Sermon Archives

Listening for Onesimus ~ Philemon 1-25

Opening Prayer from John Veltri
Teach me to listen, O God, to those nearest me, my family, my friends, my co-workers. Help me to be aware that no matter what words I hear, the message is, “Accept the person I am. Listen to me.” Teach me to listen, my caring God, to those far from me– the whisper of the hopeless, the plea of the forgotten, the cry of the anguished. Teach me to listen, O God my Mother, to myself. Help me to be less afraid to trust the voice inside — in the deepest part of me. Teach me to listen, Holy Spirit, for your voice — in busyness and in boredom, in certainty and doubt, in noise and in silence. Teach me, Lord, to listen. Amen.

Seven Steps
Philemon, the third shortest book of the bible. A brief letter, a note even, from Paul to Philemon about the slave Onesimus. One of the few books we can read all of in the service, you wouldn’t be so happy if we made you sit through a full reading of Genesis or Jeremiah. In this letter to Philemon you can find Paul’s version of “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Paul is a master in the art of persuasion. You might want to look at the scripture in your bulletin or in a bible for this part to follow along as we look back through the entire letter. I’m going to give you what I see as Paul’s seven step process for How to Win Friends and Influence People. This is free advice for all of you and you can practice on each other after church over donuts.

Step one, flatter your audience. See verses one through seven. Paul writes, “Philemon, our dear friend. I have received much joy and encouragement from your love.” The honey is almost dripping from Paul’s words.

Step two, downplay your own status. See verse nine. Paul knows what he is doing here, listen to him, “I Paul, an old man and now also a prisoner.” Make your audience pity you at least a little bit. Paul is reminding Philemon, “Look, I’m in prison, so maybe I could have at least one nice thing happen.”

Step three, know what you want. Verses ten through sixteen. The gist of this whole letter is that Paul wants Philemon to accept Onesimus back, not as a slave, but as a beloved brother. All that Paul writes is in service of this.

Step four, don’t coerce, suggest. Verse fourteen, “I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.” Paul knows what he’s doing here, it’s better to win people over, not force them.

Step five, put your money where your mouth is. Verse eighteen, “If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.” Being willing to shell out some cash isn’t such a bad way to make sure that what you want gets done.

Step six, project confidence. Once you’ve made your case, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t assume your request will be granted. Verse twenty-one says Paul is confident of Philemon’s obedience. He’s putting those good intentions out there.

Step seven, follow up. See verse twenty two, where Paul asks for Philemon to prepare for him a room. He’s going to make sure all has gone according to plan. Perhaps even more than that, you can tell that he wants to continue his relationship with Philemon. This isn’t just a one-time favor, this is building relationships.

In summary, 1. Flatter your audience, 2. Downplay your status, 3. Know what you want, 4. Don’t coerce, suggest, 5. Put your money where your mouth is, 6. Project confidence, 7. Follow up.

Who is Onesimus?
Going through these seven steps isn’t a bad way to summarize the letter to Philemon. But it’s only part of the story. And something isn’t quite right about reading scripture like this, I’ll be the first to admit. It ends up ringing a little hollow. I don’t believe scripture is just about us finding ways to get what we want. We’re looking at this all from the perspective of Paul and the power and influence he has.

But if we stopped here, we’d miss something. What about Onesimus? Who is he and what is his story? Paul is speaking on his behalf therefore we don’t get to hear what Onesimus thinks about this whole situation. We have to listen very carefully for what Onesimus’ story really might be. This isn’t just a clever literary exercise, either. Who and what we hear from scripture has repercussions. That is painfully clear in the history of interpretation surrounding the letter to Philemon.

Eric Barreto from Luther Seminary writes this, “Most dominant in the interpretive tradition has been that Onesimus is a runaway slave whom Paul is returning to his rightful master. Here, we can see the dark legacy of this text’s interpretation. In the United States in particular, Philemon was one biblical text (mis)used to justify the continued enslavement of our African American sisters and brothers. After all, if Paul in this text is so willing to return a runaway slave to his owner, then shouldn’t we follow suit? If Paul was unwilling to buck the laws of imperial Rome, why should American Christians disobey the laws of a democratic state? One crucial level of our interpretation of Philemon must deal with our recent, collective past; a past in which biblical sanction of slavery and segregation and rancid racism was simply taken for granted by most of our predecessors in the faith.”

If we are to learn from the misuse and abuse of Philemon over the centuries, and that has happened here in the United States, we must understand and take very seriously the interpretation of scripture.

Maybe you’re going to want to come to our bible studies and classes. Kerygma begins next week.

How we read and understand scripture together is critical because it is about power. Scripture has been used to win friends and influence people and not just in order to spread the gospel. Scripture has been used to abuse and oppress.

How we read the story of Onesimus likely tells us more about ourselves than Onesimus. For American slave owners, they read this as a story of a fugitive slave being returned to his master. For contemporary audiences we have inherited this tradition. You may have been taught yourself that Onesimus was a runaway.

But is this what the bible tells us?

Supported by historical evidence about slavery in the ancient Roman world, the text points us to an alternative. We don’t actually know what the separation between Onesimus and Philemon was and we don’t know what debt Onesimus owed Philemon. We have just assumed. What is just as likely as Onesimus being a runaway is that Onesimus was simply renegotiating his position within Philemon’s household. This was not uncommon in ancient Roman times. What changes when we think of Onesimus not as a fugitive, but autonomous and independent?

What would God have us do?
Imagining what the full context of the situation between Paul, Onesimus, and Philemon will always just be that, an exercise in imagination. We are guided by what we see in the verse, by historical evidence, by millennia of interpretation. But we are all making our best guess.

Yet this doesn’t mean we do not know what God would have us do. Despite the many lectures I sat through, I think I will always be uncertain about specific historic details or the nuances of grammar and translation in our scripture. I also don’t believe that you have to be educated in those ways to read scripture. What we know has to be guided by what we believe. We believe that God favors the lowly, the downtrodden, the poor, the needy, the widow, the orphan, the slave. Remember the words Mary sang in the book of Luke? He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” Words from a pregnant teenager. Or from the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek.”

Our imperative is this. We have to read from the perspective of those favored by God, those presented to us for careful consideration. Our interpretation should always assume that God is calling for reconciliation for all people. Never should this text have been used to justify slavery.

We must listen carefully, gently, with open minds and hearts. For those like Onesimus are still speaking to us if we would only listen. To have the oppressed to be able to speak for themselves, to be named, to be heard. Not to be categorized and dismissed, but to be able to tell the full complexity of their story. Is this not what God calls us to do?

When I listen for Onesimus in the letter to Philemon I hear a man who is a beloved brother, who has showed compassion. I hear someone who wants to be known as an equal, in flesh and in the Lord. I want to remember his name as an example of faith and reconciliation.

And I am thankful to Paul for using his skills of persuasion to amplify the voice of one who may not have been afforded the opportunity to speak for himself. Paul used his skills of influence and persuasion to support God’s vision for justice and reconciliation in the world.

May we be so bold.

Amen.

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