Usefulness & Freedom
Below is a sermon by Rev. Martha Peck which is based upon Paul’s letter to Philemon and delivered on the Sunday before Labor Day (9/4/2016). What does it mean to be free? What does it mean to be useful?
This sermon is followed also by related prayers: 1) prayer of invocation, 2) prayer of confession, and 3) assurance of pardon.
They called him Onesimus, which means “useful.” And for most of his life he only had the value assigned to a slave. He was a strong back, silent compliance. He could not own property, nor choose where he would live or whom he could marry, or what kind of work he would do. He was “useful” the way a garden tool or farm animal is useful. But when he ran away from his master, he ceased being “useful,” and became “trouble”– a bad example for other slaves; a servant who could never again be trusted. He became a lost investment, a pain in the neck. Normally this story would end with an angry master who recaptured his slave and shackled him for the rest of his life, or a bitter master who resented the loss of his property.
But this story takes an unconventional turn. It turns out that the slave, Onesimus, had experienced something in the household of his master, Philemon. Sometime earlier he had watched people gather there to listen to the apostle Paul. He saw how their eyes lit up and their burdens were lifted when they talked about Jesus. He watched rich and poor, men and women laugh, and share food together. Social distinctions and old grudges melted away. He saw and felt joy. And Onesimus wanted what they had, almost as much as he wanted to be free.
So he ran away. He ran to the place where Paul was now imprisoned. (It seems to have been something more like house arrest, because Paul received visitors there, and continued his teaching to some degree.) It’s one of the delicious ironies of Scripture that the runaway slave runs to a prisoner…. in his quest for freedom.
Now Paul had a choice. He could help Onesimus escape. He could send him back to his owner in chains. He could refuse to get involved in what might have been a tricky situation. Each of these options has some logic, but Paul chose another route. He chose to see Onesimus as something more than “useful.” He chose to write a letter to his friend Philemon, and send it in care of Onesimus. He chose to call them both to a new life, a new relationship with one another through Christ.
Paul’s short letter (only one chapter) is full of warmth and genuine affection. Philemon’s house church has been a place of love, encouragement, and refreshment, and Paul celebrates these from afar. Reminding Philemon that neither of them acts alone, he names some of their companions in faith: Timothy, who is with Paul in prison, and Apphia and Archippus who are members of the Colossian church with Philemon. All of them will also be witnesses to whatever outcome this story takes. Paul, Onesimus and Philemon will not make their choices in a vacuum, but in the midst of the community of the church.
Along with affection, Paul not so subtly reminds Philemon of his obligation. Paul could command him by virtue of his age and his status as a leader, but he chooses not to. He urges Philemon to do the right thing as a voluntary choice. But Paul leaves no doubt as to the outcome he hopes for. He asks Philemon to receive Onesimus as a brother, no longer a slave. He asks him to treat Onesimus with the honor and tenderness he would offer to Paul’s own son. He writes: “I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.”
We don’t know how this story ends. Paul’s letter has survived, but not the follow up. I certainly want to believe in a happy ending. What we do know, is that the early church dismantled the domination structures of the Roman Empire. Distinctions between slave and free, male and female, Jew and Gentile became less important, as people identified themselves by their commitment to Jesus and the new set of values and perspectives this gave them.
The Roman Empire had maintained its dominance through fear and brute power. But the first Christians discovered another power, one that infiltrated and eroded imperial might. It was the power that grew out of communities, rooted in forgiveness, grace and love.
Today the forces of imperial domination are dispersed among countries and corporations. Slavery is mostly gone from our world, although it persists in underground forms in many developing countries, and even surprisingly in the United States. On this Labor Day weekend, it is worth asking whether we too often define people by their “usefulness,” their capacity for soul-killing labor. Americans work longer hours and take fewer vacations than any other first world people. Many have become slaves to materialism and competition, or are caught in dead-end jobs that do not provide enough security for real freedom.
When I re-read Philemon this week, I was struck by the number of relational words Paul uses in these 25 verses: “Brother, dear friend and co-worker, sister, fellow soldier, my child, father, partner…”
Reading between the lines, we can glimpse the intimacy these people shared with each other, and the deep bonds created by their common faith. At the same time, it is clear that Paul is using all these words, in a not-so-subtle appeal, to encourage Philemon to do the right thing; to see his situation in a new light. Paul asks Philemon to look at himself not as a wronged master, but as a humble follower of Jesus. He suggests that he treat Onesimus not as a disobedient servant, but as Paul’s own son. He makes his appeal, not on the basis of “usefulness,” or even legal precedent, but on the basis of love.
We don’t know what happened, but I bet it worked. And I also bet it was not easy, for Onesimus and Philemon to relate to one another in new and unfamiliar ways. This is how it always is: We see one another as beloved brothers and sisters in Christ. We welcome strangers and friends with joyful generosity, providing an alternative vision of how the world could be ordered. And we back-slide, into judgment, resentment, ranking, and entitlement. We fail to see one another’s sacred worth. We place a value on our lives and the lives of others by a narrow measure of their
This small letter written two thousand years ago still challenges our thinking. Paul invites us to call one another “brother, sister, co-worker, friend…” We can use these terms of endearment hopefully, as aspirations for our common life. And we can use them gratefully, in recognition of what Christ can accomplish in our flawed humanity. Our closeness to Jesus leads us to be closer to one another. We share experiences of loss and struggle; we dare to be vulnerable and honest with one another, and we learn to trust each other with our doubts and dreams. We even limit some of our freedom in order to express our love.
One this Labor Day weekend, as we gather at the Lord’s Table, we might ask: What does it mean to be free? What does it mean to be useful? Do we embrace the rules of empire, or the freedom of love? What does it mean to commit ourselves to building the blessed community? That’s a lot to consider, from just 25 verses. Amen.
Prayer of Invocation (Philemon 1-21)
Stretch our imaginations, limitless God, until we see your table, spread for all.
Enlarge our hearts to take in the beauty of every human soul.
Spark within us the desire to grow in faith
Embolden us to risk everything for the joy of following Jesus.
Work among us to resolve conflict.
Make us into a blessed community,
irresistible for the welcome we share,
and the peace we embody. Amen.
Prayer of Confession (Philemon 1-21)
God, we confess that we work too hard at things that do not matter,
and we neglect the tasks that bring light and peace to our world.
We confess that we are cowardly in addressing social injustice,
taking refuge in our own comfort zones.
We confess that we have failed to demonstrate convincingly
the path that Jesus laid out for us.
Yet there is something about your Gospel that calls us to try, again and again.
There is something about your voice, that gives us courage….
There is something about your church, that brings us here today….
Words of Assurance (Philemon 1-21)
Jesus says, “No longer do I call you servants, but I have called you friends.”
Let us live into the promises of the Gospel,
believing that we are set free from sin.
and that Christ is at work in us and among us.
© Rev. Martha B. Peck, 2016