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Rev. Jean Newell, Creighton United Methodist Church (Phoenix, Arizona)
United Methodist Desert Southwest Conference Preaching Event
September 5, 2010
Available online at: http://desertsouthwestconference.org/fileadmin/Website_PDF/issues/ImmigrationSermon_Jean_Newell.pdf
Text: Philemon 1-25
For Saul, his life changed in an instant, when on the road to Damascus to arrest followers of Christ, “a light from heaven flashed around him . . . and . . . he fell to the ground (Acts 9:3b-4a).” It was there he encountered the Living Christ, and his life was transformed. The Pharisee Saul became the apostle Paul, and he entered upon his life-long mission to bring others to Christ for the transformation of the world.
So it was in his travels he met a man from Colossae named Philemon, whose home Paul came to know as the site of a house church for it seemed that Philemon’s own life had been transformed by his faith in Christ, and so he sought to live out his faith by sharing the gospel with others.
Although Philemon was a Christian, he was a man of his time and, apparently, he owned slaves—one of whom was a man named Onesimus, whom Paul came to know as a runaway slave. Scripture is silent about what led Onesimus to run away from his master. Maybe he ran away to escape punishment. Then again, maybe he ran away seeking, instead, to find his freedom. Regardless of the reason for running—at the writing of this letter, Onesimus was attending to Paul’s needs while the apostle was imprisoned in Ephesus which was about 100 miles from Colossae where Philemon lived.
Paul understood—according to the law—that Onesimus must return to Philemon, his master. However, Paul wrote to ask Philemon, his friend in Christ, a favor. He wrote to ask that Philemon accept Onesimus back more as a brother in Christ than as a runaway slave. What Paul was asking may seem to us a simple matter, but to Philemon, Paul was asking him to take a risk to risk his reputation . . . his livelihood . . . maybe even his family all for the sake of a slave . . .
For you see, according to the customs of the time, Philemon was well within his rights to have Onesimus beaten . . . flogged . . . or branded on his forehead with an “F” for “fugitivus” which is Latin for “runaway.” If Philemon had been angry enough, he could even have ordered Onesimus to be crucified because—according to the law—Philemon had complete control over how his slaves lived their lives or even if they lived at all!
As he wrote his letter, I imagine Paul’s hope and prayer was that Philemon’s life had been so changed . . . so transformed . . . by his faith in Christ that the slave owner would not hand out punishment or death to the returned slave but would, instead, live out his faith and accept Onesimus as a brother in Christ. If there was to be any restitution made, Paul assured Philemon, he—Paul—would gladly be held accountable.
However, to take Paul at his word and accept his offer of restitution AND accept Onesimus back into the household would most likely have resulted in Philemon being laughed at and ridiculed by his family, friends, and strangers alike. After all, the law was on Philemon’s side. He was well within his rights to punish Onesimus—regardless of why he ran away . . . regardless of his willingness to return. The law was the law . . . and yet—if . . . as Paul urged him to consider . . . if Philemon were to live out his faith . . . his response to Onesimus would be one of compassion as Philemon considered other options or pathways to a peace-filled resolution—one that would be workable for both the slave owner and the slave.
This morning—almost 2000 years later, we find ourselves as Christians in much the same quandary that Philemon found himself . . . only the issue is not slavery . . . the issue is comprehensive immigration reform.
I quote—“In response to the July 6 meeting of the Arizona Interfaith Network in Casa Grande, the Covenant Council of the Desert Southwest Conference decided to [strongly] encourage all Desert Southwest Conference clergy to preach this Labor Day Sunday on issues of immigration, our need for comprehensive reform and the contributions of immigrants in building our nation. This decision was made unanimously, and it was discussed that Labor Day is an appropriate time to remember and honor the work of many who made our country strong, which includes immigrants, and those who have been here for generations.” (taken from DSC website— “Covenant Council asks DSC to preach on immigration)
“We understand immigration is a divisive and hot-button topic. Strong sentiments run deep,” said Rev. Dave Summers, Covenant Council Chair. “And yet, it is essential that pastors help churches understand what (my emphasis) the gospel of love asks of us in facing tough issues of our times. . . . We know the Pastors and church leaders face potentially difficult reactions in talking about immigration, from anger and disagreement to people wanting to leave the church,” Summers [continued]. “Our intent is never to push people away but rather to invite our church to holy conversation and constructive ways of talking and listening faithfully to one another.”
And so it is in looking back to Paul’s letter to Philemon, we are reminded how lives are changed and transformed . . . how relationships are changed and transformed by faith in Christ. Paul’s life was transformed by his encounter with Christ and instead of persecuting and imprisoning followers of Christ, he spent the rest of his life living out his faith and bringing new followers to Christ. Paul’s letter to Philemon encouraged him . . . encouraged Philemon . . . to live out his faith, and just as his life had been transformed by his relationship with Christ, so, too, his relationship with Onesimus would be transformed also.
Now please note, nowhere in Paul’s letter did the apostle support or condemn the institution of slavery. Paul did not write to tell Philemon to break the law. Paul did not write as a father figure to TELL Philemon what he needed to do. Paul wrote—instead—to encourage Philemon as one Christian to another . . . to consider how in living out his faith, his faith called . . . him to respond to Onesimus. In time, “[i]t was just this kind of reasoning from faith that would lead to persecution of the early church.” (from DSC website—“The Case of Philemon V. Onesimus: Sermon notes for Labor Sunday 2010”) For in truth, to ignore class lines . . . to treat others as Christ would treat them went against the accepted customs of secular society and was cause for rejection and persecution.
In today’s world, Onesimus might represent today’s illegal immigrant, the majority of whom are Christians, and Paul and Philemon represent the two major approaches to the immigration reform problem within the church. (paraphrased from DSC website—“The Case of Philemon V. Onesimus) It could be said Paul represents church leadership and in his asking Philemon to consider not responding to Onesimus in the culturally accepted manner but to respond by living his faith . . . by showing compassion . . . by working out a pathway of accountability. Paul’s words suggest to us today how we might respond to the issue at hand . . .
Just as their lives . . . their relationships were transformed by their relationship with Christ, so too, our lives and our relationships should be transformed by our relationship with Christ.
This morning I stand before you not to say “you need to think this way or that,” but to encourage all of us individually and Creighton as a whole and as part of the universal Body of Christ to live out faith by entering into a time of holy conversation . . . holy conferencing . . . a time of coming together to transcend the divisions within the Christian community over comprehensive immigration reform. It will mean not drawing battle lines but openly, honestly, and respectfully talking about differences as we seek to find peace-filled resolutions to a complex problem. It will mean not getting caught up in the issues and forgetting the human element—the mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, aunts and uncles and grandparents, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters who are involved. It will mean rather than building blockades, we seek to build bridges and pathways of accountability.
Christ never promised the journey of faith would be easy. In fact as you may recall, He spoke of those who chose to follow when He said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Matt. 16:24)” Whether we like it or not . . . whether we agree with immigration reform or preachers preaching about reform, immigration reform is a very real issue that will impact all of us at some point in our lives—whether it’s a matter of who lives next to us or how the produce we buy at the grocery store got to be on the store shelves. We can’t ignore immigration reform problems and hope they will go away because they won’t. We need to “bite the bullet” and become informed not only socially and politically as American citizens but spiritually as well . . . as citizens of the Kingdom of God so positive progress can be made. To do otherwise will only breed hatred and chaos—the playground of the Evil One.
Please understand I do not wish to “preach” politics; I desire simply “to act justly, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [my] God. (Micah 6:8b)” I am more than willing to talk with anyone about any and all of this. I’m still trying to digest what is involved! I believe I understand some of the arguments on both sides of the immigration reform issue, but I also feel I have much to learn and am trying to come at this with an open mind and seeking to find more ways of finding resolution and bringing people together rather than finding more ways to drive people apart. Just as Jesus wept over Jerusalem, so God’s heart must be breaking now as God’s people are in such turmoil.
After the service, in the narthex—if anyone is interested—can be found copies of this sermon, of the position of the UMC on comprehensive immigration reform which was written in 2008, and of a paper about holy conferencing. As a way of opening up discussions about immigration reform here at Creighton, I am extending an invitation to all who are interested to gather for a time of holy conferencing this Wednesday afternoon—September 8—at 5:00 p.m. in the conference room where we will begin looking at the UMC’s position on comprehensive immigration reform. I will also be available today after worship should anyone wish to reflect on this morning’s sermon topic.
Living out faith . . . it wasn’t easy in Paul’s day; it’s not easy today. Living out faith means being willing to ask hard questions . . . but it also means being willing to listen to the answers. Living out faith means not my will be done . . . but Thy will be done. Living out faith is what Christ calls us to do. The question we need to ask ourselves this morning is . . . “How am I living out my faith?” Amen!
The Desert Southwest Conference of the United Methodist Church offers numerous resources on immigration here.
This sermon is part of a new series compiled by the NC Council of Churches in conjunction with our lectionary-based worship resource Acts of Faith. We believe that issues of peace and justice can be expressed in the worship life of congregations, and we remain committed to providing accessible and relevant resources to make this a reality. This sermon was used with the permission of the author, and the views expressed in it are solely the author’s. Please contact us if you are interested in submitting one of your sermons for consideration.
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