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“Hard Labor”– Ps. 139:1-6, 13-18, Philemon 1-21– Sept. 4, 2016

From what I hear, and what I long for myself, what most people look for in a sermon is something they can “take home” with them, something they can apply to their everyday life, something, as is sometimes said, not just for Sunday morning but for the rest of the week. I am grateful when someone tells me they’ve found that in a sermon of mine. And then I try also to remember what my mother told me when I used to send her copies of my weekly sermons–

“Sometimes they’re way over my head,” she said. Noted, Mom. Thanks for that reminder not to get too abstract and high-minded. “Keep it real, Mary.”

But, honestly, sometimes the text for the day is a little too “real.” I find myself squirming, wondering either what in the world it might possibly mean for us who live 2000 or more years after the text was written down OR thinking, wow, human beings haven’t really changed all that much in 2- or 3000 years, have we? We still can’t do what God seems to want us to do.

Take, for example, the passage David just read for us from Philemon. We hardly ever read Philemon, mainly because you have to read the whole thing to make any sense of it. The whole letter is only 25 verses long, and it’s about slavery. Owning another human being. Paul is writing to his friend Philemon–and to the church or community gathered around Philemon–to tell him that he’s sending his slave Onesimus back to him.

“Onesimus” was a pretty common name for slaves–it meant “useful.” Onesimus apparently left Philemon’s house–fled? escaped? which would have a risky thing to do–or perhaps left with Philemon’s permission, and somehow met up with Paul and became a Christian. Paul talks about Onesimus as becoming his son, not only “useful” to him, but also beloved. Kind of an awkward situation, when the head of one of the churches you started is supposedly the owner of this young man.

So Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter, urging him, a little short of commanding him, to treat Onesimus as a brother in Christ, in fact, to treat Onesimus as though he were Paul himself. Paul doesn’t tell Philemon to free his slave; Paul, the apostle of Christ, says nothing about the evils of slavery or of owning another person. Paul lives within a culture in which slavery is a given. Yes, many slaves were treated kindly by their owners, even, in some instances, like family, and received food and shelter which they otherwise might have been hard-pressed to find. That was true in our own country during our period of owning African-American slaves. But it was certainly not the whole story. Not only was it the owning of human beings–the buying and selling of human beings–but the story is by and large one of brutality, exploitation, abuse, even savagery.

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC is in the process of building The National Museum of African American History and Culture. I was struck by the description of one of the objects that will be on display in the museum–a pair of iron shackles, “likely for a slave ship, early 18th or 19th century,” the label says.

If these shackles could speak, [writes Charles Johnson, author of the book Middle Passage]“they would say it took the resources of an entire society to create slave ships. Every shipboard item pointed to not only the financiers but also the merchants who prepared barrels of salted beef and the workers who created tools of restraint. A medical device adapted for the trade, the speculum oris, was used to force open the mouths of slaves who refused to eat. Everyone in slave trading societies, even those who never owned a slave, was implicated. No one in a country that profited from traffic in slaves was innocent. [The Smithsonian, Sept. 2016, p. 63]

The majority of our founding fathers owned slaves. John Adams, one of our Congregational forbears who defended the runaway slaves aboard the Amistad, after which the Amistad Chapel at our UCC national headquarters is named, was a fierce abolitionist, but “No one in a country that profited from traffic in slaves was innocent.”

You may have heard of Georgetown University’s decision this week to give special preference in admissions to descendants of the slaves owned and sold by the Jesuits to help pay off the university’s debt in 1868. They also will be re-naming two of the buildings named after men who were slave-owners. “As Americans,” one member of the working group said, “we’re especially allergic to taking responsibility for the mistakes and crimes in our national history.” (America, National Catholic Review) The American history that ost of us here learned in school is not the whole story. Only recently have the other parts of our history–the contributions of African Americans and of women, for example, but also the harsher, even detestible parts, like the genocide of native Americans the the truth of slavery–only now are we acknowledging that.

Last Sunday was the 61st anniversary of the killing of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old boy who was pulled out of his grandparents’ home by 2 white men with guns in Money, MS, allegedly because he had whistled at a white woman. Emmett’s body was later found, beaten, his eyes gouged out, shot in the head, weighted down and thrown into the Tallahatchie River. His killers were quickly acquitted by an all-white jury and said that they had initially intended just to shake the boy up, but when he was unrepentant, they couldn’t allow a you-know-what not to know his place.

This is our history. This is a given in our culture, and like the iron shackles from the slave ship, no one in a society that allows acts like this, or what happens daily in our streets and cities is innocent. We live in the whitest state in the nation and most of us, I’ll bet, do not consider ourselves racist. But are we really innocent in this? Have we even begun to examine the privilege we simply assume because most of us are white? “O God, you have searched me and known me,” the psalmist says. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, as the song says.

This is hard stuff–hard labor–on this last Sunday of summer. Like reading Paul’s letter to Philemon, urging him to take back his slave and treat him kindly, commentator Kate Matthews says, “At the very least it sheds light on the tension that occurs when we shine the light of the gospel on our culture and, intentionally or not, expose its injustices.” When we recognize how we accommodate those injustices, it rightly makes us uncomfortable. “Maybe it’s uncomfortable,” Matthews writes, “but surely it’s a ‘good’ and appropriate kind of discomfort, the kind that unsettles and eventually dislodges injustice from its entrenched places of power and privilege.” [sermonseeds, 9/4/16]

Of course it’s not just slavery and racism that the gospel calls us to recognize, acknow-ledge our complicity, and maybe, hopefully, strengthens us to do something to dislodge, but so many other aspects of our lives. Just this morning, the cup of coffee or tea we drank came most likely from a farm or plantation far from Vermont, perhaps through a Fair Trade organization, but even then, transported here by greenhouse gas-producing means. The clothes we are wearing came from where? Made by whom and under what conditions? I checked the label on my dress this a.m.–”LL Bean…Made in Cambodia.” We can drive ourselves crazy trying to be pure and expend all sorts of energy trying to be untainted that might be better off spent in advocating for change.

But we must understand that we live in a web of relationship, from which there is no escape. We simply are connected to one another and to the whole world. How we exert our influence, what we put out into that web, is our choice. We can join the UCC Economic Justice Movement, for example, and receive action alerts periodically. We can support organizations that are working for racial justice, support an historically black college like Dillard University in New Orleans, contributing to the scholarship started by the Vt. Conference in honor of one of the first black Congregational ministers. We can pick any point in this whole web of injustice and exploitation, including our own unexamined assumptions, and move “out of our entrenched places of power and privilege.”

And the thing is, wherever we find ourselves, at whatever level of innocence or guilt we think we’re on, God will meet us there. “Where can I go from your spirit?” the psalmist asks. “Or where can I flee from your presence…You have searched me and known me.” And whoever we are, wherever we are on life’s journey, we are welcomed to claim that we are part of the Body of Christ, we are part of the one loaf and one cup. We are invited to the table, not because we are perfect or totally innocent, but because we broken and have strayed from God’s path. We are invited to this meal, not because life is supposed to be easy, but because it is hard, and we need one another. We are invited to be made whole, to be reminded that in this bread and cup we are united with one another, with all of God’s children, and with God’s very Self. Love invites us here.

So, come to the table. Be fed. Quench your thirst. Know that it is Christ who is both Host and Guest beside us. Let us keep the feast. Amen.

Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark


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