Saturday, September 4, 2010

Sacrificial living

Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Luke 14:25-33; Philemon

Our texts today remind us that our life’s focus should be on our relationship with God, and not on any of the other things that can distract us from that relationship. Sometimes, choosing to have a relationship with God involves making a sacrifice. We have to choose between following God or going our own way.
In Deuteronomy, Moses is giving his final sermon to the people. He will soon die, knowing he will not see the Promised Land he has led them to. He is warning them that they must remain faithful to the God who has led them out of slavery in Egypt, cared for them in the wilderness and forged them into a (sort-of) cohesive people.
If they obey the commandments – the ten simple ones they started with, or the expanded list of 613 developed over time – then God will reward them with blessings and life. If, however, they abandon their reverence for the Lord, and fail to obey the commandments, then they will face curses and death. And they will lose the land they are now about to claim as their own. Obedience will require sacrifice by God’s people, but the reward will be the strong relationship with God and the gift of God’s blessings.
… In the Gospel, we hear a strong message about sacrifice. Jesus is speaking to people who have shown up to see and hear the famous speaker, to maybe be healed by him, but who have little concept of his real message. He has challenged the large crowds to a deeper faith, to a committed discipleship.
Jesus is also getting closer and closer to Jerusalem and the cross. It’s time for people to realize that following him, really following him, will mean sacrifice on his part, and on theirs. He wants to know, “Are they willing to make the sacrifice of living with a focus on God and servanthood, or have they come for the thrill of the moment?” Jesus warns that if they are not ready to pay the price, they should not follow him.
… By the time Paul wrote Philemon, he was in prison in Rome, about 30 years after Jesus’ death. He has established a number of congregations, and met and become friends with a lot of people. He is passionate about following Jesus as well as he possibly can, and helping others do the same. To keep in touch with the congregations, he writes letters. We have some of them, and can see how each congregation struggled to be faithful to Jesus.
In this particular instance, the letter is written to an individual, and copied to some others, including members of the church which meets at Philemon’s house. The exact circumstance of Philemon’s relationship with Onesimus and why he is with Paul is unknown. Some speculate that Onesimus is a runaway slave, who sought out Paul to help in his defense.
What is known is that Onesimus has become a believer in Jesus, and like a brother to Paul. Under the circumstances, then, Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon, urging Philemon to welcome Onesimus back as a brother in Christ. Paul does not specifically state, “Give Onesimus his freedom,” but appeals to Philemon to do so. How can we make slaves out of fellow believers in Jesus? Aren’t all people equal in Jesus’ eyes?
The way Paul goes about this makes me smile. “I could order you to do this, but I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love.” He still makes his point. We know what Paul wants Philemon to do. So do the people to whom Paul copied the letter. They will put the pressure on Philemon if he fails to do as Paul recommends. In the end, Philemon has no real choice in this matter. Paul expects his obedience, and says so at the end of the letter.
Although there are times when I would like to push a button and have everyone do what I say, it’s not my style. I much prefer a collaborative process. So, in last week’s sermon, I proposed a couple of ideas. One, that we adopt a needy family in our neighborhood. And two, that we use some of the bequests we have received for mission. I have a hunch that as you processed those thoughts, you interpreted it to say, “Has the council approved this idea?” And “Let’s use the bequest to help that family.”
But that’s not what I meant; it’s not what Paul would have meant, and it’s not what Jesus would have meant. I admit that I was not as direct as I could have been. I also admit that this has not yet gone before the council.
But, if we use Irma’s money to help this family, we don’t need to sacrifice anything ourselves. We have not followed Irma’s example. We have not taken up the cross and followed Jesus. We have chosen the easy road, and we have come to see and hear the famous speaker without being willing to pay the price.
A family has approached us and said, “I need help. Please, help my family.” The family is a mom with several children, and in this economy, even though she has good computer and good people skills, she can’t find a job. The family needs help with their bills, and they need it now. I’m calling it the Abigail Project. It’s an “A” name in the Bible. Perhaps we can get all the way to Z for Zechariah, but for now, we’re on Abigail.
Like Paul, I appealed to you last week, hoping you would respond. But the only response I got was from one person who said, “You should have told them to get out their check books!” This person also offered a check for $100.
So, this week, I will not command you, but I intend to make it more plain. This family needs our help, and when we help them, we help Jesus. I invite you to pull out your wallets or your check books, make an extra offering, and designate it for the Abigail Project. Abigail means “source of joy.” If we help this family, it will be a source of joy for the family, for God, and for us, that we have helped someone, in Jesus’ name.
For many of us, putting an extra $20 or $50 or even $100 in the offering won’t make much of a dent in our budget. But for some of us, even $5 will be a sacrifice. I invite you to give an amount that feels like a sacrifice, to help this Abigail Project family. Here is my check, to get us started.
Please pray with me. Generous God, you give us so much, much more than we need, so we can share it with those who don’t have enough. Help us to open our hearts and our pockets in your name. I also ask you to be with the Abigail family, to give them hope and strength, and to help the Mom find a job, even in this economy. Amen