(Job38:1-18; Psalm104:24-26; Ephesians1:3-10; Luke5:1-11)
In spite of having been an official promoter for the Season of Creation for a number of years, this is my first time actually using it.
The Season of Creation was put together (by Norman Habel, whom Lindy Wilson met long ago up at Holden Village) to cover an apparent gap in the normal lectionary, that there was no explicit time to highlight and reflect on God as Creator and our place amid this vast sweep of creatures in creation. (At the end of the Season, we’ll attend to just how vast the sweep is, on Universe Sunday.) Even without that explicit opportunity, though, I hope I am among those clearly showing you we should be seeing Creator, creation, creatures, creative faithfulness most everywhere we turn. Still, I’m in favor of this Season of Creation…at least basically.
See, I’m also discovering it leaves a couple of conundrums. The first is that in the common lectionary and in our usual worship service, we don’t focus on themes or concepts or nouns in this way. The center of worship isn’t generically love or family or prison or health or morality or whatever. Those things may come up, but it’s through our overall lens: the norm of our focus is Jesus and God. So it’s a conundrum to call today “Ocean Sunday,” as if that’s our primary focus, rather than God.
The other conundrum or temptation is that, since creation isn’t typically highlighted, there’s a lot that could be crammed into these days. There is so much room for faithful reflection on oceans that we’d be flooded with or drowning in the possibilities (as even those metaphors might indicate).
Just as an example from other potential Bible passages, I remember hearing Jeff Wild talk about trees marking the Bible, with the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden at the beginning in Genesis 2, the tree of Jesus’ cross in the middle, and the tree for the healing of the nations at the end in Revelation 22. Well, we could say the same about oceans and God’s trajectory of salvation. The very start of Genesis 1 has the Spirit hovering over the face of the deep, the tehom in Hebrew, a primordial chaos from which God will call forth life, or maybe it’s even a play on the name Tiamat, a dead Babylonian god, with the biblical story as a counterpoint that our God doesn’t battle and destroy, but orderly creates life.
In the middle, instead of the tree of the cross, we might notice the Sea of Galilee, not only in today’s reading, but even more instead of the tree of death we might say the sea is life, as the resurrected Jesus meets his followers there to lead into the next part of the story (John 21).
And in Revelation 21, alongside a new heaven and a new earth is a change, that the “sea was no more.” Admittedly that’s a strange line for today, when we are called to notice faithfully the goodness and life in the oceans, the extravagant abundance of coral reefs as the richest biodiversity on the planet, the remarkable foreignness of bioluminescent creatures that somehow survive in the dark depths that would crush us with such severe water pressure, or the currents ebbing and flowing across the globe, responsive to the moon and rotation around the sun, and the amazing migrations and whale conversation along the leagues of those open expanses, or even the liquid breathing that is hydrologic cycles of evaporation and rain and clouds and temperature exchange that form hurricanes to stir up weather and nutrients and in some enormous way sustain patterns of life. Revelation can’t want to get rid of all of that when it says “the sea was no more,” right? The thrust of Revelation, rather, is symbolizing an end to the fearful primordial mess that didn’t want to cooperate with a God of blessing and life.
Indeed, in another way that 21st chapter of Revelation emphasizes some of the same main point as this Season of Creation, that faith isn’t about heaven that’s elsewhere or else-when, but is for the here and now. “The home of God is among mortals,” Revelation declares, as does the overall message of Scripture. God is with us. And not just us. This isn’t a God who cares exclusively or maybe even mostly about humans.
That points us—at long last—to an ocean reading we do have assigned today, from the book of Job. (Incidentally, in three years of Revised Common Lectionary readings, we hear from Job twice but will have three readings from Job in these four weeks of the Season of Creation.) At this point in the story, for 37 chapters Job had been puzzling out why life wasn’t going well, why he suffered, and his friends said God was punishing him.
But then God speaks, and maybe even seems a bit distracted, or at least clearly and certainly isn’t focused on punishing Job. God in some way says that life isn’t centered on us. And so life amid creation may seem confusingly chaotic to you, but it’s also much vaster, grander, and more complex than we can understand. That was true of what people knew back then, and in substantial ways it is true even of our scientific knowledge today. There’s still so much we can’t quite comprehend, of how our blood levels relate to the salt of the ocean, of how dolphins communicate with brains that exceed ours, or simply of how jellyfish came to be.
But maybe more important than the message that we’re in the same incomprehensible boat as Job is that in this speech God has delight for creation, for creatures God made, not as natural resources waiting to be used by humans, maybe not useful to humans in the least, and even on occasion harmful to us, but still a delight to God.
This comes out also in the snippet of Psalm we read, about God sporting and cavorting with Leviathan. That delighted, almost giddy appraisal takes up a whole chapter in Job 41, comprising the culmination of God’s speech. What’s significant is that Leviathan was the sea monster, the most fearful part of that oceanic chaos, the thing that swallowed sailors and couldn’t be caught and ruled in destroying boats with tremendous terror. Now, we don’t need a fish finder searching for the Loch Ness monster in order for this faithful sentiment of these verses to be true. It means that God can see fearsome great white sharks as good, as well as giant squid that we’ve never even seen alive, much less plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs and weird enormous trilobites and chambered nautilus and millions of years of sea life that existed—or, better, were creatures—long before humans were anywhere in sight.
Maybe with that non-human emphasis, we’re ready for a change in tone amid this reflection. It’s a task of striking some sort of balance. God wasn’t saying Job was unimportant or that his suffering was trivial or meaningless to God. Similarly, it’s not that God doesn’t care about you to highlight the fact that God delights in lantern fish of the deep and oozy sea cucumbers and that God would mourn the overharvesting of blue tang because they look like “Finding Dory” and people want them in aquariums or cod for Friday fish fry.
But that overfishing becomes exactly a hard point with our Gospel reading. We may take this in all kinds of ways that would be contradictory to the overall point of this day. The reading has creatures of the deep, but it doesn’t seem to emphasize marine ecology. Instead, the people catch too many fish (apparently at Jesus’ instruction) and then leave behind their boats for what would seem to be claimed as the more important task of catching people. And it would be an obvious stretch to say that Jesus called them away from their boats in order to stop the overfishing of the Sea of Galilee and let the natural ecosystem restore. In spite of having a nice setting along the sea, this reading seems too human-centered.
Even worse is when we transform these natural details and the realities of life instead into spiritual metaphors, that when Jesus says to cast your nets in deep water that it’s about trying to be open to a deep and mysterious experience of faith. I’m sure loads of sermons have been preached that way on this text, but it has little to do with what Jesus says, and it sure doesn’t have much direct connection to lives of faith in this world. For some pious-sounding lesson, it becomes detached from life and interactions amid creation.
And if that’s a risk with the Gospel reading, it’s a direct impediment in the Ephesians stuff. It’s trying to open our eyes to the vastness of a cosmic Christ, to which we’ll return next month, but in the meantime it’s convoluted and dense and the whole thing in Greek is one long run-on sentence and it’s thick with technical theological jargon and—even though it wraps up by proclaiming that the ultimate goal of Jesus is to attend to and care for all things on earth—still it hardly touches down to the ground or dips its toes in the actual water of what this really means here and now.
That seems like an anti-climactic point to wind up this sermon, but I’m going to do it anyway, maybe as a caution: if we’re only encountering creation (in this case, the oceans) for how they’re useful to us, for resources or recreation, or—probably even worse—if we diminish their reality by making them an ancient symbol of chaos or a contemporary symbol of beach-side relaxation, if they become an idea instead of a reality, then we’ve taken away the mystery and the otherness that God intends and loves, and with which God intends us to be in relationship and loving for its own sake as well. Perhaps God’s retort to Job can stand for us today and in these weeks as well: “Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?” Let’s keep diving into that challenge from our Creator.
With Thanksgiving for the Life of Greta Karen Hammonds
June 24, 1939 + September 9, 2016
Exodus34:6-7a; Psalm23; 1Corinthians13:4-13
This is about love. It’s a gathering about love. It’s ultimately about the love of God in Christ Jesus, as we’ll say more later. But firstly you’re here for love because you loved Greta or because she loved you. Those may be bonds of family, or chosen ties of friendship, or relationships with some sort of care, that you received or gave or even simply observed. Through that, in some way, this isn’t general loveliness, but is the very specific love you connect with Greta.
Now, I’m at a disadvantage for only having met her once, and only knowing small bits from her sister Jean, so I’d like to hear maybe in a word or a sentence some of the ways you associate love with Greta. (Things mentioned: family, she cried when I left home, marrying into a great family, she babysat my children, community table meals, the cat lady, potato salad.)
I’ve heard she was giving, that she was very generous in sharing what she had and not keeping it for herself. I’ve heard she always gave hearts each year as Christmas presents, a sure symbol of love. I’ve heard she took care of her mother at the end of her life. I’ve heard she cared for our country and fellow citizens in working the polls. So there are these things to recall, memories to cherish, stories for telling and reminding each other in these days (and that’s an important part of the reception and chance to share more of this after worship) and it’s also for understanding that they continue to shape you, as you embody this love of Greta in an ongoing way.
This is some of what we heard in 1st Corinthians and why we heard it. It’s most common as a wedding reading, but with Greta we can see it as a frame for all of life in our relationships. This is how things are supposed to work and what our connections ought to be like.
Of course, it can also seem sort of idealized, that we’re not always patient or kind and don’t always do the right thing and sometimes just can’t endure it. That is true for me, and I’m sure for you, and I know it was true for Greta, too, because it’s unfortunately just how we are, just true for all of us, as much as we try and as good as we may be.
But that’s also exactly why we heard the couple of brief Bible verses from Exodus, where there’s sort of a message that if it were easy and we didn’t have to keep struggling at it, then it wouldn’t really be love. These verses where God models and promises love, steadfast love, love that lasts through the generations, and God can do that precisely because love must be slow to anger and faithful in striving for forgiveness, this kind of love from God is exactly because we need it.
This is the point in the Bible story leading up to these verses. God makes this strong declaration and promise at a surprising moment in the story; it comes just after the people had made the golden calf, that premier example of idolatry and turning away from God, and Moses was furious at them, and all of this even as they were right at the foot of Mount Sinai where God was giving them the 10 Commandments. Even with that direct and present reminder, still they could blow it.
But that sure wasn’t the first time; it seemed all too natural for their history in this story. Before that golden calf, the people were complaining about wandering in the wilderness and grumbling about the miracle of manna that kept them nourished day after day. And before that, before the escape through the Red Sea and the plagues striking Pharaoh and all the wonders of God’s work to save them, of love as this ongoing salvation project, before that they were complaining even that they didn’t want to be freed from slavery.
Which is all to say that these weren’t easily loveable people. For all the blessings that surrounded them, they weren’t always appreciative. As God is promising and practicing steadfast love through their generations, we can’t help but notice they weren’t especially holy or nice or smart. And all too often they could be lousy, nasty, curmudgeonly boneheads. But through their best and their not-so-good, God promised to love them anyway, and kept at it, with enduring patience and more.
That’s true of love and Greta, as well, in all those things you named about her and so much more, for all the really remarkable care and tender affection, and also for when that fell short or fell apart for some reason. It’s true in your relationships with her, maybe in very small ways or maybe really dominant ways. It’s true in love that spreads throughout family and across the years.
And it’s especially still true of God’s love. See, we gather today because of love. We gather because love isn’t the same as understanding all the answers, not the same as everything working out just how we wish, not the same as everything going right. But we gather because of love. We gather to celebrate relationships and what has gone well, of life well lived and enjoyed. We also gather to lament the things that haven’t gone that way, most especially that you are separated from the love of Greta, and that there isn’t any good, clear reason of why that is, of why she died now, or why any of us need to face the loss and pain of death.
But this love isn’t an explanation or a solution. This love will lead Greta and you with her into light and life, but in the meantime it goes through the darkness of the valley of the shadow of death, because that’s what love does.
We gather because love endures. Just as we heard, it persists in promise to the thousandth generation. That means it’s for Greta and her siblings. It’s for her parents, back to old times in Stoughton, and beyond that back to Norway and wherever else. It’s back to the very beginning, and it’s also forward, to you six children of hers, and your families, and on to generations so distant yet to come.
And for all the interruptions and disruptions, for all the disappointments and desperations, for Greta and for yourself you may be faithfully confident that nothing now, nothing in your past, nothing yet to come will be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. For that amazing promise, all that’s left is to say Amen.
a reflection for a day of service
Welcome to worship, or welcome back to worship, as you’ve been off working on service projects. Besides this reflection, though, those projects may in themselves be worship.
To think faithfully about what constitutes worship, a frame might be in German terminology, where this gathering is known as Gottesdienst. It’s a fun almost play on words (if ever before the sprechen of Deutsch has been referred to as “fun”). Gottesdienst is literally translated as “God-service.” The play on words is in the tension of whether we are serving God or God is serving us. (In typical faithful paradox, the answer is probably “both!” A similar tension exists in the Old English origins of our word “worship,” which was fully “worthy-ship.” Our usual sense of worshipping God is that we offer praise, but this is also the venue for God making us worthy.)
With the Gottesdienst or God-service version as a good frame for this morning’s various projects, the play on words gets complicated when we add some pronouns and prepositions into the mix. It’s not just a matter of God serving us or of our service to God. It is also God serving “them” (to choose a broadly generic third person pronoun), and—still a notch more for playing with the words—it is God serving them through us, plus we serve others for Christ’s sake.
In another twist amid this already complex mix, as we understand God with us and embodied in us, we’re left with the question of where to identify Christ’s presence. With the “what would Jesus do” sense and when we describe behavior as Christ-like, we say that when we do good things, we are acting like Jesus. But also central to our faithful understanding is that what we do, we do to Jesus, in the “as you did it to the least of my sisters and brothers, you did it to me” verse (Mt25:40). There, Jesus may identify himself even more closely with those who need help than with those helping. In the upcoming Bible reading (Luke 15:1-10), then, God may be identified both with lost and finder, and we may equally be shepherds for God or sheep needing to be found.
One final bit of ambiguity to throw at you. I really appreciate the phrase, “God’s work, our hands.” It is the ELCA’s motto, the catchphrase of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and it’s a good one. But just like the good UCC motto of “God is still speaking,” it leaves ambiguity. Not everything we say is God’s speech, and not all that our hands do belongs to God. So what does? We might claim our projects today as godly—in quilts and advocacy and tending creation and all. What about what else you’ve done this morning, in getting your family ready and preparing breakfast and driving on streets and singing hymns and greeting others and even breathing? How do we see these more as God’s work for or through your hands? How can we consider all these layers of reality of your life and God’s more fully intertwined?
The breadth of the question is indicated in a poem I’d like to share. In spite of “God’s work, our hands” being a phrase claimed by modern Lutherans, this 550-year old poem is by a Spanish Catholic mystic, Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours
In daily toil for daily bread
we sweat and strive ‘til we are dead.
With nothing new under the sun,
our chores and tasks are never done.
So the question still must lurk:
what gains are there in our work?
Yet even as we wonder “why?”
we may still be quite satisfied.
The jobs well done and lessons learned
are even more than paychecks earned.
Confidence we can do right
certifies our rest at night.
We do not just receive profits
but share our labors in service.
In roles of living as we should
our skills enrich the common good.
Through varied talents and arts
we are Christ’s own body parts.
Equipped for big tasks and small things
our vocations are God’s calling.
In office, neighborhood, or home
we are employed for God’s kingdom.
Inspired and sent across lands
we do God’s work with our hands.
Trying to capture various senses of “work,” this moves from the fairly unhappy realism of Ecclesiastes, toward contentment of Proverbs, on to Paul’s views of shared and mutual responsibility, until finally the broadest sense of Christian vocation throughout life.
With Thanksgiving for the Life of Ruth Eleanor Mithus Olson
March 3, 1918 + September 2, 2016
Genesis9:9-16; Psalm23; 1Corinthians13:7-10,12-13; John10:1-6
The good shepherd and good gatekeeper has called Ruth home.
I’m typically reluctant to say that. It’s a phrase that can be misused or can give a nasty image of a vengeful or capricious God, who one day decides we’re fine here, but then suddenly interrupts life to whisk us off someplace else. Generally I disagree with that, and even in this specific instance we still have to confess and confront death as an interruption and sorrow; we can never say life is better without Ruth around, that it was her time to go and so now we just need to deal with God wanting her elsewhere.
Yet I should come to terms with that phrase. After all, this isn’t just a popular concept trying to explain away death. No, it’s even right there in our funeral liturgy: in the prayer of the day we prayed just a couple minutes ago, we were asking God for confidence and hope to sustain us until “by your call, we are gathered to our heavenly home in the company of all your saints.” So in spite of my trying to toy with and argue about the helpfulness or positive side of it, and my theological grumbling (which I hope you can hear with a playful twinkle in my eye, as well), if ever there were a time for this notion of God calling someone home, it’s now and it’s for Ruth.
98 years. And 98 very good years. 98 years with lots of smiles and laughter and joking, and this family’s characteristic playful jibes. 98 years of strong health, and an end that came quickly and without long suffering. 98 years of productive life, whether we count that in secretarial work, or count it as weeks traveling with family each summer, or count the fruitfulness of 98 years in being a wonderful mother, or the 30 years of marriage, or even the 47 years as a widow and in spite of that loss for how full life still was.
Certainly I’d be eager to count the 56 of those 98 years that marked Ruth’s time as a charter member of this congregation, now leaving only Karen in that category. That’s not just the mark of beginning- and endpoints, but the span of all that happened in this place amid those years, recalling the bigger marks of pastors who have come and gone and preached sermons for her and offered her communion. It’s the myriad of hymns she sang and anthems in choir and the zillions of prayers of that long and faithful life. It’s the stitches in practically countless quilts and the way that thread continues forward, from a well-tended past even in these weeks to prepare for more quilts to be shared and sent, to wrap around unknown and unimaginable bodies across this world.
And Ruth’s years are marked not only by the humor and joyful conversations, but also the simple happening of relationships in this body of Christ, this communion of saints, the mutual conversation and consolation of the sisters and brothers, as Luther termed it, those very visits and unspectacular moments of interaction, gathered where Jesus himself has promised to be present in our midst. Those were surely part of Ruth’s strong connections here over the years, and continued right up to the last bulletin that Mary Maxwell delivered and the last prayers that Martha Nack offered. All of this, in its most mundane and so very regular reality is exactly where God is present in our lives, where God is incarnate and continued to be embodied in Ruth, for Ruth, and for us. All of this is well worth celebrating the 98 years and this moment where she is called to the next new awareness, where we will live no longer by faith and seeing in mirrors dimly but will know it face-to-face.
But that also raises another side of this whole idea of being called home, of this good shepherd and good gatekeeper who tended to Ruth so well in her life and even now gathers her up into his arms to carry her home. It is one of the first things you were able to say about this moment, Karen, and I fully agree with you.
Jesus said, “I call my own sheep by name. They follow me because they know my voice.” Well, I’m especially excited about that for Ruth. Because the first time I went to visit her was my first week here, when David Keesey-Berg took me to Oakwood for the introduction. Now, David has a good voice. We know his voice and his stories and his faithful words. And Ruth recognized his voice. But whatever I tried to say—maybe because of my tone or pitch or volume—she didn’t recognize my voice.
On the next visit, Ruth and I talked about quite a bit. Well, I talked. But the only thing she could hear and understand was who I was. She kept repeating, with a smile and a nod, “So you’re Pastor Nick.”
On a subsequent visit, she was out in the dining room, and just as it’s uncomfortable to try to shout at you here, I found it wasn’t easy to try to make myself heard by Ruth as others were eating their lunch.
Sometimes Ruth would hear bits and other times she wouldn’t understand what we were saying to her. Sometimes she would recognize, and other times voices would go unheard.
And so I celebrate this moment for Ruth and this reality of faith. I celebrate because her good shepherd has called her and she recognized his voice, this voice of Jesus who will bring her home forever. I rejoice that what was lost will be restored, both in life laid down in order to be renewed in the resurrection forever, but also the restoration from hearing loss so she can once again recognize voices and offer those jokes back to her family.
Besides this future hope, though, when you’ll be reunited with Ruth, and when I’ll at long last be able to have a conversation with her and not try to shout or wish we could better understand each other, besides such heavenly hope, I celebrate today that Ruth recognized the voice of Jesus and heard his call. This voice called her in baptism so very long ago, nearly a century ago. As the promise after the flood with a rainbow, an everlasting promise of blessing, for human and all creation, so the flood of baptismal waters made that call specifically to Ruth, an assurance from God no matter what. That voice continued to call even when her own ears weren’t hearing well, still continuing to call her heart and spirit. That voice called throughout 98 years with the reassuring promise of care and compassion, of faith, hope, and love, a voice that would not let up through bad times or good, through gain or loss, through life or death. That voice has been always calling her to find her home in this promise, and that’s the voice that will call her and eventually you with her out from death to follow into life forever. Amen
Holidays can be in flux. Some are well-observed. Some just pass by. Some are religious (like Christmas, at least sorta and originally). Some are secular but offer religious connections (like Thanksgiving, with President Lincoln’s proclamation of praise for our “beneficent Creator”). Personally, I’m in favor of claiming more from the neglected Labor Day holiday.
More than a last hurrah of summer or a transition into busy school years, we Christians who are dedicated to carrying out God’s work in our lives and in our world should well celebrate Labor Day. We believe our labors are part of the immense shared community of creation, each in some way caring for and serving the others, each with our unique capabilities. When a work situation falls short of that standard by being demeaning, coerced, or unfairly compensated, we argue for better. We can do no other.
Also in that way, we don’t limit some callings as holier or see work as only serving to get a paycheck. Martin Luther rightly understood that some of the most consistent and God-given of our vocations are those that take place in our homes and amid our family. Even if those aren’t the easiest, most well-acclaimed, or best-compensated, within that close proximity of our relationships is the primary venue where love is shared and life is sustained, which is the fundamental character of God’s work in our world.
Besides blessings for and celebrations of Labor Day, at MCC we’ll continue part of our observance a week later with “God’s work, Our hands” Sunday on September 11 as we join together in volunteering on a variety of service projects and missional tasks.
sermon on Philemon 1-21, Luke 14:25-33
Hate your family. Sell your possessions. Choose death. These aren’t easy words from Jesus. I adjusted the order of readings not to distract you from them, but to help us hear them in a frame of context. So we’re going to explore the little letter to Philemon. The bonus is, in spite of being only one chapter long, it has some of the most power of anything in our Bibles. We’ll break it apart as we go.
“1Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus…” Already a first break. Paul labels himself a prisoner, and not a prisoner of Roman imperial powers or a prisoner for Christ, but a prisoner of Jesus. With recurring themes of authority and power, Paul immediately begins by claiming a place of weakness, and that somehow our faith confines our options.
“1Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus and Timothy our brother, to Philemon our dear friend and co-worker…” Okay, two things on those titles for Philemon in the Greek original. First, it’s not actually “dear friend” but “beloved.” This letter is filled with love, five times in 25 verses, and three more times with our very heart or core emotions. The letter is about a community of mutual love, so this is an important reminder for Philemon right away, that he is loved and therefore may show love. For the term “co-worker,” (though I can’t keep interrupting for this) it’s fun that the actual Greek word for co-worker is “synergizer.” The Latin form would be “collaborator.” Maybe just some good connections to keep in mind amid this Labor Day weekend.
To Philemon and “2to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house: 3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Two notes on this. First, this is a letter to Philemon, but it’s written to be read with the whole church, the congregation gathered together, at that time not in a church building, but in a home. And this was Philemon’s home; he hosted the church gathering, which tells us something about his financial and social station.
Next, also notice Paul’s greeting of grace and peace. It’s a liturgical kind of formula. As we gather in worship, we repeat these refrains of Scripture. They shape and set the tone for our gathering.
In typical letter-writing style, Paul continues from the address to thanksgiving: “4When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God 5because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus.” A really big detail with this section, which we can’t even hear in English. Suddenly the word “you” switches from plural to singular. With this thanksgiving, Paul switches from talking to the whole congregation instead only to addressing Philemon. In English, we can only hear this if we say “y’all” or “yous guys” for the plural.
In a way, that functions well for sermons. See, when I say, for example, “God loves you,” it may be that God loves all of you, but you can hear it specifically for you, yourself. On the other hand, you may not prefer it if I called you out and to task, saying you aren’t living as a follower of Jesus should. That’s exactly what this letter is going to go on to do, though, in addressing Philemon solely and specifically, even though that conversation will happen in the midst of the assembly. Still, for now, it’s also good to note that Paul isn’t laying down the law but is praising Philemon, for his “love for all the saints” and his “faith toward the Lord Jesus.” Even more, Paul thanks God for this love, since this love is produced by God.
The thanksgiving continues, “6I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.” I want to pause with this verse because it really aligns the rest of the letter, yet it’s difficult; almost every Bible translation goes in a different direction with it or tweaks it their own way. Evangelical versions make the “sharing faith” to be telling others about Jesus. But even in this NRSV, it still tries saying Philemon is going to do something “for Jesus,” where really Paul’s perspective is that Jesus does things for us, and Philemon’s going to do this “because of Jesus.”
So let’s try a bit different wording. It’s got another active energy word in this line. Plus the “sharing” idea is koinonia in Greek, the word that gives us fellowship halls and communion tables. It’s about participating in the common good. So let’s rephrase it as, “how your faithful participation will be energized in knowing all the good among us from Christ.” That’s still not simple, I know, but it’s about Jesus motivating more and more of our actions in community. We’ll see when we finally get to the request of the letter what this faithful communion from Jesus is about and what it will mean for Philemon to recognize it in a new, broader way.
Paul concludes the opening thanksgiving and makes the transition to the request in this way: “7I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.” Here’s where the transition hits: “8For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, 9yet 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.” Again, Paul downplays himself—I’m old, I’m constrained in this, I’m not trying to boss you around even if I had the authority and chutzpah to, but rather I appeal to the brotherly love you’re already used to sharing. He’s also making himself weak exactly in order to advocate on behalf of the weak, giving up his power to identify more fully with someone in need.
So here at last is the ask: “10I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.” Actually the name Onesimus waits until the end in the original. Paul leads up by saying, “I’m appealing for my child whom I have begotten in chains: Onesimus.” He first loads on the emphasis of this one who is so dear, so vital, so close to him that he’ll call him his own heart, and only then advocates directly in revealing the identity of Onesimus.
Now, Onesimus sounds like a funny name to us, but it’s even weirder when you know this name is literally the Greek word for “useful.” See, Onesimus was a slave, and slaves didn’t get real names but instead were named for a task or quality, like usefulness to their masters. But Paul is going to use this useful name. He continues: “11Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.” This is where the request gets complicated. Historically, it’s presumed that Onesimus was a runaway slave and that somehow he had found or come to Paul. So what is Paul supposed to do with the runaway slave, particularly when he has called the master, Philemon, beloved and cherishes him as a co-worker?
Paul continues boldly, “12I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; 14but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.” So Paul is encouraging a good deed from Philemon. Would it be to go easy on Onesimus? Though slavery in Greco-Roman culture wasn’t quite like on plantations in the American south, still a captured slave was legally required to be returned, and then might be punished or even killed. Paul has said he loves Onesimus as a child, as his heart, but is still going to send him back to be useful to Philemon. Will Paul asking for an uncoerced good deed convince Philemon not to do the worst against his slave? Are you sensing a risk for Onesimus?
Well, it’s going to get flipped upside-down. Paul declares, “15Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16no 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. 17So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” Wow. Wow. First, the sidenote that Paul doesn’t say this was all part of God’s plan that Onesimus ran away or why this dangerous thing happened, but that they can make something good out of it.
And for that—again, with a “wow”—Paul isn’t just asking Philemon to go easy on Onesimus, not just to limit the legal punishment as his runaway slave is returned. No. Paul asks Philemon to receive Onesimus not as a slave, but as a brother, or even as if Paul himself were coming. And that’s as a partner—again the koinonia word, but here even in a business partner sense. Philemon is asked not to see himself as a master with authority, but to see each other as equals in love. The one who was useless and maybe even met with ill-will instead would be useful as a chance to practice what we preach.
This is what the community of mutual love has to mean, in Paul’s view. This is what Jesus does to us and for us. This is the only way for us to understand each other, not only as equally loved in God’s eyes, but actually to love each other in that same way. Being part of a Christian community reorganizes all our relationships and our whole outlook on the world, sometimes with dramatic consequences or financial implications.
This is how we may be hearing some of what Jesus so shockingly declared in our Gospel reading. Our faith has results for how we view each other, how we treat our lives, for what we intend with our possessions. We can’t claim more for ourselves at others’ expense, so faith really costs us something. And when we’re desperate, this community should enter our weakness. It eliminates hierarchy, tending the need or also making us vulnerable in striving on behalf of each other, our heart, our sister and brother, our children, our very life. It was certainly a carefully considered cross to choose for Philemon. And this is the amazing trajectory in front of us when the love of Jesus is our guide.
This is an enormous and beautiful view of the extremely difficult thing that Jesus is working among us when we gather in this faithful communion, to be energized in participating in mutual love. It’s no mushy-gushy thing, as Paul himself realizes the ongoing effort and consequences in living on each other’s behalf. With the thorny question of what forgiveness does and doesn’t forget, Paul knows it may cost him, too, as he says, “18If [Onesimus] has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. 19I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.”
That last seems like a bit of a back-handed zinger, so I’d like to consider how Paul addresses this. Since he’s talking to Philemon in front of the whole congregation, it could well seem like he’s guilt-tripping him. Even as he keeps saying that he’s not forcing Philemon to do the right thing, it could feel that he really is. There’s some of this that probably fits normally with preaching. If you’re like me, there are times you have some guilty feeling or personal awareness that you’ve not been doing what you should as a follower of Jesus or practicing what we preach, where you’re not all that loving. Then, indeed, it is a call rightfully insisting on a change of behavior.
But it’s also amazing that Paul must admit he can’t force his Christian ethics on Philemon. He invites him to reflect on what we believe. But even more than that, Paul really seems to trust that this is God’s work. Just as in the thanksgiving—that God is to be thanked for the love Philemon had already shown—we can trust that God will work more of it. The God who can bring resurrection out from death and new life out from your way of the cross certainly will undo the chains of slavery and will work fresh beginnings in our relationships. Paul finishes that way in the last verses of the lectionary reading: “20Yes, brother, let me have this benefit [this “usefulness”!] from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. 21Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”
He really does believe it. It takes seriously that faith must be active and ultimately true for our hard situations in life. It is going into the midst of conflict and even of death, but trusting that mutual love will continue and life in Jesus will come through. And Paul rightly knows that his own faith will be refreshed, his heart will be enlivened as Philemon acts in love. That’s true now, too, that it’s not only what we ourselves ought to do, but how we’re energized to love when we witness love, when we know somebody has done the right thing, when we have these glimpses of what God’s work can accomplish, that rejuvenates our heart.
The lectionary reading ended there, but since there are only a couple lines left in the letter and since it has some surprising follow-up celebration and ends with sharing blessings, including for you, you might as well hear it: “22One thing more—prepare a guest room for me, for I am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you. 23Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, 24and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers. 25The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.” Amen