Same as You and Me: The Challenge
A Sermon for University Congregational Church
Sunday, January 20, 2019
Rev. Paul E Ellis Jackson
One of the Apostle Paul’s more challenging letters is his letter to Philemon. Written about the year 55 in the Common Era, roughly 20 years after the events that led to Jesus of Nazareth’s execution, the letter is considered by many to be an excellent example of the power of persuasion. Arthur Dewey, who we had as a visiting scholar with the Jesus Seminar here last Spring calls Paul’s letter to Philemon a “rhetorical gem”. In this letter to Philemon (who is acting as the head of a house community in Colossae) Paul intercedes for Onesimus, a run-away slave of Philemon’s, who is actually the one who delivers this letter to Philemon. Paul does not ask or command Philemon to be forgiving in how he deals with this run-away slave; instead he asks that Philemon welcome back Onesimus as a “beloved friend”—as if he were Paul himself.
A slave in the position of Onesimus would have expected pretty harsh punishment on his return—in fact, it baffles one to even think of why Onesimus returns—but in running away Onesimus had deprived his master of his personal property and also insulted his honor—death would not have been a surprising punishment for Onesimus to have been given. So for Paul to plead on this man’s behalf in the manner in which he does was startling and counter-cultural for the expectations of the first century. For Paul to ask Philemon to receive Onesimus as Philemon would have welcomed one of “God’s People” would have been seen as a revolutionary request. Onesimus had upset the hierarchical order and the expectation would have been that he be severely punished—we can’t go around upsetting the social order now, can we? Paul is really up to something here—he does not politely ask Philemon to forgive and release his slave—instead he uses his powers of persuasion—his gem of rhetorical skill—to instead get Philemon to think about what it means to be part of this new movement of Christ-following Jews in which all are seen as equal—at least for right now in this letter—all are seen as equal in their unity with “The Anointed”—The Christ” –Jesus of Nazareth. This unity in Paul’s consideration, was to include members of the slave society of the ancient world.
Such an incredible request would need much to persuade the insulted Philemon from exacting a face-saving penalty. Paul has crafted his letter in such a way as to ask Philemon to receive his slave, Onesimus, back on the most unexpected terms—and Paul leaves no rhetorical stone unturned in his work to persuade Philemon. The letter begins and ends with language that appeals to Philemon in a public sense, rather than a private one. He starts the letter thusly: “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,[a] To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, 2 to Apphia our sister,[b] to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (Phil. 1-3)
Paul is addressing the entire community—the household church, of which slaves would have been an approved part of—they were not only part of the ancient household from a pragmatic, productive view, but also in the broader sense that they would have been allowed to participate in rituals and services of the new movement being held in the household. Because the letter was being read to the entire household—and it would have been a big deal—everyone would have been there to hear this letter being read—Paul writing as he did in this particular social frame would lend support then to Philemon who is going to be asked to go against the normal social behavior and expected protocols between master and slave. And he ends the letter is a similar public manner by writing: “17 So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. 20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 22 One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.” (Phil. 17-22)
What we may lose in our modern reading is Paul’s use of wordplay through the letter. Earlier, when he writes that “the hearts of the saints are refreshed” by Philemon he is indicating that the slave, Onesimus is Paul’s “heart” and he connects this to Philemon by asking that Philemon refresh his heart—Onesimus. There’s also a lovely bit of word play by contrasting the actual meaning of Onesimus’ name (useless) into useful—quite clever here: “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful[f] both to you and to me”. See what Paul did there? Paul then, as I read, takes complete responsibility for Onesimus and his actions, offers to make amends and finally flatters his listeners and reminds them that he will check out how this whole affair plays out, once he is released from prison. Paul could have used his authority as a leader of this new movement to insist that Philemon release his slave (or at least not punish him so severely) but instead chooses to attempt to persuade Philemon to do the right thing and recognize that since, now, Onesimus is a brother in Christ, he deserves to be treated as any other brother or sister in Christ and be granted his freedom.
We have a similar situation in our current discussion on racial injustice in America today. We have laws in place that are supposed to level the playing field and ensure justice for all regardless of color, religious affiliation, gender, any number of traits that have been used in the past to deny people their basic rights. We can use these laws to create safety for people of color and we should—and we do the best we can with a damaged system—but I’m suggesting we adopt Paul’s approach—what if we persuade people to do what’s right because that’s what’s right? Last week Robin challenged us all with these words: “What would it look like if all of us at UCC who denounce racism as a sin actually did something about it? What if we all participated in Martin Luther King Jr. celebrations today and tomorrow? What if we showed up as a group to other significant events or restaurants or parks to show our solidarity? What if we placed ourselves in the right places at the right times to make ourselves bridges instead of road blocks?
A couple of years ago I started going to a new barber—he’s a black man and a good friend of mine. The very first time I walked into the barbershop where he rents his booth over near Douglas and Hillside—I experienced a remarkable thing. I walked into a very busy room with about a dozen barber stations around the edges. I, this 6’3” tall and 200 and something pound white man waltzed in through the door…and the bright, cheerful chatter instantly stopped and I felt dozens of eyes on me. Men stood straighter to see who this potential interloper was. I was surrounded by over 2 dozen black men and men of color and I froze…and I was struck by the lesson. I’m used to walking into almost anywhere in Wichita and being met with polite and courteous nods and hellos. Now, don’t get me wrong, once my friend saw me and shouted my name and for me to come over to his corner of the shop, everything went back to normal. The men returned to their conversations and since I was supposed to be there, all was well. But the lesson was powerful and pertinent—I’m grateful I got to feel that sinking pit-of-the stomach feeling of “oh my goodness am I in the wrong place and how do I get out of here without looking too much like an idiot?” It’s was humbling. For once, I was the minority and I did not belong.
I’ve been going to this barbershop for about two years now and I’m welcomed warmly every time I go in. I like sitting there and overhearing bits of gossip and slightly inappropriate conversations and jokes. A lot like you and me. In fact, just the same as you and me.
Over 55 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., and delivered one of the most influential speeches in American history. Over 200,000 people had gathered on the National Mall for the March on Washington, where King spoke of a dream in which “sons of former slaves and sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” While most of us are familiar with the powerful refrain King used to conclude his climactic speech, few will recall the unique circumstances by which the Atlanta-born minister arrived at those famous four words, “I have a dream.” In fact, King was midway through his planned remarks when gospel singer Mahalia Jackson urged the reverend to “tell them about the dream.” Can’t you just hear her: “Tell them about the dream!”
He obliged, improvising the remarks that would go on to become firmly planted within the collective American consciousness: “I have a dream,” Dr. King declared, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
It’s been over five decades since King’s historic speech, but as flagrant racism, rampant criminal justice inequality, and affronts to voting rights continue to dominate the headlines, the civil rights leader’s words continue to seem as troublingly aspirational as they did in August 1963. Sadly, too, that while many remember Dr. King’s trademark four-word creed of black liberationist ideology “I have a dream!”, not so many will recognize the more than 350 other speeches King delivered during his lifelong campaign against inequality.
Ten days after delivering one of his most daring and controversial speeches, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” in which King objected to the injustices of the Vietnam War for the first time in such a public and unflinching way, he told a Stanford University audience of the injustices occurring at home. The reverend did so in a revolutionary, persuasive way on April 14, 1967: by describing America as two separate nations, one in which “millions of young people grow up in the sunlight of opportunity,” and another in which “millions of people find themselves living in rat-infested, vermin-filled slums.” The reverend was talking about the injustice of segregation.
King’s “The Other America” speech is characterized by scathingly honest lines, like, “I submit that however unpleasant it is we must honestly see and admit that racism is still deeply rooted all over America. It is still deeply rooted in the North, and it’s still deeply rooted in the South.”
We all know what happened to Rev. King—as often happens to people who speak out for God’s justice. If they are not shamed into silence in one way or another, violence always remains an option for those who believe they are threatened by the bright light of truth. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr—martyred because he believed it when he was told we’re all equal. The Apostle Paul was martyred as well—because he upset the social order—he was a radical who embodied this idea that God made us all the same.
So that’s the challenge to all of us. It’s easy to say that we understand that racism exists or that we want to do all we can to end racial injustices, but what are we doing about it? How do we change these default positions? How can we use our own skills of persuasion to get the others in our lives—those who are blind to the systems of racial injustice—how can we help them join the fight? We get it in our heads—but we don’t always feel it in our hearts. This is such difficult work—this belief that we’re all equal—we’re all the same. How do we help God’s justice come to life and remove barriers that prevent equality? If you are really interested in this conversation and in learning ways to fight racism, then I suggest you join one of upcoming house churches—these are safe places to begin dismantling the racism in your own world. I’ve also included 8 everyday ways we can all fight racism and listed them in the contemporary word. Simple steps you can take right now, today, to tear down walls that divide us—to open doors to conversation—to extend the hand of welcome–ways to build God’s justice right here and right now. Useful ways that you might persuade someone in your life in the way that Paul did two thousand years ago:
“8 For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9 yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus.[e] 10 I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful[f] both to you and to me. 12 I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13 I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14 but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. 15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.” Persuasive indeed.
Please stand as you are able and let’s sing our new closing benediction song, “Weave”