Sunday, September 4, 2016

Co-Partnering with God; Philemon sermon

Rev. George Miller
Sept 4, 2016

One never knows what expressions will catch on and become recognizably popular.

Game of Throne fans will announce that “Winter is coming.”

Members of Beyonce’s Bee-hive will say “You better call Becky with the good hair.”

Trekkies bless one another by saying “Live long and prosper.”

For us Bible geeks, I like “In the beginning,” although “The Lord is my shepherd” is certainly a contender.

“In the beginning” are the opening words of Genesis, leading us into the story of God’s romance with the world.

The first chapter of Genesis is rich with theologies that have shaped how people view faith, science, and our relationship to the environment.

For example, Genesis 1:28 has God tell man and woman to multiply, fill the earth, subdue it, and have dominion over all living things.

There’s much debate over this verse. How one interprets it can reflect who they are and shape how one acts in relation to creation.

What does it mean to subdue and have dominion?

Subdue can mean to conquer, overpower and crush. Subdue can also mean to tame and mellow out.

To have dominion can mean to dominate, dictate and control. Dominion can also mean to have authority, to care for, and watch over.

Subdue and dominion are words that have their roots in leadership and royalty; the words of kings and queens.

If we are called to be kings and queens of the earth, what kind of monarch will we be?

How you choose to understand subdue and dominion can make all the difference.

Will you be the kind of royalty who believes you have the right to subjugate, use, abuse- only thinking of yourself and your cronies?

Or will you be the kind of lord or lady who believes you are called to watch over your domain?

Do you see the earth as something to care for and protect; that we are responsible to ensure safety, peace and flourishing for all?

Here in Florida we see examples of both forms of subduing and dominion.

For example- Disney World. As we know Disney came in, bought up a bunch of land that was filled with swamps and marshes and turned it into something deemed useful.

Well, the land was useful to its original inhabitants- gators and egrets, snakes and cranes.

But not useful for humans.

So to make it useful, Disney subdued the center of the state.

Land was bulldozed, trees pulled up; homes of foxes, fish, birds and reptiles razed.

Holes were dug in the earth and filled with water; land was piled where land was not, all so we humans could have a destination known as “The Happiest Place on Earth.”

Then there is Hammock Sate Park, right down the road from us.

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 enjoy and better connect with God and Creation.

There’s a catwalk through the cypress swamp, trails that are basically sandy paths, and prescribed burning to prevent forest-fires and to stimulate seed germination.

At Hammock Park, there is the sense of subduing and dominion in which nature and humanity co-exists in harmony.

There are those who read Genesis 1:28 and see it as our call to care about and work for the benefit of creation.

They are what you can call ecotheologians. They have even coined an expression which is 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 accountability and partnership with God and further defines who we are, what we do and why.

A perfect example is at Emmanuel UCC. Every Wednesday you can come here and see our members co-creating: mowing the lawn, weeding, trimming back branches, putting down fresh grass, planting bushes.

Our Willing Workers are co-creating with God every time they are out there, putting in perennials, planting caladium bulbs, taking care of the Memorial Garden.

Everything done, every plant cared for not only makes everything more beautiful it also creates space for a butterfly, a bee, a bird, and another human to enjoy.

The same can be said for anyone who has a pet, a birdfeeder, a garden, a patch of earth you call your own.

When we care for Creation, we are partnering with God.

Today’s reading of Philemon features another kind of partnering. It is a letter written by Paul who is in prison.

Paul has been arrested for proclaiming Christ. But this does not stop him from living out his faith and finding ways to minister to others.

Paul writes to Philemon, a rather wealthy man who has come to believe in Jesus. His home is a meeting place for other people who also believe in Jesus.

Philemon has a slave named Onesimus. For some reason, Onesimus has run away.

The slave goes to Paul, and though Paul is in prison he develops a relationship with Onesimus and teaches him about Christ.

When the time comes, Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon with a letter.

In the letter Paul states “Welcome Onesimus back into your life, but not as a slave, but as a brother, a brother in Christ.”

Using the skills of a great lawyer, Paul states “If you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”

Here’s what we need to understand: legally Philemon has full dominion over Onesimus.

Because Onesimus ran away, Philemon can legally have him whipped, imprisoned or crucified.

So the question becomes: as a follower of Christ what will Philemon do, now that Onesimus is also a Christian?

Will he welcome Onesimus as property? Will he welcome Onesimus with punishment?

Or will he welcome Onesimus 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 those he is responsible for?

…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 experience what is a turning point of what it means to follow Jesus:

If we are believers in Jesus how are we to act in regards 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 are we free to conquer, overpower and crush? In Christ are we given carte-blanche to dominate, dictate and control?

As Christians can we abuse and use up, punishing others, only thinking of ourselves, and only supporting those who agree with us?

Or, in Christ are we called to be another kind of leader? One who has been given authority to tame and mellow out?

The kind of authority that is designed to care for and watch over?

As followers of Christ are we called to protect, speak up for and ensure safety, peace and flourishing for all?

In Christ do we enslave or do we set free, do we condemn or do we liberate?

In conclusion, Paul is asking Philemon what kind of partner he will be. Paul is asking Philemon to play a part in co-creating Christianity.

The same issues his letter addresses also address the same issues we deal with each and every day, in our homes, in the streets, on Wall Street and in the news.

And we get to play our part. We get to co-create, to co-partner, to co-dream with God.

We get to co-create with one another, as we fellowship, as we give our tithes and our offerings, as we give to the Shepherd’s Pantry, as we continue to be Emmanuel UCC.

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 our faith and that every time we gather, every time we work and worship side by side, we get another chance to be co-partners.

We get to discover what it means to follow Christ and to be inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Together, not apart. Side-by-side, not separate.

As we do so, we continue to be grounded in God and to be the church God has always called us to be.

Amen and amen.

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