September 4, 2016

Pentecost – Proper 18

Jeremiah 18: 1-11; Psalm 139: 1-5, 12-17; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14: 25-33


In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

His movies are violent, genre-defining, and culturally provocative. Well known for his satirical subject matter and non-linear story-telling, film director Quentin Tarantino has submitted some of the most interesting films in our culture’s recent milieu. Although his early films, including 1992’s Resevoir Dogs and his neo-noir crime film Pulp Fiction, and his martial art spaghetti western hybrid Kill Bill earned him much respect, it seems that it is Tarantino’s recent releases that have pushed the cultural envelope.

His World War II film Inglorious Bastards which tells a fictional alternate history of two plots to assisinate Germany’s political leadership received great accolades, but I feel that it was Tarantino’s highest grossing film to date, Django Unchained that has really shined a light on our nations uncomfortable history of slavery. If you have not seen it, Django Unchained is a western set in the antebellum era of the deep south, that follows a freed slave named Django (played by Jamie Foxx) who treks across the United States with a bounty hunter (played by Christoph Waltz) on a mission to liberate his wife from a cruel plantation owner.

The film offers everything you would expect in a Tarantino film, meaning there is no shortage of guns, violence, and colorful language. It is also very entertaining. Reception to the film was mixed, however. One reviewer wrote “Django Unchained is crazily entertaining, brazenly irresponsible and also ethically serious in a way that is entirely consistent with its playfulness.” Not all reviews were positive, of course.  Filmmaker Spike Lee said he would not see the film, saying “All I’m going to say is that it’s disrespectful to my ancestors.” Lee later tweeted: “American slavery was not a Sergio Leone spaghetti western.  It was a holocaust.  My ancestors are slaves.  Stolen from Africa.  I will honor them.” Aware of the controversy surrounding the film, I decided I would go see it, and I called the only person who I knew also was not working on a Monday evening who would see it with me – Bishop Doyle. And we went to the sold-out showing of Django Unchained, and were the only Anglos in the audience. Watching the film in that theater reiterated to me the reality that in the one hundred fifty years since the abolition of the slave trade, our nation’s complicated history with slavery still resonates with visceral power amongst us.

When I learned of American slavery in grade school, I remember first feeling ashamed because of the color of my skin. I later learned that not all slave owners were Caucasian like me, that there were some slave owners who were black and of Native American descent. But the majority of slave owners were white, at least that’s what my history text book taught me. 

It is when I read of slavery in the Bible though, that I become most uncomfortable. The story of the Hebrews liberation from slavery in Egypt ends with the Hebrews settling the Promised Land, who end up ironically becoming owners of slaves themselves. This biblical story of the slave becoming the slave owner is hard to swallow. But it is not just in the story of the Hebrews, slavery is in the New Testament as well: 1 Peter 2:18 reads “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle, but also those who are harsh. For it is credit to you, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly.” This verse has been used many times by Christian slave owners to justify the practice of slavery. The damage this one verse has done in its use to justify slavery over time is unknowable, but it is palpable. We can feel it.

I am thankful that there are other places in the Bible where the issue of slavery is viewed differently. The reading from Philemon we hear today is one such testimony. It is a letter written by the Apostle Paul to a man named Philemon. In this very short letter Paul makes arrangements for the return of a runaway slave named Onesimus (a name which means “the useful one”) to his master Philemon. The letter is a diplomatic and eloquent request in which Paul strongly argues that Onesimus be unchained – freed, with no repercussions, “no longer a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.” Paul writes. The letter is a masterpiece of diplomacy.

It is unfortunate that we don’t know what happened to Onesimus. Was he unchained, emancipated? Or were his chains kept around his wrists, an oppressive reminder of his forsaken humanity?  We don’t know. The irony of Paul’s request to Philemon is that Paul wrote this letter not as a member of a free society, but as a prisoner, a man behind bars, a man chained. Paul was a slave to a cruel and inadequate justice system. But the truth that Paul knew then, and what he boldly compels Philemon to understand, is that in God, no one is imprisoned. No one is behind bars. With God and in God all of God’s people including Django and Onesimus, come unchained. 

It is through God, and God alone that we look to our wrists and discover that in the palm of our hand, we have always held the key to the shackles wrapped around our wrists. We just couldn’t see the key, because our hands were clenched, rather than opened. The key to our freedom is in our grasp. 

Country singer and songwriter Johnny Cash understood this so well. Himself a slave to alcohol and painkillers at different points in his life, was nevertheless aware of God’s grace. Cash speaks to the freeing nature of God in the title song from his album Unchained where he sings in a broken voice, “Oh, I am weak.  Oh I know I am in vain.  Take this weight from me, let my spirit be unchained.” AMEN.