Keawalai Congregational Church
United Church of Christ (USA)
Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Sunday, September 5, 2010
The Rev. Kealahou C. Alika
The 33 miners were trapped underground following the collapse of a mine in San Jose, Chile on August 5th. Seventeen days later the men were located. All were found alive.
Since then a deep-drilling team has carved a total of three boreholes to communicate with and deliver food to the miners. As this weekend approached there was news that an effort was being made to provide families with the opportunity to communicate directly with the miners.
Estimates on the timeline for the rescue effort range from two to four months. In more recent days there have been numerous stories in the news about the psychological effect on the miners who are essentially isolated a half-mile beneath the surface of the earth.
I suspect some of us may be feeling very appreciative of the fact that we are able to look out from these church windows and doors to see the world outside. The more immediate images of the ocean and coconut trees, blue sky and green grass are sources of great comfort. But beyond what we see, we know there is a world out there that weighs heavily upon all us.
The U.S. combat role in Iraq formally ended last week. The end has come at a great cost. More than 4,400 troops have died; tens of thousands more have been wounded and hundreds of billions of dollars spent. Tens of thousands of Iraqi men, women and children have died and millions have been displaced.
Although 120,000 troops have returned home, 50,000 still remain in Iraq for support and counterterrorism training. Even as that is occurring the war in Afghanistan is now exacting its toll on American troops.
I know there are some in many churches who welcome “wars and rumors of war” as a sign of the Second Coming of Jesus. There are some who welcome the news of Hurricane Earl as it swept across the Atlantic; of the earthquake that struck Aotearoa two days ago; and of the heat wave that has wreaked havoc in seventeen countries around the world believing that all of these occurrences are signs that will hasten Jesus’ return.
There are some who will look upon a collapse of the current Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that began on Friday as a sure and certain sign that the end is near. We have heard the warnings time and time again – floods and droughts, disease and famine; heat waves and deep freezes; wars and rumors of war.
But since we do not know the hour or the day of Christ’s return, we would do well to live our lives as resurrection people; not as resignation people– that is people who are resigned to say: “Jesus will come and nothing will matter any more anyway.” If we are to live as resurrection people we must recognize that we are in the world but not of the world. (John 17:14-19 ) That is to say our worship of God and the faith we share in Jesus Christ compels us to leave this place of refuge and step back into a world fraught with pain and suffering. We must join hands with those who seek to bring hope, healing, peace and joy to others. We cannot separate our identity as individuals and as the church from being in the world.
Someone said, “From the heart of love, justice flows out into all our relationships, even when doing so is difficult or comes at a cost.” (Seasons of the Spirit, Congregational Life/Pentecost 2, Woodlake Publishing, Inc., Kelowna, BC, Canada, 2009, page 18) It is this understanding of love and justice that permeates our reading from The Letter of Paul to Philemon.
The letter to Philemon was to be delivered by Onesimus, a slave who found his way to the Apostle Paul. It is not clear whether or not Paul was imprisoned in Rome or Caesarea or Ephesus but the location is of less significance than the fact that Onesimus had become a Christian while with him.
Philemon was an influential leader in Colossae and as was common at that time, he was also a slave owner. Why Onesimus left is not stated. Perhaps it was due to a problem Onesimus had with Philemon or with other slaves. It may have been because of working conditions or some other grievance.
In such circumstances, a slave would go to a trusted third party to ask for intervention. In that sense, a slave was not legally regarded as a runaway. Onesimus found in Paul someone who would intervene on his behalf.
Although Paul’s letter is specifically about Onesimus, it is not a private letter to Philemon, because others are clearly addressed including the whole church that meets at Philemon’s house. Paul’s message and the question of how to treat Onesimus’ return are set within the context of the life of the church. Paul indirectly points to his own authority as an apostle and as one to whom even Philemon owed his conversion to the Christian faith.
Onesimus had become useful to Paul. But Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon aware that this is what the law requires. He does so insisting to Philemon that Onesimus has changed and that he should return to a changed situation.
Down through the centuries there are those who point to Paul’s letter as a justification for slavery. As troubling as it is for many of us today, Biblical scholars remind us that Paul does not address the general question of slavery as a social institution, nor does he discuss whether or not Onesimus should be set free.
What we do know is he expects Onesimus to be received back with forgiveness into the household of Philemon and at the same time be received back into the community of the church as a full and equal member, as a “brother.” (v. 16) Paul applied his understanding of agape or God’s love to the problem between Philemon and Onesimus.
Paul does not want to appeal to his own authority but he does offer to undertake his responsibility for whatever Onesimus may owe Philemon. (vv. 18-19) Paul wants the decision to be a choice Philemon makes on his own.
But he also expects the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon to be set within the context of the church and transformed by the love that is active there. (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Metzger & Murphy, Oxford University Press, New York, 1991, page 314)
The power of Paul’s letter becomes evident when he writes of Onesimus, “I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you . . . so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” (vv. 12, 15)
Paul does not question the social institution of slavery nor does he set out to overturn its existence. But by inviting Philemon to receive Onesimus as “a beloved brother” we begin to realize that over time the institution of slavery will be questioned by future generations and in time future generations will call for its abolition.
In 1832, the year that this church was established, the High Chiefess Ka‘ahumanu set sail for Maui. People from all over Maui gathered at Lähainä to meet her and construct a fort there in order to quell disturbances from the whaling ships that were anchored offshore.
It was Ka‘ahumanu’s desire to promote “the spread of the word of God and . . . the promotion of education in that word among both the chiefs and the commoners alike.” (Ruling Chiefs of Hawaii, S. M. Kamakau, The Kamehameha Schools Press, Honolulu, 1992, page307) Kamakau, a Hawaiian scholar born on the island of Oahu in 1815 and educated at Lähainäuna Seminary, wrote of Ka‘ahumanu:
“Her face beamed at (the) sight of the men and women who attended worship with her, and she showed her pleasure when she saw people reading portions of the Bible which were being distributed at this time. She made such persons her friends, invited them to eat with her, and often gave them food and clothing. Even those of the lower class whom in old days she would have despised, became her companions and fellow laborers in the word of God.” (Ibid.)
It was out of her heart of love that justice flowed and in time, Kamakau writes: “All followed her from the highest to the lowest because of the laws she had made which brought protection to the poorest.” (Op.cit., page 323) In ancient Hawai‘i, Onesimus would probably have been among the poorest of the poor. He would have been considered kauwä, a slave. Had Ka‘ahumanu received a letter from the Apostle Paul on his behalf I have no doubt she would have received him no longer as a slave but “a beloved brother.” (v. 16)
As we gather around this table today, we are bound to one another by God’s love. We come aware that we are all children of God and therefore we recognize that we are brothers and sisters to one another. We recognize that it is from the heart of love that justice will flow as it did from Paul to Onesimus to Philemon and from Ka‘ahumanu to the people of the kingdom of Hawaiʻi; and from them to succeeding generations who have been born and generations yet to be born.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
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