Monday, August 29, 2016

Philemon Elias Neau September 4, 2016


Proper 18C


 “. . .  no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother” 

Christian faith is fundamentally subversive. Jesus stands in final judgment over against every human institution, calling us to give God the glory, and not to glorify ourselves and our own works. 

This sermon has three parts: first about the Epistle to Philemon, second about slavery particularly in early America, and third about a Christian response to that slavery.

Every 3 years on Labor Day weekend we hear the whole Epistle to Philemon. The epistle appears to recognize slavery as a part of the culture, but it fundamentally subverts the institution of slavery and calls us to live in God’s freedom, to live not for ourselves, but for God.

The letter appears to begin as a personal letter to Philemon, but it is also addressed to “Apphia our sister, Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house.” Philemon was an individual but he was part of a community – “the church in your house.” We are individuals, and we live in a society. We are born alone, but we are born into a family, into a network of relationships.  At baptism we are born again into the spiritual body of Jesus Christ, “the blessed company of all faithful people.”

St. Paul begins with thanks to God for Philemon’s life and ministry.  “When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. . . .I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.”

St. Paul sets Philemon up, and then moves to the ask.  “I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.”   Onesimus is the Greek word for “useful.”  It was a common slave name. Onesimus – useful. This Onesimus apparently ran away from Philemon in Colossae and got to Paul in Rome.  Colossae was a town in the mountains of southwestern Turkey, where they grew cherries and made wool cloth.

Playing on Onesimus’ name, St.  Paul says, “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me.” He suggests, “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.” He ends, “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.”

 Philemon is neatly boxed in. He has to choose between his personal economic interest as a slave owner and his spiritual life as a member, with Onesimus, and Apphia, Archippus, and the church in your house, of the spiritual body of Jesus Christ, “the blessed company of all faithful people.” The tradition is that he sent Onesimus back to Paul. Ignatius of Antioch wrote about 100 AD of a Bishop Onesimus of Ephesus not far from Colossae.

Second – slavery in America. Based on the teaching of the Epistle to Philemon, the early American settlers believed that baptism made slaves free. The population of colonial America grew rapidly. It more than doubled every 20 years. Not counting native Americans, a population of fewer than 27,000 in 1640 grew to over 2,700,000 by 1780.  Until about 1640 whites and Africans were treated alike. Pay back your passage in 7 years and you were free. After 1640 skin color mattered. Africans and their children were to be slaves forever – or for 225 years. But people continued to believe that baptism made slaves free. Slave owners refused to allow Church of England missionaries to preach to their slaves. Finally in the early 1700’s when the colonial population approached a quarter million people – white and black – colonial legislatures passed acts declaring that baptism did not make slaves free. Black slaves began to be baptized, to evangelize one another, to form churches. Some, mostly house slaves, some of whom had some white ancestors, would be brought to church by their masters.

Slave revolts brought increasingly violent reprisals. The General Assembly of North Carolina in 1830 passed a law making it a crime to teach a slave to read or write. No Bible reading for blacks in this state – no reading of Philemon, “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother”  Slaves have been legally free for 150 years, but we are still dealing with the results of bad decisions made almost 400 years ago. This is the 120th anniversary of Plessy v. Ferguson – legal segregation – and the 62nd anniversary of Brown v Board of Education. We’ve come ways; we have some way to go. The Epistle to Philemon offers us both inspiration and instruction in the way.

I close with a story of a church response to slavery, the story of Elias Neau, born 1662, died 1722.  He was born in southwestern France, a French Protestant. He fled to New York and at age 30 was captured by a French privateer and made a galley slave. After a year pulling a heavy oar he spent 4 years in a Marseilles prison. Released in 1698 he returned to New York and five years later was licensed by New York Governor Viscount Cornbury, Queen Anne’s cousin, to teach blacks, young and old. The Church of England Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts began to pay him as a missionary in 1704.  The rector of Trinity Church, New York, New England born William Vesey, first opposed him. Vesey wanted the money for his own assistant, but Neau’s experience as a galley slave gave him the public relations edge,  and Vesey’s opposition became support. Neau continued for over 20 years, teaching all who came to him, praying with them, preparing them for baptism.   His work continues at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Harlem.

“no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother”

 Christian faith is fundamentally subversive. Jesus stands in final judgment over against every human institution, calling us to give God the glory, and not to glorify ourselves and our own works. 

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Proper 15 C August 14, 2016 Sacrifice & Example


Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
The Christian faith is a both-and faith. Jesus Christ is both “a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life.”  We are all forgiven sinners. Jesus ‘suffered death upon the cross for our redemption.” As we say in the Rite I Prayer of Consecration, he “made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” He “did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memory of that his precious death and sacrifice, until his coming again.” Among the many meanings of our communion service is our remembering with present power Jesus’ death and resurrection in which he offers us forgiveness and new life in him. We are forgiven sinners.

We come together today to continue that “perpetual memory of his most precious death and sacrifice” and to commit ourselves once more “to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life.”  But it is not in our own strength and will that we can “follow daily in” his most “blessed steps. Only by the power and direction of the Holy Spirit can we “follow daily in” his most “blessed steps... The Holy Spirit lives in our hearts and consciences from the moment we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, from the moment we accept that Jesus’ death and resurrection were not only for the world, but were particularly for us. In the invitation to communion in Rite 2 the celebrant says, “The gifts of God for the people of God. Take and eat them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your heart with thanksgiving. In our baptism our old sinful spirit is drowned in the water and we receive a new spirit, a new life, to love and serve Jesus, “to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life.”

The order is important. Jesus is both our “sacrifice for sin “and also our “example of godly life.”  He is first our “sacrifice for sin “and then he is also our “example of godly life.” The experience of Christians through the ages is that we cannot live a “godly life” until we know ourselves to be forgiven sinners – until we have accepted for ourselves Jesus’ “sacrifice for sin.”

As St. Paul reminds us in Romans 7:19, “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.”  In the old Morning Prayer General Confession we used to say, “we have left undone the things we should have done, and we have done the things we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.” We cannot live a life pleasing to God relying on our own strength and will. We have to rely on God’s strength and power as we seek to do God’s will.

Almost all of us almost all of the time really want to be good people. We really want to “follow daily in the blessed steps of Jesus’ most holy life.”  We cannot do that relying on our own will and our own strength. Something very often goes wrong. Unintended consequences, misunderstandings, pure human cussedness – something goes wrong. “The good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.”

Our natural human – and sinful – reactions are two: Denial and blame. We either pretend it didn’t really go wrong – that’s denial - or we find some way to blame someone else. A friend told me about TEAPOT – Those Evil Awful People Over There. T E A P O T.   Those Evil Awful People Over There. We learn denial and blame early in our lives. The first reaction of the child caught with his hand in the cookie jar is to deny. “Don’t rely on the evidence of your eyes; trust me, I didn’t do it.”  When that doesn’t work, we then try blame. “She, or he, or more theologically sophisticated, the Devil, made me do it.”  Only as a last resort will we admit the truth of our guilt. “I did it and I’m sorry.”

But telling the truth is an essential first step as we seek “to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life.”  Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Everyone’s appreciation of our own particular truth is slightly different, but we all participate in the one truth, who is Jesus.

Other essential steps are found in the Ten Commandments. We begin and end in God.
     Worship no other gods. The temptation to give inordinately high value to other things is strong.
     Make no graven images. When I do confirmation classes with young people I show them an engraved picture of George Washington from my wallet. Money is important, but it is not an ultimate goal.
      Do not take God’s name in vain. That’s not just swearing though that is included. We see over and over again people confusing God’s will and their own, seeking to use God for our purposes, rather than allowing God to use us for his purposes.  
     Keep holy the Sabbath day. There are lots of interpretations of this commandment. The point is that since God is first in our lives, we need to take time to be with him – in prayer, in Bible reading, in Christian fellowship in public and private worship.
     Honor parents. They give us God’s life and we honor them for it
     Murder, adultery, steal false witness. All people have a God given right to security of life, security of relationships, security of property, security of reputation.
     And finally “They shall not covet.” We want God, not other people’s stuff. God wants us, not our stuff. When I do confirmation classes with young people I say, Coveting is wanting someone else’s boyfriend (or girlfriend) – not someone as nice, or as attractive, but wanting that person. They get it.

Truth is a beginning. The commandments are early along the way. The process is love.  We “follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life” as we love – as we love God, and as we love our neighbors. We all know from our own experience that love grows as we love. We also know that love can diminish, that relationships of love can die. In 50 years of parish ministry I have seen some marital love be foully murdered by misconduct by one or both persons.

So as you seek to “follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life” look for ways to love God and love your neighbor. It is not too complicated, but it is not easy. Jesus loved us to his death, and the Father raised him to new life. We share Jesus’ new life in the power and truth of God the Holy Spirit – from baptism, through conversion, and in this morning’s sacramental bread and wine, spiritually fed on Jesus’ spiritual body and blood. Thanks be to God!

Almighty God, you have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life: Give us grace to receive thankfully the fruits of his redeeming work, and to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, Amen! Amen!