September 8, 2019
Rev. Isaac Bradshaw
Philemon and Luke 14:25-34
In the world of science fiction, alternative histories have a long and distinguished career. As early as 1937, authors as diverse as Philip Roth, Katherine Burdekin and Harry Turtledove have imagined a history of humanity that took a slightly different turn. From potboilers and pulp fiction to works that enter the critical canon, these authors and imagineers help give us a glimpse of “What if?”
For example, novels and long-form television like The Man in the High Castle” and the novel “Fatherland” imagine a world in which the Axis powers conquer the globe. Not to give anything away, but neither book is very pleasant.Both break off from the actual historical narrative at the Normandy beaches on D-Day. America is either destroyed and occupied or neutral, Imperial Japan and the Nazis are locked in a kind of Cold War. Jews and other minorities are persecuted or have been exterminated. The plots of both revolve around resistance fighters to the order of life under the Axis powers.
There’s “The Red Moon,” a What-if? docudrama that tries to imagine the present-day world if the Soviet Union had reached the moon before the United States. Or one my favorite video games: the Fallout series, which imagines a world where, instead of focusing on transistors and the shrinking of technology as in our history, nuclear energy became the focus, and the world is filled with in-home fusion reactors and atomic-powered cars, with fins and convertible tops and everything. What if? My personal favorite is “Worldwar” by Harry Turtledove, in which aliens invade during World War II in 1941. It’s… Exactly as bonkers as you think it is.
I have to admit that my mind began wandering to the What ifs of history as I read St. Paul’s letter to Philemon. Here, we see Paul, sitting in jail, writing to his brother in Christ Philemon, returning Onesimus, a runaway slave, converted to the Way and now a close companion of Paul. Slavery is mentioned as an aside, an accepted practice, though Paul encourages Philemon to treat Onesimus as the brother he is, just as Philemon would treat Paul.
It’s worth remembering that under Roman law, a runaway slave was entirely without rights of protection or appeal from his or her master. A master who captured a runaway slave had virtually unlimited power over the slave; torture and even execution were not uncommon. Compounding this problem is the apparent facts of Onesimus’ running away: it is suggested, but not made clear, that Onesiums has stolen money from Philemon.
So I can’t imagine what must be going through Paul’s mind as he wrote a letter returning Onesimus to Philemon. Would he get a letter back, saying not to worry, that Onesimus is free, debt wiped away? Or would find out from word of mouth, that Philemon exacted his punishment under the law? I believe the text makes clear that Paul strongly urges Philemon to free Onesimus, but that is by no means a certain reading of the text.
What mischief could be avoided if Paul had simply said, “No more slaves, free them all.” Think of it, a clear and convincing statement from Scripture… No destruction of the North American native peoples under Spanish colonization; no Atlantic Slave trade under English and, I’d remind you, American colonization. By 1890, four hundred years after colonization began, the native population of North America declined to just 250,000. It only took 30 years of British colonization in Tasmania to render the native population there completely extinct. There are, today, no full blooded Tasmanian aborigines in the world. An entire people group. Extinct. Gone. Anglicans did that. Christians did that. People reading this letter and saying nearly * these same prayers* did that.
Would it have mattered?
I’m not sure it would. The human mind has an extraordinary ability to conceive of moral depravity. Despite our laws, our agreements, our treaties, our understandings between one another, we exist today in a world created by our systemic and personal sin. Much of our political and social discourse is consumed by concerns of trying to eliminate systemic sin from our national communities. I need not rehearse with you the ways in which American society has perpetrated and continues to perpetuate injustice on the weakest of us. But we make a mistake in proposing that simply getting the rules right will somehow make us better people, will somehow make our communities stronger or our world more just. It ain’t gonna happen.
If you’ll permit me to go a little Freudian, we live in a social order in which the superego, that part of our personalities that crave structure, right and wrong, has gone crowd sourced. Instead of looking for God or community or even the rules of the physical universe for our internal sense of right and wrong, we look to the things we *buy*. We become the type of person who owns these shoes, or the type of person who has this hobby, or the type of person who has this cellphone, or car, or connects with this fandom or that. And if that’s not bad enough, we need not actually do or own those things, we just have to convince others that we * could* be the type of person who owns these things. Our internal rule becomes the misrule of our stuff. And when it goes bad, when people stop being convinced that we are the type of person we say that we are… Well, that’s why we do active shooter drills in schools now.
Our craving for a rule from Paul is a craving for something we are missing from ourselves. As I always say… The problem is not Paul, the problem is us. Because *we will never get the rules right.* Never. We cannot deceive ourselves into thinking if we do this, or we don’t do that, if we adopt this discipline or this way of life, or this rule set or that rule set, everything will be fine. We’ll never be able to get enough prayer back in schools, we will never have enough prayer out of schools, we will never have low enough taxes or high enough taxes, we will never be pro-life enough or pro-choie enough, wewill never march enough or counter-march enough, we will never have enough Supreme Court justices for this side or that side, no amount of 10 commandments in courthouses or on capitol buildings will ever impress God, and none of that will ever make us love one another perfectly. It does not work like that, we do not work like that. This is not Christian teaching, it is magic. God, the ultimate Law Giver, is not impressed with our rules and God is certainly not impressed with our feeble attempts to live up to our rules. We will always be Onesimus, running away from our Master, stealing from the one who created what we have in the first place.
Because Paul gives us a rule: love. He writes: If you, Philemon, love me, then you will love Onesimus. If you, Philemon, love Jesus, then a slave is going to take your place by my side. And Paul writes to us, today: If you love Jesus, then we must love one another. We must allow the slave to take our place. We give up the stuff that defines us, the stuff we think is going to give us our internal rule, and we love another.
Living this way means giving it all. Nothing gets held back. Nothing gets set aside for later. That’s it. All or nothing. Anyone who says, “No, no, this doesn’t need Jesus, this part of our life isn’t really running away from the Master” is selling you something. But the Gospel, the good news, the faith that I have coming out of this story, as weak and ill-formed as it is, is that the Master *always* welcomes back the runaway. The Master always clears the account. The Master always frees us.
It costs us, though. That’s what Jesus is saying in Luke. We don’t get to run back to the Master with all the things we bought with His money. We don’t get to enjoy the fruits we stole and be in the Master’s service at the same time. Our response to the gospel, as meager as it is, is to love. And to love means giving up self. Giving up the rules, giving up the structures, giving up the self-righteous assumption that what we have is from our own hands, an assumption that we falsely and foolishly choose over a life living in Christ. That is how we respond to the brokeness of our society.
As you may have heard, this year is the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of African slaves on North American shores with its horrors of the slave ships, the middle passage, of children being tom from parents in the slave auctions, of Jim Crow and the astounding statistic that an African American student is twice as likely to be expelled from school than white or hispanic students. It’s the 80th anniversary of the invasion of Poland, and the commitant horrors of the Katyn Forest, of Nanjing, Auschwitz and Hiroshima. We, all of us, corporately and singlely, have our hands in the horrors that stalk our corporate memories and our waking lives. We have stolen from the Master.
We have stolen life, money, we have tried to steal our own souls from ourselves. We can simply shrug our shoulders and say, “Whaddya gonna do?” or… We can run back towards the master. We can give up our own comfortableness, our own inertia with the way things are. We can reject the idea that getting the rules right will solve all our problems. We can never undo the tragedy of400 years. We will always live with the knowledge that our hands once gripped the coins that belong to another. But we can do something.
We can run towards the Master. Amen.