Sermon
September 2, 2001
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Luke 14:1-14
1 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the
Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely
7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a
parable.8 "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit
down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has
been invited by your host;9 and the host who invited both of you may come
and say to you, 'Give this person your place,' and then in disgrace you
would start to take the lowest place.10 But when you are invited, go and sit
down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you,
'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all
who sit at the table with you.11 For all who exalt themselves will be
humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."
12 He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or
a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or
rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be
repaid.13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the
lame, and the blind.14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay
you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

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Sermon: A Promise of Service


Usually for a Sunday morning lesson we read only a few verses of scripture.
Sometimes we might read almost a whole chapter, but that is rare.  This
morning, however, we get to hear an entire book of the bible - a short book
for sure, a letter, actually, but complete from beginning to end, from
salutation to signature.  It's an interesting letter for several reasons -
it's written by Paul from prison, it's written to a friend, and it's written
about a slave who has stolen from his owner and run away.  The owner is
Philemon, the slave is Onesimus, and apparently Onesimus ran away to seek
help from Paul in prison and in the process was converted to Christianity.
Now Paul is sending him back with this letter - an appeal for Philemon to
put aside his rights as a slave owner and regard Onesimus as a brother - to
forgive him and return him to Paul where he will serve not as a slave but as
a free servant of the Gospel.  But let's hear this in Paul's own words.

Paul's letter to Philemon
Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother, To Philemon our
dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow
soldier, and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God
our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of
your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray
that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all
the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and
encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been
refreshed through you, my brother.  For this reason, though I am bold enough
in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you
on the basis of love -- and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as
a prisoner of Christ Jesus.
I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become
during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed
useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back
to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me
in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do
nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be
voluntary and not something forced.
Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a 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 the
flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as
you would welcome me.
If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my
account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say
nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have
this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ.
Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do
even more than I say. One thing more -- prepare a guest room for me, for I
am hoping through your prayers to be restored to you.
Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so
do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.


It's a beautiful letter, isn't it?  Paul's appeal that Philemon receive
Onesimus back as a brother, that he forgive any punishment or debt that is
due, that he return Onesimus to Paul to help him in prison and that Philemon
prepare a room to receive Paul upon his release.  It's also a letter that
raises significant questions, not the least of which concerns Paul's
attitude toward a fact of Roman life that in our day we consider undiluted
evil - slavery.

Slavery was, of course, a wide spread institution in the structure of labor
over many generations.  Paul is not willing to make a frontal attack on it,
although he does believe that in Christ the relation between slave and
master is transformed and that the bond of love must replace the yoke of
oppression.  Some have argued that Paul's supported slavery, but it is more
likely that Paul thought that the world as he knew it would not last long,
Christ was coming again, and in God's new creation there would be no longer
Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, no longer male and female; for all
would be one in Christ Jesus.

Well, as time went by, people waited for this new world to arrive, but it
seemed like the conditions of slavery and servitude never did just up and
disappear on their own.  There were certainly different shapes and forms in
which the structure of labor was organized - from master and slave, to Lord
and serf, to gentleman and servant, to craftsman and apprentice, to
capitalist and worker, and some might say to husband and wife, or even, to
parent and child.  There really has been no relationship that has not been
explored or exploited as possibility for making one person serve another.

Some of these relationships have been fair and just, but some have been
unfair and brutal.  This weekend we celebrate a holiday that has its origin
in the struggle to give the laborer dignity and power in relationship to the
owner.  It's a holiday born out of the labor pains, so to speak, of the
birth of unions in America, and more specifically, out of the sacrifice of
thirteen strikers killed by federal troops who were sent into Pullman,
Illinois, in the summer of 1894 by President Grover Cleveland to break a
strike at the factory that made railroad sleeping cars.

The death of these workers created such protests that both houses of
Congress unanimously passed legislation supporting an idea put forward a
decade earlier by two labor organizers, Peter J. McGuire, a cofounder of the
American Federation of Labor, and Matthew Maguire, a machinist in Paterson,
NJ.  This idea was to have a day to honor labor, a workingman's holiday, a
day, as Samuel Gompers said, "for which the toilers in past centuries looked
forward, when their rights and their wrongs would be discussed. that the
workers of our day may not only lay down their tools of labor for a holiday,
but upon which they may touch shoulders in marching parades and feel the
stronger for it."  So Labor Day was born.

Now I don't feel qualified to give a history of labor in the United States -
and I certainly don't think that labor unions have been without fault in
their internal politics, their rivalries with other unions, or their
struggles with management. It all remains a headline topic today, even in tw
o of our big local employers, Kimberly Clark and the New Milford Hospital.
I haven't really gotten involved in either of those cases, Lord knows I have
enough troubles here with my management - the Deacons - but there certainly
is a strong case that from a historical perspective the development of
organized labor was a necessary step in the evolution of a fair marketplace
in America.  And while it is easy to see the faults of unions, it is also
easy to take for granted some of the rights that organized labor suffered to
win for all workers - a situation not unlike the bumper sticker that says
"Don't complain about farmers with your mouth full."

We each have our own perspective on these matters.  But what is important
here and now is that we have gathered to be organized into a sort of labor
union together as Christians.  But we're kind of an upside down, inside out,
union, for instead of bargaining for better compensation, benefits, and
working conditions, we are joining together to give up position and power
and bargain for the privilege to serve others in the name of Christ.

If anything helped diminish organized labor in America is was that unions
became too self-serving.  Not that management or owners or capitalists or
churches or anyone else is free of that fault, or that you couldn't
characterize much of what the Bible calls sin as being simply that:
self-serving.

Last week we drove down to Philadelphia to take our daughter to school.
Nothing I can think of better illustrates the nature of self-serving
behavior more than a few hours on the major highways of our eastern
metropolitan corridor.  You just can't believe how some people drive as if
they are the only one's who need to get from point A to point B.   Forget
common courtesy - these people are what I call chronic car criminals - they'
re addicted to speeding, to tailgating, to cutting in and out of lanes, to
simply driving as if they alone owned the road and your life and safety was
inconvenient to them.

I could easily get off on a rant about this and other forms of self-serving
behavior, but then I become self-righteous and that's not very appealing
either, so let's just leave it go and get back to the point which is that
here, now, in this place where we honor God in Christ, we are called to put
aside our self serving ways and make a promise to labor every day in the
service of Christ for the sake of others.

And this service is unlike that rendered by slave to master, or employee to
manager, for it is rendered not out of oppression or obligation, but freely,
with thanksgiving and affection.  It is not rendered up the social ladder,
from poor to rich, from the powerless to the powerful, but just the
opposite - from the top to the bottom, from the greatest to the least.

Why is this?  Well, Paul explains it very well in another letter, when he
writes to the church in Philippi: (Philippians 2:3-8) Do nothing from
selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than
yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the
interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as
something to be exploited,  but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,  he humbled
himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross.

This communion table is a graphic reminder of how God has served us and
continues to serve us in Christ.  Christ chose this to be his remembrance,
the testament of his teaching, the memorial of his sacrifice.  In the Gospel
lesson this morning he told his disciples not to serve themselves up the
best seat at the table, but to seek out the lower seats.  But at this table,
where he should be the honored guest, Christ takes the role of the servant,
and he serves up for us the symbols his own life which he will pour out on
the cross to free us from whatever enslaves us and binds us to self serving
sin.

Thinking of the story of how Christ washed the feet of his disciples and
broke the bread at the Last Supper, the hymn writer Brian Wren put it this
way:

Lord God, in Christ you call our name
and then receive us as your own;
not through some merit, right or claim
but by your gracious love alone
 We strain to glimpse your mercy seat
 and find you kneeling at our feet.
Then take the towel, and break the bread,
and humble us, and call us friends.
Suffer and serve till all are fed

Lord God, in Christ you set us free
your life to live, your joy to share.
Give us your Spirit's liberty
to turn from guilt and dull despair
and offer all that faith can do
while love is making all things new.

On this holiday weekend, let us remember again how Christ has come among us
as one who serves, and how he seeks our response to his call to follow in
this humble path.  As we receive this assurance of God's forgiving love, let
us, like Onesimus, offer ourselves in service out of freedom, affection, and
thanksgiving.  Come, for all things are ready.
Amen
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