Labor Day Sermon

Creative Commons LicenseText: Philemon, Jeremiah 18:1-10
First Preached: First Congregational Church of Saugatuck

President Grover Cleveland

Labor Day is one of those holidays we do and don’t know why. Do you know how it got started? President Grover Cleveland wanted to get re-elected, and he needed an olive branch to appease the unions after US Marshals and US Army soldiers broke the Pullman strike, killing some and wounding many.

You know Pullman cars, those luxury train cars made by the Pullman Company. Pullman workers mostly lived in the company town, called Pullman. Mr. Pullman owned the bank, the school, and the shops. He rented or leased the homes. You didn’t have to live there, but there was an inkling it was a smart idea. The bottom fell out of the market, so Mr. Pullman had to cut back: reduced wages, layoffs. But he didn’t reduce the rents. When the workers complained, they were ignored. Pullman said he was only making 3 percent on the town as it was. He had an obligation to his shareholders. When the workers tried to unionize, he said they could join any union they like, just not the Railway Union. They struck, and against all odds, it worked. Thanks to sympathy strikes, they managed to stop traffic across the nation. Hence Grover Cleveland, hence the marshals and the army, hence clubs and guns, hence the need for a Labor Day.

The obvious choice would be May 1, International Workers Day. But that would remind people of the Haymarket affair. Unions from all over the US had agreed to strike on May 1, in support of an 8 hour work day. This strike ended with more than just clubs and bullets. Someone threw a bomb. The ringleaders were arrested and convicted, even though there was no evidence any of them had thrown the bomb. They were hung, executed not for what they had done, but for what they believed. International unions claimed May Day in their honor. Cleveland couldn’t use that. Too many bad memories. So, they picked the first Monday in September.

Most of us think an 8 hour work day is a good idea, but we wouldn’t want to face clubs and bullets to get it. How do you influence someone with more money than you? Paul answers that question in his letter to Philemon.

Philemon was the head of a house church, so he must have been at least moderately wealthy and influential, Paul wants him to set his slave, Onesimus free. This is a big request. There’s a financial cost, a personal cost, and social cost. Your slave runs away, comes back, and you set him free?! What will his family do? What will the neighbors think? Paul might offer three tips to us on how to influence powerful people.

First, be the real deal. Paul really is the apostle to the Gentiles, respected so much in his own time that his letters to the churches are preserved as scripture. He really is sitting in jail for what he believes. So be yourself, who God made you to be. Speak with authenticity.

Second, don’t spend your chips until you’ve earned them. How do you earn chips with people who already have everything? Give them something money can’t buy. Paul is Philemon’s spiritual father. He organized the missionary push that founded their church. All the prestige and authority, and more importantly all the spiritual growth in Philemon’s life has its root in Paul. So, you earn the right to be heard. Invest in the relationship so that when the time comes, you can speak with authority.

Finally, pick your battle: you set the time, the place, and the victory conditions. One appropriate time. One important place. One achievable goal. In this case, the time is after Philemon has had a chance to cool down, the ground worth fighting over is slavery, and the goal is that Philemon decide on his own to set Onesimus free.

Did it work?

Did what work? We assume Paul wants Onesimus to be free, but he never says that. Our prejudice, our presuppositions filter our reading. You all just heard it, the whole letter. By show of hands, how many of you heard, “I want you to set the slave free.”?

And yet, for years people said the Bible supports slavery, Paul specifically. When they read this letter they said, “Look, Paul caught a runaway and sent him back to his master. He never says he should set him free. He just says be good to him.” Remember, this is the same Paul who says in Colossians that slaves should obey their masters.

So who’s right? Us or them? Egypt and Rome both had a law that said if you were a slave and your master treated you horribly, you could flee to an altar, a temple, for sanctuary. They would try to convince you to go back. If that didn’t work, they would sell you to someone else and send your master the money.

In the text, Paul says he’ll pay whatever Onesimus owes. Looks like Onesimus grabbed something valuable and fled to Paul for sanctuary. But Paul doesn’t follow convention. He doesn’t send the slave back, and he doesn’t sell him off. Look at the end of Colossians – see how the names match? Onesimus was from Colosae, and Paul was sending him back with Tychicus, who had two letters. A public one for the church, and a private one for Philemon.

What is he really asking? Forgiveness for a wrong, welcome for a brother, and the return of a free man to continue his service to Paul. Imagine the courage and the faith it took for Onesimus to go along with this. He might be beaten, or sold, or thrown in jail. But welcomed? How much faith would it take to even hope for that?

This entire letter is one long guilt trip pushing the rich man, the one with power, to make a better choice. And how does it end? “Get a room ready. I’m coming.” I’m telling you in this letter to make the right choice, and I’ll be there soon to make sure you do.

Did it work? Probably yes. Why else would we still have the letter? It’s personal, not written as a lesson for churches or preachers. It’s potentially embarrassing. It’s the only one of its kind in the New Testament. Why was it preserved?

Ignatius of Antioch

The answer to that may lie with Ignatius of Antioch. I wish I had time to talk about him because he’s amazing. Today, what you need to know is that he was a bishop. He was arrested and sent back to Rome, where he would die in the Amphitheater. On his way, he received visits from and wrote letters to many churches. Here’s what he says to the Ephesians:

“I have heard of your name, much beloved of God, which you have gained by a habit of righteousness, according to the faith and love which is in Jesus Christ our Savior…For when you heard  I was coming bound from Syria… you hastened to see me. I received, therefore, in the name of God, your whole congregation in the person of your bishop, Onesimus, a man of great love, whom I pray you by Jesus Christ to love and imitate. Blessed be the one who gave you such an excellent bishop and made you worthy of him.”

Paul writes our two letters around AD 60, Ignatius was martyred around AD 100. Assuming Onesimus was young when he escaped, he could very well be the 60 or 70 year old bishop of Ephesus who visits Ignatius in prison.

How’s that for a rags to riches story? The runaway slave becomes bishop, leaving him perfectly placed to make sure this tiny, personal letter made it into the collection we call scripture. It’s conjecture, but it’s not wild conjecture. If any of it is true, what a difference Paul made with this tiny little letter, not just for Onesimus, but for Philemon, and for us. That is the power of influence. Be the real deal, earn your chips, and pick your battle.

But wait a second. How can say in the private letter, “set Onesimus free” and in the public letter, “slaves obey your masters”? Because it’s not about principle, it’s about getting personal. In principle, Paul favors an orderly society, and he cannot imagine one without slavery. Personally, he loves Onesimus and he loves Philemon and he’s going to use every ounce of his influence to find another way.

Original work by Scott Ableman on a Creative Commons License

Think back to today’s Old Testament reading. God says, “I am like a potter, shaping a pot. If I don’t like how it turns out, I reshape it. If I say I’m going to punish you and you repent, I’ll forgive. If I say I love you and you rebel, I’ll punish.” God is not laying down immutable rules that you can apply regardless of context. God is giving you the message you need to hear so that you can become who you were meant to be.

So Paul doesn’t give the message we’d like to hear. He gives the one Philemon needs to hear. He doesn’t outlaw slavery. He creates enough trust and freedom and accountability that the person with the power can make a better choice. Today, we recognize slavery as evil, but their world, their way of life depended on slavery. Their imaginations were not big enough yet to hold God’s dream.

So God takes what is and he shapes it. First, it’s don’t abuse your slaves. Then, it’s don’t abandon your slaves. Then it’s, “Slaves, honor your masters.” Then, it’s a tiny, insignificant letter asking for a favor. First you are a master, then a provider, then a protector, then a friend, and at last you are a brother.  Or look at it from the slave’s perspective. First you are an animal, then a valuable tool, then a prized possession, then a family fixture, and at last you are free.

Every one of those steps is an opportunity for influence, because we are all clay. 150 years ago, Americans still held slaves. 100 years ago, women couldn’t vote. 50 years ago, certain seats on the bus or at the lunch counter were whites-only. 50 years from now, what will they say about us? What new dream is God trying to cram into our tiny minds? We are clay, and we are still turning in the master’s hands.

If Onesimus represents labor and Philemon represents capital, then perhaps the reason we celebrate Labor Day this weekend is because Paul never sent his letter. Perhaps the reason an 8 hour work day had to be decided with clubs and guns and blood is because the church failed to influence wisely and well. They valued principle over people. They kept silent, or they took sides. Will we follow their example, or Paul’s?

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