I used to swear a lot. Not necessarily in a mean or nasty way, it was more that I frequently accented my speech with a few four letter words. But then I became a Pastor and a father. Once people know that you are a pastor, they begin to apologize to you for using profanity; as if it were the first time you were hearing these words, as though they were defiling your virgin ears. As odd as this is, it does drive home the point that what we say matters. Around clergy, people often want to be good, to do good, they want to be perceived as decent and kind. And those four letter words, although sometimes useful, can undermine this effort. They can make you sound mean, or careless. After realizing this, I tried to cut down on my cursing, because I want to encourage people in doing their best to be kind, and I definitely don’t want to come off as careless or mean.
Yet as much as becoming clergy has chained my speech patterns, becoming a father has done so even more. My daughter Ruth is getting to the point where she can speak in whole sentences, and, of course, she learns to speak from listening to us. She is a parrot. She will repeat nearly anything you say. If you have any doubt that curse words can sound nasty or mean, wait until you hear a two year old say one. When it comes from the mouths of babes it is easy to see how such language can be ugly, nasty, or even mean. So I now try my best to limit my swearing, I try not to do it at work, try not to do it at home. In my former life, single, with no kids, and working construction, it seemed so natural to swear, but now I have changed, circumstances have changed. I’m not the same person that I was back then. And so know my behavior must change as well. Though I still bring them right out anytime I’m venting to a friend or family about my frustrations, I’m doing a lot better at limiting my swearing,
Our New Testament reading this morning was nearly the entirety of Paul’s letter to Philemon. This letter is unique in all of Scripture not just for its brevity but for its content. Although the letter is addressed not only to Philemon but to the others in his church, it nevertheless is written as a personal letter. In it Paul speaks directly to an individual, most likely Philemon, about a very personal matter; Paul wants Philemon to welcome home his estranged former servant Onesimus, as a brother. Paul is writing from prison where he has met and befriended Onesimus. He baptized him and ever since Onesimus has been helping Paulin his apostolic ministry. He has become a valued colleague and trusted friend to Paul.
We are not sure what is the cause of the estrangement between Onesmus and Philemon. It could be that Onesimus was an unfree servant in Philemon’s house who simply ran away. It might be that Onesimus stole something from Philemon. It could very well be both. But whatever it was, after having met Paul, the two of them decide that Onesimus should return to Philemon to try and make things right. Paul is unable to travel with Onesimus so he does the next best thing, he rights him a letter to take to Philemon. As it turns out, Paul doesn’t just know Onesimus’s master, he actually baptized Philemon as well. So Paul, using his authority, power, and privilege as an apostle, writes to Philemon to ask him to forgive any debts that Onesimus owes, and to no longer treat him as a servant, but rather to welcome him as a brother.
Slavery was a fact of life in the Roman empire in the first century. It was the way of that world. Though not nearly as barbaric as chattel slavery here in the United States, slaves did still belong to their masters, they were not free to leave or to live independent lives. It is therefore, not surprising that Philemon and his house had slaves, for that was the norm. But at some point in his adult life, Philemon converted to Christianity. He was baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This conversion meant that he was living a new life, as a new person. He now belonged to Christ, he was now living in and for Christ. He no longer belonged to the world, and he no longer lived for it.
There are those in our day, and certainly in Paul’s day as well, who view belonging to a church as similiar to belonging to a country club. For them church is a nice place to visit with other like minded people, a place to feel that you are among the good and righteous, but certainly not an institution that requires you to change how you live and interact with the world. This is not the way that Paul viewed faith in God. For Paul, and for Jesus Christ, faith meant turning your world upside down. It meant belonging to a different kingdom, a kingdom in which the meek were blessed, a kingdom in which there was no male or female, jew or greek, free or slave, for all are one in Christ Jesus. Paul believed that faith called you out of the world into a life of service to Christ.
So when Paul meets Onesimus and hears of his estrangement from his former master and his fear of reprisal from Philemon, he knows how he can help. In the ancient church, apostles had incredible authority, their words were taken as divine revelation. This means that Paul could command Philemon to release Onesimus from slavery and forgive his debts. However, Paul chooses not to command Philemon but rather to remind him what his new faith requires of him. Paul writes, “I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become in my imprisonment… I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion, but of your own free will. Perhaps this is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, receive him as you would receive me. If he has wronged you at all , or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, write this with my own hand, I will repay it-- to say nothing of your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, I want some benefit from you in the Lord.”
Previously, Philemon had treated Onesimus as the world treated him, as a slave, an inferior person. But now, Philemon has been baptized, he has begun a new life as a follower of Christ. What does this new life require of him? It requires him to see Onesimus as a brother in Christ and no longer as a slave. It requires him to forgive his debtors just as his debts have been forgiven. It requires him to see God in the face of his brother. It requires him to do all that he can to help Onesimus serve God as best he is able. Paul reminds him of his new faith, he reminds him of his new life in Christ and how this life requires him to treat Onesimus as a brother in the flesh and in the Lord.
The world of 1st Century Rome provided many reasons for one to view oneself as superior to others. Masters were superior to slaves. Greeks were superior to Jews. Men were superior to women. Romans were superior to Barbarians. All of these categories divided the people against themselves. In this respect not much has changed from the world of Rome to our world today. Our world is also full of reasons to view yourself as superior to others. The rich are superior to the poor. Whites are superior to non-whites. Citizens are superior to non-citizens. Those who work are superior to those who don’t. Our world is full of dividing lines, things that separate us from one another, things that justify our poor treatment of those different from ourselves. Yet we do not belong to the world, just as Philemon no longer did. We belong to God in Christ. We belong to the church and not to a country club. This belonging to God, this belonging to the church, makes demands upon our lives. It demands that we give up our feelings of superiority. It demands that we see others as siblings in Christ. It demands that we do as Paul did and lend every ounce of our power and privilege to set another free. This is what our faith requires of us. It requires us to acknowledge that we are no more than forgiven sinners and to extend that same grace, forgiveness, and acceptance that we have received in Christ to all others. May we begin to see others, as Paul saw Onesimus, as beloved brethren in Christ.
With the horrific news of the fires consuming large swaths of the Amazon rainforest, I found myself thinking back to my one solitary experience in that part of God’s creation. In high school I did a summer foreign exchange trip to Argentina for a month. At the beginning of our stay the group of American students that I travelled with and the group of American students that I travelled with took a trip to Iguaza Falls at the beginning of our stay. Iguaza Falls are right at the border between Argentina and Brazil, they are the largest system of waterfalls anywhere in the world. And they are absolutely breathtaking. We spent a day hiking around the falls, and everytime we turned a corner I saw the most impressive, and beautiful waterfall I’d ever seen. This most beautiful waterfall would then immediately be topped by the one I discovered around the next corner. It was like they never ended, just waterfall after waterfall after waterfall. So much beauty, and so much water. Everytime I see a waterfall I’m astounded by the sheer amount of water running through it. It doesn’t even have to be a big waterfall, just the fact that the water continues to fall, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The water never stops, it just keeps flowing. Its been almost 20 years since I visted the falls at Iguaza and watched them pour massive sheets of water over the edge of cliffs, and they are still doing it today. The water never runs out it just keeps coming.
In the literature of the Bible the Jordan river plays an outsize role. The Jordan is actually a fairly small river, especially when compared to the Nile or the Mississippi. However, the land surrounding the Jordan, the majority of the land of Israel in the sixth century BCE and even today, is desert. It is dry and arid and without much vegetation. Like all deserts, water can be hard to come by in Israel. In the dry and desert land of Israel, the flowing fresh waters of the Jordan are salvation; they are the source of life for the people there.
Yet not all in Israel live nearby the Jordan. Many towns and villages are simply too far away from the river’s banks to rely on it as their primary source of water. These folks had to set their minds on another way of getting water- one such method was to build cisterns to collect and store rain water. By digging bowls into the bedrock and guiding rainwater runoff to them, people created a source of water in their small villages away from the Jordan. As ingenious a move as this was, a cistern still can’t compare to running, living, water of the Jordan. There are several problems with cisterns- for one the water in them is stagnant and can easily become polluted and start to stink. The worst thing about cisterns though, is that they are temporary. They can only hold so much water, water that can’t be replenished until the next rain. In the meantime the water can evaporate, or it can seep out of cracks in the cistern. Cisterns are always running dry, running out of water, needing to be refilled. Although they are necessary in places with no access to running water, cisterns are still poor substitutes for the living water of a river.
It was the prophet Jeremiah who first applied the analogy of running, living water to God. In the passage Delilah read this morning, God is taking the people of Israel to court, God is trying them for their breach of covenant. Although God had saved them from bondage in Egypt, and led them through the treacherous wilderness, nevertheless Israel was not faithful to God. “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?” The leaders of the people especially are condemned for the ways they forgot or turned away from God- the priests who don’t inquire of God, the lawyers and judges who do not know God, the prophets prophesying for Baal. Despite the fact that God was good to them, freed them, saved them, and provided for them, despite all of this, the people still turned to other gods, to the gods of the neighboring nations.It was not only the ancestors who rejected God, but also their children and their children’s children. The people had given up their God, the one true living God, in exchange for no-gods, for idols, for that which does not profit. “Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate,” says the Lord, “for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water. “ Though their God is powerful and merciful and perpetually generous, yet still these people abandoned the God of living water and chased after idols that cannot save them.
Oftentimes the Old Testament’s obsession with rejecting the worship of idols can appear to us as a relic of a past time; something that has little to no relevance for us today. There is a certain logic to this- I very rarely feel tempted to build a statue and begin worshipping it regularly. I imagine most of you are immune to this particular temptation as well. However, the problem with idolatry is not merely an objection to statuary, the problem of idolatry is coming to rely on, coming to trust, coming to have faith in something other than God. This is idolatry. And this is still very much a problem for our world, for the church, and for each one of us. We, as human beings have a tendency to trust in finite things, rather than the infinite. We have a tendency to believe that we can save ourselves, that we can find the answer to our problems apart from God.
What idols do we trust in today? For what are we willing to offer sacrifice? What about the right to bear arms? We trust in this right as part and parcel of a democratic society, we trust in it as part of our constitution, as an inalienable right. This trust, this faith in guns to provide safety and democracy, has led us to allow deadly weapons of war to be easily acquired by civilians, even teenagers. When these weapons of war take the lives of hundreds and thousands each year, vastly more than in any other place on the earth, we continue to trust in them. We view the slaughter of innocents as a required sacrifice at our altar to guns. And the more of these slaughters happen, the less safe we feel, and the more of us feel that we need to have a gun to protect us from all the other guns. The cistern is cracked, we have to perpetually pour more and more water into it, there never seem to be enough guns to keep us safe.
Our nation also spends the better half of all its resources on the military, more than all other countries combined. We trust that this huge military expenditure will make us safe, we have faith in it. Yet the wars and the threats never seem to end, or even to decline in frequency. Despite this, we pour more and more money into the Pentagon every year. It is a cracked cistern, it will always require more and more money.
Or how about growth? Economic growth is widely seen to be the panacea for all of our ills. Every nation needs to show a growing GDP, we need to produce more and more goods and services, we need our economy to continually grow so that we can all have enough. That such growth is exacting a terrible price on our environment, that it is leading to the burning of the Amazon, and the climate crisis, seems to be the sacrifice we are willing to make to the idol of growth.
These are just a few of our modern day idols, the cracked cisterns that we build to save ourselves. Just as the cracked cistern requires more and more water just to keep it level, so too do these idols require more and more of us, while providing less and less. The answer to this problem of cracked cisterns is to turn instead to the living water of God. If the Jordan and its limitless supply of clean, fresh water is right next to you, offering its grace, why on earth would you dig a cistern for yourself? It is God who saves. It is God alone whose love and care and provision never run out. It is God who requires nothing of us, but to surrender to Her. To give ourselves to the river, to the living water of God. The life that worship of idols brings about gets smaller and smaller, narrower and narrower, more and more concerned with protecting what little you have to protect. That is a warped and awful way to live. The life that comes from worshipping God is open and expansive. If we can trust in God to provide we can truly live, opening ourselves to one another, being vulnerable before each other, and giving of ourselves to one another. This is the life that faith in God makes possible, a life of courage, trust, and generosity. May we foresake our idols, our cracked cisterns, and may we turn again to the living water of God. Amen.
Rev. Andrew Greenhaw
Eternal Student, Christian Minister, Buffalo Wing Enthusiast