Sunday, September 05, 2010

Philemon

One of the hymns we sung last Sunday was a classic Lutheran hymn named A mighty fortress is our God...everytime I hear that hymn, I have to suppress a chuckle, not because of the hymn, I like that hymn, but because of an event associated with it in my mind.

I was an intern at a church in South Omaha, very near Offutt AFB if you are familiar with Omaha at all, before I went to seminary. One time we had a phone call out of the blue from some family that had just had a death in the family. Turned out in the guy's will he wanted to be buried at this particular church I was working at. We never got the full story why exactly, he must have attended the church many years ago when he was in the Air Force, but no one really seemed to remember him.

In the Episcopal/Anglican tradition, we generally try not to turn down families that want a Christian burial, regardless of the circumstances. So, Father Bob and I tried to plan out a general funeral service, and we tried to think up some hymns that everybody knew. The one for the offertory was A Mighty Fortress is Our God. Everyone knows that one, right??

Well...ahem...turns out everyone who showed up was Catholic. In the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha, which is probaby one of the most Conservative Archdioceses in the country, A Mighty Fortress is banned, and always has been, from being sung in the Sunday Roman masses.

And so, Fr. Bob and I are up at the altar setting up for Communion, while basically doing a duet because none of the good catholic folk that showed up for the service even knew the song because it was written by none other than Martin Luther.

And don't get wrong, I'm not trying to bad mouth our Catholic brothers and sisters. They have their beliefs and I respect that because in terms of that hymn, the verse of that hymn is subversive and its a knock on the Catholic church because it's a code. “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.”

Luther was having to hide out in a castle of a German lord because the Catholic church at the time had labelled him a renegade. So when Luther was writing the text “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” he was in a polite way thumbing his nose at Rome. And it was not until very very recently that hymn was even considered to be appropriate to sing in a Catholic mass. There's logic to that.

Hymns teach the faith by telling stories, but they can also be somewhat subversive because they can be a code word that only the insiders truly understand.

Another good example of this is in our American tradition. In the early nineteenth century, African Americans were involved in the “Second Awakening”. They met in camp meetings and sang without any hymnbook. Spontaneous songs were composed on the spot. They were called African American “spirituals.”
These spirituals, some of which are in our hymnal, are Christian songs, most of them concern what the Bible says and how to live with the Spirit of God. African American slaves would often sing outside of churches when they were working in the fields. Such songs could be sung either by only one soloist or by several slaves. The meaning of these songs was most often covert. Therefore, only Christian slaves understood them, and even when ordinary words were used, they reflected personal relationship between the slave singer and God. You hear quite often allusions to “bondage in Egypt,” motifs that sound very biblically based, but is also likewise code words, many of which directly refer to the Underground Railroad, an informal organization who helped many slaves to flee.. Swing low, sweet chariot that I have used as an illustration before is a prime example. Chariot=Harriet=Harriet Tubman.

Another element that you hear in a lot of Southern style Gospel hymns that originate in the African American (slave) community is a theme of water. You assume they are talking about the baptismal water, and they are in one sense, but if you hear them, the hymn texts are always a bit peculiar sounding if you actually start thinking about them, because they usually involves words washing, like the “washed in the blood of the lamb” or words like wading in the Water.
Wade in the Water
Wade in the water,
Wade in the water, children,
Wade in the water,
God’s a-gonna trouble the water.
If that strikes you as a bit unusual in terms of a hymn about baptism, you're right, because hymns like that are not just about baptism. Again, that's a code. When slaves were singing this, they are saying, “When you escape and are attempting to connect to the next relay point on the Underground Railroad, make sure that you go wade through water to thrown the bloodhounds off your scent.”

I bring all this up because the reading from the Epistle today has much of this same subversive element to it as some of these hymns I've just talked about, a fact that has largely been lost over the years.

Some of you might not have even heard of the Epistle to Philemon. It is the shortest “book” in the Bible, if you can call it a “book.”You will notice in the handout in the bulletin, there is not a chapter listed, but this is so small if doesn't even have a chapter. Its only 335 words, more like a postcard really. Its only read on one Sunday every 3 years in the lectionary cycle.

Even though its short, it really is a very rich letter. It is much more nuanced than it appears on the surface. On the surface it appears to be a letter of recommendation from the apostle Paul to Philemon concerning this particular slave named Onesimus who was a runaway. Paul appears to be sending a runaway slave back to a slave owner.

Just like the hymns I've been talking about, the letter to Philemon is just as subversive. A lot of the modern day critics of the Bible don't care for Paul. He sounds very much to modern ears as someone who moralizes a little too much and has an excess of ego in some respects. I think its in Phillipians where Paul writes about being “a Hebrew of Hebrews...as to righteousness under the law, (I am) blameless.”

I'll grant you that Paul was probably not the most likable person, but for all his warts, I think Paul's heart was in the right place. I believe Paul understood the two critical elements of discipleship:

  1. Love is achieved through reconciliation

  2. Christians are called to a discipleship as bearers of the reconciliation.
This was the case with Philemon and Onesimus. A runaway slave in the Roman Empire, if caught, was summarily executed unless a large monetary bribe was in play. The economics were such that a slave revolt such as the Revolt of Spartacus in AD 70 was not to be tolerated. This idea that an individual life had value was anathema to Roman thinking. Even the official name of the Roman Republic spelled out the social divide: Senatus Populusque Romanus (SPQR), i.e. The Senate and the People's Republic of Rome. Anything that would upset that order was put down harshly, as in the Good Roman principle: The good of the many outweighs the good of the few or the one.

Paul probably converted Philemon to Christianity, and by this letter is offering Philemon a rather remarkable choice. In fact, in terms of the Roman social order, it was quite shocking and subversive, something that is oftentimes lost in modern commentaries about the bible. And a lot of the New Atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins immediately point to this epistle and say, “Look, the bible condones slavery, there we need to chuck it out the window.”

But Paul to even suggest that a runaway slave had any sort of value that merited being kept alive was almost revolutionary in itself. Paul goes even further in suggesting something unthinkable. To suggest that a slave owner treat a slave as a “beloved brother”...that would have been completely revolutionary to the Roman mind because the Ancient Romans had a very stratified social order, almost to the point of a caste system.

Paul, being Philemon's spiritual leader, could have ordered Philemon to release Onesimus. Paul could have, on his own moral authority, simply kept Onesimus in his service or helped him stay on the run. In the gospel today, Jesus talks about the cost of discipleship. Paul understood that being able to love someone required reconciliation. Reconciliation, however, is painful and sometimes is not attainable even in the best of circumstances.

The world desperately need reconcilers: Fewer people who stand on street corners and shout slogan. More people though whose risky and costly witness allow old scores to be buried, debts can be forgiven, ancient wounds healed. This is a call, then, for Christians and churches to be for the world what Paul was with Philemon and Onesimus.

And, yes, this is a very costly discipleship because we are sometimes called to bear the brunt of reconciliation. I give you the example of Desmond Tutu, the Anglican archbishop of South Africa who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was set up immediately after apartheid fell so that people who committed atrocities in the name of apartheid could confess and be reconciled and given immunity. This was done in the hope that reconciliation would occur instead of all out civil war and strife.

One can debate how effective the Truth and Reconciliation Committee was, or even whether it was appropriate, but the point I am making is not about the Committee but about Tutu himself. Tutu chaired that Committee for almost two years and if you look at pictures of him through that time, his hair went completely white, he developed crow's feet on his face. After he stepped down, he learned he had developed cancer, something he's battled ever since. I believe that was directly because he was bearing the weight of discipleship, hearing crimes that rivaled in some cases things the Nazis did.

But Desmond Tutu, like Paul and the African slaves singing subversive hymns, understood that the cost of discipleship is very high because the grace we have been given is a very costly grace. As we begin a new school year, let us give thanks we are surrounded by what the bible calls so “great a cloud of witnesses,” meditate on what God is calling us to do, how God is calling us to weigh the cost of discipleship. 

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