Monday, September 5, 2016

"It doesn’t count until we take huge risks for other people. It does not count until we deal with all that we have put off dealing with. It doesn’t count until everyone belongs."

All The Way In
A Sermon on Philemon
For the Community of First Austin: a baptist community of faith
On the Sixteenth Sunday Following Pentecost
September 4, 2016

God of Incarnation, we ask that you once again take the Word and transform it into a living and breathing reality we can all together experience. Be present here in this space and in these words God for if you are present here then nothing else will matter, but if you are not present here then nothing else will matter. In the name of the Creator, the Christ and the Comforter. 

Some of our best theological reflections and thoughts come from jail cells… It was in three prisons and over 27 years that Nelson Mandela developed an idea that became the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa… Gandhi said, “I get my best bargains behind bars.”…. it was in a jail cell in Birmingham where Martin Luther King wrote a letter developing his theology of nonviolent resistance to racism…. And it was in a jail where Paul wrote some of his most stunning pastoral letters…

So if it gets to Saturday night and the sermon has not come to me yet, I know where I am headed…. because it seems that God’s voice speaks loudest and clearest to those behind bars. Which honestly might tell us something about a group of people whose voice is not heard enough in our world or in our churches. 

Paul begins this letter by identifying himself not with his normal title “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus” but instead Paul “a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (which is better translated “a prisoner because of Jesus Christ”).  And he literally means that, Paul is underground in chains and in prison for his words and faith. Paul is writing this particular letter from the proconsular jail at Ephesus, where he is in chains in a room that is more like a cave and where he is uncertain whether his future will end in freedom or execution. I have been in this prison and it’s not like we think of prison…. It’s  a cave underground where there is not enough room for a grown man to stand up and there is little light… it’s claustrophobic and it’s disorienting. 

It’s here he writes this particular letter, which would have been a common practice of those in jail, largely because what the guards and soldiers watching the jail wanted was bribes and favors. So those in the prison were reaching out to see who they knew that might be able to buy them a way out or at the very least make life better while there. And from some of Paul’s other letters, it is clear that he is fairly well connected. 

However this letter has nothing to do with getting Paul out of prison, instead it has everything to do with someone Paul has meet while in prison. Paul has befriended a young man Onesimus who is a runaway slave. Paul refers to him as “my son.” And Paul is writing a letter not to ask for Philemon in all this wealth and power to help free Paul, Paul is writing a letter and asking Philemon in all his wealth and power to free his own slave- actually even further, Paul is asking Philemon to free his own slave and welcome him back into his community as a brother in Jesus Christ. 

Make sure you notice that… it’s really big and bold. Paul does not advocate for reconciliation between the slave and slave master, which already would have been going out on a limb, instead Paul advocates for a whole new way of doing life as a Christ follower, he advocates that the slave be freed and the former slave and former slave owner treat one another as brothers in Christ. This is the lion and the lamb lying down next to one another. 

It’s a bold and big ask and here’s the catch…. it’s not one Paul had to make.

This week I have been in a different type of prison, I have been dealing with trying to get all the paper work in to close on our house and this has involved having to get all new car and home insurance… it’s really a second full time job. And my insurance agent has been wonderful and she has emailed me what seems like hundreds of different spreadsheets with different offers from insurance companies and what covers what and how each one is just a little bit different from the last one… and it’s my job to pick which one I want. 

Which is a problem because in all of my various degrees, I have never once had a class that went over how to pick the best insurance premium.  So after looking over all the different offers I emailed her back with this: “Just tell me, how do I get the very best value and pay the very least… because that is the insurance I want.”

The best value for the very least resources. More bang for your buck. Maximum rewards for minimum effort. 

Which is the way most of us live our lives. It’s how we shop, we walk into the store and then we find the aisle that has what we are looking for on it. Let’s say we are shopping for towels. We find the towel aisle and we begin to see which one is the right color and the right size and which ones are the most comfortable and we narrow it down to a few towels and then we start to ask which one of these is the best value… which of these towels gives me what I want for the lowest price?  

It’s how we exercise, we look for the workout that takes the least amount of time but will have the highest results. It’s how we eat, we try to find the meals that taste the best but have the least calories. It’s how we drive, which roads have the least traffic and will get me their the fastest. It’s how we do our lives: the best value for the least resources. 

And I think that is how we do faith as well. What is going to get me the best spiritual life but cost me the very least? 

And maybe that question and that approach to faith and spirituality is the reason our world is in the shape that it is in today. Maybe that is why we have so much fear and hate everywhere we look. It’s why many of our Muslim siblings are scared for their lives. It’s why bullying is the new normal. It’s why there are hundreds of individuals sleeping on the streets around this very church. Because for decades and decades we have been trying to get the best spiritual life but the one that costs us the very least, although it has cost the world and humanity a great deal.

And maybe that question is the reason our souls are in the shape they are in today. Why we all have issues that we have stuffed so far down in our hearts we are almost blind to them and how they affect everything we do. It’s why as a people we are so scared all the time. It’s why we have no healthy understanding of ourselves. It’s why we have never properly dealt with our addictions and anxieties. Because for decades and decades we have been trying to get the best spiritual life but the one that costs us the very least (to not deal with all the stuff), and there again that cost came with a heavy price.

The best value for the least resources is not the equation of Christianity. 

Obviously Paul knew and understood this. 

Look at this situation. He is in prison and he could be killed any day now and he has this connection on the outside, a wealthy friend who could possibly help him, I mean this guy is rich enough to own slaves. However Paul knows that any time someone is being dominated, there is a problem and that any system of domination goes against the Kingdom of God. 

He has two options… he could stay silent and reach out to Philemon for his own advantage, to help secure his own freedom or he could stand with a slave and fight for the slaves’ freedom. And doing that means that Paul is going to bring up the issue of slavery, which we have never been able to talk about as a people in any healthy or meaningful way. And it means he is going to advocate for removing privilege and suffering economic loss, which does not win you friends. And he is going to get involved in a situation where he argues against Roman law: Roman law says the slave should be killed and Paul says he should be freed. He is getting involved in a situation that he does not have to get involved and he is making what is a personal situation a rather public one. 

And don’t forget in this story for Paul: the person who will likely become the most angry about his letter is also probably the person who could free him. 

This is not the best value for the least resources… it’s maybe just the opposite, putting the most on the line while gaining the very least for yourself. Who operates like that?

Paul could have avoided the issue and refused to get involved with the runaway slave and instead focused on his own freedom. Paul could have driven right on by under the 1-35 overpass and pretended not to see all the individuals sleeping outside (ignoring the fact that in our city we have better humane societies than homeless shelters). Paul could have turned a blind eye to all his Muslim neighbors who were truly scared for their life. Paul could have avoided the truths that were deeply buried in his own heart, ignoring his addictions and anxieties.  Paul could have refused to face his own fears. Paul could have found the path of least resistance: just tell me how I get the best deal by doing the very least….. remain silent about this issue, refuse to deal with it and probably secure my own freedom but no, Paul chose: risk everything for someone else. 

It’s the benediction of our Browning Ware: May God give you “the foolishness to think that you can make a difference in the world, that you will do things which others tell you cannot be done.”

And what I am struggling with this week is that I don’t know for Paul if this his choices between his freedom and another’s freedom was really even a choice. It just seems that it is Paul’s very nature to risk everything for someone else. This is what he does because he is a follower of Jesus Christ. He takes risks for others because that is what Jesus Christ did and that is what being a Christian is all about…. Taking risks for others. 

Paul gets involved with this issue because his entire life and identify are formed around a man who surrendered his very life to save the entire world. Paul’s mind was so set on Jesus Christ that he had to get involved in this situation between a slave and a slave owner, even if getting involved might harm his own self interest. He had taken on the eyes of Christ, who in Paul’s words in another letter, Christ “did not regard equality with God as a thing to be grasped but instead emptied himself and became obedient to the point of death.”

Last year Blake and I were at the pool and we had spent most of the afternoon at the pool. We had gotten out to eat dinner and she wanted to swim a little bit more so I let her and I sat on the side with my feet dangling in and she swam up to me and said “Dad, come and swim with me, get in the water.” I was tired, I had been swimming all afternoon so I said, “Babe I am in the water, look at my feet, they are wet, they are in the pool.” And Blake looked at me really confused and said, “Dad, it doesn’t count unless you are all the way in.” 

And maybe those are the words that need to guide us. It’s time that we put away our thinking based on “just tell me how I get the very most by doing the very least” and instead were guided by the principle, “it does not count unless you are all the way in.” Because that sounds like Gospel to me this morning. 

So what does that mean for us First Austin? I am not quite sure we know yet. Last week I met with the missions committee and we sat and looked at the list of all the things you do in terms of missions and the question I challenged them with was this: If we want to maintain being a people’s cathedral in the heart of the city then we better find a way to be a people’s cathedral to the city and for the city as well (and those prepositions there matter a great deal), so what does that look like? What does it look like to go all in for the city of Austin today?

It doesn’t count until we take huge risks for other people. It does not count until we deal with all that we have put off dealing with. It doesn’t count until everyone belongs. It doesn’t count until we pay attention and deal with any and every form of injustice we see. It does not count until we are all the way in, in the midst of sorrows and injustice and the pain of being human… because that is where love was born and that is where love conquered all. 

And maybe that is what the invitation to the Communion Table is this morning, an invitation to go all the way in. Because when Jesus stood up that night and broke the piece of bread, he did not say “and this is part of my body and this is a bit of my blood”, Jesus said “and this is all my body and this is all my blood…. I am all the way in this thing and those who follow me will do the exact same.”

Will you join me at the table this morning? 


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