Sunday, September 25, 2016

Gift of Giving; Luke 16:19-31 sermon

Rev. George Miller
Luke 16:19-31

Step right up, step right up!

Have I got an offer for you!

Have I got a deal!

How would you like to have a special place to go in which for 2-4 hours each week you get to be part of something fantabulous!

You get to meet and mingle with friendly folk. Hear beautiful music performed by expert musicians!

Listen to inspiring words of hope! Partake in delicious treats and fresh hot coffee!

We’ll even throw in the chance for you to sing in a group, learn how to play an instrument, and participate in weekly study!

You can also garden, decorate, visit other folk, play a part in important decisions, even help make a difference in people’s lives.

All while being welcome no matter who you are and being reminded that the Big Daddy of us all loves you very, very much.

And if you happen to feel sick, lonely, sad or in the hospital we have someone special who can visit you at no additional charge.

How much would you say such an exciting offer would be worth?

$100 per week? $50 per week?

What if I was to tell you that for right now it would be $35.60 per week?

What a steal! Friends, food, fellowship, and feeling good!

But wait, for those who wish to pay only $2 more per week you can have the added bonus of a hot, delicious brunch with bacon, gravy and omelets made your way.

For those desiring more, for an extra $3.13 you can enjoy the satisfaction of playing a role in feeding the hungry.

That’s right folks- for a grand total of $40.73 a week this can be all yours.

Music, mingling, meditation, mission, munchies, messages of hope, and the assurance that in God there is more than we can ever imagine!

Now, for those who say $40.63 is too much, don’t you worry, ‘cause our Big Daddy has a plan.

No one is ever turned away, no one is ever denied acceptance.

Big Daddy, in our Manual of Living, simply asks that we give 10% of what we receive. Which means if all you can give is $2 or $20 that’s all Big Daddy asks.

But if you can give $50 or $60, well Big Daddy will accept that too.

How many here today will say that this is indeed a great deal, and a worthy expense!

…You know, talking about money isn’t one of the easiest things to do. The topic of money, like the topics of music, politics, and sex are deeply personal and emotional.

And a church talking about money?

Seems like people enjoy going to church, but they don’t want to discuss the cost or embrace the notion that we depend upon donations and the generosity of everyone present.

As Judy said last week “The good news is that we have all the resources we need, the bad news is that it’s in your pockets.”

Churches are so different from for-profit businesses.

It’s not like we offer a tangible product like a fancy car or a pair of high heel shoes.

It’s not like we offer exclusive content like Netflix, or On Demand like HBO, or unlimited data like Sprint.

It’s not like we offer the exotic memories that come with a Time Share. Or the thrills of a roller coaster at Busch Gardens.

We’re not sexy. We’re not deemed by everyone as necessary.

Disney offer a product in which they can raise their tickets prices $10 and people may complain, but they will still pay.

Airlines will charge for luggage and pre-selecting seats and people will grumble, but they’ll still fly.

But churches- well, we create an annual budget, we try our best to convince people why they should give, and then every year we scramble to stay afloat.

More often than not leaders and members will think the solution is to cut costs. But how can God be expected to bless us if we are not willing to bless God?

According to the Bible, all God asks is 10 percent of what we earn; we are willing to give a dime out of every dollar.

But we find that to be too much. We worry that we can’t do without. We go into survival mode and become fearful that we won’t personally survive.

But if we are unwilling to part with 10 cents, how can we turn to God and say “Help”, “Bless”, “Hear”, “Deliver”?

Thankfully God does help, bless, hear and deliver…and yet even then we still find it hard to make the budget and to unapologetically share with people what is needed to run the church if you choose to be a part of this covenantal community.

And as of today, with a budget of $178,000, with an average weekly attendance of 96 people, the amount comes to $35.60 per person, per week in offerings for our mission and ministry to function.

$40.73 if you wish to have brunch and stock the Shepherd’s Pantry…

…Money. Wealth. Finances.

What a deeply personal, controversial, theological conversation…

Over a month ago I felt called to preach on today’s scripture. And what I felt called to do was to go in the opposite direction of what some may think this scripture is about.

On one level, when given a quick read through, this story seems to say “Rich people: bad. Poor people: good.”

This story of Lazarus and the wealthy man has placed into people’s heads the images of heaven and hell, reward and punishment, eternal pleasure or eternal pain.

But I do not personally see this in any way being a condemnation of rich people, or folks with financial wealth.

I think this is a story about what it means to experience closeness with God; what it is like to experience paradise.

I think this is about one kind of wealthy person- those who live in extravagant luxury while a neighbor is suffering nearby.

The attention is in the details.

The rich man isn’t just wealthy, he goes around wearing purple, an opulent color that back then could only be afforded and worn by kings, priests and prostitutes.

He didn’t just have a house, but a home large enough to warrant its own driveway and gate, no doubt meant to welcome the desirables in and keep the unfortunates out.

He didn’t just have his daily bread or enjoy a well balanced meal, he ate sumptuously every day, no doubt meat and milk, pastries and wine all the time.

All while poor Lazarus lay at the edge of his property, dogs licking his sores, hoping that if anything he could just have the crumbs and left-overs that fell from the man’s table.

I don’t think Jesus is condemning the man’s wealth in this story, I think Jesus is condemning what he could have done with it and didn’t.

I think Jesus would have been satisfied if the man had found a way to feed the starving Lazarus.

I think Jesus would have been satisfied if the man had walked to the end of his driveway and gave Lazarus some of his gently used linen and purple polos.

I think Jesus would have been satisfied if the man had found a way to use some of his wine and pastry funds to make sure that Lazarus was able to see a dermatologist about his sores.

But the man didn’t, and as a result he experienced a spiritual separation from God; a sadness that came from not being a better neighbor.

But I do not think the man’s sin was his wealth, or his enjoyment of nice things.

I think the man’s sin was his inability to share.

I don’t think Jesus really had an issue with people who had money; I think the issue was with how they used it- to exclude or include, to hoard or to bless.

Think about it- Jesus must have had plenty of friends with big checkbooks- how else could he and 12 men wander around the countryside, eating and sleeping for free.

Think of folk like Zacheaus who had Jesus join him at his home for dinner.

Think of the banquets, meals, celebrations, and weddings that Jesus attended- someone had to pay for them all.

Think of Martha and Mary. They had their own home. They provided hospitality to Jesus and his merry men. Martha had her many tasks.

Surely Martha and Mary were on the more financially well off side then those who were day laborers.

Think of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with costly perfume.

When Jesus was crucified, think of the rich man from Arimathea who came and took his body, wrapped it in linen, and laid it in his own personal tomb.

I do not think Jesus had an issue with people who were rich or financially secure at all.

In fact, how could the Good Samaritan have been so good if he did not have extra money to pay the inn keeper?

How could the Prodigal Son be welcomed home with a ring, a robe, and a fatted calf if his father did not have wealth?

How could the Lord’s Supper have taken place if some generous person had not opened up their home, provided the table, the wine, and the bread?

I think Jesus had a wonderful relationship with the wealthy, and he only had a hard time with those who hoarded or held back from blessing others.

I think of my own life, of how I have been blessed.

For example, I think of John, the father of my high school girlfriend. How he came from a place of poverty and dropped out of high school.

How he worked really hard, began his own business, and wisely accumulated his wealth.

I think of how he used it.

He had a large beautiful home with a pool and a BMW with a carphone. He had a condo in the Hamptons and a wife dripping in diamonds.

But I recall how he would take the entire family out for dinner, not just wife and kids, but their boyfriends and girlfriends as well.

We’d drive to the Elbow Room in the Hamptons, the kind of place where all that was on the menu was steak, steak and more steak, the only salad dressing was Catalina, and the wait was always an hour.

The kind of place where you dressed up, sat at the bar eating bar snacks out of wooden bowls, at a time in American history in which teenagers could be served an alcoholic drink if an adult was present.

And John would pay for it all.

He was the kind of man that allowed me to drive his daughter in my beat up 1970 Dodge Dart to their beach condo in which a concierge greeted us, and we could spend the day swimming in the ocean or a salt water pool.

John was the kind of man who’d invite you over for the family’s traditional seafood Christmas Eve meal featuring shrimp the size of small cats.

Truth is, most of what I learned about how to act in a fancy restaurant, or how to walk into an establishment, or how to enjoy the finer things came from John and his wife.

And he asked for nothing in return. He did it cause he wanted to, he did it cause he could. He did it without having to go without.

John did so by establishing fellowship and creating memories, even if someone like me, used to McDonalds and shopping at Sears, was too young to fully know or appreciate how cool and generous he was.

…Today’s scripture can sound like it condemns those who have wealth or riches; I think it is more a cautionary tale about how holding on too tightly can cause an unnecessary divide.

I think today’s tale is meant to say don’t be so much like the decadent man that you fail to see and respond to others in need.

That today’s scripture is a reminder that our money and our resources are not only meant to bless us, but to bless others, to make our part of the world a bit more heaven-like.

So as we go through the process of giving our offering, as we go through the process of creating a church budget for 2017, as we prepare to think of what we are being called to give, may we do so mindful of all that God has done.

Mindful of the biblical principal of tithing in which God simply asks for one dime back for every dollar.

May we be mindful that it is only by grace and chance that we are not the Lazarus who is lying by the gate.

May we be mindful that we as a church already have all the resources we require, all we need is for each of us to give accordingly.

Amen and amen.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Breathing with our Mountain-Moving God, Psalm 113 sermon for Sept 18, 2016

Rev. George Miller
Psalm 113
Sept 18, 2016

It has been a super hectic summer.

We had the joyful experience of calling Rev. Ken Hull to be our Director of Music.

We had the somber experience of responding to the PULSE murders and hosting the Town Hall Meeting.

We had our Vacation Bible School, the monthly Shepherd’s Pantry, and I’ve been busy with play rehearsals.

But now it feels like we are starting to cool down, catch our breath.

The office is at the point in which bulletins are done a day early. Council reports were in on-time.

After last week’s Air Conditioner Chat, two people have stepped forward offering to co-organize this year’s Harvest Home Sale.

Ahhh- breathe- calm…

And then…the news. We got our financial report and the treasurer shared the fact that we are currently $22,000 behind budget.

Which means that we definitely need to make sure we have a Harvest Home. That we begin early with our Meet the Budget Match. That we run a successful Intent to Give Campaign for 2017.

And that we take seriously our offerings and expenses for the next 3 ½ months.

Such somber, sobering news can make it feel as if the sky is falling, the world is coming to an end, that we have our backs against the Red Sea, and the bill collectors will soon be forcing us to shut our church’s doors…

Breathe….ah, breathe.

Then look- we’ve actually received $1,500 more than this time last year.

Membership is up, and new people are joining next month. Attendance has seen a 17% increase since 2010.

Worship, spirituality and mission are on point. The community knows our name.

In other words, our mission and ministry are thriving, which means that yes- our expenses are up.

You can’t have a healthy pastor without health insurance.

You can’t print bulletins, run websites, have a full-time office administrator without paying for it.

Can’t have a safe, air-conditioned, lighted place to hold worship, handbell practice, Bible studies, food pantries and free lunches without taking care of the grounds, paying the utilities, and buying supplies.

No one is getting rich. No one is throwing money away.

No one can say we are not having mission and ministry, fellowship and worship.

So what to do, what to do?

First, breathe…

Then, take a page from today’s scripture and praise the Lord!

How about we praise, O servants of the Lord!

How about we praise the name of the Lord!

How blessed is the name of the Lord from this time on and forevermore!

Who is like the Lord our God?

Everybody-praise the Lord!

Today’s scripture is a very special one. It makes up what are called the Hallel psalms.

Hallel means to praise.

Psalm 113 to Psalm 118 are 6 songs that were designed to be sung during joyous festivals. They were songs meant to be sung during Passover.

Which means that Psalm 113 is a song that Jesus and his disciples would have sung on the night they shared their final meal.

Which means that even in the shadow of the betrayal and the reality of the cross, Jesus sang out “Praise the Lord!”

The reason why Psalm 113-118 were sung during festivals and Passover is very clear. They were songs about deliverance; songs representing the majesty and wonder of God.

Psalm 113 represents the good, great things that God can do.

Psalm 113 represents how God can do what others say cannot be done.

Raise the poor? Done!

Lift the needy? Done!

Fill an empty home with children? Done and done again!

Today’s scripture presents what we have been calling a “vertical image” of God. It talks of God being high above and distant, kingly and sitting on a throne.

AND- it also shows God as being close at hand, alert, aware and active.

Psalm 113 praises the Lord for being a God who can raise the poor from dust.

A God who lifts the needy from piles of ash.

A God who gives a childless person a house filled with the sound of kids laughing.

These are not insignificant feats. These are not mere fairy tales.

These are the traits of a God who sees, a God who knows, who cares, who causes things to happen.

These are the traits of a God who sends winds, who parts waters, who delivers the innocent, and conquers the enemy.

This is a God in which nothing is too, too wonderful…

You know, as of today I have been ordained exactly 11 years, 2 months and a day.

I have been here at Emmanuel UCC for exactly 6 years and 5 months.

Ya’ll know that according to reason I should not be here. You’ve seen just some of the steps I have taken.

If there is one thing I hope to leave behind as my legacy is the realization that God can and does work miracles.

That God moves mountains, God parts the seas, and that God can make a way out of no way.

I hope that my legacy is one in which people can testify that when the world says “no”, God says “yes!”

That when I was poor and unemployed, God found a way to make sure my bills were paid and food was in the cabinet.

That when I was needy, God found a way to surround me with people, organizations, and opportunities to ensure my most basic needs were met.

That even though I am 46, single and as barren as anyone can be, God is finding a way for even a wretch like me to go through the adoption process and create a home in which children’s laughter will be heard.

Those are just some of the reasons why I can say “Praise the Lord!” Why I can praise the name of the Lord.

How many reasons to praise God exist right here in our sanctuary today?

Who else in here knows what it is like to be poor and needy, and to have somehow, someway made it through?

Who else has experienced the pain of death and the loss of a loved one, and discovered that there can be life, love, and new beginnings on the other side of grief?

Who has ever lost all they had and found a way to start afresh?

Who has ever watched their life go up in dust and never thought things could settle back down?

Who else has ever felt barren, empty, hopelessly bare and found that God has blessed them with new opportunities and a chance for joy?

If so- then we are called to rejoice. We are called to give thanks.

We are called not to hold back, but to co-create with God, to minister with Jesus, and to do the mission of the Holy Spirit.

Yes, as of today, we may be $22,000 behind. But we are far from finished. We are far from the end of the road.

We are far from the end of the story, or at the point that the Red Sea waters will come crashing down.

We remember all that God, through Christ, has done for us.

We recognize all that God, through Christ, is currently doing.

We embrace the opportunity to co-create and play a part in God’s mission and ministry through:

-our offerings
-our tithes
-our gifts
-our time
-our talents
-our stories, and

And we trust that as we continue in our mission and the ministry, there is nothing, no thing that God cannot do.

Amen and amen.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

On the 15th Anniversary of 9/11; Exodus 14:19-31 sermon

Rev. George Miller
Exodus 14:19-31
Sept 11, 2016

It was a third grade classroom, full of nine-year-old kids trying to figure out where they fit in.

Tommy is especially worried. You see, a puddle emerged between his feet and the front of his pants was wet. He is nervous and ashamed that this has happened to him.

In five minutes, class will be over and he’ll have to stand up, and they will know. They will all know.

When the boys find out he’ll be teased endlessly and given a cruel nickname. When the girls find out none of them will speak to him again.

He doesn’t know what to do. The teacher begins walking his way. He’s afraid that he’ll be found that.

That’s when Susie comes toward him; she’s carrying the goldfish bowl filled with water. She trips in front of the teacher, dumping the bowl of water onto Tommy, drenching him.

Now, instead of being shamed, Tommy receives help. One classmate offers Tommy an extra pair of sweats; other classmates help the teacher clean up the mess. Susie is teased but blows it off with a joke or two.

Finally, at the end of the day, as they are waiting for the bus, Tommy walks over to Susie and says “You did that on purpose, didn’t you.”

Susie nodded her head and whispered back “I wet my pant once too.”

…I don’t know about you all, but this whole year I’ve been feeling a bit like Tommy. A bit worried, on edge, not so sure what to do.

Not because I have wet my pants, mind you, but because of what this year has had its share of-

presidential debates, police shootings, the PULSE murders, extreme weather, political strife, racial tensions, stress over Zika, arguments over who can and can’t use bathrooms, and concern over a football player standing, kneeling or sitting.

I don’t think I’m the only one who is feeling a bit like Tommy.

It can be sensed in social media, the press, TV and conversations amongst friends.

Not to mention today marks the 15th Anniversary of 9/11. A day we can not avoid; a defining moment of time.

Since then we’ve witnessed two wars, Hurricane Katrina, the recession, the earthquake in Haiti, and the phenomenon of Pokemon Go!.

Lots and lots of things that can keep one paralyzed in their chair.

We could pretend the events of 9/11, or Sandy Hooke, or the murders at Mother Emmanuel Church, or Pulse never happened, but it would be dishonest.

We could use the events of that day to judge and condemn others, but that would be unchristian.

We could focus all our spiritual energy on rehashing the day the Towers fell, but that would also be self-abusive.

So I am grateful that today we have an opportunity to do something that is really none of the above; we get to each be a Susie, but instead of doing so via a goldfish bowl, we’ll get to do it through one of the most powerful scriptures there is.

It’s fitting that today we get to explore a scripture that is so elemental to the Old Testament and to our faith in general: the crossing of the Red Sea.

To catch you up on things, the people of God were enslaved by the Egyptians, oppressed and forced to do hard labor.

And through a series of events, Moses is called by God to deliver the people from their oppression.

Moses balks at the idea; the responsibility seems too great. But God prevails, and Moses becomes the voice and the vehicle for God to deliver the people.

Through a series of signs and wonders, Pharaoh agrees to let the people of God go.

But before they can get too far, the Pharaoh has a hardening of the heart, and decides to unleash his wrath. He orders over 600 chariots and an army of men to chase the Israelites down.

As they draw near, the people cry out, afraid they will die where they stand; blocked off by the waters of the Red Sea with nowhere to run.

Moses says to them “Don’t be afraid, stand firm and see how God will fight for you.”

As the Pharaoh approaches, as the sound of horses’ hooves and chariot’s wheels descend upon the men, women and children of God, there is a moment in which nature, the Divine and humanity work together.

Moses stretches out his hand above the sea, God drives back the waters to create a wall and the Israelites walk through on dry ground.

Could you image that? Can you imagine facing almost certain death; the watery chaos, the sense of no way out?

Then, can you imagine seeing the Red Sea parting, an act that defies description and expectation?

Can you imagine watching the events unfold as a way is made through no way; a way is made through to the other side, in which the land is dry?

Would you be brave enough to walk through? To step out on faith, knowing two walls of water surround you?

Could you trust that God would prevent the walls from tumbling down?

And yes, the people make it through to the other side, to freedom, to new life, and their enemies are vanquished.

This is a story for the ages, and it is a story for all people, because we have all had our own Red Sea moments.

We have all faced times in which there seemed no way out.

We have all faced times in which certain defeat seemed the only option.

We have all faced times in which we could hear the sounds of horses’ hooves and chariots descending upon our back.

We’ve all faced the threat of going backwards to a place we do not want to go.

We have all had our back against the Red Sea in which we are left facing our enemy, be it oppression, illness, poverty, injustice.

This story becomes that universal testimony about how someway, somehow, God acts, God moves, God responds.

That somehow, in ways we can not always expect or fully understand, our Lord has a way to part the waters.

That although the waters of chaos may remain on our right and on our left, ready to crash down at any point, we can find a way through, a way through to dry ground.

It doesn’t mean there won’t be other waters to face, it doesn’t mean there won’t be other enemies to worry about, but it means that through the help of God and the help of one another, we make it through.

Today, as a nation, we have an opportunity to look back upon the events of 9/11 and to realize that as horrific as those events were, as much as they have left deep wounds, they have not completely drowned us or destroyed our resilience.

Today, as a church, we have an opportunity to come together as one to praise God through scriptures, prayers and song.

Today, as individuals, though our offerings, we get to stretch out our hands by participating in giving to the ministry and mission of our church.

Next week, we get to once again feed over 100 hungry families that are seeking reprieve from the waters of hunger and threats of defeat.

Like Susie in the story told earlier, we have a unique way to help.

But instead of dumping fishbowls, we have a chance to offer our community, our local families a spot of dry land.

We do that through the way we worship. We do that through the programs we offer.

We do that through the ministry of the Shepherd’s Pantry, the Diamond CafĂ©, Vacation Bible School, and our upcoming trip to Back Bay Mission.

Today we heard about a defining moment in Israel’s history, of a moment in which they could have been swallowed by the waters or destroyed by their enemy.

But God, through the actions of Moses, saved them and they were delivered.

We too have all faced our own raging seas; we have each experienced how God has parted them and lead us through.

So, as we recall a day that was so tragic, let us embrace the opportunities we have had throughout the year to help others.

For in all we do, our gifts and our time can help others find a way from uncertainty to hope, from despair to a tomorrow.

In all we do, our gifts and our time reflect the ways in which the goodness of humanity can overcome the evil that some may do.

Let us give thanks to the Spirit, which is the breath of God, to Jesus Christ, who embodied God’s love and to our Creator who leads us to dry land.

Amen and amen.

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.