Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ."
Last month I brought a series of messages at Grace Church LaCenter called, "The Stories We Haven't Heard." The title was a tad misleading, in that most of them were stories we had indeed heard, we just don't hear them often. A better working title would have been "Obscure stories," but someone had already done that one.
I pulled a couple Old Testament texts, and a couple from the New Testament. I had a few others in que, just in case one or more of my choices didn't pan out. It turned out to actually be a fun series to write, because it took more research than usual.
One of those messages on one obscure story was from the Book of Philemon. I'm not sure we can really call it a book, since it was only one page, one chapter, and only 25 verses. I'm not even sure we can call it a short story, much less, a book. It is, in fact, a letter. It's a letter that Paul wrote to a specific group of people, in a specific geographical area, at a specific time in history, for a specific purpose. As we read these sacred texts all of these years later, that is one thing we absolutely must keep in mind.
I told my congregation that even though it was a letter written to a group of people who, by the way, wasn't us...there is still much it can say to us.
To get the gist of the letter, in case you haven't read it lately, Paul is writing to Philemon about his runaway slave, Onesimus. The hand of fate had somehow brought Onesimus into Paul's company, and they had evidently become quite close. Paul calls him, "my own heart." That's a pretty endearing phrase. In that culture, Philemon had the legal and social right, from what I understand, to kill Onesimus simply for running away. Paul is writing to discourage that, and to encourage Philemon to welcome Onesimus as a brother in Christ, not as a slave, and certainly not as a runaway slave.
It's Paul at some of his best writing. It's a beautiful letter, tender, gentle, and written from a pastor's heart. You can see that in almost every word Paul writes. It's not head heavy with theology that no one can possibly understand, but instead, addresses something that many of us may have experienced, or at the very least, have been made aware of lately. How? Social media can do wonders for letting you know what's going on in the world.
As I read one post after another from my news feed, and as I studied that little letter from Paul (If indeed Paul wrote it) something hit me...
Let me explain.
My news feed actually represents a more diverse group than most folks would expect from me. My social media "friends" are white, black, gay, straight, undecided, rich, poor, country, city, conservative, liberal, ultra conservative, ultra liberal, some hold several degrees, some barely graduated high school, addict, clean, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Independent, Northern, Southern, East Coast, West Coast, somewhere in between, yuppie, redneck, and I could keep going.
What that means is that I see posts representing every possible opinion, and honestly, I respect them all. I don't agree with some of them, but I still respect them. Here's what hit me as I let those two things (my newsfeed, and my reflections on Philemon) come together.
I'm Philemon. I have no clue what it means to be Onesimus. None...whatsoever. To bring that statement forward nearly 2000 years, all I know (and I mentioned this in my message about this text) is life from the perspective of a middle class, white, heterosexual, fairly educated, southern, Christian, male perspective. I have no idea what it's like to be gay, or black, or female, or non-Christian, or any of a number of other things that would make me anything but a white guy, middle class, straight, southern, and Christian. I have no idea what it's like to be hated because of the color of my skin, or because I love differently than the majority.
I am Philemon.
Now, here's why that's important. As a Philemon character type, I (and others like me) have something that some do not have. Stay with me for a minute. I (we) own the ability to welcome any who are not like me (us). We (I) also own the ability to NOT welcome any who are not like me (us). Is that fair? No. Is it a reality? Yes.
How will anyone who is not like us know which we will choose to do?
For one, they'll read our posts. If we post to social media anything that sets us above another for whatever reason, we have chosen not to welcome them. (and just because we can post it doesn't mean we should) That doesn't mean we aren't entitled to our opinions, we are, and I respect yours, but when we choose not to welcome instead of welcome we are setting ourselves as judge.
So today, I write as Paul wrote. Not commanding that we welcome...but urging, in the name of the risen Christ. If you use scripture in your posts, do your homework. Check the context. Read the whole chapter. Understand that there may be other interpretations but your own. Realize that we weren't even intended to read much of what we know as the New Testament.
The words contained in those pages are words of welcome, grace, second chances, and forgiveness.
So to my friends who are black, gay, or in any other way marginalized by those in the church, I apologize, from the depths of my soul. The God who created you has called me to love you just as I love myself, and though I may screw it up from time to time, may it never be said of me that it was done intentionally.
To my brothers and sisters in the church universal, is it better to be right...or to be gracious?
I wish desperately that we were given the rest of Philemon's story. But...by leaving it open ended, I choose to believe that Onesimus was welcomed back as a brother...not as a slave.