A man met up with a close friend in a bar. They were catching up over some beers, and the man asked his friend, “Hey, what happened to your brother? I haven’t seen him in a while.”
“Oh, that,” the friend replied. “Well, he posted some things about his ex-wife online and so he had to lay low for a while.”
“Geez” the man said, “Whatever happened to freedom of speech?”
“Seriously,” the friend said. “Although, to be fair, it was probably a mistake telling everyone where he hid her body.”
I guess freedom of speech doesn’t apply to details about ex-wife disappearances!
This summer, we’ve celebrated some of the freedoms we have as Americans—on Memorial Day, 4th of July, and even this weekend at our HUGE Labor Day Fair and our parade here in Clarence Center. We eat hot dogs, watch fireworks, maybe even listen to patriotic songs to remind us that we live in America, land of the free (and home of the brave).
With all this talk about being free, it’s crazy to think about how only 150 years ago or so, we still had slaves in this country. People who were definitely NOT free, who were considered property of their owners, and many times treated terribly.
Slavery isn’t something we talk about much today, at least in this country. But in the time of the first century Jesus followers, slavery was a huge part of life. 35 to 40% of the whole population were slaves. These slaves were property of their masters, and could be bought or sold whenever the owner felt like it. Slaves were typically abused and if they were no longer able to work due to sickness or old age, they were thrown out on the street with no way of supporting themselves.
This is all really disturbing—but what’s even more disturbing about slaves in the first century is that, if a slave ran away, the owner had the right to kill the slave. No questions asked.
Enter our second reading today. Paul writes a letter to a slave owner named Philemon. It’s not very long—in fact, Philemon is one of the shortest books of the Bible, only 25 verses long. But even though it’s a short letter, it packs a punch.
Paul asks Philemon to free his slave Onesimus. Why? Because Onesimus has been a great help to Paul in spreading the Gospel, and had become like a son to him.
But even more than that, Onesimus is a runaway slave. Paul knows that he would be killed by his owner Philemon. So Paul send Onesimus back to Philemon, with this letter, in the hopes that Philemon will not only spare Onesimus’ life, but will also free him so that he can continue to serve God with Paul.
Paul writes in verses 15-17: “Perhaps this is the reason [Onesimus] was separated from you for a little while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”
It’s a risky move, for sure. What if Philemon sees Onesimus and kills him right away, without reading the letter first? Or what if he reads the letter, is not convinced, and kills him anyway?
Clearly, Paul is confident in his knowledge of Philemon, knowing that he would at least read the letter and consider Paul’s words. And Paul is also confident in his writing, knowing that he can be very persuasive. And thirdly, Paul is confident that Philemon sees him as a brother in Christ, and will also come to realize Onesimus is his brother in Christ as well. And Paul wants Philemon to realize-- when someone is your brother or sister in Christ, it is wrong to enslave them or kill them. Those who follow Christ are made to be free. It’s not right to kill or enslave anyone, of course, but how much more is that true for a brother or sister in Christ!
We don’t have slavery in the same way as Paul writes about here in America today, but you can bet we are slaves. We live in different forms of slavery. We are slaves to media and the internet, slaves to our phones, slaves to lying, slaves to keeping up the status quo so that those less fortunate than us continue to struggle. We are slaves to alcohol, drugs, unhelpful habits. We are slaves to hurtful actions against others, hurtful thoughts against others. We are slaves to hurtful thoughts and actions against ourselves.
So you see, we are slaves. We are in spiritual slavery, you could say. And we can’t get free on our own. In the order of worship in our green book, the Lutheran Book of Worship, it says during the confession and forgiveness that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” Only Jesus can free us.
Contemporary Christian singer and songwriter Matthew West asked people to send them their personal stories to him, and he would pick some of the true stories and write songs about them.
So he received over 20,000 stories from people all over the world! And one of those stories really struck him.
Renee Napier’s life was changed forever. Her 20-year-old daughter was coming home from the beach when another young adult, Eric Smallridge, drove while drunk and smashed into her car. Both Renee’s daughter and her daughter’s friend were killed. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison. Renee was the one who wrote to Matthew West about her story.
At the Kingdom Bound Christian music festival held at Darien Lake just down the road from here a few years ago, my husband Will and I not only heard the song Matthew wrote about Renee and her daughter and Eric—we also heard Renee herself and Eric himself tell their stories on stage.
You see, the story didn’t end with Eric being sentenced and sent to prison. Renee told us how her anger and bitterness and hatred toward Eric for killing her daughter was ruining her. Eric was the one in prison, but she felt like the prisoner, jailed in her own hatred and not able to get out.
Finally, Renee realized that she couldn’t live her life like this anymore. So she prayed to God and asked God to help her heal and forgive Eric. And God led her little by little until she was able to forgive him. She told us how she would have never been able to do it herself, she was too angry— Jesus was the one who got her to that point.
And then we heard Eric’s story, of how one night’s huge mistake not only landed him in jail, but cost the lives of two innocent young women. He talked about his time in jail, how he felt like he couldn’t live with the guilt of what he had done. Eventually, he talked with the Christian chaplain at the jail, and the pastor gave Eric a Bible and talked with him about Jesus. Through reading Scripture and talking with the chaplain, Eric started to realize that Jesus wanted to help him let go of that guilt, wanted to take that burden from him so he could live his life for Jesus. And little by little, Eric’s guilt became less and less and he became a changed man.
Jesus freed both Renee and Eric from those things they were enslaved to. Renee’s anger and hatred, and Eric’s guilt, could have easily destroyed them. But Jesus worked in their lives to free them from those things that were hurting them and keeping them from living their lives for him. Renee was able to forgive Eric, and Eric was able to forgive himself. They were made free.
Jesus does that for us. Jesus does that for YOU. Jesus died on that cross to take away those things that we are slaves to—so that we could be free. It doesn’t matter what it is that you are a slave to—when Jesus died, he died so that you could be free from those things that chain you down and keep you from living your life fully for him.
And here’s the cool thing about all this-- Jesus continues to free us from those things that enslave us, that hold us down, that imprison us. I want you to close your eyes. I want you to picture one thing that you feel like you are a slave to in life. It could be a grudge you’re holding on to. It could be guilt from something you did in the past. It could be a hurtful habit. Whatever it is, I want you to picture it.
Now I want you to take a minute or two and give that thing over to Jesus. Pray to Jesus, ask him to take it from you, to free you from that thing that’s enslaving you. You may do that silently or out loud. [Pause for prayers]
Lord Jesus, we ask that you free us from those things that we give to you today. They have held us back for so long. Help us to be slaves to them no more, in your name. Give us your amazing freedom, so that we may be free to live for you. In your holy name we pray, amen.