5th Sep, 2004

The Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost

8am Low mass, 10.30am High Mass

Lections:
Jer 18: 1-11 potter’s wheel
Philemon 1-21 Onesimus
St Luke 14: 25-33 leave father and mother

We have heard this morning from the oft-neglected Epistle of Blessed Paul the Apostle to Philemon. That entire Epistle, just twenty-five verses long, is concerned with the plight of one young man, in his late teens or early twenties, named Onesimus. Onesimus was a slave owned by an Elder in the Christian Community at Laodicea, a man by the name of Philemon to whom this Epistle is addressed. Moreover the slave Onesimus, the subject of the Epistle, at some previous juncture had robbed and then deserted Philemon’s household. We do not know the circumstances nor the details of the events but eventually Onesimus finds himself in Rome, —perhaps he is avoiding recognition by the authorities by hiding among the street rabble and crowds, perhaps he’s afraid of capture, torture and almost certain execution. But by some circuitous route, I don’t know, perhaps he thinks he can pull a fast one in another soft-touch Christian household and burgle yet another gullible Christian, only this time he comes into contact, not with a Ned Flanders who might be naïve to what is going on, but with the Blessed Apostle Paul himself. If Onesimus had planned a confidence-trick to inveigle his way into yet another wealthy Christian household Onesimus was to be thwarted on this occasion on a number of fronts. Crucially and most significantly St Paul was himself under house arrest at the time awaiting trial and probably didn’t have a great deal, apart from the odd Epistle or fifteen to the Corinthians lying around, that might be stolen. But importantly, and again we don’t know the details, through this contact with the Apostle Onesimus is converted and becomes a member of the Christian Community in Rome. Along with this series of events, the original theft, the escape from Laodicea, the hitch-hiking to Rome, the possible deceptions, the planned bid for freedom and now this singularly inconvenient conversion (because God works like that) there arises a profound dilemma for Onesimus. It’s a dilemma that exercises the Apostle Paul also because it involves both the newly converted lad and an old and much-loved friend, the respected Elder of the Church at Laodicea, Philemon. You see, according to contemporary law Philemon had every right to exact retribution against his escaped slave in just about any conceivable way. Even as an honourable and upright Christian Philemon might have been expected to make an example of Onesimus by having him tortured and publicly executed for what he had done.

For his part the Christian Onesimus (and Christian faith, by the way, which some people think is some kind of a cop-out is THE BIGGEST PROBLEM HERE) for his part Onesimus is now bound to fulfil the civil and legal obligations, not only must he restore Philemon’s stolen property but, most frighteningly, he must turn himself in and face the consequences of his desertion and so St Paul pens his Epistle on behalf of his new born child in the Christian faith, the young Onesimus.

‘Liberty and liberation’, ‘freedom’ and ‘rights’ are all words that have taken on a great deal of significance in our culture in the last forty to fifty years. But alas the way these words are interpreted as “Doing your own thing,” “living your own life,” “finding my own way,” my own KARMA in the Absolutely Fabulous fashion you want to, with all those lovely commodities and expensive accessories that your credit can buy- that seems to have become the current orthodoxy. In such a view religion, the practice of faith and MYSTERY are reduced to their constituent parts, which would appear to have become no more than personal choice, mere whimsy, my taste and my individual preference- and that really annoying phrase that Christians should pause before we ever utter “what I am comfortable with”. Spend half an hour in Borders or Barnes and Noble in the now compulsory ‘self-help’ section, it’s a huge industry and there appears to be a lot of money available in that area.

This customer driven, free market shopping mall of preferences appears to reduce us to nothing more than walking currency, your value is prescribed and decided by “how much are you worth to me, what can I get out of you.” There are no real selves in such a world, only consumers; no truths, only stories, no shared history, only competing ideologies; no God, only studies of religious phenomenon. Yet that ancient, pre-Enlightenment world of the newly converted Onesimus, where people were actually bought and sold in that vile practice of slavery, where prices were fixed on your head, where men, women and children could be traded, tortured and treated in the most barbaric, brutal fashion is where the roots of the Christian Mystery found fertile soil. It was a world of mysteries and paradoxes, sometimes-quiet evasions but also prophetic judgement. St Paul, who is sometimes criticised for not speaking out with a twenty-first century liberal voice against slavery, DID speak with a prophetic judgement and taught us that in Christ there is no Jew nor Gentile, no slave nor free person, but Christ is all in all.

So. How might we be healed by judgement? A judgement edged with hope and mercy. God will not accept our judgement of how things should be divided up, slaves and free, in and out, fashionable and unfashionable; God does not accept the appearance of things, neither in their apparent coldness nor their apparent sweetness. And God does not accept that our rottenness of heart is all there is to say about us. But there is a chancy richness of humanity crying out for love and truth, for God and eternity, for healing and grace.

Really I want to read a list of men and women, while we are still thinking about liberty and healing and freedom: Dr Martin Luther King, Bartolome De Las Casas, Dorothy Day, Mother Mary Jones of America, Father Pedro Arrupe, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mother Ruby Sales, Sister Joan Chittister and Leonardo Boff
“…all these witness that God is in Christ reconciling the world to Himself— may their prayers and those of all the saints’ help us to proclaim the good news of God’s love that ALL may hear and be drawn to God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.”

 

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