Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sermon: Ridiculous Hope in a Real Estate Transaction

Grace Presbyterian Church
September 25, 2016, Pentecost 19C
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

Ridiculous Hope in a Real Estate Transaction

"...There remains for us only the very narrow way, often extremely difficult to find, of living every day as if it were our last, and yet living in faith and responsibility as though there were to be a great future. It is not easy to be brave and keep that spirit alive, but it is imperative."

These words were written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and pastor. He wrote these words in January 1943, at about the same time he became engaged to Maria von Wedemayer, daughter of a close friend. Three months later, as he knew was inevitable, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Nazis due to his resistance activities, who would keep him in various prisons for two years before finally executing him in April 1945, as the Reich collapsed around him. Bonhoeffer’s dark ending would seem to make a mockery of those words of hope (not to mention his engagement). Nevertheless not only were these deliberately maintained and included in the collection Letters and Papers From Prison, but even to the every end of his life he refused to relinquish or refute that hope. As he was taken from the makeshift chapel at FlossenbΓΌrg concentration camp, he relayed a message through an English prisoner to an Anglican clergyman with whom he had worked. It was a simple yet starkly profound message: “This is the end – to me the beginning of life.”
It is no stretch to compare Bonhoeffer’s plight with that of Jeremiah at the time of today’s reading. Jeremiah was also imprisoned, or at least under a form of “palace arrest” for not toeing the party line and continuing to prophesy Judah’s impending defeat as God ordered, His nation crumbled around him; in Judah’s case the Babylonians, who had long been besieging Jerusalem, were on the cusp of completing the deal. Many were in exile already, others were about to be taken, and Jerusalem itself would soon be destroyed.
And Jeremiah, in the face of all this utter doom and defeat, buys a plot of land.
Mind you, Jeremiah did so mostly because God told him to do it. Otherwise, how could someone who had been in the business of alternately fiercely pronouncing doom on Judah and weeping about it (as the last two weeks’ readings show) suddenly do something so radically, irrationally optimistic as buy a piece of land?
This is, after all, the one stray prophet in the land who won’t make his prophetic utterances conform to the wishes of the king. He is being detained, after all, because of the order of Zedekiah, the current (and soon to be last) king of Judah. It seems as though Jeremiah had this bad habit of kneeling in prayer rather than snapping to attention at the king’s oh-so-solemn civic rituals, in a manner of speaking. See, when all the other prophets were busy telling Zedekiah that Judah was special and that God would never let those nasty Babylonians win, Jeremiah is being held prisoner because he prophesied that Jerusalem would fall and that the king himself would be taken into exile in Babylon, confronted and held in exile by his royal counterpart, face to face. In short, he said what was happening – what was plain as the nose on your face to anyone with eyes to look out the window and see the massed Babylonian troops making ready to march into the city – and was being punished for it. Let those with ears to hear, hear.
King Zedekiah could have had Jeremiah executed at any time, but unlike Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jeremiah would survive his imprisonment, only to see all those dire prophecies come true. Jerusalem would fall and be destroyed, and Jeremiah would see many of his people carried off to exile in Babylon.
And yet Jeremiah buys a piece of land.
Now clearly God is setting something up. In verses 6 and 7 we hear how God tells Jeremiah to look for cousin Hanamel to come asking Jeremiah (still prisoner in the king’s court, mind you) to buy a piece of land according to the very old “right of redemption” rule, by which family members (in a predetermined priority order) were first offered the opportunity to buy property that would be offered for sale. (It’s the same rule that is applied in the story of Ruth, a clever application of which enables Boaz to marry Ruth at the culmination of that book.)
And sure enough, in verse 8 here comes cousin Hanamel proposing exactly as the Lord had said he would. Jeremiah quickly understands that this isn’t just a real estate transaction; it’s an example of symbolic action as prophecy. So Jeremiah not only makes the transaction, but also takes all the right steps to ensure its legality – properly weighing out the payment, having witnesses attest to the purchase, and having the documents of sale stored in clay pots for long-term safekeeping, an act that would compare to putting all the records in a safe deposit box at the local bank. Jeremiah is very precise about all this, and gives his scribe Baruch very clear and very specific instructions to make sure that these documents about the transaction were handled with the utmost care and preserved to the greatest degree possible at that time. And all this, remember, with the enemy army about ready to burst through the city gates.
Not only this, but here in the very text we’re reading today, Jeremiah is being very meticulous to record all this, not only for his current readers or hearers but for whatever posterity might be coming along to read this in years to come. Along with all the jeremiads and laments recorded in this book, we have been given this extremely detailed description of this real estate transaction.
For the love of God – literally, for the love of God – why?
Of course, we see it in verse 15:

For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

No matter what the Babylonians did, no matter how much they wrought destruction and death upon the land and people, no matter how many of Judah’s people were carried off into exile to join those from the Northern Kingdom of Israel who had been carried off before; no matter what happened next, God would still be the only One who would write the end of the story, and the Babylonian conquest was not going to be the end of the story.
If you are inclined to read a little extra, you might finish out this chapter of Jeremiah. First Jeremiah reveals that even he is a bit baffled as to what exactly God is up to in this situation, even as he has been very faithful in carrying out the word that God gave him to give. Then, starting with verse 26, we get God’s response to Jeremiah. God, as happens a lot in this book, reiterates the evil done both by the people of Israel, the Northern Kingdom already conquered and exiled, and by the people of Judah now under imminent conquest. And then God makes clear; what is about to be destroyed, I will restore. Those about to be exiled, I will return. Then God makes another proclamation of that restoration, all the way through chapter 33.
We are good at despair.
We are good at seeing what has gone wrong, what has declined, what has fallen apart, and deciding it will never be restored. It’s beyond hope. You get a lot of that in political rants these days. And frankly, the church is way worse sometimes. We look at the empty pews and the large number of folks out there who just don’t care, and we despair, and we assume the church, individual or universal, is doomed.
But God is no more interested in our writing the end of the story than he was in the unfaithful people of Israel and Judah, or the Babylonians for that matter, writing its end. No matter what may be destroyed, no matter what may fall away or fall into disrepair, God is the only one who gets to write the end of the story.
God will restore what God chooses to restore, no matter how destroyed it might be.
Now it would be good if we would listen to those prophets who are warning us about the idols we set up for our adoration, and perhaps pull back from our sins before we suffer the inevitable consequence of such false allegiance. But even if we don’t, even if what we see as “civilization” or “culture” or “society” utterly collapses upon itself in destruction, God is the only one who gets to write the end of the story. And that is our hope, no matter how ridiculous or even ‘hopeless’ it might seem. Even the destruction of what we think we know is not the negation of God’s faithfulness to God’s people, and that is good news.
So in the end we don’t get to despair. We don’t get to live in fear. We don’t get to go into that defensive crouch and point fingers of blame and lash out and tell those who suffer that they deserve it. If we truly claim to be children of God, members of the body of Christ, well, guess what? We remain faithful no matter what. No matter how bad it seems we don’t get to give up. We remain faithful. Or maybe we figure out how we’ve not been faithful, and change. But, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, nothing in death or life or destruction or exile or imprisonment or ruin can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
            And in God’s time, God will restore what God will restore. And only God gets to write the end of the story. Not us, no matter how bad things seem.
For a God who promises restoration even at the edge of destruction, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#637            O Sing to the Lord
#806            I’ll Praise My Maker
#320            The Church of Christ In Every Age
#541            God Be With You Till We Meet Again

It's probably just as well that the land was not identified as agricultural.
It would be very different to say that Jeremiah "bought the farm"...

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sermon: Weep Together

Grace Presbyterian Church
September 18, 2016, Pentecost 18C
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; 1 Timothy 2:1-7

Weep Together

The reputation of the prophet Jeremiah has contributed two different turns of phrase to the English language. The word “jeremiad” refers to a speech, whether written or extemporaneous, characterized by stern criticism, judgment, or warning of impending harm. The passage we heard last week, from the fourth chapter of the book of Jeremiah, would be an example of the kind of speech that inspired that word.
But the prophet has also inspired the phrase “weeping Jeremiah.” Such a phrase can describe the prophet himself or one who engages in a sustained lament, with weeping and sorrowing made evident both in word and action. That’s the Jeremiah we find in today’s reading.
Last week’s reading was remarkable for calling the people “stupid” (4:22) and for depicting a world in which the very act of creation was undone, blow by blow, due to the people’s unfaithfulness and God’s judgment. To be sure, there’s a lot of that kind of thing in Jeremiah, including in the verses of chapter 8 that precede today’s reading, and in the verses beginning with 9:2 as well. Here, though, for these few moments, the prophet turns aside from pronouncing God’s denunciation and divine judgment on the people, and instead weeps for them.
Or possibly weeps with them.
Or it might be God doing the weeping.
Or it could be basically everybody weeping together.
Let’s try to sort this out.
You’ll notice that at the very end of verse seventeen, just before today’s reading, the speaker of that previous section of denunciation was clearly identified as the Lord. The next time we see such a phrase, is 9:3, by which time Jeremiah’s lament has clearly passed, and the tone of denunciation and judgment has clearly returned. That shift of tone seems to start with 9:2, when weeping for “the slain of my poor people” (9:1) gives way to denouncing the people as “adulterers” and “traitors” and the weeping is pretty clearly over.
In short, this passage of lament sits in the middle of, and interrupts, an extended jeremiad. But within the lament it’s not always easy to tell who is lamenting.
A few places are clear; the passage in verse 19 (it might be in parentheses in your Bible) about provoking to anger with their idols is pretty clearly a sentiment being expressed by God, with its first-person point of view. The surrounding passages in verses 19 and 20, which might be in quotation marks, are similarly clear in being a sentiment being expressed by the people of Judah more specifically.
But verses 18 and 22, as well as verse 1 of chapter 9? That’s harder to tell. One could stretch it to represent the cries of the people, but the more obvious answer would be that Jeremiah is here laying aside his prophetic sternness and grieving for the people and their suffering, however self-inflicted it might be.
This isn’t a lesson that many modern-day would-be Jeremiahs seem to have learned.
It’s altogether too easy to find those who are all set to pronounce judgment who are, to put it delicately, entirely too happy about doing so. And sadly, this particular condition is pretty widespread among preachers. Politicians can be bad about it too, but this kind of gleeful reveling in the anticipated suffering of the judged is pretty endemic among a certain class of preacher.
You know the type. Good chance they have a “TV ministry,” giving them a nice big platform for their pronouncements. At minimum they’re preaching to a congregation much larger than this, if they aren’t set up on a cozy looking set with cushy chairs and couches. They cherry-pick bits of scripture from hither and yon and stitch them up into a prediction of dire judgment on the social groups they just happen to hate, or retroactively pronounce the latest natural disaster as God’s judgment on the afflicted city or state (except, curiously, when it happens to be their own). And they couldn’t be happier about it. Gloating, practically, that some city is underwater or that fifty people were shot dead, or whatever disaster might have befallen us that we haven't heard yet this morning.
Jeremiah would not understand these people, I think, and he might be prompted to unleash a jeremiad of his own upon them. The man who writes “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick” literally the sentence after saying “See, I am letting snakes loose among you, adders that cannot be charmed, and they shall bite you, says the Lord” is not a person who rejoices in the judgment it is his calling to proclaim. That judgment is sure, and it is unrelenting as we heard in last week’s reading, but it is no cause for joy. It is cause for weeping, for grief, for mourning. It is cause to weep with the ones who suffer, no matter how much it is true that they might have brought that judgment on themselves.
Jeremiah was pronouncing judgment right up to the beginning of this lament, and he launched right back into pronouncing judgment immediately after this lament, but all of that judgment did not negate his sorrow for his people. That seems a fairly obvious way of reading this passage, but it may not be the only one.
It is possible, on the other hand, that the grief being pronounced here is not only Jeremiah’s. The sorrow, the weeping that Jeremiah is pronouncing may well be that of none other than God.
It is Jeremiah’s habit to interject “says the Lord” every so often, as we heard in verse 17, as if to remind his readers and hearers that Jeremiah isn’t just blowing off steam or making up these dire judgments just for kicks. It is a harsh word he is called to proclaim to God’s covenant people, one that promises pain; one that promises that God’s covenant people, who have for so long assumed that God would always cover for them no matter how much wickedness they indulged themselves in, are about to find out how wrong they have been; one that will establish to them once and for all that God is not a “get out of jail free” card for whatever spiritual crimes they may commit. But there is no joy for Jeremiah in proclaiming this hard word, and it seems very much that there is no joy for God in having Jeremiah proclaim it, either.
The people’s laments recorded here are those of a people who do not understand. Jeremiah’s laments (and God’s possibly) are on the other hand quite clear on what is going on. Even the legendary healing balm found in the distant region of Gilead are of no help to the people to ease the sorrow that is to come. Yes, this is the scriptural reference that gives us the spiritual we will sing at the end of this service today, but I’m not sure that Jeremiah would agree with the way the spiritual answers his question.
What then of us, in the face of this portrait of weeping?
We modern-day Christians, or some anyway, have a pretty good knack for imagining ourselves to be persecuted, to be suffering when those we imagine as “evildoers” prosper. And it’s not too hard for us to find someone on whom to pin that “evildoers” label upon. But what happens when the tables turn and our “enemies,” the "bad guys," are the ones who suffer?
If we take today’s lament seriously, we weep with them.
We don’t gloat, we don’t get all triumphalistic and rub it in their faces. We weep with them. We weep together.
If we want to call ourselves followers of God, we’d better find a way to mourn with those who mourn, whether they are “our kind” or not. We’d better be able to weep with those who weep, rather than recoiling from them or reassuring ourselves that they deserve it. We can be on our knees in prayer, or flat on our faces in weeping, but the defensive crouch is never an appropriate position for the child of God.
Come, let us weep together.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal)
#634            To God Be the Glory
#440            Jesus, Lover of My Soul
#787            God Weeps With Us Who Weep and Mourn
#792            There Is a Balm in Gilead

"Weeping Jeremiah"

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sermon: De-Creation

Grace Presbyterian Church
September 11, 2016, Pentecost 17C
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17


If you pick up a newspaper today, or turn on your television or radio, you will most likely be reminded that today is the fifteenth anniversary of one of the most incomprehensible acts of human cruelty any of us has witnessed in our lifetimes. It’s hard to avoid on a day like today.
Of course, there are several in this sanctuary today whose lives extend far enough back to encompass a different evil, one of monstrous scope and one whose effects also continue to reverberate through history, the indescribable horror known as the Holocaust.
Aside from the horrors of such acts themselves (which are awful enough), the trouble is that, despite the clear biblical warnings of verses like Romans 12:21 (“do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”) or 1 Peter 3:9 (“do not repay evil for evil, … but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing”), humanity is altogether too practiced at the repaying of evil with evil. We multiply it. The effect of the evil snowballs and multiplies seemingly – seemingly – beyond our control. War refuses to be confined to one neat and tidy space on the globe, but slips out and spreads into locations we don’t understand. “Justice” becomes a code word for “vengeance.” Violence becomes a default mode of responding to perceived slights, taking up arms against “the forces of evil” becomes a first option rather than a last resort, and such responses are met with … even more evil. It is, in the most explicit sense of the phrase, a death spiral.
And this is the world into which the prophet Jeremiah invites us – no, demands us – to look in today’s reading.
Jeremiah was a dark prophet for a dark time in the history of God’s covenant people. His prophetic term extended from a period in which Judah was under threat from hostile neighbors, with Jerusalem under siege, to a period of exile and displacement, with Jerusalem also being destroyed. In other words, there was plenty to be lamented, and Jeremiah didn’t miss an opportunity.
Today’s reading comes from the earlier part of Jeremiah’s prophetic career, with Jerusalem under a long and grinding siege. And Jeremiah was hardly the only prophet in town; plenty of more “official” prophets, sometimes directly connected to the royal court establishment, were quite happy to “prophesy” outcomes that were far more appealing to the people and The Powers That Be: how Jerusalem could not possibly fall, or how their God would not betray them – somehow not taking into account how the people and the king had horribly betrayed God. Jeremiah, on the other hand, had no interest in sugar-coated prophecies, and was more than willing to remind the people of their sin.
Even taking all that into account, this is one dark prophecy, and particularly unflinching in its assessment of the people, particularly in verse 22. The word “foolish” or its root “fool” is not so uncommon in scripture; you might have noticed it at the very front of today’s responsive reading of Psalm 14, in which it is the fool whose heart denies God. You don’t, however, see too many scriptures in which the people are called “stupid,” but there it is right there in the same verse; “stupid children” with “no understanding.”
If the language is particularly harsh, the offense is not new; once again, the people of God’s covenant had forsaken that covenant and turned to the worship of idols. It is a recurring theme in Hebrew Scripture, whether one is reading the histories like the books of Samuel, Kings, or Chronicles, or the prophetic books that constitute the final chunk of our Old Testament. The people turn to idols and away from God; God’s judgment comes upon them and they are conquered or taken into exile. Repent, and repeat.
In this case, the prophetic response Jeremiah issues at God’s prompting is unrelenting, both in the bleakness of its vision and in the promise, so to speak, of its fulfillment. In fact, it is so bleak that it does, very specifically in its language, promise nothing less than the undoing of creation.
Note the language of verse 23, in which the prophet looks and – see! behold! – the earth is “waste and void.” That is very specific language; in fact the Hebrew words, tovu vavohu, are found in that combination only one other time in scripture, at the beginning of Genesis, when the earth is described as being “a formless void.” This is such a rare and specific phrasing that it’s hard to believe it’s accidental; Jeremiah is specifically evoking the “formless void” of pre-creation chaos to describe the earth in the wake of the people’s faithlessness and God's judgment.
The echo of the creation account continues; the prophet looks to the heavens and they have no light, undoing "let there be light". The mountains and hills are quaking and shaking, no longer stable and solid; the earth is devoid of life, human or animal, and all vegetation and plant life is turned into desert, before the “fierce anger" of the Lord. So says the Lord, “the whole land will be a desolation,” and even if the Lord also promises not to “make a full end,” the Lord also promises not to relent or turn back.
Now one thing to keep in mind about these prophetic writings taken from Hebrew Scripture is that the worst interpretive thing we can do with them is forget that they were written, first and foremost, for their immediate readers – in this case the people of Judah, having strayed from the worship of Yahweh and turned to idols, now seeing their capital city under siege. Fro them such a vision as described by Jeremiah didn’t have to be read literally to have the desired effect. They understood desolation when they saw it, or heard it described in prophetic oracle. Jerusalem destroyed, all life driven out of it, the land laid waste – all was clear enough.
This, though, is a prophecy that works for modern readers or listeners as well, and almost requires less of a metaphorical ear that it might have in Jeremiah’s day. Two news items that came out this week point to the degree to which Jeremiah’s vision could sound chillingly literal. In one, new research indicates that the planet has undergone “catastrophic” loss of wilderness in the past two decades, to the point that only about twenty percent of the earth can still be considered “wilderness” – a catastrophic development indeed for the planet’s biodiversity in both animal and plant life.[i] Ongoing human degradation both of earth and climate was, not surprisingly, the major factor in such loss.
The other story, which might have gotten more attention generally, was of another nuclear test conducted by North Korea. If we were tempted to forget about our capacity to destroy the planet and ourselves many times over with nuclear weapons, such events serve as a chilling reminder. Between such stories and others, Jeremiah’s prophecy sounds more literal than it should – the very de-creation of our world.
Now how in the world does one preach hope in the face of such bleakness?
On one level, you don’t.
There are times when it would be a sin on my part to varnish over the harshness of scripture. There are times when the only decent response is to be challenged to look without flinching at the world, and what we have done with, and to, it.
For one, we have not been good stewards of our planet, a conclusion that is more inescapable daily. Whether one looks at the thousand-year flood events that happen on a yearly basis now, or the aforementioned degradation of the planet’s unspoiled places, or simply the latest news from our new earthquake capital of Oklahoma, we have done harm to God’s creation. And yet so many – even in the church – somehow see such degradation as God’s will for us, a damnable statement if anything.
Stepping further back, perhaps we also need to examine our fidelity to our God more broadly. The surface answer suggests that we, unlike the people of Judah in Jeremiah’s time, obviously don’t worship idols, and if you’re being extremely technical and literal, you are correct, I guess. Still, we only deceive ourselves if we pretend that we as a people, and even as the church, doesn’t have its own particular kinds of idols. The church, or some corners of it, seems awfully power-hungry these days, and has for a long time (many centuries) had a preoccupation with wealth. We get obsessed with regaining the status we once had. To be blunt, we can – and often do – make idols out of virtually anything. We can – and often do – make idols out of these flags, or this building, or even this Bible, when we insist on using it for anything but seeking God’s will for us as the body of Christ.
It is not that we will or choose to do evil, not most of the time. We are, however, quite complicit in choosing the comfortable, the easy, the popular over what is right or good or just. Our consumption choices, for example, may well lock in poverty conditions or environmental degradation for others (and frequently both, and in the same places), whether on the other side of the world or the other side of town, but we’re o.k. with that as long as we don’t have to look too close. Ill will or not, we’re still contributing to that de-creation that Jeremiah demands we look at.
On the other hand, there is one hope, even if we find it elsewhere in scripture. As Paul reminds us in the epistle reading for the day, we follow a Christ of grace. We follow a Christ who ministers forgiveness to us, no matter how bleak our sin, as Paul (a man all too familiar with making an idol of his religion) was highly aware.  
Living in grace and knowing forgiveness, though, cannot be an excuse to shy away from confronting the harm that we do. Whether it be the continued degradation of God’s creation, the human penchant for acts of cruelty, our unwillingness to face up to the injustices that are too much a part of everyday life for too many in the world and in this country, our continued pursuit of things other than the things of Christ, or any other sin (and that is the right word), we make a mockery of the grace that saves us if we do not face the wrong that we do – the harm we cause, intentional or not – and  its consequences for the world and for each other.
We must, with Jeremiah, look without flinching at the “void and waste” which which we threaten the world and each other. We must face the consequences of our idolatries, our selfishness, and our failure to live up to the grace God bestows upon us. And we must act to change; to lay aside those idols and selfishness and follow only Christ, the one who saves, the one who redeems, the one who shows us grace, even in the face of God’s judgment. For indeed, God will judge, but God will not abandon.
And for a God who does not abandon, even in judgment, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#17              Sing Praise to God, You Heavens!
#435            There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy
#713            Touch the Earth Lightly
#739            O For a Closer Walk With God

[1] “The Planet Is Going Through a ‘Catastrophic’ Wilderness Loss, Study Says,” (accessed 9/9/16).

There are times I wish Google Images would just admit "nope, I got nothin'" when I enter a scripture reference; but for images of desolation, sadly, World War I is always a good place to look...

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Sermon: Doing What's Right No Matter What's Wrong

Grace Presbyterian Church
September 4, 2016, Pentecost 16C

Doing What’s Right No Matter What’s Wrong

You can now go and complain to your friends who attend other churches that you have an extremely long-winded preacher, and you can tell them that he read an entire book of the Bible during the service as proof of that fact.
In all seriousness, though, this slender letter should not be overlooked, as the book has had an influence seemingly out of proportion to its size across the history of both the church universal and the church particular in this country, and even more particular in this part of this country. That influence was not good, largely because those who interpreted it did so more for their own convenience than for any genuine desire to learn from it.
You see, this little letter became, in such empires or nations as sanctioned the practice, a primary scriptural justification for the institution of slavery. That list of such nations, of course, includes the United States for about the first two hundred years of its colonial and national history. To be blunt, back then the only reason you’d have ever heard a sermon on Philemon was in order to support or prop up slavery as “biblical,” frequently (although not exclusively) in the southern part of the country, in churches that separated from their northern fellow churches over slavery – including, yes, Presbyterians.
The tragedy of it is that this could only be done by emphasizing something that is not in the letter. For all that Paul says in the letter, there is one thing he does not say: “Slavery is wrong.” Neither does he explicitly order Philemon to free the slave Onesimus (although in verse 8 Paul does claim the spiritual authority to do so). And hey, if Paul doesn’t say slavery is wrong, then it must be OK, right?
To be sure this was not the only such passage of scripture that preachers of the past would have used to justify slavery, but it was damaging nonetheless all out of proportion to its size, and completely contrary to the spirit of the burden that Paul laid upon his “dear friend and coworker” Philemon.
Now I could have left off some of the preliminary and concluding verses of this chapter in the interest of shortening the reading and focusing on the “important stuff” in this little letter. In the case of this letter, though, the preliminary and concluding verses of the chapter are really part of the “important stuff.” The salutation of this letter names other members of the “church that meets in your house,” specifically “Apphia our sister” and “Archippus our fellow soldier”. This wasn’t a real ‘private’ letter; the whole community is being invoked and included here, and what Paul asks of Philemon is in effect being asked of the entire community, not just the one who actually owns the slave in question.
Ah, that brings us to the central character, or object, of the letter. Onesimus was a slave, this much is clear. Even if there were no other clues about his identity his name itself would be a giveaway; the name ‘Onesimus,’ which translates as ‘useful,’ was not a name given to a free-born person in the Roman Empire. Would you name your child ‘Useful’? (And yes, this does give a little extra weight to Paul’s words in v. 10 about Onesimus being formerly “useless” but now “useful”.)
Onesimus’s situation is a little less clear. Most interpreters of this letter seem to believe that Onesimus had run away from his master. Others suggest that possibly Onesimus was guilty of some other wrong against Philemon, possibly involving some kind of theft, or that he had made some mistake that had cost Philemon in some way. Whatever the reason, there is some reason for Onesimus to fear returning to Philemon and Paul is interceding on his behalf, via letter (he can’t do so in person because he’s in prison, remember).
As is often the case when you only hear one half of a conversation, there’s a lot about which we can’t be sure. But one thing is inescapable; how Paul envisions Onesimus being received by Philemon (and Apphia, Archippus, and the church in his house) is dramatically different than the way Onesimus had functioned in Philemon’s household before. Dramatically, life-alteringly different. Possibly-threaten-your-place-in-Rome different. Paul gets that Philemon has to choose, himself, to take this radical step.
Don’t let’s kid ourselves; Paul is not asking Philemon to readmit Onesimus to his former slave status, not calling for a return to status quo. A reset, a return to status quo would not require requests like these:

·      Paul calling Onesimus “my child” “whose father I have become during my imprisonment” (v. 10);
·      Paul telling Philemon “I am sending him, my own heart, back to you” (v. 11);
·      Paul saying that Philemon could receive Onesimus back “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother … both in the flesh and in the Lord” (v. 16);
·      Paul charging Philemon to “welcome him as you would welcome me” (v. 17).

This isn’t “take him back and I’ll make up your loss and nothing changes,” not by a long shot. This is “change everything.” This is “totally turn things upside down.” And it certainly is not how any self-respecting Roman citizen treats a slave. If you can figure out how to treat a piece of property with no legal or cultural or even human status as a “beloved brother” or sister, the way you would treat the man who brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to you, well, you’re evidently cleverer than me.
What Paul asks is not without consequence for Philemon; you didn’t just free your slaves all willy-nilly and get away with it. Besides the social stigma and cultural backlash such an act likely to face, Philemon could face even legal consequences for such treatment of Onesimus, even if he did not technically “free” Onesimus. Anything that had even the potential of setting off unrest among slaves or upsetting the social order could be clamped down by the heavy hand of Roman authority; and seeing Onesimus gaining status and acceptance in Philemon’s household beyond their own could very well upset the order of society in his community. Paul does not care, evidently, and engages in monumental arm-twisting to persuade Philemon to take this step, while in every technical respect leaving the choice in Philemon’s hands (albeit, as noted earlier, placed in the context of the community of faith in which Philemon lived and moved; Apphia and Archippus and the church.).
While I doubt there are too many today who would seek to restore the discredited practice of using this letter to justify slavery, there are plenty of forms of oppression that fall under the ban if we take this letter seriously. Racism simply cannot stand in the face of a call to love others as beloved sisters or brothers. Any kind of bigotry at all, any claim that the world would be just fine if they would just “stay in their place” or “not rock the boat” or simply stay quiet and out of the way, has no place in the mind of a follower of Christ, no matter how entrenched or enmeshed in our culture such an attitude may be. “That’s just the way it is” might have made a great song for Bruce Hornsby back in the 80s or 90s or whenever, but it can never be the response of a follower of Christ in the face of any injustice or oppression. (And if you remember the song, even Hornsby wraps that chorus with the imperative “but don’t you believe it”. Neither should we believe or accept it.)
If it is a coincidence that this scripture happened to fall on a Sunday when the Lord’s Supper is being observed, it is a happy one indeed. The table of the Lord is decidedly non-selective about who is welcomed. Anyone – anyone – who calls upon the name of the Lord is welcomed as beloved brother or sister. In those great miraculous feedings out in the countryside, Jesus didn’t send his disciples to weed out the undesirables from the crowd; all were fed. And if that fact produces anything other than an “amen” from us, it might be well for us to remember that this openness might just be to our benefit.
We don’t actually know what Philemon did in response to Paul’s letter. There are some hints that his response was somehow affirmative; after all, it seems unlikely that such a personal and particular letter would have come into the canon of scripture, even under the Holy Spirit, if Philemon had responded to Onesimus’s return with thirty lashes and an order to “get back to work, Useless.” Also, we know that later in the century, there was a bishop in the church, seated in the city of Ephesus to succeed Timothy, with the name Onesimus. Even if it isn’t the same Onesimus, it does suggest that somebody’s slave became a “beloved brother” along the way. In my head, to be sure, I want to see Philemon and Onesimus (and Archippus and Apphia and the whole church in their house) side by side coming to the table to receive the bread and cup. But we don’t know, not for sure.
But in a way, not knowing the outcome places the burden of answer on us. How do we respond to that one who, like Onesimus, has never been of any status or place or even humanity to us, but who is now set before us with God’s command to love him or her as a beloved brother or sister, one of God’s own children, no matter how vexing it might be to us?
For the call to answer that question, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal)
#744            Arise, Your Light Is Come!
#457            How Happy Are the Saints of God
#754            Help Us Accept Each Other
#695            Change My Heart, O God

Credit: Everybody wishes that, but that's not the way it is...