(a sermon for September 8, 2019, the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Philemon 1-21)
(The Podcast version of this message can be found here)
His name was Bernard Larlee, but to everyone in our little town, he went by the unlikely nickname of “Snigg.” He was, in fact, the local postmaster and a stalwart member of the First Congregational Church; one of those folks who not only had been brought up in that congregation but who also over the years had ended up doing just about every job there was in the church, including teaching my 10th grade Sunday School class!
Looking back on it, Snigg must have had an awful lot of patience to be teaching at that level! After all, as I recall, there were mostly boys in that particular class, and so not only were we as teenagers kind of restless, to say the least (!) but I’m also sure that the theological nuances contained in Paul’s epistles were pretty much lost on us! It could not have been easy; but God bless him, Snigg soldiered on, and what I’ll always remember is that in just about every class there would come this moment when after a long while he’d just sigh a bit, quietly close his teacher’s manual and simply say, “Boys, let me ask you this… is there a Christian way to go to McDonald’s?” Or, he’d ask, “If you’re a Christian, how do you sit in the stands at a Schenck Wolverine basketball game when we’re down by 20 points in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter… and it’s the Orono Red Riots?”
Now, of course, at first we’d all respond with smart aleck comments about praying over Big Macs and for decent referees, but what was interesting is that before long we’d find ourselves discussing these matters as though they were deep and profound questions of faith! I mean, at the time McDonald’s was the place to go with your group – or with your date – after the movies at the K Cinema. So that gave rise to questions both about how we related to one another as friends and classmates and how we treated others who we didn’t know, or who were outside of our social circle, or who were… different. We’d be talking about things like dignity and respect and compassion and inclusiveness and yes, even love; and as far as basketball games were concerned, maybe good sportsmanship was important, after all, as was our refraining from referring to the opposing team members as Orono Red “Rots!” (And that was one of the nicer names…)
Whether we realized it or not, you see, what Snigg was teaching us was about faith; but not faith in the doctrinal sense, per se, nor from the lofty, some might say arrogant, perspective that oftentimes emanates from sitting in a church pew. Snigg simply put out there for us how faith might actually affect our real lives; how our belief in God and in Christ Jesus could have an impact on our world view, our relationships, and on life just as we knew it and lived it. We’d grown up on all the Bible stories, you see, from the time we were all little kids in the church nursery; we knew all about Noah and the Ark, Moses bringing the Ten Commandments down from the mountain, and how Jesus, the little baby born in the manger of Bethlehem, was the Savior who died on the cross for us. We’d learned all about love and the golden rule; we understood (as best our 16 year old minds could ever possibly comprehend) the presence and power of God Almighty… but this? These questions that Snigg the postmaster was challenging us to ask ourselves? This was about us! This was about how our Christian faith leading us to actively discern what was “the right thing to do” in any given situation… and then to actually do it!
Which leads us to our text for this morning, the Apostle Paul’s own very personal letter to a friend and co-worker by the name of Philemon.
First off, a little background: at only 25 verses and 335 Greek words, the Epistle to Philemon is the shortest of Paul’s letters to be found in the New Testament as well as one of the most obscure, easily missed nestled between the books of Titus and Hebrews; truth be told, a lot of people don’t even know it exists! Moreover, it is not, as is the case of most of Paul’s letters, written to the members of an entire congregation or a group of new Christians; and it’s decidedly not filled with any sort of theological discourse and weighty doctrines as what you find in Romans or Galatians. It’s actually, and amazingly, a lot simpler than that: it’s just a letter… albeit an open letter sent from Paul to Philemon, who was likely a member and leader of the church in Colossae in what is now Turkey.
This was a letter written from one man to another, friend to friend, regarding a kind of sticky situation involving a third man by the name of Onesimus, who was a slave owned by Philemon. Basically, there had been some kind of falling out between master and servant: some scholars maintain that Onesimus was a runaway slave, others claim that perhaps Onesimus stole from Philemon or else committed some other kind of transgression against him and now was on the run for fear of reprisal or mistreatment. And now Onesimus is with Paul, and while he’s with Paul Onesimus not only comes to faith in Jesus Christ, he’s also become as a son to Paul, to whom he refers to as his “own heart.” Paul realizes, however, that Onesimus really does need to be sent back to Philemon because as a slave, Onesimus does technically belong to Philemon. So… Paul decides to write this diplomatic and very flowery letter to his friend Philemon, appealing to his better nature (“I appeal to you on the basis of love,” he writes) but most of all to his faith in Christ (as The Message translates it, “I keep hearing of the love and faith you have for the Master Jesus, which brims over to other Christians”), finally asking Philemon if he might please forgive Onesimus “so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother,” adding that this is who Onesimus was to him and certainly, “he’ll be even more than that to you.”
A couple of things that should be said here: first of all, that we need to understand and own the fact that there have been many times throughout history – including, it should be noted, 400 years’ worth of American history as well – that this particular Epistle has been misinterpreted and misused as a way of sanctioning the enslavement of others, in part by virtue of the fact that Paul never condemns the practice. Now, obviously today we know better – or at least most of the world knows better – but we also need to understand that this letter, and Paul’s words within, were written in the historical context of a Greco-Roman culture in which slavery was the norm and upwards of 35-40% of the populace were, in fact, slaves; which for me makes it all the more powerful and telling that Paul writes this very moving personal letter encouraging – no, urging… imploring (!) – true and loving reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus, and not out some desire to “drop all charges,” so to speak, or as an effort to maintain the status quo, but rather something said and done out of faith, and Christian love, and because it’s the right thing to do.
Now I realize that you and I today might look at this relatively obscure bit of scripture and dismiss it as something totally out of sync – inappropriate, even – given our more enlightened understanding of the world and our faith in this age (though by the same token, I also have to say that I’m not willing to believe, as some have been saying as of late, that the ongoing and egregious sin of racism can be entirely pinned to verses such as what we’ve read today). It’s true that this little letter of Paul to his friend Philemon comes off as little dissonant given its background; frankly, it’s probably the reason that this isn’t a passage that gets preached on all that often!
But then again, if you go back and read it again… if we hear in Paul’s words his earnest plea that Onesimus not be punished but welcomed home (“If you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me,” he says) and consider how Paul himself is more than willing to take the weight for any damages or debt that Onesimus might have incurred, and assures Philemon of this by emphasizing, “I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it,” (Actually, I have a feeling that if this were something written online, this verse would have been in all caps!) for me what becomes clear in this letter is that Paul is doing more here than trying to smooth things over; no, he’s seeking to do what’s right in this difficult situation and challenging Philemon to do the same, ever and always for the sake of Jesus Christ. And so when we look at these verses that way, the question being asked both of Philemon and to you and me is no different, really, than “Is there a Christian way to go to McDonald’s?”)
I love what the Rev. Rick Morely, Episcopal priest and blogger from New Jersey says about this: he writes, “if you dare to take a third glance at this passage what you’ll find is faith hitting the road in the lives of real people dealing with real difficult issues and relationships. It’s the story of three people… struggling to live out their faith, and being challenged by it over and over again.” This is what faith looks like, you see, when things get real in this life, when the rubber meets the road, when you have to make a decision solely because of what it is you believe in faith and nothing else, and when you’re put in the position of having to explain it or to challenge someone else because of it! This is what happens when you or I actually have to live out of all those lessons learned in Sunday School; it’s about what happens after we’ve said “Amen” to the pastor’s Sunday sermon and have headed out these doors into the real world!
It’s one thing, after all, to hear Jesus’ words about forgiving someone “seventy times seven;” quite another when it’s that family member or friend with whom you had a falling out years ago. It’s laudable to show concern for the poor and dispossessed, the prisoner and the outcast; but what about when he or she’s sitting there looking at you? I suspect that most of us know, down deep inside, just how much there is that we might just need to change about ourselves on the basis of faith… but what happens when all of a sudden there’s this situation, this person, this request of us to do, by faith, exactly that which has always made us feel uncomfortable? What do we do? And how will that affect us moving forward?
I think that’s exactly the kind of challenge that letter Paul wrote to Philemon offers up for you and me… the day to day challenge of living our faith, friends in real time and in real ways; discerning the right thing to do, and then to actually do it! It’s as simple – and as utterly complicated – as that.
Snigg Larlee also introduced me to the concept of a “suitcoat religion;” that is, the many believers have of wearing their faith like they would their Sunday clothes, looking good on Sunday morning but taking it off and putting it away once the rest of the week has begun. In other words, Christianity is not meant to be relegated to a couple of hours once a week but is something meant to be an integral part of every hour of every day; in our work, our play, in and through our relationships with family and friends, in how we greet the stranger and in how we relate to all those who Jesus loves. It is as Paul wrote to the whole church in Colossae: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe [our]selves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” (Colossians 3:12); to forgive and to bear with one another, no matter how difficult that may be at times; to seek wisdom and understanding as we walk through these days, and to “let the peace of Christ rule in [our] hearts, to which indeed we were called in the one body… and whatever we do, in word or deed, [to] do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (v. 15, 17)
Maybe it’s a letter; maybe a well-spoken word at the right time; perhaps standing strong in the face of opposition or ridicule. It’s always being who we are, which is how God has created us to be and has redeemed us in Christ. It’s finding, and knowing, the right thing to do.
May the Lord in Christ lead us and bless us in that discernment… and may our thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN.
© 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry