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Sermon – September 5, 2010: Benefit in The Lord

Sermon for Sunday, September 5, 2010 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Benefit in The Lord

Jeremiah 18: 1-11; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14: 25 – 33

Labor Day is not about work so much as it is about economic relations. It began as a

holiday to acknowledge the contribution of organized trades to the prosperity of the nation,

and has persisted as the great end-of-summer holiday through periods of enthusiasm for

the enrichment of employees and periods of enthusiasm for the enrichment of owners.

There’s a principle of psychological counseling that all important relationships are

ambivalent, that there are both positive and negative feelings associated with them. This is

true with America’s reaction to both labor and capital. We can be sentimental and

supportive of the common working person and we can be contemptuous of that person,

too; and we can resent the rich and also rally to their defense against constraints. Discussion

of the issues tends to be ideological and therefore political, and that makes what anyone

might consider facts hard to marshal.

For this sermon I am going to say a few things about economic relations between

persons. The first is that it is human sin, and not some intrinsic characteristic of a particular

class, that leads to exploiting the weak and feathering one’s nest by the privileged. I

believe this both because I think people have to consciously and faithfully resist their natural

inclination to take advantage of circumstances when that means weakening another person’s

position, because who loves like God loves? I also believe this because I notice that

when someone rises from the ranks of anonymous toil and gets to a position of power, it

very often happens that the person newly elevated to that status abandons all thoughts of

undoing the injustices which were evident from the point of view of those beneath, and

instead seeks to gain from those very injustices now that he or she has the chance to do so.

There is no natural virtue or vice either in poverty or plenty. There is only the inevitable

temptation to selfishness inherent in all human beings, an instinctive urge to protect oneself

and make oneself prosper which can be indifferent to the needs of others.

The remedy for destructive economic relations–social systems in which so much

advantage rests with one side that greed and exploitation gain the upper hand, is the same

remedy that would hold for any society in which the ownership caste were unfairly

oppressed–and that has happened, too, notably in the wake of political revolutions in the

past century. The cure for societies poisoned by unjust distributions of goods and

opportunities is conversion. It is the conviction taking root in the hearts of everyone–high

and humble alike–that God’s vision for human life requires an unselfish desire for the general

good, and that the self-sacrificial love demonstrated by Jesus at Calvary may justly be

expected to take the form of relinquishing some privileges or making some extra effort to

ensure that, as written in the book of Exodus and quoted with approval by Paul in his

second letter to the Church at Corinth, “[they] who gather much have nothing over, and

[they] who gather little have no lack.”

This hope for human relationships is a work in progress, like the ethos of the New

Testament in general. It was a vexed effort on the part of the New Testament community to

overcome materialism and self-seeking among both the prosperous and the needy. It has

remained an elusive aim of Christian life. However, it is the aspect of our common faith

most closely connected to the issues raised by Labor Day, so it bears some investigation.

Christianity restores an old-fashioned approach to economic relations by casting

interpersonal interactions in family terms. The chain of connected loyalties and claims

present in a clan, in which duties are linked more to identity than to self-interest or relative

power, is offered to those converted to the gospel. People are brothers and sisters, some

are more mature in the faith and some less so, but the mature have corresponding burdens

of responsibility and the young in faith have appropriate protection and instruction.

The Bible regards politically-defined status as an additional and sometimes misled

model of human relationships. See if the warning about gaining a king for themselves

delivered from God to Israel through the prophet Samuel has any echoes in present day

impatience with government : (this from First Samuel 8:11-18)

“These will be the marks of the king who will reign over you; he will take your sons

and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and

he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some

to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the

equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and

bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them

to his servants. He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his

officers and to his servants. He will take your menservants and your maidservants and the

best of your cattle and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your

flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king,

whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

There’s always a political motivation to pretend that when this happens it’s the fault of

a particular party or platform, but it’s human nature. Give someone the power to make it

easy for himself and take something away from you, and it’s likely to happen. That’s what

makes Christianity both so promising and so counterintuitive: it’s based on the idea that

Jesus deliberately made it difficult for himself in order to give you something.

That Christian ethos, both its radical oddity and its potential saving effect, is

illuminated in the letter we have from Paul to Philemon. One has to read this several times,

and between the lines a little, to see what’s going on, and I would recommend that for you,

because otherwise you’ll just have to trust me and the scriptures are more trustworthy than I

am. So read it over and over and see what you see.

Here’s what seems to be true. Paul knows Philemon. Philemon is a believer, and a

believer because of Paul. Whether that’s simply a matter of his begun as a Christian due to

Paul’s preaching or even found Christianity through a church founded by Paul– or whether

there were a closer personal connection I think is hard to say. Paul at least seems to know

who Philemon is, and Paul feels he can count enough on his status as a kind of father figure

to Philemon, and Philemon’s own acceptance of the family model of relationships within

Christianity, to smooth over some trouble between Philemon and the Onesimus on whose

part Paul writes.

Paul identifies Onesimus as Philemon’s slave and refers to the fact that Onesimus

has been parted from Philemon. Paul seems to be seeking to arrange an amicable return.

Did Onesimus leave Philemon without permission, but have no real prospects other than to

resume his old role in Philemon’s household? Runaway slaves always are punished

harshly, because they subvert the social system which counts on them, and Paul seems to

be trying to avert that. To what does Paul appeal? Paul says, whatever other relationships

have been defined for you by economic roles, it is more significant that you are brothers in

Christ–and it is more significant that I am a sort of father-figure to you in Christ. Paul tells

Philemon that he is dealing generously with Philemon by allowing Onesimus to return to

him, and Paul clearly hints that he expects Philemon to deal generously with Onesimus.

Christianity does undermine the kinds of master-and-servant roles which become

established by the built-in inequalities of life. It is not because Christianity has some

peevish hostility to the way of the world. It is because Christianity has its own way, which

inevitably conflicts with the way of the world. Building one’s world upon loving other

people has its own strengths and weaknesses, but in Paul’s case he expects the

weaknesses somehow to be sorted out by God. God’s certain interest in the case of

Philemon and Onesimus is the overarching appeal Paul makes–surely two believers

believe that God will help them mend whatever is amiss, and both must be aware that

God will hold them accountable for whatever ways each may be tempted to seek to best

the other.

The gospel lesson is about the cost of Christianity. Jesus is speaking of the cost in

terms of losing one’s life, but the comparisons are to other kinds of risk-reward ratios– trying

to build a tower without enough materials, or trying to make war without enough soldiers.

The point is that it is folly to embark on some grand project without making sure one has the

wherewithal. For us today the question is whether we are willing to accept the cost of

continuing to seek to become a society based more on love for others and less on love for

ourselves. The question is whether we have enough trust in God and God’s guidance and

God’s power to do good to give up self-seeking, and to dare to define relations between

persons in other terms than simply those of power or status or money. Recognizing the

temptation to do wrong which afflicts every human being, how can we effect economic

relations in our own society which come closer to an ethos of respecting the responsibility of

the powerful and accommodating the vulnerability of the weak?

 

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