09/04/2022 ~ Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost ~ Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary ~ Proper 18 ~ Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1:1-21; Luke 14:25-33 ~ VIDEO OF FULL SERVICE: https://vimeo.com/showcase/7960701/video/747364353
“…you see, my friend, let me have this benefit from you in Christ! I want to make you useful to me in Christ! Refresh this heart of mine in Christ!” — Philemon 1:20
Yesterday Bonnie and I celebrated 34 years of marriage. Some of you know this fact about us but some don’t. Bonnie and I were fairly old when we got hitched.
We met when I was thirty-nine and Bonnie was thirty-eight. We got married a year later so we both would really appreciate it if you did not add 34 to those ages and thereby do the math to figure out how old we are right now.
The piece which surprises some folks is, despite the fact that by most standards we got married late, it was the first marriage for both of us. Or as I often say, since we got married at an older age than most we skewed the statistics. It makes us demographically unacceptable.
We did have one advantage working for us when we met. I was the best friend of Bonnie’s cousin, Paul. Or as Bonnie likes to put it, because of that family connection I was pre-screened.
Another fact: I knew Bonnie’s cousin for fifteen years before I met Bonnie. So when Bonnie and I did meet I kept asking Paul where he had been hiding her all that time. He’d been hiding her in Maine.
Having held out from marriage for as long as we did, I think it was harder for both of us to surrender being single than it would have been had we tied the knot in our twenties. After all, we had both built very independent lives for ourselves.
Still, I believe we got married because we saw in each other someone who was willing to unconditionally accept the other. I am, frankly, still baffled it happened and I am very glad it happened.
Let me put the idea of unconditional acceptance another way. We were both willing to put ourselves on the line for that other person. We were both willing to take a chance on that other person. Did we take a risk with our union? Yes— we did.
Now, the reality is we all put ourselves on the line, take a chance on other people, take a risk, nearly every day. We do it in big ways. We do it in small ways.
An example: my dad was a parochial High School teacher. Once a close personal friend, another teacher at the same school, needed cash. So my Dad co-signed a bank loan, a personal loan.
Shortly thereafter, the friend was fired from the teaching position. My Dad was left holding the bag on the loan. Sometimes relationships are not easy. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in the work known as Philemon: “…you see, my friend, let me have this benefit from you in Christ! I want to make you useful to me in Christ! Refresh this heart of mine in Christ!” (Slight pause.)
Paul, indeed, wrote this letter on behalf of Onesimus, a runaway slave who had wronged Philemon, who owned Onesimus. It is, therefore, a very personal letter.
But it is also profoundly theological. It says something about what Paul believes God has done and is doing for each of us and all of us in Christ, Jesus. Because Onesimus is a brother in Christ to Paul and to Philemon Paul now insists this one who is enslaved by Philemon should be received and treated with unconditional acceptance, equal before God, a brother in Christ.
But perhaps more important than the specifics of the request Paul makes to Philemon— and to be clear, the letter never tells us whether or not Onesimus remains enslaved— perhaps more important than the specifics of the request is that Paul puts himself, his own being, on the line. Paul, in writing— you notice it says I’ve written this line myself— takes a chance on Onesimus. Why? I think it’s because Paul sees this person as a child of God. (Slight pause.)
What makes theology live, what makes theology come alive is not just that it’s about God. What makes theology live, what makes theology come alive is relationships.
What makes church live, what makes church come alive is not the quality of the services or the charisma of the preacher. What makes church live, what makes a church come alive is relationships— deep, involved, risk taking relationships. And yes, the fancy theological description of church says it’s is about loving God and loving neighbor, about our relationship with God and about our relationships with each other.
But let’s be more down to earth than that. If we are risk averse about relationships it means we are not honoring that unconditional acceptance we often call ‘love.’ So yes, love is about unconditional acceptance. But, therefore, love is also about taking a risk when it comes to being involved in relationship with another person.
Indeed, what Christian love is really about is putting ourselves on the line for another person. When we put ourselves on the line for another person— that is the base reality of unconditional acceptance.
That other person for whom we are placing ourselves on the line might be a member of the family, might be a friend, might be an acquaintance. It might even someone we do not know. (Slight pause.)
As you are aware, the people of this church will be and are seeking a new settled pastor. What does that mean?
Does it mean you are looking for someone to simply fill a job? No. The position of pastor at a church, any church, is not a job. Seeking a pastor is not about finding someone to fill a slot.
Seeking a pastor means you are seeking someone to be in relationship with you, someone who is willing to be in relationship with you. Seeking a new pastor with whom you will be in relationship also means as a church you will be taking a risk, putting yourselves on the line.
Like any real relationship, the first order of business when that settled pastor arrives will be a commitment to grow with one another, to learn from one another, to respect one another and the obvious— to live with one another. That list leads to this question: in the course of this process how can this church, any church, get to a place where it commits to growth, to learning, to respect? (Slight pause.)
The first step in this process might be the most difficult one since the first step is not and should never be the question, ‘who do we want as pastor?’ The first question to ask in this process is a question about self identification. ‘Who are we as a church?’
Among the things to be explored in order to get to a semblance of an answer to that question are these: ‘as a church where have we been?’ ‘As a church who are we now?’ ‘As a church where might we be going?’
Within those questions there is another reality to be considered. This church exists in the context of a greater community, Harpswell. It would therefore be wise to go out into the community and ask the very same questions of the greater community, ask people who are not involved in this church the same questions about Harpswell— ‘where have we been.’ ‘Who are we now. ‘Where might we be going?’
I want to suggest all that is at one and the same time both easier and harder than it sounds. It’s harder than it sounds because it means putting in a significant amount of work just in preparation for this journey, this process. It’s easier than it sounds because it all comes back to one word: relationships. (Slight pause.)
Let me return to that story about my Father. Although some might think that this story is simply about the burden he accepted, it is not. The story is about taking personal responsibility. Yes, he accepted a risk. He accepted the risk of taking personal responsibility for someone else. (Slight pause.)
I think a lesson we can learn from the apostle Paul is one about personal responsibility. And the personal responsibility of taking risks is key to relationships. Indeed, all this is not cut and dry and all this is and will be personal, very, very personal.
Further, when it comes to a church seeking a pastor is not just about individual actions. It’s about communal actions. Therefore when it comes to a church, a communal situation, a community of faith, the relationships involved are still and always about taking risks, communal risks.
I need to draw a parallel between one type of community and another. A Rotary club, for instance, is a group, a community. But church is a community of faith. Hence, the scope of the various relationship into which a church enters is more broad, more varied.
Why? The church is a community of faith where there is a commitment to growth, to learning, to respect.
So is this, will this process be hard? Yes. But it will be much easier if we remember a basic lesson Paul teaches here. Relationships matter. So there needs to be a commitment to grow with one another, to learn from one another, to respect one another and to live with one another. It is personal. Amen.
Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Benediction. This, then, is an précis of what the pastor said before the blessing: “Covenant is a word we Congregationalist like to throw around. The essence of the word covenant is a relationship in which binding promises are made. As Congregationalists we need to acknowledge and understand that just in terms of the simple definition committing to covenant is a daunting task.”
BENEDICTION: O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us, in the midst of our striving for justice and truth, to confront one another in love, and to work together with mutual patience, acceptance and respect. Send us out, sure in Your grace and Your peace which surpasses understanding, to live faithfully. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God, that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.