming them for the chaos and destruction. It would have made Brexit look like a walk in the park. Families were divided. People had to choose. Who would they follow? Whose opinion would they trust? Which way would they go? Whichever way they chose, they had to accept that others – perhaps their own families – would choose differently, that there would be division.

That’s the backdrop to Luke’s Gospel, written in the 80s AD. Of course Jesus isn’t telling us to hate our families, but he is warning that living life with integrity will inevitably mean making decisions at some point, and our decisions might put us at odds with those around us. It’s tempting to choose our path in life simply by following the crowd, but in this passage we aren’t just called to be followers, passively tagging along for the ride. We are called to be disciples. The word “disciple” literally means a “learner”. Learning – all learning - changes us. It changes our way of thinking, maybe our way of being too.  If we want to be disciples of Christ we need to be open to being changed by the experience of knowing him. That means making an active, intentional choice, counting the cost and accepting the consequences.

The letter to Philemon, which formed our second reading today, is an illustration of one early Christian who is asked to do just that. Philemon has a slave called Onesimus who has either run away or been sent away. Somehow he’s found his way to St Paul, and Onesimus has become a Christian himself. But now what? Paul can’t keep him; he’s in prison. But he is obviously anxious about sending him back. Roman heads of households, like Philemon, had the power of life and death over their slaves. Philemon would be entitled in law to punish Onesimus, even to kill him, but Paul wants him not only to accept Onesimus back again, but to accept him as a brother in Christ, not as a slave. It might seem obviously right to us, but it would have been a big ask at the time. What would Philemon’s peers have made of this, slave owning, well-to-do men like himself? What if it gave their slaves ideas above  their station, incited them to run away or rebel? What about the financial implications – the economics of the ancient world depended on the vast army of unpaid slave labour.

Philemon has to make a choice, and though it might seem an easy, obvious one to us, it wasn’t for him, and might have profound consequences. We don’t know what happened next, whether he did as Paul asked or not. It would be fascinating to discover.

Christians throughout the ages have faced similar dilemmas. During my sabbatical researches into saints I came across many who had had to step out of the niches their society expected them to occupy, to swim against the tide, and who paid the price for it –Santa Rosalia of Palermo was typical. She was a twelfth century Christian nobleman’s daughter who felt called to become a hermit, praying in solitude. Her family were horrified. They had a marriage planned for her, which would enhance their power and secure their dynasty. In her society women, especially noble ones, didn’t expect to have a choice about whether or whom they married. But Rosalia was determined. She ran away into the mountains that surrounded Palermo, and made her home, her hermitage, in the caves there, moving from one to another to hide from them.

It wasn’t until many centuries later that her bones were discovered, and miracles began to be attributed to her, but whether Rosalia’s afterlife as a miraculous healer is true or not, her first life, as a religious fugitive from a forced marriage is entirely likely. It’s a feature of many saints’ stories. Women who felt called to a religious life, to ministry, to study, to prayer – to anything other than marrying and having children to further their families’ interests - often paid a very high price for it, as they still do in some communities. The stories of early female saints, and many male ones too, are stories of resistance to the political and economic demands of their society. For men too there were often tough choices, refusing to fight for an unjust cause, rejecting their families’ pressures to gain or maintain status and wealth. The stories, of the saints, I discovered, are stories of people who were prepared to be changed by their faith, to learn, to be disciples, not just travelling with Jesus as long as it suited them, like the crowds in the Gospel story, but in it for life.

Today the pressures on us to conform are usually far less stark, but they can be just as powerful because they are so insidious. We fall into step with our friends, agreeing with their opinions even if we think they’re wrong privately, because we fear losing their friendship if we challenge them. We do what others want us to do because we don’t want to look uncooperative or uncaring, even if we don’t think it is the right thing for them or for us. We follow the train tracks laid down by our class or social group, because we can’t imagine our lives if we didn’t.

And does it really matter? Yes, says Moses, in our first reading. It does. In fact, it can be a life and death decision, not always physically, but certainly spiritually, both for us and for those our decisions affect. Moses was speaking to the ex-slaves who he had led out of Egypt. They were on the brink of entering the Promised Land, but how would they live when they got there? Would they remember the lessons they’d learned in the wilderness about the kind of society God wanted them to be, a society where there was love and respect and care for the poor and oppressed, as they had once been? It all depended on who they looked to for guidance. Would they fall in with the societies around them, who, let it be said, practiced child sacrifice amongst other things? Or would they keep their eyes on the God who had rescued them from oppression and faithfully nurtured and cared for them in the wilderness?

It’s up to you, said Moses. However great a leader he was, he knew that this next bit was out of his control, out of the control of any leader, just as it is today; no one can make anyone else do anything.  Every one of us shapes the society we live in day by day by our own decisions, our own choices, our own acts, however small they seem. When we stay silent in the face of injustice, prejudice and hatred, we choose death, not only for ourselves but for our communities. When we choose the cheapest deal rather than the fairest, we choose death, not only for ourselves, but for workers we’ll never see in nations far away, and maybe even for the ecosystem we all depend on. When we demonise others because they’re different from us, we choose death, not only for ourselves, but for any chance of a peaceful future for the world.

“Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked” says Psalm 1. Of course, the right path isn’t always obvious, and people may legitimately differ on how to get to where we need to be, but today’s readings call us at least to ask whose counsel we are listening to, what pressures we are giving in to. They call us to be aware of the choices we’re making and take responsibility for them, so we can count the cost, and be ready to pay it.

We might prefer to hear something comforting and escapist this week, with so much chaos and confusion around us, but these passages don’t offer us that option. Along with their challenge, though, comes a glorious invitation; to be that tree standing by the waterside, to sink our roots deep into the soil of God’s love, to let our roots be watered by his Spirit, so that we can stand firm in times of trouble, and be fruitful whatever happens.  

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