Year C, Proper 21
1 Tim. 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
September 25, 2022
Throughout its over 2,000-year history, the Church has often been very concerned about how its members behave in the bedroom. That’s an understatement, of course. Far more often, in the Scriptures anyway, do we hear concern about how Christians should approach their relationship with material possessions.
“Money is the root of all evil”. Sounds like what we heard in our second lesson today, right? Not quite. “The love of money is the root of all evil?” Still not right. The text actually says, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” There are plenty of roots of evil out there, and it isn’t money itself that is problematic. Evils abound from loving money.  Paul is urging Timothy to be content, to pursue godliness, and beware of things that may stand in the way of that goal, whether it be money or sex or something else.
While 1 Timothy 6:10 is perhaps one of the most misquoted passages of scripture, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is misrepresented frequently as well. It is often said that the rich man was the villain in this story simply for being rich. This isn’t actually true.
In this story, the rich man dresses and feasts lavishly while a poor hungry man is suffering horribly at the gate of his home. Lazarus, the poor man, is sick and hungry and hopes to catch scraps of food fallen from the rich man’s table. Both men die as we all do, no matter our station in life. As Paul said, “we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it.” The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham in heaven. The rich man also died and was buried, unlike the poor man, as he had the means to pay for a proper burial. The rich man is damned, apparently for letting Lazarus starve.
Neither of these passages is saying that being rich means you’ll go to hell. In fact, in the epistle this is explicit. Paul says, “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”
From a purely economic perspective, I don’t think I’m “rich” according to the standards of the society in which we live, but if I’m honest, I’ve more identified with the rich man in this story than the poor man throughout my life. For example, I was privileged enough to have never purchased a car on my own until the age of 31. One cold, winter Sunday morning, as I was driving to Mass, I got t-boned by someone who inadvertently ran a red light on the south side of the Plaza, and my car was slammed into what was then Crate and Barrel. Needless to say, I needed a new car, and as I began to car shop, I quickly began to feel uncomfortable with the types of car that were catching my eye. I had moved up in the ranks at the bank and could afford a nicer car than the simple, basic models I’d driven up to then. How nice is too nice? The rich man’s purple clothing was extremely expensive as it was necessary to crush 10,000 shellfish to produce a single gram of the purple dye needed to make them. Beyond asking the question of what I felt like I could afford, at what point would I cross the line and buy a car that was as extravagant as the rich man’s purple robes?
I ended up buy the more expensive car. I didn’t need that fancy of a car, but it wasn’t terribly more expensive than a more sensible choice would have been. In hindsight, I don’t think that God was nearly as concerned with which car I purchased as I was. Rather than trying to determine the line between simple enjoyment and decadence, perhaps we should ask ourselves, “In what way am I doing good? How am I being rich in good works, generous, and ready to share? Am I trying to store up treasures for myself treasures here on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, or am I being generous and sharing and thus storing up the treasure of a good foundation for the future so that I can take hold of the life that really is life? How can I be increasingly generous with the riches with which God has entrusted me?”
A second way in which this parable is misinterpreted is when it is depicted as being about the afterlife. Despite the fact that nearly all of the hymns I chose for today’s liturgy are about heaven, I don’t think this parable is primarily about the afterlife. It’s about how we act here and now. The love of money is tempting, but be content. No, beyond content, be generous. Love your neighbor as yourself, but more than that, love your enemy!
Maybe, after all, my instinct to choose hymns about heaven wasn’t so off base. Maybe the imagery and the tunes of the hope of heaven will energize us, and through them God will give us the strength to build the heavenly city the Church holds as almost a dream, whose laws are love, whose crown is servanthood, and where the sun that shines is God’s grace for human good. In its dazzling beauty, the heavenly city’s splendor bids us seize the whole of life and build its glory here.
Dear friends, fight the good fight of the faith! Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called! Set your hopes not on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment!
 1 Timothy 6:7
 Keener, Craig, ed. New Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019, 1799.
 Much of this paragraph is a paraphrase of the last two verses of hymn 583 in the Hymnal 1982, “O holy city, seen of John,” by Walter Russell Bowie.
Requiem for Queen Elizabeth II
1 Corinthians 15:19-26, 53-58
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
September 24, 2022
Last Monday morning, along with many of you, and indeed much of the world, I woke up early to watch the state funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. Much has been said of the glorious Anglican liturgy, the music, the pageantry, the transcendence of it all. As someone who is privileged to experience all of that here in this place, albeit on a smaller scale, that’s not what struck me. It was the normality of it all. Normal, in the sense that it was a Christian funeral in a Christian church for a Christian soul.
Last Monday, she was referred to as “our sister” four times. In the funeral of a queen, watched by more people around the world than any other event in human history, we are reminded that in Christ, no matter our station in life, we are sisters and brothers, one of another. We all share one mortal fate, and one eternal hope: the death and resurrection of our Lord, and our Brother, Jesus Christ.
Today, we pray for the repose of the soul of a baptized Christian, a member of the household of God. Baptism is the great leveler of human equality. In the waters of baptism, the rich man is born again, just as the poor man. He who has sinned greatly throughout an entire lifetime is welcomed into the family, just as the baby who doesn’t yet know right from wrong. In the waters of baptism, the future bishop is forgiven of her sins and reborn in the Holy Spirit in precisely the same way the future sanitation worker is.
Likewise, all of us leave this world in the same way. Death awaits us all. When we die, the Church commends each of us to Almighty God as a brother or sister, and and commits his or her body to their final resting place; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
In the epistle lesson, St. Paul says that this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. Indeed, that is what we do at our baptism, and each and everyday thereafter as we “put on” our baptism anew in private prayer, and in the confession and absolution of our sins, and the reception of the body and blood of Our Lord at Holy Communion again and again.
This was the pattern of life our sister Elizabeth lived, something so beautifully seen in her annual Christmas broadcasts. During a moment of grief this week, it hit me that Christmas morning will not ever be the same. For the past five years, after the mystery and glory of the Midnight Mass in this space and a few hours of sleep, I so look forward to arriving here in the wee hours to join Fr. Sean in preparing for the simple Low Mass of Christmas morning. We arrive in time to prepare and then settle into the sacristy at 9:00 sharp to watch the Queen’s Christmas message on my phone. And we inevitably encounter the Christian paradox – that, at the last day, the last shall be first and the first last – the humble and meek shall be exalted and the rich shall be sent away empty - an anointed monarch – arguably the most recognized person in the world - proclaims her faith in One who, quote, “lived obscurely for most of his life, and never travelled far. He was maligned and rejected by many, though he had done no wrong. And yet, billions of people now follow his teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them,” she said, “because Christ’s example helps me see the value of doing small things with great love, whoever does them and whatever they themselves believe.”
Christmas morn may not be the same again, but we do not grieve as others do who have no hope. With our sister Elizabeth, we are all heirs, through hope, of God’s everlasting kingdom. In Christ’s resurrection, we, too, have hope that at the last, when all things are gathered up in Christ, we may with her, enjoy the fulness of God’s promises and be given new bodies, free of blemish and the effects of age, and full of life and immortality.
When the Queen died, the first words the new king heard were, “The Queen is dead. Long live the King.” This Christmas morn, rest assured that Fr. Sean and I will be watching the King’s Christmas message in the sacristy at 9:00 sharp. Two ordinary priests from Kansas City will be looking to an anointed monarch in a far off land whose lineage stretches back 1,000 years to be reminded that God’s throne shall never, like earth’s proud empires, pass away, and God’s kingdom stands and grows forever until all his creatures proclaim, “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever.” Amen.
 Mark Broadway’s Facebook post: https://www.facebook.com/mark.broadway.182/posts/pfbid02CxHW9KbYVAaUjZsrYxjzb5Y88SM8J1x4NSVWDSEx6gHCgPaWLYPLzE9M8coorNSKl
 1 Corinthians 15:53
 1 Thess 4:13
 Hymn 24, The Hymnal 1982, John Ellerton (1826-1893)
 Revelation 5:13
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Text: I Timothy 2:1-8
Sean C. Kim
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
18 September 2022
The death of Queen Elizabeth II on September 8 has produced an extraordinary outpouring of grief all over the world. I've seen large-scale demonstrations of public mourning in the past for famous figures - political leaders, celebrities, and the like. But I don't think I've ever seen anything this big and moving - so many people from all different backgrounds and such heartfelt tributes of love and respect. In London, for the past few days, people have queued up in a long line to pay their respects as Elizabeth lies in state in Westminster Hall. In this final stretch before the funeral tomorrow, some may have to wait 30 hours in a 10-mile-long line. Here at St. Mary's, as soon as we heard the news of Elizabeth's death, we placed her portrait and lit a candle in our columbarium. And, this coming Saturday morning, we will honor Queen Elizabeth with a Solemn Requiem Mass.
In a way, the scale and depth of the mourning for Elizabeth should be no surprise. She reigned for 70 long years, and she lived an exemplary life of selfless service and duty to her country and personal integrity in spite of all the challenges that her family presented her. And, for us Christians, Elizabeth is a model and inspiration for our faith. In her annual Christmas messages, she spoke publicly about the centrality of Jesus Christ in her life.
But, as you have probably heard, not all the responses to her death have been loving and respectful. Within hours of Elizabeth's death, Irish soccer fans in Dublin cheered and chanted: "Lizzy's in a box." And as Elizabeth lay dying, an American scholar of Nigerian heritage tweeted: "I heard the chief monarch of a thieving raping genocidal empire is finally dying. May her pain be excruciating." So, what is it that Elizabeth did that has invited such anger and hatred? Well, it's not so much what she did but what she was. Elizabeth was the icon of empire, with its history of conquest, oppression, and exploitation. And the British empire was the biggest of them all. At its peak before World War I, it controlled a quarter of the earth's mass and a quarter of the global population. And there have been many tragic chapters in that history.
So, how do we view Elizabeth and her legacy? On the one had, we have the image of the virtuous, beloved monarch, and, on the other, the despicable head of a tyrannical empire. Well, it is not for me to tell you what to think. But I would like to reflect a bit on what our Christian faith has to say about the issue. More specifically, what do scripture and the experience of the Church have to say about empire?
Since I'm a historian by training, let me begin with the history. The relationship between Christianity and empire is a complicated one. Our origins lie in the Roman empire, which not only executed the founder of our faith, Jesus, on a cross; it carried out bloody persecutions against the Church for centuries. But then that all changed with the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Christianity went from being a persecuted minority religion to eventually becoming the religion of the empire. We went from being victims to agents of empire. The Western Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century, but other Christian empires have followed: the Byzantine empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Russian empire. And, yes, the British empire was also Christian, and Protestant at that. Following Henry VIII's break with Rome, English monarchs have been held the title: Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church. Although the role is mostly symbolic today, Elizabeth during her reign did formally appoint archbishops, bishops, and deans of cathedrals.
For all its faults, the British empire was good for Christianity. Its global reach allowed the unprecedented expansion of Anglicanism and other denominations around the world as missionaries fanned out across various parts of the empire. And the missionaries planted not only churches but also built hospitals, orphanages, and schools. Through the schools, they raised literacy rates and introduced ideas about democracy and freedom. The missionaries also carried out wide-ranging social reforms, ranging from abolishing the practice of burning of widows in India to female infanticide in China. Christianity was good for the British empire.
The days of the British empire are long gone. It was dismantled in the decolonization that took place after World War II. But many see the United States as now the heir to the British empire. In its military might and economic power, the U.S. exercises a similar hegemony over world affairs that Britain once did. Likewise, we have had our share of blunders and tragedies in the history of our involvement with the world. And at home today we find ourselves polarized along political and ideological lines.
Whether it is the British empire or the American empire, our role as Christians has been the same: to hold the empires up to the ideals and values of our faith and to reform and to transform according to those ideals and values. As we look back on our own history, many of the great social and political movements, such as abolition, prison reform, women's rights, civil rights, were deeply rooted in our faith and led by devout Christians.
Our charge to reform and transform the empires in which we live comes to us from scripture. In today's Epistle reading from I Timothy, we read: "I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity" (I Timothy 2:1-2). The Apostle Paul calls on the early Christian communities to pray for their political leaders. Why? So that they might practice their faith in peace and freedom. What is striking about this call to prayer is the fact that these communities were under persecution by the political and religious authorities. They are, in fact, being called to pray for those who wish them harm.
We, too, are called to pray for our leaders, whether we like them or not. It is inseparable from our work of reform and transformation. We are not instructed how to pray for them. That is left to our conscience. A call to prayer is not necessarily a call to blind obedience and submission. After all, we are also called to pray for our enemies. Our prayer for leaders could be a plea for change in policy or even administration. We just began our weekly discussion of the lectionary this morning, and, as we were discusssing the epistle, Nancy Wagner shared with us that she prays that our leaders would live up to the duties and expectations of their office - we see so much incompetence and corruption these days. When we pray for our leaders, we may disagree on the content, but the important thing is the fact that we pray. It is a part of our work in the cause of peace, justice, and freedom.
In a few moments, Adam Powell will receive the Sacrament of Baptism. The rite of baptism is rich in layers of meaning. Through the waters of baptism, we die with Jesus and rise to new life with him. We renounce sin and evil and commit ourselves to a life of holiness. Baptism is also a rite of initiation into the community of faith. And, as the newest member of our community, Adam will join us in affirming the Baptismal Covenant, which concludes with these words: we "will strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being" (BCP, p.305). And prayer lies at the heart of this commitment to make the world a better place, for it is in prayer that we find our vision, our courage, our strength.
In our Episcopal tradition, the call to pray for our leaders is part of our corporate worship. We pray for our leaders each time we gather for Mass. And the Prayers of the People have different forms to do that. Form I, for instance: "For our President, for the leaders of the nations, and for all in authority, let us pray to the Lord" (BCP, p.384). And in Form V, we can even name specific leaders: "For those in positions of public trust, especially Joe, Our President, Michael, Our Governor, and Lucas, Our Mayor, that they may serve justice, and promote the dignity and freedom of every person, we pray to you, O Lord" (p.390). And today on the eve of her funeral we add to our prayer list, Queen Elizabeth II, Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church. Let light perpetual shine upon her. Amen.
Proper 19, Year C – Luke 15:1-10
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
September 11, 2022
When I was a kid, my music and television habits were heavily influenced by my parents. I grew up listening to Chicago, Led Zepplin, the Doors, Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, and the like. And I grew up watching movies like Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and Arthur, and TV series like Married with Children, and my favorite, Cheers. This show is about a bar in Boston called Cheers where folks gather to unwind and interact with friends. Its theme song is famous not only because of the catchy tune, but because it names a longing that every person has:
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name, and they’re always glad you came. You want to be where you can see our troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everybody knows your name.
That’s the kind of place Cheers was in this show. A place where people could be real and share food and drink with others, no matter their station in life. In today’s gospel reading, it’s not difficult to imagine Jesus in such a place, eating and drinking with anyone, much to the chagrin of the proper and pure. St. Luke tells us that that Jesus is eating and drinking with “tax collectors and sinners” while the “Pharisees and scribes” are grumbling about the fact that he welcomes – that he even seeks out these sinners. In response to their grumbling, he tells the Pharisees and scribes three parables, two of which we heard today.
The first is the parable of the lost sheep. He asks these religious leaders, “Which of you would leave the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” I’m a city boy and have no experience with sheep, but this shepherd doesn’t sound very responsible to me. What about the 99 sheep left in the wilderness? Who will take care of them? These are questions I’m sure the Pharisees asked themselves upon hearing this parable, but perhaps like the Pharisees, I was initially as dense as they were. The utter ridiculousness of what the shepherd does is an important part of the story. He is so focused on the lost sheep that he not only throws caution to the wind, he risks his livelihood by leaving his flock unattended. And when he finds the lost sheep, he lays it on his shoulders and comes home rejoicing and calling in all the neighbors and friends to throw a huge party to celebrate the one who was lost and is now found. He ends by telling them, “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
The second parable is similar. Instead of a shepherd, Jesus talks of a woman with 10 silver coins. What woman, were she to lose one of them, doesn’t light a lamp, or sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? And then once she finds it, what woman wouldn’t call her friends and neighbors together and have a party in celebration for find it? He ends this story like the first by saying, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
I’ve often heard this passage preached like this: you and I are sinners, and Jesus cares so much for sinners that he relentlessly seeks us and rejoices when we are finally found. We should therefore repent and return to the Lord. While that’s not a bad sermon for another day, Jesus didn’t direct these parables to the sinners and tax collectors. These parables were addressed to the religious leaders of the day – the Pharisees and scribes. Jesus isn’t trying to get them to identify themselves as one who is lost and needs to be found. Jesus is trying to get them to learn to rejoice! Both of these parables end by calling friends and neighbors together to rejoice and celebrate. Jesus’s focus isn’t on the lost that are found by God, it’s on the rejoicing that happens when the lost one is found!
When the religious people of the day grumble about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners – when they grumble about Jesus’s radical hospitality – he responds by telling them that they should celebrate when God goes after the sinner who is lost and rescues them. Yes, salvation is about being rescued, but it’s even more about being drawn into the eternal party. When you see Jesus seeking the lost, when you see him dining with the worst of the worst, the appropriate response isn’t grumbling or jealousy or judging – it’s rejoicing! That’s what repentance looks like for the Pharisees and scribes as well as for you and me: when we see God seeking someone who doesn’t wear the right clothes, or hold the same political views as we do, or that causes us in any way to label them as an “other” – as someone over in “that group” when God seeks them out and finds them, we are called to turn from judgement and grumbling to radical hospitality at a fabulous party!
This past week, after over seventy-years on the throne, the Queen died. I am intentionally resisting my natural urge to spend more time on how that has affected me and saving it for the Solemn Requiem for her, the date and time of which will be announced soon. But as she was literally one of the most recognizable person in the world, you know that she was had a deep, Christian faith, and embodied duty, steadfastness, and dignity. Friday, I received news that a fellow priest, Adam Ngyren, died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 35. You all met then-Deacon Adam as he was deacon of the Mass for David Wilcox’s wedding this past May, and then served as deacon at this service the next morning. He was ordained priest just a few weeks later. In fact, Adam was David roommate for two years at seminary – please keep David and Zach in your prayers, if you would. Adam was always open about the fact that he was in recovery and regularly attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and if you think I have a potty mouth, you didn’t spend more than 30 seconds with Adam. He was quirky and rough around the edges. Many in Adam’s situation would consider the Queen as a notorious sinner due to her wealth, privilege, and connections with empire and colonialism. Many in the upper crusts of society would view someone like Adam from a blue-collar background who struggles with addiction as a notorious sinner, writing them off as the Pharisees did the tax collectors in Jesus’ day. While both deaths have affected me in very different ways, I am greatly consoled by the thought of Adam lining up on his way to heaven alongside Elizabeth, a foulmouthed vegan-electrician-turned-priest alongside the Defender of the Faith, both sheep of God’s old fold, lambs of his own flock, notorious sinners of his own redeeming, both headed to the party of all parties, the heavenly banquet.
Throughout his life, Jesus was repeatedly criticized for spending time with notorious sinners and outcasts. He’s inviting us today to join him by spending time doing the same. To eat and drink with those around us in our lives, perhaps in a context like Cheers. We have a deep longing to spend time with others who know us…a place where everybody knows our name. A place where we feel welcome. Nowhere in this text or elsewhere in Luke’s gospel do we see Jesus commenting on the sinners’ behavior. He eats and celebrates with them. He identifies with them and genuinely cares for them. Yes, he rejoices all the more when the sinner repents, but his love and care for them doesn’t depend on them repenting.
For the Pharisees and for all of us, the question is, “Who are you ready to party with?” If the answer is “I don’t party,” or “I don’t party with those people,” then we’ve missed the point entirely. Friends, God is inviting us today to join in the eternal party…to practice generous hospitality with people from every walk of life both here at St. Mary’s and beyond, whether they be prince or pauper or somewhere in between. And he’s inviting us to rejoice with the angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven every time he finds someone who is lost.
 David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 68.
 Ibid 72.
Proper 18, Year C – Philemon 1-21
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
September 4, 2022
In Matthew chapter 17, Jesus says, "If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. And nothing will be impossible for you.” Some take this to mean that if God doesn’t answer your prayers, you don’t have enough faith.
In Luke 12, Jesus says, "And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven." Does this mean that if you “blaspheme against the Holy Spirit,” whatever that means, you have no chance of being reconciled to God?
In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul says, "Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers-- none of these will inherit the kingdom of God." I remember stealing a rubber stamp off of my teacher’s desk in kindergarten. This passage must mean that I won’t make it to heaven. And those who get drunk – it’s obvious what this means for them.
Lastly, hear these words from Paul in 1 Cor. 14: "The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says." Sorry to break it to you, Bishop Diane…
It has been common throughout history for believers to use passages of Scripture, usually taken out of context, to support their own belief system. Some even use Scripture to reinforce their own power over an entire group of people as a way of excluding others from being able to receive the love and the grace of God. The second lesson this morning is from the book of Philemon, a passage of Scripture that was commonly used to justify slavery.
Paul writes this letter from prison where he encounters a slave by the name of Onesimus who had, at this point, converted to the Christian faith under his influence while in prison. The traditional interpretation of this text is that Paul is asking his friend Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a slave, and forgive him whatever transgressions he had committed. And this interpretation was used throughout the centuries to justify slavery.
Paul addresses this letter not only to Philemon, Apphia (A-phia) and Archippus, but to the entire congregation of the church that meets in one of their homes. He uses plural pronouns when he greets everyone at the beginning of the letter, but switches to singular pronouns for the majority of the letter and appears to be speaking directly to Philemon. He says, “Though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet, I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love...I am appealing to you for my child Onesimus.” Paul speaks diplomatically in order to try to persuade Philemon to come to his own conclusion, rather than Paul forcing him to do it, even though he had the authority to do so.
Think back through your life, and think about who your favorite boss or teacher or priest was. The one you respected the most – the one you wanted to be like. The person you’re thinking of was probably like Paul: he or she didn’t lead by issuing edicts from on high, but instead, encouraged you and taught you and gave you the freedom to make your own decisions, even if that resulted in failure. Paul could have ordered Philemon to do what he wanted him to do, but he instead showered Philemon and the others with thanksgiving and blessings and encouragement, and then made his argument to try to persuade Philemon to make the right choice.
What exactly is Paul asking Philemon to do? In verse 13, he says, “I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason that he was separated from you for awhile, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” Perhaps Paul is asking Philemon not to receive Onesimus back as a slave, but to receive him as a Christian brother, free from the bonds of slavery.
Although he’s asking Philemon to voluntarily commit this good deed, he isn’t shy in doing so. In verse 22, just after the last verse we heard in the reading, Paul says, “One more thing – prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.” He’s hinting to Philemon, and to the entire congregation, that he will be following up to see how this ends up shaking out! Watch out, I’ll be checking in personally to see what you decide to do!
The letter to Philemon is more than a “diplomatic coup” on the part of St. Paul, it’s his attempt to use loving, thoughtful language to urge two individuals who fall under his pastoral charge and authority who are at serious odds not only to be reconciled to each other, but also to model the new life in Christ to which all baptized Christians are called.
Reconciliation between Onesimus and Philemon means that their entire relationship would change. The standards of the society of the day won’t cut it. Last week, we heard Jesus say, “Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” The Christian life is one in which the standards of society are completely turned upside down. The slave is set free and welcomed as a brother, a fellow member of the family.
The Gospel teaches us that through our baptism, we are all welcomed equally no matter our rank, or income level, race, sexual orientation, moral decisions, or legal status. At our baptism, when we are received into the household of God, we are no longer defined by any of those labels, but instead as brothers and sisters – equal members of the family. Our identity is no longer found in human labels and categories, but instead our identity is found in the love of Christ. In other words, we find our identity in the One who loves us and adopts us as beloved children. Paul says elsewhere, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of [us] are one in Christ Jesus.”
What good news of joy and liberation for you and me! And yet, as we heard in today’s gospel lesson, this Christian way of life doesn’t come without a cost. Jesus says that whoever comes to him without hating their family members cannot be his disciple, and the same with whoever does not take up his cross and follow him.
In this passage, there isn’t ambiguity or an opportunity for “alternate interpretations.” This particular passage is very clear in its question: are you in, or are you out? Jesus, in this passage, has no time for games or compromise. If you’re going to embark on seriously engaging with the Christian faith, be prepared to pay the price. Not only the price of an hour-and-a-half of your time on Sunday mornings or a sincere and generous financial pledge – that’s all challenging enough – but the price of wholehearted devotion to a cause so compelling that it will demand your whole life.
No matter how literally we take Jesus when he says to hate our family, carry our cross, and sell our possessions, God is calling us today to die to ourselves and live for Him. He’s calling us to make the choice that we made (or that was made on our behalf) at our baptism today and every day. Week after week, day after day, we put on our baptism anew, if you will, and as we do, we build spiritual habits over time that can break our perceived need to acquire more things, our petty jealousies, our demeaning stereotypes of each other, our prejudices and hatreds. Moment by moment, with each small choice to follow Christ, God transforms us little by little into Christ’s likeness…into the image of God seen fully in our forebears Adam and Eve before sin and death came into the world. And as that happens, we begin to see others the way Christ does. Rather than judging people by their rank, income level, skin color, sexual orientation, or even bad moral decisions, we begin to see them as brothers and sisters in the family of God that bear the same image and likeness of God as we do.
“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of [us] are one in Christ Jesus.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
 David Lyon Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 41.
 Galatians 3:28
 From a sermon preached by Richard B. Hays at Duke Divinity School on August 31, 2010. http://divinity.duke.edu/sites/divinity.duke.edu/files/documents/news/2010-09-02-hays-sermon.pdf
 Galatians 3:28
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!