Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Neither Slave Nor Free

Sermon for Wednesday, Sept 8, 2010
Texts are Year C Lection 23
Philemon & Luke 14.25-33
Preached by the Rev. John Spangler

Paul's shortest letter in the New Testament is a personal note. So far as we know Paul wrote it, and he did so from captivity, ironically, addressing it to a slave owner about a runaway slave, Onesimus. If you study this letter, its 500 words, you can see why the early Christian community was seen as pushing against the social structures. In fact, you can find evidence of the leadership of women, and of course the presumption of the prevailing slave holding structures; you can infer the breaking down of class divide, and also the need to abide by law; you see an appeal to the freedom of life in the Gospel, and the sheer force of personal persuasion.

In a year in which the first African American president has been caricatured in public political rallies repeatedly in white face and cartoon-like animal drawings, this text sent up a flare. In a year in which a Mid-Atlantic state celebrated its civil war heritage without the mention of slavery, it seems prudent to revisit a little history. In a time in which too many Christians are confused about what is “in” the Bible and what “the Bible” says, it is time to model witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In such a year, in such times, we bear special responsibilities. Our preaching is on the line, and in the spotlight.

What you find “depends an awful lot on what you are looking for,” said a wise Yogi Berra. And this is the bad news: If you are looking for a resource for the one chosen divine idea about social structure, a societal makeover that suits you, you’ll probably find it. If you are looking for confirmation of your conclusions around human sexuality, you’ll probably find that too. If you think that it is your righteous duty to burn a copy of the Quran in public, you will find justification, however inadequate, somewhere in Deuteronomy that calls for the burning of idols, some twisted idea about false worship, and other thinly veiled un-contextual self-justifications.

--The truth is that interpretation matters. Faithful exegesis is no mere luxury in our time. The physical well-being of countless people depends upon preachers getting this right. Self projections upon the sacred texts are dangerous. Things are so bad that perhaps we should press Fox news to rally people to Seminary Ridge to restore honor to the Bible. Well, maybe not.

But the first and most important step is to stop applying inappropriate questions to the scriptures. Apparently, the second is to say more about this when we preach and teach. We work here is a place dedicated to faith in search of understanding. The world around us isn’t getting enough of the “understanding” part.


The first African American to receive a Lutheran theological education arrived here in 1835, 25 years before the civil war began. He arrived with letters of introduction from John Bachman, a leading Lutheran from South Carolina and what he called an album of signatures and associations that testified to his good character and free standing. He had started a school in the South to help open young minds of young African Americans. That activity was such a threat, however, that he was driven from his own school, the victim of new laws passed in a quasi legal way (for no women or African Americans had access to the legislature). The laws were designed to make it impossible for free blacks to survive there, and so he was forced to leave. [Remember, we do not delight in every law, but in the Law of God.]

Upon arrival in Gettysburg, he wondered whether his sponsors among the Lutherans here intended to send him to Liberia. From his own pen:

When Dr. Schmucker, the President, arrived, I called upon him and again asked what the Society had in view--whether it was the intention to send me to Liberia. The reply was: "The members of that Society are not colonizationists, but abolitionists, and they desire you to be trained to labor for the intellectual, moral, religious, and social improvement of the free people of color in the United States." My doubts were at rest, and I was ready for matriculation.

Payne wrote about choosing his affiliations here in town and in Pennsylvania based upon what the various groups thought about these 500 words in the New Testament. Some Northern preachers found justification for the end of slavery in this letter. And in Philemon others in both north and south found slavery’s justification. Interpretation matters deeply, and Daniel Payne will be among the voices saying it can be a matter of life and death.

What we know about the letter to Philemon is this: Onesimus owed his master money, perhaps having borrowed more than he could repay and had also run away. Paul sent this servant back to his master in order that forgiveness and love and new life might have a chance. But as he sent Onesimus, the risks were rather high. A slave would likely be punished severely for running away, let alone for running away owing money.

And Paul faced the risk that the slave would not return to Philemon. And he risked his hope that the new relationship between master and slave would be no longer master and slave, but something new as between brothers. Paul was trading on his relationship with Philemon -- a promise to repay and an expectation that all the parties involved would sacrifice, for the sake of love.

For Philemon, it would mean total forgiveness and perhaps swallowing some righteous anger. And for Onesimus, the order called for courage and obedience and a new steadfastness in service. Paul risked becoming the newest cause for his friend’s suffering, in other words, he was meddling now. As a kind of indirect insurance, Paul told his brother in Christ, Philemon, that he was coming to visit as soon as he was out of prison. I suppose we call that accountability.

Did Paul count the cost? Did he know what the outcome would be? Did he know that things would turn out all right, or perhaps did he suspect that things could get worse? Did he really believe that line about in Christ there is no jew or greek, no slave or free [person]? He expected his brother to give up being a slave lord; he foresaw a former slave to take up new responsibility as a full person. Paul apparently weighed the options and took the plunge, believing that the power of the Gospel to reconcile would win out.

We know little of how this story turned out. We don't know about any such visit Paul made to Philemon after his imprisonment. Many wonder in print about the forces that led to preservation of this letter. Is that in itself evidence of a good outcome for Onesimus and Philemon?

We have hope ourselves because people have counted the cost of discipleship and have followed Christ anyway. The cost is, in the end, too high; we cannot afford it. But in our lives connected to Christ, we cannot avoid taking risks if we are faithful to the Gospel. This letter of Paul reflects a moment, a teachable moment, when one cannot keep blindly following the messiah without understanding what is at stake. The Gospel beckons us to lead a life that reflects real risk, perhaps even becoming sacrificial -- or it is something other than love and something other than the Gospel that we follow. amen.

No comments: