Transformation through Letting Go
To walk with God requires much more of us than we’re willing to relinquish – that may be control of our destiny or control of our possessions. We say we love God, we may even say that we love God more than anything or anyone else, but when we’re asked for proof, it’s not easy to produce it. As I contemplate the texts for this week’s lectionary texts, I can’t help but think about the Glenn Beck Rally this past Saturday. The controversial radio host wants to portray himself as a prophet calling the people back to righteousness – like Jeremiah for instance – but the message is vacuous because it doesn’t demand anything of anyone. It is simply a call to move back into the past when middle class whites (like me) were in control – as in the 1950s when segregation remained legal and whites controlled everything.
In Jeremiah’s message, God’s vision comes to him through the potter. God can take the spoiled vessel and make something new of it. Thus, if God sees that the nation is doing evil, then God can pull it down and start over. If it is doing that which is right, then God will lift it up – but if God senses a change, God might change God’s mind. The choice is ours – do we want to listen for God’s voice, and do what is right? Or do we want to control our destiny and end up doing that which is evil? God will respond accordingly. As the debate over the Beck rally reminds us – the nature of good and evil is often in the eye of the beholder. Ultimately God alone will judge.
In Paul’s brief letter to Philemon we witness a most remarkable conversation, between the great church planting apostle, now imprisoned, writing to a leader of an otherwise undisclosed church community, commending Philemon for his service and love for the saints of God, and then making a request of him. With Paul is a young man named Onesimus, who was a slave owned by Philemon. It is easy for us to glide across this reality – but from the very beginning there have been slave-owning Christians (though ancient slavery was very different from the race-based slavery of ante-bellum America). Onesimus had run off to Paul, perhaps seeking asylum, and in the course of time, Onesimus has become not only a changed person, but a person beloved by Paul – a child in the faith. Paul wants to keep Onesimus with him, but he wants Philemon to release his slave into Paul’s care – voluntarily and not by coercion.
What is interesting about the letter is that while Paul never comes out and rejects slavery he changes the dynamic. He asks Philemon to receive Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a beloved brother. The one who once was useless has now become useful – because he is a brother in Christ. Could it be that Paul is encouraging Philemon to look at the world in a different way, one where a brother can’t enslave a brother or sister in Christ? By letting go, both Onesimus and Philemon would be transformed.
We finally come to the gospel lesson – one of the lectionary texts that has long proven to be vexing to the preacher. It is an extremely counter-cultural text, in that it makes an almost impossible demand. If you want to love me, hate your parents and siblings. In Matthew’s gospel it is a more palatable – “love me more than” (Matthew 10:37-39). But, here, it’s hate versus love. You can’t do both. To be a disciple means letting go of everything – including one’s possessions. That’s why Jesus speaks of cost counting – if you’re not prepared to go all the way and complete the task, then don’t start the journey. Be like the builder of the tower who first checks to see if there are sufficient funds and resources to build the tower, before starting, for who wants to suffer the embarrassment of a half-finished tower (not that there haven’t been plenty of examples of such folly!). And who would go to war, knowing that the odds were so stacked against them that there was no way to win. If the odds are against you, then you had best make peace.
One of the realities that emerges from reading scripture is that one discovers that the gospel isn’t a message of cultural accommodation. The demands are difficult – like the demand to let go of all your possessions and to hate your family if you want to be a disciple. Are we ready, especially we who live in the comforts of the United States — where even in the midst of great economic troubles, the difficulties we experience are so few in comparison to those experienced by others around the world – ready to truly few the call of God on our lives? In posing this question, I must confess my own reticence, for I love my creaturely comforts and my family life too much to really let go, and yet, I hear Jeremiah’s warning and Paul’s word of hope as I ponder the question. The promise is this – by letting go, we can experience transformation.