By Tracey Leslie
“I owe, I owe, it’s off to work I go.” Did you know that in 2021, the average American was $90,460 in debt? Debt is the highest for Gen Xer’s (those currently ages 40-55), although debt is rising fastest among Millennials. That hot-button issue of student loan debt is a major culprit. It’s the only major category of debt that bankruptcy does not discharge. And so, off to work we Americans go… except tomorrow when many of us have the day off for Labor Day.
This morning’s scripture is an interesting one. It is a letter; but one that tells a story about relationships within an ancient house Church. It is written by the apostle Paul to a man named Philemon. But the letter begins by also addressing others; all those who are part of this church that meets in Philemon’s home. When we read this letter, it sounds like Paul is addressing a private matter: the relationship between Philemon and one of his slaves named Onesimus. But, this matter really isn’t private and this letter is addressed to the whole congregation. Because this congregation gathers in his home, nothing Philemon does is a private matter. His business is their business. He answers not only to Christ, but to Paul – who founded this congregation – and to all those who are in community with him.
There is much we don’t know about this situation. Many bible scholars consider Onesimus a runaway slave. But, the letter doesn’t explicitly state that. Paul’s letter to the congregation in Philippi references a member of that congregation, named Epaphroditus, who was sent on behalf of the congregation – as their representative – to care for Paul during his imprisonment. In the ancient world, those imprisoned were left to languish with sporadic food, no medicines, no guarantee of a blanket or appropriate clothing. If you didn’t have someone from the outside to come and help you, you were screwed. In Paul’s letter to Philemon, he writes that Onesimus served him in Philemon’s place. That statement seems to indicate that Onesimus might not be a runaway; but one sent by his master to care for Paul during his imprisonment. Who knows?
Nevertheless, it seems that Philemon and this slave didn’t have a very good relationship since Paul acknowledges that Onesimus was previously useless to Philemon. One might wonder if Philemon gave this slave this name in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way. But now, as a result of the time he has spent with Paul, Onesimus has grown into his name. He is now useful and beneficial to Paul and – Paul confidently asserts – will also be beneficial to others.
But, what is most captivating in this letter is Paul’s carefully crafted plea, or really his delicately designed demand, for manumission or freedom. This is Paul’s teaching to the Galatians applied in a real-life way. Paul writes to the congregation in Galatia, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Friends: theology is more than abstract philosophy. In Onesimus, Paul’s theology puts on flesh; comes to life in the real world. “In Christ Jesus”: just three little words that make all the difference in how we treat one another.
I think the book of Philemon is a fabulous scripture for Labor Day weekend because it provokes us to think more deeply about our own work, as well as how we perceive and engage with those who serve us. We live in a culture that generally rewards performance over service; a culture that glorifies professional athletes, Hollywood celebrities, and business moguls while paying little attention to those who clean our toilets or slave in hot kitchens of fancy restaurants preparing foods they could never afford to buy. They are often immigrants or those who, for a variety of reasons, didn’t make it in the American educational system. They often go unseen and unacknowledged. Because of their immigration status, or generational poverty, or unaddressed developmental challenges, many are like slaves, without the resources to change their circumstances. But how will we, the Church, those who are in Christ Jesus; how will we think of them; how will we see them; how will we engage with them?
You know, Paul writes this letter carefully because he is writing it from prison and his mail may very well be read or intercepted by Roman authorities. Paul is a prisoner of Rome. Perhaps Caesar thinks he is in charge of Paul; but Paul already belongs to another. He is in Christ Jesus. In this short letter, Paul frequently references his own context as one who is imprisoned. Slavery, itself, is a form of imprisonment. But the only status that really matters is that we are siblings in Christ Jesus. And so Paul is clear that Onesimus may be viewed as a slave in the Roman world; but within the church, he is, far more importantly, like a son to Paul and a beloved brother to Philemon… and who on earth would treat their own sibling like a slave?
Friends: the Roman Empire was always stretched thin on resources since Caesars were expansionists. The Empire relied on slaves; without them the economy would have collapsed. So, what Paul is saying in this letter is revolutionary. But, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the Romans have already arrested and imprisoned Paul. They clearly perceived him as a threat to the world as they had designed it.
So what about us, friends? Are we bold enough to live and speak in ways that threaten the design of our wider culture; to live and speak in ways that clearly demonstrate we won’t be sucked in by capitalism’s adoration of the rich and the famous? Are we courageous enough to be revolutionary? Of all the congregations I’ve pastored, Trinity just might do the best job of valuing how each of us contributes to this church family through our service, not our performance. But, are we doing the same when we walk out those doors?
Perhaps the best way to observe Labor Day this year might be to spend some time reflecting on how, in our own lives, we can boldly defend those within our culture who serve because, at the end of the day, we all carry the same amount of debt. We all owe our lives to Christ Jesus.
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