Sermon Preached on September 8, 2019 – Pentecost +13
By The Rev. Dr. Nina R. Pooley
St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Yarmouth, ME
Take a Stand
This morning is one of those times when the Good News is difficult news. That’s how you know it’s really the Good News, isn’t it? Because it’s not always what you want to hear, and certainly not always easy, shallow news… but deeper, more difficult, “this is what you must do to be in relationship with the living God” news.
But this morning’s Gospel is particularly tough to hear when so many of us are in the midst of grieving transitions with our children: putting them on the bus for the first time, or in all day school, or dropping off at college. Hating them or being hated by them for the sake of Jesus is not what we signed up for, and not something we are all that interested in hearing more about, thank you very much.
So, what else does the lectionary have for us this morning? Well, there’s the problematic letter of Paul to Philemon. Which on the one hand, is short enough to be included almost entirely here – so we can talk about it as it was meant to be considered, as a whole. And on the other hand, it has a dark and awful history that we must contend with.
In the letter, Paul writes to Philemon to convince him and his household to allow Onesimus to return to them, and to reconsider his value, to allow him a different identity, or place in their community. Scholars debate the underlying story here – was Onesimus really a slave in Philemon’s household or a servant? The word doulos is used only once, and can mean servant just as often as slave… but this letter was certainly once understood as describing a situation in which a runaway slave is being returned to his master by Paul’s careful instruction. Which brings us back to our earlier point in a way – when someone tells you the Bible slickly supports their agenda, dig deeper.
Because even when you read this entire letter in the Greek, as it was written, and if you choose to translate doulos as slave, what we have here is an incredibly carefully constructed argument by Paul that Philemon should accept Onesimus back into the household as a beloved and equal member of the family, as one who is cherished and respected. For Onesimus has served Paul with kindness, and Paul is now very much invested in his well-being. Whether slave or servant, runaway or sent to Paul, Onesimus will be going back to be received into that household’s good graces and to equal standing with the members of the family. Because Paul writes this letter on his behalf, because Christians act this way. Those with power using their influence on behalf of those without. To set things right, one person at a time. Paul saying, essentially, treat Onesimus as if he were my own son, this is my child in the family of faith.
So this is not a Biblical defense of the institution of slavery, far from it. We know that the sins for which we must atone as a culture are many, so let’s be clear on this one – the letter of Paul to Philemon, should never have been used to defend slavery. And on behalf of the Church and those who used it to justify horrors beyond imagining, we are sorry, and we humbly repent.
A story¹ that always comes to mind when I read this letter:
The Rt. Rev. Duncan Gray, Jr. served as the interim dean of Sewanee, one of the three years I was a full-time seminarian there. He was brought in to fill that role when the seminary was in turmoil. Bishop Gray entered the community with the calm, grace and wisdom of one who had seen a great deal worse and was immune to the drama swirling around him. His kind and gentle presence instantly made the seminary feel safer for us students, and we adored him. Though Bishop Gray was a hero long before he arrived to save us. One example among many – In the fall of 1962, Duncan Gray was serving as the rector at St. Peter’s in Oxford, Mississippi, when the University of Mississippi was at the forefront of the battle for integration. Gray was already well known for being out spoken against segregation, considering it simply “incompatible with the Christian gospel.” That fall, by decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, James Meredith would be the first African American man to be enrolled at the University of Mississippi. In the wake of the Supreme court decision, a retired Army Maj. General, Edwin Walker, made a television appeal issuing a call to arms to the nation, inciting people from Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama and of course Mississippi to converge on Oxford in protest.
On the evening of September 30, 1962 Duncan Gray and a group of friends had gathered at the Dean of Students home when the phone rang and informed them that a riot was forming outside the Lyceum, where the US Marshalls had housed James Meredith for the night. Duncan and the group set out immediately hoping they could convince the students to return to their dormitories. However, when they arrived it was obvious the crowd consisted of far more than just students. At the Governor’s order, the State Police had withdrawn and the only law enforcement remaining were the US Marshalls standing between the rioters and the entrance to the Lyceum. As Duncan took all of this in, he realized the epicenter of the riot was the Confederate monument at the center of the courtyard. Without thinking of the consequences, Duncan Gray made his way through the crowd to the monument. He climbed up the opposite side from where Edwin Walker was shouting and asked the retired General to please stop inciting these people and to ask them to return to their homes. With a bit more color and force than I’m going to repeat here, Walker made an abrupt inquiry regarding Duncan Gray’s identity. Duncan replied, “I’m an Episcopal priest here in Oxford and this is my home. I don’t recognize any of you…this is not your home and you need to let us work this out rather than coming here to tear us apart.” The General responded, “Here…here is an Episcopal priest that makes me ashamed to be an Episcopalian.”
A great cheer went up from the crowd, and Duncan then responded to someone in the crowd, who threatened to kill Meredith, saying, “You might very well kill James Meredith tonight, but you’ll have to kill a priest first.” And with that, the crowd pulled Duncan down from the monument and began beating him.
Both Duncan Gray and James Meredith survived that night’s violence, and it became a turning point, that moment when reasonable people began to take notice and realize that things had gone too far. That nothing in the honorable culture of the South they thought they were defending allowed for pulling a (white Southern) man of God down from where he was speaking and beating him nearly to death. Gray went into that crowd because of who he was, a public figure in the community, he had some power, he thought he could step in and shield James Meredith, perhaps draw some attention, perhaps sway the crowd. He was wrong, he didn’t sway the crowd. But his actions made a huge difference in the long run. Sometimes you have to take a stand, no matter the cost to yourself.
Which reminds me of a similar story a few years ago, from Australia, where a retired judge offered to swap places with a refugee in one of the awful internment camps. Jim Macken², who was 88, had written to his country’s immigration minister, offering to switch places with a refugee saying:
“My reason for making this proposal is simple. I can no longer remain silent as innocent men, women and children are being held in appalling circumstances on Manus Island and Nauru.
“I offer this proposal as a way forward for at least one refugee. This would allow one person currently held on Manus Island or Nauru the right to be an Australian citizen. I would consider it a privilege to live out my final years in either Nauru or Manus Island in his or her stead.”
That’s standing up for those who are oppressed, using one’s power and position and influence for those who are suffering. I’ve been thinking about Judge Macken lately – now that we are also a country of internment camps, where innocent men, women and children live in appalling conditions. I’m afraid to ask what it would look like for us to take as courageous a stand as his.
Because this morning’s Gospel is clear, to follow Jesus will take everything we have. I don’t believe it will look like abandoning our children, or hating those we are given to love – but it will mean seeing our lives in the greater context of the family of God, seeing other people as part of that context – beyond our own small clan, seeing beyond our own self-interest, our stuff, our needs.
This is about discipleship and cost. Giving up everything to follow Jesus, which may be beyond our imagining. But perhaps we begin by paying attention to what this life is costing others – and what we can do about it with the power we have. How we might serve Christ by serving them, giving something up of ourselves for them in Christ’s name. For whom will we speak up? For whom will we act? For whom will we take a stand?
The year I graduated from seminary our class unanimously requested The Rt. Rev. Duncan Gray Jr. as our commencement preacher. At the conclusion of his sermon, without referring to that night in Oxford or what he’d done there, Bp. Gray asked our class to stand. During a brief pause, he surveyed those of us standing before him. (That pause and his gaze seemed to last a long time to us!)
Then he said to us:
“There will be times in your ministry when you are scared. If not, you’re probably not paying enough attention. There will be times when the safe thing to do is to take a seat rather than a stand. But after today, you no longer stand for yourselves alone or even those closest to you. After today, you stand for Christ, and Christ stands for those who cannot stand for themselves. I have often felt afraid, but I’ve never felt alone. I have learned that when you stand for Christ, Christ stands with you…always.”³
My friends, may you stand for those who cannot stand for themselves, and may Christ stand with you, always.
1 This story was recounted first in Will D. Campbell’s book: And Also with You. Duncan Gray and the American Dilemma, Franklin, TN: Providence House Publishers (2007). 1st ed.; First Edition (2007). And again in Araminta Stone Johnston’s book: And One Was a Priest: The Life and Times of Duncan M. Gray Jr., University Press of Mississippi, December 17, 2010.
2 Ben Doherty, “Retired judge, 88, offers ‘body swap’ with a refugee on Manus or Nauru, ‘I would consider it a privilege to live out my final years in either Nauru or Manus Island in his or her stead,’ Jim Macken says.” The Guardian, theguardian.com Wed 31 Aug 2016 16.00 EDT.
3 The Rt. Rev. Duncan Gray, Jr., Graduation address/sermon, preached at School of Theology’s Commencement May 2004.