Pentecost 13: Prisoner of Love – September 8, 2019
On Sunday, August 25, 2019, churches all over the United States joined together to toll their bells to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved African people in North America. The bells rang for four minutes, the Aquidneck Island churches at noon, and others together at different hours throughout the day.
We share in this difficult history here in Rhode Island as closely as the areas of our country where enslaved peoples worked on plantations, and built some of the most familiar and important structures of our American democracy – the White House, the United States Capitol, and other early government buildings. Profits from slavery and related businesses in Rhode Island and other areas of New England helped to fund some of our oldest and best-known institutions of higher learning.
These are really difficult subjects to talk about. But without the gracious friction of our dialogue, we can’t begin the process of listening, in mutual respect and learning, that can lead to self-knowledge, insight, cultural humility, and understanding.
In our epistle reading this week, the Letter to Philemon, it is interesting that Paul doesn’t condemn slavery outright, even though the very same St. Paul wrote in the Letter to the Galatians in Christ there is no slave or free.
Instead, in the Letter to Philemon, Paul asks his old friend Philemon to free Philemon’s escaped slave Onesimus, who has become like a son to Paul while Paul has been in prison in Rome. Paul assumes the place of prisoner, reversing the power arrangement in the three-way relationship among Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus.
Paul calls Onesimus his own heart and beloved son and refers to Philemon as his debtor, re-framing and re-contextualizing our understanding of their roles in society.
This paradoxical reversal stops us and helps us to see power and authority in new places. How can we release ourselves from bondage by becoming prisoners of love as Paul said he had become?