Monday, September 9, 2013

To Spend Thyself Nor Count The Cost

“So let the love of Jesus come and set thy soul ablaze
to give and give, and give again what God hath given thee;
to spend thyself nor count the cost; to serve right gloriously
the God who gave all words that are, and all that are to be.”[i]

The context of Paul’s letter to Philemon is slavery.
That offensive context makes it hard for us
to even read the letter,  
much less find something helpful in it.
Thankfully, Paul is trying to set one slave free.
That helps.
But he doesn’t say what we want him to say.
Paul doesn’t say slavery is wrong.
As a Jew, the descendant of slaves,
he knows slavery was wrong.
As a Christian, who had written “for freedom Christ
         has set us free,”
he knows slavery was wrong.
But he doesn’t say that.

He says in passing, he could as an apostle order Philemon
         to do the right thing.
But he does something else.
He says, “I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love.”
There is a lot of love going on here.
Paul loves Christ, Philemon, and the slave Onesimus.
Paul believes Philemon loves Christ and himself.

He invites Philemon to stretch his love a little further,
         to stretch if far enough to include someone
outside his normal circle of concern – a slave.
But love is costly.
Love is action, not just feeling.
Stretching his love is going to cost Philemon something.
But it’s also going to bless Philemon beyond anything
         he can imagine.

So what’s the cost?
Philemon has already given the use of his house
         for the Church in Colossae.
He has already contributed substantially
to fund Paul’s missionary ventures.
Now Paul is asking him to contribute Onesimus.
To us, Onesimus is a person.
But if we dare put ourselves in Philemon’s shoes,
         if we look at the world through the first century
                  moral lenses that Philemon wore,
                  Onesimus was an asset.

He was wealth.
Onesimus was about $10,000 to $12,000.
It took a lot of gall to ask for that kind of a gift.
But Paul asks it. He asks it out of love.
Love for Onesimus. Love for Christ.
And yes, love for Philemon. How is that?
How does hitting someone up for a major gift
         express love?
Let me tell you a story.

Methodist pastor J. Cliff Clifford
took his wife fishing on their honeymoon.
Pastor Cliff and his bride were in a boat on an Arkansas lake.
He liked fishing and he was also showing off for his new wife.
So he tied a 3-hook lure to his line and cast it into the water.
After awhile, he hooked a huge bass that put up a fight.

Cliff was determined to catch that bass.
He was going to possess it, to dominate it, own it,
show it off as a prize.
His whole will was focused on getting that fish.

Finally, he jerked the rod so that the big fish flopped
         into the boat.
It landed on his lap and in an instant,
         one hook was stuck firmly in the fish’s jaw
         and the other hook stuck just as firmly in Cliff’s thigh.
Every time the fish flopped, blood spurted.

For Pastor Clifford, it was a moment of conversion.
Until that point in the story, he had desperately wanted
to possess that bass.
But, when he was hooked himself and the blood was spurting,
the very thing he had sought  
to possess now possessed him
     and all he wanted was to get rid of it.
Eventually, he painfully tore the fish lose and threw it back.

That’s how it is with wealth.
Having wealth would be just fine it that’s what happened.
The problem is, the wealth has us.
What we set out to possess, possesses us.

Our possessions hold us back from God
         and from our brothers and sisters.
That’s why Jesus says in today’s gospel lesson
         that anyone who want to be his disciple
         must let go of all his possessions, not 10%, all.
Philemon’s stuckness in wealth
         even made him keep a Christian brother in bondage.

George Washington had a similar problem.
He wanted to emancipate his slaves.
Partly he wanted to emancipate them because it was right.
But mostly, it was that the economics of agriculture
had changed so his slaves
were now costing him more than he could afford.
But Martha and the family just would not hear
         of his giving up the family’s slaves.
So, like Pastor Cliff, George was stuck.
It kind of makes you wonder who was possessing whom.
So George took the sneaky way out and freed the slaves
         in his will.

Our attachment to our so-called possessions
         is a spiritual trap and we are all stuck in it.
The more we have, the more stuck we get.
Rich Americans give away just over 2% of their income.
Poor people give away just over 4%.
The poor are twice as generous as the rich,
         because the grip of financial need
                  is not so tight as financial attachment.

In this letter, Paul genuinely wants something good for Onesimus,
         his freedom.
He wants something good for Christ, another missionary.
But he also wants something good for Philemon.
Paul knows the problem isn’t greed.
Fear is the glue that sticks us to our possessions.
He wants Philemon to know the peace that comes
         when faith triumphs over fear.

Paul wants spiritual freedom for Philemon
         as much as he wants legal freedom for Onesimus.
In that freedom, Paul imagines Philemon and Onesimus
         enjoying a new relationship, brother to brother,
         not master to slave.
Make no mistake, our attachment to wealth
         shapes, constrains, and impairs
                  our relationships with people.

So Paul makes the ask.
He does not lay a moral duty on Philemon.
He doesn’t tell him what he should do.
Instead he appeals on the basis of love.

He prays that Philemon will “perceive all the good we may do
         for Christ.”
So I wonder: what do you perceive
that this church doing for Christ?
What might this church do for Christ?

I am assuming that Jesus has saved you from the pit
just like he’s saved me.
I don’t just mean some bad fate after we die.
Jesus has saved me with miracle, grace, and inspiration,
         with hope and courage that were not my own,
again and again, from having my life fall apart.
I am sure as I am standing here, he’s done the same for you
         and he will do it again.

So, with that in mind,
        what do you suppose gladdens the heart of Jesus?
Do you think he might care about the baptisms of children
         regardless of their ethnicity?
Do the gifts you send to Gibson Middle School
         matter to him?
Does your music lift his spirit?
When a lonely person is welcomed, visited, and befriended,
         does Jesus smile?

What does this church do that gladdens the heart of Christ?
What might it do?
And if you saw your gifts doing God’s merciful will in the world,
         might that set you free from a little of what possesses you?
Might the love of Jesus entice you to live a little more
         by faith and less by fear?
If you were in Philemon’s shoes,
if Paul wrote to you asking for a gift of $12,000
         to gladden the heart of Jesus through the ministry
                  of this congregation, what would you do?

[i] Morning Song. Hymnal 9