Ere Long We Tremble: Commentary on Jeremiah 32.


imagesPersonally, I have great difficulty thinking of time other than in the seeming watertight compartments of past, present, and future; time passing by minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years etc. Kronos is the Greek word we have adopted to refer to this arrangement, one where time flows in a linear fashion.

Greek has a second word for time. Kairos refers to a notion, not of the linear flow of time, images-1but of the arrival of the appointed time, the opportune moment. We speak of kairos moments to refer to the experience of something happening in a window of timeliness.

You have this great new discovery about yourself or your understanding of the world in some way, or things just fall into place for you, a long and difficult problem is resolved suddenly, the world looks different and you ask why haven’t I seen this or why has this not happened before now? Really crucial things seem only to happen when a correct alignment comes about – the dynamic operation of which appears mysterious to us.

Greek is an incredibly rich language for conveying subtleties of meaning. So it comes as no small surprise that another Greek word teleios communicates a third conception of time. images-2Teleios means far-reaching, fulfillment, mature as in the end of time when the process that reveals itself only by painful step after painful step, is finally complete.

Teleological time plays havoc with chronological time – obfuscating the clear delineations between past, present, and future. That which we look forward to has already arrived. It is present and still yet to come.

Contemporary Western Society is overly dominated by time as Kronos. We measure the flow of time down to the smallest millisecond. Our lives are regulated by the chronology of time passing in intervals of the minute and hour hands of the clock, the day-by-day passage of the calendar. The privileging of chronological time followed upon the invention of the mechanical clock, which paved the way for the technological ascendancy of Western Culture. Yet, Kronos is a hard taskmaster, driving us ever onward before its demands for more and more productive use of the moment. Kronos is like the bossy child who plays poorly with its siblings – kairos and teleios.


Theodore Parker was a Unitarian minister and prominent New England Transcendentalist who in 1853 in his sermon: Of Justice and Conscience noted:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, its arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight; I can [but] divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

He continued:

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.

These are prescient words in the decade lead up to the devastating War Between the States. We know Theodore Parker’s words even if we don’t remember him. For in 1964, while giving the commencement sermon at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. included Parker’s words as he prophesied:

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

King draws on Parker’s words to illuminate the workings of the way teleios bends the flow of events in a certain direction. Following in the footsteps of the great prophets of Israel, Parker and King gave voice to the paradox of teleios lying at the heart of our long Biblical Tradition. Justice is a teleological fruit -like a magnet continually bending the direction of human endeavor towards its fulfillment. However, justice also breaks into the here and now in Kairos moments, those mysterious opportune moments of time when events and human hearts come into alignment as the telos of time pulls us towards its ultimate fulfillment.

In a culture dominated by chronological time, the teleological bent of the moral universe is something very hard for us to hold onto. For we easily become disillusioned when justice  does not happen instantly within our own span of time.We want things to be perfect, now and can’t tolerate the idea that we may not see the fruits of that for which we are working so hard for our eyes reach but little ways.


images-3Chapter 32 of the book of the prophet Jeremiah ushers us into a scene in the guardhouse of the palace of Zedekiah, the last rag-tag and sorry king of Judah on the eve of the fall of Jerusalem to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon in 587.

Historically, Israel had always had charismatic figures in the tradition of Moses, and Samuel, himself the last of the great Judges in Isreal. Yet the prophetic movement as recorded in the books of the major prophets: Isaiah, Micah, Amos, Hosea, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah arose only as a parallel development alongside the rise of monarchy in ancient Israel. This point is essential for us to grasp, for the major prophetic tradition arises as a religious antidote to the politics of monarchical shenanigans. The centralization of power inevitably placed the rule of the king above the law of God. Monarchy, like all human forms of political governance, inevitably tended towards the privileging of power over justice, idolatry over true worship, and self-interested corruption over the sound governance in the name of the common good.

The period of Jeremiah’s prophecy is contemporaneous with the prolonged political crisis from 626 to the fall of Jerusalem in 587. Jeremiah preached a moral view of reality grounded in the Hebrew Epic through which God, as the only God who had brought the Hebrews out of the land of Egypt, taught Israel the way of true worship and good governance that fostered life.

As Chapter 32 opens, for his pains Jeremiah has been imprisoned in an attempt to silence him. In the king’s guardhouse, we witness a strange transaction taking place – Jeremiah amidst his prophecies of destruction and ruin, at the behest of God, transacts the purchase of a piece of land.

Jeremiah was not being a prudent businessman preparing like a war profiteer for his future. In buying the field in Anathoth, a town outside the walls of Jerusalem, which had been laid waste by the Babylonian army besieging Jerusalem, he was knowingly buying land he knew he would never see, for purposes he would never benefit from.

Jeremiah’s purchase is a symbol for the moral arc of the universe. If Jeremiah had used Theodore Parker’s words, he might have said that in the midst of fear, and on the eve of the total destruction of Temple and the exile of that nation things will refuse to be mismanaged long. That through the experience of destruction and exile the arc of the moral universe nevertheless bends towards liberation and restoration.


America is gripped by fear and anxiety. Angry frustration bubbles over everywhere we look. Black communities with long experience of the economics being stacked against them turn in upon themselves and in some cases destroy the only material fabric of community life they have. White working class males, for whom the return of economic injustice is a relatively new experience recommit with angry passion to their long tradition of voting against their own best self-interests. Young millennials, so disillusioned by a lack of inspired political choice, contemplate exacerbating their disillusion by not voting at all, in the mistaken belief that not to vote is to opt out of responsibility for the consequences. All around us, we see the seeds of our impending doom – or we certainly think we do. Yet:

Things refuse to be mismanaged long, the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.

We cannot see it with our eyes yet we can divine its movement through the practice of a moral conscience informed by a use of the Bible that:

exposes our own prejudices about race, politics, and economics to the testimony of a scriptural tradition that often runs against the grain of prevailing cultural values[1].

One of the most commendable qualities of the American national experience is that America continues to ere long tremble as it struggles with the consequences of the evils of its national past. Some nations continue to defiantly glory in the evils of their past, refusing to hold themselves accountable to the judgment of history. The American experience is to be torn trembling into a difficult and prolonged account taking. If this is an imperfect process, one that seems to be taking an inordinate amount of time, then so be it as long as it continues.

Like the prophet Jeremiah, our task is essentially teleological in nature. Propelled by our Biblical vision that God is just. In the mysterious and sudden alignment of kairos moments producing after long struggle fruits such as the signing of the Civil Rights Act and other major breakthroughs when women, LGBT, and otherly disadvantaged peoples receive justice. The stark realities of the here and now only point us to look for the ultimate arrival of justice through our commitment to action now -thus furthering the end time’s slowly maturing fruits.  Through our tireless agitations in the here and now we encounter kairos moments – evidence that the arc of the moral universe – which is simply another way of speaking of the kingdom of God -bends towards justice.

Like Jeremiah, when the night seems so dark, let us not lose faith nor abandon hope.

[1] Brooks E. Holifield Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of The Puritans to the Civil War

God’s Squandering Grace: Luke 16: 1-13


A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie-Griggs for Pentecost 18

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.

If the words that describe your feelings about today’s Gospel lesson include, “frustrated”, “shocked”, “stumped”, or “baffled”, you are in good company.

All of these words were used by scholars who wrote commentaries on this passage. It seems to fly in the face of everything we understand of proper moral/ethical behavior. Why would dishonesty in business dealings be commended by Jesus? How is it possible to be faithful with dishonest wealth? Just the disjointed nature of the narrative—a puzzling story followed by a series of aphorisms—this belies Luke’s usual reputation as a fluid master storyteller.

There is no getting around the fact that this is a parable about money. Whereas in last week’s sermon Fr. Mark talked of Jesus being political,today we see Jesus focusing on economics. Look at where this story nestles within Luke’s Gospel: First, in the verse immediately following this passage, Luke writes: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.” Further along in the chapter, we see a parable about a rich man who suffers in Hades after having ignored a poor man at the gate of his home.

And finally, the parable that comes right before today’s story is the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which is all about God’s economy of mercy and forgiveness; a kingdom vision of generosity and prodigious welcome. So from context alone, we can see that this is an invitation to look at money through the eyes of the Kingdom. Which brings us back to the original question, all in red capital letters, how in the world does the kingdom vision connect to a dishonest manager? It just doesn’t make sense.

Yet. Think for a minute about Jesus’ relationship with money. Think, for example, about his calling of Zacchaeus the tax collector. When Zacchaeus chose to follow his Lord he immediately rejected the economic system from which he had made a dishonest living, saying that he would give half of his wealth to the poor and repay fourfold the amount that he had cheated from people. The Jesus that Zacchaeus follows is the same Jesus who will rail in fury as he overturns the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple. The same Jesus who blesses the poor and urges his followers to store up treasure in heaven where moth and rust will not corrupt nor thieves break in and steal. The Jesus who says that where your treasure is there your heart is also.

Now think about what connects these images to each other, and to what we hear today. It’s all about inversion. Turning things turned upside-down. The ways of the Kingdom are not the ways of the status quo; of the principalities and powers; of the unjust economic priorities. It’s all subverted in the Kingdom.

That’s what the Gospel does. A manager, responsible for his wealthy employer’s property, squanders it; we don’t know how—but we do know that to squander is to scatter all over the place—you can just picture this guy throwing money around—and we know that because of it, he was about to be fired. And his thought process was all about making sure that even if he wasn’t in his boss’s good graces

he would still have a few favors that he could call upon in the lean times: “…so that, when I am dismissed as manager people will welcome me into their homes.” So he has his customers alter their statements of indebtedness to the master: One cuts his debt by half, the other by twenty percent. This seems to be adding insult to injury. The manager has already squandered his master’s property and now doubles down by unapologetically doing it again. And of course, we expect that the master will be furious to see his property being treated so cavalierly.So we are stunned when the master commends the manager for his shrewdness. 

Many discussions of this story hinge on this point, saying that Jesus is exhorting his hearers to pursue the treasures of heaven with the zeal and shrewdness of the manager. This is a fair interpretation; why should we not be shrewd and crafty and creative as we seek the riches of the Kingdom?

But perhaps we can go a little deeper. Maybe it’s not just about what we go after; it’s about what we leave behind.So here’s a question: Under what circumstance is it commendable to treat earthly wealth with abandon; to hold it as lightly as the manager does? Jesus’ paradigm for money is just such a circumstance; a paradigm where earthly wealth and security are weighted differently from the riches of the Kingdom.

Scott Bader-Saye points out a small but significant detail in translation that may be helpful here. He notes that there are two different references to ‘home’ in this passage: The first, that I just mentioned, is where the manager wants to be welcomed into the homes—the houses—of his hoped-for benefactors. The second reference is where Jesus says, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” According to Bader-Saye the word here for ‘homes’ can also be translated as ‘tents.’ This is the kind of home that represents pilgrimage. It represents a transformative journey of learning to let go of things that possess us. When Jesus admonishes us to ‘be faithful with dishonest wealth—or mammon—might he be asking us to hold wealth as lightly, and maybe to even to squander it as the manager does, but not for the purpose of the kind of false security of possessions; but instead to gain the true security of faith in the God who provides for his beloved flock? So this isn’t just about treasures in Heaven; it’s about living in such a way that we help the Kingdom break in right now.

This is not an easy parable. Sometimes it feels to me like the biblical equivalent of looking at an MC Escherlw389-mc-escher-relativity-19531 print of one of those staircases that endlessly seems to be going upstairs and downstairs at the same time. It is puzzling, and sometimes frustrating to wrap our minds around these twisty images.It can also be frustrating and puzzling, in contemporary consumer culture, to wrap our minds around a Kingdom vision that prioritizes a prodigal attitude toward money.

A very timely article appeared in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago. In the regular ‘Your Money’ column, Ron Lieber asked, ‘What if You Weren’t Afraid?’, and Four More Money Questions from Readers.

Each of the responses revealed what people had learned about letting go, not simply of money, though that was part of it, but letting go of external expectations of material success, and focusing on the core values of generosity

and of understanding that living abundantly isn’t about an abundance of things. One woman in particular stood out in Lieber’s story. She had grown up learning from her Depression-Era parents that when it came to finances, she should always, always hedge against scarcity. She decided that she wanted to derive more joy from spending her money and discovered that spending it on herself wasn’t nearly as delightful as spending it on others. Of her newfound perspective of her finances, she observed, she would rather ‘dote on people’ because thrive is the root word of thrift’.

So Jesus hasn’t asked us to jettison our ethics after all. He’s invited all of his children to thrive; to jettison instead the mentality of an economy of scarcity; and to live every day as if on pilgrimage; lightly, creatively and generously, helping to make an earthly reality of a Kingdom vision of God’s prodigious, squandering grace.
























Due Diligence: Luke 15:1-10

Text and context

In Table Talk I noted the tension inherent for us in reading the gospel accounts of Jesus relationship with the Pharisees – the product of a later period – back into the time of Jesus ministry. What by the time of the Evangelists had become a deep communal animosity between emerging Rabbinic Judaism and fledgling Christianity, had been in Jesus own lifetime simply a legitimate disputational relationship between advocates of a progressive approach to Torah interpretation. Both Jesus and the Pharisees drew from strands within the prophetic tradition to arrive at different conclusions about the nature of the Kingdom of God – the reign of shalom. Remember the Talmudic saying – two Jews, three opinions – at least.

Luke 15 opens with a continuation of the running dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees over the consequences of different approaches to the ritual proprieties of table fellowship. Jesus’ was willing to eat and drink with a general category of ‘sinners’ – for him, an expression of the open invitational nature of the kingdom. For tax collectors, we must read collaborators with the occupation, and for various other sinners, we must read those ritually unclean because of their choice of lifestyle or because of their inability due to circumstances to follow the strict observances of the Law of Moses. As a result, Luke tells us that many of these people began to flock to Jesus; Let’s hear Luke:

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 So he told them this parable:…


Parables political statements of the kingdom

In chapter 15 we have three parables concerning the good shepherd, the diligent woman, and perhaps one of the two most famous of parables, that of the prodigal son. What’s distinctive about these three parables is that they only appear in Luke’s gospel and therefore, we can deduce, go to the heart of Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ politics.

I use the word politics deliberately because Luke presents Jesus with a highly political message, one the places him in the direct line of the Hebrew prophets. A definition of politics is activities and attitudes concerning governance or government. Luke understood Jesus to be political because the whole way Luke presents him in his gospel reveals Jesus being deeply concerned with the politics i.e. the activities and attitudes, values and expectations at the heart of his understanding of the kingdom of God.

The lectionary offers the possibility of stopping at 15:10 or continuing on to include the parable of the prodigal son, which should be renamed the parable of the forgiving father. I choose to stop at verse 10 because the prodigal son is such a dramatic parable it tends to suck all the air out of chapter 15 leaving the parables of the good shepherd and the diligent woman  – somewhat deflated.

What interests me is the way the parable of the diligent woman is sandwiched between two parables in which men are the focus. The diligent woman is usually noted en route – in passing as it were, between the images of the good shepherd and those of the father and his two sons.

Luke’s presentation of Jesus’s politics

One of the characteristics of Luke’s view of Jesus’ politics of the kingdom is Jesus’ concern for women and children. More specifically, within the categories of women and children, Jesus is particularly concerned for widows and orphans. Widows and orphans come last in the politics of patriarchal societies, but first, it seems, in the politics of God’s kingdom.

The diligence of the woman who turns her house upside down in what amounts to the spring-clean of spring-cleans in search for her lost coin speaks to me in two ways, one general, the other specific.

Beginning with the general message, this parable presents an image of diligence.imagesTo be diligent means to exert constant and earnest effort to accomplish what is undertaken. Diligence requires a persistent exertion of body or mind. In my experience, diligence is a key quality displayed by women because diligence is a quality that is particular to the arena of everyday life.

Diligence and gender

Diligence is not heroic. Its practice is not dramatic. Because diligence has a quiet quality its practice goes largely unnoticed. Diligence involves an attention to the details of relationship. It is a taking care in ordinary everyday circumstances. Diligence is a characteristic of the feminine principle in the spiritual life. It’s a gentle competence in ordinary things. It’s an unsung characteristic of discipleship.

In the politics of gender, in my experience diligence is a quality more often displayed by women than by men. Even in the modern world where the gender divides of traditional societies have been greatly eroded, the parable of the diligent woman symbolizes the many women’s lives of service to relationship building and nurture. Whether this is in the traditional areas of service to others in the family or now more commonly in areas of service to wider communal, national, and international political life, diligence and service as gentle, yet determined competence strongly shape women’s experience in ways that are less evident the lives of men. Men are less focused on nurturing relationship beyond those of mutual advantage. Competitiveness and the drive of ambition are more culturally acceptable in men. In an age of apparent gender equality, many Americans still seem to have a cultural aversion to women seeking power.

None of us needs reminding that in our media-driven world where news is now entertainment, diligence is not sexy, it is not sound bite-y. It mostly goes unappreciated in the clashing and discordant cacophony of the politics of bread and circuses[1]. As a society can it be true that we have lost our appreciation for diligence in public service as well as private life – preferring instead the peacock display of self-serving egotism?

Diligence and community

I have already noted that diligence is a quality of the spiritual life, and though many of us chafe against this, it is so. My specific observation from this parable can be applied to the challenges facing the parish community in which I live and work. In many aspects of community life, the pace dramatically picks up after Labor Day. We face into a new program year – but for what purpose? Is our purpose only that of maintenance; keeping things nicely ticking over, or is it more than this. As I discern it, the challenge my parish community faces is the need to grow.

In the culture of populist American religion, growth is a sign of success. I am not interested in growth as success. I am concerned with something more fundamental – growth as a sign of becoming more fit for purpose. My community needs to grow because growth is the indication that we are moving from the passivity of being a so-called welcoming community, to the magnetism of being an inviting community. I believe the diligence exemplified in the parable of the diligent woman expresses the persistent exertion of body and mind in pursuit of a recovery of that which has become lost to us. Diligence, the perseverance to do what needs to be done with the resolution of heart, mind, and body, is the quality we most need to mirror for one another.

Politics of the kingdom

In the politics of Jesus, as Luke presents them, God does not welcome us into the kingdom, God invites us into the kingdom. We are not to wait within our walls and smile sweetly to those who venture through the doors, although in many parish communities to do this is to take a much-needed step closer to the kingdom. God sends us out into our lives, the lives we live in the world among friends, neighbors, and colleagues – sends us out in order to invite them in.

Invite them in for what purpose, to simply mimic the signs of success? No! The invitation is to engage in the struggle to realize in our own time and place the expectations of the kingdom of God. We are they who are called to embody the future hope of the kingdom as if it is already a reality. And we invite others – into solidarity with us – as together we fight to realize the expectations of the kingdom; expectations of inclusion, justice, and peace.

[1] A phrase used by a Roman writer to deplore the declining heroism of Romans after the Roman Republic ceased to exist and the Roman Empire began: “Two things only the people anxiously desire — bread and circuses.” The government kept the Roman populace happy by distributing free food and staging huge spectacles.


Modeling An Appeal From The Heart: Paul’s Letter to Philemon

images-1Around 55 AD, from prison, Paul wrote a short letter to his friend and wealthy supporter, Philemon. Philemon seems to have been the lynchpin in the Christian community in Colossae for it is in his house that the church meets – a fact that gives us an indication of Philemon’s social standing within the community. 

Paul’s letter to Philemon reveals him at his most vulnerable, most loving and self-effacing, yet also persuasive – in short, at his most skillfully adroit. The letter to Philemon addresses some very sharp tensions, indeed. Paul is asking Philemon to step well beyond the boundaries of his socially conditioned imagination on a particular matter. His is a worldview conditioned by an unconscious acceptance of the institution of slavery.

Paul is making a difficult ask of Philemon. In doing so, he challenges Philemon, tests his fidelity to the cause while at the same time avoids alienating a man upon whom he relies for vital material support in the Colossian mission. This is every parish priest’s nightmare and we could do well to study Paul’s skilfulness in his letter to Philemon.

The story

Most of us know the broad outline of the story. Onesimus, a name that means useful is a runaway slave belonging to Philemon. Runaway slave! Though we live at a distance of 150 years from the legal institution of slavery in the US, we can still viscerally register the danger explicit in the plight of a runaway slave. A slave, to begin with, has no rights and is totally dependent upon the good will of his master. To run away is to forfeit life, or at the very least limb. Onesimus’ good fortune is to have run away to Paul, for whom he has become a much-loved son through baptism.

Paul’s letter to Philemon was often appealed to by the defenders of slavery on the basis that Paul clearly seems to disapprove of run-away slaves. For why else would he have returned Onesimus to Philemon?

Yet, if we read Paul’s words and listen to his tone, his intention behind returning Onesimus is not about restoring Philemon’s property rights. He desires reconciliation. The former slave and slave owner are for Paul – now brothers in Christ. We note Paul skillfully weaving this message.

Playing on the meaning of Onesimus’ name- useful, Paul bolsters his request pointing out that in becoming useful to himself while imprisoned, Onesimus is once again: useful both to you and to me. Paul reminds Philemon that in sending Onesimus back to him, he is actually sending him his own heart, with the implication that he had better treat Onesimus kindly.

I so admire the way Paul navigates the tensions inherent in his request. On the one hand, he shows his love for Philemon. He honors him as his co-worker and there is such love in his tone as he addresses not only Philemon but others in the house church at Colossae. Mindful of his dependence on Philemon’s support for the work in Colossae -for Paul has no wish to offend an important supporter – he subtly links acceptance of Onesimus with acceptance of himself. Hear the words of this wily apostle:

….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—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. … I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.  

What is Philemon to do?

This is a heartfelt request of a man Paul honours and loves as a generous co-worker on behalf of a young man Paul has come to love as a son. We see not only the full range of his rhetorical skills employed, we also experience Paul with his heart open. Yet, Paul is still Paul. As supplicant, he offers to make good –charge it to my account– any wrong Philemon feels he has experienced by Onesimus’ absconding. For Paul, supplication can be endured only for so long. He can’t resist reminding Philemon of the order in which things really stand. Just when Philemon might feel he has the whip hand (pun intended), Paul reminds him that when it comes to who is indebted to whom: I say nothing about your owing me even your own self – a less than subtle reminder and then a return once more to smiles as Paul ends with:

Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say. 

The Lectionary ends the section at verse 21 which is a pity for we miss the explicit threat in verse 22 where to add for good measure Paul tells Philemon to prepare a guest room for him:…for I trust that through your prayers I shall be granted to return to you all. 

What has the letter to Philemon to say to us?

This letter represents one of the most skillful and eloquent challenges to the status quo, and as such applies as much to the status quo in our time as it does to that in Paul’s. As we look around us at the world of 2016 we see how we have fallen prey to a delusion that other people’s minds are changed through force of argument. The current deafening cacophony of the culture wars, the hue-and-cry in the battle between left and right result from each side’s inability to hear the other. We are reminded of the Englishman’s version of speaking French – just speak louder.

The right believes that it can vanquish the opposition with insult and blame, stoking the forces of fear and division. While the left marshals the forces of moral superiority in the hope of humiliating its opponents, forcing an admission from them that they are stupid as they slink off to the dunce’s corner. We live in a culture of deafness where ideas and debate fall into the silence of a vacuum created when the importance of forging relationships is so despised.

How do you change someone’s mind when they have yet to glimpse the possibility of another way of viewing the world? Paul’s approach is simple. He does not rely on mounting a protest campaign. He does not threaten nor cajole. Neither does he belittle and humiliate while haughtily parading his moral superiority. He gently reminds Philemon of what they hold in common, i.e the mind of Christ. He invites him to take the next step into a new awareness of what that means, namely that among those made new in Christ the old distinction between slave and free no longer pertains. For Paul the Pharisee, Christ is the fulfillment of the ancient Hebrew encounter with a God who delivers all people from bondage.

Paul does not collude with Onesimus’ escape. He recognizes that the consequence of running away has to be faced. Paul does not say: Philemon because there is no such thing as slave or free within the community of those who belong to Christ, your claims on Onesimus are null and void.  He models for Philemon what the new order looks like:  Philemon, I  trust you will enjoy a new relationship with Onesimus like the one I already enjoy with him. Paul’s appeal to his relationship with Philemon is a first step only. One more step is required. Paul knows that persuasion is only effective when it is modeled.

Without the presumption of relationship and the ability to model the behavior you seek from another, whether you issue a command or employ gentle persuasion, neither will achieve the desired goal.

The divisions in our society can only be healed when we reach across the divides recognizing that the old order is ended and we can no longer be content with business as usual. Our baptism requires us to be transformed by a higher set of values than those embraced by the world.

Can we take this to heart? If so, then we know what we have to do as we challenge the prevalence of the spirit of contempt. Contempt for those who disagree with us corrodes the possibly for forging a culture where relationship affords the opportunity for disputation. In last week’s sermon post I wrote about table fellowship providing a context for necessary disputation. Disputation is an important element of a healthy social debate. Creative disputation requires a sense of commonality, a sense of connection afforded by relationship. It’s the current lack of this that results in disputation being simply a chorus of the deaf.

In Paul’s letter to Philemon, we see how difficult issues can be handled within a presumption of relationship. The absence of relationships across social and political divides prevents us from seeing that we are all in this mess, together. Only through the forging of relationships of mutual concern will we be able to face the difficult tensions of the age; an age which requires us to risk exposure to one another in order to craft a new vision of our common future.


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