The Unthinkable “What if?”

The Unthinkable “What if?”

Sermon for Sept. 29, 2019, Pentecost 16C. Audio will be available here for several weeks.

 Luke 16:1-13

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’

“But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’

“He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house–for I have five brothers–that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”

We needed to update our church website, so I asked another pastor for a recommendation of someone who could help. I met with the man he suggested this past week, and in our conversation, I invited him to Beer & Hymns (which is tonight) and showed him a FaceBook video clip of us singing “I’ll Fly Away.” It turns out that he is a descendant of Albert E. Brumley who composed the song back in 1932.  

Everyone loves “I’ll Fly Away” but it is a depressing song, when you think about it. Brumley seems to have lived an awful life — which is not surprising for someone living through the Great Depression. Maybe he was in a bread and soup line, or on a train, trying to find a city with jobs when he wrote, “Just a few more weary days and then, I’ll fly away.” It is a song about longing for the afterlife when the problems of this one will finally be over. “Pie in the sky,” as they say. 

A Better Place

That idea, that the afterlife could be better than the present has been around a long time. The ancient Greeks had the Elysian Fields to look forward to, at least for the virtuous. The damned would go to Tartarus to suffer. There are many stories, in the ancient world, of the surprising reversal of fortunes after death, in which the virtuous poor end up in the good place and the wicked rich end up in the bad place.  

Jesus used that reversal of fortunes motif in his story about the rich man and Lazarus. But this story can cause all kinds of misunderstanding if we read it the wrong way. On the other hand, it can provoke us to think hard about important issues, so we will look closely at it today.

First, let us talk about one of the elephants in the room. Do the details of this story describe Jesus’ view of the conditions in the afterlife? No. As I have said, I do not believe in hell. But the idea that people in the “bad place” can talk to people in the “good place” and ask for favors is especially fanciful; maybe even humorous. 

But imagining it that way allows Jesus to do some serious teaching. The ones hearing the story are invited to imagine, along with him, “What if it were like that; would we live differently before we ‘fly away’?”  

The Cast of Characters: The Rich Man

So how would Jesus’ original audience have heard this? Let’s first look at the characters. From the beginning they hear how the unnamed rich man is described:

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.”

There was no middle class in ancient Israel. When the Israelites told the story of their history, they imagined themselves as the descendants of people who had escaped years of oppression as slaves in Egypt, but who were led by Moses to the Promised Land. 

After Joshua successfully conquered the land, every tribe was given their own territory. Every family had their own land for farming and grazing, so that every Israelite could be productive and provided for.  

But everyone knows that bad things happen; war, disease, accident, pestilences, drought: anyone of those could drive a family into poverty. So, there were Laws in the Hebrew Bible, the Torah which provided for the poor. For example, landowners had to let gleaners have the corners of their fields. 

Some taxes were collected by the state for the sake of the poor, collectively known as “the widow, the orphan and the non-citizen.”  

But, by the time of Jesus, that was a long time ago. Now, most of the people who came to listen to Jesus were landless peasants who rented land from the few aristocratic landowning families. Or, they were peasant tradesmen, carpenters, fishermen, who eked out a living the best they could, probably singing songs as they worked, like “I’ll Fly Away.”  

So, Jesus told a story about a rich man dressed like royalty, feasting every day to that audience of peasants who automatically put him in the “bad guy” category. He was supposed to be helping the poor, according to Moses, not stepping over him as he walked out his gate.  


The poor man, Lazarus, was clearly suffering, in many ways. He was hungry — longing for falling crumbs. He had sores, which reminds us of Job who famously suffered for no good reason. And the dogs — don’t think of well-groomed family pets — these were mangy, flea-bitten creatures, unclean scavengers who would eat anything. They licked his sores; he was too weak to beat them off.  

The peasants hearing this story would have identified with the poor man. They would have taken great delight in the reversal of fortunes both characters experienced in the afterlife. It feels like justice when people get what they truly deserve.

The Conversation in the Great Beyond

But the story moves on to the conversation between the unnamed rich man and good old father Abraham. Calling him “father Abraham” means that the rich man was not some Gentile, he was Jewish. He should have known his own Jewish tradition about his obligations to his neighbor. 

He should have listened to Moses and the prophets. Moses was the one who, as the story was told, gave them the laws about the support they owed to the poor, which the rich man was ignoring. And the prophets were the ones who repeatedly called for justice, especially in the face of conditions of gross inequity between rich and poor. But the rich man had ignored them too.  

So now, the unthinkable has happened to the rich man. He has died without anyone remembering his name — a fate literally worse than death to an Israelite — and his situation is irreversible. 

Jesus is saying, “What if it’s like that?” Would you live any differently?  

Wealth and Corruption

Jesus was serious about the corrupting power of wealth. Great wealth makes people turn a blind eye to the suffering right in front of them. I’ve heard wealthy people talking about homelessness recently. The problem was not human suffering, in their view, it was about how unsightly the homeless made the city. Instead of evoking compassion, for the wealthy, it seems, homelessness provoked contempt.  

I want to ask a question: why was there a sick man lying at that gate? Why wasn’t he in a home? Why wasn’t he on a bed, not starving for falling crumbs, but fed nutritious meals? Why was his society content to leave him there in misery? That begs the question: who was in control? What was their vision for society? Where were they allocating resources?  

Many people here probably know the answer. King Herod the Great had come to power by force, defeating the other competing aristocratic elites. He taxed the people mercilessly to support his lavish building projects. You can visit the ruins of some of them still, today, as I have. 

There was no attention to the needs of the widow, the orphan or the non-citizen. There was no attention paid to Moses or the prophets. There was no plan to come to the rescue of the Lazaruses lying at the gates, desperate for crumbs, dog-licked and hopeless. What brought Lazarus to that gate? Poverty did, in a society in which the wealthy looked the other way.

Making it Real for Us

How does this story touch us? In this room, none of us can identify with the characters in this story. We are not the super-rich, and we are not desperately poor. This story is from another culture and time. Nor are we helpless subjects of a repressive monarchy without voice or vote. 

We get to say what kind of society we have. We get to say what kind of leaders we have. We get to say how our resources are allocated. We get to say who is important to care for, and what services to provide.  

So who are the Lazaruses of our times? Of course, they are the homeless. Of course, they are the people who cannot afford health care and prescriptions. Of course, they are the mentally ill, the addicted, the unemployed and the working poor. We have many. 

Climate Refugees

And we are on track to have many, many more. In the future, there will not be one Lazarus at the gate, but dozens at each gate, maybe hundreds. Why? Because of things like the “Dry Corridor” in Central America, especially in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador where they are experiencing one of the worst droughts of the last ten years with over 3.5 million in need of humanitarian assistance, according to a United Nations report. It turns out that, “small scale producers and rural communities remain the most vulnerable to drought.

This situation sets up a process known as “step migration.” The first step is farm to the urban area. Poor farmers move to the cities looking for work. But finding drug-gang violence, crime, and little-to-no employment, they take the next step: migration to the doorsteps of the United States.  

Or take Syria for another example. Syria’s civil war has killed 250,000, according to the latest UN count, and millions more are displaced. Data from the study of tree rings by NASA and the University of Arizona has determined that Syria has been experiencing the worst drought in the last 900 years, with the past 15 years the most intense. Livestock dies, crops fail, and consequently, 1.5 million Syrians migrated to urban centers, like Homs and Damascus. Finding little help there, the rebellion against the government started and turned into the horror of civil war. 

Both droughts have been directly linked to climate change. The Pentagon has identified climate change as a “threat magnifier,” a factor that can aggravate already existing political fault lines. Syrian refugees, migrants from Latin America, are the Lazaruses of our day.  

Wealth and Denial

And just like in Jesus’ parable, the wealthy of today are part of the story. For example, for years we have known about the harm that burning fossil fuels does to our planet. But there has been way too much money on the table to stop mining for them, drilling for them, fracking for them, and burning them.  

But in spite of the overwhelming scientific consensus, there are billionaires in our country who have “poured tens of millions of dollars into groups that deny climate science or work to block greenhouse gas cuts.” 

Some petroleum industry companies have even employed the very same Public Relations firms that were used by Big Tobacco to sow uncertainty about the connection between smoking and cancer, even though they knew the science. In other words, the money at stake was enough incentive for them to look away at the Lazaruses they were creating. 

As some have said, “there are no new ideas.” The rich men will always look away from Lazarus until the unthinkable happens to them. 

It is fitting that this story Jesus tells ends in death. Unlike the Good Samaritan who saved the victim, in this story, all the characters die. Death is universal. Death makes a mockery of the power of wealth. No number of billions of dollars can prevent it, and no one will take any of it with them. 

The rich man, after death, had no money to offer Abraham to encourage him to fulfill his requests. So, it begs the question: was it worth it? As Jesus asked in another parable about a rich man who died,

What will he give in exchange for his soul?” (Matt 16:26)

Time is running out for us, but we do have time to act. We must hold our leaders accountable. We must use every tool at our disposal. We have got to stop creating Lazaruses. We do not act out of resentment of wealth. Some wealthy people do enormous good. Rather, as people of faith, we believe that our Creator wants us to be conservative with our planet, and liberal with our love for the people who live on it, before it is our time to “fly away.”

The Moral Hazard of Mercy

The Moral Hazard of Mercy

Sermon for Sept. 22, 2019, Pentecost 15C. An audio version will be here for several weeks.

Luke 16:1-13

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Sermon  The Moral Hazard of Mercy

General Motors is on strike.  The company made $35 billion in North America over the last three years, and now the labor unions think it is time to bring pay equity back.  GM probably owes its existence to the government bailout it got after filing for bankruptcy in the last recession.  

The bailout of the auto industry saved 1.5 million jobs in the United States, according to the Center for Automotive Research.  Nevertheless, some economists opposed it at the time.  They argued that when you bailout a company you create a “moral hazard.”   

I had never heard that term before the recession.  It means that when someone, or some business, does something bad, like taking unwise risks or making products that people don’t want to buy, they should suffer the consequences for it, even if it means going out of business.  Because, if they are let off the hook, the argument goes, they will do it again.  That’s the “moral hazard.”

But isn’t that what every case of mercy is?  Isn’t that what every “second chance” is?  We are going to look at a story Jesus told that is all about mercy.  It is a story about someone doing something bad, and being let off the hook; even being commended.  

This is going to provoke us to think about mercy and the moral hazard God is willing to create, according to Jesus’ understanding of God.  So, to the story.

The Weirdest Parable

Jesus told his parables in Israel; the Middle East in the first century.  It was common for a large estate owner to rent out his land to tenant farmers and to be paid in produce like olive oil and wheat.  That is what is most likely going on here in this parable.  Landowners were generally respectable people who cared deeply about their honor.  This story (all of Jesus’ stories) take place in an honor-shame society.  We will see how that becomes important.

The landowners kept careful records of the contracts for renting land specifying the amounts to be collected at harvest time.  Often they employed people to manage the business under their watchful eye. The managers had the authority to act in the landowner’s name, writing contracts and collecting the income.  In this parable, the estate owner comes to believe that his manager, was being dishonest.   

He has options: he can fire him on the spot, or he can have him arrested and imprisoned.  The owner decides simply to fire him.  He is being merciful.  But he demands to see the account books.  He says, 

“Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.”

The manager has to go retrieve the books.  This gives him a brief moment of time.  Where are the books?  How far does he have to go to get them?  How much time will it take to retrieve them?  Does he have enough time to call in the renters as he does in this story?  We don’t know.  We have to suspend our disbelief and imagine that he does.  Parables often mess with realism.

So he calls them in, one by one, and asks what they will owe at harvest time, and drastically reduces the amount, without telling them why.  When they arrive, he rushes them to quickly adjust their contracts and go.  They don’t know he has been fired.  They think he still has the authority to make or adjust contracts.  They probably assume that the owner and he have talked about it.  

They are probably thinking, adjusting the rental price downwards would not occur to an owner to do, but the manager must have somehow persuaded him.  Both the owner and the manager are now loved by all the renters in the village.  Their honor status has just improved.  They will both be esteemed with gratitude.

How could the dishonest manager think he could get away with this?  When the owner finds out — and he will find out — won’t he have him imprisoned and punished?  Maybe so, but maybe not.  The dishonest manager is making a calculated gamble.  The owner has already shown himself merciful once by firing him without calling in the authorities; perhaps he can bet everything on him being merciful yet again.  

Why should he be?  Because now that their rents have been reduced, all the village loves him.  If he demands the original price now, he will be deeply resented.  He will lose honor.  And if he tells them that the manager had been fired and had no authority to change contracts, then it will be clear to them that he did not ever agree to the discount; he is not such a wonderful man. 

The landowner recognizes that this dishonest manager has been very clever.  Everyone will love them both, and this will work out well for the manager after he is let go.  So the owner commends the manager.  One New Testament scholar said that this is a David and Goliath kind of story; a peasant manager has outwitted the wealthy landowner.  Everyone would have loved it. 

How Much More?

So this is an example of what we call a “how much more” parable.  Like the widow getting justice from an unjust judge and a man getting bread at midnight from a reluctant neighbor, how much more so would God help his children in need?  “If this dishonest [manager] solved his problem by relying on the mercy of his master to solve his crisis, how much more will God help you in your crisis when you trust his mercy.”  (— Kenneth Bailey, Poet and Peasant, p. 105)

So this is a parable about the God of mercy in whom we trust.  And we will look into what it means that God is merciful in a minute, but first a word about the stark warnings that come next.  Scholars believe that Luke was perhaps worried that his audience, mostly Gentiles who were city people, who did not grow up in the land-renting farming Jewish communities of Israel might misunderstand this parable and mistakenly think that it commended dishonesty with money.  

So Luke inserted here a teaching of Jesus about money, linking it with the parable by the word for money, “mammon” which they share in common.  Jesus spoke a lot about money, about riches and poverty.  Some say that one in seven verses in Luke is about money.  In this context we hear the stark warning that it is impossible to serve both God and mammon.  

Clearly, Luke wants us to understand that the dishonest manager who seemed to be serving mammon is not being commended for that.  Rather, he is commended for betting everything on the mercy of the landowner.

Mercy and Moral Hazards

So that brings us back to the question of mercy and moral hazards.  Didn’t the landowner create a moral hazard?  Didn’t he make it more likely that the next manager he hires will also be dishonest?  And if this is a parable about God, and how God acts, when God is merciful, doesn’t that create a moral hazard?  If God doesn’t punish us, doesn’t that make us less likely to do right?

Well, I suppose that would be true if we assumed that most people operate at the lowest level of moral development, which is the level of fear and punishment.  That’s the way children reason, but most people grow out of that.  There are different ways of describing how most people grow up morally.  Lawrence Kohlberg said we move on from fear and punishment next to “if it feels good, do it” self-interested morality.  

From there we grow to become aware of social norms; it’s the good boy/girl attitude.  After that, we think in terms of authority; obeying the laws.  Many people get stuck there.  They think if it’s legal, it’s okay, and if it’s illegal it’s not okay, period.  No more questions.  

But many people realize that all laws are made by humans, the good is defined better by what the consensus of thoughtful people understand about it.   The pinnacle of moral reasoning, according to this structure, is coming to understand that there are universal moral principles that we are obligated to follow, regardless of what society, or the law says, or whether we will benefit or not.  

I believe this is how Jesus thought about it.  So, for example, “love your neighbor as yourself” is a universal moral principle for guiding behavior that goes way beyond the Ten Commandments, and beyond all the 613 laws in the Hebrew Bible.  

Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment

Let’s get back to mercy.  The New Testament teaches us that  “mercy triumphs over judgment.”  Jesus told this parable story about a man who risked his whole future on the hope that his master would show mercy, and he did.  

The point is that we can too.  We can risk everything on the God of mercy.  God is not out to punish us.  God is not keeping a record of our good and bad deeds to weigh against each other at the end.  

Rather, God walks through our lives with us, day by day, luring us towards the good because it is good, coaxing us on towards what is beautiful and what is true because it is beautiful and true.  In a non-controlling way, God is there, helping us love our neighbors, encouraging us to be open to others who are different from ourselves, seeking the common good for everyone and for all living beings and for our precious, fragile planet.  

Maybe that does create a moral hazard, but that is the risk that the God of mercy is willing to take, for our sakes. 

The Company We Keep

The Company We Keep

Sermon on Luke 15:1-10 for Sept. 15, 2019, Pentecost 14C. An audio version can be found here for several weeks.

 Luke 15:1-10

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

The version of Christianity that I grew up with was pretty negative. There were a lot of things on the list of things we weren’t supposed to do. There was a silly rhyme I heard from back then: “I don’t smoke, and I don’t chew, and I don’t go with girls that do.” You had to be careful about the company you kept. There was a doctrine called “Christian separation.” It said that Christians were to be separate from all that was “worldly”. You would have thought we believed you could catch cooties from “worldly” people, or something.  

Well, Jesus would not have fit in well with my group, would he? Not at all. Jesus specifically hung out with “worldly” people. Back then, they didn’t call them “worldly” yet, they just called them “sinners.” But it was the “sinners” that wanted to come to hear Jesus’ teaching.  Why did they come to listen?  I imagine some were just curious. But I’m sure some were quite moved by Jesus’ teaching. It was novel. He seemed to be innovating on what they had been taught. They were attracted to his message.  

Is that how it usually goes today? Do the people who seem to have lots of personal problems, the people who have made some significantly bad choices, the rough crowd: are they the ones you find breaking down the church doors to get in? Not so much, right? Why not? What is the message that the church usually sends to them? Is it like Jesus’ message, or is it a departure?

Objecting to Jesus

Anyway, getting back to the story, I don’t think the scribes — that means the ones who knew the Hebrew Bible very well, and knew how to make copies of it accurately, and the Pharisees would have objected to the sinners showing up to listen to Jesus. You can’t stop someone from joining the crowd. No, it seems that their objection was that Jesus ate with them. They grumbled,

This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Welcoming and eating meant you were okay with them. Back in those days, in the culture Jesus lived in, the people you ate with were carefully controlled. They had notions of purity and impurity that really did operate like cooties. You could catch impurity from impure people. And you wouldn’t be caught dead inviting them to your table.  

But Jesus did. He both welcomed them, and ate with them. And it scandalized the separationists. He could see that, so he believed it might be a “teachable moment.”

It is fascinating to watch what Jesus did. His teaching method was storytelling. We call his stories parables. They were clever. They often had surprises or even absurdities that made people pay attention and wonder what they meant. That happens here.  

His first story was the famous “lost sheep” parable. It starts, 

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

That sounds so compassionate to us; of course, we would leave the group safely penned up and go out after the poor little lost lamb. But that’s because we are imagining the safety and the pen. But imagine the story taking place where Jesus described it; not back at the house where the pen is, but “in the wilderness.” That means open country. No pens. No safety. Shepherds had two basic jobs: lead the sheep to pasture and water, and keep them safe. Safe from predators, like wolves, and safe from thieves.  Everyone hearing that question, 

“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

would be saying, “No way!” That would be a fool-hearty risk of 99 perfectly good sheep that you are responsible for. It would not be worth it to go after one. The value of the one lost sheep was nothing compared to the 99.  

But in Jesus story, the shepherd did just that, and when he found the lost lamb, he rejoiced, and called his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him, saying, 

“Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”

Then, Jesus told a second story about the woman with the ten silver coins who lost one and searched until she found it. Poor people’s homes had no windows, so she lights a lamp and sweeps the floor until she is successful. When she finds the coins she invites her female friends (the original makes that clear) and has a party. Jesus said that is just exactly like what God does when a “sinner” “repents.”

“Repent” literally meant, “change your thinking” about something. See it in a new light. Look at it differently. Addicts who are in recovery call this the moment of clarity. We might say, “coming back to your senses.” There is no sense of groveling in guilt or shame — that kind of repentance was what the church wanted from people. It’s not what Jesus wanted.  

God as both-gendered

Jesus has just done two things, very subtly, but significantly in these two stories. He could have just told one story, about the shepherd and left it at that. The message is that God is like the shepherd who finds the sheep then rejoices.  But if God is like a man who is happy at finding what he had lost, God is also every bit as much like a woman. If heaven may be imagined as a man-party, it can also be imagined as a woman party. Jesus was able to imagine God as a woman! No wonder some of the women “sinners” were attracted to his teaching.  Why has the church taken so long to notice this? Jesus was way ahead of his times. For Jesus, just like in the first Creation story in Genesis, the image of God is “male and female.”  

Lostness as the new category

Jesus made a second subtle but significant innovation. He has come up with an entirely new category to put people in. The scribes and Pharisees called the rough crowd “sinners.” But Jesus told stories of lostness. For him, these people were not just “sinners,” people to be despised, people to keep separate from, they were merely lost. They had gotten off track. Therefore, they still had value. In fact great value. So much value that you would imagine yourself willing to leave 99 just to go out and search for one.  

Now, if you went out and found a “sinner” you might feel good about judging them, condemning them, maybe threatening them with punishment, maybe you would even tell them they were headed for hell. But, if instead of a “sinner” you found a “lost” person, you would feel compassion. You would want them to find their way back home. You would value them. You would believe that they were not defined by their worst day or their worst decisions. You would imagine them as so precious that God would throw her best party ever upon getting them back safely.  

Friends, this is the God Jesus taught us to know and love: the God that knows all of us get off track from time to time. All of us get ourselves lost. Some, severely so. But no matter how lost we feel, God is not up there condemning us, judging us, and waiting to punish us. Not at all! Rather, the God Jesus taught us to know and love longs for all of her lost ones to come home.  

Yes, God longs for our repentance — meaning that we see the light so we stop hurting ourselves and others. God does not want us to suffer at our own hands or cause the suffering of others. So, yes, God wants us to change our thinking about the strategies we have used to mask our pain, if those strategies are harmful.  

God is the great seeker. God is present in every moment, in every place, luring us back home; coaxing us, with non-controlling love, back to the path that leads to the house where the party is ready, the balloons are filled, and the ribbons are flying.  

This was Jesus’ message. To everyone, he could say, in effect, “you are a beloved child of God. You may have a hard time believing that but that’s what I’m telling you. You feel lost? Well, God is out to find you and when She does, she is going to get you home; you are that valuable.  

Do you need a sign that it’s true? The best sign I can give you is a big wide welcome to our table. Come! Sit with us! Eat with us. We want to be known by the company we keep.  We want to keep the same company Jesus kept. Everyone is welcome at our table!

“If you love somebody, set them free” — Sting

“If you love somebody, set them free” — Sting

Sermon on the book of Philemon for Sept. 8, 2019. Audio can be found here for several weeks.

 Philemon 1:1-21

note: This text is a letter from the apostle Paul, to Philemon, on the subject of what to do about Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus who has visited Paul in prison, and has converted to Christianity. 

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet 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. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. 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 might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you 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 and in the Lord.

So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

Back in the 1980s, I loved the band “The Police” whose frontman called himself Sting. I had all their records. For a long time, their most popular song was probably “Every Breath You Take.” It was about an obsessively possessive love relationship. Sting sang: “Every breath you take, every step you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you…. can’t you see? You belong to me.”  

Well, that sounds creepy to me now! Which may have been what Sting was trying to correct when, several years later, he wrote a song that repeated the line, “If you love somebody, set them free.” 

That sounds to me like a much healthier attitude. Love does not dominate or control. Love wants the best for the beloved, including their own personal growth and development, their freedom to be themselves and to have their own lives. Love doesn’t hold people back; love sets them free.  

“God is Love”

Let us put this in a wider context. We believe that one of the simplest and yet most profoundly accurate things we can say about God is what the New Testament says, “God is love.” 

If we start there, many implications flow from that statement, and one of them is that God, as Love, wants our freedom. God does not control us. 

Process theologians tell us that God’s love is not coercive, but persuasive. God lures us, coaxes us, encourages us, in an un-controlling way, towards goodness, towards truth, and towards beauty.  

This is the God that Jesus believed in and called, affectionately “Abba”, “Father”, or even, “Daddy.” But since the bible tells us that God is not gendered, but created both male and female in God’s image, we are free to also say, “Mother” or even, “mommy”. Mothering images are present in the scriptures in both the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament.

Anyway, the point is that the God whom Jesus taught us to love is, essentially, Love.  And love is not controlling. God wills our freedom. 

The Apostle Paul was convinced of this too. He even said, “For freedom, Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1). If there is any law we are obligated to obey, it is “the law of love.” In another place, Paul said, “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” (Rom. 13:8)

Love and Slavery

So that brings us to today’s text and to a problem. How can you believe that God is love, and that love necessarily longs for freedom, in a world of slavery? 

We have been mentioning recently that there is a huge cultural gap between our modern world and the world of the bible, and it comes up again here [spoiler alert: it always comes up when we read ancient literature]. 

Today, we live in a world in which we can imagine no slavery. The ancient world of biblical times, from Genesis to Revelation, was a world in which slavery was simply a fact of life, just like poverty, disease, and death. Nobody in the bible argued for the abolition of slavery. Not even Jesus. It was nearly inconceivable. 

Plato wrote that it was right for the “better” to rule over the “inferior”.  Aristotle called slavery “natural” — some people are born to be slaves. 

But, of course, those views are not the last word for Christians. The God of ancient Greek philosophy was not the God Jesus believed in.  


Which brings us to the way this gets worked out in Philemon. Paul has planted a new Christian community in the city of Colossae. He has moved on, but got arrested and is now in prison somewhere. A man named Onesimus has arrived. 

Onesimus is a slave, owned by Philemon, a new convert to Christianity, back in Colossae. We have read Paul’s letter to Philemon about Onesimus. The issue is not that he is a runaway slave. It is that Onesimus too has become a Christian.  

Now it’s complicated. Paul has been teaching his new little house churches that as Christians, they are all equally members of “the body of Christ.” He has told them that they are part of the “family of God.” That makes them all sisters and brothers. He has told them that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28). 

But a slave is a slave — perhaps even by nature, as the Philosophers said? Is there any other way to think about it? Clearly, this event, Onesimus’ conversion, has forced Paul to think long and hard about it, and, in prison, he has had plenty of time to do just that.  

But let us ask: how did Onesimus, the slave, owned by Philemon in Colossae, wind up there, at Paul’s prison door, as a runaway? The answer, according to New Testament scholars, is that there were different ways you could be a runaway slave. 

If you just wanted your freedom and hit the road, and you were caught, you would be subject to terrible punishment: flogging or branding or being sent to the mines, the galleys, the arena or even the cross. It would have been, as Crossan says, “suicidally dangerous to have gone anywhere near official Roman authority, let alone a Roman prisoner like Paul.” (J. D. Crossan, In Search of Paul, p. 179)  

But, on the other hand, if you had been treated cruelly by your owner and needed a temporary respite, for example, to give a hot-headed slave-owner a cooling-off period, you had two options: you could flee to a god’s temple, or flee to your owner’s friend, particularly a friend of the owner who was in a superior position to the owner, who could possibly plead on your behalf. 

Onesimus fled from Philemon to Paul, Philemon’s spiritual “father.” And this is Paul’s letter, pleading on behalf of the runaway slave, who is now, a fellow Christian.  

Set Him Free

What is Paul asking Philemon to do with Onesimus? Set him free. This is totally radical, so Paul uses all the rhetorical skill he has. He reminds Philemon that he is in chains, a prisoner for the sake of the gospel, that he is an old man — which in that culture meant a highly respected elder. Paul tells him that he could command Philemon to do his duty, but rather, he is appealing “on the basis of love.” 

To cap it all off, Paul says that when he gives Onesimus his freedom, he will have him both “in the flesh and in the Lord” as a “beloved brother.” 

Paul is quite clear that he wants the decision to be Philemon’s, voluntarily. He can say no. But he also asked that the letter be read in the house-church so that everyone will witness his decision. Everyone will be thinking, “if you love somebody, set them free.” 

And if you believe in a God of love who has made you a community, a family in faith, then what other choice could you possibly make?”

Let us just take a moment to let it soak in, how beautiful and radical this is. In a world where you could not imagine the end of slavery, Paul has had a torchlight lit in his head. He now sees that slavery is incompatible with love. A Christian simply could not own another Christian. 

The God of Jesus, the God of love, could never will anything other than freedom. It could actually be true in fact, as well as in theory, that in Christ “there is no longer slave or free.…” but rather, “you are all one.”  

Backsliding on the Vision

So, this insight was widely disseminated and accepted in all the churches, massive numbers of slaves were set free, and the whole institution of slavery was seen for what it was, a dehumanizing and oppressive practice which was incompatible with Christianity, and therefore abolished soon thereafter, right? 

Well, as you know, sadly not. Not at all. This is just too radical; too counter-cultural; even scandalous. Talking like this would not help Christianity seem attractive to your average Roman citizen, right?. 

So, quickly after Paul’s life, other advice was given to the early groups of Christians that was far tamer, that fit the hierarchical, patriarchal Roman family structure much more comfortably. Letters were written to Christian churches advising 

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, …Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly” (Col. 3-4; Eph. 6). 

The same thing happened with respect to women in ministry, by the way. Paul had women functioning as apostles, but after Paul, their ministries were severely restricted. Some ideas were just too radical for the time, I guess.  

The End of the Story: Our Story

Back to the book of Philemon: we do not know how the story ended. We do not know Philemon’s decision. We don’t know how much he had paid for Onesimus and therefore what it might have cost him to comply. 

But we do know that this letter was copied, and shared, and recopied and shared until eventually, it became part of the collection we call the New Testament. 

That meant that although the radical message of love and freedom was watered down, and eventually nearly forgotten by the Church, there must have been many in the minority who embraced it. 

There must have been people willing to swim upstream, against the current, willing to be criticized as radicals, even subversives, because they had caught the vision of a world which ran by the law of love. 

That is our calling. We are the people who have been seized by this beautiful vision that Jesus called “the kingdom of God.” A world in which God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.” 

We have been awakened to the fact that God is love, just like Jesus taught us. So we are the ones to take this liberating gospel into our much different world.  

That is why we pay so much attention to how we can help people become free of all the enslaving conditions that exist. 

For example, we make no distinction between men and women at every level of leadership in our church, both locally regionally, and nationally. 

We work to help people enslaved by addictions, homelessness, or simply by poverty, to at least have the freedom to eat decent, healthy food. 

We are radically inclusive here: we welcome everyone who has been enslaved by discrimination and judgment, and we speak up for all of them when their voices are not heard.  

We think it is also important to be free internally, personally. We consciously work to free our hearts and minds from slavery to consumerism and greed. We actively take up collections to support ministries of compassion and mercy, as we are currently doing for a poor family in Nicaragua and for relief for victims of hurricane Dorian. We believe that our very act of giving away our money helps free us, internally, from the power of Mammon.

We practice spiritual disciplines like meditation, which help to free us internally from slavery to ego. We seek to be free of that insistent critic in our heads, the constant need to compete or compare, the narrator of our personal preferences, the small self, that gets offended. 

We work on our ego issues so that we can be free to love, to have compassion, to be kind, to be experts in forgiving and understanding. To be free to be agents of a loving God.