September 8, 2019 – The Rev. Dr. Stephen Shaver

Proper 18, Year C, Revised Common Lectionary
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

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It was 1862. It was wartime. But despite the Civil War, the new dome was still in progress on the U.S. Capitol building. The last piece was the great statue of Freedom for the top. It had been shipped from Italy in five sections and temporarily plastered together. But there was a problem. It was time to separate it again for the final casting, and no one knew how to get it apart. The seams were hidden by the plaster. One skilled laborer saved the day. He attached a pulley to the top and pulled up just enough until the seams began to show. The casting could proceed, and the statue stands atop the Capitol to this day.

That man’s name was Philip Reid. He was a black man. And he was a slave. Or rather, he was one of many, many enslaved people who provided the labor for the Capitol Building, most of whose names we don’t know.[1]

It can seem ironic that enslaved people built the Capitol, this symbol of liberty; even the Statue of Freedom on the top. But it’s a symbol of the deep irony built into the history of this country, whose founding documents speak of liberty while enshrining the idea that one person could own another into law.

On August 20, 1619, four hundred years and about two weeks ago, the first European ship, the White Lion, arrived in Virginia carrying kidnapped African people to be sold into slavery. You may have seen the 1619 Project, the special edition of the New York Times Magazine, which tries to put this neglected event back at the center of American history. And it belongs there. We might wish that the story of this country can be told with slavery and racism as a sidebar. But the fact is that slavery existed here for over two hundred years, still longer than the time since it ended. And even after it legally ended, its poisonous legacy of racial injustice continues to this day. The fact is, just like slavery was a central part of the building of the Capitol Building, slavery is a central part of our national story.

Almost two thousand years ago the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to his friend Philemon. It was a personal letter, but one meant to be read in front of the whole church. And it was about slavery. Now ancient Roman slavery was different in some ways from American slavery. It wasn’t based on race. It was easier in some ways for ancient Roman slaves to gain education, social status, and their freedom. But at the heart of both systems was the idea that one human being could be another’s property. In Paul’s place and time that idea was taken for granted. So the letter Paul writes is radical.

There was a slave named Onesimus who had escaped from Philemon’s house. Somehow he made his way to Paul, where he became a Christian. An escaped slave would ordinarily face severe punishment or even death. But Paul writes to Philemon that he should take Onesimus back, not only without punishment, but “no longer as a slave, but as a beloved brother.” Scholars still debate whether Paul is actually telling Philemon to emancipate Onesimus, but I think the letter is fairly clear. For a wealthy person of status to forgive a runaway slave would already have meant significant loss of face in Roman society. To then free him and treat him as a brother would have been unheard of. But Paul says that’s simply what the gospel demands.

In today’s gospel Jesus tells us that following him has a cost. It might cost us money, or status, or possessions, or even loved ones or life itself. I wonder if Philemon realized the cost when he decided to follow Jesus. It cost him more than just the value of one enslaved worker. It cost him his sense of how his world functioned. It cost him his self-understanding as someone with more status. It cost him his ability to take for granted that the difference between him and Onesimus was just how the world worked. It cost him his illusions.

What illusions will following Jesus cost us?

We all have illusions about our society and our place in it. I remember as a child somehow having the belief that this country had never started a war, and never lost a war. I don’t know who taught me that or where I picked it up. I remember the surprise and kind of betrayal I felt as a teenager when I learned that neither of those things was true.

There can be a similar sense of surprise and betrayal for those of us raised on textbooks that gloss over this country’s racial history, and especially those of us like Philemon who happened to be born with some characteristics that gave us some social benefit and who have a vested interest in not thinking too hard about why that’s the case.

Today, for example, the average white household has a net worth ten times the average black household.[2] That’s not because of working harder. Scholars can trace the wealth gap pretty directly from slavery, through Jim Crow laws, segregation, and redlining, up to the present day. That’s one part of the story. And there’s more to our national story about race too: the removal of indigenous people, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the interment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the treatment of Hispanic Americans and immigrants throughout our history, including the detention camps today.[3] This country has been set up, since before it was a country, in ways that favor European settlers and their descendants. It doesn’t have to always be that way. If we hear Paul’s and Jesus’s words today, particularly for those of us who are white, there is a special responsibility—a necessity—to work to make sure it doesn’t stay that way. Facing our history is the first step toward changing our future. If we follow Jesus, it will cost us. But it will set us free.

[1] “Philip Reid and the Statue of Freedom,” Architect of the Capitol, https://www.aoc.gov/philip-reid-and-statue-freedom.

[2] “The median family wealth for white people is $171,000, compared with just $17,600 for black people.” Trymaine Lee, “A Vast Wealth Gap, Driven By Segregation, Redlining, Evictions and Exclusion, Separates Black and White America,” The 1619 Project, New York Times Magazine, August 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/racial-wealth-gap.html.

[3] Here I draw with thanks from Deacon Pamela Moore’s sermon “Confession and Forgiveness,” delivered at Epiphany Lutheran and Episcopal Church, Marina, CA, August 25, 2019.