A Labor Day Wish!

Fifteen Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 23) 5 September 2010

((Deuteronomy 30:15-20   Psalm 1   Philemon 1-21 Luke 14:25-33)

“A Labor Day Wish!”

He’s 45 years old, a family man with three teenage children at home.  A graduate of a fine college, with a master’s degree in electrical engineering; he has been working in the high-tech industry for more than 20 years.  He talks about what losing his job means to him and to his family.

She is in her late 30s, a single mother.  She had an excellent position with a regional financial institution.  She is not only facing the loss of a job, but the problem of irregular child support payments from her former husband.

Both of these people are real people, and only two of many people who have been downsized, laid off, terminated, outsourced or whatever terminology corporate America is using today.

These folks are two of a massive migration of people moving from job to job, from career to career, and not always by their choice.

The U.S. Department of Labor statistics tells us that the average person today is in a job for no more than three years.  That’s a far cry from the 35 to 40-year-careers with the same company that previous generations enjoyed.

So at a time when there’s considerable job-market unrest because hundreds of thousands of people each year become victims of corporate decisions to reduce staff size and expenses; at a time when lots of other people are taking early retirement; at a time when yet more people are struggling to find meaningful work, this morning we open ourselves as to how God’s Word might prevail upon us in order for us  to celebrate Labor Day as more than simply the final long weekend of the summer before the school year shifts into full gear.

I’m choosing to focus on the Letter to Philemon.  It’s really short.  We just heard most of it just a few minutes ago.

This is the story of a Christian who owns a slave.  The Christian is Philemon.  The slave is Onesimus.  They are both indebted to Paul who baptized them.  More recently, the slave is baptized by Paul, who then writes to the slave owner, asking that because of his baptism, the slave be set free.

Sounds like a pretty simple story at first glance.  Guess what?  It’s not that simple. If it were, this letter probably would not have found its way into the Bible.

Implications for Philemon.  If Philemon were to free his slave, there’s the critical question of how such a move will totally upset the economic, financial, and social status of his household.  There’s also the issue of how such a move will impact Philemon’s status in the community. Both are critical to Philemon’s lifestyle.

What makes this worse is that, although it’s not totally clear, there seems to be some possibility that the slave may have stolen funds or property from his owner. Some scholars even question the sincerity of the slave’s decision to be baptized.

Paul is asking no small favor of Philemon, when he asks him to take the slave back as a “brother in the faith,” as a spiritual equal (if you will!), and to release him and forgive a debt.  Paul dares to challenge this wealthy Christian, trusting that the slave owner will not fall back into the accepted patterns of prestige, discrimination and violence that structured everyday life in those days.

Paul begins the letter by saying that he will not command (force) Philemon to release the slave, but rather, will appeal to him on the basis of love.   Paul prevails on Philemon to honor the bonds that Christ has formed between him and his slave through Baptism.

Faith will do that!  Baptismal faith forces us into ethical decisions we thought we’d never have to make.

This is a text about justice, and it’s about how society is organized, especially in working relationships, and it’s about how wealth is distributed.  This text is also about Paul challenging the pain and humiliation and de-humanizing of this slave-owner relationship.  The core spirituality of justice means confronting the powerlessness that people experience in a given society.  It is making a commitment to and taking a stance for those who suffer.

The driving force is Paul’s desire for reconciling love in a community rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In a social statement the ELCA issued ten years ago on economic life, entitled “Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All,” I really think the church was trying to get at this issue of justice in the workplace and in the economy of our lives.

Here are a few lines from that statement:  Economic life pervades our lives—the work we do, the income we receive, how much we consume and save, what we value, and how we view one another.   Human beings are responsible and accountable for economic life, but people often feel powerless in the face of what occurs.  Economic mandates often demand sacrifices from those least able to afford them.

And then it goes on:  As a church we confess that we are in bondage to sin and and that we submit too readily to the idols and injustices of economic life.  We often rely on wealth and material goods more than God and close ourselves off to the needs of others.  Our primary and lasting identity, trust, and hope are rooted in the God we know in Jesus Christ.  Baptized into Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, we receive a new identity and freedom…”

That’s the issue!  What does this new identity and freedom (that we received in Baptism) mean?  This new identity and freedom is exactly what Paul is asking of Philemon in his relationship with his slave.

The ELCA social statement then gives us the Gospel, when it says that, “despite the Church’s failings …through Word and the sacraments, we are forgiven, renewed, and nourished.  At the table, we together receive the same bread and drink of the same cup.  What we receive is sufficient to sustain us.  We are strengthened to persist in the struggle for justice as we look forward to the coming of God’s kingdom in all its fullness.

For just a moment, I want to go back to the two people who began this sermon.   I want us to struggle with how we can bring abundant hope to them and to the hundreds of people like them, many who sit among us.  I want us to struggle with how we can discover, affirm, and include all others to live and to live fully as human beings.  I want us to allow God, who resides within each one of us, to move us to wholeness while we also work for wholeness in our community and in our larger society.

What I really want is this:  for us to believe from deep within us that what we receive in the Word, what we receive at the Table, and in the fellowship we share, that this identity and freedom is sufficient for us to make a difference.

And I wish this to be the vision to be renewed today and on every Labor Day.  Amen.

Sufficient, Sustainable Livelihood for All, a social statement on economic life of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (1999).

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