It used to be Labor Day marked the end of summer. Perhaps it still does, in a way, but things have changed. School is back in session, both for colleges and for elementary, middle school, and high school students. After a hot and humid summer, there’s a bit of fall in the air. But still, Labor Day gives us another day to enjoy a little bit of summer. Many people are away this weekend, relishing another weekend on the lake or in the mountains. Others of us have plans for cook-outs and other get-togethers. And around us today is once again the Taste of Madison.
Labor Day has become for us a celebration of the end of summer. It began very differently, of course, as an opportunity to celebrate and get away from our work. We don’t hear much about the labor movement these days, and when we do, it’s usually complaints about how unions have driven up the cost of labor, made American manufacturing uncompetitive, and in the public sphere, have contributed a great deal to budget deficits. It wasn’t always that way. The Labor movement began as an attempt to level the playing field between management and workers, to wrestle concessions on wages, benefits, and working conditions from employers.
For the most part, we in churches don’t really talk a great deal about work, about the jobs people hold or about how to think about work in connection with our Christian lives. In fact, I suspect that many of you might think there is no connection between what we do from 9-5 or 8-5 from Monday to Friday with what goes on here in church on Sunday morning. But I hope you would agree upon further reflection that if we are serious about following Jesus Christ, then everything we do, at work, at home, or even, yes in our leisure time ought to be shaped by our faith.
Too often, it seems church fails to make the necessary connections between Sunday and the rest of life. We preach platitudes, we sing hymns and listen to beautiful music, and chat at coffee hour, without delving into what’s really going on in our lives. Oh, if there’s a crisis, a medical crisis, we might reach out to the church for help, but for all of that routine stuff—paying the bills, and buying groceries, taking care of our kids, and for college students, figuring out what we’re going to do with the rest of our lives—for what really matters, and frankly often what’s really going in our heads when we’re sitting in the pews, the church seems to have nothing to say. Christianity seems irrelevant to all of that.
We know that this is a difficult time for many of us. The economy is sputtering. We worry about the future and about our jobs. We wonder what’s coming down the road. For many of us, the jobs we have today we feel trapped in. They are not what we imagined ourselves doing when we were growing up—they lack meaning and purpose. For those of us who are unemployed or under-employed, the prospect of meaningful work that is personally and financially rewarding seems beyond our reach. And if you’re in college or graduate school now—well, don’t even think about the future!
Today’s gospel might seem to put all of those struggles in proper perspective, but in a way, it seems to make all of our concerns and worries seem meaningless and unimportant. We may even feel a tinge of guilt about bringing those worries to church when Jesus seems to be demanding so much more of us. How can we get serious about following Jesus when we’re not sure if there’s going to be a paycheck next month, or we worry whether we’ll have enough to pay the mortgage.
And being serious about following Jesus Christ is what today’s gospel is all about. These sayings of Jesus are among the most difficult for us to hear. They seem to be absolutist—demanding total commitment and a total break with everything in our lives, down to the relationships we hold most dear: with our closest family members. Jesus doesn’t seem to be speaking only of priorities—of putting God first—but rather it’s all or nothing: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” This is one of those sayings of Jesus I always bring up when people start talking to me about “Christian family values,” by the way.
Jesus continues, linking his own journey to Jerusalem and his journey to the cross with the fate of those who would be his disciples: “whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”
As I’ve pointed out when we’ve heard similar drastic statements of Jesus while reading the Gospel of Luke this summer, our tendency is often to disregard such statements. They seem so outlandish, so impossible, that to do what Jesus seems to be urging us to do is not simply hard, it seems out of the question. So, unless we’re mentally or religiously unbalanced, we let the words go in one ear and out the other. They can’t be meant for us, they can’t be meant to help us orient our lives in the twenty-first century. And the proof of that is the final sentence of today’s gospel: “So, therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
Jesus’ words are quite clear. The implications of them are clear as well, so we ignore them and go home, have a great Labor Day holiday and go back to work on Tuesday or get into our regular grind of school, work, whatever, and refuse to allow them to linger in our minds and in our hearts, to challenge us to think about what it really means to follow Jesus.
We always think that such quandaries or struggles are new to us in the contemporary world. We imagine the lives of faithful Christians in previous centuries when life was simpler. We imagine those faithful Christians following Jesus’ words more closely than we can because their lives were so less complicated than ours, the struggles they had somehow less challenging than the ones we face.
But that’s not the case. Christians throughout the centuries have struggled just the way we do today, to connect what they hear on Sunday with what they did the rest of the week. Indeed, we see something of that struggle played out already in the New Testament, for example in Paul’s letter to Philemon which was read in its entirety this morning. It’s unique among Paul’s letters in that it is written to an individual and it deals with single issue: the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon. Now this letter is much discussed by scholars, in part because it deals with slavery, which we find abhorrent and which the letter seems to suggest Paul is comfortable with.
There’s a great deal of mystery in the letter and in the context behind it. Was Onesimus, the slave, sent by his master to Paul, to take care of the Apostle while he languished in prison? Had Onesimus run away and come to Paul for protection? We don’t know; there are even scholars who argue the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus was not one of master and slave. What ever the case, it’s clear that Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon, with this letter. The letter is Paul’s attempt to commend Onesimus, to underscore the depth of their relationship (Paul calls him brother and “heart”), and to somehow renegotiate the terms of the relationship between the two.
To us, Paul seems here, of all places to be wishy-washy, to be denying his own principles of the freedom we have in Christ, a freedom that breaks down the boundaries between slave and free, as he sends Onesimus back to his master. And our impressions are very much true. Slavery is abhorrent, and the notion that Paul could have condoned it, as he seems to do here, especially a Christian master keeping a Christian slave, is shocking.
But I would like to come back to my earlier point. In the gospel, we see Jesus making radical demands of his followers and of us and many of us feel uncomfortable with those demands. We experience the world as messy, full of competing demands of work, family, self, and our faith. Paul clearly saw the world, at least in this case, in messy terms as well. Perhaps he didn’t make the decision he should have, that we would have wanted him to make, but it’s certainly the case that in making the decision he did, he was trying to follow his Lord.
That’s where we are, too. Or that’s where we should be. And it’s not just about the big things. It’s about the little ones, too. It’s about trying to be faithful day in, day out. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him. These words challenge us to follow him in all of our lives, in everything we do. They challenge us to get our priorities in line. They challenge us to see everything in light of the cross. Everything! All that we do, all of our values, our hopes and fears, the things we love most dearly lie in the shadow of the cross, are embraced by Christ’s love for us, and by his call to follow him.