Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, September 8, 2019
Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Psalm 1, Philemon, Luke 14:25-33
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Philemon is my favorite book of the Bible. We get such a clear view of Paul’s personality, here, as he guilt-trips Philemon into doing the right thing. I can imagine the scene so clearly: Philemon’s church gathered to hear the letter, all of them knowing all the dirty gossip about the fight between Philemon and Onesimus, and waiting to hear what Paul’s take on it is. All of them knowing that Roman law and custom was firmly on Philemon’s side. Philemon’s pride at the first section, as Paul buttered him up, only to become chagrined and flustered as Paul pulls the rug right out from under him, but not being able to respond.
Then there’s the connection with American history. Like the early United States, the Roman Empire was a slave state, whose entire economy depended on the enslavement of a huge percentage of its population. This year marks the 400th Anniversary of slavery in America; the first African slaves arrived in August of 1619. Slavery was legal in America for longer than it was forbidden. And the effects linger on, in policies and community standards that seem innocent on the surface. When I was a kid, I was taught that the Civil Rights Era had fixed all the racial problems in America. We teach our children a history in which the evils of slavery are minimized and excused, and so is all the discrimination and oppression that followed it, and yet that’s not true. Our criminal justice system treats people of color far differently than it does white people. For example, average illegal drug use is the same in both the White and Black communities, and yet Black drug users are seven times more likely to be arrested and put in prison than White drug users. And convicted prisoners are the one group of people that it is legal to force to work for little or no pay; they are specifically exempted from the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery. Thousands of companies across America contract with prisons to use their prisoners—mostly people of color—as slave labor. In states that still have the death penalty, the most crucial factor deciding whether you will be sentenced to death or to life in prison is not the severity of your crime, but the color of your skin.
And it’s not just the legal system, it’s our whole society. About a decade ago, a documentary on race in America staged an experiment. They found two average, nice, ordinary, mostly-white suburbs in areas not known for being especially racist. And then they had two groups of teens—one White, one Black—purposefully vandalize and destroy a parked car. And they waited to see how many people called the cops. Nobody called the police on the White kids, but there were many calls to the police about the Black kids. More than that, the Black kids had some friends of theirs waiting a few streets away for them to be done, and concerned White citizens called the cops on those kids who were quietly sitting in a parked car and talking to one another. They believed Black kids sitting and talking quietly is more threatening and criminal than White kids actively vandalizing things. I could go on and on with story after story, but I would never come to the end of such stories. We may ignore the question of slavery and our nation’s history with it, but it is baked into our nation’s bones.
None of us were alive when that terrible institution was outlawed, and yet we are all affected by its legacy, despite the ways we as a society have chosen to ignore it. And the ELCA is the whitest Christian denomination in the US—that is, we have the lowest percentage of people of color in our membership of any denomination. The legacy of slavery and racism is not something we can or should ignore. It’s easy to look back at the crimes of our ancestors and think, “if I were alive back then, surely I would have been an abolitionist. Surely I would have spoken up about slavery and worked to bring it down.” But that’s not a very relevant question, is it? The question is, when we look at the world around us and see the ways in which slavery’s ugly legacy still holds sway, when we see how racism affects so many things in our society and in our community, what will we do now? What will guide our response? Will we shrug and say, well, it’s not that bad, surely, and it’s always been this way? Will we go with the trendiest response and follow the crowd, whichever way the crowd happens to be going at any particular time? Or will we ask what the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to do?
That’s a question Paul was wondering about, as he wrote this letter. The Roman Empire had no anti-slavery advocates. Slavery was part of the way the universe worked: some people were rich, and some people were slaves. Like people today, people in the ancient world accepted the world they knew as normal, the way things should be. And then God knocked Paul down on the road to Damascus and Paul saw the grace and mercy of Christ, the Good News of the Gospel, and all Paul’s old certainties turned upside down and inside out. Paul had learned that God showed no partiality, that all are one in Christ regardless of wealth, race, ethnicity, gender, and any other human category. How do you reconcile that with a world that values some people more than others? If we are all siblings in Christ—if that identity trumps and subsumes all the other identities human beings make for one another—how do you deal with the realities of a world which gives some people every advantage at the expense of degrading and oppressing others? And what do you do when you turn around and look at all the things around you that you’ve always thought were normal … and realize that they are contrary to the Gospel?
That’s what Paul’s dealing with, in this letter, and in a lot of ways it’s a lot like the world we live in today. In the last couple of decades, a lot of our old comfortable certainties about how the world works and how the world should work have been challenged, leaving Christians scrambling to figure out what a faithful response is. Not just on race, but in other areas, too. Gender, sexuality, so many old certainties are in question. We have been very comfortable ignoring anything we didn’t like, and the voices of those who have been at the bottom of the social ladder. But now we can’t do that anymore. Those voices we’ve hushed up or ignored for so long are louder than ever, and we as faithful Christians have to figure out how to respond. And, as faithful Christians, the first place we should turn should be the words of Scripture. So how did Paul handle it?
Paul focused on the people involved, the one who had been enslaved and the one who had enslaved him, and responded to both with love and encouragement. At the time, Christianity was just a tiny portion of society; Paul had no influence over the larger world. He couldn’t work for the overturning of the whole institution, but he could take action in the little world of the Christian community. He told Philemon to free Onesimus, but that in itself wasn’t enough. Roman society had a whole system for how to treat freed slaves: they still were legally subordinate to their former master. No, Paul said, Onesimus should be your brother. No matter what society says you should do, no matter what your friends think of you for doing something different, your former slave should be your brother, your equal, not your subordinate. Whatever the disagreements between the two, whatever Philemon thought about Onesimus, however Philemon had treated Onesimus up until that point, whatever had been the straw that broke the camel’s back and prompted Onesimus to flee, that was over. Done.
And it wasn’t up to Onesimus to bridge the gap, it was up to Philemon. Philemon was to welcome him back as a brother. Family. An equal. Someone whose thoughts and opinions and experiences mattered. That was to be the basis of their relationship going forward, and that was the basis on which Onesimus was to return. Not as a subordinate, or charity case, or someone to be condescended to. An equal. A beloved brother. Someone whose thoughts and opinions mattered. And Paul was willing to use every rhetorical trick and every ounce of manipulation and pressure he could pull out to see that it happened. It was hard, it was difficult, it went against everything the world around them would have taught them to do—and it was also essential to the health and life of the community of faith. Because otherwise, all Paul’s words about the Gospel, about the love and grace of God, would be just that: words. Pretty words, but empty rhetoric.
Like Paul we believe that God showed no partiality, that all are one in Christ regardless of wealth, race, ethnicity, gender, and any other human category. Our world is better on all those issues than the Roman Empire of Paul’s day, but still falls far short—and it’s easy for people who aren’t at the bottom to close our eyes to just how much we still fall short. Christianity has more power than it did in Paul’s day, but far less than we did a few decades ago. We can’t fix society single-handed, but we can work to make our community reflect the mutual love and respect and equality of the Gospel. We can work to treat all people like brothers and sisters worthy of respect … including the people our culture would tell us to treat as less than we are. This is what God calls us to do: may we treat all of God’s children, all of our brothers and sisters in Christ, with the love and equality God calls us to.