Category Archives: Zion UMC Whitehouse

United Methodist

09/11/22 “Uncharted Territory”

Philemon 1:1-25

If you heard the first few notes, you’d recognize them immediately as the theme song for the TV series, Star Trek. After a few bars, you’d hear the voice of William Shatner, otherwise known as Captain Kirk, intone these words: “Space: The final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its 5-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

These are thrilling words, full of determination and courage and vision. But underlying them is the dark presence of the unknown—intriguing but also vaguely threatening. Who knows what might happen out there in the final frontier?

You might say that, in his letter to Philemon, Paul is carrying out a similar mission. His strange new world isn’t the world of outer space, but the new world of life lived as a follower of Jesus—a world that would have been very strange indeed according to the social structures of the time. The new life and new civilizations he was seeking weren’t alien space creatures and their cultures, but new life for human beings in communities transformed by the love of Jesus. Paul, along with all the other early Christians, was gradually working out how this transformation would play out in everyday life, and living this life did require that they boldly go where only Jesus had gone before.


You may remember that we’re not sure who wrote some of the letters attributed to Paul, but the Letter to Philemon is almost universally accepted as Paul’s own work. This is unusual, because it’s written to a particular person instead of a church or group of churches. Paul wrote it from prison, either in Rome or Ephesus. Paul suffered several lengthy imprisonments in various places, but Rome and Ephesus are the most likely locations. He probably wasn’t in a jail cell as we think of them. Paul was a Roman citizen, so it’s more likely that he was under house arrest, with a Roman guard stationed there to keep an eye on him. he would have been allowed to have visitors and also someone to live with him as an attendant.


Paul begins the letter with greetings to the entire church community that meets in the house of Philemon, and possibly under Philemon’s leadership. But he quickly turns to Philemon himself. One of Philemon’s slaves—a man named Onesimus—had arrived on Paul’s doorstep as a runaway. We don’t know how long Onesimus had been with Paul when Paul penned his letter, but it was long enough for two things to happen. One was that Onesimus had lived up to his name, which means “useful.” Onesimus had become useful to Paul, perhaps even as his aide in the house where Paul was staying. And, more importantly, Onesimus had become a Christian.

According to the law of the land, Onesimus was Philemon’s property and should have been returned. But now there is another law at work—the law of love that governs the Body of Christ. The relationship between Onesimus and Philemon has changed. Legally they are still master and slave, but in Christ they are both servants. Technically Onesimus is Philemon’s property, but in Christ he is Philemon’s brother. Culturally Onesimus and Philemon occupy very different places on the social ladder, but in Christ they are equally valued members of one body. All the established rules which once governed their life together have been superseded by the law of Christ’s transforming love. And, the transformation of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus produces ripple effects far beyond the relationship between the two men themselves.

Before Paul gets to matter of Onesimus, Paul shares with Philemon just how much Paul values Philemon’s faith and the fruit it has produced—his love and encouragement for all the saints and his sharing of his faith with others. I suppose if you’re a cynic, you could say that Paul was buttering up Philemon before he makes his request. But I’m not a cynic. I think that Paul is sincerely thankful for the faith and fellowship of this man—his friend and brother in the faith. And, it’s on the basis of this shared faith that Paul can make his request.

Paul’s approach to Philemon offers some insight into how being a disciple of Jesus transforms relationships. Paul had every reason to simply demand that Philemon do what Paul asked. Respect for Paul’s age alone would have been sufficient reason. So would Paul’s status as prisoner on behalf of the Lord they both love. Gratitude would also be reason enough: after all, it was Paul who introduced Philemon to Christ and nurtured him in the faith. The bottom line was that Paul was an apostle who had planted the church in Philemon’s house, and Paul had the authority to tell Philemon to do his duty, however Paul defined it.

But, Jesus had called for a change in the relationships that had once been governed by status and the cultural rules of honor and shame. Maybe, as he thought about how to approach Philemon, Paul was thinking of Jesus’ words to the disciples, when they were ticked off at James and John, who were angling for positions of power. We read in Mark that Jesus said to them, “You know that the ones that the Gentiles recognize as their rulers lord it over them. But it is not so among you; whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be slave of all.”

So, although Paul has every right to command compliance, he declines to exercise that right. Instead, he makes his appeal on the basis of love—the love between brothers, in the interest of the love Paul has for Onesimus, who has become like a son to Paul. He makes his appeal to Philemon as an equal in their relationship, which is bound up with their shared faith in Christ.

On the basis of this transformed relationship, Paul explains the situation. It almost sounds like Paul is figuring it out, step by step, as he goes. After all, this is part of that “new civilization” Paul was seeking out. What do you do with a runaway slave and, now, fellow Christian on your doorstep? What should Philemon do?

Paul lays out some possibilities. Onesimus had become both beloved and useful to Paul. Although Paul would have liked to keep Onesimus with him, Paul decides to send him back to Philemon. Rather than lord it over Philemon, Paul gives up his authority and allows Philemon to make his own decisions.

But, Paul does have hopes about what that decision will be. He also has faith in Philemon’s willingness to do what is right and good. Paul’s hope is that Philemon will welcome Onesimus back into Philemon’s household—welcomed back not as a returned piece of property but as a brother in Christ.

Paul is confident that Philemon will do what Paul asks and more. But, obeying the law of love may be a heavy lift for Philemon. After all, social expectations die hard, and for Philemon to disregard all the usual norms would have significant ripple effects, as we’ll see in a moment. So, Paul adds his thoughts about why this situation has arisen in the first place.

It may be, Paul suggests, that this is all a God thing. Paul says, “Perhaps this is the reason Onesimus was separated from you for a time, so that you might have him back forever, and in a new way—as a brother, a beloved brother, not a slave.” Just maybe, God’s hand was in this, transforming this relationship and, through it, many others as well.

Paul takes care of some more practical concerns as well. Although Onesimus is sometimes wrongly portrayed as a thief, there may have been some actual financial costs associated with his absence. Paul promises to make up those costs, whatever they may be. Paul wants nothing to stand in the way of Philemon’s decision.

We don’t know what action Philemon took in response to Paul’s letter. Some scholars suggest that he must have done what Paul hoped for; otherwise, Philemon wouldn’t have kept the letter we now have. Also, in the letter to the Colossians, we read that Paul is sending Onesimus along with Tychicus to visit the church at Colossae.

So, let’s assume that Philemon did, indeed, welcome Onesimus back into his household, not as a slave but as a brother in Christ—that Philemon’s faith in Christ and in the fellowship of believers has transformed their relationship. Let’s assume that, for the love of Jesus, Philemon was able to look past all the societal norms that once had power over him and, in so doing, is moving into a new frontier and creating a new kind of community around him.

Because of the transformation of the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus, every other relationship they have will be transformed. Becoming a brother in Christ, and possibly a freed slave, would have changed the status Onesimus had in the household. Paul mentions a woman named Apphia in his greeting, and scholars think she may have been Philemon’s wife. She would have been responsible for running her household, which means she would have been responsible for the family’s slaves. With Onesimus no longer a slave, the relationship between him and Apphia would also be transformed. Apphia, like her husband, would have lost a run-away slave and gained a brother in Christ.

The church that met in Philemon’s household would have been transformed. The belief that in Christ there is neither Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free would have moved from a nice idea in theory to a boots-on-the-ground, pedal-to-the-metal reality. Now they need to pay more than lip service to this idea. This was an opportunity to live out what Paul taught and what Jesus had modeled—that all are one in Christ, regardless of race or nationality, social or economic status, gender or religious background. Their treatment of Onesimus will be the living, breathing evidence of how seriously they take their faith in Jesus and the community he created by the gift of his Spirit.

Finally, the transformation of the all these relationships had the potential to transform the world around them. Welcoming back a runaway slave and loving him as a brother was totally at odds with the values of their culture. Including him in their community as an equal was a witness to the transforming power of Christ. It was a witness to what God’s kingdom looks like, when God’s people actually live out the law of love. They had the power to reveal what it looks like when a community of believers, made new creatures and living new lives in Christ, create a new kind of community.

Perhaps Paul had this in mind when he wrote to Philemon, “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ.” Maybe he was thinking of all the ways in which one transformed relationship could spread, from two men, to a household, to a church, to the world.

What Paul was suggesting to Philemon was uncharted territory. Jesus taught us what kind of lives we are to live, but he left the details of how to do that up to believers in every time and place, as we confront our particular challenges. Like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, Philemon and Onesimus and the other early Christians were feeling their way through an uncharted frontier. We are called to do the same.

We have our own relationships that need to be transformed by the agape love that Jesus urged his followers to show, not just to each other, but especially to those who have been deemed outsiders by society. Sadly, slavery is still a reality in our country and in the world. As Christians we have a responsibility towards those who have been trafficked into economic and sexual slavery. But we also need transformed relationships with those who continue to deal with the legacy of past enslavement based on race. We need to move past simply paying lip service to equality to really working to understand how that history still shapes the present.

And, there are other people we may not even think that we’re in relationship with—people we don’t know (or think we don’t know). People like immigrants who flee their homes to find a better future, even if they, like Onesimus, leave without permission and arrive unexpectedly on our national doorstep. People whose water systems collapse or crops fail or whose homes are destroyed by flooding or fire or drought, made worse by climate change. People with differing physical and mental abilities who desire full inclusion in all that our world has to offer. People seeking acceptance as they truly are, in all aspects of their identities. People returning from prison. People struggling with addiction. Our attitudes and words and actions towards people whose lives are different from ours is evidence of whether or not we’re allowing Christ to transform our relationships with people who may seem to us as foreign as the space aliens encountered by Captain Kirk and Scotty and Spock.

In the big picture, these relationships are important because every policy our government enacts, every vote we cast, and every person we elect is a means by which we can put Christ’s transformative power to work in our interconnected world. But it all starts in our own hearts, when we hear the word of Jesus, calling us to love our neighbors as ourselves. It starts with the conversation over the backyard fence, at the coffee shop, in the bleachers at a ball game. It starts when we begin to perceive that the full inclusion of others in the family of faith and in world around us blesses us as much as it does them.

As the grace-filled love of Jesus changes our hearts and our one-on-one relationships, that transformation radiates out—into our families, into our church, and into our community. As Paul prayed would happen with Philemon, when we perceive all the good we may do for Christ, the sharing of our faith becomes effective, whether through our words or our actions.

Paul’s letter to Philemon is 25 verses long. The reading called for by the lectionary stops at verse 21, with Paul’s confidence in Philemon’s decision. But I included the last four verse as well, because they have something important to say, especially in this time when our nation is so divided on so many fronts. Paul has just asked Philemon to do something that is likely way

outside his comfort zone. He’s asked him to give up some long-held assumptions. He’s asked Philemon to act in a way that may disrupt his household and his church. He’s asked him to do something that may even make him the object of scorn.

And yet, without knowing whether Philemon will agree with him or not, Paul also asks him to prepare a guest room for him. Paul hopes that, through the prayers of the entire church in Philemon’s house, Paul will one day be able to visit—that he will be restored to them. It’s not conditional—his desire to see them doesn’t depend on what Philemon does in response to Paul’s letter. The relationship between them will remain intact. Paul sets a good example for us, as we navigate these times when we may not see eye to eye, even with those we care about most.

In the coming months and years, NASA will be exploring some uncharted territory. In October, NASA will launch a space station mission led by the first native American woman in space. On September 23, if all goes well, NASA will launch Artemis I. It will orbit the moon and then continue on for another 40,000 miles, farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown. Artemis 2 will carry a human crew around the moon, and then 4600 miles past it, farther than any other human beings have every travelled in space. Artemis 3 will land a crew on the moon, and that crew will include the first woman and the first person of color to walk on its surface. NASA is, in many ways, going where no man or woman has ever gone before, not just in distance but by including people who have been excluded in the past. They are not just seeking new civilizations but helping to transform our own, right here on planet Earth.

In his letter to Philemon, Paul is also exploring uncharted territory—the uncharted territory of how Christ’s presence in our lives transforms us and our relationships.  Jesus provided a map of sorts, but he left out a lot of details. Paul and the other early Christians were explorers who worked to fill in the spaces that were marked “terra incognita.” We are invited to make that mission our own in our day. We are invited to explore what may seem like strange new worlds. We are called to seek out the new life Jesus offers and to create transformed communities. We are challenged to explore our own uncharted territory and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to boldly go where Jesus has gone before. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young

01/31/21 “Shibboleth”

Judges 12:1-6

One reviewer says that it’s “one of the most exciting, colorful, and disturbing of its kind. It combines stories of political intrigue and assassination, lies and deception, assault and murder, courage and fear, great faith and idolatry, power and greed, sex and suicide, love and death, military victories and civil war.” No, it’s not Steven Spielberg’s next blockbuster, or even a “New York Times” best seller. It’s the book of Judges. Oddly, though, only one short passage from Judges shows up in the lectionary, and that’s a rather dull introduction to a far more exciting story. Our passage for today is not that passage but another one I came across in my daily reading last year.

It’s a good one for us to think about because of one particular word in it: shibboleth. You’ve probably heard this word in other contexts. We use it in two ways. We might call a word or saying a shibboleth if it’s a truism of sorts, like the shibboleth that “crime doesn’t pay.” Or, more often, we call a word or phrase a shibboleth when it distinguishes a person or group in some way—like where they come from or what social strata they occupy.

If you stop for a meal in the northeastern part of the country, and you ask your waiter or waitress what kind of pop they have on the menu, they’ll look at you kind of funny, until they realize that you’re probably from the Midwest. What we call “pop,” most people in the Northeast call “soda.”  The word we use for carbonated beverages is a shibboleth that reveals where we’re from.

The idea of a “shibboleth” comes from our passage for today. But, as you heard and read, the shibboleth in our story leads to consequences far more serious than a raised eyebrow or a chuckle at a tourist’s expense. It’s a matter of life and death. And the fact is that we do use shibboleths in ways that can have life-altering consequences for our families, church, community, and nation.

The shibboleth comes into play in the very last part of a story about Jephthah. Actually, there’s a trilogy of stories about Jephthah, and they’re all fascinating. We meet Jephthah in Chapter 11, where we learn that he was the son of Gilead by a prostitute. Gilead also had other sons with his wife, and they weren’t interested in sharing any of the family wealth with Jephthah. Jephthah flees from his brothers and becomes the leader of a band of outlaws who went raiding up and down the countryside.

Things went south for the tribe of Gilead when the Ammonites made war against Israel. They needed the military skills Jephthah had, so they go to him and beg him to lead them into battle. “Not so fast,” Jephthah says. “You’re the ones who rejected me and drove me out of my father’s house.” “Well, yes, we are,” the Gileadites admit, but they need him now. Jephthah makes a deal with them. He’ll come and lead them in battle, but if he defeats the Ammonites, he becomes the head of the tribe. The desperate Gileadites agree.

Jephthah first tries diplomacy with the Ammonites. That proves unsuccessful, so Jephthah begins his march to battle. On the way, he makes a vow to God about what he will do if God gives him the victory—a vow which had some very tragic consequences for him and his only child, a daughter. That story’s in Chapter 11, if you want to check it out.

You’d think that the story would end when the victorious Jephthah takes his place as the head of the Gileadites. But, there’s more family dysfunction in store. The men of another Israelite tribe, the Ephraimites, hear about the Jephthah’s victory, and they are ticked off. They’re mad because they weren’t invited to be part of the battle. Why they’re mad is anyone’s guess. Maybe it’s a pride thing. Maybe they hated being left out of the spoils of war. Jephthah says he did ask them and they refused. Is he telling the truth? Who knows? There’s no mention of such a call to arms in the earlier stories.

But the Ephraimites aren’t the only ones who are fighting mad at their Israelite brothers. The Gileadites have their own beef. The Ephraimites had called them names! They had called the Gileadites a word that meant “fugitives” or “renegades” from the tribe of Ephraim, suggesting that the Gileadites had abandoned their true home tribe. Pride on both sides won out over the need for unity within the family of God’s people, and the battles began.

Jephthah and his troops secure the crossing points of the Jordan River which separated the lands of the two tribes. The battle goes Jephthah’s way, and now the tables are turned. The losing Ephraimites who are stranded on the Gilead side of the river are now literal fugitives as they try to get back to their own land.

Jephthah comes up with an ingenious and cruel plan to prevent the fugitives’ escape. When a man would ask permission to cross the river, the Gileadites would ask, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If the man said “no,” he had to pass a test. He had to say the word “Shibboleth.” It was a common word—one that meant “stream” or “an ear of corn.” But, the thing was, the Ephraimites didn’t have the “shh” sound in their dialect. They pronounced that word “Sibboleth.” How the would-be river crosser pronounced that one sound meant the difference between life and death. If he said the word wrong, he was killed on the spot.

42,000 Ephraimites died because of the way they spoke the word “Shibboleth.” Imagine that. Because of a single sound, 42,000 lives were cut down. 42,000 families lost a beloved father, brother, son, friend. 42,000 fewer farmers, builders, tradesmen, musicians, and artists. 42,000 occasions for grief. 42,000 lives lost because of a shibboleth.

You know what makes this story even sadder? The killers and the killed were members of the same family. They were all Israelites—all descended from common ancestors. They all claimed the same God and shared the same history. And yet, they were killing each other over pride and greed.

It’s easy to shake our heads over this story. It’s easy to shake our heads over how narrow-minded they were. How unable they were to see what they had in common. How easily they devised a quick and easy way to identify who was friend and who was foe, who was acceptable and who wasn’t, who would live and who would die. But, before we get too sanctimonious, we should ask ourselves, how often do we find ways to do the same thing? We should ask ourselves, “What shibboleths do we use against others?”

There’s the one we share with the Gileadites—how someone speaks. Do they sound like they’ve been educated in a largely white, affluent, suburban school district or not? Do they sound like they grew up in Ohio or at least in the United States? Does their accent identify them as being from an acceptable or unacceptable part of the world, and what do we then immediately assume about them? That they’re one of us, or an Appalachian “hillbilly,” or a snooty Ivy-Leaguer? That they’re scroungers out to steal what is rightfully ours or one of the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free”?

We have other speech-related shibboleths. When you pull up behind someone with a bumper sticker that reads “Black Lives Matter” or “It’s a child, not a choice,” or “Stop the Steal” or “Save the Planet,” how do you categorize that driver? if the bumper sports a picture of a rainbow or one of an automatic weapon, do you nod in approval of a like-minded citizen or shake your head at their ignorance? How did you react to the yards sporting a “Biden for President” sign or one still flying a Trump flag? What do you assume about someone who says that mask-wearing is a patriotic and Christian duty versus someone who says it’s an infringement of their rights? Without knowing anything else about them, we use these shibboleths to decide whether they’re one of us, or one of them.

We have other shibboleths that don’t even require an oral exam. They’re obvious: the color of someone’s skin. Their clothing. Tattoos and piercings. The condition and location of the house they live in or the place they worship in. The kind of vehicle they’re driving and how they’re driving it. Even the license plate can be a shibboleth. My Dad was a travelling salesman who spent lots of time on the road, and he instilled in me an early and deep disdain for any driver with Michigan plates. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll find that we each have a long list of shibboleths that we use to quickly pigeonhole people—some that we share with others and some that are uniquely our own.

We might try to comfort ourselves by saying that this Bible story doesn’t really apply to us, because it’s about enemies in a time of war. And, we might say that our shibboleths don’t carry with them the same dire consequences; no one dies as a result of getting our shibboleths wrong.

But, if we listen to today’s angry rhetoric and the voices on any side of the political divide, we often do sound like we’re at war with each other. And the consequences can and do result in people dying. A man was murdered while jogging in a white neighborhood for the simple reason that he was black. Asian-Americans have been accused of causing the pandemic and threatened with violence, because they resemble people from China. Elected leaders are getting death threats because they don’t embrace a particular political stand. Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans are sickening and dying of COVID at much higher rates because of long-standing shibboleths that prevent them from crossing the river to the side with affordable and accessible health care. Even if our shibboleths don’t lead to physical harm, they can and do cause harm to the lives and spirits of those who fail our tests, as we make it clear in any number of ways that we don’t respect them and consider them to be outsiders at best and enemies at worst.

Like the Gileadites, our shibboleths harm members of our very own family, because we are all members of the human family. Regardless of what side of any given border we live on, regardless of how we speak or what we look like or how we live, every battle we fight is a family feud, and each one is every bit as sad as the fight between the Gileadites and the Ephraimites.

In our Bible Study on Thursday night, we talked about the things that made someone unacceptable in the eyes of the Pharisees—in other words, their shibboleths. Jesus pretty much failed them all. In fact, Jesus pretty much rejected them all. He healed on the Sabbath and kept the wrong company. He reached out to people who failed the Pharisees’ tests: people with the wrong political ties, who came from the wrong hometown, who believed the wrong things, whose bodies were wrong by way of gender or disability.

Jesus had only one shibboleth: did the person standing before him believe in him? That’s the only test they had to pass to receive his gift of acceptance and forgiveness and eternal life. And even that test sometimes came only after Jesus had given them a chance to know him—think Zacchaeus up in his sycamore tree and the Pharisees around the dinner table. Jesus didn’t care about who or what someone was or had been. He only cared about who and what they could be.

The good news is that Jesus doesn’t look at our bumper stickers or our street address or listen to the way we talk. He looks on our hearts and listens to our spirits. He draws us close to him through that grace we describe as prevenient, and then he poses his one shibboleth: “God so loved the world that God gave me, God’s only son, that whosoever believes in me may not perish but have eternal life. Do you believe in me?”

Our “yes” to his shibboleth moves us to put away the shibboleths we wield against others. In their place, our lives become shibboleths themselves. Our willingness to accept others with the same grace by which Jesus accepts us, our service to our neighbors and the humility with which we serve, our willingness to love those whom Jesus loves are the shibboleths that mark us as followers of Jesus.

The book of Judges is the story of a nation and a family in a downward spiral of division—from each other and from God. Jephthah’s shibboleth was a symbol of that division. But Jesus shows us a better way—the way of looking at each person as he does: as deserving of compassion, mercy, and grace. Jesus has only one shibboleth by which he judges us: do we believe in him? He stands at the river between the world and God’s kingdom, waiting for us to say “yes.” When we do, he welcomes us to our place on his side of the river—the side of love and acceptance and life, the side of peace with one another and with God.  When we stand with him, we put away our shibboleths, and we welcome others as he welcomes us. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young