You can read today’s scripture lessons by clicking here.
I was reading a post on FB the other day in which a friend of mine questioned the tendency amongst British clergy to use the term “dog collar” when referring to their clergy collar. He said, “doesn’t that seem demeaning?”
At first I thought about the dryness of British humor. But as I reflected on his question in the face of today’s readings, I realized there is so much more to this – primarily because so many people see this collar as a symbol of power. But today’s letter to Philemon helps us to realize that it’s actually about love.
Paul’s letter to Philemon a problematic text, for sure. For centuries (and still, by some today) this short piece of Christian scripture was used to justify the abhorrent institution of slavery as being, somehow, ordained by God. It’s proof, they say, that Paul supported slavery because he sent Philemon’s runaway slave (Onesimus) back to him. And therefore, there is scriptural precedent that tells us slavery is ok.
There are several ways of interpreting the relationship of Onesimus to Philemon depending upon how you literally you read the text. But the truth is, slavery was a very big part of life in the Roman Empire as it has been in every empire across the history of civilization. And so, it’s referenced frequently in scripture. Biblical scholars argue whether the authors of various scriptural texts actually mean servanthood of some kind when they refer to slavery or if it’s really the ownership of one person by another.
However, the long arc of Judeo-Christian scripture is a story of liberation, of freedom. It’s one that reminds us of our connection to one another and our call to love God by loving our neighbor. So, to me, the idea that slavery is a part of God’s plan is blasphemy and one of the most horrifying examples of an incredibly troubling tendency.
This tendency is humanity’s inclination to focus on the material things of the world, on our temporal existence, projecting what is important to us onto God and conflating what maintains the comfort of our lives with God’s dream for us.
And so, because slavery was important to the maintenance of the way things were in the founding of our beloved country, Christians argued that slavery must have been ordained by God. It’s just the way things have to be. It’s this very tendency to focus on our temporal existence that gets in the way of discipleship, however.
Jesus calls this out in today’s Gospel. He says (greatly paraphrased, of course) “When you want to build a tower, you’re so concerned with losing face that your pride takes precedence over faith in God’s abundance that what you need will be provided. And you’re so concerned with protecting what you think is yours, so concerned with winning that you only ask for peace when you know you can’t win. So, only if you can give up your possessions, will you actually be able to follow me.”
What he’s saying is that we weigh the cost of discipleship in worldly terms. As if we owned our lives and everything in them in the first place. How much can I give of myself but still maintain the life I’ve worked so hard to build, the things I own? How can I follow Jesus and still keep my life.
This, Jesus says, is not discipleship. Because Jesus is asking for our very lives.
Now, I realize stewardship season is fast approaching so I don’t want you to think that this is my way of asking you to give more money. But this is about stewardship. And this is where Paul’s letter to Philemon comes in.
Paul is in prison when he’s writing this letter. It’s clear that he’s writing to Philemon, the head of a house church. And we know from other sources that this church was in the city of Collosae, one of the largest cities in Asia Minor and a center for trade. Philemon is assumed to have been wealthy and the head of a large household with many servants, one of them being a man named Onesimus.
But more than that, to go beyond duty and take him back as a brother instead of a servant. It’s not just the restoration of the relationship, but the birth of a new relationship in Christ.
Paul says, “… though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love..” Paul points out that it is, indeed, our Christian duty to forgive one another. And when we are able to offer forgiveness, not from a sense of duty, but from a place of love, something deeper happens.
We loose one another from the bindings of shame and hurt and pain, not just restoring the relationship, but reconciling us to God through one another by becoming brothers and sisters.
Forgiving a debt can be hard to do. It can also be hard to accept such forgiveness. And not just money, but gifts and favors and simple gestures of love. We want payback, a return on our investment, tit-for-tat… or vengeance on those who wronged us.
Or, if we are conflict avoidant, we just get resentful until the score is even. And before we know it, we’ve created a transactional economy in our relationships. You take from me, I take from you. You give to me, I give to you.
But transactional economies are always about power – who’s indebted to whom and the mistaken belief that we own the resources we have and we must protect them. And, to some extent, this is valid… we cannot be everything for everyone so we must have some boundaries and we do have to be smart with how we use our resources and maintain a sense of equity in our relationships.
But, although we are called to be good stewards of our resources, we are just that… stewards, not owners. And stewardship is a very different thing than ownership.
Stewardship acknowledges that there is something bigger and wider and deeper than myself to which all of this belongs – all of this worldly goodness – the things we buy, the places we go, the air we breathe, the water we drink. To think that anyone actually owns any of it is folly.
As our Ash Wednesday service tells us, we are dust and to dust we shall return. Because there is no ownership, except in God. So, what exactly do we think we’re protecting when we shut ourselves down? What kind of power do we think we are exerting when we refuse to forgive?
This is why Paul talks about love over duty. It may be our Christian duty to forgive, but until we are able to release ourselves and that other person from the binding of that hurt, until we can surrender to love, we will never be truly free.
This is hard work but it is the most fruitful work we can ever do in our lives. And this is the cost of discipleship – to give up our hurts and our pain and all the ways in which we think we need to keep other people bound to us.
Setting ourselves free by setting other people free is what is means to be a disciple. And this begins in love. A love that is not localized but that flows through us – so that when this person hurts us, we still know we are loved and are able to love because that person loves us – and this knowledge gives us strength to offer love to this person despite being hurt by them.
And when we practice this, we start to realize that love extends even beyond this borrowed strength. That because we are wholly and ferociously loved by God, we are able to love ourselves enough so we can stop seeking to be loved in particular ways by other people.
We stop needing to be special or smart or good or stylish or well-off. We forgive ourselves for all the ways in which we think we are undeserving of love and we become released from the tyranny of our own lesser angels.
We begin to understand that love is not, nor was it ever something that can be contained or owned or enslaved, but it must be shared in order to be experienced at all.
And this is when we become a servant of love. This is when we, like Paul, become a prisoner of Jesus the Christ.
This opening of our heart is how we give our lives. It is the cost of our discipleship.
And so I return to the FB conversation about dog collars. This collar, to me, is an icon of love, not a symbol of power and so I find nothing demeaning about calling this collar a dog collar because I find nothing demeaning about being a servant of love.
On the contrary, if I could ever truly manage to surrender myself to the God of Love… I would be more free than I could ever imagine.