Lectionary 23C (September 8, 2019)

Is Jesus throwing shade at our special projects campaign? “Don’t start a tower without calculating the cost, or else you’ll quit, and the neighbors will laugh at you”? Well, we have estimated the costs of roofing, flooring, and the other work around here. Folks have obtained bids and estimates and we know what we have, what we want, when we plan to do the work, and we are giving money. So, no, Jesus. Go badmouth some other church’s capital campaign.

            Actually, Jesus is talking about a particular sort of farm building. Designs varied, but the idea was to build a secure place to store important farm equipment. Atop the tower, guards watched the farmland. If trouble came, guards would protect the workers or signal for them to shelter in the tower. Of course, they could also watch the workers and make sure they’re working. You can imagine the workers’ attitude toward the tower. You always labor under a watchful eye, but that eye looks out for trouble, and you can run to the tower for safety. The structure orders life and can be good or constricting.

            Jesus talks about another structure: the family. The family structure orders life and can be good. Jesus alarms us with his words, “hate your mother and father, spouse and children.” The word we translate “hate” has to do with leaving, but it is probably good we translate it as “hate” because that captures the disturbing force of what Jesus says. It’s rejection of family. This family structure that can be good, also has its problems. The structure can be constricting, oppressive. Jesus names roles within the family. In the words of New Testament theologian Francois Bovon, the hate Jesus mentions “does not attack persons, but what they represent.” That is, hierarchical roles and the social isolation that comes from those roles. Being head of householdisolates you. Being a nobody umpteenth child isolates you. In a sense, Jesus says we must leave these social constructs, including our own. That’s the kicker. I’m perfectly happy telling people above me on the social ladder to take a hike. When it comes to my own routines, I am not so happy to quit them. I benefit from the structure.

            One structure prevalent in the New Testament era and present throughout human history is slavery. Slavery gets put front and center today because of our Second Reading, most of Paul’s Letter to Philemon. For such a short letter it says much. At the center of the letter is a slave named Onesimus. Onesimus is Greek for “Profitable.” Names in those days were regular everyday words. My name, Timothy, means Honoring God, but I have to tell you that. My grandfather’s name, Victor, means victor, winner. I don’t have to tell you that. In those days names were more like my grandfather’s name and less like mine. We all knew what they meant. If you had a bunch of kids and ran out of favorite names, you started numbering the kids. Octavian? Eight. Kid number eight. And if you buy a slave and expect to make a lot of money off him, you name him Profitable. It was a common slave name.

            Profitable ran away from his owner, Philamon. We don’t know why. Profitable ran to Paul, who identifies himself as a prisoner. Paul is not at the state pen or the county jail. Paul is under special military guard. A Roman soldier is always with him, because Paul is a criminal disturber of the peace for preaching Christ, but he is also a Roman citizen demanding a trial. He moves around with the soldiers wherever they go. He can have visitors and servants. We read that with him are Timothy, Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke—who are not under guard—and Epaphras—who is under guard. Profitable goes to Paul.

            Paul writes a remarkable letter to Philemon, Profitable’s owner. He challenges Philemon to undermine the fabric of society. He writes, “Phil, I want you to accept Profitable as your brother, and I want you to do it because of Christ and not because of me.” Paul attacks a lot of structures, here. First, if Phil does this, he loses Profitable as a slave. Moreover, he misses out on honor. Society expected you to free your slaves (though you were not required). Usually, a faithful slave who reached age 30 got freed. When you freed them they became your social clients. It was better for your status to be a patron of free clients than an owner of slaves. What you did not do was promote your freed slaves to sibling status! That gains you nothing. Paul wants Phil to accept Profitable as a social equal!

            Paul could demand this. The Church that meets in Philemon’s house is one Paul started. And while the Church is a countercultural thing, it exists in that patron-client world. Paul as founder is patron. Philemon as church member is client. Paul could write: “Dear Phil. Free Profitable. Love Paul.” He doesn’t. He writes, “I want you to do this because of Christ’s love in you.” Then, Paul completely lowers his status. “If you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” Paul is not Phil’s partner; he’s his patron. Paul gives up his status and says, “I want you to do the same thing.” Then, I love this part. He writes, If Profitable has cost you anything, I will cover it… “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.” Philemon’s not going to be able to ask for money after that gets read.

            Paul has challenged the patron-client structure, the profit and loss structure, the institution of slavery, and basic family structures. That’s not bad for a short letter. Paul wants a Church that’s unlike any family on Earth: everyone is equal under Christ, and Christ is a former crucified convict who is on the loose since that Easter resurrection. This challenges a lot of social structures and is not a little disturbing. I do not doubt that Profitable would rather be free than be a slave. But he is going to lose the benefits of a structure that governed and protected him. Phil’s probably okay with being Paul’s partner, but his loss of client status means he cannot appeal to Paul’s status. He cannot say, “Well, I am one of Paul’s people.” He just becomes Phil.

            And Paul? He’s just out there, urging people to act out of love, claiming no status, while he is, remember, still under military guard. All these people are going to lose the benefits of the structure. That’s unnerving. Just as it would be unnerving to the farm laborers in the gospel to go without a watchtower. People will laugh, but more importantly the laborers have no guards, no place to hide and shelter. But they are free. No one is yelling “work faster.” No one is cheating them on wages or beating them up. They lose the benefits of the structure and gain Christian freedom. It’s a good trade. It is a trade. It’s a good trade.

            Today we benefit from structure Paul would challenge in a present-day letter to Philemon. Or, since names were everyday words, Affectionate One. That’s what Philemon means. Paul probably means Little. Little’s Letter to Affectionate. Dear Affectionate. I want you to want freedom in Christ. There are people in our lives who are Profitable to you. I want you to treat them instead as equals. We profit from cheap labor. Our clothes, our toys, our electronics, even some of our food is made by people who will not earn enough to survive, and that’s why we can afford it. I want those people to be our siblings. We benefit from privileges of the system. Men make more than women, whites more than blacks or Latinos. I want those who earn less to be siblings to those who make more. Some of us get all the Good News of God in Jesus. The religion seems tailored to their lives, about their first world problems, and reinforces how they made the right choices. Others, meanwhile, the religion seems to say they’re just outta luck, wait till heaven. These two groups should be siblings. I want you to treat everyone as such. I could make you do it but prefer to remind you of our Crucified Outlaw God, and also I am only your sibling and cannot compel you. Love, Little. PS: We all remember what you were like before.

            That’s what Jesus calls for in the Gospel. It’s not lawlessness. Jesus isn’t advocating the elimination of all rules so we can have a showdown in which the Will to Power determines top dog. It’s not complete lack of structure. We need structures. We need physical structures, like our building. The building and the work done on it matter because in this building we try to live out Jesus’ call to live as siblings in Christ. The building matters because in it we share the meal at which our crucified outlaw god welcomes us as equals; because in it support groups can meet and educational programs can happen; because in it people who have no place to call home can sleep; because in it we hear and speak and sing God’s call to us to trade, to trade our benefits from structures that harm others and ourselves, and to receive the scary, exhilarating freedom that only Christ can give us.