Sunday, September 26, 2010

Again in this Land

Jeremiah 32: 1-15, page 561
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar. The army of the king of Babylon was then besieging Jerusalem, and Jeremiah the prophet was confined in the courtyard of the guard in the royal palace of Judah.
Now Zedekiah king of Judah had imprisoned him there, saying, “Why do you prophesy as you do? You say, “This is what the Lord says: I am about to hand this city over to the king of Babylon, and he will capture it. Zedekiah king of Judah will not escape out of the hand of the Babylonians but will certainly be handed over to the king of Babylon, and will speak with him face to face and see him with his own eyes. He will take Zedekiah to Babylon, where he will remain until I deal with him, declares the Lord. If you fight against the Babylonians, you will not succeed.”
Jeremiah said, “The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel son of Shallum your uncle is going to come to you and say, ‘Buy my field at Anathoth, because as nearest relative it is your right and duty to buy it.’
Then, just as the Lord had said, my cousin Hanamel came to me in the courtyard of the guard and said, ‘Buy my field at Anathoth in the territory of Benjamin. Since it is your right to redeem it and possess it, buy it for yourself.’
In knew that this was of the Lord; so I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel and weighed out for him seventeen shekels of silver. I signed and sealed the deed, had it witnessed, and weighed out the silver on the scales. I took the deed of purchase – the sealed copy containing the terms and conditions, as well as the unsealed copy – and I gave this deed to Baruch son of Neriah, the son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel and of the witnesses who had signed the deed and of all the Jews sitting in the courtyard of the guard.
In their presence I gave Baruch these instructions: ‘This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel says: take these documents, both the sealed and unsealed copies of the deed of purchase, and put them in a clay jar so they will last a long time. For this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel says: Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.’
I was listening to a radio program called “This American Life,” last week. I listen to this particular program a lot, as each week the topic of the show changes, always to something interesting. This past week’s show featured different stories, all of whom were told by people who came to understand their life better by interpreting their life in light of some scientific law.
This is a strange idea, I know, but hear me out.
The show began with a young man whose father was convinced that New York City was the perfect place. That New York was where he belonged, that there people would understand him and embrace him, there he would find success and happiness, find all the elusive things he had been searching for.
The son who tells this story about his father knew that if his father couldn’t be happy, moving wasn’t going to change that; that in fact, moving to New York City wouldn’t change anything because it’s foolish to think that just moving somewhere different will fix all your problems, that eventually you have to bloom where you’re planted as all places endure ups and downs.
There’s a principle from science that fits this situation as it turns out: The Mediocrity Principle. The Mediocrity Principle emerged after Galileo discovered that the universe does not in fact revolve around the sun, that the earth is not the most important part of the galaxy, and so claims that no place in the universe is more special than any other
Scientists, however, resent using laws this way, and I suppose that makes sense. The Mediocrity Principle wasn’t developed so that sons might understand their fathers, but so that astronomers might understand the universe.
This is one difference between science and religion, as while the Bible wasn’t written with us in mind per se, Christianity is certainly different from science because this is exactly the hope – that in reading sacred texts we might not only understand Jeremiah, but ourselves.
To better understand ourselves then, let us look to what may seem to be a rather mundane event in the life of Jeremiah. Jeremiah is here doing what many of us have done before, he is buying land. What is recorded in scripture here in Jeremiah chapter 32 is a real-estate transaction, and to understand its significance you have to understand Jeremiah, who he was, and who he is in relation to King Zedekiah of Judah.
Our first scripture lesson came from Jeremiah’s first chapter, the story of Jeremiah’s call by God. Here, though only a boy, he was called by God to “destroy and overthrow,” but also to “build and to plant.”
The first part of Jeremiah’s call, to “destroy and overthrow,” is what got him in trouble with the King of Judah. King Zedekiah can’t rule a people panicked over his nation’s fall to Babylon, and whether or not the King actually thinks Judah will fall, Jeremiah has been telling people that there is no point in fighting the Babylonians as God has already decided how the battle will end. No King can expect an army to fight well should that army be convinced that they’re going to lose, so the King has an interest in keeping Jeremiah quiet.
But not only does the King want Jeremiah quiet. The king also wants to try to understand what it is that Jeremiah thinks he’s doing. “Why do you prophesy as you do?” King Zedekiah asks.
Jeremiah’s response is the second part of God’s charge to him: “to build and to plant.”
Jeremiah’s answer to the King’s question is that while disaster and destruction are surely coming, that is only half the message: I prophesy as I do because I know that at the end of all of this: “Houses, fields, and vineyards will again be bought in this land.”
There’s a lesson here for us, and not just because in many ways our world has been toppled as though invaded by the Babylonian army, jobs lost, retirement and savings depleted, our way of life changed, there’s a lesson here for us because as a church we have bought property in a time it didn’t make very much sense to do so.
It was over a year ago that we bought that land next to our church, and while to most of us at the time it made a lot of sense to take advantage of the chance to buy the property right next door, there were many who asked sound questions founded in reality: “why are we doing this?” some asked, “we don’t need more land, if anything we need less.” “This nation is going into a recession – you can’t think that now is a good time to be making purchases that aren’t completely necessary, can you?” And maybe the most important: “for the last ten years our church has been getting smaller, not larger. What do we need with room to grow?”
These are good questions – especially in light of the immediate future at the time – a future which we know now is what we feared it would be – a time of tightened belts, pay cuts, furlough days, and job loss.
But we’ve got to remember that Jeremiah bought land in Judah, not after the Babylonians captured and destroyed, but during, right “when the army of the king of Babylon was then besieging Jerusalem, and Jeremiah the prophet was confined in the courtyard of the guard in the royal palace of Judah,” right before even the King knew that his kingdom would be concurred, he himself taken by the Babylonian hordes.
Jeremiah bought land when there was no reason to believe that he would even need it or have a reason to use it; for all he knew he would be taken back to Babylon as a prisoner of war and there he would die, never even setting foot on the land that he bought that day.
In fact, it would seem as though he knew he would never see that day because he is sure to sign the documents before witnesses and requests that his scribe Baruch take the documents and seal them in clay jars so that they will “last a long time.”
Today, for whatever reason, I am painfully aware that I am your interim pastor, and that I will not be here when you will need to expand into the property that we bought one year ago. But as a man of faith – both faith in God and faith in you – I know that such a day will soon be coming.
We have certainly seen some hard times, dramatic change. But what I know for certain is that God has not put this church here and through hard times so that we might fade away, but so that we might be reborn.
Like Jeremiah, you have planned for the future by buying land; and like Jeremiah, you must now look forward to the day when you will need it – for having been through hard times – you are entering the days of building and planting in a place that God intends you stay.
You have made it through some hard times – now comes something new – a time with its own challenges, but challenges of growth and not decline.
You have made it through some hard times – and now you are ready for a future that only the faithful could have seen a year ago.
You have made it through some hard times – now build where you are planted – a place where God has been faithful, a place where God will continue to be faithful.
Thanks be to God.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

It Depends Where You're Standing

Luke 16: 1-15, page 740
Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. So he called him in and asked him, ‘what is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’
“The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job, I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg – I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’
“So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
“’Eight hindered gallons of olive oil,’ he replied.
“The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred.’
“Then he asked the second, ‘and how much do you owe?’
“’A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied.
“He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’
“The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.
“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?
“No servant can serve two masters. Either he or she will hate the one and love the other, or he or she will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of humanity, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among people is detestable in God’s sight.
Jesus tells stories, but as you can see, they’re not always easy to follow and they sometimes take work to understand.
You particularly find out that this is true when re-telling Jesus’ parables to children.
I was thankful this past Wednesday morning to be standing where I was, in the back of the crowd, while our Pre-School director Pam McClure was standing in front. She was telling a group of three and four year old children the story of the Good Samaritan.
“There was a man hurt on the side of the road,” she said. “His body was covered in boo-boos.”
“Were they bug bites?” a little girl with curly blond hair asked.
“No honey,” Pam responded, “they weren’t bug bites.”
“Bug bites hurt,” the little girl responded.”
“Yes they do honey, but let me get back to telling the story,” Pam said.
“Do you like my hair?” the little girl asked.
You see – even just finishing the story gets complicated when you are telling it to children, but what is also difficult is leading them to associate with the character you want them to associate with – because where they stand in the story matters – where they stand changes how they hear the lesson.
Take Robin Hood for example. It’s a complicated story, especially if the stories hearer’s begin to associate with the rich – “It’s wrong to steal, isn’t it?” a child might rightly ask.
And a response: “Yes he steals from the rich but he gives to the poor,” might or might not clear anything up.
This morning we are faced with a particularly difficult parable to understand – whether you are a child or a seminary trained pastor who has tried to unravel it by reading it in Greek – this parable will give you a hard time.
The place to begin though is knowing who to associate with – knowing where you stand in the story.
There are three main players: the rich man, also referred to in the parable as the master, is easy enough to figure out – this character represents God – the source of all the possessions possessed by any character in the story. Then there are the debtors – one who carries a debt of olive oil, another of grain. To figure out who these two represent you need only be reminded of your credit card bill or the prayer that we pray every Sunday, “forgive us our debts.” This character in the parable represents you.
And the third – maybe the most important as he is the main character – is a little harder to figure out – so you must go to the end of our passage to hear who this parable offended. The manager, the manager of the debts, the middle man between you, the debtor, and God, the master, are those powerful religious elite who had a particular interest, not in your ability to pay off your debt free and clear, but had a particular interest in keeping you in-debt so that they might make a living off your gradual payment, so that they might hold power over you keeping you in a hole that they had no interest in you ever getting out of.
In today’s world we have known religious professionals who have taken the same approach – maintaining a sure sense of your indebtedness and lording that indebtedness over you so that even once you feel as though you’ve gained some salvation in comes a fear of back-sliding putting you right back where they want you.
But surely here, while I have hit my hand against the pulpit once or twice, it’s not a religious authority who holds you in debt – so this parable isn’t just about guilt and shame and those people who make a living from your guilt and shame – this parable is also about money.
Money that controls, and keeps folks chasing after it. Greed that defines, and redefines priorities so that profit matters over all else. And debt that confines, holds down, and imprisons – keeps folks from freedom, peace of mind, and security.
There are plenty in our world who would play the part of the manager flawlessly.
There are those banks that, from their commercials, appear to be about getting people on their feet, small businesses off the ground, and families in houses that they can afford. But too many have found that the reality is that so many who have loaned money out don’t want to help, don’t even want you to pay off your debt, but want you in the trap of accumulating interest for as long as they can hold you. Credit cards that come in the mail and appear to be the answer to our prayers – veritable interest rate loans that start off just fine – but the goal of these companies is not to help you – but to control you and squeeze as much money out of you as they can.
Then there are those people, those brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, so kind, so comforting in times of mourning, but who circle like vultures when the will is read. Money becomes what matters – and the relationships that are the only ties that bind are forfeited in the name of who gets what.
There are those bosses who want you as long as you’re producing, those friends who offer you favors, not to be kind but who are looking forward to you repaying in kind.
We hold grudges rather than give forgiveness, hold interest rather than forgive debts, and chase money rather than holding on to each other – as like the Pharisees before us – we know that this kind of power can be nice.
But who are we, but managers of what God gives – and shouldn’t we be both surprised and afraid to find that God has no interest in lording over us, holding our debts over us, keeping us tied down – but only desires that our debts be reconciled offering a lower rate than we would ever expect – that our relationships to each other and to our God be made right as though our God only desires that we be set free – only desires that we give up our pursuit of worthless treasures in favor of something that truly matters: “I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”
I have a debate with myself whenever I check out at the grocery store. I was at the Kroger the other morning, in a hurry but not too much of a hurry.
I thought about the self-checkout line – there were a couple people there – then I looked at the sole check-out line peopled by a Kroger employee and went there though there was a line.
The man in front of me bought cigarettes, cat food, and a newspaper – I’m a nosy person you see.
I was surprise that he started talking about a book he’s reading to the woman at the register.
“It’s a work of science fiction – it will probably take me six weeks to read it – you have to have a physics back ground to understand it – I have to sit and think awhile after I’ve only read five pages.
“And could you also give me change for a ten – two fives please,” the man said.
“I’m taking my mother to get her hair done and if I only have a $10 bill she’ll want to tip the stylist the whole $10.”
“It looks like you got a hair but too,” the woman at the register said. “You look nice.”
“Not too nice though,” he replied. “I lost another tooth so I’m scared to smile because when I do I look like I’m from Appalachia.”
“I’m getting a new one though,” he said.
“Well then, you come in here smiling once you do,” the woman said.
He covered his mouth, “I’m smiling now, but don’t look – you may hear the theme song from deliverance.”
Then he left.
“I love seeing that man. He makes me smile every time I see him,” the woman at the register said to me.
Profit drives stores to have those self-checkout lanes – and we like them too, not just because they’re convenient but because if they save a little money the stores will save us a little money.
But there are things more important.
Self-checkout lines don’t get jokes. They can’t smile.
So it depends where you’re standing. In one line or the other.
And money goes – you lose it by spending it away, wasting it away, or by dying without the option of taking any of it with you.
Friends on the other hand – real friends – are there for keeps.
God on the other hand – the Alpha and Omega – the beginning and the end – will always stand with you.
But so much depends on where you stand.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Of Whom I am the Worst

1st Timothy 1: 12-17, page 839
I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief.
The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are to Christ Jesus.
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the word to save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever, Amen.
I know that there are plenty of people who wouldn’t dare walk through our doors and into our church out of fear that they are not good enough.
Some would be afraid that they don’t wear the right clothes; that they would feel out of place.
Some are afraid that their sinful way of life would be obvious, that we might all smell the alcohol on their breath, smoke on their clothes, adultery on their lips as though their sins were made plain like a scarlet letter or neon sign for everyone to see.
And some are afraid that they can’t measure up to us and our behavior. Some are afraid that they don’t deserve to associate with people like us – the saved, the redeemed, the nice, and the polite – and so they stay away because they think they aren’t good enough to fit in.
What a disappointment Church is to that group of people – as once they get in here and get to know us – if they thought we were cut from a finer cloth or were more perfect than all the rest I can’t say that it would take very long for them to feel disappointed.
As a church we try to make it obvious enough – right there on the cover of our bulletin we make a statement about who we are: “We are an imperfect people.”
This sounds like a very strange statement to make to some folks I’m sure – but what we say about ourselves is more or less the essence of Paul’s version of Christianity that we have read here in 1st Timothy: “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.”
The author of this letter, one who is probably not Paul himself as most scholars believe 1st Timothy was written after Paul’s death, but a student of Paul modeling Paul’s teaching, is very up-front about something that most of us would rather hide.
I was talking with a young woman a little worried about heading off to college week before last. I asked her what she was most worried about. There’s so much you can know now about your roommates before you even meet them these days, and after having done considerable research on facebook and whatnot, finding out as much as she could about the young women who would become her roommates, she was worried that they might be rich and snobby, that they might have better clothes, and with them take up too much space in the shared closet.
“If it’s that they might come from more money than you do, I don’t think there’s anything to worry about,” I said. “College is the kind of place where most everyone is trying to escape who they are and where they come from. The kids from poor families don’t want you to know that they came from poor families, and the kids from rich families don’t want anyone to know that they came from rich families – I’m sure that if your roommates do come from money they are not going to want you to know anything about it.”
College is the kind of place where you start over, where you try to leave who you were behind, but who you are, where you come from, what you’ve done, and what you haven’t done aren’t things that you can run from or leave at home. We’re attracted to such opportunities as college, because just being ourselves is so hard. The courage to be – to boldly be who God created you to be – is a skill that too few posses.
Paul then, viewed by so many church-goers the way non-church-goers view church-goers, doesn’t remain up on that pedestal time and tradition have placed him on, but climbs right down to us, boldly proclaiming who he is and what he’s done: a blasphemer, persecutor of the church, a violent man.
It would have been so easy for Paul to let sleeping dogs lie, leave the past to the past, and allow us all to go on believing that the great Paul the Apostle were without fault.
But Paul knows, as I hope and pray, many of us know, that there is no reason for any of us to fear our pasts – as not only does God invite us to live a new life in Christ – but Christ’ grace was poured out on us abundantly while we were still sinners – before - before we had any chance of deserving it.
It is not out of a hope of deserving God’s love that Paul changed his way of life – it was a response to God’s grace that he received before he had changed anything or had any hope of deserving it.
That’s why at this church we say, not only that we are an imperfect people, but that “We are an imperfect people, who, in response to God’s Grace, are striving to live as disciples of Jesus Christ.”
Like Paul then – we boldly proclaim our imperfection, our sin, our short-coming – not because we miss our old way of life, and rather than pretend that we can escape it we know that we are not defined by it, because in the midst of that brokenness there was God’s love shining bright. In the midst of our undeserving nature, there was God’s grace poured out. In the midst of all our imperfection, there was God’s perfection making us unafraid to be who we truly are.
Our brokenness is not our weakness – our brokenness is nothing to be afraid of – as in spite of that brokenness that makes you feel that you don’t deserve God’s love, remember that it was when you were broken that the grace of our Lord was poured out to you abundantly – not because you are good, but because God is good.
As a church – we can’t be about anything else – and so we do our best to boldly proclaim that God’s love isn’t about deserving – it’s about the kind of love that is given and can never be deserved.
Yesterday I received an email from, John VanBrunt, a man who a few years ago was extremely active in our church’s life and ministry to the point that he and others were driving to Long Beach, Mississippi, to aid in reconstruction efforts in the wake of hurricane Katrina every other month. This group, along with middle-schoolers and high-schoolers from our church who also worked in Long Beach with their leader Katie Arnold, formed a relationship with one family, the Allenbaughs, who you may remember from the time they visited our church. Chris Allenbaugh, the bread-winner of the family, needed a motor for his boat, as the family’s livelihood depended on his work out on the ocean which he was unable to do, having lost everything in the storm.
Our church raised the money in no time for Chris to buy his boat a brand new motor – but as we raised the money there were plenty among us who worried – will giving this family a motor really help, or should they be working for it? Can our hand-outs really help this family, or will giving them a huge gift they didn’t have to earn make them dependant?
These are good and important questions – our church decided that we would just do what we could to help, and that we would leave the rest up to God.
We abundantly poured out to this family – and today, to use John’s words: “through God’s providential care and timing” Chris has been able to use his boat to provide a significant financial cushion helping to clean up the Long Beach area during the BP oil spill clean-up.
I don’t think that you could ever say that Chris and his family deserved the motor our church gave, but I do know that our gift, poured out abundantly like God’s grace, changed a family and gave them something to stand on.
This is in fact what I believe our church, and all churches for that matter, should be all about.
Not worrying about who deserves what – but responding to the grace you have received by pouring out love on others who deserve it as much as you did.
The truth of the matter is that you aren’t good enough to be here, as no one is good enough to be invited into the presence of God.
You can’t measure up, as even though you have left an old way of life behind in favor of a new one, perfection is something that you will never attain.
But thanks be to God – your imperfection is not something for you to hide away – as for you – God’s love is poured out abundantly – God’s grace has made you worthy – so there is no reason for you to fear anyone’s judgment, there is no reason to worry about not being good enough – all that is required is that you respond to God’s Grace by pouring out this abundant love to others who don’t deserve it either.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


Philemon, page 845
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother.
To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home; Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.
Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul – an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus – I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
I am sending him – who is my very heart – back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good – no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.
So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back – not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.
And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
I’ve always struggled with sermon titles, but today’s may take the cake. Today’s sermon title, bold in its vagueness, doesn’t tell you much of anything, but does at least tell you which of the three main characters from this letter I want to focus on. But to get to Philemon, we first have to deal with the other two – Paul and Onesimus.
Paul, here referred to in verse one as a prisoner of Christ Jesus, is the Apostle Paul – that great letter writer who’s letters make up such a large part of our New Testament. He wasn’t one of the disciples, in fact his relationship to Christianity began as a persecutor of the faith, but something happened and his life changed forever – rather than a great opponent of Christianity, he became her greatest supporter, evangelizing to the most distant reaches of the Roman Empire, often imprisoned for his faith, always risking his life for the good of the Gospel. In the context of this letter, Paul is the letter writer – he seems to have known Philemon well, knows this congregation that meets in his house – but is far away and imprisoned with only the slave Onesimus to help him.
Onesimus is the subject of this letter – a run-away slave belonging to Philemon – we don’t know exactly how his and the Apostle Paul’s paths met, but we do know that a strong friendship resulted from their chance encounter. Not only is this letter about Onesimus, whether Philemon will allow him to return home or will exact some sever punishment for running away; Onesimus is almost certainly the deliverer of the letter.
Can you imagine what that must have been like – to go back – to return to the scene of the crime knowing that you might well be facing your own death as punishment for running away? Onesimus is walking into the unknown, all his hope riding on a letter that his master may not even take the time to read for his anger. Onesimus is at the mercy of Philemon, and while he goes to Philemon’s house he doesn’t know how he’ll be received – like returning home after storming out, Onesimus is like a husband returning home to his wife with his tail between his legs knowing that he doesn’t deserve forgiveness but is asking for it anyway – like an immigrant who leaves the stability of home for the possibility of a new life – Onesimus is crossing the desert into a new land trusting his well being to a hope for a better life knowing full well he could die or be sent back at any time. It’s a tremendous risk that Onesimus takes here – putting his life into the hands of this letter – all his hope resting in Philemon reading it and having the courage or mercy to do as Paul asks should he even take the time to read the letter.
We may assume that Philemon does at least read it – I can’t see how the letter would have made it to us if he had just thrown it away – and while Onesimus’ life does depend on it, so much is being asked of Philemon here.
In his time Christianity was a private matter – this church met in his house, not in a big cathedral out on the public square – and we may go so far as to assume that this is where Philemon expressed his faith – that he was a Christian in his home where it was safe to be a Christian, but out in the world he was someone else. There was business to be done out in the world, slaves to be bought and sold, money to be made.
This was a time when Christianity was a fledgling religion and so much worship was done in private where people could safely express their faith without fear of judgment or ridicule.
It’s not that Philemon didn’t want to come out with his faith – it’s not that he didn’t want to be a Christian outside his home as well as within it – but these were times when faith was a private matter one kept to himself.
Not so different than today then I suppose.
Not so different from our world where so many act one way in church and another outside these walls – not so different from our world where so many are obligated to confess that we are brothers and sisters in Christ knowing full well that in our world there are still hierarchies of difference – not so different from our world where every Sunday we pray the Lord’s Prayer, for the day when our debts will be forgiven just as we forgive our debtors, while out in the real world our credit card bills are due and interest is piling up – not so different from our world where we have learned to manage our faith, living it out at times and keeping it private at others.
So it was for Philemon. He knew Paul and so he must have heard Paul say more than once that in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female – he may have even believed it in his heart while his body went on living the way the world told him he could – owning slaves, managing his household, exacting punishment on the disobedient to maintain the system of power that his wealth depended on.
It was no easy thing for Philemon to even consider doing what Paul asks – go and be merciful to one runaway and you might as well give all the others permission to do the same. But more than that – word would surely spread and next thing you know every slave in the city is testing the limits of their owner’s authority.
What Paul is asking Philemon to do isn’t just to be merciful to this one man, Paul is asking Philemon to make a statement, to make his faith public, to go out into the world with his faith – to not keep the truth of the gospel confined any longer.
There’s nothing easy about it. It may sound unrelated to us – but I think we all know that there’s nothing easy about going public with what we believe in any time or place – and to think that by doing so we could actually make a difference.
Not just saying that we love our neighbor as ourselves – but really loving our neighbor, the ones we haven’t even taken the time to meet, loving them as ourselves.
Not just saying that debts will be forgiven – but really letting debts go, letting real money go.
Not just saying that we are all one in Christ, that there is no Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male and female, but living that way, not just in church but in the public square, at the ballot box, out in the world where we all know well and good that all men created equal may sound good but asks a whole lot, maybe more than we are willing to give.
It’s a lot to go up against the whole world like that, but it’s what Paul is asking us to do. Not reduce Christianity to a simple, “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” but the full truth – that the Gospel calls us into direct opposition with systems that so many accept without question.
Enough about us – this letter is about Philemon – and we don’t know exactly how the story ends. We don’t know whether Philemon listens to Paul and treats Onesimus like a brother in Christ, or if Philemon listens to the world and treats Onesimus as the law commands.
“If he fails, it will be one more victory for rationality; one more victory for everyone who likes to see the world carry on spinning evenly and predictably; one more victory for common sense. It will be one more victory for all of us who never really tried.”1
1. Chris Heath, “An Army of One,” GQ, September 2010, 293.