In what can be best described only as one of those holy moments, I found myself unable to sleep any more after only five hours of sleep. Those who know me know my love for sleep. When I cannot, I try to take special notice. This morning, I had that nagging sense of Samuel and His whisper. It sure was not my choice. I had spent the better part of two days without sleep. Had God spoken to me as if in a whisper, I would not at all have been surprised. But I found myself listening to the words of Sir David again and again. Not unsurprisingly, once I logged onto the world for the first time today, I discovered that those who are engaged in the fight against slavery and who know me had a hunger for more of Sir David’s words. We know all the stories. Our battle is representative of that story told in Scripture.
Sir David placed this battle against slavery by the Church in context of both the first and second Testament; more specifically, he placed the context of the fight against slavery within one of the overall meta-narratives of Scripture. In the context of what you and I refer to as the Old Testament, slavery and deliverance stand as a metaphor for the spiritual condition of humanity before a righteous, holy, and just God. When God’s people are enslaved by Egypt, the Lord works to free them from their chains. For a while, the fight looks bleak. Pharaoh’s heart is hardened. Rather than free God’s people at each time Moses declares the Lord’s will to him, Pharaoh makes life even more bitter for the slaves. The story, of course, ends when Pharaoh determines to show God who is boss and to kill all the firstborn males of Israel. The result is that God’s people go free.
But even that freedom is an uneasy experience for Israel. Near the beginning of their freedom, we are told, Pharaoh’s heart is once again hardened. He sends his army of chariots against the ragtag people of Israel, only to find his army, and his power, destroyed by God. Even then, though, the cloak of freedom is not easily worn. How does Israel respond to their deliverance? They create a molten calf to worship. They who have seen the ten plagues visited on Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt, they who have seen Pharaoh’s army crushed by the might of the Lord, they who have heard the theophany of the Lord on Sinai, they who are scared by the reflection of the glory of the Lord in Moses’ face choose to enslave themselves again to an idol. Given the choice of perfect freedom or slavery, they choose poorly. God leads them through the wilderness allowing that generation to die out before Israel comes to possess the Land promised to Abraham & Sarah so long ago.
Similarly, the Return from the Exile is couched in similar language. God moves the heart of Nebuchadnezzar, through the loyalty of just three sons of Israel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. All who have forgotten the story can turn to Daniel and refresh their memories. Essentially, though, the three become “good little slaves” to the Babylonians, except that worship only the Lord. In diet and dress and knowledge and all ways superficial, the men become good behaving slaves in the empire. Still, they remember the Lord and the promises He has made. They cling to the Shema as if it is their lifeline in this new life, even when those in authority plot to take their lives. No doubt as we work and toil in this digesting milieu of evil, the Lord is at present raising up men and women whose testimony in the midst of slavery will turn the hearts of those who enslave them and encourage those of us who cling to the promises of God!
The second Testament, of course, speaks to God’s power to redeem all evil to His glory. It is not enough for God just to free His people; He loves them and wants them redeemed! The Cross stands as the fundamental testimony of God’s ability to take that which is evil and to use it for good, but there are other stories which speak to this truth as well. In the Gospels, Jesus describes the kingdom of God as if a long-departed master returns to his estate and chooses to reverse the expected societal order for a time. The master returns unexpectedly. The joy at his return is palpable. Yet the master chooses to don the robes of the slaves and to serve them for their service. It does not last forever, but the elevation even for a short time was and should be significant in our minds. Naturally, the story hints at the Last Supper and Jesus’ feet washing of the Apostles, but it declares to us that one of the signs of the coming of the kingdom of God will be the reversal of the expected order. For a time, our Lord will serve us. We will be cleansed and made worthy to stand before Him in worship and adoration for all eternity! But for a time, He will act as our slave.
With this knowledge in the back of our collective minds, it is no small wonder that we who toil in this evil are so determined, so unyielding in our fight. Politicians, people in business, society, even the Church may get sick of our rants and our battles, but so long as we draw water from the wellspring of Life, so long as we drink deeply of that Cup with which He serves us, we can never give up this fight. We may toil in seeming insignificance. We may be ignored by our brothers and sisters in the Church. We may never have a hand in the rescue of a slave. Still, we know our work is the sign of the coming kingdom. We labor not so much for the results, but in simple obedience that He who works in us accomplishes the miraculous in such situations. It is in our very DNA. It is stamped indelibly into the image with which He created each one of us.
Lest we think he was picking and choosing stories, Sir David reminded us of the story of Paul and Onesimus. Though Paul was not enslaved in the sense in which those who we seek to free are, he was by no means free. He found himself in the very city we find ourselves gathered, though he is first introduced to us across the Sea in an undesired outpost in the Roman world. Unlike us who were free to walk about and take in the sights and sounds, Paul found himself confined to a space of maybe 30 square feet. He could not work and thus provide for his situation. He had to trust completely in God’s promises. And though he was trapped in a small space, look at what God accomplished through Paul’s faithfulness. The Gospel could not be contained in the house that served as Paul’s makeshift prison. Though the authorities tried to keep him contained, the Gospel was loosed powerfully in this, the gem of the earth in his day. Less than three cities after his death, the Emperor would choose to embrace the Cross of Christ, changing forever the history of this city and the world.
And, lest those of us who labor anonymously feel ignored by or beneath the notice of our Lord, Sir David shared the story of Onesimus. The name I discerned for my ministry in the beginning was “Onesimus’ Heart,” so I knew this story before Sir David preached. I had lived it. I have seen it. Onesimus was a runaway slave who encountered Paul, we believe, when Paul was imprisoned here in Rome. We don’t know the particulars of the story, and we really have only Paul’s side of the story from which to discern it. But Onesimus, a runaway slave under threat of a death sentence by Rome if captured or his lord if returned, meets Paul. Onesimus hears the Gospel according to Paul. He repents and claims Christ as Savior. Not unsurprisingly to those who follow the workings of God, Onesimus’ rightful owner once sat in Onesimus’ place. Once, some time ago, Philemon listened to Paul’s narration of the Gospel and chose the path and power of the Cross and Empty Tomb!
The result is that the slave and the master have both become brothers in Christ! And Paul uses that newfound relationship in Christ to plead for the release of Philemon’s claims against Onesimus. Had Philemon simply elected to accept Onesimus back into his household with no punishment, the story would be amazing. God, as is so often the case, goes even bigger! In a stunning reversal of fortune, Onesimus’ submission to his former master results in him being elevated to overseer, episcopos, in the Church. He who was a slave becomes one who should be serving all!
That, brothers and sisters who are fighting modern slavery, is the context of our battle. That is the source of our hope. That is the spiritual DNA that undergirds our work. We are gathered in a place that saw a Bergoglio become Francis. We are gathered by a Francis and a Justyn who see themselves as champions of those enslaved and encouragers of all those who labor for the day when all men and women are given their perfect freedom in Christ. As Anglicans, we stand in the footsteps of those who fought against king and country and church to stop slavery once. Like them, we will win this battle, too! It will not be easy; it will not be without cost to so many unnumbered, invisible victims; it may never be a popular battle in the paces we are called to serve. But in the end, we know that we serve the Victor and that His promises are sure!