Sunday, September 26, 2010

C: Proper 21

Luke 16:19-31
Amos 6:1-7
I Timothy 6:11-19

Ever since I was a young adult, the concept of self-esteem has been repeatedly talked about and written about by talk-show psychologists and school teachers and even preachers. A healthy sense of self-esteem, we’re told, is grounded in an innate sense of one’s own essential “okay-ness”, in spite of the mistakes, poor choices, and bad luck that are part of everyone’s past by the time we reach adulthood. But human beings do not always look for self-esteem in such a healthy way. Some of us—and I use the first-person plural very loosely here, because I’m not talking about myself!—some of us identify our sense of “okay-ness” with our appearance, a face and body combination that’s guaranteed to turn heads. Others look to their own health and fitness to define their sense of well-being.  Others attach their self-image to their intellectual and educational achievements—just look at the agony high school students go through every year taking tests and writing essays in order to get into a “name-brand” college or university. And many, of course, find that their regard for themselves rises and falls with their bank balance and their net worth. 

The only problem with locating our self-worth in any of these places is:  What happens if we lose them?  What happens when all we do to maintain our looks just can’t keep up with the effects of aging?  What happens when all we’ve done to keep our bodies in shape is laid waste by the onslaught of disease?  What happens when a changing world renders our education obsolete? And what happens when an economy over which we have no control wrecks all the careful plans we’d made for the accumulation and preservation of wealth?  What happens when we lose it all?  Where is our self-esteem then? 

That’s a profoundly important question, because if we really do look for our sense of worth in such things, our attitude toward them is going to be dominated, more than anything else, by fear. Every moment of our lives is going to be ruled by the terrifying prospect of losing whatever it is—looks, money, health, intelligence, social status—whatever it is that has become the perceived source of our self-esteem. 

We’re all familiar with the character Ebenezer Scrooge. The very name “Scrooge” has become a synonym for a sort of miserly nastiness that nobody finds attractive.  Yet, in the story, Scrooge is not really a mean person.  He’s nasty, but not mean. Once Scrooge is actually confronted with the suffering of Tiny Tim and the rest of the Cratchitts—suffering which was well within his power to alleviate—his heart is genuinely moved with compassion, and he does the right thing. The hard part was getting him to that point, getting him to the point where he could look for a moment away from himself and at everything and everyone around him.  This was exceedingly difficult, because Ebenezer Scrooge was consumed with fear.  He was afraid of losing his fortune, and because his self-image was tied up with his fortune, if he lost his fortune, he lost himself.  Scrooge placed his trust in a false hope—the hope of being able to hang onto his fortune.  When our lives are dominated by fear, we become like Scrooge. We accumulate, we horde. We become miserly, reluctant to share what we have. We need to constantly reassure ourselves of our security, so we can’t take the risk of expending any of whatever it is that is precious to us because it tells us who we are, defines our identity, our self-esteem. 

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is one that most of us heard in Sunday School before we were old enough to read. “There was a rich man,” Jesus says, “who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.”  Now you and I may not be very impressed by the ability to wear purple clothing, but back then purple dye was obtained only from a very rare, and therefore expensive, shellfish.  So this guy was rich. He lived not only comfortably, but ostentatiously.  And just outside the front gate of his home was Lazarus—homeless, unemployed, and sick.  Lazarus would have been grateful to make a meal out of the table scraps, the garbage from the rich man’s home, but the implication is that he didn’t even get that. Two men, one right under the other one’s nose, but unseen.  Like Scrooge, the rich man in Jesus’ parable is consumed by fear, fear of losing that to which he had attached his self-esteem. He placed his trust in a false hope—the hope of finding eternal validation from his wealth.  As long as he had purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously, he knew who he was. Without those things, he was nobody. So he clung to them, fearfully, tenaciously. 

As the veteran Episcopalians among us realize, as we move into the fall, we’re entering stewardship season, that time of year when, as a parish church, we ask one another to think and pray, and then go on record, confidentially, with what we believe the Lord is calling us to give to this community in the coming calendar year. As a priest, as I confessed last week, stewardship season makes me uncomfortable. To a certain extent, my discomfort is grounded in the knowledge that the whole thing makes some of you uncomfortable. And as the pastor of this congregation, I know that a good part of the discomfort my parishioners feel about stewardship happens only because I bring it up in the first place! 

But my discomfort with this time of year operates on a deeper level as well. It has nothing to do with my being a priest, and everything to do with my being a baptized Christian who is a member of this particular parish community.  The same issues that I and the vestry bring up to the larger congregation, I also bring up to myself.  I wrestle with my own fears and frustrations about money, my own insecurities, my own self-esteem. We’re embarking on an uncomfortable season, because it makes us own up to just where it is that we get nourishment for our self-image, just what it is that, if we lose it, robs us of our personhood. 

Lazarus and the rich man both died, and, in that event, both learned that neither one controlled his own future, his own destiny. The fate of each was in the hands of God. Within the fabric and structure of the way he has created the universe, God has ordained that there are consequences, both temporal and eternal, for our actions. Both Lazarus and the rich man found this out, only in very different ways. Lazarus dies, and is carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham. For a pious Jew, this was as good as it gets. The rich man died, and found himself in rather unpleasant circumstances. Now, the point of this parable is not to supply us with details about life in the hereafter, and it’s a mistake to get distracted in that direction. Rather, this is an invitation to concentrate our attention on the fact that God is vitally interested in where it is we look for our self-esteem. He wants us to find our self-esteem in him, is his love for us. 

This is not an easy move to make. We are deeply conditioned to ground ourselves, to root ourselves, elsewhere than in the love of the one who made us and redeemed us. It’s a move that we can only make with the help of God’s own grace. But if we make the move, if we find our self-esteem in him, we will find ourselves truly free, free of fear, and free of false hope. If my esteem for myself is grounded in nothing other than God’s esteem for me, rather than in my bank balance or my looks or my health or whatever, then I am truly free from fear of loss. This is the kind of freedom from fear that Jesus, by means of this parable, invites us to experience. 

As I reflect on my own life, and the false hopes that have tempted me over the years—a new pair of shoes, a new friend, a new job, a new car, a new house, even a new career—I realize that none of these has brought me anything near true peace and happiness. None of these has been an appropriate source for my self-esteem. Time and again I have returned, if not to the bosom of Abraham, then to Abraham’s God. Freedom from fear and freedom from false hope allows us to take a “liberal” attitude toward the wealth that God has blessed us with, whether that wealth is an abundance of money, an abundance of time, or an abundance of knowledge and skill. And I don’t mean “liberal” in any political or religious sense, but in the sense of an open, free-flowing generosity. Such liberality enables us to let go of potential earned income in order to take the time to spend with children or grandchildren, or to help an illiterate adult learn to read, and to count doing so a joy. Such liberality allows us to let go of having an impeccably clean house or an award-winning yard in order to spend time in a small study/prayer/sharing group of other Christians, thereby building up and strengthening the body of Christ, and to count doing so a joy. Such liberality allows us to give sacrificially of our monetary wealth to the ministry of our local parish and to the mission of the church throughout the world, and to count doing so a joy. Jesus wants to be the only source of self-esteem we’ll ever need, to cast out all our fear, and replace it with joy.  Amen.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

C: Proper 20

Luke 16:1-13

There is officially no such liturgical season, but this is “Stewardship-tide”—the time of year when most churches are ramping up the process of making financial plans for the coming calendar year, encouraging their members to make an estimate of how much they intend to give.  I don’t know if this was intentional on the part of those who assembled the lectionary—the table of scripture readings for Sunday services—but, as it turns out, the readings appointed for the early Fall indeed often lend themselves to stewardship sermons. At the very least it’s convenient for the clergy, who must not only responsibly interpret the word of God from the pulpit, but also lead people in making faithful stewardship decisions. In any case, I hope not to be utterly gratuitous in what I say on the subject today, but actually make a valid connection with the gospel reading that we’ve just heard.

If there’s any accurate generalization one could make about any sermon on the subject of money, it’s that it is bound to generate anxiety. For a first-time visitor to the parish, who just happens to show up when the sermon is about money, or to a relative newcomer, the anxiety takes the form of “Uh, oh, is this one of those kinds of churches, that are always harping on money?” [So, if you’re a visitor to St Anne’s today, please don’t form your opinion too quickly! We do talk about lots of other things.]

For the average “parishioner-in-the-pew,” stewardship anxiety is served with a generous garnish of guilt: “I’m giving all I can, but they say I should give 10%, and I’m certainly not doing that! Can’t squeeze blood from a turnip, you know.”

For the Finance Committee, and for members of the Vestry, the anxiety is of a different sort: “The diocesan assessment is going up, insurance costs are skyrocketing, the staff are all going to want cost-of-living raises, at least, and we’re already using our endowment income and dipping into reserves quite a bit for operating expenses. Something’s gotta give.”

And for the clergy—well, we also have our peculiar stewardship anxieties: “Why haven’t more of ‘them’ discovered the joy of tithing, the euphoria that results from faithful stewardship? Why don’t more of ‘them’ love Jesus more, why don’t they ‘get it’ when they say ‘All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee?’”

Well…there’s a certain cleansing effect from getting our anxieties out in the open, isn’t there? Yet, more basic than the different forms our anxieties about stewardship take, are the differences in our underlying perceptions of what stewardship is.

For starters, it’s certainly difficult to escape the impression that when we talk about financial stewardship, that’s just a euphemism for keeping the institution going—raising enough money, by any legal means, to pay the essential expenses of keeping the church up and running, providing “services” to its “clients.” When you turn in a pledge card, or drop an envelope into the offering plate, you’re just doing your part to ensure that when the time comes for your spouse’s funeral or your daughter’s wedding, or your grandchild’s baptism, St Anne’s and its clergy will be here to serve you on that occasion. There are differences in philosophy within this viewpoint: Some are only interested in giving enough to support a barebones budget that tries to cut corners whenever possible; others have a more generous vision of what the parish’s mission and ministry is. Either way, however, it’s institutional maintenance that we’re talking about.

Now, I have to say, there are important elements of truth in this perception. Among other things, the church is an institution, and being an institution carries with it certain inherent costs. Roofs leak and furnaces break down and carpets need to be cleaned. And if these costs are not met, the institution of the church is compromised, which compromises other aspects of what the church is.

There is also a way of understanding stewardship that comes at it from a distinctly spiritual direction. Stewardship is, quite simply, about pleasing God. When we give to the Church, we are actually giving to God; the church is only a conduit—a conduit, in fact, approved and sanctioned by God for such giving. Our giving has the effect of sustaining the institution, but that’s not the reason we give. Still less do we have any intention of controlling the institution through our giving.

So…seeing stewardship as a matter not of institutional maintenance, but of pleasing God, is surely a step higher up the ladder of spiritual maturity. But there is yet, to borrow a phrase from St Paul, there is yet “a more excellent way.” Christian stewardship, financial stewardship in particular, is one of the tools at God’s disposal by which he fosters our growth in holiness. Stewardship is one of the means at our disposal by which we can practice living in Heaven. Heaven is our destiny, as the community of those who have been redeemed for God by the death and resurrection of Christ. But it is, for us, a foreign tongue and an alien culture. Practicing stewardship helps us learn that language and adopt that culture. In the sixteenth chapter of St Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells his followers
He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own?
The invitation to stewardship is an opportunity to practice for the greater responsibilities God wants to give us in His kingdom. God gives us a little, that we may develop the skills to be entrusted with responsibility over much. God entrusts us with what is not actually ours, that we may show ourselves worthy to be entrusted with that which is, in fact, ours.

Many of us have made promises to God about what we would do if we were to win big on the lottery. I know I have! We’ve told God that, if we win the lottery, we’ll give huge amounts to the church and to all sorts of other good causes. Sometimes I wonder whether the fact that I haven’t yet won is a sign of something other than the astronomical odds against anyone doing so. God certainly knows me better than I know myself, and perhaps that’s why I haven’t won the lottery! (Of course, another reason is that I don’t actually buy tickets, but that’s another matter!) God knows that we need to master addition and subtraction before we study calculus. We have to learn to be faithful in little things—like the paycheck we get once a week or twice a month or whenever it is. Like the savings that we’ve accumulated. Like our time, our talents, and our abilities. Like our families and our job. Do we see these as “ours,” as things that we’re free to dispose of as we please? Or do we see them as “on loan” from a God who will one day demand an accounting?

By the way, do you know where the word “steward” comes from? The first syllable is from the word “sty,” as in “pig sty.” The second syllable, then, is “ward,” or “warden.” So, a steward is a “sty-warden,” a “warden of the sty”—the one entrusted with the responsibility of taking care of the pig sty and its inhabitants! Of course, the word has picked up a few more connotations over the centuries, but realizing its humble origins helps put our invitation to stewardship in a proper perspective. When the day comes for all stewards to render an accounting for all that has been entrusted to them, will you and I be found to have been honest and faithful in our stewardship? Will we be ready to live in Heaven? Will we speak the language and know the culture? That is the question of the day. Amen.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

C: Proper 19

Luke 15:1-10
Exodus 32:1, 7-14
I Timothy 1:12-17

As the economy has tanked over the last couple of years, a lot of good people have had to make some awfully difficult business decisions. Nothing personal, you know, but we have to lay a bunch of you off, or lay all of you off, or close the plant, or move the plant to another state or another country where the labor is cheaper. Sorry about that, but there’s nothing we can do. You understand, don’t you? It’s just a business decision.

Various versions of this story have played themselves out all over the country, especially in parts of Indiana that are very close to us here in Warsaw. Indeed, it seems that Indiana has heard more than its fair share of such news. The phrase “business decision” may or may not be invoked, but the underlying assumption is the same—the assumption that the financial best interest of a corporation—otherwise known as the bottom line—must take precedence over the welfare of employees, customers, or whomever.

Now, I realize that very often such an action truly is necessary for the survival of the company. Nonetheless, “business decision” is an interesting expression. It’s supposed to remove the moral stigma that would otherwise be attached to any action that causes large-scale economic or social or emotional dislocation. I mean, if you deliberately set out to throw someone into bankruptcy, or put unbearable stress on a marriage, or cause feelings of depression and despair—why, that’s morally inexcusable. But if it’s a “business decision”, that’s a different story. If an attempt to improve operating efficiency, or show some more black ink on the quarterly report, has the same negative effects as I’ve just mentioned, then it’s, well, a business decision.

This sort of moral irony has a pervasive influence on the way we as a society think and act. Almost on a daily basis, it influences the decisions made by legislators and government officials on the way public revenues are going to be allocated. It even influences—and I’m sure this comes as no shock to anyone—our relationships as members of Christ’s Holy Catholic Church. For several years prior to entering seminary, I was closely involved with the preparation of adults and young people for the sacraments of baptism and confirmation. We chose to follow an unusually intense and fairly long process modeled after the catechumenate of the ancient church; in fact, it was very much like Focus on Faith, which many at St Anne’s remember very fondly.
We had a team of between three and five lay catechists, and each candidate was linked with a sponsor who also attended the instruction sessions. We met as a group two hours a week for the better part of nine months. During Lent, the candidates were prayed for by name at each Sunday liturgy. Yet, the parish in which we were doing this was slightly smaller than St Anne’s, so in any given year, it was very typical for us to have only two or three candidates in the process.

On more than one occasion it was suggested to us—and on more than one occasion we on the catechetical team suspected ourselves—that this was a terribly inefficient way of meeting our objectives. To put it in business terms, it was a terribly labor intensive process, wasteful of the human resources that are so precious to any parish church, large of small. A good “business decision” would have been to find a different way of doing things.

In a somewhat obscure novel from many decades ago, called The Keys of the Kingdom, the main character is a missionary priest who spends thirty years in China proclaiming the gospel, with only one solitary convert to Christ to show as the fruit of his long labor. His superiors in the order eventually—very belatedly by their own estimation—made the obvious “business decision” and recalled Father Chisholm back to the equivalent of a desk job at the home office. He and many of his peers considered his ministry to have been an abject failure. Yet, the reader of the novel learns that Father Chisholm has always been revered by God, and in the end acquires the respect and admiration of his peers as well.

And, the parish in Oregon which sent me to seminary continues to hang in there, going on nearly thirty years now, with the inefficient and wasteful process of the catechumenate. Most of us will go along with the severe but compelling logic of the business decision only so far, when something deep in our hearts rebels with a resounding “Yes, but ...”—or even a contemptuous “So what?” Several years ago I had the moving experience of touring a state of Wisconsin facility for the severely developmentally disabled, people who are physically, mentally, and emotionally completely helpless. The ratio of care-givers to care-receivers in that place was astonishingly low. Care and concern and affection were lavished on these people. About that same time, I became familiar with the work of the now-departed Roman Catholic scholar and spiritual director Henri Nouwen, who chose to leave the prestigious academic community of Harvard University and make his home in Canada, in a community dedicated to the same sort of developmentally disabled men and women whom I met in Wisconsin. Father Nouwen died while living in that community.

From the standpoint of the most efficient use of tax dollars, the kind of care given at Central Wisconsin Center is not a sound business decision—the patients could be kept alive in a sort of warehouse fashion for less money. From the standpoint of Father Nouwen’s “career path”, his departure from Harvard was not a sound business decision, for many reasons. Yet few of us, I would imagine, are inclined to stand up and cry “foul” at either of these examples of “wastefulness”. There is an impulse in the human soul that challenges the ethical supremacy of the business decision.

How many stories have you heard about conspicuous bravery in combat by men who are motivated not by the strategic objectives of their superiors, or even by the opportunity to save their own lives or the life of a colleague, but by the irresistible desire simply to recover the body of a fallen comrade? Such risk-taking is surely not a good business decision, but neither is it one with which many of us would care to argue. There are in the human psyche certain emotional and symbolic instincts which defy the absolute sovereignty of efficiency.

I would suggest to you this morning that these instincts are telltale signs of nothing less than the image of God present in human nature. Today’s liturgy proclaims to us that God does not always, if ever, make what we would recognize as a sound business decision. In effect, the scribes and Pharisees who complained about Jesus’ consorting with tax collectors and sinners were accusing him of making a poor business decision.
One would think that, from a P.R. standpoint, it would have been in Jesus’ best interest to cultivate a relationship with the religious establishment—you know, a weekly golf date with the High Priest or an occasional round of drinks for the Sanhedrin. He certainly did not help his prestige by socializing with those who collaborated with the Roman Empire or whose occupations were less than morally circumspect. But Jesus responds to this indictment with the parable of the shepherd who abandoned 99% of his capital assets in order to recover the 1% which was lost. And he didn’t leave the 99 in the safety of a sheepfold or a bank vault, but, the text says, in the wilderness, where they would be easy pickings for a hostile takeover by wolves or ... whatever. If there was ever a bad business decision, this was it!

Yet, Jesus suggests, such is the nature of God—to be wastefully labor intensive in pursuing each individual wayward human soul—in pursuit of your wayward human soul, and mine. Indeed, the image of Jesus the good shepherd, with sheep #100 lovingly carried on his shoulders, warms our hearts and fills us with gratitude, for we are that sheep. In our Old Testament lesson from Exodus, God, as chairman of the board, announces to Moses, as chief executive officer, a business decision he had made. There would be a corporate restructuring of the nation of Israel which would involve “out-placing”—perhaps with a few well-directed thunderbolts—the “human resources” of the company. Moses couldn’t argue with the logic of the decision as it was presented on paper—or, perhaps, carved in stone. Each of the twelve divisions of the company showed a disastrous bottom line on the quarterly report. In fact, there was strong evidence of a planned employee takeover with the intention of selling out to a competitor. Yet, as much as the move made sense, Moses didn’t like it. He felt like the plan betrayed the memory of the company’s founding fathers—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God wasn’t so sure, but purely out of his regard for his CEO, he abandoned the restructuring plan and called back the thunderbolts.

And when we hear the story once again of God changing his mind and sparing the people of Israel after the intercession of Moses, even though they had lapsed into infidelity and idolatry, our hearts are warmed and filled with gratitude, for we, too, are, as the hymn says, “prone to wander”. We, too, have lapsed into infidelity and idolatry and are the beneficiaries of God’s bad business decisions—his abundant, labor-intensive, inefficient, and wasteful grace shed abroad into our hearts even at this moment by the Holy Spirit.

As St Paul reminds the young bishop Timothy, and us, in today’s epistle: “The saying is sure, and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. ... [we have] received mercy that in [us] ... Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the king of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever.” Amen.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Year C: Proper 18

Philemon 1-21

It hardly ever happens that we get to read nearly an entire book of the bible all in one sitting. But today we do that with St Paul’s letter to Philemon; only a couple of lines at the end dealing with incidental details are omitted from the reading.

So let’s set the stage. Paul is in prison as he writes this. It’s a pretty humane imprisonment as that sort of thing goes; his friends and other visitors apparently have generous access to him, and he’s allowed to have a secretary to write down what he dictates. One of these visitors is a fellow named Onesimus, which, in Greek, means “useful”; that’s an important fact to know because Paul plays a little word game with that name at a really key point in the letter. Paul is instrumental in leading Onesimus to Christ, and becomes the young man’s mentor and spiritual father. They are very close.

But there’s a problem. Onesimus, it turns out, is a runaway slave. And, to make matters worse, the master he ran away from is also a Christian, and somebody whom Paul knows fairly well from his missionary work prior to this particular imprisonment, a guy named Philemon. One of those uncomfortable “small world” moments. Of all the people for Onesimus to hook up with, he had to choose somebody who knew his boss!

So Paul wants to fix things. But before we dig in and begin to look at his strategy, which is very impressive, we have to do just a little bit of mental housekeeping, and at least be aware of, even if we don’t set them completely aside, the prejudices and assumptions we bring to this story. One important reality we need to realize that that, while slavery is always slavery—one human being claiming to own another human being—slavery in the ancient Mediterranean world was a much, much less brutal institution than it was in the American South prior to the Civil War, which is the mental model you and I are most likely to import into the mix between Paul and Onesimus and Philemon. Still, from the standpoint of pure justice, Onesimus was within his rights to run away. No human being has the right to own another human being. This may not have been as self-evident to Philemon as it is to us, or even as it was, I would suggest, to Paul. But it’s nonetheless true. From the standpoint, like I said, of pure justice, Onesimus didn’t do anything wrong.

So why didn’t Paul just give Onesimus a high-five and shoot an email off to Philemon, “You idiot! Christians can’t own slaves! What were you thinking?” Because, not only did he not do that, but he sent Onesimus back to Philemon with only this lousy letter for protection, all at some considerable risk, one might imagine, to Onesimus. I’d like to have been a fly on the wall for that conversation! What’s going on here?

I haven’t formally studied mathematics for 42 years—and counting! But one thing I do remember from studying math is that it usually not enough just to get the right answer. You’ve got to get the right answer for the right reason. That’s why teachers make you show your work, rather than just fill in the blank with the right answer. Well, that’s kind of what’s going on between Paul and Philemon. That “right answer,” of course, is for Onesimus to be free, to no longer be a slave. The “right answer” is for Philemon to permanently set Onesimus free—to do so openly and legally, as only he was able to do. Paul wants Onesimus to enjoy freedom that is not tainted by being technically illegal and underground. He wants Onesimus to be free openly, transparently, not in the shadows. Onesimus deserved that much as a human being created in the image of God. For Philemon to liberate Onesimus was most definitely the right answer. It would satisfy the obvious demands of justice—obvious to us, at any rate, though probably not so much to Philemon and his contemporaries.

But even that is not good enough for Paul. He doesn’t simply want Onesimus to be free. He doesn’t simply want Onesimus to be legally emancipated by Philemon just because it’s the right thing to do. He wants Onesimus’ freedom to flow naturally from both Onesimus and Philemon having a mutual epiphany, a simultaneous “Aha!” moment. He wants them both to understand that the entire foundation of their relationship is no longer determined by Roman law, or by Greek social custom, but by the new identities that have been given by having both been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul wants them to know that their union in Christ trumps and transforms all other dimensions of their relationship.

But in order to bring them both to such a realization, especially Philemon, Paul has to persuade Onesimus to once again put himself in a very vulnerable position, putting his very freedom at risk. Paul wants Onesimus to return to Philemon and say, “I’m back. What’s next?” And he wants Philemon, in turn, to not merely come to his senses about the immorality of slavery, but to see Onesimus not as a slave, or even a former slave, but as a brother in Christ. “Perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother.” And he wants it to be Philemon’s idea, not a matter of bowing to pressure from his old friend Paul. He says, “I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own free will.”

Now, chattel slavery is no longer an institution of our society. So we might be tempted to admire Paul’s rhetorical skill in this letter, but then cast it aside as not really relevant. We would be wrong to do so. While we may not deal with slavery in our experience, we do deal with issues of identity. Even more than he wanted freedom for Onesimus, Paul wanted Onesimus and Philemon both to set aside entirely their slave-master relationship. More than wanting it to be over, he wanted them to see it as meaningless, moot, yesterday’s news. Our society invites us to claim our identity—in effect, to name ourselves—in a multitude of ways. Young … old … fat … sick … successful … poor … gay … straight … American … disabled … educated … wealthy … depressed … beautiful … clever … illiterate … illegal … bright … addicted … and many, many more. We are every day sucked into defining ourselves, and therefore our relationship with others, whether we’re aware of it or not, according to these labels. Paul invited Onesimus and Philemon to cast aside “master” and “slave” as categories by which they understood themselves and their relationship to one another, and to adopt instead “brother in Christ.” He invites us, through this letter, to do the same. He invites us to set all those other identities down on the ground—not necessarily as garbage, but simply as no longer necessary, no longer relevant—and keep on moving. He invites us to see our relationships with one another not as people who agree on something, or who share the same political views or the same taste in fashion or music, or whatever, but as sisters and brothers in Christ, marked as Christ’s own forever and sealed with the Holy Spirit in the waters of new birth.

Do we know who we are? Are we ready to live like we know who we are? Amen.