Not long ago I had a meeting with a member of the parish at the Harrison Street Coffee Shop just around the corner. It’s a pretty hip place full of VCU artistic types. As I walked in the door in my suit, tassel loafers, black shirt and clerical collar, I felt very uncool, very self-conscious, and out of place. There was a guy behind the counter with more piercings than I could count who looked at me with what I thought was disdain. My meeting lasted about an hour and as I was leaving the young guy with the piercings called out and said – “Hey, you’re a priest aren’t ya?” He had tattoos all up and down his arms, around his neck, two rings in his nose and a ring in each eyebrow. Already feeling out of place, I thought for sure he was only asking me this question so he could say something flip like, “Can I get a collar like that for Halloween?” which believe it or not I have been asked before. To which I would have said, “I’m not sure you need a costume.” Feeling a little defensive I answered, “Yeah, I’m a priest. I work at the church with the big steeple just up Franklin Street.” What he said next humbled me completely. “Do you have, like, a card or something I could have? I’d like to give you a call. I think I really need to talk.”
I was floored. Here I had pegged this guy, labeled this guy, and I thought he had labeled me. My assumptions about him placed me in a defensive posture and I know the vibe I was giving off was less than welcoming. But I was totally wrong, so wrong in fact that I almost missed an opportunity to connect with another living soul, a child of God, who was reaching out to the God he believed I worked for. It was an experience I will never forget. When you follow Christ you have to let go of your old assumptions, your old way of defining relationships. To be a disciple of Christ you have to be willing to live in the world in new ways.
In our epistle for today, Paul is writing from prison to a fellow Christian named Philemon. Philemon has a runaway slave named Onesimus. Paul and Onesimus have become friends, actually more than friends. Paul has converted this escaped slave and he refers to Onesimus as “my child” and calls himself his “father.” Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon but he appeals to Philemon to accept Onesimus back not as a slave but as a beloved brother – just as he would accept Paul himself. “I am sending him back to you,” Paul says, “sending my very heart.”
As a leader in the Church, Paul could order Philemon to take Onesimus back as an equal but he does not. Instead, he urges Philemon to accept his servant as a brother of his own free will. Here we find Paul acting out what he says elsewhere in Galatians – “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.” For Paul this new way of understanding human relationships is a consequence of what it means to be one of Jesus’ disciples. When we follow Christ we can no longer see people through the lenses of the same old biases. Followers of Jesus, when they make the decision for Christ, do not look back on former ties and old values; they are part of a new creation, and the old has passed away.1
How many of us have someone in our lives that we need to set free. Someone we have labeled, judged, summed up, or defined in ways that make them slaves to our own assumptions about them? In our gospel for today, Jesus says that to be his disciples we have to love God and the ways of God’s Kingdom above all else. And God’s Kingdom says that every person deserves our love and respect without labels, strings, or conditions – every person is a child of God.
Nine times out of ten when a couple comes to see me when their marriage is in trouble, I discover at the root of their problems that they have essentially enslaved one another – old fights, old behaviors, old wounds so clutter their relationship that they cannot see past them. The pain of their unresolved issues is like a shackle. They no longer talk to one another they talk at each other. He’ll never change – she says. She’s just selfish – he says. They can’t see past their anger, disappointment, and frustration and so they can’t actually reach one another.
How often have I said to myself as one of the many folks who live on the streets of our neighborhood approach me as I’m walking to the office – “Here we go again, another drug addict who is just going to lie to me about why he needs money.” Tragically, sinfully, I’ve labeled him and decided what I think about him before he even utters a word. Sure experience has taught me that this is often the case. But how can you love your neighbor when before you even meet your neighbor you’ve decided that he doesn’t deserve your help?
Jesus tells us in very plain language this morning that we will never be free until we have made our commitment to God the most important commitment in our lives. We don’t have to literally hate our mother and father, brother and sister, but as long as we think that anything is more important than following Jesus and his Kingdom then we can never really know full discipleship where “service is perfect freedom.” In the same way, we can never really set others free until we are willing on Christ’s behalf to let go of our assumptions, prejudices, and biases. The Kingdom requires not only a new way of personal living but also a new way of encountering others. In the legal system, in the workplace, in our family, in our community, and in the world, there are Onesimus-like folk who are trapped by our preconceived notions, bound by the decisions we have already made about them. Jesus says, if you want to follow me then I must come first, above all else. And when I come first then you will be free to know everyone else as nothing more and nothing less then a beloved child of God. Amen.
1. Sue E. Armentrout