Degrees of Separation

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 16th Sunday after Pentecost + September 4, 2016

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

How many of you have heard of a game called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? In the game a player is given a Hollywood name — an actor, a director, whatever — and the player has to connect that person to Kevin Bacon in six moves or less. So, for instance: someone might say, “David Bowie!” and someone with a lot more movie trivia knowledge than I have would say, “David Bowie was in Labyrinth with Jennifer Connelly. Jennifer Connelly was in A Beautiful Mind with Ed Harris. Ed Harris was in Apollo 13 with Kevin Bacon.”

The game became so popular that Kevin Bacon even began to play into it. Some of you may remember a commercial from a few years back: Kevin Bacon wants to write a check to buy a book, and the cashier asks to see his ID. Bacon doesn’t have it on him, so he leaves for a moment and returns with a string of people. He says to the cashier: “Okay, I was in a movie with an extra, Eunice, whose hairdresser, Wayne, attended Sunday school with Father O’Neill, who plays racquetball with Dr. Sanjay, who recently removed the appendix of Kim, who dumped you sophomore year. So you see, we’re practically brothers.”

The game is based on the theory of “six degrees of separation.” In that theory each of us — not just Kevin Bacon — can be connected to anyone else in the world in six steps or less. As far as I know this theory hasn’t been proved to be totally reliable, but I’m sure each of us has had experiences that make it seem believable. Bernie Anderson and I went to the same college, and so did Wayne Higbe’s dad (Go Pipers!). Kaye Bradley’s niece was my boss during my time at Luther Seminary. I was once in the same room as the 14th Dalai Lama (hearing him give a lecture), and Richard Gere has met the Dalai Lama, which I think counts as a three-degree connection between me and the entire casts of Pretty Woman, Chicago, and An Officer and a Gentleman.

Connection matters. We feel differently about people because of our connection to them. We feel different levels of obligation to people based on how connected we are to them. We treat friends differently than we treat strangers, and strangers differently than we treat friends of friends, and friends of friends differently than we treat friends of influential people.

The difference that connection makes in our obligation to another person shows itself in all sorts of ways: How much time should we spend making small talk with them? How much of ourselves should we share with them? To what extent do we need to take care of them or help them?

The difference connection makes shows itself most obviously in our family relationships. We expect parents to make sacrifices for their children that we wouldn’t expect them to make for anyone else. We expect partners in marriage to support one another in ways different from even really close friendships. When friends do become especially important to us, we call them family. If someone is willing to give one of her kidneys to her brother, we’d probably think she is amazingly generous and saintly, but if she gives a kidney to a complete stranger, we might wonder if she’s crazy. There’s something deep inside of us that recognizes family relationships as special, more demanding, and more essential.

Maybe that’s why Jesus’s words in today’s gospel reading are so very disturbing: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Jesus cut down our most primary connections. The people we are not only socially expected to put first, but the people we are naturally inclined to put first — Jesus says they are not primary in a life of discipleship. Jesus tells his disciples that if they are going to be part of his mission, they must change the way they understand connection at its most fundamental level.

If we just glance at this passage, taken apart from the rest of the gospel, it sounds like Jesus is saying the only connection that matters is between the individual disciple and Jesus. It sounds like he is saying, “The only thing you should care about is me and your relationship with me. Hate everyone else, even your own family, even your own life.”

But that interpretation doesn’t fit with Jesus’s other teachings on connecting with others. After all, this is the same man who reminded us that the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” is a close second to the commandment to love God, and the two may even be inseparable (Matt. 22:35-40). This is the same man who said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:43-44).

The idea that we are to love only Jesus and hate everyone else doesn’t fit with the way Jesus lived and related to people, either. Jesus built strong relationships with his twelve closest disciples. Jesus talked with and healed people he met along the road or at the local well or who interrupted him while he was teaching. Sometimes even when Jesus was trying to get away from people, maybe to find some time to be alone with God, crowds followed him, and he took the time to speak with them, heal them, and feed them (Matt. 14:13-21). Connecting with people was clearly very important to Jesus.

So with all that in mind, I don’t think that today’s gospel reading is asking us to be more individualistic or more hateful. I think it is part of Jesus’s consistent attempt to turn our understanding of our relationships and connections on its head. We are generally taught — and maybe naturally inclined — to love our families first, other people we know second, strangers not really at all, and to hate our enemies. But Jesus ripped that to shreds: If you are my disciple, your family is not your only important connection anymore. You need to care about strangers. You need to love your enemies. That is a radically different way of being in the world than what is normal, and it demands a lot more of us. That’s why Jesus made sure that those who followed him knew what discipleship demanded — he tried to make sure they were counting the cost.

I wonder if we might reason all that out for ourselves with the “six degrees of separation” theory. If as Christians our number one connection is to God, and if God loves everyone, created everyone in God’s image, then in a way we are connected to everyone by only two degrees. And if we are so closely connected, that must change our feelings about how we ought to be relating to one another and treating one another — even strangers, even enemies.

Paul’s letter to Philemon is an example of how a person’s connection to God can change his relationship to others. We don’t know any details about the situation between Paul, Philemon, and this guy Onesimus. What we do know is that Onesimus had been working for Philemon in some capacity, and then he spent time with Paul while was Paul was in prison, and then Paul wrote this letter of recommendation for Onesimus to Philemon.

We can’t be certain about the details of the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon. Maybe Onesimus was Philemon’s slave (that’s overwhelmingly the most common interpretation); maybe he was just of a lower status in the household. Maybe Onesimus ran away, or stole something, or is indebted to Philemon. Maybe Onesimus became a Christian while he was away with Paul. There are a lot of maybes. But what we can assume pretty safely is that Philemon, for whatever reason, did not treat Onesimus as a close connection.

Paul wrote to Philemon asking him to relate to Onesimus differently, to treat him differently, to love him differently. The reasons Paul gave were all based on connection: Onesimus had become like Paul’s own child, like Paul’s own heart. “So,” Paul wrote, “if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” Perhaps even more importantly, Paul wrote that Onesimus had become a “beloved brother” to both of them in the Lord. The fact that all three of these men were disciples of Jesus formed a connection between them that overrode social status, a connection that automatically built new family ties, a connection that demanded new hospitality, love, and care.

As disciples of Jesus in the 21st century, here in Franklin (and Nashville and Spring Hill and Thompson’s Station) how can live out that radical connectedness that Jesus demands of us? Whom can we reach out to with a new degree of hospitality? Whom can we make more welcome? Whose needs can we help meet? Whom do we need to treat more like a fellow child of God? During the election season, how will we comment and debate? What opportunities do we have show the world how God sees it: as a totally connected family of beloved children of God?

Some Sources of Inspiration:

Eric Barreto. “Philemon 1:1-21 Commentary.” Working Preacher. September 4, 2016. Available online.

Larissa MacFarquhar. Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help. (New York: Penguin Press, 2015).

Kevin Bacon.


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