[Texts: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33]
O Lord, take my lips and speak through them;
Take our minds and think through them;
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Thyself. Amen.
In Tyler Perry’s film Madea’s Family Reunion, the title character Madea has a number of rather memorable one-liners– very few of which are fit to repeat in polite company, let alone from the pulpit. One of those few G-rated quotes kept popping up in my mind as I read through St. Paul’s epistle to Philemon. The teenage girl whom Madea is caring for confides in her about being picked on and called names, to which Madea responds, “Honey, it ain’t what they call you. It’s what you answer to.”
Names are a powerful thing, aren’t they?
Do you know what your name means?
I find the study of the meaning and origin of people’s names– and of words in general– to be fascinating. Some names mean exactly what you think they would mean– for example, my best friend April’s name does actually mean “born in the fourth month of the year”– but the meanings of some other names might surprise you.
Some names even have meanings that are a bit unfortunate. Did you know that Calvin means “bald”, or that Leah means “weary”, or that Mallory means “bad luck” or “bad omen”? Not to mention, any variation on Mary– including my middle name, Marion– means “full of sorrow”.
Not to mention, any variation on Mary or Maria– including my middle name, Marion– means “full of sorrow”.
And then we have poor Onesimus, whose name isn’t just unfortunate– it’s downright cruel.
Onesimus (ow-NISS-i-muss) means “useless”.
Yikes. Makes you wonder what his mother was thinking, right?
And perhaps this awful moniker turned out to be somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we meet Onesimus in today’s Epistle reading, we learn that he is a slave who belongs to a man named Philemon.
Philemon is a leader of the small but growing Christian church in Colossae, the very same church to whom Paul wrote the Epistle to the Colossians. He is a wealthy and important person in his community, and Paul even regards him as a colleague.
Onesimus has been living with Paul for some time while Paul has been under house arrest. They have spent a lot of time together, and Paul has grown very fond of him.
It was not terribly unusual in this time for a slave to leave his master for a short time and stay with someone else, so long as he was returned to his master eventually, which is what seems to be going on here. Onesimus is still legally a slave– he is just on loan to Paul at the moment, and Paul is preparing to send him back to his owner, Philemon.
In the passage we read today, Paul is advocating for Onesimus, pleading with Philemon to receive him back into the community at Colossae not as a slave but as a brother, a valued and cherished part of the Church. Paul argues that Onesimus’s terrible name no longer applies– he is no longer useless– and that he has become like a son to Paul. Sending him back to Philemon feels like sending a piece of his own heart, he says.
He goes as far as to say that if Onesimus owes anyone anything, or has done anything wrong, that Paul himself will make it right. “Put it on my tab,” he says. “Consider it taken care of.”
You know, when we read these epistles– all of them, not just Philemon– we’re really reading someone else’s mail. And we’re only reading one side of the correspondence. We don’t know what Philemon wrote back to Paul. We don’t know whether Philemon welcomed Onesimus back as a free man– maybe there was a big party thrown in his honor when he returned, maybe he became a leader in the Colossian church in his own right, and maybe Philemon even gave him a new name– or whether he forced him to remain a slave when he came home. We truly don’t know.
Onesimus’s story, in many ways, mirrors the story of what it means to be a Christian. We are all prisoners to something–an addiction, an abusive relationship, a toxic family system, perhaps even actual incarceration– something holds each of us captive. And it is Christ who advocates for us, pleading our case, offering us freedom and healing and wholeness.
This new identity we’re given in Christ isn’t just an individual identity– it isn’t even primarily an individual identity. It is, first and foremost, an identity grounded in belonging to a whole– the Body of Christ. As members of the Body, we are called to lay down our individual selves and live together in community with one another.
To put it another way: Any given organ a human being might have is useless on its own. It’s only capable of sitting there, preserved, or perhaps being dissected for the purpose of some sort of research. But things that are preserved or dissected are dead. No single organ or part has any use in and of itself. But, as part of a whole, living, breathing body, each organ is not only useful but necessary. And so it is with the Body of Christ. Each of its members has a purpose– no one is useless. The more we live into our identity as God’s beloved children, the more we discover our purpose, our usefulness.
But then comes the hard part. Sooner or later, we all have to confront those experiences, systems, and relationships that we once called “master”. And we do so as a new creation– one who has been given a new name and a new identity. But those toxic webs by which we were imprisoned likely won’t recognize that. When we come home, they will very often insist on defining us by our old behavior and brokenness, and our place in a system to which we no longer belong. When we encounter the risen Christ are sent back whole, others will reject our wholeness. That, unfortunately, is a given. Dysfunctional systems get that way (and stay that way) because nothing ever changes– everyone knows their place and stays there. Anyone who tries to choose something different is punished.
If you’re the family drunk, for example, you’re expected to show up half in the bag to every single family function, make an ass out of yourself, and pass out in someone’s front yard. That’s your job within the system, and God forbid you try to get help for your drinking.
If you’re the designated whipping boy, you’re not allowed to refuse to be mistreated. If you’re the enabler, you’re not allowed to set healthy boundaries. If you’re the token “hot mess,” you’re not allowed to try to get your life together. If your system infantilizes you, you’d be breaking “the rules” if you stood up for yourself and demanded to be treated like an adult. If your system has decided that you’re in charge of fixing everyone else’s problems, you’d be way out of line if you were to say, “not my circus, not my monkeys.”
And if you’re perceived as useless by your system, how dare you try to claim that you have worth?
Perhaps this is part of what Jesus is talking about in that somewhat puzzling reading from St. Luke’s Gospel that we looked at today– the bit about what it takes to follow Him. We must be willing to be reviled by the people in our lives– even our own family members– and we must be willing to choose the truth of the Resurrection over their approval and acceptance.
We must choose to look at ourselves through God’s eyes, no matter how anyone else sees us.We must be willing to choose the identity we are given by God as beloved sons and daughters of the Father over the labels others might put on us, even when others call us by our old names and try to pigeonhole us back into our old identities. We must remember that we have been given a new name, a new self, a new way of being.
This is where the wisdom of Madea comes in handy. Ultimately, it ain’t what they choose to call us; it’s what we choose to answer to.