Revised Common Lectionary Reflection, Proper 18 (23), Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C
September 8, 2019
Lessons: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1:1-21, 15-16; Luke 14:25-33
Theme: God’s faithful and generous people recognize the gift and power of agency and choice, both God-given and rightfully shared.
Key Scripture: I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live… Deuteronomy 30:19
Yes, people of God, we have agency and choice when it comes to discipleship and following the way of Christ. It is, however, nothing new. God’s been operating under these rules of engagement throughout the stories we encounter in scripture.
This week’s lesson from Deuteronomy is the culmination of the exodus from slavery in Egypt to the reality of the Promised Land for God’s beloved people. It wasn’t an easy or linear journey because God has never forced people into making wise and healthy choices. Scripture is also rife with accounts of consequences of bad decisions.
I’m not saying that God operates like some game show host of a divine version of “Let’s Make a Deal,” but the Creator of the Cosmos does show that one can choose wisely for the prize of life and blessing or take your chances on the “zonk,” or junk prize of death and curses. We, as God’s beloved, trade in the currency of agency and choice. It’s the stewardship of those choices and agency to which we must direct our attention and focus. Careful attention can make all the difference between radical good news and really awful news.
Jesus hammers home the point about agency, choice, and counting the costs in this week’s gospel lesson. He is traveling with large crowds of followers who have witnessed miracles and heard new and liberating teaching, when he turns and delivers a withering job description for those who want to be disciples. His words continue a trend of artful repartee with religious leaders and others who question his departure from cultural and religious norms.
From the sound of the job requirements, most of us are doomed to fail before we even think about shouldering our cross. Where’s the grace and love in that? It’s helpful to look at a wider, longer view, to grasp all of the gospel witness. None of us is beyond the grip of grace. As Paul would later point out, we have different callings. Not everyone can be a Mother Teresa living and loving in the slums of Calcutta. Nor can all of us be martyrs like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King Jr., or Oscar Romero. Some of us are called to vocations as parents, teachers, accountants, garbage collectors, farmers, or government workers. Many sign up to be soldiers, but few are able to count the costs and sign up for Special Forces. That fact in no way negates the work of the infantry soldier. We all are called to do the best that we can, right where we are, with what we have.
Yes, we have choice and agency as God’s beloved ones. Let’s make sure that we choose to keep our focus on Jesus. Let’s always be open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in our life, whether we’re driving a carpool or leading a resistance movement. And above all, let’s be certain to stay connected to Christ our power source, so that our light shines for all to see—even if that number is limited to the small town in which we live and work. What you do matters. How you steward your choice and agency is of utmost importance, for you belong to God and are deeply and wholly loved.
To help people understand Psalm 1:3, place the baptismal font where it is easily accessible today. Decorate around it with living trees and shrubs or potted plants if possible. Invite worshipers to dip their fingers in the font and make the sign of the cross to remember their baptism AND their rootedness in God’s beloved community. Consider lifting up the talents and gifts (fruits) of all people and the sacredness of vocation today. Perhaps write a sending to encourage going forth to bear fruit and choose wisely as people bathed in Christ’s grace and love.
We get an example of how our freedom of choice and agency work in Paul’s letter to Philemon, this week’s second lesson. It’s a tough little piece of work that has been used in some really nasty ways to justify slavery (i.e. a complete lack of agency for the enslaved and a really bad use of agency for the oppressor). Paul, ever the brilliant rhetorician, crafts this beautiful letter to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus, who according to the law of the land rightfully “belongs” to Philemon. Paul turns the situation on its head to release his own power as both Philemon’s and Onesimus’s spiritual “father,” instead appealing to Philemon on the basis of love and the power of the gospel. He could have pulled rank on Philemon or guilted him into receiving Onesimus back as a brother in Christ rather than a possession, but Paul crafts a more nuanced approach.
We do not know what happened next, but we can ask ourselves how we would respond in a similar situation. In our own day and time, we might also choose to ponder our complicity in systems fueled by deplorable child labor conditions, human trafficking, and other high human costs that deliver us cheap goods.
This topic is particularly relevant in the United States as we observe the 400th anniversary of slavery. Click here for more resources from the New York Times 1619 Project.
This week’s focus verse is Psalm 1:3– They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.
This week bring a small potted tree (if not possible, bring a good quality illustration of a tree flourishing by a stream) and some chaff (or again, an image). Ask the children if they had to make a choice would they rather be a tree or chaff. You may need to explain that chaff is the waste product of the wheat harvest. Entertain their answers, but lead them toward the idea of being deeply rooted and close to a source of water as the preferable choice for the long term.
Take them to the font and remind them of their baptism. They have been planted by the living streams of water that will forever nourish them as a child of God. They are being “fertilized” by growing in the faith community and by the love and care of their family. They will yield good fruit in due season if they remain connected and let their roots grow deeply in soil of faith, intertwined with the roots of other beloved children of God.
Finish with a simple prayer that the waters of baptism will continue to nourish each child and that this faith community will support and feed their faith. Offer a blessing for each child by name.
Weekly Stewardship Bulletin Insert
God has given us agency and choice when it comes to how we will choose to live as people of faith. Our task is to carefully steward our choices so that God will be glorified and that others’ agency will also be honored and respected.
Stewardship at Home
This week ponder how your choices as a child of God have brought you to where you are. What agency do you have as a Christian? As a citizen? As a person with whatever level of resources and gifts you possess?
Now ponder your current life situation and what you believe God has called you to. How are you living out your vocation (be it as an employee, a parent, a person who is retired, a business owner, or other calling)? Are you doing the best that you can where you are and with what you have? What hurts and pains of the world tug at your heart? What are your hopes and dreams?
Consider taking time to write a short reflection about vocation. Here’s a good one from the Communities of Calling Project that might serve as a model for your own exploration. Want to go deeper? Check out the Theology of Work website here.
2016 Reflection: http://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2016/09/choose-life-and-carry-on/
2013 Reflection: http://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2013/09/really-jesus/
2010 Reflection: http://www.stewardshipoflife.org/2010/08/are-you-kidding-me-jesus/
Images: versionz; Mariah Michelle; and Jason Taellius, Creative Commons usage license. Thanks!
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