You might be wondering where your servant, named Useful, has got to. Well, he’s been with me, taking care of me in jail, and now I’m sending him back to you, even though he has indeed been very useful to me. You’re probably pretty annoyed with him for disappearing – and the law allows you to punish him severely – but, as your spiritual leader, I want to hold you to our Christian standard of behavior and remind you that, just because you are legally permitted to do something, it doesn’t follow that it’s the right thing to do.
You may think of Onesimus as less than you, because you own him in the eyes of the law, but we obey a different law, the law of the God who says that all people are equally worthy and all people deserve dignity. I want you to remember that when he comes home. And I want you to remember that, in baptism, we all received a new kind of life. The old ways of being no longer apply, even though we still live in the Empire. So I want you, not only to forgive him, but to welcome him as you would welcome me, even though such a welcome will scandalize the neighbors. I want you to take a step back from the power and privilege you enjoy and consider a different way of life. I know I’m asking a lot, but this is what you signed up for when you had your whole household baptized.
I know you will do this for me; I even dare to hope that you will make me proud by freeing Onesimus, recognizing him as a full citizen and an equal. For in Christ there is no slave or free, no distinction between one of God’s children and another.
I remain your father in Christ and sign off, confident that you will do the right thing.
I wonder if we can grasp how revolutionary Paul’s letter was in its time. Everyone in his world accepted slavery as the natural order of things. Some people were free citizens, entitled to vote, to wield power, to control their own lives, and other people, often minorities from other parts of the world, were lesser beings, whose voices didn’t count, whose children were counted as property, whose lives were entirely in the hands of their owners.
Philemon had the power of life and death over Onesimus (whose name means useful) and his fellow slaves. By sending him back, Paul was taking a huge risk and, by agreeing to go back, presumably carrying this letter, Onesimus was risking everything. To forgive a runaway and, even more, to treat him as a brother was unthinkable. It could start a revolution. Other slaves would think they could get away with insubordination. The whole social order could be turned upside down and minorities might take over. They could end up, to use a contemporary image, with a taco truck on every corner.
Paul, of course, was following Jesus’s lead in advocating social change as radical as the smashing down of a pot on the potter’s wheel and its reshaping from scratch as something completely different. In the Gospel passage we just heard, Jesus uses the metaphors of major construction projects and military confrontations to get across the extent of the change he sought to bring about in the world.
But, two thousand years on, we still haven’t managed to turn the world upside down. The Roman Empire is no longer, it’s true, but slavery is still a flourishing institution, even here in San Diego, where human trafficking is such a serious issue that we have a special task force focused on it. And even where we don’t have slaves as such, we still have a divided society, where some people are obviously privileged and others oppressed. The Black Lives Matter movement has brought that out into the open. The cases of Brock Turner, Ryan Lochte, and other young white men guilty of everything from violent sexual assault to vandalism and cheating, let off by the courts and the media, while people of color are subjected to indignity and injustice even by public servants, let alone public opinion, offer ample evidence that we have not yet achieved the egalitarian society to which Jesus and Paul call us.
The transformation of the world into the Kingdom of God is still a huge project, as revolutionary as ever, and it is our job as followers of Jesus to do what we can to tip the scales, to bring about a world where we no longer have to teach the Philemons to let go of their power and privilege.
Now, as an incurable optimist, I believe there are signs that the needle is creeping in the right direction, and much of the violent and divisive rhetoric that we are hearing is a reaction to that shift. The world is in fact changing in profound ways.
In recent years we have seen a major shift in this country over social norms. The increased acceptance of openly LGBT people in our major institutions, the passage of marriage equality, the achievement of improved minimum wage and labor laws that protect workers, the ascent of women and people of color into positions of national and corporate leadership, all these are signs of justice rolling down, signs of a more perfect Union, signs of the Kingdom inexorably advancing.
But look back at Jeremiah’s image for a moment. The destruction of the imperfect pot is a violent act. The remaking of creation is tumultuous, chaos preceding new creation as it must. The violence that we are witnessing across the nation is a desperate attempt to stop the change, to stop the landslide running down the mountain. But it can’t be stopped. In my most hopeful moments I see the hate speech and open racism and sexism as the death throes of an old way, a way where a few hold all the power and privilege and the many live in oppression.
Paul pushed against this pattern in the Roman Empire by asking Philemon to take back Onesimus without penalty and promote him to equal status. We push against the pattern today by treating all our neighbors with love and respect, by standing up for the voiceless and the oppressed.
Jesus calls us, individually and corporately, to take up our cross, our particular vocation, with care and reverence, with strategy and planning, so that we can be a part of building a Kingdom that will last.
In our local context, we can build for the future at St Paul’s. The Cathedral Campus Redevelopment Plan, which will provide us with expanded program space and resources for future ministry, is part of that. The Vision for Mission is our strategic plan to advance it. Our burgeoning Children, Youth, and Families ministry is an investment in the kingdom future ahead of us. Our involvement in the North Park Project with Colin and Laurel is a bold experiment in the church of the future.
God, the divine potter, shapes and reshapes communities, and we have a hand in that shaping too. St Paul’s has been shaped by several courageous moments in its past, and we will hear more on this theme later in the fall at our annual congregational gatherings. Taking our cue from God we too must be ready to reshape where necessary. What worked in the past probably won’t work in the future, and we are already seeing the potter at work here.
The history of St Paul’s is a history of constant and positive change. Someone recently lent me a copy of the parish’s 1966 brochure for capital campaign which resulted in the construction of our current administration building. There was a committee of 54 individuals. How many of those 54 do you think were women? How many had brown faces? That’s right: not one. And I would bet that not one was openly gay either. There were three women pictured in the brochure (they were in charge of the food): Mrs Michael Ibis Gonzalez, Mrs William A Reilly, and Mrs C. Rankin Barnes. I wonder what their actual names were. I can’t imagine a committee like that today. In 50 years much has changed, and it will continue to change as we move forward with the Vision for Mission and the building program, which will empower our ministry of discipleship and service.
Jesus tells us to carry our cross and follow him. The cross we are to take up is the cross of seeking justice for our neighbors. It’s the cross of witnessing to pain and suffering, not turning away from it but seeing it, feeling the tragedy, allowing ourselves to share in the pain of those who are treated as less than human.
The current political climate ramps up violence and division, feeding the fear of those whose social power is eroding. This is deeply immoral and cynical, and no faithful Christian can be a part of it. Those of us with privilege, and that’s most of us in this congregation, must be prepared to heed the call to take a step back, to share our power, to relinquish the privilege that keeps others in chains. We must put ourselves in the place of Philemon and hear the voice of Jesus calling us to free all who are enslaved and to work against the wicked culture of oppression wherever it manifests itself.
The collect we prayed at the beginning of the service reminds us that God resists the proud who confide in their own strength alone. If we are to be on the side of God, if we are to be part of the Jesus movement, we will learn to trust in God’s mercy, to us and to those we have unwittingly wronged, and we will acknowledge the equal dignity of every human being. Only by doing so will we all, some day, be freed.
The Very Rev. Penelope Bridges
4 Sept 2016