Sermon Seeds: A New Identity
Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18)
Jeremiah 18:1-11 with Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 or
Deuteronomy 30:15-20 with Psalm 1
Worship resources for the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C, Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18) are at Worship Ways
A New Identity
by Kathryn M. Matthews
As usual, the scholars disagree about this passage from Scripture, a letter from Paul to a wealthy church leader named Philemon about the return of his runaway slave, Onesimus. Perhaps, as Carl R. Holladay claims, “the letter is not an appeal for Philemon to set Onesimus free, but rather to accept him back as a slave, albeit one who is now a Christian brother” (Preaching through the Christian Year C), but at the very least it sheds light on the tension that occurs when we shine the light of the gospel on our culture and, intentionally or not, expose its injustices.
Even if Holladay is right and Paul is not asking Philemon to free Onesimus, we can read between the lines and experience the discomfort that arises when we relate to one another as “brothers and sisters” in Christ, but somehow accommodate gross inequities in social position.
Maybe it’s uncomfortable, but surely it’s a “good” and appropriate kind of discomfort, the kind that unsettles and eventually dislodges injustice from its entrenched places of power and privilege.
The gospel can cause all sorts of problems
We know that the gospel has the power to cause all sorts of problems between friends and family, colleagues and neighbors, and even between church members, if we really take it to heart. Perhaps Paul anticipated trouble when he was writing this letter, because most scholars seem to agree that it’s masterfully written to avoid offense; instead, Paul encourages and even gently cajoles a church leader to do the right thing.
From our 21st-century vantage point, we might be tempted to think that these first-century Christians were simply less enlightened about such things than we are. After all, slavery was common in those days, an ordinary and accepted part of life. We might assume that they never even thought about it.
Rooted in resistance
However, in Paul’s Jewish roots–his DNA–are the beginnings of resistance to this evil. His own people were slaves once, so it was not permitted in his faith to have Jewish slaves for life, and there were legal provisions for their release. Ironically, life was so harsh in the Greco-Roman world that being a slave was often the only alternative to starving to death, and there was at least hope of being free one day.
Robert A. J. Gagnon provides, by far, one of the best preaching commentaries on this letter in The Lectionary Commentary: Acts and the Epistles, with excellent historical perspective on slavery in that time that nevertheless does not shy away from reading a prophetic message in Paul’s words.
Unlike Holladay, Gagnon sees in this missive a call to Philemon to free Onesimus, “to ‘do the right thing’ voluntarily as a spur to the growth of his own faith and as an example to his house church.” Writing to the church (or as we might say in this day of email, “copying” the church), Paul makes this a question for the whole community, not just a private affair between him and Philemon, with Onesimus waiting for a verdict.
(We suspect that Philemon was not thrilled about the church being copied on the message.)
This is a pressing matter
It seems obvious that to Paul, this is a life-and-death matter. If it weren’t such a serious subject, the reader might be tempted to laugh when Paul “innocently” says, “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self”! In fact, Paul even suggests that what his friend does to the slave, he does to Paul himself (v.17). He also offers to pay any costs Philemon may incur.
We’re reminded of those great people, those great saints, who have stood in for slaves, captives, and condemned people: saints like Maximilian Kolbe, who took the place of a man condemned to death in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. Paul may not have become a slave, but he wanted Philemon to look at Onesimus, and to see Paul.
Could it be that Paul is calling his readers (including us) to see every human being through the lens of the gospel message of freedom and dignity, to shine the light of the gospel on every situation and then to listen for how God is still speaking about every cultural practice and in every moral question we face in our communities today?
What is Paul really trying to say?
On the other hand (remember, scholars don’t agree on what is happening here), Lisa Davison argues persuasively that Paul is not at all requesting that Philemon set Onesimus free but instead is asking that Philemon send the slave back to him, because Philemon owes Paul, who hopes his friend will give up his slave willingly, but will do it whether he wants to or not: “This is nothing more than a guilt trip and an implicit demand,” Davison writes. “Paul also plays the ‘age card’ and the ‘suffering servant card’ to deepen the potential guilt Philemon would incur if he did not grant Paul’s request.”
Like many others, Davison recognizes our contemporary discomfort at Paul’s lack of judgment on the practice of slavery itself, but reminds us that, “[g]iven his sociohistorical context, Paul cannot be blamed” for this, as he lived in a world in which slavery was not only “common,” but “almost a necessary evil” (New Proclamation Year C 2010).
An open question to ponder
No matter which scholars are “correct” (and we of course will never know exactly what was in the heart of Paul about this question, but can only read between the lines), a lively and important conversation can be prompted in the church after reading this little letter from one good Christian to another, almost two thousand years ago.
However, it would also be helpful for a serious discussion to include a book like Colson Whitehead’s award-winning novel, The Underground Railroad, with its gut-wrenching accounts of what slavery has meant in the history of a nation that often claims to be a Christian one (regardless of the separation of church and state).
“Good” Christians owned and often mistreated slaves, and a novel like Whitehead’s provides important and powerful content for our exploration of the right and wrong of Christians’ behavior and beliefs in regard to slavery throughout history.
A spiritual question
Indeed, as John Dominic Crossan points out, this was not just a cultural-political-legal question about slavery in the ancient world of Rome, but a spiritual one for followers of Jesus who embraced the teaching of Paul in Galatians 3:28, the baptismal formula that abolishes all those old distinctions: “Could the Christian master Philemon own the Christian slave Onesimus?”
Crossan’s book, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now, provides particularly helpful background on this text, as does his book with Jonathan L. Reed, In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom.
Re-examining our traditions
We might consider then what practices, customs, and traditions would fall before the power of the gospel, no matter how comfortable we are with them because they are, after all, part of the culture in which we live. Slowly (much too slowly, for sure) and inexorably, the gospel’s power made it clear to Christians, for example, that owning another human being was a grievous offense before God, no matter how skillfully “good Christians,” church-going Christians, relied on biblical references that seemed to accept slavery.
What about the (only) slightly less obvious but equally pernicious undercurrent of racism that infects our shared life, post-slavery – in our legal system, our economy, our communities, including the church?
Justice and La Amistad
During my time as a member of the national staff of the United Church of Christ, I led many tours of the Church House, with the highlight being time spent in the Amistad Chapel. That beautiful worship space is named after the chapter in the life of our church when our Congregationalist forebears stood with the captives of the slave ship, La Amistad, after those captives rose up and rebelled against their captors, sailing from the Caribbean and making their way north, to Connecticut, to find justice and freedom, after a long legal battle.
I remember one day, when the tour groups included pastors from our local churches as well as visitors from the World Council of Churches. As we stood around the table whose wood resembles a captain’s wheel, two pastors in the first group shared how deeply moved they were when they visited Ghana and the historic sites there, where captives were shipped off to America in slavery, and now they stood in a place that remembered not only the ordeal and courage and strength of those captives but also the firm witness by those whose efforts often cost them the comfort and friendship even of their own church families.
The power that we have
The second tour group included visitors from the Netherlands, South Africa, Latin America, and Germany who were attending a conference on racism and the churches. Their questions were probing, and we had a thoughtful–and painful–discussion about the role of the churches in justifying and reinforcing the practice of slavery in the United States two hundred years ago.
Today, our churches are speaking out in condemning the practice of human trafficking, and our voices can be raised–like Paul’s–in solidarity with those held in bondage even in this “enlightened” age. Perhaps we can’t change everything in the world, but what do we do with the power that we do have?
Texts that undergirded oppression
In the same way, the spirit of the gospel has much to say about the dignity of women, for example, no matter how many references in the Bible may appear to support women’s subjugation or exclusion from church leadership, including ordination. The change in women’s status, also late in coming and not fully here yet, is supported by the gospel, and yet many religious institutions are catching up (or not) with secular society in recognizing it as a good thing.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said that the church should be the headlights, not the tail lights, in such matters, but too often this is not the way things happen. It seems that the church itself needs to constantly examine its own practices (and conscience) in light of the gospel, just as much as we shine that light on our culture beyond our walls.
(Culture, of course, is never kept entirely out of church; we carry it with us wherever we go.)
Evoking gut feelings, not just sentiments, on an issue
The language Paul uses evokes “gut feelings,” not just intellectual arguments, and not just sentimental attachment to this one particular person; Gagnon says that “heart” could be better translated as “guts” (The Lectionary Commentary: Acts and the Epistles).
And the gut-feeling question Paul raises is one of deep significance: this is going to cost Philemon, it will exact a price, not just in monetary terms but in his sense of status and in his relationship with this person, who will hold a new place in his life (“no longer as a slave but…a beloved brother,” verse 16). Are we open to such transformation in our own lives and relationships?
Change from deep within
How does a radical change in relationship that eliminates privilege and advantage feel to those involved, on both sides? Is such a change even possible? How deeply embedded are our assumptions and sense of place, in our daily lives and in the global context?
What challenges around privilege lie in this text for us, personally and communally? What discomfort (even if it is a “good” kind of discomfort) lies between-the-lines for us as Christians shining the light of the gospel on our culture and on our lives?
Yet another lesson
There is another lesson here, about the responsibility to call one another to faithfulness, to be true to who we are as followers of Jesus. In a sense, that’s what Paul is saying to Philemon: to remember who he is as a follower of Jesus. If we remember who we are as followers of Jesus, won’t that have an effect on our choices and the way we live?
If holding a slave and not showing mercy is unworthy of a Christian, what things do we do today, perhaps without thinking, that keep us from living up to who we are, even if our cultural mores find them acceptable, as many people found slavery culturally acceptable in Paul’s day?
Does the thought of calling another Christian to faithfulness make us uncomfortable? Would it seem rude or inappropriate, or even judgmental? We can only wonder, for example, about our descendants looking back on the way we treated and used up the gifts of God’s creation, or the ways we have waged war upon one another: will they shake their heads in bewilderment at our lack of faithfulness to who we are as people of faith, as followers of Jesus?
The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
For further reflection:
Bryan Stevenson. 21st century
“The opposite of poverty is not wealth. In too many places, the opposite of poverty is justice.”
Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches, 20th century
“It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.'”
Philip Gourevitch, 21st century
“Denouncing evil is a far cry from doing good.”
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, 18th century
“I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is that they must change if they are to get better.”
Marcus Garvey, 19th century
“The ends you serve that are selfish will take you no further than yourself but the ends you serve that are for all, in common, will take you into eternity.”
Molière, 17th century
“It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable.”
“What should move us to action is human dignity: the inalienable dignity of the oppressed, but also the dignity of each of us. We lose dignity if we tolerate the intolerable.”
Herbert Hoover, 20th century
“Freedom is the open window through which pours the sunlight of the human spirit and human dignity.”
Oscar Arias Sanchez, 20th century
“The more freedom we enjoy, the greater the responsibility we bear, toward others as well as ourselves.”
Condoleezza Rice, 21st century
“In a few weeks, I’m going to release our annual Department of State Report on Human Trafficking and that report probes even the darkest places, calling to account any country, friend or foe, that is not doing enough to combat human trafficking. Though many complain, the power of shame has stirred many to action and sparked unprecedented reforms. Defeating human trafficking is a great moral calling and we will never subjugate it to the narrow demands of the day.”
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.
Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
O God, you have searched me
and known me.
You know when I sit down
and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts
from far away.
You search out my path
and my lying down,
and are acquainted
with all my ways.
Even before a word
is on my tongue,
O God, you know it
You hem me in,
behind and before,
and lay your hand
Such knowledge is too wonderful
it is so high
that I cannot attain it.
For it was you
who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together
in my mother’s womb.
I praise you,
for I am fearfully
and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden
when I was being made
intricately woven in the depths
of the earth.
Your eyes beheld
my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days
that were formed for me,
before they existed.
How weighty to me
are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them —
they are more than the sand;
I come to the end –
I am still with you.
See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
Happy are those
who do not follow
the advice of the wicked,
or take the path
that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat
but their delight
is in the law of God,
and on God’s law they meditate
day and night.
They are like trees planted
in streams of water,
which yield their fruit
in its season,
and their leaves
do not wither.
In all that they do,
The wicked are not so,
but are like chaff
that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand
in the judgment,
nor sinners in the congregation
of the righteous;
for God watches over the way
of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,
To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 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. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 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; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 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.
So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.
Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:email@example.com)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ
(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: “Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place” in Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)
The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about “traditional” colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.
The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.
Before the Reformation’s iconoclasm, and Trent’s code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of “best,” “second best,” and “everyday” — not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the “best” vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got “second best” or “everyday.”