Sunday sermon from September 8, 2013
Text: Philemon: 1-21
Given at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, VA
Well, it seems that summer has finally come to an end. Of course some of you went back to school almost a month ago, so you may think that I am way late to the party here. And somebody else out there will want to say that summer doesn’t officially end for another couple of weeks, and maybe there’s a heat wave still waiting for us before the fall really kicks in. But I think we have more reliable markers for the beginning of fall than back-to-school nights and weather changes. Because you and I both know that the real sign that summer has come to an end and that the fall is upon us is that today is the first week of the 2013 season of the National Football League. Kickoff is at one, people, and so I ask you that perennial question — are you, in fact, ready for some football?
But of course, for its players, the 2013 season has been underway all summer long. The truth is that the 2013 season really began back in April and May in the annual ritual of every team’s so-called “voluntary” minicamps. A voluntary minicamp is a four or five day organized workout – there’s almost never any actual football contact – for veterans and rookies alike. They’re not paid much for going – maybe a few hundred bucks, a stipend, but still, however unlikely it may sound, everybody goes. See, you can be invited to a voluntary minicamp with no guarantee of a roster spot, which means that for the guys looking for a way in, the voluntary minicamp really stretches the definition of voluntary. And even for veterans, it seems every year come April or May we have some made-up scandal – probably by NFL beat writers who frankly don’t have anything else to do for a few months – based on some star player’s refusal to come to a voluntary minicamp. Which, on the face of it, seems preposterous. Because it’s supposed to be voluntary. It’s right there in the name – a voluntary minicamp. But the worst kept secret in football is that there’s nothing voluntary about a voluntary minicamp. If you know what’s good for you, if you want any chance of making that week one roster or even just to avoid being embarrassed in the national media, then there’s nothing voluntary about voluntary.
So why not just make them mandatory minicamps? As I understand it, the players’ union, understandably concerned about the physical wear and tear of a long season, wants to make sure that players don’t undergo any undue exposure to injury, so it insists on the language of voluntary. In some ways, for the young guys, I understand it: they’re trying to establish themselves, they’re trying to compete for a spot on the team, and for them a voluntary minicamp is just another name for an audition. But if you’re a veteran. If you’re already on the team; if you’ve already been paid more than we can possibly imagine, where’s the motivation to get out of bed before dawn three months before preseason even begins and go to a long grueling workout? Who in their right mind is going to do that, unless voluntary doesn’t really mean voluntary? So why not call a spade a spade? Why not put it in the contract? Why not put it in the rules? Otherwise they’re stuck in this ridiculous paradox, where voluntary means “You don’t have to. But you kinda have to.” So if for no other reason than simply the integrity of the language, can’t we make it mandatory?
I ask because our text today is at its heart a question about what to do when voluntary doesn’t really sound so voluntary. It’s right there in the language of Paul’s letter to his good friend Philemon. At some point in his travels Paul has encountered a runaway slave belonging to Philemon, a slave named Onesimus, and they have become close friends. Now, we don’t know what prompted Onesimus to run away in the first place, but the rather startling occasion of this letter is that Paul is sending Onesimus back to his former owner, both of them among Paul’s early Christian converts, in the expectation that Philemon will live out some of his new Christian identity and receive his former slave, in Paul’s words “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” Paul’s asking a difficult thing. There’s some precedence in Roman society for the friend of a slaveowner to intervene for clemency on behalf of a runaway, but by no means is Philemon under any obligation to do it: by Roman law, Onesimus is his property and Philemon is free to do with his property as he sees fit.
And of course one imagines that Paul could have said, “Well, that’s all well and good, but your new Christian life has some requirements.” One imagines that Paul could have said “You know, you signed up for a certain kind of discipleship and we have rules, too, and one of our rules is precisely that in Christ there is neither slave nor free.” One imagines that Paul might have even bothered somewhere in here to say something about the injustice of the institution of slavery in the first place, or perhaps that he could have – perish the thought – not even sent the slave back to his slave owner to begin with. I mean, that’s how this story is supposed to go, right? One imagines that Paul could have said – or done – a lot of things that would make it clear that the Roman rules are wrong and the Christian rules are right and somebody, somewhere needs to play by the right rules. But instead he makes it voluntary. He wants his friend to welcome the former slave back home, and he wants him to do it … voluntarily.
I hope you can see the problem here. At its most sympathetic reading this letter seems to confront the horrific institution of slavery with nothing more than Paul asking nicely. It seems like the cheap and easy way out. In fact in our own history this letter has been used as a justification for slavery itself; after all, if the institution were really so evil, surely Paul would have given us the kind of theological takedown that we see of other social institutions in other of his letters. I mean, that’s how the world gets better, right, when we change the rules? Slavery didn’t go out the door because some people got together and asked nicely. Slavery didn’t go out the door because American slaveowners decided to free their own slaves out of their own spirit of volunteerism. No, we fought to change the rules. The institution itself was abolished. In its wake, all kinds of new rules and laws went into place to prevent just that kind of systematic oppression and racism: we desegregated schools; we desegregated communities; we opened up the ballot box; we made the world a better and more just place by changing the rules, not by asking nicely for volunteers.
But here’s the thing. Slavery may be gone, but racism is in full effect. As a kid I went to a magnet school in the Atlanta suburbs, which means that kids were bused from all over the county as part of the city’s ongoing attempt at compliance with Supreme Court rulings on school desegregation. And I’d like to tell you that my group of friends spanned the racial spectrum, but of course that wasn’t true. And I’d like to tell you that the reason I had mostly white friends was because I was friends with the people on my bus and the bus was serving largely white neighborhoods, and if only we had mixed neighborhoods then of course we’d have mixed social groups, which means that it’s all really about economics and if we just fixed the economic rules then the rest of this would sort itself out. But I’m not so sure. Because mostly I just remember the day that an observer came to the school and in preparation our teacher told us in no uncertain terms that we should rearrange ourselves so that all of the tables in the classroom had some diversity to them. So many of the rules had already been changed so that we would sit at table with people who didn’t look like us, and still, at the end of the day, we needed one more rule to really make us look the part. It turns out that we were not so integrated after all. It turns out that desegregation was easy compared with real true integration. That changing the laws was easy compared to changing ourselves.
So when Paul asks Philemon to volunteer, it’s not that Paul doesn’t care about the institution of slavery or the imposition of justice. It’s that in this case he has even bigger fish to fry. It’s neither the cheap nor the easy way; in fact, Paul’s got his target set on the human heart itself, and he knows that the heart will always play by its own rules. For the human heart to change, we have to want it. For the human heart to change, we have to rise early with no paycheck there waiting for us. For the human heart to change, Paul’s got it. We have to volunteer … which, frankly, sounds unlikely. I mean, I like sleeping in, and if the progress of peace and justice depends on the human heart deciding not to play by its own rules then I think we are in way over our heads.
But fortunately there’s still a twist in this text. Because even while Paul calls on Philemon to volunteer, he also calls himself a prisoner of Christ Jesus. And there’s nothing unusual about the phrase – in fact the language of duty and obligation runs throughout Paul’s theology, throughout his own sense of his own call. For Paul, the power of God acts upon us in ways that we cannot ultimately resist. He surely knew that, as one who had himself been struck down, as one who had himself been made into a new creation, as one who had himself not exactly volunteered. And he would know it to be just as true for Philemon, whom God had already called into a life of Christian service and witness. And this irresistible thing, this power that imprisons and indentures and takes us captive – of course he’s talking about grace, about the power of God that wraps its arms around the human heart whether or not we ask, whether or not we change, whether or not we volunteer. For Paul, this is the great paradox of the Christian life: that we live both as prisoners of God’s grace and volunteers for God’s justice, as captives of God’s power and volunteers for God’s mercy, as servants of and volunteers for God’s love. The infinitely amazing truth of the Gospel is that God’s grace is upon us no matter what the laws of our land and no matter what desires of our hearts. And the paradox is that that same grace will volunteer us, whether we like it or not.
The world we meet is a particularly terrifying place, nowhere more so this week than in the conflict that has engulfed the nation of Syria over the last three years. Congress is set to begin formal deliberations over whether to grant the president’s request to make a military strike against President Assad’s regime, supposedly as punishment for their alleged use of Sarin gas in violation of the Geneva Accords. Even if you take the allegations at face value, there are any number of reasonable lines of opposition to this request. There’s no obvious criteria for success. There’s no strategic roadmap. There’s no international consensus. There’s negligible public support. But somewhere underneath all of the most reasonable arguments is this: if Assad is really the sort of person who would use chemical weapons on his own people, then there’s no real reason to suppose that he would curb his own behavior simply because we decided to enforce the rules, not to mention that we’d have to break the rules to enforce them. So this seems to be one of those occasions when it is not the rules themselves that are at stake but rather the capricious nature of the human heart that bends and wields rules to suit its own lawless desires.
But then, it is said, we have to do something. I mean, we can’t just sit here while the atrocity continues and do nothing, as if military intervention were the only option available for any of us who would care about the human cost of that war. Of course there are any number of things we can do. As millions of refugees stream across Syria’s borders, this country, if it wanted to, could show something much less about legalism and military prowess and much more about human decency and human empathy and we could make sure that none of those mouths go hungry and none of those bodies grow weak and none of those spirits turn empty. This country and its people have a nearly infinite capacity to work for justice and mercy and peacemaking, if we wanted to, if we wanted to do something other than pretending our only options were militarism or nothing. But if you want to know the terrifying power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it goes like this: we absolutely can just do nothing. We are prisoners of this Gospel; it has already grabbed ahold of us; it will not let us go, no matter what we do, even if we do nothing. If you really want to proclaim that it’s not what we do but what God does then it is absolutely crucial that even in those moments of human history when our action is most obviously necessary that we proclaim in loud unbroken voice that in fact the living God is at work even if we do nothing.
That being said, I hope we do something. I hope we do something for the millions of refugees streaming across the Syrian border. I hope we do something for the greater vision of peace and stability. I hope we do something as witnesses to God’s vision of justice that rolls down like water, both abroad and even in this community. The world works, such as it does, not just because of the rules that bind us but because we volunteer. Those of you who do rotary, and tutoring, and serve at the community meal, and contribute to the community arts, know that Amherst works, such as it does, not just because of the rules that bind us but because we volunteer. And those of you who fold bulletins and sing in the choir and help in the preschool and serve on half a dozen committees and even those of you who put the volunteer sign-up sheets at the back of the church where everybody could see them – you know that this congregation works, such as it does, not just because of the rules that bind us but because we volunteer. There’s nothing voluntary about grace, but it does have a habit of volunteering us for things far beyond ourselves. So I hope we all do something, I hope we all wake up tomorrow morning and jump out of bed as volunteers for mercy and forgiveness and reconciliation. I hope we do something, and as prisoners of Christ I know we will. That’s the paradox: that we don’t have to do anything for God’s love, and yet because of God’s love, we have to do something. We have to do everything. We have to do justice. We have to love kindness. We have to walk humbly with one another.
Well, we don’t have to. We’re already on the team. God’s already paid us more than we can possibly imagine. So no, we don’t have to. But we kinda have to.