Monthly Archives: September 2010

09-26-10 TORMENTED IN THE FLAMES




TORMENTED IN THE FLAMES


Luke 16: 19-31


 


Ah, the story of the rich man and Lazarus: not theLazarus who Jesus raised from the dead, this is a different man in the story.In fact, this man did not exist except in folklore.  This memorable and even troubling story was a folktale fromEgypt that had been told and retold by different teachers and parents and severalcultures. According to Biblical scholar Eduard Schweizer, “the story is basedon an Egyptian tale of a god who becomes the child of earthly parents, to whomhe shows Hades and paradise, where, after the magnificent funeral of the richman, the rich furnishings of his tomb are given to the poor man. [Remember inEgypt the wealth of leaders was put in pyramids with them to be used in theafterlife.] … Influenced by this story, Judaism told of the honorable burial ofa rich tax collector, which rewarded him for his one good deed, while a devout man received a wretchedburial which atoned for his one sin!”(THE GOOD NEWS ACCORDING TO MARK, JohnKnox Press, 1984, p. 260.) Jesus retells this story that he likely heard inboth childhood and adulthood and makes it fit his sermon. Remember the themesregarding Jesus that Luke shares throughout his gospel: 1) Wealth is not theenemy, but greedy and selfish rich people he challenges often. You mightremember the words of a young Mary when she is sharing the news that she’sgoing to give birth to Jesus: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spiritrejoices with God my savior! … He has brought down the powerful from theirthrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things andsent the rich empty away.” (Luke 1: 46, 52, 53)  Again it’s not wealth per se that is on trial, nor people ofwealth. Even Abraham was wealthy. It addresses those who do nothing for thepoor in their life. 2) There will be justice for the poor in their next life ifthey do not get it in this life. And finally, 3) there is a time, usually atdeath, when one’s eternal fate is cast. Therefore Luke’s Jesus and the othercharacters in Luke constantly remind people to change their ways before it istoo late. All of that advice comes to a head when Jesus pulls this story out ofhis memory banks and makes it his own. Remember he has just talked about theparable of the Lost and the parable of the dishonest manager- both three actplays. Here is his next three act play.


 


Though this is a different rich man than was referredto as the master in the last parable, this rich man had status because he wasdressed in purple, the costliest color to produce and therefore the color ofthe rich. He feasted each day, certainly using servants to be at his everybeckoned call.  But as happens whenthere is great wealth and great poverty, there are either security gates orsecurity walls present, both to keep the poor from looking in, but also to keepthe wealthy from having to view the have-nots around them. The rich man hadsuch an arrangement. The word “gate” used here is “pylona,” referring to an imposing grand entrance of a largemansion or estate. That’s as close as the rich man would let the poor man getto him. This is also the only parable of Jesus in which a character is named.In the original Hebrew the poor man’s name is Eliezer which means “God is myhelp.” When the Bible was translated into Latin in the 4th centuryA.D., the name was changed into the Latin term “Lazarus.” To show his greatpoverty, he was covered with sores, which meant he likely was not healed by arabbi nor did he have money for treatments, let alone for food. Like the storyof a Canaanite woman who once told Jesus, “Even dogs eat crumbs that fall fromtheir master’s table” (Matthew 15:27), this man would have sat under the richman’s table and eaten morsels of food that dropped to the floor: he was thathungry. Sometimes we turn away from hungry people, don’t we? When I have seenpeople rummaging through dumpsters at the back of fast food restaurants to gethalf eaten burgers and fries, I have turned away. When I have seen poor menreach down onto a sidewalk, pick up a half smoked cigarette that wasn’t’theirs, and light it and smoke it, I turn away. The rich man also turned awayfrom the sore-covered, destitute man at his gate. Since dogs were consideredunclean and they were licking his sores, this man was unclean: the bottom ofsociety’s human food chain. And the rich man, like many of us, turned away, notwanting to see the man outside of his gate who would gladly have dug through adumpster if he could have. We then learn that the poor man died; there is nomention of a burial, he goes straight to be with Abraham by special angeldelivery. It is an interesting thing about Abraham. He was certainly viewed asa wealthy man by devout Jews, but he was also seen as righteous. To go to thebosom of Abraham was code for paradise. That’s where the poor man went. Therich man, by contrast, died after thepoor man, giving Luke the chance to assert his favorite implication of Jesus:the rich man could have repented andstarted acting with justice and mercy while he was still alive. Instead we haveno record of any change by this man of means. But like rich people in medievaltimes who died of gout, of STDs, or of heart attack or diabetes, he did die; hetoo was mortal. But in his account he died and received a rich man’s burial.  Nowcomes the rest of the story. With no further explanation, the listener iswhisked to the underworld, to Hades, which was the place of the dead. Someaccounts say Hades is just a place of separation from God; but other cultureslike the Jews, call it Gehenna, where fires burn constantly; the Greeks calledit Hell, where consequences of one’smortal actions are meted out. But today what ever one calls it, we’rereferring to the pale of the dead. In the rich man’s place of torment, for thefirst time in his life, he looked up atLazarus instead of down! He looked upto paradise and saw the poor man next to Abraham, and he appealed to Abrahamperhaps not even as a man of faith, but as a fellow man of wealth: He uses atitle of honor to appeal to him: he cried out “Father Abraham (perhaps allying himself as one of God’schosen people) have mercy on me.” But then, the rich man, sometimes calledDives, (again only because dives isthe Latin word for rich, assigned to the text in the 4th century)gave his true self away again: he asks Abraham to again treat Lazarus as theservant he always saw him to be: low class, almost non-human:  send “Lazarus” he says, “to dip hisfinger in the cool waters of paradise and bring them down to my torment and letthe water drops sizzle as they drop onto my burning tongue and body! I’mtormented in the flames!” Even inHades the rich man is treating Lazarus as merely an errand boy! But, Abraham’svoice, like a premonition, reminds him that he had his good things on earth,and now the consequences are agony; Lazarus had agony on earth and now hisblessing is comfort. There are no strings the rich man can pull or demands hecan make that can make the one in charge—Abraham—change the consequences of hislife-long actions.


 


We now reach the third and final point of the story:At death, one’s eternal fate is cast.Even as the rich man tries to work the angles that worked for him andprotected his wealth on earth, it works no more after death. Abraham, by meansof explanation says “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed (a hugedivide), so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so,and no one can cross from there to us.” What irony. The man, who lived witha huge gate and walled off estate in his lifetime, now would give anything toget out of the huge gate and walled off torment that now imprisons him. This is an ultimate morality play, for although bothof the main characters in the play have died and their fate is cast in stone, thereare some whose fate has not yet been decided. Can you tell whose fate is notyet decided? Why, it’s the listener’s isn’t it; it’s the living listeners inhis day and through the ages, and now we are the listeners! We are the onestaking in this three act play and finding that it is not too late for you, orfor me, to make changes in our lives!It is not too late for us to change our destiny because of our choices. Ourfree will choices matter, and they either please or displease God who has aheart for all.


 


Our world today has an alarming trend toward the richgetting richer and the poor getting poorer with a shrinking middle class. Ournational leaders would do well to enable our middle class to become bigger andmore stable. We will need God’s help and Biblical wisdom. But if you wonder howyou can help the Lazaruses of our day: know that the children in our SundaySchool last week made snack bags for hungry children who come to school with nobreakfast. We have members, who, once a month, feed more than 200 people atHalifax Urban Ministries feeding programs, serving food to hundreds ofLazaruses. We also have members who help staff the HUM food pantry in PortOrange. And we support missionaries feeding desperate people in foreign lands.Now we are already beginning to prepare youth for a mission trip of help nextsummer. So your financial or physical support of your church helps you feedhungry people. But you may see another opportunity, a personal opportunity,this week or the next when you can help someone else in need. If that happens,the halls of heaven will ring with joy.     Jeffrey A. SumnerSeptember 26, 2010

09-19-10 AN ECONOMIC LESSON FOR TODAY

 




AN ECONOMIC LESSON FOR TODAY


Luke 16: 1-13


 


There are many old sayings that are not necessarilygood.  For example, when someonesays “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” does it mean his arm istrapped and he’s about to cut it off with a pocketknife, or does it mean that aman with no money decides to rob a convenience store and in his escape, runsover an innocent bystander? What is good about desperate times? And how manydesperate measures pan out to be more foolish than brilliant? In our day, thedreadful economy has made people do, or consider doing, foolish things.  People who’ve had a mortgage they couldno longer pay simply walked away from it and the bank foreclosed on them.Foolish or brilliant? The bank could have tried to negotiate for differentterms, but in most cases no negotiation occurs. Foolish or brilliant? If therewere negotiation, the bank would have gotten less money instead of no money, and the homeowners would havepaid less money now but stretching out the terms of the mortgage, still had ahome in which to live. In my neighborhood, and the house next door to our sonChris, and perhaps in your neighborhood, there are foreclosed properties withchoking weeds, high grass, cracked cement, and mildewed eaves: just anotherhouse in foreclosure.  Some peopledeclare bankruptcy as a last resort option. Foolish or brilliant?  I know people who did that; for some itwas exactly the right move for a desperate time, for other, not so much. This yearI think more copper tubing has been stolen and sold than any other time inrecent history! Crimes could continue to rise as people choose desperatemeasures. But there are other choices that are not criminal:  some families move in together,choosing shared meals and living space over law-breaking.  Some families have an unemployed dad goto stand in a labor pool line at 3:00 am each day when the office not even openuntil 5:00 am. All because there will not be a job for every man in line thatday. They do it have a chance at a $7.70 an hour job. Dad then comes homeexhausted and will do it again tomorrow, but his moral fiber is intact and hishard work has earned a meager wage.I have seen those who have lost their job hold those signs on streetcorners, start working at a fast food restaurant, or find extra seasonal workaround the holiday. Others have found out hotels continue to have employment turnoversand in the housekeeping department. What are the measures you or your familymembers are taking to deal with your desperate times?


 


In today’s story, like last week’s about the parablesof the lost, the context tells us much about the meaning. In one breath, Jesus hasfinished his last story. Quoting the father’s speech to his older son about thejoy he has in having his younger son return home. Jesus then continues with ourstory today. Our passage starts with: “Then Jesus said,” and we get today’sstory.  At a seminar on end of lifeissues at Stetson University on Friday, I was reminded of a lesson I learned onhospital visitation from a chaplain: he said, “Never take the emotions orinformation, good or bad, out of one room when you leave and carry it in to thenext room.” He was so right. Many of us, when we leave one hospital room,either walk around the floor to clear our heads, or wash our hands and at thesame time, to purge our recent experience so we are ready for the new one. As wemove to this new parable from chapter 15 to chapter 16, we cannot carry thecharacters from the last one into this one. Whereas the Father in the last storyhas been equated convincingly with God over the years and listeners oftenidentify with one of the sons or the father, this story has an entirelydifferent cast; it is not a second act of the same play. Here we have a richman who is described as an owner of property who, like many people, got amanager to take care of the property and collect the rent.  You perhaps have run into this. I knowsmall business owners in shopping centers and strip malls that, when they havea complaint, do not talk with the owner, who may be across town, across thecountry, or across the globe reaping income, they talk with the man hired to bethe go-between: the manager. In this case we should think twice beforeassigning any roll of crookedness to the rich man; he was doing business andhad a report, false or not, about his manager skimming money from him. So hecalls him in to the office: “What’s this I hear? Turn in your books, you cannotwork here any more.” The action of the rich man is not the point of the story. Butwe are now invited into the thought process of the employee. Some of you havebeen laid off or terminated in these tough times. But desperate times are lessdesperate with carefully considered measures to deal with income loss. Themanager says to himself: “What am I going to do?” We would do well not to takethe next lines as truth, but more as truth as the caught man sees things. Hesays, “I am not strong enough to dig!” Isn’t he? If he were forced to dig,could he? Or would he just rather not dig? Has his pride gotten in the way as the color of his color whenfrom white to blue; from management to laborer? Is that too much for his ego?Is the idea of pushing dirt instead of paper unseemly? Or could he apply for anew job under his pay grade to put food on his table? He’s not ready to dothat; so he slips into “desperate measures” mode. He also cuts out thepossibility of begging as well, even though, from what I have seen at the endof exit ramps and intersections, it must pay something or they wouldn’t standout there day after day. When visiting Jenny and Brian three weeks ago, I wasshocked to see beggars on street corners wearing reflective vests! When I askedabout it, I was told that beggars actually register with the city and are assignedreflective vests to wear and street corners on which to stand! Begging is controlledby registering them and giving them a place to stand! Who would do it day afterday if it didn’t pay something? But this manager cannot see hanging up hiswhite shirt and tie. So he does something dishonest, believing that his bosscan’t hurt him more than he already has (wrong), and that he can make newfriends who might employ him later. He lets those who owe his boss money givehim less money and puts “paid in full” on the bill. It’s a desperate measure.But people are opportunists. Yes, he got people to take his deal for now. Butwould any one of them really want to hire him knowing that he would just aslikely be unethical if he worked for them as well?  The manager used his position to enhance his presentcondition, but he was dooming his future even more. Martin Luther took thetitle in verse 8 (kyrios) which literally means lord, to mean the Lord Jesus,thereby making it sound as if Jesus blessed the dishonest manager. But there isanother interpretation. The word (kyrios) is not capitalized in verse 9 andthus the NIV and NRSV among other translations decide the word should be masterto keep from thinking the reference is to the Lord Jesus. In that case thetitle would refer back to the manager’s boss: the rich man. You might imagehim, who no longer employees this man, finding out from his new accountant whathis fired manager did. Imagine him pulling the manager aside saying “Off therecord, what you did was quick thinking. I might have done that if I were inyour shoes.” So the parable in that case would not have a hero in the cast ofcharacters at all; it just has a man trying to win points with customersthrough money, that wasn’t his with which to negotiate in the first place! Weshould not be sucked into the idea that such a lying man is commended by Jesus.But Jesus always wanted to make his audience think, and his stories masterfullyleave the audience to put their own epilogue on his three act plays. The masterfinishes his speech in verse 9; only in verse 10 do we certainly get thecomments of Jesus again. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful inmuch.” Could that not mean that if you are even honest and humble enough to getin a labor pool line in pitch darkness for $7.70 an hour, then you will begiven more by the one above you, and those around you, who are watching? “Andwhoever is dishonest in small areas also will have no qualms about beingdishonest in big areas.” If you will lower the bill another man owes yourformer boss after you are already fired, how much more will you do dishonestlyif given the opportunity? As Jesus says, “If you have not been faithful withdishonest wealth, who will entrust true riches to you?” “True riches?” Thatsounds like Heaven talk. Jesus message from this parable might sound somethinglike this: “Do you want to risk sacrificing your soul for just a few dollars?”Do you want to see the look of disappointment in the eyes of your God when youmanipulate for money?” And then Jesus goes on in hyperbolic fashion: “If youwant to sell your soul for money, then money you will serve and worship. Youwill be lost like that manager. But, ifyou want to serve God, then work hard, work smart, but choose the high road.”


 


How important is it to read Jesus’ parables carefullyand not fall into well-worn interpretations of what they say? What would it sayto unemployed people if Jesus blessed dishonesty? There has to be a differentway to look at these amazing parables of Jesus. There is. We will continue tounpack them in weeks ahead. May desperate times not always call for desperatemeasures for you, especially when it comes to money.


Jeffrey SumnerSeptember 19, 2010

09-12-10 THE PANIC OVER LOSING SOMETHING




THE PANIC OVER LOSING SOMETHING


Luke 15: (1-10)


 


As a student in high school science class, in biologywe dissected a frog; in chemistry class, we mixed chemicals in the lab, beingsupervised so we would not mix two chemicals that would create some toxic gas! Alsoin Junior High my father and I had our 18 year old lawn mower engine fail.Instead of getting a new one, he used that event for a bonding time: we went tothe lawn supply store and bought new rings and a piston and spark plug. We wentto the library and borrowed a Briggs and Stratton engine repair book. We tookseveral weeks one winter rebuilding the engine of the mower. Surgeons alsobenefit from studying cadavers to learn how we are put together, just asmechanics and scientists benefit from repair or experiences. But what about atheologian; what about a student of the Bible? Today I invite you to join me inthe Biblical laboratory. It is good to read our Bibles; but for life lessonsthat impact us best, it is better to learn the back stories of passages likeLuke 15 by dissecting or dismantling them.


 


First, these three stories about lost-ness mostcertainly should be read as a group.In most church services like today, an entire chapter is not read, but we mustinclude each story.


Second, each story not only says something aboutwhat or who is lost, it also says something about the finder (searcher).


And third, more than a story about a sheep or acoin can describe, the last story talks about the loss of what is mostprecious: in Jesus’ day it was a father and a son and the panic that could setin when either one lost the other.Let’s begin.


 


First, these three stories about lost-ness mostcertainly should be read as a group. In the first story read today, the one wholost something was a shepherd; in the second story it was a woman; in the laststory it is a father. In the first story that which was lost was a sheep; inthe second story it was a coin; in the third story it was a son. Like any goodstoryteller, Jesus builds the tension in the stories. Stories, like some jokes,build descriptive tension by telling examples in threes. For example, I haveheard countless jokes featuring a minister, a priest, and a rabbi. Mostchildren have grown up with the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, includingmama bear, papa bear and baby bear. In the folk story the bears have a cottagethat the young Goldilocks enters. She tries their porridge, sits in theirchairs, and lies down in their beds.In the story of the Three Little Pigs, each pig finds a man from whom tobuy building equipment to make a small home in which they each could live. Asyou probably recall, one built his house out of straw, one out of wood, and oneout of bricks. A big bad wolf happened to come to each of their houses, (remember,it’s a story!)  asking foradmission to eat each one! One by one he visits their houses, blowing down thefirst two and eating the pigs! Only the third one was safe.  The first two examples in each story arecomparisons; the last example is the one where the story is leading. So today, aswith the pattern of stories told before and after Jesus’ parables of the lost,we have a story with three sections to bring tension and resolution to theplot.


 


Second, each story not only says something about whator who is lost, it also says something about the finder. In 1stcentury Galilee, the first story is that shows value. In those days a shepherd was one of the poorest paidand least educated of workers, but a shepherd would be still counted as aperson and not property, therefore making him a person of value.  In the next story it is a coin that islost. This is a least value storybecause a coin is worth less than a sheep or a son. The searcher in this storyis a woman, a person who was of least value in that day. In those days womenwere property who brought a price for their work, and brought a price when theymarried. In the last case, the father was a person of great value in that day. He provided for his family, contributedwisdom and work for the betterment of his community, and he taught the faithand his trade to his oldest son- the next most important person in the familyof that day.  Jesus has three partsto his story about lost-ness: valuable, less valuable, most valuable.


 


Third, more than a story about a sheep or a coin candescribe, the last story talks about the loss of what is most precious: a humanbeing, yes, but in Jesus’ day that loss of a son was tragic, and the panic thatlikely filled the heart of both the father (the searcher) and the son (thelost) was the point.  The lastsegment of Jesus’ parable is surely where he was leading his listeners in Luke15. But Jesus has to get his listeners there first, so he tells his earlierstories. He starts with a story of a valuable person—a shepherd—and avaluable animal—a sheep. In the firstsegment, a shepherd—charged with guarding and feeding sheep—panicked over hispossible loss of job, reputation, and income when he lost a sheep. Even onelost sheep is not an acceptable loss to whoever the owner is, so the shepherdsets out to look for the lost animal. When he finds the panicked sheep, theanimal is exhausted, but the shepherd’s mind goes back to the flock he leftbehind. So having compassion, he picks up the lost sheep and in a shepherd’scarry, brings the lost sheep back to the fold. We know a sheep, unlike a coin,is a living and breathing animal that can feel panic and loss. But sheep areincapable of making choices that are morally right or wrong. Sheep are some ofthe least bright of creatures that God created! They always need a shepherd orthey can’t survive. That’s why the Bible often describes us as sheep andJesus as shepherd: hoping to instill in us that we simply can’t survive withouta savior! But that is still not thecrux of Jesus’ story. Before the last segment is told, Jesus inserts the storyof less value- the woman and the coin. How many of us know the panic that canset in when you have lost your wallet while shopping, lost a paycheck in yourhouse when bills are due, or lost your car keys when you are far away from home?  Doesn’t your heart start to race, yourhead start to pound, and your thoughts start to get muddled!  You might feel embarrassed and not callanyone until you have retraced your steps in the shopping center, your home, orthe parking lot. But when you find what you lost, don’t you feel relieved andoverjoyed? Have you once called someone to share your joy at finding what youlost? That’s what Jesus imagines as a shrewd observer of human nature. Butnotice the coin in his story cannot feel lost, or afraid, or alone. Coins arenot living objects! They are notbreathing! A sheep and a shepherd are closer to be main point but there isstill not an analogous connecting with a person and with God … yet.


 


  The cruxof the story is the parent and child segment; and, as I said, in the firstcentury the most valuable family members were the father and his sons accordingto birth order. The story shows a father, who is patient and loving, while hisyoungest son is having a time of youthful indiscretion. Although not spoken, welearn that the father has been concerned, even panicked, about his missingyounger son.  When the sonappears, the father, in a swift and certain move to protect him from hisneighbors who would have stoned the boy for treating his father with suchdisrespect, ran … ran inhis robes to embrace the boy, implying to the town that reconciliation hadtaken place when, in fact, it hadn’t. The father was dreadfully upsetover his child being lost, with his whereabouts and condition unknown.  The son was not concerned about hisfather at all, until the big bad world emptied his pockets and made himdesperate enough to eat pig food.Only when he hit his personal bottom did he return to his father, noteven expecting to be treated as family, but to be treated as property. (“Treatme as one of your servants”). And so by the end of the story, the father’s grace more than the son’s remorse reconciled the youngestson to him and saved the son from the harsh treatment the village would haveshown him. But the father’s work wasn’t done yet. He now had the work ofbegging his older son to come into the house to celebrate with him. He wantedto share joy with special people, telling them that his son who was lost wasnow found! But in the end the father is left begging for his oldest son to comein the house too! The twist at the end of the story is ironic: the lost son inthe father’s celebration is no longer the younger one, but the older one.


 


Now we move to 21st century reflection. Inour day our work is important and what we have been entrusted to care for isalso important. In addition money is important, and women are vital parts ofstrong families, churches, professions, and communities. The one who is valuedthe most in our day is not just fathers, but also mothers, and grandfathers,and grandmothers. The children who are valued most in our day are not alwayssons, but also daughters and grandsons and granddaughters. But the analogy isthe same:  God, the Heavenly Parent,gets an unsettled heart when beloved children get lost physically, or emotionally,or spiritually. When a sheep, or a coin, or a child is lost, it is the searcherwho gets the most panicked until the lost is found! God, the Heavenly Parent,didn’t just hope we would one day want to make our home in heaven. In ourlost-ness, God came running down over pastureland in the little town ofBethlehem a long, long time ago, to enter our world; to dwell with us where weare. All we’ve had to do all along is just turn back; and there on life’s road,the Heavenly Father will meet us. God offers that to any of you, or those whoyou know, who are today lost in some way. Remember, when you drift away fromGod, you may not start to panicuntil you get in trouble. But in God’s eyes, the minute the back of your precious head disappears over thehorizon, God feels your loss. It could be that your far country is doing otherthings on Sunday, or deciding to be spiritual instead of religious, or playinginstead of praising, or other far country activities. When that happens, God’s eyeslong to see you again, and God’s heart beats faster until you come back intothose everlasting arms. As panicked as you might get over getting lost, theheart of the Holy One is both broken and frantically worried about children, who like sheep, wander into many dangers, toils,and snares. God, like a father whowaits for the return of his son, God watches the horizon for lost ones toreappear, making their way back from their far country chaos. God chose to meetus in our chaos. And God longs to be reconnected with wandering children of thekingdom, including you, and others who, in God’s eyes, are lost. There are eventhose who, like the older brother, may think they are close to God, but whosehearts betray them. They too are lost.  And oh, what a reunion it is when the ones who were once lostare found, falling back into the embracing and loving arms of God, arms thatseemingly do not want to ever let them go again. Amen.


 


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                             September12, 2010

09-05-10 PAUL’S SHORTEST BIBLICAL LETTER




PAUL’S SHORTEST BIBLICAL LETTER


Philemon 1-21


 


In reading the Biblical stories, especially about theApostle Paul, we are reminded of the ways that people treated prisoners: ironbars, limited food, harsh conditions. In our day, due to jail overcrowding, sentencesget woefully reduced to the detriment of society. Yet conditions behind barsare much more humane than they were 100 years ago in America or 400 years agoin Europe. Visits to sites like the Tower of London remind us of a time ofbeheadings or worse.  But therehave been places for prisoners in every society of every age. Today we arehearing not just about Paul being a prisoner (as he was an awful lot!) but alsoabout one of his cellmates, a slave.Unless we are reading Huckleberry Finn or Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or unlesswe have tuned to the History Channel, we don’t think much about slaverytoday.  At the end of the service,however, we will sing a beloved song, Amazing Grace, written by a man who transportedand disciplined slaves who were aboard his ship- John Newton. In a wave of hugeremorse and confession, he asked God to forgive him, and when he believed thatGod did, Newton wrote the words to his most famous hymn.  So yes, there have been people inbondage over the ages, and there arestill those in bondage around the world.Some are in iron shackles; some have a tracking device on their person;some are in abusive relationships; some did not get to file proper restrainingorders. And some are in the horrendous slavery of prostitution or childpornography. Prisoners of war often are, and have been, treated like slaves, orworse.  Do you know some people whofeel shackled in some way? Do you, in some way, feel shackled?  Some who can no longer see well, feelconstrained when they wish they could drive. Some who have lost their hearing,feel constrained when their hearing cuts them out of conversations.  Those experiences are confining; butthere are places in our world where people are captured and brutalized; andduring Biblical times we know that people bought and sold slaves and property,denying them their human dignity. And let’s just name it: the United States isnot a stranger to slavery. So as we hear this story about a slave, perhaps wehear it with the humanizing literary license that Mark Twain used with Jim, arunaway slave, but that would be a mistake. In this short letter from prison,Paul is a prisoner, but his status as a Roman citizen gives him authority, histraining by the great Rabbi Gamaliel gives him wisdom, and his Christianitygives him the courage to make a bold request. Paul is selflessly thinking aboutOnesimus, who he says has become like a son to him. He has already planted theidea of God as Father in verse 3 to open the suggestion of familyrelationships. He refers to Onesimus as “his child” in verse 10 which opens thedoor to an otherwise unexpected request to Philemon in verse 16: to welcome hisslave back as a brother.  He feelsprotective about his life, and proud that he has been transformed by thegospel. Paul is testing the waters; if Onesimus is released into the hands of aharsh slave owner, he is seeing if he might instead convince Philemon to make ahuge leap: that welcome Onesimus as a brother in Christ instead of property. Ifnot, Onesimus could do better work for Christ along side of Paul. Paul isclever with his wording, and shows a mastery of the ways of winning people. Weare most fortunate to have this personal letter of his.


 


From these 25 verses, what is Paul doing? Isn’t he, insome ways, doing what you and I have done before? Isn’t he going to bat forsomeone who cannot bat for himself because he has no standing or status? Isn’the willing to pay the price for any wrong that transpired that got him intothis situation? What a Christ-like thing Paul says: “Welcome him as you wouldwelcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge thatto my account.” Can you think of times when you have paid the price for thewrong someone else has done? I can think of those times; as a parent, as afriend, as a worker, as a student, sometimes we are presented with a bind thatwe think we can fix. We say, “I did it” when someone else did wrong; or we say“I’ll pay for it” when someone else should pay. At other times, we let anotherperson take the consequences. Sometimes haven’t you also made emotionalsacrifices for someone else? Paul not only pulls out his wallet, he pulls outhis heart with it. Then, to show he means it, he says “I, Paul, am writing thiswith my own hand; I will repay it.” Why, that’s as good as a signature with anotary!  And then he shares thenews of his impending freedom with instructions that some people would dread:“Prepare your guest room for me! I am hoping you and we’ll continue ourfriendship!”


 


 Jesussays something similar to each one of us. First of all, knocks on the door ofeach of our hearts. Some have already invited him in to stay there; others haveyet to do so; others may never do it. But today, Jesus invites us those whohave opened that door to share the meal that he has prepared! It is a HolyCommunion meal; and like the meal that Paul hopes will one day soon includePhilemon, and Onesimus, and Paul, all are invited by the grace of the Lord JesusChrist.


 


Today I conclude with this; there are people, eventoday, who have paid financially and emotionally for someone else whose lifehas gotten broken or out of control. There is a Lord who ransomed the souls ofdead slaves and the repentant heart of slave-ship captain named John Newtonages ago and he put his gratitude down on paper with a song called “AmazingGrace.”  There is also a Lord whotook the nails for us! And we are blessed to have the God of great love whohears people like you, and me, and the Apostle Paul, pleading the case of yetanother lost soul: of one who is a slave to materialism, or a slave to atyrant, or a slave to a foreign regime, or a slave to a drug, or a slave to arelationship, who out of amazing grace puts people in our path to show us theway to wholeness.  To all of thosepeople, who turn to Christ, both the lost and the found, the Lord says “Come.The room has been prepared; the table has been set. Let this be a day of newbeginnings for you!”



Jeffrey A. SumnerSeptember 5, 2010