A sermon preached at Southinster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho on Sept 8, 2013
One of the nice things about Philemon is that it is short enough to read all in one sitting. And hearing it all, from the salutation to the close, we get the reminder that Paul wrote letters—actual letters—to people he knew and loved and some letters to people he didn’t know yet but still loved.
When you just read a few verses from 1st Corinthians, or Galatians, you hear beautiful writing and powerful scripture, but you lose the sense of correspondence, of sincere concern for people Paul loved because they were his family.
Letter writing is sadly a lost, or at least dying, art. But I still have boxes of letters I received from friends from college or high school. And I treasure them. I read through them and am reminded of stories I’ve forgotten. Stories of escapades, and stories of fun, and stories of anguish, and stories of pain.
I exchange emails or texts today, and am thankful for the immediacy of communication. I confess I enjoy not having to wait days for my letter to get to my friend and then wait even longer for a return missive.
But I mourn the loss of deliberation involved in our correspondence now. I can write an email in 42 seconds and hit send before I’ve thought through what I was saying. To hand write a letter, I am slowed down, I am more deliberate in my words.
And so I’m thankful Paul didn’t send an email to Philemon.
“Hey. I’ve got your runaway slave.
I’ll send him back, but only if you promise to go easy on him.
CUL8R, I hope. Prison sucks. LOL
Doesn’t have the same impact, does it?
Luckily, Paul’s email server was down that day, so he sat down and wrote, by hand, this letter to Philemon
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 towards the Lord Jesus.
Isn’t that beautiful?
Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus, ended up with Paul, somehow. And like all slaves throughout history, Onesimus isn’t keen on returning. So Paul writes on Onesimus’ behalf to his owner, Philemon, using exclusively familial language.
the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.
I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.
Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
Paul paints the family connections with very strong, and not very subtle, language.
Because Paul believes very strongly we are family, because we are adopted by God into God’s family. You see it in all of his letters. He greets brothers and sisters.
He always refers to “God our Father” in the salutation of his letters.
Paul wants us all to understand that there are implications to claiming membership in God’s family.
Here is how Paul describes it in the 8th chapter of his letter to his brothers and sisters in Rome:
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.
And while he wants Philemon to know these things, generally, he wants to make sure he gets how it affects him specifically in this situation.
If you are going to call me brother, Paul reminds him, it is because God made us family. Which means that everyone else who loves and serves God is family too, even Onesimus. And would anyone refer to a member of their family as a slave? Of course not!
I hope my children are listening….we never call family members slaves…
Not only is Onesimus now Philemon’s brother, he is also to be seen as Paul’s own son. If that’s not enough, Paul also refers to him has “my own heart”.
Certainly Philemon is quick enough to understand that how he treats Onesimus is how he treats Paul.
More than that, how he treats Onesimus is how he treats Christ.
This text is problematic for us in many ways. Clearly, our modern sensibilities would be appeased if Paul came out and condemned slavery in general, and not just for our brother in Christ Onesimus. But he doesn’t.
But it is the clear instructions for how to treat each other as family that might be more problematic for us than the slavery issue.
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.
How often do we do that?
What does it mean to treat each other as family?
Especially when we have seen our own human families fall short as the model for good family behavior?
Paul could have found an excuse to not be helpful to Onesimus. “Sorry, buddy, I’m already in prison and my own life is all I can handle right now. But I’ll pray for you.”
I’ve never even been in prison, and I’ve used excuses like that.
I’m thankful for Paul as much as I’m flummoxed by him.
He reminds us that we have privilege in our faith. The new life we receive in Christ frees us to live differently, to be more generous in how we treat each other and more expansive in who we call family.
By claiming membership in God’s family, we aren’t just interested in our own, personal lives and salvation. We become invested in the lives of each other and in the lives of people we may not even know.
By being members of God’s family, we can be bold to speak out for our brothers and sisters, like Onesimus, who need our advocacy and our help.
I read an article last week that is still percolating in my head.
Rev. David R Henson wrote:
“There is no longer a war on hunger in this country.
There is no longer a war on poverty.
There is a war on the hungry.
There is a war on the poor.”
He goes on to illustrate how cities all over the country, both liberal and conservative cities, are making it illegal to be hungry and homeless, rather than trying to help the hungry and homeless. He writes:
“Cities have made it illegal to lie down. They have made it illegal to share a meal with people who are homeless. They have made it illegal to sit in parks or on benches for long periods of time. They have made it illegal to eat in public spaces. They change their parks’ watering schedules to douse anyone staying there after hours. They have removed completely and banned park benches. They have banned panhandling.”
I kept thinking about it when I read about Onesimus. How easy would it be for us to criminalize him, to decide we don’t need to advocate on his behalf?
Paul doesn’t give us that easy out.
Whether we are like Philemon, who is wealthy enough to own slaves, or we are so poor and without options that we end up in slavery, like Onesimus, we are family, each to the other.
And so we are called to stop treating people like categories, and to start treating them like brothers and sisters.
Slaves, prisoners, rich, poor, hungry, homeless are just categories we use to separate us from each other, to help us forget our connectedness.
They are just categories we use to help us forget our humanity.
Maybe this is why Psalm 139 is my favorite passage of scripture—it refuses to categorize. And it tells the story of a creator God who knows each of us so well because God knit us together in our mothers’ wombs.
God didn’t create us in a factory where each day the production line turned out 1,000 models of “Prisoner, 2.0” or “the Tycoon, platinum edition”.
We are created individually, by our creator, to be exactly who we are, strengths, weaknesses, charms, and challenges all included.
Robert Alter translates the psalm this way:
For You created my innermost parts,
wove me in my mother’s womb.
I acclaim You, for awesomely I am set apart,
wondrous are Your acts,
and my being deeply knows it.
My frame was not hidden from You,
when I was made in a secret place,
knitted in the utmost depths.
My unformed shape Your eyes did see,
and in Your book all was written down.
The days were fashioned,
not one of them did lack.
The creator knitted us in the utmost depths, to be wonderful individual members of God’s own family.
Onesimus, Paul, Philemon, Ruth, David, Mary, Eric, Gabriela, Dorothy, Bob, Carol, Sydney, Murray, and Jim.
Maybe this idea of a God who knows us that well, a God who knows our thoughts before they are even on our tongue, is not something we can comfortably believe. There are days, I suspect, when it is easier for us to believe God created Onesimus than it is to believe God knit us together.
But I invite you to believe it about yourself.
And I invite you to believe it about everyone else too—the homeless man you see by the freeway entrance, the woman in the grocery check out line whose food assistance won’t quite cover her bill, the ex-con who is seeking a job and trying to rebuild his life, and the politician whose views are most unlike yours.
God created you in beauty and wonder. And God did the same with each of them, for each of us. In our beautiful individuality, we are created to be family.
I heard a story on the news this morning about Cheryl Strayed. She wrote the book Wild. She was reading a letter this summer, one of the many that people who have read her book have sent her. She told the interviewer:
“Back in late June or early July I was reading one such email … and I was just about to move onto the next email when the woman who was emailing me said that we really were connected, that, in fact, we have the same father,”
Strayed had not identified her father by name in her book, but the woman still recognized their connection.
I confess, as a woman who was adopted as an infant, that this is my wildest fantasy. I LONG for someone to see me on the street and recognize our relatedness, to read something I have written and say, “we are sisters. We share the same mother.”
It is unlikely that this will happen for me with my biological family, but each time I hear a story like the one on the news this morning, my longing for that connection is rekindled.
The gift of our adoption into God’s family is that we can do this for each other. We can see each other on the streets and realize, “we share the same mother, the same father”.
Paul understood this when he wrote these words:
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 towards 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.
So, my brothers and sisters, know how grateful I am for each of you and for the particular way you come together to be God’s family here in South Boise.
This week, I invite you to pay attention to how the world tries to separate us by categories. Instead, let’s start recognizing each other as brothers and sisters, people who share the same heavenly parent. Thanks be to God, who did the knitting.