Here's the sermon I preached this morning at my church. Scripture text is Philemon 1: 8-21
My name is Onesimus. Perhaps you’ve heard of me? I’m mentioned several times in your Holy Book but only in one portion. The letter that Paul wrote to my master, Philemon. Paul says that he has met me and that he has converted me to his faith and that now he is sending me back to my master with the hope that my master will do the right thing and set me free as a favor to him.
What I find so interesting about Paul’s letter to my master is that not once does Paul ever ask me what I want. My voice is left completely out of the story and my silence is never once accounted for. Did Paul even think to ask me whether or not I wanted to return to my master? Did he think to ask me if I might rather have been seeking him out as a way to get away from my master? Did Paul bother to even consult me about what I thought my ultimate fate should be? No, he didn’t. My voice wasn’t considered important or interesting or necessary to Paul or to Philemon. Just like so many other characters in your Holy Book, I am left voiceless with no one to come to my defense and stand up for me. Who will speak for me? Who will stand up for me? Who will give me my voice back?
Onesimus has been silenced in the Bible. His voice and his interests are left completely out. He is just another nameless, faceless, speechless character whose own interests aren’t considered important or necessary or good. Yet, those were biblical times. Things were different then. We don’t still do that now, do we? We give everyone a voice and everyone a say, don't we?
Trayvon Martin. Oscar Grant. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Sound familiar? These four men were all shot dead over the last few years because of the color of their skin. Their voices were silenced. Their voices weren’t considered important. Their voices were considered less worthy of attention and focus than their white assailants. Since their deaths, there have been attempts by the public and the media to paint some or all of them as “thugs” or “criminals” or some other such label that would somehow justify them being shot dead. As if it is somehow more socially acceptable to kill someone if they are a thug than it is if they aren’t. Their deaths have inspired protests and have also created the “Black Lives Matter” motto on social media.
More importantly, their deaths have sparked conversations all over the country about issues of race and racism. It has forced many white people to confront their own internal prejudices and biases toward their black brothers and sisters. It has also exposed the inherent racism that exists in our justice system as so far not a single indictment has come down for the white men who killed these black men.
Tomorrow, we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a national holiday in which we are asked to remember the legacy of Dr. King, a man who worked so tirelessly for so long to help the Black voice be heard and be considered important. We are almost fifty years out from his assassination and it sadly doesn’t look like we are any closer to realizing his vision of living in a society where we really do believe that the black voice matters and shouldn’t be silenced.
It is absolutely vital that more white people speak up about this issue and stand in solidarity with their black brothers and sisters. Since we are the ones who perpetuate the racist system, we are also the ones who have the power to stop it. We can take action against the systems that perpetuate racism. We can stand up against racism and declare that the status quo isn’t benefiting all. We can even work to enact new laws that will ensure that our black brothers and sisters are given a more equal footing in society.
We can be the ones who demand that the black voices no longer be silenced. We can stand up and declare that the deaths of Trayvon, Eric, Oscar and Michael do matter and that their voices were silenced just like Onesimus’. We have to be the ones who demand that they be heard and that justice prevail. We can give Onesimus his voice back. We can demand that he be given a chance to speak his truth, his experience and his life. We can do the same for all the black people in our own lives whose voices have been silenced. I hear the cries of Trayvon & Michael and I hear the protests in places like Ferguson and New York City. As a white person, I admit my own complicity in the silencing of black voices and in the attempts to slander them and keep them oppressed.
So, I’ve identified the trouble with the text: the fact that Onesimus is silent. What about the grace then? What words of hope does this text have to say to a world troubled by Trayvon & Eric & Michael & Oscar? What does this text say to us that we can use to better engage with our black brothers and sisters and be a part of the solution, not the problem? It comes through Paul’s words that Onesimus was his beloved brother in Christ and thus Paul didn’t see him as a slave anymore. Through Christ Jesus, we are all united. We are Trayvon Martin. We are Eric Garner. We are Michael Brown & Oscar Grant and the many other nameless, faceless, silent black men who have been killed. This is the hope that white people can provide. A hope that one day, our system will support and uplift black bodies, not destroy them.
As Martin Luther King says, though, in his Letter From A Birmingham Jail, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Thus, while we can provide hope, hope won’t be enough. While we continue to sit by and wait for a day when racism will end, more black people will die or be the victims of our racist policies. So, yes, hope is great but hope won’t prevent people like Michael Brown from being killed.
We have to be more than the hope then. We have to be the agents of change. Change is coming. You can’t stop the beat of history as it marches forward toward a new day. Let’s help make that new day today. Let’s be that change. Let’s be aware of our own privilege and use it to help, not hurt. Change won’t come about if we hope for it. We have to actively work for it, for the good of our black brothers and sisters. We have to fight for it, with them, not against them. It is up to us to begin the hard work of dismantling the systems of privilege that keep oppressing black people. It is up to us to vote for elected officials that will represent those voices that are silenced. It is up to us to stand up and speak out against racism in our culture and our world. It is up to us to do this hard and difficult yet necessary work. Onesimus won’t be kept silent anymore. Michael Brown won’t be kept silent anymore. Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant won’t be kept silent anymore. Their voices are rising up, out of the pages of history. Out of the pages of the Bible. Out of the pages that tell them that they should stay silent and stay oppressed. Do you hear that sound? That’s the sound of revolution. That’s the sound of their voices. That’s the sound of change. It’s coming. The only question that remains: are you going to join in or stay on the sidelines?