Sunday, September 04, 2016

There's Always a Cost

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
September 4, 2016

Year C, Proper 18: The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 18:1-11
Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

There’s Always a Cost
            Jesus said, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
            The other night I had dinner with a friend and as we talked over the course of the meal we covered a lot of topics, but eventually, inevitably, unfortunately, we turned to our depressing presidential election.
            My friend is a Republican who, though embarrassed and dismayed by his party’s nominee, is holding onto his political affiliation. Without me asking, he offered an interesting explanation why.
            He said he’s a Republican because of the sense of entitlement that he sees among many people in our country, the sense of entitlement that he sees encouraged by the other side of the aisle.
            He said that it’s like a lot of people refuse to face the fact that somebody has to pay for all of this stuff.
            We didn’t get into much more of a political conversation than that and I’m definitely not going to get into one now, but my friend is certainly right about at least one thing: someone does indeed have to pay  – someone has to pay for food, housing, health care, and all the rest.
            Someone has to pay because there’s always a cost.
            There’s always a cost.
            And, just like there’s always a cost for material goods there’s also always a cost for, let’s call them “spiritual goods.”
            Those of us who have really loved – and I hope that’s most of us – those of us who have really loved – loved a husband or a wife, loved a soul mate, loved a parent or a child, loved a friend, loved a community – those of us who have really loved know that there’s always a cost – there’s the cost of time, energy, commitment, patience, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, grief.
            There’s no such thing as cheap love. There’s always a high cost.
            There’s a cost for us – and, in fact, there’s a cost for God, too.
            And, we see that cost each time we look at the cross.
            You know, God could have just given up on us, could have smashed us and thrown us away like a potter disposes of a failed piece of pottery, but instead God chose to join us here on earth, to reveal God’s self to us, and to be killed by people not so different from us, to pay the cost of our sins – a cost that we ourselves could never pay, showing us that costly love is stronger than even death itself.
            So, yes, there’s always a cost, as Jesus reminds us when he says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
            In today’s second lesson we heard the entirety of Paul’s Letter to Philemon – a text that I love because it shows Paul as both a shrewd pastor and a keen student of human nature.
            Though, like all of the letters in the New Testament, the Letter to Philemon is a little frustrating because we only have one side of the conversation – so we have to try to put the pieces together.
            Paul writes this letter from prison, where a slave belonging to a Christian named Philemon has been serving him. The slave’s name is Onesimus – a name meaning “useful” or “beneficial” – so you can hear in the letter some of Paul’s wordplay when he writes to Philemon about the slave, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and me.”
            Now, we don’t know how and why Onesimus the slave ended up with Paul.
            There would seem to be two possibilities: Onesimus ran away from his master Philemon or Philemon loaned the slave to Paul, one Christian to another.
            Anyway, now Paul writes to Philemon requesting…well, because Paul is so indirect in his language, we don’t know what exactly.
            It could be that Paul is asking Philemon to welcome back his slave and forgive him for running away or whatever it is he’s done wrong.
            Or, it could be that Paul is asking Philemon to let him keep Onesimus since, as we know, he’s “useful” to the apostle.
            Or, Paul may want Philemon to welcome back his slave, to welcome his slave who is also his brother in Christ, and then free him.
            Anyway, Paul shrewdly tells Philemon he could just issue a command – just tell him what to do – but instead he leaves it up to Philemon to do the right thing, to pay the high cost of forgiveness and love.
            There’s always a cost.
            We don’t know if Philemon paid the cost but the fact that this letter was preserved art all may give us some idea – and, by the way, there’s also an old tradition that Onesimus the slave ended up as a bishop, so maybe...
            Slavery in the ancient world was bad enough but many centuries later the way Europeans enslaved Africans was far worse. To justify their horrific behavior, the Europeans tried every terrible tactic they could think of to strip their slaves of dignity, identity, and personhood – and, don’t forget, in the process these white people did a good job of dehumanizing themselves, too.
            It’s ugly history and today lots of people would like to forget how much of our country was built by slaves.
            Just look at the reaction Michelle Obama received when at the Democratic Convention she reminded us that her family lives in a house constructed by slaves.
            But, wait, those slaves were well taken care of, some replied!
            Anyway, back in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Society of Jesus, the Roman Catholic religious order better known as the Jesuits, owned plantations in Maryland. The hundreds of slaves who worked those plantations produced the wealth that supported the Jesuits and their ministries, including the first Catholic college in America, Georgetown.
            Priests owning slaves was bad enough, of course. But, these Jesuits were all extremely smart and theologically highly educated guys who on some level must have known it was wrong, sinful, to enslave fellow human beings, though one hopes that their slaves received at least marginally better treatment – but the Jesuits were not willing to pay the high cost of doing the right thing and freeing these brothers and sisters, not willing to pay the high cost of freeing these oh-so-useful slaves, not willing to pay the high cost of love.
            The story gets even worse.
            In 1838, Georgetown was in financial trouble so the Jesuits made the decision to sell 272 of their slaves for $115,000 - literally selling them down the river, to the notorious plantations in the Deep South where life was far worse than the already-hard life they had known in Maryland.
            This tragic history was never completely forgotten, but it wasn’t talked about much until recently when student protests caused Georgetown to face this ugly and painful chapter in its history.
            There’s always a cost.
            As you may have heard in the news, this past week Georgetown announced, among other things, it was going to offer preferential treatment to descendants of those slaves – the same advantage children and grandchildren of alumni get.
            This gesture may not be enough but is more than what any other American institution has done to beg forgiveness and to begin to atone for the sins of the past.
            There’s always a cost – always a cost for love and forgiveness – there was a cost for Philemon the slave owner and a cost for Georgetown – there’s a cost for God – and there’s a cost for us.
            Jesus says to us, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
            So, are we willing to carry our cross and pay the cost of love?                       
            Are we willing to pay the cost of putting God first in our lives, above even family and friends?
            Are we willing to pay the cost of loving even the people who are hard to love?
            Are we willing to pay the cost of forgiving those who wrong us - and asking forgiveness when we’ve done wrong?
            Are we willing to pay the cost of supporting our community, so we can continue to show God’s love for the people of Jersey City and beyond?
            Jesus says to us, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
            There’s no such thing as cheap love.
            There’s always a cost.