Rev. George Miller
“Partnering with Paul”
Sept 8, 2013
I may be wrong, but I think that the phrase “In the beginning” is the most well known 3-word-string in the English speaking world.
“In the beginning” is the 1st 3 words of the Bible; it starts Genesis, ch. 1 and leads us into the telling of the 1st creation story.
“In the beginning” leads us eloquently, poetically into the story of God’s relationship, God’s romance with creation.
Genesis ch. 1 is ripe with theologies that have had far reaching affect on how people view faith, science, orientation and our relationship to the environment.
There’s a lot of debate over Genesis 1:28 in which God tells man and woman to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth, subdue it, have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air and every living thing that moves upon the earth. (NRSV)
How one interprets this verse can be a reflection of who they are; it can also shape how one acts in relation to creation.
What does it mean to subdue? What does it mean to have dominion?
These are words that have their roots in leadership; in kings and queens.
But what kind of monarch will we be?
Subdue can mean to conquer, overpower and crush. To have dominion can mean to dominate, dictate and control.
Or…subdue could mean to tame and mellow out. To have dominion can mean to have authority, to care for, and watch over.
How you understand subdue and dominion can make all the difference.
Will you be a king or queen who believes you have the right to abuse, use up, punish, subjugate and only think of yourself and your cronies?
Or will you be a king or queen who believes you were called to watch over your domain, to care for and protect all you are responsible for; to ensure safety and peace and flourishing for all?
Here in Florida we see examples of both forms of subduing and dominion.
The most obvious is Disney World. As much as I love going there, let’s be honest- Disney came in, bought up all this land that was filled with swamps and marshes; useless to humans, but useful to gators and egrets, snakes and cranes; and turned it into something he deemed useful.
But to do so land was bulldozed, trees pulled up, homes of animals, birds, fish and reptiles razed and destroyed.
Holes were dug in the earth and filled with water; land was piled where land was not.
And a castle, Cinderella’s Castle, was built on top of it, so we humans could have a destination known as “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
On the other hand, right down the road we have Hammock Sate Park; the oldest one in Florida.
Great work has been done to keep things as they were, to allow plants and panthers, deer and dogwood to exist as they always have.
There are places in which humans came in, not to decimate, but to enjoyment and better connect with creature and Creation.
There is a catwalk through the cypress swamp, trails that are basically sandy paths and prescribed burning which prevents forest-fires and stimulates seed germination.
At Hammock Park, there is the sense of subduing and dominion in which nature and humanity is able to co-exist in harmony.
There are those who read Genesis 1:28 and see it as our call to care for and work for the benefit of creation. They follow a belief called ecotheology.
Ecotheologians use their beliefs as a springboard for how they live, from what they eat, where they live and what they buy.
They have even coined an expression that has taken hold in contemporary theology: co-creation.
Co-creation is the belief that God created the world, and we are called to assist God in the care for and advancement of creation.
We are God’s helpmates; co-dreamers for what the word can and should be.
The idea of being a co-creator with God creates a sense of partnership, an accountability and a further defining of who we are, what we do and why.
A perfect example is right here at Emmanuel UCC. Every Wednesday morning you can come here and see our men and women co-creating: mowing the lawn, getting rid of invasive weeds, trimming back branches, putting down fresh grass, planting bushes.
Nancy may not realize it, but from an ecotheologian’s point of view, she is co-creating with God every time she is out there in the garden, putting in another perennial, planting another caladium bulb, filling the bird bath with fresh water.
Everything done, every item planted, every plant cared for not only makes everything more beautiful it also creates care for a butterfly, a bee, a bird.
The same can be said for anyone here who has a pet, a birdfeeder, a garden, a patch of earth you care for and watch over.
According to this particular theology we are partnering with God when we care for Creation.
Today’s reading features another kind of partnering. It is a letter written by Paul sometime between 55-64 CE.
Here Paul is writing from prison, where he has been arrested for proclaiming Christ. We don’t know if it was high-security, low security like a white-collar prison, or if it’s really some kind of house arrest.
But either way, Paul is not free to move around or enjoy life as you or I would.
But it does not stop him from living out his faith and finding ways to share Christ.
He writes to a man named Philemon, a rather wealthy man who has come to believe in Jesus through Paul.
Philemon has allowed his home to be a meeting place for other people who also believe in Jesus. In other words his home is one of the first Christian churches.
Philemon also has a slave, a slave named Onesimus. For some reason, which no one knows, Onesimus has run away from Philemon; he has run to Paul in prison.
There, Paul develops a relationship with Onesimus and teaches him about Christ.
When the time comes, Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon. In this letter he makes this exhortation “Welcome Onesimus back into your life, but not as a slave, but as a brother, a brother in Christ.”
During a time when a runaway slave can be legally whipped, imprisoned or crucified, Paul sends Onesimus back to his master.
Using strong words and the skills of a great lawyer, Paul pleads his case to Philemon on behalf of the slave, stating “If you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”
Philemon has full dominion over Onesimus. As a follower of Christ what will he do?
Will he welcome Onesimus as property or as a brother?
Will Philemon respond as a Master who conquers and crushes all or will he act as a Master who cares for and watches over?
…We never get to know the answer; we can only hope it worked out in Onesimus’ favor.
But here in this letter we have an astounding change in the understanding of social structure.
Here we hear what is a turning point of what it means to follow Jesus:
If we are believers in Jesus how are we to act, especially to one another?
If we believe in Jesus, how do we relate to one another? How do we treat each other?
What’s the right thing to do?
In Christ can we conquer, overpower and crush; dominate, dictate and control?
In Christ do we tame and mellow out; have authority but the kind that cares for and watches over?
If we follow Christ, should we abuse and use up, punishing others and only think of ourselves and support only others who agree?
Or if we follow Christ are we called to protect, speak up for and ensure safety, peace and flourishing for all?
In a metaphorical question, in Christ do we enslave or do we set free, do we incarcerate or do we liberate?
I asked this metaphorically, but there are those who ask these same questions politically and socially.
…Paul is asking Philemon what kind of partner he will be.
Paul is asking Philemon to play a part in co-creating this brand new kind of faith that we, 2,000 years later, call Christianity.
And the same kind of questions rings out each and every day, in our homes, in the streets, on Wall Street and in the news.
And I am thankful that today we get to play our part.
I am thankful that today after service we get to co-create, to co-partner, to co-dream with God, with one another, as we fellowship and as we fun-raise during our Global Mission Fair.
An ecotheologian will tell you that God is not done creating the world, and that we get to play a role in the process.
I would say that God is not done perfecting the church (both universal and local) and that every time we gather, every time we work and worship side by side, we get another chance to be co-partners and to discover just what it means to follow Christ.
Together, not apart. Side-by-side, not separate.
We get to co-create with God, with Christ, with the Holy Spirit, and with one another.
As we do so, we also get to play a role in bringing freedom and flourishing, light and more, so much more into God’s good creation.
Amen and amen.