FUMC News

"When the Promise Is Wrecked"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 7/15/2018

 

 
II Chronicles 36:15-20
“When the Promise Is Wrecked”
July 15, 2018
                             
            When a sports team takes a championship, the fans start shouting this like, “We did it!  We did it!”  When they calm down just a little bit, they may start singing,
 
“We are the champions, my friend! 
We’ll keep on fighting ’til the end! 
We are the champions, we are the champions! 
No time for losers,
’cause we are the champions
of the world!”[1]
 
Of course, when the season ends poorly, what you hear is, “They blew it again,” or, “Game three is where they went wrong.”
 
            The Chronicler records a national disaster far worse than losing the Stanley Cup.  The Chronicler writes about how Israel was destroyed and how Judah failed to learn any lessons from that disaster.  How did a people who started out with such promise, and to whom God himself had pledged support, end up nothing but a wreck?  It is too much to bear to say, “What happened to us?”  Let’s look, says the Chronicler, at them.  He gives a recap:
 
“The Lord, the God of their ancestors, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling-place; but they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words, and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord against his people became so great that there was no remedy.”
 
It wasn’t that God broke his promises.  It was that the people broke away from his promises.  God said that he would be with them, but they said they didn’t need his help, thanks.  So he let them go.
 
“Therefore he brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their youths with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion on young man or young woman, the aged or the feeble; he gave them all into his hand. All the vessels of the house of God, large and small, and the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king and of his officials, all these he brought to Babylon. They burned the house of God, broke down the wall of Jerusalem, burned all its palaces with fire, and destroyed all its precious vessels. He took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons…”
 
Notice here, it is not only the nation that suffers – and that suffering is profound – but God also suffers.  Their homes are destroyed and their children carried away.  So, too, is the Temple, which they understood as the House of God (often in very literal terms) is destroyed and pillaged.  Judah and Jerusalem are leveled and God loses his own people, with those who survive turned into slaves.  This is a massive failure for God himself.
 
           How do you make sense of that?  If you’re honest, you cannot pretend it didn’t happen.  Jack Miles won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for a book called God: A Biography.  It has a chapter called “Does God Fail?” that opens with the question
 
“If the rupture of the covenant and the resulting genocide are only too obviously a catastrophe in the life of Israel, what are they in the life of God?”[2]
 
The Chronicler’s explanation of Israel and Judah’s failure was that God was going back to the start, as he had done with people across the ages.  He looked at the words of Jeremiah, who had seen the trouble coming, and who said something that moved the Chronicler to look beyond what was in front of him, and to break out of the tunnel-vision that comes in the midst of grief.  Jeremiah said:
 
“Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.  For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” [Jeremiah 29:10-11]
 
That, said the Chronicler, was what was happening.  God was going to let the land lie there as a time that it would be fallow, getting a necessary rest for the new start that was to come.  It was, he said, as if the land were keeping a Sabbath.
 
            The human heart, too, needs to lie fallow at times.  Everyone’s life is filled with failures of all types, and the pain that comes with them.  We have to live with it to discover what is going on in a larger way.  People who hide from their troubles in substance abuse or in their work or by jumping from relationship to relationship or never looking away from a screen: they never let reality sink in long enough to discover that God is with them in the shadow as well as in the sunlight.
 
           The story of God and his people, with the shared sense of loss and the changes, for good or for ill, that arise through them, is a shared experience in all respects.   When I was very young I had a friend who was born one month before me and who lived three doors away, so we grew up together.  Every year on his birthday, his sister re-posts something she wrote four years ago.
 
“July 8th, 1964 was a life changer for me. My mother placed a beautiful baby boy in my arms and from that moment on I understood unconditional love. My parents graced me with being his god mother and I took that role very seriously. My heart broke 4 1/2 years ago when you passed away. I believe with all of my heart that I did everything I could to save you from your addiction. God had a different plan for both of us. He was instilling strength in me for what was to come.  You are forever in my heart and I thank you for all the lessons you taught me.”
 
I think the Chronicler would have approved of that.  Through suffering, we gain strength, compassion, and wisdom.  I am grateful to say that it is often true, by God’s grace. 
 
           However, there has to be more to it, though, because not everyone comes out of suffering as a better person.  Even those who do often bear scars.  The exiles did return and they did rebuild Jerusalem, but it was not the same as it was.  Nevermore, either, did God work through a nation.  Judah became a province of the Persian Empire, and later of the Greeks and the Romans.  And anyone who tells you that any nation since then has been chosen by God in the same way as David’s kingdom is lying.  No political leader is the Messiah.
 
           God used the time of the exile to let something new spring up, but it would not be a new version of the old nation.  It would be something far, far larger.  It would be the awareness that real salvation, real wholeness, would come from embracing failure, rather than by anything the world would call greatness or success.  Salvation, healing, and hope were all connected to the history of Israel in that it would come, at the right time, in God’s time, through a descendant of David.  But he would not be born in any kind of palace and would not hold any formal office. Far from repeating the glories of the kings who sat on the throne of David and Solomon, he would die abandoned and degraded at the hand of the nation’s occupiers and his people’s oppressors.  The redemption of all the world’s suffering would come when God himself, in Jesus, would take on all the failure and sin of the entire human race on a cross. 
 
           Through that moment of utter failure, not through some grand conquest, he would enter the great exile of death itself to bring back those who lie hopeless, farther even than life, and to gather them once more to himself.
 
“Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you.  When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.” [Jeremiah 29:12-14]
 
That promise is not tied to geography.  It is not conditional on time or place.  Sin is not limited to any ethnic group or nation and neither is salvation.  Look at your own life and wherever you and God parted ways, he is waiting there for you.
 
            The invitation is to be part of a people of new life, not looking back to the good old days.  They are over.  Look ahead, always ahead, walking by faith in the Lord and with trust, and you will find yourself by God’s grace, not only walking but soaring.
 
           
 

[1] from “We Are the Champions” by Freddie Mercury
[2] Jack Miles, God: A Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 187.
"Bureaucracy and Blessing"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 7/8/2018

 

 

I Chronicles 18:14-17, 29:26-30
“Bureaucracy and Blessing”
July 8, 2018
 
            So we continue this summer’s sermon series on the books of the Bible that are most overlooked, and we come to I Chronicles.  I and II Chronicles tend to take a back seat to I and II Kings because they cover a lot of the same territory, but the books of the Kings tell the story of Israel with a focus on – obviously enough – the kings and queens, the movers and shakers, the generals and armies.  The Chronicles include those folks, of course, but are not exclusively focused on them.  The Chronicles remind us that governments and military are made up of people, each of whom plays a part in the histories, and each of whom has a life, even if it doesn’t make headlines.
 
            At the end of I Chronicles there is an appreciation of King David, appropriate and well-earned.
 
“Thus David son of Jesse reigned over all Israel. The period that he reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned for seven years in Hebron and thirty-three years in Jerusalem. He died at a good old age, full of days, riches, and honor; and his son Solomon succeeded him.” [I Chronicles 29:26-28]
 
One thing you pick up as you read the historical books of the Bible is that you cannot count on a king dying peacefully, nor on a smooth succession, nor that whoever steps up to the throne will be competent to rule.
 
            Earlier in the book, though, we read about one of the things about David’s rule that left a good feeling about this period for the people of God was that David paid attention to the organization of his kingdom, put capable administrators in place, and made sure that it was a multigenerational project with on-the-job training for younger folks.
 
“Joab son of Zeruiah was over the army; Jehoshaphat son of Ahilud was recorder; Zadok son of Ahitub and Ahimelech son of Abiathar were priests; Shavsha was secretary; Benaiah son of Jehoiada was over the Cherethites and the Pelethites; and David’s sons were the chief officials in the service of the king.” [I Chronicles 18:15-17]
 
            All of us have had to deal with incompetent or stupid bureaucrats from time to time.  I can still remember a woman who worked for the city of Philadelphia when I submitted a form to reimburse the Frankford Group Ministry for some paint we provided for a neighborhood mural.  The receipt I submitted had a “Sold to” line.  I’d picked it up at the factory and that line read, “Showroom Counter Sale” because it was not on account and they weren’t delivering it.  She would not refund the money to us because the city had agreed to pay the Frankford Group Ministry and obviously this paint was sold to someone named “Showroom Counter Sale”.  There was no arguing with this woman, no reasoning was possible.  I ended up driving back to the factory and having a completely new receipt issued to the Frankford Group Ministry, and then the same woman was suspicious of the date, because the same paint seemed to have been sold to Showroom Counter Sale.  On that one she had to give way, though, because the paper had the right wording.  That’s the kind of stupidity you cannot make up.
 
            On the other hand, consider (for all the times that it drives any of us crazy) all that PennDOT, for example, gets right.  I had my license renewed a few weeks ago, and went to the Malvern office expecting the usual three-hour experience.  They had reworked their system since I was there, and I was in and out in fifteen minutes even though there were people all over the place, taking drivers’ tests and filing registrations and who knows what-all.  The woman at the front desk was handing out the right forms and sending people to the right counters, and everything functioned well.  Maybe I just hit the right time on the right day, but I had a sense of order and productivity that isn’t always associated with government offices.
 
            Things go well when people understand their work, and when there are clear guidelines.
           
“Joab son of Zeruiah was over the army; Jehoshaphat son of Ahilud was recorder; Zadok son of Ahitub and Ahimelech son of Abiathar were priests; Shavsha was secretary; Benaiah son of Jehoiada was over the Cherethites and the Pelethites; and David’s sons were the chief officials in the service of the king.”
 
Recorders and secretaries are important, right there beside the generals and the priests.  We have no idea what Benaiah son of Jehoiada did when he was overseeing those Cherethites and Pelethites, but we can be pretty sure that Jehoshaphat son of Ahilud made sure that they were paid and that Shavsha kept track of the laws they worked under.
 
            Church administration echoes the work done by those ancient administrators, and always has, and buried in the petty details are both long periods of boredom and moments of heroism.  Last Sunday afternoon, I finished reading a fascinating book called Voices of Morebath.[1]  The title sounds like it would be science fiction, but it’s actually an historian’s analysis of the account books of St. George’s church in the village of Morebath in southwestern England over a period of fifty-four years, beginning in 1520, when Henry VIII was still friends with the pope and ending when Shakespeare was ten years old.  Throughout those decades, the place had one priest who audited the books twice a year and made notes about how much wool the church sheep had produced and what it cost to repair the roof and who was in charge of the parish beef-and-beer each summer.  (Don’t even go there…)  He also noted, when royal officials began to confiscate church property, where various items were quietly distributed for safekeeping, and when they were returned years later and in what condition.  Most of it, however, reads like a memorial book, which it was, with thanks for people who left gifts to the church in their wills and notes certifying that the gifts were used for the purposes they were given.
 
            One other thing that happened in both David’s Israel and in that distant corner of Henry VIII’s England was that younger leaders were consciously paired up with older leaders, so that nobody would feel that they had to re-invent the wheel or go into anything unsupported, nor would anybody get stuck in the awful position of holding a job beyond when it was someone else’s turn. 
 
            So here is your chance to be part of that long chain of unsung and sometimes thankless ministry without which nothing worthwhile would ever happen.  This week our Nominations Committee is going to begin its annual duty of matching people’s gifts and graces to jobs that need to be done.  Around the sanctuary are the names of some of the ministries we depend on, with a short description of what they do and space to sign up.  Please do not put your spouse’s name on any of these sheets unless you are prepared to let them know before we contact them.  We are not responsible for what happens in such a case.
 
            Do take a look at them, though, because there are names there already of people whose activities in these areas are recorded in the Bible, so that you know you would be in good company.  Find which one your name belongs on, or talk to me and we will see if we can ask the Lord together about it.
 
            And let me add one more name to past contributors: that of C. Howard Peters.  He headed up a committee that wrote and published a book in 1926 that was called The Story of One Hundred Years of Methodism in Phoenixville, in which he says,
 
“What the future has in store for this society, we may not record.  But to say this is in the hands of God would not be the whole truth.  As God works through the agency of man, His purposes and plans concerning this church will be wrought, according to the obedience, fidelity, and loyalty of those who shall read these lines, and of the generations which shall follow.  …May God be the more honored in the days that are to come, and may their ministry be even more blessed, and their history yet more glorious than thine!”[2]
 
 

[1] Eamon Duffy, Voices of Morebath (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003).
[2] Op. cit., p. 175, 176.
"Facing the Maple Menace"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 7/1/2018
Jonah 1:1-3, 3:1-5, 4:1-5
“Facing the Maple Menace”
July 1, 2018
 
            The year was 1995.  It was six years since the Berlin Wall was ripped down.  Michael Moore produced and directed a movie called Canadian Bacon.  The story begins with a U.S. president, played by Alan Alda, realizing that life was simpler in the good old days of the Cold War, cannot convince the Russians to try again.  Then a fight between American and Canadian fans breaks out at a hockey game and his advisers show him how to play it up into a full-blown international incident.  Pretty soon the nightly news is running items like this:
 
 
It’s hard for some people to imagine a world without a constant state of suspicion among nations.
 
            One of those people was Jonah, the central character of a story written down sometime during the eighth century B.C., when the Assyrian Empire, with its capital at Nineveh, was throwing its ugly weight around the Middle East.  They invaded everyone repeatedly, including Israel, which they wiped out as a nation in the year 722 B.C.
 
            We often treat the story of Jonah as a children’s story.  One of the songs in Porgy and Bess scoffs at it.
 
                        “O Jonah, he lived in a whale.
                        Jonah, he lived in a whale.
                        He made his home in
                        A fish’s abdomen,
                        In a whale!”
 
In fact, Jonah only ended up inside the whale because God had told this faithful and patriotic Israelite to go to Nineveh and there, at the center of enemy territory, to declare repentance for their evil ways.  Jonah was trying to get out of that, and God wouldn’t let him off the hook, even if the hook was in a great fish.  At one point Jonah justifies himself to God and lays out the reason why, when God told him to go east, he went west.
 
“I fled to Tarshish at the beginning for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”  [Jonah 4:2]
 
Jonah knew his Bible.  Those are the words of the Psalms that speak of God,
 
“slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love”.
 
That description of God in those exact words appears in Psalm 86:15, Psalm 103:8, and Psalm 145:8.  Jonah had been listening and taking them seriously.  He feared that God might have mercy on Nineveh, and he didn’t want that.  The official line is always that God is on our side, especially in time of war.  But what if, just what if…  ?
 
            Events seem to have justified Jonah’s misgivings.  They also pointed out God’s unwillingness to leave the Assyrians without a chance to change their ways, and God’s determination not to let Jonah’s opposition get in the way. 
 
Eventually, having been swallowed whole and then vomited up onto the shore again, Jonah decided that he had better do what he was told.  Grudgingly, he went to Nineveh, his people’s enemy.
 
“Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk, and he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ [Jonah 3:4]
 
and I suspect he enjoyed that.  It’s always gratifying to tell your enemy on God’s behalf that they are on the brink of destruction.  But then the rest of it came about, the part that Jonah feared.
 
“And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.” [Jonah 3:5]
 
God relented.  God let go of his anger.  God forgave.
 
            Jonah did not.  He became angry at God as well as at the Assyrians.  He was bitter.  He cried,
 
“O Lord, please take my life from me now, for it is better for me to die than to live.” [Jonah 4:3]
 
So he sat down on the ground outside the city, totally despondent, hoping that God would see it his way after all, watching from a distance to see if God would destroy the city despite the people’s change of heart.  God took pity on Jonah as he sat there in the hot sun, making a bush grow up suddenly to give him shade, but God did not erase anyone from the map. 
 
            What God did was remove the bush whose leaves stood over Jonah’s head, and in so doing found (as small as it might seem) a soft spot in Jonah’s heart.  When the bush died as quickly as it had sprung up, Jonah’s bitterness increased.
 
“God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’  And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’  Then the Lord said,”
 
 – and here is the point of the story, and the very last words of the book, which stops right with this –
 
“’You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.  And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’” [Jonah 4:10-11]
 
Children.  One hundred, twenty thousand children.  And innocent animals, even, knowing nothing of human conflict. 
 
            Jonah?  Are you getting it yet, Jonah?  Bitter, angry, frightened prophet!  Shuddering not at God’s judgment, but at God’s mercy!  Made uneasy not by thunder and storm, but by the soft and gentle voice of the Lord, asking mercy from you! 
 
            Jonah, Jonah!  Can’t you see the problem isn’t always them?
 
            No, this book is not a children’s story.  Be careful with it, because its pages are sharp and you may cut yourself.
"When the Music Gets Out of Hand"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 6/24/2018
Jude
“When the Music Gets Out of Hand”
June 24, 2018
 
            The text of my sermon this morning is the book of Jude.  I know what’s going through everyone’s head, so let’s just sing it quickly and then set it aside, okay?  “Na-na-na…”  There you go.  Now let’s get back to business.  We’ll come back to the Beatles later.
 
            Jude is a very short and very odd book.  It’s a letter, but we do not know whom it’s addressed to; it seems to pertain to a particular church but its location is not mentioned and no people are named to help us pin it down.  The author calls himself
 
“Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James” [1:1]
 
but if that James is the brother of Jesus, as some suggest, why doesn’t Jude mention that?  If he’s the brother of James the disciple, then why doesn’t he call himself brother of James and John or the third son of Zebedee?  Furthermore, he never refers to himself as an apostle, which the leaders of the first generation of Christians tended to do. 
 
            The letter of Jude quotes the apocryphal books of Enoch and The Assumption of Moses, which is where it gets the odd reference to the archangel Michael and the devil arguing over Moses’ body.  If you thought that section sounded weird, you are in good company because each of those books was rejected by both the rabbis and the Church when the point came where they were deciding which books should be considered holy scripture and which should not.  That made Jude itself a somewhat questionable item and it wasn’t always included in the earliest forms of the New Testament.  On the other hand, the concerns the letter addresses are similar to some of the concerns in II Peter, and they use similar language, but whether or not one depends on the other, or which way they influence goes, is up in the air.
 
            Maybe some of it is familiar.
 
“Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever.  Amen.” [1:24-25]
 
That is sometimes used as a benediction at the end of worship.  I’ll be using it today, in fact. 
 
And then there is this verse, which encapsulates what the letter seems to have been written for:
 
“I find it necessary to write and appeal to you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.” [1:3]
 
Here “faith” suggests a system of belief, a framework of thought as well as of action, which is why some scholars put the time of its writing pretty late for a New Testament book, at the edge of a time when the Church was leaving its infancy and beginning to define its beliefs over and against those that might have a Christian-ish sound but were going too far in one direction or another and losing their anchor.  So Jude becomes downright condemnatory:
 
“Woe to them!  For they go the way of Cain and abandon themselves to Balaam’s error for the sake of gain, and perish in Korah’s rebellion.  These are blemishes on your love-feasts, while they feast with you without fear, feeding themselves.  They are waterless clouds carried along by the winds; autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the deepest darkness has been reserved forever.” [1:11-13]
 
We don’t know what they were teaching, but Jude is not happy about it.
 
            Now, let’s think about the Beatles song again.  It starts out with Paul McCartney singing the melody pretty clearly.  By the time you get toward the end, the music and the voices are a little more crowded (if that’s the word).  Everybody is singing the na-na-na parts together, but the instruments are going off in different directions, and it starts to sound like it might fall apart.  Then, out of nowhere, comes the part where you hear,
 
                        “Hey, Jude, now!  Judie!  Judie! Judie!  Judie!”
 
I’d suggest an analogy between this song and the development of the Christian faith, in two ways, one individual and one applying to the group.
 
           Individually, Jude suggests that if someone’s thinking about faith is mistaken, their life will also turn out to exhibit some of the chaos that he describes.  It’s like when someone says, “If I’m forgiven, it doesn’t matter what I have done in the past.”  No, real repentance means wanting to undo any harm you may have done.  Maybe you can and maybe you cannot, but the sense of real regret will always be there and when the opportunity to make amends comes up, it brings a sense of relief.  Whoever the people were that Jude warned about, they took Christian freedom as a blank check rather than a clean slate, and this letter clearly says that is a mistake and that bad theology can lead to an unholy life.
 
           That’s why, very early on, the Church developed a series of statements about the faith that we call the creeds, from the Latin word “credo”, “I believe”.  They developed out of a series of crises when one teacher or another would be the voice that just didn’t match with all the others in the chorus.  It isn’t that all voices always sang the same note, but that there were some singers who threw the others off and threatened the whole song.
 
           There were people like Marcion, who said that the God described in the Old Testament was not the same God as in the New Testament (and you hear people say that sometimes today).  There was Arius, who said that God the Son was a creation of God, not a part of the Father from all eternity.  That meant that it wasn’t the eternal God who suffered on the cross, and it wasn’t God himself taking the consequence of our sin.  There was Pelagius, who said that sin doesn’t totally mess us up, but that we can fix ourselves once salvation has lifted the weight of sin from our shoulders.  There were the Donatists, who said that God’s grace cannot come to one sinner through another, but only through someone already made holy by the Spirit.  It goes on and on.
 
           What the Church did was produce the creeds that outlined the content of belief as statements about the points that are non-negotiable.  They don’t say anything about some of the points where Christians have varied over the centuries.  They say nothing about what we mean when we say Jesus is present in communion or at what age someone may be baptized.  They don’t talk about what it means for the scriptures to be inspired by God, or even specify which books are to be included in the Bible.  (“Bible” is a word the creeds never use at all.)  They don’t lay out how the Church should be organized or conduct worship.
 
           What they talk about is who God is, as Creator and as a human being named Jesus and as a Spirit that does some very specific things in people’s lives, like pulling people together into the communion of saints (or the community of the holy), declaring the forgiveness of sins, and preparing both body and soul for eternity with God.
 
           The letter of Jude shows us what the beginning of that process looked like – and, no, it wasn’t pretty all the time.  But if we are made in the image of God, then how we talk about God is also in some way how we talk about who we ourselves are.  God didn’t ever stand apart from creation, so we cannot stay aloof from the people around us, even when love means the risk of rejection.  So
 
                    “anytime you feel the pain, hey [you], refrain;
                     don’t carry the world upon your shoulders.
                    For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool
                    by making his world a little colder.”
 
See, the gospel is about someone who carried the world upon his shoulders for us.  He sang our sad song and made it better.  He let us into God’s heart, and that’s he started to make it better.

           

"A Family Matter"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon - 6/17/2018
Philemon
“A Family Matter”
June 17, 2018
 
            Let’s do some time traveling this morning.  We’ll start in the English colonies of North America around the year 1700, give or take fifty years.  Missionaries from England were having a problem getting permission from slaveholders to address enslaved Africans, despite the words of King Charles II to his subjects in 1660:
 
“And you are to consider how such of the Natives or such as are purchased by you from other parts to be servants or slaves may best be invited to the Christian Faith, and be made capable of being baptized thereunto, it being the honor of our Crowne and the Protestant Religion that all persons in any of our Dominions should be taught the knowledge of God, and be made acquainted with the misteries of Salvation.”[1]
 
Planters largely ignored and occasionally outright opposed this because they believed (and so did many of their slaves) that anyone baptized would have to be set free.  So Maryland passed a law denying that belief in 1664 and by 1706 was joined by at least five other colonies.[2]
 
           Let’s jump back about a thousand years from there, to early medieval Ireland.  We have a letter from someone who identifies himself this way:
 
“I am Patrick, yes a sinner and indeed untaught; yet I am established here in Ireland where I profess myself bishop. I am certain in my heart that "all that I am," I have received from God. So I live among barbarous tribes, a stranger and exile for the love of God. He himself testifies that this is so. I never would have wanted these harsh words to spill from my mouth; I am not in the habit of speaking so sharply. Yet now I am driven by the zeal of God, Christ's truth has aroused me. I speak out too for love of my neighbors who are my only sons; for them I gave up my home country, my parents and even pushing my own life to the brink of death. If I have any worth, it is to live my life for God so as to teach these peoples; even though some of them still look down on me.”[3]
 
Yes, we’re talking about that Patrick: Saint Patrick, the March 17th guy, patron saint of Ireland.  He was furious with a group of Christian soldiers and I’ll let him tell you why.
 
“The very next day after my new converts, dressed all in white, were anointed with chrism, even as it was still gleaming upon their foreheads, they were cruelly cut down and killed by the swords of these same devilish men. At once I sent a good priest with a letter. I could trust him, for I had taught him from his boyhood. He went, accompanied by other priests, to see if we might claw something back from all the looting, most important, the baptized captives whom they had seized. Yet all they did was to laugh in our faces at the mere mention of their prisoners.”[4]
 
The “baptized captives” were mostly women and were considered the spoils of war, to be kept as slaves or sold as slaves.
 
“Because of all this, I am at a loss to know whether to weep more for those they killed or those that are captured: or indeed for these men themselves whom the devil has taken fast for his slaves. In truth, they will bind themselves alongside him in the pains of the everlasting pit: for ‘he who sins is a slave already’ and is to be called ‘son of the devil.’”[5]
 
Maybe Patrick was especially sensitive to their plight because he himself had been born in Britain but had been captured as a child by Irish raiders, carried off to Ireland, and held in slavery until he escaped.  What makes him a saint was that he found compassion for his captors’ souls and returned years later to share the gospel with them.
 
            In Patrick’s life, that’s an echo of something that had happened in Rome and in Greece about four hundred years earlier.  That is the story that we hear in the letter of Paul to Philemon.  A slave named Onesimus had run away from Philemon, who was a Christian and a slaveholder.  Somehow, Onesimus made his way to Rome and came to spend time with Paul, by that time a prisoner waiting for trial because of his faith.  Again, we don’t know all the details, but Onesimus turned to the Lord and was baptized.  Paul then took the audacious step of sending this runaway back where he’d come from, fully knowing that the usual punishment for a runaway slave was to be made a public example through some gruesome form of death – often crucifixion.  However, Paul sent a letter with him that not only asked him to be pardoned but also to be freed; and not only to be freed but to be sent back so that he could help Paul.  It went completely against the entire economic and social system of the day.  N.T. Wright says it would be like a preacher today saying, “We all know that global warming is our own fault and needs immediate attention, so please leave your cars where they are parked and never use them again.”
 
            Paul’s letter said this:
 
“I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you.  I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed [hint, hint] might be voluntary and not something forced.” [Philemon 1:12-14] 
 
           Now, get this.  This is why Patrick was upset that Christians would enslave Christians.  This is why the Africans who survived the horrors of being shipped to North America in chains would get the idea not only that forced servitude was a violation of their humanity but that it violated the slaveholder’s standing before God as well.  Paul said,
 
“Perhaps this is the reason he [Onesimus] was separated from you [Philemon] for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no 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 [which has made some scholars think they were half-brothers, one by a slavewoman] and in the Lord.” [Philemon 1:15-16]
 
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we are brothers and sisters in Christ.  The way we treat each other and anyone else called by his name is how we treat our own family.  As the hymn says, albeit in somewhat dated language,
 
“Join hands, then, brothers of the faith,
Whate’er your race may be.
Who serves my Father as a son
Is surely kin to me.”[6]
 
            The gospel of Christ brings freedom and dignity to those who are at the bottom of the social scale and it calls those further up to recognize them as equals.  Time after time there have been efforts to suppress that implication, and the suppression has sometimes lasted for centuries, and sometimes it has even been put in place by law and by force, as in our own national history, but it keeps on coming back.  There is no getting around what Mary expressed in her song of praise when she learned that God was sending the Savior:
 
“He has shown strength with his arm;
      he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
      and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
      and sent the rich, empty, away.”  [Luke 1:51-53]
 
            That’s all very well, but isn’t it impossible, or at least impractical?  Ask yourself why this, of all the letters that Paul must have written, was one of those that not only survived but was held eventually to send God’s people a message for all time.  According to Frederick Buechner,
 
“It’s not known whether or not Philemon took the hint and let Onesimus return to be the old saint’s comfort for what time was left him, but there’s at least one good reason for believing that such was the case.  Years later, when Paul was long since dead, another saint was in jail by the name of Ignatius.  The Bishop of Ephesus had sent some friends to visit him, and Ignatius wrote to ask if a couple of them could be allowed to stay.  Ignatius in his letter used some of the same language that Paul had used in his to Philemon, almost as if he was trying to remind him of something.  And what was the name of the Bishop he wrote to?  It was Onesimus.”[7]
 
What can God do?  Judge for yourselves, my brothers and my sisters.
 
 
 
 

[1] Cited in Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 97.
[2] Ibid., 99.
[3] St. Patrick, “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus”, I. i., found at http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/p02.html
[4] Ibid., I. iii.
[5][5] Ibid., I. iv.
[6][ John Oxenham, “In Christ There Is No East or West”, no. 192 in The Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: The Methodist Publishing House, 1964).
[7] Frederick Buechner, “Onesimus” in Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), 127.
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