Sunday, 5 September 2010

The Valley of the Squinting Windows or the Kingdom of God?

Holy Trinity Church, Rathmines, Dublin

Patrick Comerford

Holy Trinity Church, Rathmines, Dublin 6.

Sunday 5 September 2010,

The 14th Sunday after Trinity

8.30: Holy Communion:

Jeremiah 18: 1-11; Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-18; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14: 25-33

Collect


Almighty God,
whose only Son has opened for us
a new and living way into your presence:
Give us pure hearts and steadfast wills
to worship you in spirit and in truth,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

A few years, there were popular bumper stickers on cars and wristbands worn by young people that stated boldly: WWJD – “What Would Jesus Do?”

But the simplicity of the message, despite its appeal, can be disturbing if we allow it to be simplistic.

Because, at times, the Gospel readings and many of the other Bible readings can be not only challenging but puzzling too.

It’s fine if we are asked simply to love God and to love one another is fine, even if we all fail to live up to both challenges for long stretches at a time.

But what about this morning’s readings?

Our New Testament reading is all but the closing verses of one of the shortest books in the New Testament – but at times it is also one of the most puzzling. In the past it was used by those who resisted the abolition of slavery and the slave trade to justify their case, not morally but for their own vested interests.

And our Gospel reading, at first reading, appears to be telling Wannabe Disciples that they should hate “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself.”

At first reading, it appears to be shocking.

But you know, I sometimes meet Wannabe Disciples who appear to hate “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself.”

You know the sort of person – and they are of every age – who pretends to want to do the right thing but does another, who acts out of self-interest but justifies it by saying like: “Oh, I’d love to do that, you know … but my parents still need me … my family wouldn’t like me to … my friends would think me foolish to do so.”

And I’m wondering to myself, “so you’d behave like a real Christian if your mother was dead … your sister had moved to Canada … you had no friends left on this earth.”

Do they really hate those near or dear to them so much?

Do they really resent them that much?

Or is it just an excuse … a bad excuse?

So often, it seems that when it comes to making ethnical and moral decisions, we take account of what the neighbours are going to think rather than what the Kingdom of God is going to look like.

If we thought first of what our decisions and actions as Christians looked like to those who aren’t Christians, to those who would like to know what Christianity is about, then we might worry less about what family members or people living on our street were thinking about us.

Do I always act in the interests of the Kingdom of God? Or do I do things hoping that others will think better of me, not do them in case others will think less of me? Does duty get in the way of discipleship?

In our Epistle reading this morning, the Apostle Paul appeals to Philemon to act not out of duty but out of love.

Paul is not thinking of justifying slavery in this morning’s Epistle reading. Quite the opposite: he has thought of giving Onesimus his freedom, by stealth (see verse 13).

Paul could have said to Onesiumus he was free on condition he stayed in Rome, or Caesarea or Ephesus, or wherever Paul was writing from. But only on condition that he worked with him (see verses 10 and 11); that would have been conditional freedom only, not true and total freedom.

Paul appeals to Philemon to act not in his own interests, but in the interests of the Kingdom of God.

Imagine if Philemon decided not to listen to Paul. Imagine if he worried about what his neighbours or his family said? Imagine his father saying this is a prize slave I bought for you as a present? Or a neighbour saying, if you free him all the slaves here in Colossae, slaves throughout Phrygia, will be demanding freedom?

The only person who can really free Onesiumus is his owner. And to do that, he must risk ridicule from his family and neighbours. But in doing so, he has the opportunity to be a sign of the Kingdom of God, to be a sign, a token, a sacrament of how God acts towards us.

And each time we return to God, turn back to Christ, then like Onesimus, we can expect to be received not as slaves, but as free brothers and sisters of Christ, welcomed, no longer owing anything, no longer having held against us those things we have done and left undone.

God gives us complete freedom in Christ. And when it comes to making decisions that require moral or ethical action on our part, if we are faced with the choice of living in the Valley of the Squinting Windows or the Kingdom of God, then we must always choose the Kingdom of God, even at the point of risking ridicule.

Then we are no longer slaves but free.

And so may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This address was delivered at the Eucharist in Holy Trinity Church, Rathmines, Dublin, at 8.30 a.m. on Sunday 5 September 2010.

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