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 Onesimus’ “father.” Paul is sending Onesimus back to Philemon, but he appeals to Philemon to accept Onesimus 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 doesn’t. 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 welcome in the Kingdom of God. In the Kingdom, we are called to see all of life in new ways and, as such, 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.
Not too many years ago, I had a meeting with a church member at a very “hip and happening” urban coffee house that was a gathering place for young artists and writers. As I walked in the door in my gray suit, cap-toe shoes, black shirt and clerical collar, I felt very uncool, very self-conscious, and very out of place. There was a young man working behind the counter with more piercings than I could count who looked at me as I came through the door with what I thought was disdain.
My meeting lasted about an hour and as I was leaving this young employee called out and said – “Hey, you’re a priest aren’t ya?” He had tattoos up and down his arms, around his neck, multiple rings in his nose and piercings in each eyebrow. Already feeling self-conscious and out of place, I thought for sure he was only asking me this question so he could say something like, “Where can I get a collar like that for Halloween?” Which, believe it or not, I have been asked before. Feeling defensive I answered, “Yeah, I’m a priest. I work at the church with the big steeple just a few blocks up the 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 need to talk if you have some time.”
I was floored and embarrassed, confronted by my own prejudices and assumptions. 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. I had been 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 cannot forget and one for which I have asked forgiveness.
In our gospel for today, Jesus tells us that to be his disciples we have to love God and the ways of God’s Kingdom above all else. Nothing should stand in the way of our commitment to Christ and his Kingdom. In this passage, Jesus is not literally advocating that we abandon our children and hate our parents. But he does want to make it clear that to be disciples we must be willing to reexamine even our most cherished relationships in the light of the gospel. A gospel that proclaims every person worthy of our love and respect without labels, strings, or conditions – where every person is a child of God. To be disciples we are to live in the world in new ways, to let go of old assumptions and old ways of defining relationships.
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 captives to our assumptions about them? How many of us are trapped because we have internalized the prejudices and assumptions with which we have been painted? Nine times out of ten, when a couple comes to see me and 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.
On a much larger and destructive scale, the sin of racism in our nation separates us from one another and from ourselves and tears at the very heart of our common life. The pain it causes and the injustice it spawns destroys lives and fractures communities. In places like Ferguson, Baltimore, Baton Rouge, and Dallas we have witnessed the tragic outcome of our inability to reimagine relationships and find the image of God in one another. Moreover in our current political climate is has become much too easy to demonize the “other” – the stranger, the foreigner in our midst, to see the immigrant and the refugee as threats rather than as children of God deserving of our respect.
My friends, 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.
 Sue E. Armentrout