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Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle C (2)
Many years ago, Deputy Sheriff Bill Cromie was called to investigate a traffic accident in Constantia, New York. A drunk driver had crashed into the pumps at a gas station. Fortunately, none of them exploded. The situation was under control. But the driver was nowhere in sight.
Deputy Sheriff Cromie ran into the nearby woods to find him. It didn’t take him long. The man was nearby, crashing around in the bushes. As soon as Cromie shined his light on the suspect, the driver surrendered. The intoxicated man was panting heavily, bleeding from numerous scratches, and at the point of exhaustion. He remarked to Cromie, “You must be Superman . . . Man, you been chasing me for forty-five minutes, and you aren’t even winded . . . you ain’t even messed up the crease in your pants. How did you do it?”
Deputy Sheriff Cromie had to laugh as he informed the suspect that no one had been chasing him. In fact, the police had only just arrived on the scene.
The drunk man said, “You mean I been chasing myself?”
“I’m afraid so,” said the deputy.
The man replied, “Well, if I’m that [blankety-blank] stupid, you might as well put me in jail.” And he headed meekly for the squad car. (1)
I’d love to have been there when that guy sobered up. How did it feel to know that he’d been running away from himself all that time? In the beginning, no one was pursuing him; his own fear and guilt drove him into the woods and ultimately exhausted him. Fear and guilt have a way of doing that.
The letter to Philemon in our lesson for today is essentially about a man who ran away from his crimes, who ran away from slavery, and at some point, who ran away from himself. Onesimus was a slave in Philemon’s household. One day Onesimus stole some property or some money from Philemon—the Scriptures aren’t clear on this point—and ran away.
A few years later, Onesimus encountered the Apostle Paul. Ironically, Paul was a friend and spiritual mentor to Philemon. Paul befriended Onesimus, and eventually brought Onesimus to faith in Jesus Christ. After his conversion to Christ, Onesimus became immensely useful to Paul, aiding him in his ministry and visiting him in prison. But in the back of Paul’s mind, he knew this situation couldn’t last. In the eyes of the law, Onesimus still belonged to Philemon. Philemon had been wronged, and he deserved restitution. By law, Paul was required to return an escaped slave to his master. But also by law, Onesimus’ crimes were punishable by death.
What would you do if you were in Paul’s place? Would you try to hide Onesimus? Would you break the law with the rationale that you were doing it for a higher good? Would you try to buy your friend’s freedom? What does the law require? What does conscience require? What does God require? It would seem that there were only two or three logical choices Paul could make. But Paul was a man who lived by abundant grace, and this grace allowed him to see the situation with a radically new perspective. He opened the letter with words of encouragement for Philemon, then he moved into the crux of the matter:
“Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.
“I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So, if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” (Philemon, verses 8-17)
Imagine yourself in Philemon’s shoes. In that time and place, it was perfectly legal and acceptable to own slaves. Today we know that it was a horrendous practice, but at that time it was a way of life. Your slave, who was part of your household, stole from you and ran away from your employ. You know the law, and you know your rights: he wronged you, and he deserves to be punished. And then a dear friend begs you to forgive the man; beyond that, to receive him back into your household as a brother, an equal. This goes beyond the law. This goes beyond forgiveness. This is grace.
Paul knew what he was asking of his friend, Philemon. You see, grace had changed Paul’s life too. If anyone understood what it was to run from his past, Paul did. He had once been a zealous persecutor of the early Christians. He stood in solidarity with those who murdered Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Did those memories haunt him once he became a Christian? We don’t know. But we do know that Paul fully realized that his salvation was by the grace of God, a free gift of undeserved love, not his own character or good works.
It’s like going to confession. So often people confess the same sin confession after confession. Are they committing the same sin over and over again. Or are they confessing the same sin because they are not sure if it has been forgiven.
Well, does it? Did Jesus die for nothing? And if Jesus’ blood was sufficient to wash away our sins, then isn’t it sufficient to wash away everyone’s sins? Can we stand in judgment of a brother or sister if Christ died for them?
That’s what grace really is: the knowledge that Jesus Christ’s blood covers all our sins. Our past has been nailed to the cross and it is dead, and it will never be held against us again. We are new creations in Christ (II Corinthians 5: 17). And we would be denying the love and the power and the Lordship of Jesus if we did not offer that same abundant grace to all those who ask for it.
Johnny Lee Clary was raised by an alcoholic mother and a violent father who deliberately schooled him in the finer points of hatred. After his father’s suicide and his mother’s abandonment, Johnny Lee found a “family” in the local Ku Klux Klan. By age fourteen, he was rising in the Klan ranks. He set his sights on becoming Imperial Wizard, one of the highest positions in the Klan.
One day, Johnny Lee had the opportunity to publicly debate Reverend Wade Watts, a pastor and the local leader of the NAACP. Johnny Lee relished the thought of “putting a black man in his place.” But Johnny Lee floundered in the debate. Not only couldn’t he answer the Reverend’s reasoned arguments, but he also couldn’t handle the love and compassion that flowed from this man. Rev. Watts’ words echoed in Johnny Lee’s ears: “I just want you to know that I love you and Jesus loves you.”
Johnny Lee and his fellow Klan members began a campaign of harassment against Rev. Watts and his family. They made death threats against him, broke out the windows of his home, set fire to his church, and threatened his children. Rev. Watts responded to every outrage with love and humility. He almost seemed to enjoy the threatening calls from Johnny Lee.
Johnny Lee finally attained his goal of Imperial Wizard status, but suddenly his Klan activities repulsed him. He was sick of his own hatred. He dropped out of the Klan and wandered aimlessly for the next few years. One night, while contemplating suicide, Johnny Lee picked up a Bible and began to read it. That night he gave his life to Christ. He joined a multiracial church and began studying the Bible. In fact, an article on his life noted, “He became the first Caucasian elder in the Church of God in Christ, a predominantly African-American denomination.” (3) But it took a few more years before he worked up the courage to call Rev. Watts again.
It had been ten years since he had called the Watts household, but Rev. Watts recognized his voice immediately. The love in his voice washed away Johnny Lee’s fears. He told Rev. Watts of his new life as a Christian, and Rev. Watts invited him to speak at his church. Clary became an ordained pastor. He founded Colorblind Operations, a ministry of healing for those caught up in racism or substance abuse. (4)
He had a new vision of life. The first reading shows an ancient tradition that ran through Jewish thinking and writing, a tradition that goes back to the days when the Jews lived in Egypt, first as free people and then as an enslaved population. This tradition, centered on Wisdom, asks people to discover what is the key to their lives and their thinking. It says that once we discover the vision of God in our lives, the purpose and path of all things, then we will have Wisdom. Through Widom we know God’s mind; and once we know God’s mind, then we know what paths we should walk.
Jesus is pushing his followers in the same direction. He knows they will have to make choices and decisions. He is saying that our putting God the Father at the center of our lives and thought will be what liberates us. It isn’t that there has to be a battle between God and our families or friends. It’s rather this: only when we begin to discover the love of God will we begin to live the love we want to give to our families, our friends, and to all humankind. God’s love is the key to Wisdom; God’s liberating love is the key to life.
St. Paul writes to Philemon, “Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.” (vs. 15) Only God’s abundant grace can turn a sinner into a saint and a slave into a brother. Only grace can set us free from our past and dissolve the walls that divide us.
And now here’s a little peek at the rest of the story. There is no known record of what happened to Philemon. How did he respond to this letter? Did Philemon forgive Onesimus and receive him as a brother? Did grace triumph? What do you think?
Danny Pierce writes for the blog BostonBibleGeeks (bostonbiblegeeks.wordpress.com). On his blog he makes the following point: if Philemon had said “No” to Paul’s request, would this letter have made it into the New Testament? If Onesimus had returned to slavery, or been put to death by his master, you and I probably wouldn’t be reading this letter today. (5)
We may not know the ending to Onesimus’ story, but we do know that the message of the New Testament is consistently a message of grace, of God’s undeserved love changing lives. A message of God’s undeserved love changing the world. So what do you think? Did grace win out?
One thing we do know: in the year A.D. 110, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch was arrested and taken to Rome. From prison he wrote a letter to the church at Antioch. In this letter, he praised the bishop of Ephesus and encouraged the Christian believers to imitate him, because he was “a man whose love is beyond words.” (6) This bishop’s name was Onesimus. Many Bible scholars believe that Bishop Onesimus and the runaway slave were one and the same man. (7) “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me . . .” Won’t you open your heart to Christ’s amazing grace today?
- Daniel Butler and Alan Ray, Wanted Dumb or Alive: 100 New Stories from . . .(Nashville: Rutledge Hill Press, 1996).
- From E-Meditation: Love and Forgiveness: 2/14/.
- “Christians Worldwide Mourn Ex-KKK Turned Evangelist,” CBN.com, October 28, 2014, https://www1.cbn.com/cbnnews/us/2014/october/ex-kkk-wizard-turned-christian-evangelist-dies.
- The Day I Met God, Edited by Jim & Karen Covell and Victorya Rogers (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 2001), pp. 13-20.
- “What Happened to Onesimus?” by Danny Pierce BostonBibleGeeks.wordpress.com April 21, 2010. https://bostonbiblegeeks.wordpress.com/2010/04/21/what-happened-to-onesimus/.
- Maxie Dunnam, The Communicator’s Commentary, Vol. 8 (Waco, TX.: Word Books, 1982), p. 406.
- The Word in Life Study Bible(Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1993), pp. 763-764.
Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle C (1)
Props: A toy in its original box, if possible, with a ten-dollar price tag and nine one-dollar bills. Obviously, you can change the original price tag with a sticker to suit this Children’s Sermon. The toy could be a football or a Barbie. It does not matter. The prop could also be a candy bar for ten cents and nine pennies. The more desirable the item, the more effective the illustration.
Lesson: [With the toy hidden:] Good morning! (response) We’re going to go to the toy store [(or candy store depending on your prop)] this morning and buy a toy. I know exactly what I want; I want this! Pull out the football. What is this? (response) Yeah, a football. Won’t it be great! We can buy this and then take it home and get in the front yard and play football. How many of you have played football? (response) Will you play with me if I buy it? (response) Good. I wonder how much it costs? (response) The price tag has to be around here somewhere? Does anyone see the price tag? (response) Oh, it’s right here. How much does it cost? (response) Ten dollars!? That’s a lot of money. I’ll have to see how much I have.
Pull out your wallet or pocketbook and take out the nine one dollar bills. Will you help me count? (response) You count them. Have a child hold out her hand for you to lay the dollar bills into one at a time. (One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine) Nine? In desperation look back in your wallet. We need ten dollars not nine. Are you sure you counted right? (response) We’ll count them again. Take the bills and have them slowly count again. Only nine dollars! Do you know what that means? (response) That’s right. I don’t have enough money to buy the football and that means we can’t play football together. I’m sorry; I thought I had enough money.
Put your dollars back in your wallet and hold it up before them: Next time, before I go to the toy store to buy a toy, what should I do? (count how much money you have) If they say you should ask your parents, respond: I’m going to buy this toy with my own money. So what do I need to do before I buy the toy? (response) I need to count my money, and if I have nine dollars, I can’t buy a ten-dollar toy. I need to know how much it costs and how much I have.
Application: The toy store will expect me to have ten dollars if I am going to buy a ten-dollar toy. Jesus said something like that. He said, before we follow God, we need to sit down and think about what that means and how much it’s going to “cost us” to follow him. What do you think it costs to follow God? (response) Give the children time to answer. If they answer with a monetary figure: It will cost more than our money to follow God. What do you think it costs to follow God? (response) Guide them toward appropriate answers. It will actually cost us our lives! Everything we have and everything we own — even everything we are and want to do. Can you believe that? We have to give everything to God: our money, our family, our talents, our toys, our friends, and our love. That’s what it costs to follow God. Jesus told us to make sure we are ready to pay that price before we come to God, because God expects nothing less.
We often don’t know what we have to do, or how to do it. What should we do about Syria, if anything? What should we do about the economy—eliminate debt or stimulate it? What about the NFL and football, now that they settled a $750 m lawsuit? Or what should Hockey leagues do? We can go on and on wondering, hesitating and short-cutting effective action.
What should Philemon do, for example? We have a selection from a one-chapter letter that St. Paul wrote to the slave-holder Philemon. Philemon was a Christian convert; and his run-away slave also converted to Christ, under Paul, in prison. Now the slave, Onesimos, is returning to his owner. What should Philemon do? Should he beat him? Sell him? Or treat him, as Paul urges, as a brother?
We often have the luxury of spinning issues around in our heads, sometimes for months, and sometimes for years. What college will I go to? Should we repaint our house this year? Whether to put money into our old car or buy a new one. Jesus, however, is saying that on one essential point, there can be no ambiguity, no doubt. We all need to know what we have to do when it comes to following him.
We have to put him first. We have to see everything in him. We have to relate everything to him. We have to be his disciples. Jesus puts this in a very stark way which we can easily misunderstand. Hating our parents? Hating our relatives? This exaggerated Semitic way of speaking translates better this way: we have to prefer Jesus to everyone else in our lives and to everything else that we do. That means we have to prefer Jesus’ way, Jesus’ values, the way Jesus loves, the hopes that Jesus puts before us, the vision of the Kingdom he offers us. In the Kingdom, surely, our loves are not weakened; no they are strengthened. But we have to put Christ first.
If we don’t, we won’t survive as believers, and we seem to have plenty of proof of this in contemporary society. From aggressive atheists to vanishing worshippers, from new-style churches luring folks from mainline churches to shortages of clergy and religious, our faith is no picnic. We have to live our faith without the comfort of the cocoon that supported many of us forty or more years ago. This is the cross we have to carry, to develop new styles and motives for our Catholic faith in today’s world.
But it starts with each of us, knowing what to do, and what we have to do, making a clear decision to accept more deeply the discipleship of love that Jesus has invited us to share. The greatest gift we can do for Jesus, and for the world, is to build, and fortify, a foundation of faith that nourishes and sustains us. As we do this, we will find something marvelous. For everything we do, Jesus does even more. Being a disciple is what God does in us, when we open our hearts, in and through the Holy Spirit.