Friday, September 9, 2016

Labor Day Sermon Rev. Kirsten Snow Spalding, 9. 4.16

Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

The Cost of Discipleship—reordering all relationships in Christ

In this passage we hear Jesus warning the crowd of followers just how costly God’s grace will be.  It is going to cost you family, it will cost you all of your possessions.  You must be prepared to give up life itself.    The price you must pay, is picking up your cross—carrying it all the way to death.  But the reward is a new life, if you put “following Jesus” first, you will be granted life in God.

This passage can be hard to hear because of the way that it seems to attack family.  The Greek word μισέω is to detest, or denounce; to love someone or something less than someone (something) else, i.e. to renounce one choice in favor of another.   Today we might hear the command to denounce family as to deny the relationships most precious to us.  It might be hard to see how the Gospel which in so many ways talks about the love the Father has for the Son now suggests that this loving relationship be denounced.  But if we remember how family relationships were structured in Jesus’ time, it may be easier to see what Jesus is rejected.  When Luke is writing, family relationships are structured by hierarchy.  Fathers have rights and obligations with respect to their (multiple) wives.  Fathers hold property and give property to the first Son, and other obligations to the second son.  Slaves are considered part of the household, but they are property of the head of the household, the landowner. 

I hear Jesus telling his followers that they are going to have to fundamentally change these relationships.  They are not going to have the rights that Roman law provides.  When Jesus warns them that this is going to be a costly change, we can imagine that these relationships, these hierarchies that structured life were very comforting, they provided order and security.  Challenging these systems is a frightening and seditious—challenging to the authorities, and ultimately challenging the very fabric of their community. 

This reading of Jesus’ admonition to give up family is consistent with what we heard in last week’s Gospel.  Last week, we heard Jesus telling the Pharisee that they were going to have rethink the hierarchy of honored guests—who would be the one to sit in the place of honor, who would sit furthest from the host.  Jesus told the parable of the wedding guest as a lesson to the Pharisee about God’s reordering of society. 

As Jesus called his followers to reorder their relationships and to follow him as their first priority, Paul’s letter to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus and the church in Philemon’s house also asks for a reordering of relationships. Paul is sitting in prison.  And he’s writing to Philemon about his servant Onesimus (whom he refers to as “my child”).  Paul is asking Philemon to take in Onesimus as a brother—not as a slave.  Paul is asking this of Philemon in a very unique way.  He doesn’t say,  “Do this as a favor to me.”  Instead he says, take in Onesimus out of love for Christ.  I could command this, but “I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love”.  Take in this person out of your own discipleship—not because you will gain my favor, or because you owe me something.  In fact, if you are owed anything by this person, know that I will cover the debt.  Paul is imploring Philemon to change the very nature of servant/master relationships and take in Onesimus as a brother in Christ.

What a radical idea this is—reordering relationships and giving priority to Christ, establishing new family as disciples.  Jesus warns, this kind of discipleship, discipleship that truly challenges even the most intimate family relationships will require an incredible commitment.  Measure the cost he warns, but in spite of the cost, it is the way to new life. 

I want to explore this passage today in the context of our Labor Day weekend.  Labor Day is a creation of the labor movement.  It was proposed in the late nineteenth century as a day to celebrate the achievements of the labor movement, the trade union movement and to acknowledge both the contributions of workers to our society and our economy and to celebrate the achievements of the labor movement. 

We welcome today a visitor from Bosnia, my friend Alenka Tanović Hodžić.  Alenka and I and Alenka’s husband Kadrija were all involved in the resurrection of DITA factory.  We are involved in a labor struggle there as workers who lost their jobs when the factory owners took the profits and went to

I see a parallel between our Gospel today and the message to Philemon and and the celebration of Labor Day.  What the labor movement achieved was a fundamental shift in the relationship between employers and workers.  In the pre-industrial period, workers were considered property of the landowner.  Landowners had servants who were part of the production process.  Peasants lived and worked on land that was owned by the nobility. The profits, the production of their labor belonged to the nobility.  Peasants had no right to the “profits”, they couldn’t become landowners.  Even into the 19th century, here in the New World, we had slave trade—people who are bought and sold for their labor;  hierarchies imposed with rights and obligations that created family that was ruled by rigid social structures giving some people “ownership” over others.  Beginning in the 18th century, workers began to come together into craft guilds and then eventually into trade unions.  These unions began to speak out against the rigid hierarchies of ownership over workers.  As a result of this organizing, workers obtained the right to be paid for the hours they worked, rights to time off, protections against child labor, protections about unsafe working conditions.  The labor movement fundamentally changed relationships between workers and bosses.  And today we celebrate those changes. 

Now we have to be careful about how we compare our Gospel passage with a consideration about the achievements of the labor movement.  The labor movement does not exemplify a “Christian” ideal.  In crafting policies and contracts and laws that protect workers, we have new hierarchies.  Listening to Jesus today, I think Jesus would still be admonishing us to reject the employment systems that make some very wealthy and leave some workers still in poverty. 
But today, we can celebrate the advances that the labor movement has made towards giving workers a voice, giving workplaces a framework for just treatment of employees.  Our overtime protections, our due process laws for hiring and firing all move us towards a system that recognizes the value of every person—and pushes back against hierarchies that value one class of people (the owners) more than the workers.

There is still so much that we must do to follow Jesus’ call to discipleship.  Jesus would have us reject class structures all together.  Jesus would still be admonishing us that the economic systems, and the ways that we order relationships within this system are our human systems and not God’s.  As Christians we are called to hold each person, every worker—whether they work in the home, in a factory, in an office, or on the land, every landowner; corporate CEO or manager, each person is a sister and brother in Christ.  We are called like Philemon and his church to welcome those who hold less status in society as our brothers and sisters.

When I think about our relationships around work, this call to reject the existing hierarchies is really challenging.  What would it mean to reorder the systems that structure work, or redo labor laws so that the bosses and the workers were brothers and sisters?  What would it mean to truly make discipleship the primary goal?  This would be a revolutionary change.  It would be very very hard for us—not just for those of us who are managers, or bosses, but also for workers.  Working as brothers and sisters means taking responsibility for one another beyond the confines of the job, focused on the love we share above our designated roles in the system.  Instead of demanding what is “due” in accordance with our contract, we must engage with one another out of mutual respect, and honor God’s vision for a new life in which all have plenty, all share in God’s bounty, all are cared for and supported, especially those who cannot contribute themselves—the weak, the elderly, the children, the sick or imprisoned.

So today as we honor the achievements of the labor movement and celebrate the protections and rights that changed our economic and social system to respect workers and honor their contributions, let’s ask what expanding and continuing this work might mean for us as disciples?  This weekend, we must remember that we are celebrating systemic changes that honored the role of workers in society.  We are called by Jesus to change the systems—laying down all of our possessions, even the people who are closest to us, our family.  But as we detest, disregard, hate structures that keep people isolated in their poverty we must build up new relationships that honor each of God’s children.  Like Paul, we may adopt those who work for us as family members, respecting them and caring for them.  Like Paul we must encourage others, invite others to change these relationships, collectively.  It’s not only about one person loving another, its about communities lifting up one who was formerly seen as a lesser, and now holding them as brothers and sisters. 

I would like to conclude today with the Collect for the unemployed from our book of common prayer. 


Heavenly Father, we remember before you those who suffer want and anxiety from lack of work.  Guide the people of this land so to use our public and private wealth that all may find suitable and fulfilling employment, and receive just payment for thir labor; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

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