The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

An un-respectable faith (sermon for Sep 9, 2007)

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Henderson Lewelling HouseAnd something you might have in common with this old house.

Proper 18 (23); September 9, 2007
Luke 14:25-33; Philemon 1-21; Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-6,13-18

We sang Forever, Your Great Name We Praise, The Potter’s Hand, and Jesus, All for Jesus

Last week, we watched Jesus at a dinner. Jesus told the guests to take the places of low prestige at the table, and he told the host to revise his guest list, inviting people with bad reputations next time he had a dinner. And why was that such a big deal?

It was a big deal because it was a high-context culture, in which there were many rules for how things were to be done, and failure to follow those rules meant putting one’s ability to get what was needed at risk. Especially, who one knew, who one was related to, who one socialized with was how people determined who was safe to be friends with, to marry, to do business with.

And Jesus told them to break it up and pursue relationships with people who aren’t players – who aren’t influential. You saw him doing it in chapter after chapter after chapter in Luke, touching people whom his world told him he must not touch.

And what was the result of it likely to be on Jesus and those who follow him? Bad reputation. “What kind of church have you got here?” Dads will say: “These are not the people I want hanging around my daughter.” Strangers will say: “They don’t have respectful decorum at that church.” “Did you see that so-and-so goes to church there? What a hypocrite! They just don’t seem to be able to attract good people.” And, “You know, they have people there who just don’t know how to discipline their children, and I have such a hard time paying attention to the sermon.” And, “That strange guy stood and talked today, and just wouldn’t shut up.” And some may leave. And income may be low.

There is a shame to it. It clashes with respectability.
But it says to those our society does not respect: You’re included in the Kingdom of God, just like me. And Jesus promised we’d be blessed for doing so, and then further repaid at the resurrection.

Now, with that as the context, we go on in Luke. How does that background affect your understand of this that happens next?

Luke 14:25-33
Figure the Cost
25-27One day when large groups of people were walking along with him, Jesus turned and told them, “Anyone who comes to me but refuses to let go of father, mother, spouse, children, brothers, sisters—yes, even one’s own self!—can’t be my disciple. Anyone who won’t shoulder his own cross and follow behind me can’t be my disciple.

What might he mean?
Is he saying “walk away” from family responsibility? Not unless he’s saying kill yourself, for he refers to family and self in the same way. But he is saying the impact on your family of your new way of doing relationships will be big. You’ll be breaking up unhealthy ways of relating to each other. They will find that strange. You’ll be taking on the shame of others. You’ll become unrespectable as you grow friendships with unrespectable people. It will reflect on your family. They may not like that. Can you live with that, or will you give up?

And, following Jesus will have an impact on your finances. You’ll be giving money away. You’ll be lending to people who you don’t expect to pay you back. Your bosses will realize that they’re not number one in your life (such insouciance!). And because you will care for people others don’t care for, there may be people who won’t want to do business with you. You might spend your life at a job that doesn’t pay very much. Can you live with that, or will you give up? If you’re life amounts to less than you’d hoped financially, will you give up?

“Shoulder your cross” – and what might that mean, given the context? Here’s another time it comes up:

Hebrews 12:2-3 (NIV): Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

The cross is shame – and it springs from being opposed, in Jesus case (thus presumably ours) by people of strong religious views. Remember, Jesus rarely tangled with non-religious people; it is among the ultra-religious that he does what little calling-down that he does.

Back to Luke, where Jesus continues:

28-30″Is there anyone here who, planning to build a new house, doesn’t first sit down and figure the cost so you’ll know if you can complete it? If you only get the foundation laid and then run out of money, you’re going to look pretty foolish. Everyone passing by will poke fun at you: ‘He started something he couldn’t finish.’

31-32″Or can you imagine a king going into battle against another king without first deciding whether it is possible with his ten thousand troops to face the twenty thousand troops of the other? And if he decides he can’t, won’t he send an emissary and work out a truce?

33″Simply put, if you’re not willing to take what is dearest to you, whether plans or people, and kiss it good-bye, you can’t be my disciple.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Now let me show you a story of Paul asking someone to do just that. It’s Paul’s letter to Philemon.

Like Jesus’ acceptance of the poor, the blind, the lame, the imprisoned – here’s a runaway slave, and possibly a thief. Let’s see what world we’re citizens of.

Philemon 1
1-3I, Paul, am a prisoner for the sake of Christ, here with my brother Timothy. I write this letter to you, Philemon, my good friend and companion in this work—also to our sister Apphia, to Archippus, a real trooper, and to the church that meets in your house. God’s best to you! Christ’s blessings on you!

What do you know about Philemon so far?

4-7Every time your name comes up in my prayers, I say, “Oh, thank you, God!” I keep hearing of the love and faith you have for the Master Jesus, which brims over to other believers. And I keep praying that this faith we hold in common keeps showing up in the good things we do, and that people recognize Christ in all of it. Friend, you have no idea how good your love makes me feel, doubly so when I see your hospitality to fellow believers.

To Call the Slave Your Friend
8-9In line with all this I have a favor to ask of you. As Christ’s ambassador and now a prisoner for him, I wouldn’t hesitate to command this if I thought it necessary, but I’d rather make it a personal request.

10-14While here in jail, I’ve fathered a child, so to speak. And here he is, hand-carrying this letter—Onesimus! He was useless to you before; now he’s useful to both of us. I’m sending him back to you, but it feels like I’m cutting off my right arm in doing so. I wanted in the worst way to keep him here as your stand-in to help out while I’m in jail for the Message. But I didn’t want to do anything behind your back, make you do a good deed that you hadn’t willingly agreed to.

My son Lucas tells me about a third of the people in the Roman empire were slaves. Probably an enslaved population that large was a constant threat of revolt. So how gently do you suppose the Romans would treat runaways? By contrast, here’s what Paul recommends:

15-16Maybe it’s all for the best that you lost him for a while. You’re getting him back now for good—and no mere slave this time, but a true Christian brother! That’s what he was to me—he’ll be even more than that to you.

17-20So if you still consider me a comrade-in-arms, welcome him back as you would me. If he damaged anything or owes you anything, chalk it up to my account. This is my personal signature—Paul—and I stand behind it. (I don’t need to remind you, do I, that you owe your very life to me?) Do me this big favor, friend. You’ll be doing it for Christ, but it will also do my heart good.

May be Onesimus did some vandalism or theft when he left. We can only imagine what normal punishment might have been. But how would Philemon have to treat him to fulfill Paul’s wishes? Welcome him … as you would welcome me … a true Christian brother. A brother! Remember Luke, how our families change in Christ? Now O. is a brother. And Paul says “Forget it!” about what he stole and broke, and if you really want to be paid, see me. But you owe me quite a bit, you know.

Now how are Philemon’s neighbors going to see this? Probably, they’ll be furious. It will appear that Philemon is encouraging illegal behavior. Will their slaves run away, too? Will they expect this kind of treatment? “Is this teaching respect for the rule of law – this amnesty?” And treating Onesimus as a family member – “How degrading!” they might think.

Paul doesn’t let up:

21-22I know you well enough to know you will. You’ll probably go far beyond what I’ve written. And by the way, get a room ready for me. Because of your prayers, I fully expect to be your guest again.

23-25Epaphras, my cellmate in the cause of Christ, says hello. Also my coworkers Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke. All the best to you from the Master, Jesus Christ!

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Henderson Lewelling HouseNot far from here is the little village of Salem, Iowa. In Salem is the former home of Henderson Lewelling and his family. The Lewelling House, as it’s now called, was a stop on the underground railroad.

In 1850, the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. In it, the Federal government required people in free states to aid slave-owners from slave states when slaves had fled into free areas. Sheriffs, for instance, who failed to aid slave-hunters, could be fined a thousand dollars (perhaps an unpayably huge sum). Families could have their property seized and their livelihood ruined. Since Iowa was a free state and Missouri permitted slave ownership, the towns near the Iowa-Missouri border, like Salem, were the places where these unjust laws caused the most trouble.

The Lewellings, like many others in and near Salem, were Quakers. They observed Jesus in the Bible, and assumed it their responsibility to serve the least respected people of their day. In their world, slaves running for their lives from Missouri seemed the logical people to serve.

The Lewellings and others like them in S.E. Iowa paid a high price to do so. Neighbors turned them in when they suspected slaves were present. Vigilantes from Missouri came to town beating and imprisoning them, until a sheriff from a nearby city appeared and let them out.

Perhaps most disappointing, their church split over it, and they were shown the door. Like Jesus, they were disrepected by their religious brothers and sisters for serving the disrespected.

Late one night, a slave on the run appeared at the door at one of these homes with his baby daughter in his arms. She was sick. His wife had been sold. He was afraid his baby would die. Would the family – who had fifteen children – keep her till he could get to Canada, establish himself, return for her? They would.

They never saw him again. They raised her as their 16th child. Simple.

Dozens – perhaps hundreds – of slaves escaped through SE Iowa, many making it into Canada to escape the Act.

They risked everything to follow the example of Jesus. They would not allow anyone – not family, not church, not the laws of the U.S. government – to keep them from caring for the most disrespected people in their world.

What a gospel-like story it is.

We believe Jesus Christ lived in perfect esteem and perfect community in heaven.

We believe he left his Father and the Spirit, separating a community of one-ness that had never been separated.

We believe that he did so to appear on Earth and love the people no one else was loving, that he was despised by religious culture for it, and, as a result, was killed by the Romans’ ritual of shame-death: on a cross, naked, on display as a failure for all to mock.

And, we believe, then came the joy.

Heb 12:2 (NIV) Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Do we dare count the cost of following him—sharing the shame of the least respected, and enduring the animosity of the respectable religious—for the joy that’s set before us?

Related posts:
Unrespectable Jesus – sermon of Sep 2, 07
Jesus’ preference for the poor
Christ in the migrant
Citizens of another nation
Tags: , , , , , , , , , Monte Asbury


Written by Monte

September 18, 2007 at 5:16 pm

One Response

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  1. Very interesting blog. I will be checking out more of your writing in the future!
    tim kurek

    Monte says: Thanks, Tim – you’re always welcome – and I’ll be dropping in on you, too!

    Tim Kurek

    September 18, 2007 at 5:43 pm

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