Although slavery is a thing of the past, we still see indentured people all around us. Some are enslaved to drugs or alcohol, some work for minimum wages, and others have their own demons. There might always be persons at the bottom of the pile who do the dirty work for little pay and who are unable to rise into a better economic situation.
I can remember that when I was growing up, I thought my family had to be “doing OK” in the great middle class. We had most of the obvious things we needed to be successful, although we sometimes had to live with grandparents, sometimes had to live off the garden and the animals that were sacrificed on my grandfather’s farm or the rabbits that we raised and ate. We were living the “Great American Dream.”
Now that I have hindsight, I realize that we were often living on the brink of falling into the lower class, economically. We rented farm land and “sharecropped” to supplement my father’s wages at the post office. I was the youngest in my family of three with two older sisters and yet was the first to finish college and the only one with a degree above a bachelor’s degree.
We have an obligation in following Christ to “lift ourselves up by our boot straps,” but we have a greater obligation to “help” others “be lifted up. Habitat for Humanity models its ministry as “a hand up” not a “hand out.” Paul was encouraging Philemon to receive his slave as a brother and encouraged Onesimus to no longer be a runaway slave but go back to his master to seek freedom. In the reading for this Sunday, Paul remembers, thanks God for their relationship, and speaks with fondness of the relationship. But then moves on to the fact that we are obligated and called to be bold in fulfilling whatever duty we have — freedom and the freedom to choose what is required. Think about the fact that the creator could force us to “do the right thing,” but instead God gives us the gift of freedom and allows our loving and faithful response to become true and real in our daily lives and not just how we act on the Sabbath or Sunday. Surprisingly, he also gives us freedom to fail or to sin, but responds to our willful actions by offering forgiveness.
We are a part of a church family and many of us have left our family of origin for that church family. In baptism we were made a part of a community that cannot be easily broken. A hope comes into our life that baptism impels us to treat all persons, even the hired help, as sisters and brothers.