Thoughts on Philemon 1-21
2010-09-02 by Laurie McKnight
This is a brief letter from the Apostle Paul to a friend and former slave owner, about his former slave, who is a new Christian and indeed, a brother in Christ to Paul. Images of usefulness crowd my mind (how are we useful to one another and to the kingdom?) – and what does it mean when one person works for another? Does one own the other? Is payment fair for the jobs performed? What is the nature of the employer-employee relationship?
Paul talks about commanding – versus requesting out of love. Paul bases his request, and also his advice, on the love he feels for both former slave owner and former slave. Paul advocates the brotherly relationship between the three men involved (himself included), and says he will pay reparations if any are needed. Paul is confident that Philemon, the former slave owner, will do the right thing by welcoming Onesimus, the former slave, back into his home. Paul is confident that Onesimus, the runaway slave, will return to his previous place of employment (his previous home) like the prodigal son, ready to be welcomed like a brother and a true friend in Christ. It’s a story about restored relationships. Paul is confident Philemon and Onesimus will do more than what he tells them to do. They will go "above and beyond."
My colleague and friend, Tim Haut (UCC pastor from Deep River, CT) has written this:“Among other things, this letter to Philemon is all about letting go, the ultimate task of our lives. It's about releasing the people we love into the care of others, and most of all, into the care of God, in the earnest hope that something will come back to us, that something will be there to fill the empty place. Ultimately the greatest letting go will be of life itself.” Can we let go of old lives – and new – and go to the place where we are loved and needed? Can we forgive when necessary? Can we receive/allow forgiveness when necessary? Can we allow a different persona to emerge in ourselves and others?
We don’t know how this story ends – if Onesimus goes back, and if Philemon welcomes him back. We don’t know if their relationships return to what they were, or if they are forged new. We don’t know if Paul ever sees these two again, so he can judge for himself the success of the forgiveness, the restoration, the relationship. We know the three of them, Christ-followers all, have now been united with all the saints – and there is the restored relationship we too can seek and we too will one day know.
Thoughts on Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
2010-09-01 by Laurie McKnight
I said earlier in the week that I was disappointed that the whole Psalm wasn’t included in the lectionary – well, at least the middle verses. I love those verses 7-12. Occasionally, I preach what is NOT in the lectionary – what’s excluded, and why it’s excluded. Aside from length, what do we lose when we truncate this psalm (or any scripture)? Maybe we don’t want to think or talk about going away from the Holy Spirit; maybe we shouldn’t be considering fleeing from the Lord, or hiding in darkness (literally or figuratively). So the bulk of this praise psalm addresses the omniscient God, who knows our thoughts, who knows the words on our tongue before we utter them, who has known us completely since before we were born. What a comfort. THIS is a God we can believe in; THIS is a God we can trust; THIS is a God we can praise – what else can we do but praise our wonderful creator who is with us until the end of our days – from before the beginning of our days right through the end? I quote from this psalm often in my pastoral prayer – especially if congregation members are reluctant to share prayer concerns. I remind them that God knows our worries before we give voice to them – God knows us inside and out – God knows our thoughts before we think them; God knows our feelings before we have them. God knows the names of those people we have refused to name aloud. God knows the names of children around the world who are nameless to us, but who are also all God’s children.
Also not included in the lectionary this week are verses 18-24 – where we talk about wickedness and hating our enemies. Perhaps the focus is just meant to be on the God who loves us and cares for us and hems us in – we have a place with THIS God – we are secure and we know where we stand. Perhaps we shouldn’t even have to think about our enemies or about the wickedness in the world. If we continue to look at God, to follow God, to seek nothing else but what has been provided by our loving creator, then the rest of the psalm – hiding from God and worrying about our enemies – is unnecessary. Sure, those verses are there to fall back on, should we need to, should we sin and separate ourselves from our amazing Lord.
And sin we do. Verses like this can be intimidating to those of us who are aware of our sinful natures and actions. Perhaps we lie in bed at night and replay a scene from our day in our head – and where do we picture God in the scene when we are acting at less than our bests – when we are not being our best selves, the people God designed us to be? It’s embarrassing – or it could be. It could be intimidating viewing God as our conscience (our Jiminy Cricket? Big Brother?) – it could be anxiety-provoking. But the good news remains: God knows us AND loves us, despite the all-encompassing knowledge the creator has of the creature. God will look for the wickedness within us and STILL lead us in the way everlasting. The psalmist knew this even before the Advent of Christ. Praise God! We are still with God to the end.
Thoughts on Jeremiah 18:1-11
2010-08-31 by Laurie McKnight
I am not a potter. My cousin’s husband, a family doctor, is a potter in his spare time. It relaxes him and feeds his artistic and creative side. Perhaps it’s more predictable than practicing medicine – more reliable? – and he can always get a “do-over” – he can always start again when he’s unhappy with how the pottery is developing. I know he takes pride in his work. All of the pieces that are made less well (most of which are destroyed and re-worked) inspire him to keep creating, until finally he is pleased with the result. He appreciates periodic success because he experiences frequent failure and disappointment.
Those well-acquainted with pottery-making know that the clay has to be wet and supple enough to work with. They know the clay must be in the center of the wheel – you must start out right or soon you will be starting over again. There is a “just right” mixture of sand and clay and water. There is the option to fire the pottery piece to give it a hard outer shell, to make it more durable and useful (but perhaps that also makes it more easily shattered?). Pottery pieces can be useful, or they can be decorative. What are we making? (Or who’s making us?) And for what purpose?
I love the little email legend about the 2 water jugs – it’s often attributed to Indian or Chinese culture – and each day the 2 pots are used to collect water from the river. On the way back to the village, 1 pot (which is cracked) leaks out much of its collected water, and this 1 pot feels badly about itself. But the owner of the pot notes that on the cracked pot’s side of the path, flowers are blooming, as they are watered by this pot every day. Even in our imperfections we can do God’s work. Perhaps our imperfections are what God intended. [search at http://www.google.com for broken+pot+water+flowers and you will find several tellings of the story.]
I also know the wonderful song, “Change My Heart, Oh God” by Eddie Espinosa, which holds the lyrics, “You are the potter; I am the clay – mold me and make me; this is what I pray.” [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CEtsHWFE6-w] There are so many appropriate images that meld with the idea of God as the potter and we, God’s creations – made from dust and water, made from clay. And we are tested (made perfect? or just hardened by the world?) by being fired. We are strengthened for the duties of life.
In the Jeremiah scripture – we read about the potter and the clay. We read that God may be happy in the creation of the people Israel, or that God may decide to break down and destroy. God may create evil to face us, to thwart us, to teach us. God may build us up or tear us down. God the potter may be satisfied or dissatisfied with the pottery we turn out to be. If we pursue evil ends, then God may send evil to meet us. We are to be the best, most useful pieces of pottery we can be. God designed and made us for just such a purpose, for just such a time as this.
Initial Thoughts on the Texts
2010-08-30 by Laurie McKnight
Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-6,13-18; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33 (Labor Day, 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time)
Some interesting preaching choices this week. Some old familiar words that many of us have preached on many times before. Myself, this is already (only!) my 2nd time through the lectionary cycle, but even I want to say new things in a new way about a familiar passage. I know I am a different person than I was 3 years ago; I’m serving a different congregation than I was 3 years ago, and even if I weren’t, the people would be different in that congregation (internally and externally) after 3 years, themselves. So we look at the familiar again. AND we remember that it’s Labor Day weekend coming up. For some of us, that will mean that people are away and church will not be crowded. For others of us, that will mean that we need to focus on this American holiday and address it perhaps in song and in prayer (and maybe even in sermon). We’ll see. Let’s start with the Jeremiah passage.
The potter and the clay and God shaping us are wonderful images. We’ve heard those words of plucking up and breaking down before, too. The end of the passage devolves into evil, and a warning from God (through Jeremiah) to the people. Pollyanna that I am, I would probably stick with the potter and clay imagery, although choices and actions (or inactions) have their place as well. Not ruling out Jeremiah yet.
Wonderful wonderful psalm. What’s not to like? Well, maybe the fact that verses 7-12 are excluded, for they contain wonderful words too (“Where can I go from your spirit? You are there. Darkness is as light to you.”). This may be one I have my congregation read responsively, maybe even all of it. Especially based on the womb references that I used 2 weeks ago (August 22, 2010 – Jeremiah 1:5 and Psalm 71:6) – which pick up again here in Psalm 138:13. “Being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth” – how poetic! We know we are well-loved, and well-made. And at “the end” – we are still with God. What beautiful language; what inexpressible thoughts well expressed! Definitely pondering using this scripture reading.
Ah, Philemon! The shortest book of the bible, and not even all of it’s to be read (all but the last 4 verses are included!). For sentimental reasons (this is my dad’s favorite book), I might use this, but also because it’s a wonderful letter and congregations need to hear the story. It’s a little nugget, a little gem, and you can tell one whole complete story – not just a part of one. You can also educate them on pronunciations of some potentially difficult biblical names – I say Fie-LEE-mon and Oh-NEE-simus, but I’ve heard others pronounce them differently (PHILLY-mon and ONCE-simus). It’s up to you. This is a great story about accountability and responsibility and forgiveness and community and family relationships.
And Luke leaves us with these difficult sayings (more difficult sayings of Jesus). Hating our family members to follow Christ. Carrying the cross to follow Christ. Or even planning to go to war. Giving up all possessions. A real sense of difficulty. It’s a JOB, this being a Christian. We might even say it’s a BURDEN. Perhaps Jesus is trying to dissuade “fair-weather” followers…. Not loving Luke right at the moment, but have just finished reading Sara Miles’ book jesus freak, and she advocates that what you tend to want to stay away from is exactly where you need to go. So a-marinating I will go, to see if I am called to face up to this difficult message, when really I want to bask in the Psalm or go play in Philemon. We’ll see.
Sunday Sermon- Sun Rising
2010-08-29 by Matthew Lloyd Kelley
We just read from the first of two creation stories in the Book of Genesis. The one we just read from was probably composed in the form we have it about five centuries before the time of Jesus, and it is this beautiful liturgical song of praise about how God took the primal chaos and shaped it into the amazing created order that we see in the world today. This story has been around for at least twenty five hundred years, and it still takes our breath away.
Unfortunately, in our time, some of the beauty of this story has been clouded over because, for a couple centuries, Christians of different stripes have kept trying to turn the creation stories of Genesis into something they’re not, and we’ve done some damage to ourselves in the process. The generations of folks who passed down this story verbally from generation to generation, and eventually wrote it down had what we now call a “pre-scientific” understanding of the universe. For all they knew, the earth was flat and everything in the sky revolved around the earth. They weren’t dumb by any stretch of the imagination. They talked about who God is and how God works using of their best understanding of the shape of the universe and our place in it.
But over time that understanding began to evolve. In the sixteenth century we see a Polish priest named Nicholas Copernicus who also happens to dabble in mathematics and astronomy realizes that it isn’t the sun that revolved around the earth, the earth actually revolves around the Sun! About a generation later, an Italian guy named Galileo Galilei, who is also a faithful Catholic, says the same stuff and a lot of people start to think that there’s something to this.
Sadly, these brilliant men and their ideas didn’t exactly get a positive reception. They were called heretics and Galileo was actually dragged to Rome and tried by the Inquisition as a heretic. The church (and I’m talking about all churches: Catholic, Methodist, everyone) is and always has been a human institution, and in many of these critical moments we have succumbed to that most basic of human flaws: fear. Fear of change. Fear of new knowledge that might threaten the established order and our power in it. Fear of the unknown. Too often we reject new ideas and understandings because we are afraid and we only see the negative possibilities, and we miss out on the potential they bring.
Today’s theme in our worship is the “Sun Rising”, and the evolution in our understanding of what the Sun is, and in turn, what our place in the universe is, serves to remind us who we are and who God is. The very phrase, “watching the Sun rise” implies that we are standing still and that everything revolves around us. But if you’ve ever been on a beach or on top of a mountain and watched the Sun rise, you’ve probably been struck by how big this world is, and how small we are in comparison. As scientific discovery has shown us that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and that even the Sun revolves around the center of our galaxy that is just one of billions in the universe, we’ve seen that truth again. We are not the center of the universe! We’re actually quite small in the grand scheme of things! We are not ultimate: God is. And the God who is ultimate, the God who is the center of the universe, cares deeply about each and every one of us. Little ‘ol you, and little ‘ol me are of sacred worth because we are created in the image of our great big God.
Perhaps this lesson about humanity’s place in the universe is also a word to our community today. We’re raising money right now to build a new church home. We’re in the midst of doing something really important, and any time we’re doing something important we can easily get stressed and blow things out of proportion and succumb to fear. So when that stress hits, when that fear is right in our face threatening to swallow us whole, let us remember our place in the created order. That amazingly beautiful, sacred piece of property on Gholson Road is but a speck on this Earth, this planet that revolves around the Sun, which is one of billions of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, which is but one of billions, or more likely, trillions of galaxies in this universe.
We don’t have to worry, because the fate of the cosmos does not hang on what we do here! We are important, but we are not ultimate. God is the center of the universe. God is ultimate.
Jesus tells us we are the light of the world, and to let our light shine. Just as we are not at the center of the created order, neither are we the source of that light. We are not the light of the world because of some innate goodness on our part. We are the light of the world because we are created by God, the God who actually spoke light into existence! We are not the source, we merely reflect the source of this light. So all we have to do is be what we are. Jesus tells us to let our light shine before people so that they may see it and praise the God who is ultimate, the God who is the center of the universe, the God who is the source of the light we shine.
So let us build our new church home, and let us attract some attention as we do it. Not for the purpose of being satisfied with the works of our hands, but to direct attention to the source of that light that is within us, so that all may see and praise the God who said “let there be light”. Saints of Bethlehem, let it shine.
In the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.
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