The Rector’s sermon for September 8, 2019    


 Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33


Once again the subject is discipleship, specifically:  Loyalty to Jesus—becoming a disciple—creates decision and sometimes division.  The question is: are we willing to pay the price?  Oh, the Jesus we typically present to folks that we want to convert is a Jesus full of love and acceptance, the Good Shepherd who tends lost sheep, the Master who cradles little children in his arms.  But there is another side to Jesus that must not be ignored.  While the church wants to focus on the love of Jesus it sometimes turns a blind eye to the Jesus we hear from this morning.  “You must pick up your cross before you can follow me.”  Becoming a disciple means making perhaps the biggest decision of one’s life, and more often than not, answering the call to discipleship creates division.  


We begin today with the prophet Jeremiah.   Max Lucado has this to say about Jeremiah:  No church would hire Jeremiah.  He wouldn’t make it past the first interview.  Better still, he wouldn’t even make it to the interview!  He had little stomach for organized religion and one can hardly blame him.  What he saw would nauseate the worst of us.  He saw raging immorality.  He saw blatant idolatry.  He saw unbridled hypocrisy.  He saw kings who lived out his worst nightmare.  He could not weep enough tears.  He cursed the day he was born….  And it was Jeremiah’s job to tell the people of Israel: repent and become a disciple, or you will perish.   Today’s reading finds Jeremiah in a potter’s shop.  While there, God tells Jeremiah that Jerusalem is on the verge of being destroyed as easily as a potter destroys a clay pot!  So…Jerusalem must make a choice…


The second reading, Paul’s letter to Philemon, is literally “a letter,” and we read the whole thing.  It’s written to one person with one sole purpose: to heal a personal division and represent a slave as a disciple.  It’s the year 56.  Paul is in prison in Ephesus, and he’s writing a letter to Philemon, a wealthy man who has been converted to Christianity by Paul’s preaching.  They know each other; they have a history together.  And one of Philemon’s slaves is a man called Onesimus.   Onesimus has run away from Philemon and in God’s perfect planning, he meets Paul.  He too becomes a Christian and he and Paul become friends.  Then Paul learns that he is Philemon’s runaway slave.  Paul convinces Onesimus that it was wrong to run away and that he must return to Philemon.  And to prepare Philemon for Onesimus’ return, Paul writes this letter.  In the letter Paul tries to convince Philemon to accept Onesimus back, not as his returning slave, but as his Christian brother.  Both Onesimus and Philemon have serious decisions to make.   Onesimus thinks:  Do I risk my freedom and return to my master, trusting in the Lord’s grace to protect me?   And Philemon surely thinks:  Can I be humble enough to receive my former slave as my brother?  Becoming a disciple creates decision and sometimes division.  


And then there’s the message directly from the lips of Jesus Himself.  He’s traveling toward Jerusalem, large crowds are following him and he turns and says to them:  “Whoever does not hate this person and that person and life itself, cannot be my disciple…”   This is not the typical Jesus that we offer up when we are seeking to convert the world, is it?   Jesus appears to be fostering division and hate in one’s family!   But rather than focus on the specific words of Jesus, the point is that Jesus is not what we expect.  He’s different; he makes demands.  Who is he, really, and do we really want to be a Christian and follow Jesus?


There are lots of people today who have chosen not to follow Jesus.  In the past decade or so, there has been a significant change in religious affiliation.  For generations a vast majority of the American people have identified themselves with some religion—Catholic or Protestant or Jewish or ‘other.’  Very few classified themselves as “no religion,” or “undecided” and only 2 to 4 percent identified themselves as atheists.  In a recent history the number of atheists hasn’t changed, but all polls now show a marked increase in the percentage of the population that say they have no religious affiliation.  Isn’t that sad?!  This group, the unaffiliated, has shown the largest growth of any other group.  More and more people are refusing discipleship.  More and more people are not willing to carry any cross at all.


This difficult message of Jesus is about trust.  No one—no thing—not even our nearest and dearest, should occupy our first loyalty which is to be given to Almighty God.  And here’s the thing: as we fully turn over this loyalty to God, we find that all other loves and loyalties are not lost at all; they are enhanced, blessed, renewed beyond anything one can imagine, even in the face of crises.  The price is sometimes high, but the rewards are great!


Think back when you made the decision to become a disciple.   Or perhaps you still need to make that decision.  But for those who have already made the decision to become a disciple, when you did that, you were on a spiritual “high.”  It’s easy to make such a decision when all the elements are in their proper place—when our families are happy and contented, when there’s enough money to pay the bills, when we’re healthy, when there are two cars in the driveway that run, and when just about everything is perfect.  It’s easy to follow Jesus when things are fine.   But what about the times when things aren’t so great, when we look back over our shoulder and think:  Did I make the right decision to follow Jesus?  


Remember when the Israelites were grumbling in the desert because they were hungry?  They had the nerve the say to each other, “Why did we ever leave Egypt?  At least there we had food.  And now all we have is this manna!”  They had been slaves; they had been cruelly treated, and yet they questioned:  Did we make the right choice to follow the Lord?   We are indeed a strange people.


Yet we come together every Sunday to meet this loving, sometimes difficult-to-understand God.  When you enter you are greeted at the door by a fellow Christian.  You speak a few words as if meeting a close friend.  And then you enter the double doors into the sanctuary, the holy of holies, the place in which you expect to encounter your God.   Whether you come as a little lamb to be scooped up by the Good Shepherd or whether you come bowing in humble adoration, feeling unworthy to even be in his presence, or whether you are somewhere in between:  make no mistake.   You are in the holy presence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God.  You do not come as a weeping Jeremiah.  You do not come as a slave hoping to be accepted.  You come to worship, and in your mind’s eye, try to imagine the smoke in the ancient temple, the throne of God, the angels and archangels, the hosts of heaven.   This is the God we worship every day of our lives.  This is the God we come to encounter every Sunday in this place.  Following him means understanding that this God, this Jesus, requires decision and sacrifice.  His love is ours for the asking, but his grace is not cheap; it took Jesus to the cross.