Paul’s Master Class: Philemon

Delivered at Ames UCC on August 18, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit  participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

THAT DARN PAUL

You know how I always want to fight with Paul because his exclusivist and at times super sexist theology makes me nuts and flies in the face of Jesus’ own Way?

Well, this letter is a big exception.

As I sat with the whole of Paul’s letter to Philemon, which does not usually appear in preaching schedules even in part, I realized that what we have here is master class in discipleship as relationship.

Let’s start with the basic content of the letter.

CONTENT

Paul is in prison, which happened a few times: two years in Ceseara, and then two multi-years stints in Rome, all as a result of his religious fervor. From prison, Paul writes to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and their house church. He begins with greetings and prayers and thanksgiving for the way Philemon and friends have refreshed Paul’s heart. Then Paul asks Philemon to somehow change the nature of his relationship with a person named Onesimus.

Onesimus is a slave of Philemon’s who, for reasons we don’t know, has been with Paul in prison. Did he run away from Philemon to Paul, seeking help? Or did Philemon send Onesimus to Paul for Paul’s care, as is recorded with another slave in the letter to the Philippians?

Also unclear is what exactly Paul wants to change.

Scholars suggest it could be for Philemon to take Onesimus back with forgiveness for whatever may have transpired (Paul refers to debts) or maybe Paul wants Philemon to keep Onesimus with Paul long-term or maybe Paul wants Philemon to set Onesimus free and receive him as an equal in the house church.

We just don’t know for sure, which is why this letter has been so useful for both anti- and pro-slavery forces over the years.

Paul goes on to ask that Philemon and the church be ready to receive Paul as a guest. And, finally, Paul offers greetings from other disciples.

So that’s the content. Now let’s look at the form, because there lies Paul’s true gift.

FORM

First, though Paul’s big ask is of Philemon, he addresses the letter to the whole of the congregation. This could, of course, look like shaming. Calling someone out in front of others can be very unkind. Or, it could indicate that there are community-wide stakes in our personal choices and community-wide support. Though Philemon has the power in the relationship with Onesimus, that relationship does not exist in isolation, but within a web of connections. The body of Christ includes all bodies.

Second, Paul writes

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

Paul has substantial moral authority within this ecclesia. He is their evangelist, he is their teacher, he is the one who invited them to wade in the waters with the Christ. So this could have been a very short note saying, “Phil, let O go. Thanks, P.” Instead, Paul details how Onesimus has become part of the flock, has become a true sibling. Then Paul asks Philemon to make the choice as an act of faith, rather than obedience,

in order that (his) good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.

Paul is preserving Philemon’s personal agency while inviting him to be a person of greater integrity at the same time.

Third, and final, there is the issue of Philemon’s and Onesimus’ names. Philemon can mean “good one” or “loving” or “he who shows kindness.” Onesimus’ name can mean “handy” or “useful” or “beneficial.” Now, I haven’t found any academic arguments or research on this, and have no reason to believe these were not their actual names, but it feels like there is something to Paul writing a letter to Kind One asking him to understand his relationship with Handy differently.

If a mentor of mine wrote, “Dear Good Heart, I write on behalf of Valuable,” I might listen more closely, for my mentor would be calling on and teaching me about my inherent decency and the inherent worth of the other.

So Paul, who does not pull any punches in his work to spread his understanding of the gospel, throughout this letter uses a gentle hand to encourage a fellow disciple to grow in his faith through his relationship with another.

And isn’t that the call to us all?

DISCIPLESHIP IS RELATIONSHIP

Pr. Hannah once said to me, and I have her permission to share this, that it would be so much easier to go to a much larger church. You can walk in, get your Jesus jolt, and walk out without having to know anyone or be known by anyone. There is no obligation in anonymity, no risk.

But, she continued, she is here because being known and knowing is part of the point.

Being in real relationship with fellow seekers over Sundays and years, is what makes for a faith that transforms.

It isn’t easy, of course. If we don’t have to know each other we don’t risk falling in love with each other or becoming implicated in each other’s living and dying. Losing Pauletti and Charlie within a month of each other has been painful.

But then who will give us “much joy and encouragement” when we are imprisoned, literally or by disease or by antipathy? And whose hearts, or in the Biblical Greek, splachna—which literally means guts, the ancient site of all emotions—whose splachna will we lose the opportunity to refresh when they are likewise bound?2019.8.18 relationship

From Adam and Eve to Abram and Sarai; from Ruth and Naomi to Mary and Joseph; from Martha and Mary to Jesus and Judas; from Paul and Philemon and Onesimus, we are taught that discipleship, devotion to God requires relationship.

BLESSING

We live in a vast world where we are encouraged, even pressured, to constantly wear masks of success and even perfection, where rhetorical and actual violence are the primary means of dialogue. In the midst of that we can forget that the damage we do to each other, and to ourselves, is damage to the whole.

But God continues to open spaces where we can be ourselves just as we are, ourselves as we are still becoming, in nurturance and accountability. It will mean wrestling with frustrating theologies and having uncomfortable public conversations, but it will certainly also include tender care and camaraderie, guides for the way and a fellowship that renders meaningless all human barriers.

Paul’s final gift to us is his letter’s conclusion:

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

This is described by scholars as “a blessing on the recipient’s inmost being.”[i]

May you feel your inmost being blessed for having come here together today.

AMEN

[i] Levine, Amy-Jill and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors. The Jewish Annotated New Testament (2nd Edition). (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). Page 459.

Are We Ready? Matthew 5.1–20

Delivered at Ames UCC on January 27, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

2019.1.27 blessingNOT THE AUDIENCE
We are not the intended audience for this teaching.

Known as the Sermon on the Mount and The Beatitudes, it is one of the most reproduced portions of scripture but it was not originally intended for us, or for any but a very few.

I mentioned last week that the gospel of Matthew is clearly intended for a Jewish audience. Christianity was not fully independent of Judaism until a few centuries after Jesus’s ministry, murder, and mystery. So this gospel is speaking to fellow Jewish people that Matthew and the Matthean community wanted to bring along to their new understanding of Way. We 21st-century Christians have to keep that in mind throughout our study of this gospel.

But the audience for the Sermon on the Mount, the original oral one, was even smaller.

After his baptism and after his wilderness vision quest, Jesus calls Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John as disciples. Together, they travel all over Syria and Judea, with Jesus sharing the good news of God’s present kin-dom, and healing the sick. He becomes very popular and draws great crowds.

When Jesus sees the crowds, chapter 5 begins, he retreats to a mountain, alone. He is later joined by the disciples. Not all 12 of them: not even the Matthew for whom this gospel is named is a disciple yet. So what we hear and read today is a written account of a private teaching between Jesus and a handful of specific people that he had drawn to himself. Why?

WHY?
Why does Jesus keep this to only a few? It is a fantastic sermon.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…

“Blessed are those who mourn…

“Blessed are the meek…

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…

“Blessed are the merciful…

“Blessed are the pure in heart…

“Blessed are the peacemakers…

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…

“Blessed are you when people revile you…

That’s revival-level preaching, a real barn-burning, show-stopper. So why did Jesus keep it just to the first few disciples?

Well, secret or semiprivate teachings like this are not so unusual in our tradition. In the gospel of John, for example, after Mary Magdalene has found the empty tomb, it says that

Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. (20.30)

That used to make me nuts. Why didn’t someone write them down? Argh!

It isn’t until recently that I’ve come to appreciate the answer to my question: because maybe not everyone is ready. Because there is a stream of Christianity, perhaps better illustrated outside of the primary, canonical gospels, that stresses preparedness for Christ’s deeper truths.

Let’s take, for instance, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.

GOSPEL OF MARY MAGDALENE
In the canonical gospels, we learn that Mary was healed by Jesus of seven demons, a number that indicates she is perfectly healed. She then supported him on his travels. She was at his cross and his burial and then at the empty tomb. She then became the disciple to the disciples, sharing with them the good news of Easter morning. Mary Magdalene is the second most-referenced woman in the gospels after Mary the mother of Jesus.

Mary Magdalene’s gospel was written down in the second century, though it likely circulated from the time of Christ until the early 300s. It is unclear whether the Magdalene’s gospel was then suppressed or simply fell out of popularity and no one taught or copied it any longer. In the era when Mary’s gospel was active, written accounts of Christ were only supplements to the real space of learning: the dialogue between teacher and student. That relationship was paramount, essential because of the intimacy involved and the active participation it required.

In Mary’s gospel follows that model, with the risen Christ appearing to only Mary and the male disciples. When he leaves, the male disciples panic because they are afraid that if they follow Jesus’s teaching, they will get killed like he did. Mary reassures them by sharing a private encounter she alone had with the risen Christ. It begins with the Christ saying

Blessed are you that you did not waver at the sight of Me. (7.9)

There is a pattern, then, within both the canonical and the extra-Biblical accounts of Jesus Christ passing on teachings to only a few or even one. The implication is that not everyone can stand, unwavering, in their encounter with holiness. Not everyone is read for the lessons that holiness has to teach.

UNWAVERING
Are we? Are we ready to hear that the poor and the meek and the peacemakers are a blessing?

Remember the definition of blessings that I offered last September: conduits of holiness that can open the receiver of the blessing to the hope and help of God.1 That’s from United Methodist pastor Jan Richardson. Author, philosopher, and former priest John O’Donohue adds that we get the word blessing from an older word that means “to sanctify with blood.” Blessings, the seemingly abstract, he writes, are really as earthy as the blood that pumps through our hearts.2

Taken together, blessings are embodied vessels to God.

What does it mean that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are embodied vessels to God? What does it mean that the persecuted and reviled are embodied vessels to God?

I am not sure how to answer those questions without sounding completely self-serving or self-righteous, in equal measures. Either I am calling someone who is mourning a special gift from God, which makes that person and their suffering an object for my own transformation, or I’m saying my desire for justice makes me a special gift from God, and I think we know the problem and risk there. What seems so simple, so beautiful at first pass proves to be complicated, puzzling at the second.

But Jesus thought the first four disciples were ready to receive it, unwavering. In abandoning their professions to follow Jesus, in their witness of his healings and teachings, Jesus found them ready for what the crowds were not.

And because we are reading it today, they must have disagreed with him. They and those who followed must have decided the Beatitudes were worth sharing even with the unprepared, even with the wavering.

BECOME THE AUDIENCE
I thank God for that decision.

As recent years have shown, we can be pretty poor storytellers on our own. On our own we can tell a pretty bad story about the poor, the meek, the peacemaker. So even if we understand the Sermon on the Mount’s meaning but through a glass dimly, it tells a far more hopeful and redeeming story about our life together than we can on our own.

And so we will keep studying it. We will keep making ourselves the audience.

As the membership anniversaries we just celebrated, and the new membership promises we will give and receive in a few minutes show, we want to follow the examples of Mary Magdalene and the male disciples. We want to seek out the divine, to sit at the feet of holiness, sometimes alone, and sometimes with the growing crowd of this dear church.

Even if we are not ourselves merciful or pure in heart, we want to be.

In a world riven by destructive humanity, our steadfast, unwavering attention to this teaching may allow us to become a blessing, to become embodied vessels for our creative God.

AMEN

1Richardson, Jan. 2015. Circle of grace. Orlando, FL: Wanton Gospeller Press, pp. xiv–xv.
2O’Donohue, John. 2008. Bless the space between us. New York, NY: Doubleday, p 119.

Already and Always a Blessing: Genesis 12.1–9


2018.9.13 spark
Delivered at Ames UCC
on September 16, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

NOT MUCH
Well, there’s not really enough in this passage for me to work with, is there? The action is pretty limited: God tells Abram to go, he does, God promises Abram some land, Abram builds an altar.

There isn’t much language or symbolism for me to unpack, either. Bethel can mean “house of God” and if Bethel, the house of God or the garden of Eden, is to the west of where Abram built an altar, we could hear that to the east of Eden Abram still found cause to thank God. To echo last week’s story, despite how far humanity had come from the garden, Abram as everyman constructs a reminder that God is present no matter where we go.

In a different context, I might speak to the issue of God offering up another peoples’ land to Abram, but I think that would be a negative lesson, and we have enough negative lessons these days.

So, again, not really enough to work with for a sermon. I wonder if Abram felt the same way about himself when God called him out.

CALLED
We don’t know anything about Abram at this point beyond his age of 75, that he is a descendent of Noah, and that his wife Sarai is infertile.

We do not know anything of Abram’s character or why God would choose him. There are no tales of his chivalry or wisdom or might or piety. Noah, his great-to-the-eight grandfather, is described as a blameless and righteous man, but not Abram.

Abram is just an old guy, by ancient Mesopotamian standards, who lives with his wife and nephew, and one day is told by God “You shall be a blessing and all the earth shall be blessed through you.”

Woah! Where did that come from, God? I wonder if Abram felt confused and overwhelmed, and like maybe he didn’t have enough for God to work with, not enough for blessing the whole earth. Perhaps you don’t believe you have enough to be a blessing either.
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