A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 5, 2011
Philemon 1-21 GNT
Sometimes life presents us with the decision of doing something that we may not really want to do, but we feel compelled to do it because it is the right thing, the just thing, to do. This point was dramatically driven home to me a couple of weeks ago as we watched the recently-released movie, The Conspirator. Initially I thought that this movie, directed by Robert Redford, might be a little slow or boring. However, I should have known that a movie directed by Redford would certainly prove to be otherwise.
The Conspirator is the story of Mary Surratt, the owner of a boarding house in Washington D.C. during the mid-1860s while Abraham Lincoln was President. It just so happened that Mary Surratt’s boarding house was where a group of conspirators (including John Wilkes Booth and Mary Surratt’s own son, John) held secret meetings to plan not only the assassination of Lincoln, but Vice-President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward as well. The question of the entire movie is whether, as owner of the boarding house, Mary Surratt was aware of what was being planned in these secret meetings and, if she did know, whether she was in support of what they were planning to do. It didn’t help matters that Mary Surratt was known to be a southern sympathizer.
Well, John Wilkes Booth is killed, Mary Surratt’s son runs off and can’t be found, but a few other collaborators are rounded up and arrested. And Mary Surratt is arrested and put in prison as well. Union War hero Frederick Aiken, who wants to establish himself as a high-profile, Washington D.C. lawyer, is pressured into being Mary Surratt’s defense attorney because she must have someone to defend her. Aiken doesn’t want this job, but he reluctantly and begrudgingly goes to meet with Mary Surratt in prison. As a true Union loyalist, Aiken makes it clear that he doesn’t have much sympathy for Surratt and he makes no bones about the fact that he is defending her only because he feels pressured to do so.
But Aiken is a good man at heart, a man who believes in the law and believes in justice. When the trial begins and he sees how the court is stacked against Surratt and has already decided she is guilty before the trial even begins; and as he sees how the Prosecution is favored by the Court, how it is corrupt and threatens anyone who might give a true testimony in Surratt’s defense, Aiken’s passion for the trial begins to change. Even though he knows that passionately defending Mary Surratt will ruin him socially, politically and professionally (including estrangement from the woman he is courting), he puts everything into defending her. For Aiken, you see, it is a matter of principle. It is a matter of justice. It is a matter of doing the right thing. And so, at extreme personal sacrifice, Frederick Aiken faithfully defends Mary Surratt and stands by her to the very end. And by so doing, the direction of his life is drastically changed. (I am not going to tell you any more and ruin the ending for you; you will just have to see the movie for yourself.) Acting on principles of justice and what is right. Sometimes it can be a costly, life-changing experience.
In the story I read to you from the little book of Philemon, the Apostle Paul implores Philemon to do the right thing, the just thing, even though it will cost him to do so. Philemon was a prominent, well-known Christian. A house church met in his home. He had a slave named Onesimus who had run away and somehow come into contact with the Apostle Paul, who happened to be in prison at the time. Through Paul’s influence, Onesimus the slave is converted to Christianity, and he becomes a companion of Paul. As much as Paul would like to keep Onesimus with him as a companion and helper, he decides to send him back to this master, Philemon, along with this little letter that Paul wrote to accompany him. As we have read in this letter, Paul pleads with Philemon to receive Onesimus back kindly—not as a slave, but as a Christian brother. And Paul concludes his request, “I am sure, as I write this, that you will do what I ask—in fact I know that you will do even more” (verse 21). Paul is pleading with Philemon to do the right thing, the just thing, the humane thing. Though slavery as an institution was an accepted fact of that day, we would like to think that Paul’s ultimate request was that Philemon would set Onesimus free. Did he? Did Philemon do the right thing, the just thing, with his slave Onesimus? There is no way of knowing since there is no more about it in our New Testament. But we want to hope that he did.
Speaking of acting on principle and setting slaves free, we are reminded of the story of John Woolman. Woolman was an 18th century Quaker. “A universal love to [his] fellow creatures,” as Woolman himself put it, early on led him to believe that slavery was wrong; that slavekeeping was “a practice inconsistent with the Christian religion.” One of the occupations of Woolman was being a scrivener, which meant he wrote up wills and other legal documents. Committed to doing the right thing, Woolman “refused to finish a will and accept any payment if the will’s provisions included turning over unfreed slaves to another person.”1 Woolman became a preacher, and as he traveled about and became more acquainted with the conditions of the slaves, he began pleading with his Quaker brothers to free them. “One evening after preaching against slavery at a Quaker meeting, he was taken to the home of Thomas Woodward for dinner. Once there, he asked about the status of the servants and was told they were slaves. He quietly got up and left the home without a word. His host was so affected by this that he freed all his slaves the next morning.”2 Woolman devoted his life to putting an end to the slave trade and even petitioned the Rhode Island legislature to outlaw slavery. Woolman acted on principle and devoted his life to the doing the just thing, the right thing, the humane thing. And by so doing, he helped change the world for the better. How many of us would be willing to do something similar, especially when it comes to great personal sacrifice?
As we maneuver the challenges of our world, it is much, much easier to just go along with the flow than it is to go against the flow and do the right thing. When we’re in a gathering and a dozen people laugh at a joke or comment that belittles someone because of their race, religion, or sexual orientation, it is so much easier to laugh along or at least smile than it is to show our displeasure. When we observe someone being mistreated or discriminated against in a coffee shop, clothing store or other place of business because of who they are, it is so much easier just to turn and look the other way. It reminds me of that show on television, “What Would You Do?”, where the producers set up fake scenarios and discriminate against various segments of society just to see how passersby respond. The show causes each of us to question ourselves and ask, “What would I do if that were me in that situation?” Each of us, perhaps, could think of times in our lives when we were faced with the decision to act on the principles of justice and rightness, but we failed to do so. As we recited in our Table Fellowship (Communion) liturgy, “we have made choices of lesser good.” As a consequence, afterward we didn’t feel very good about ourselves. But each of us can also make a commitment to do differently in the future. In what ways might we be faced in the future with the challenge to act on the principle of justice and rightness?
I am inclined to believe that acting on principle requires preparation beforehand. It calls for moral fortitude, courage, determination, and the inner commitment and resolve that one is going to do the just thing, the right thing, the humane thing when one is faced with the challenge to do so.
It is the Frederick Aikens and John Woolmans who help change our world for the better. By standing up for principles of justice and rightness, may we also do our little part in helping make the world a better place. Amen.
1Jan Johnson, Abundant Simplicity, 45.