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The Right Thing to Do

(a sermon for September 8, 2019, the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Philemon 1-21)

(The Podcast version of this message can be found here)

His name was Bernard Larlee, but to everyone in our little town, he went by the unlikely nickname of “Snigg.”  He was, in fact, the local postmaster and a stalwart member of the First Congregational Church; one of those folks who not only had been brought up in that congregation but who also over the years had ended up doing just about every job there was in the church, including teaching my 10th grade Sunday School class!

Looking back on it, Snigg must have had an awful lot of patience to be teaching at that level!  After all, as I recall, there were mostly boys in that particular class, and so not only were we as teenagers kind of restless, to say the least (!) but I’m also sure that the theological nuances contained in Paul’s epistles were pretty much lost on us!  It could not have been easy; but God bless him, Snigg soldiered on, and what I’ll always remember is that in just about every class there would come this moment when after a long while he’d just sigh a bit, quietly close his teacher’s manual and simply say, “Boys, let me ask you this… is there a Christian way to go to McDonald’s?”  Or, he’d ask, “If you’re a Christian, how do you sit in the stands at a Schenck Wolverine basketball game when we’re down by 20 points in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter… and it’s the Orono Red Riots?”

Now, of course, at first we’d all respond with smart aleck comments about praying over Big Macs and for decent referees, but what was interesting is that before long we’d find ourselves discussing these matters as though they were deep and profound questions of faith!  I mean, at the time McDonald’s was the place to go with your group – or with your date – after the movies at the K Cinema.  So that gave rise to questions both about how we related to one another as friends and classmates and how we treated others who we didn’t know, or who were outside of our social circle, or who were… different.  We’d be talking about things like dignity and respect and compassion and inclusiveness and yes, even love; and as far as basketball games were concerned, maybe good sportsmanship was important, after all, as was our refraining from referring to the opposing team members as Orono Red “Rots!” (And that was one of the nicer names…)

Whether we realized it or not, you see, what Snigg was teaching us was about faith; but not faith in the doctrinal sense, per se, nor from the lofty, some might say arrogant, perspective that oftentimes emanates from sitting in a church pew.  Snigg simply put out there for us how faith might actually affect our real lives; how our belief in God and in Christ Jesus could have an impact on our world view, our relationships, and on life just as we knew it and lived it.    We’d grown up on all the Bible stories, you see, from the time we were all little kids in the church nursery; we knew all about Noah and the Ark, Moses bringing the Ten Commandments down from the mountain, and how Jesus, the little baby born in the manger of Bethlehem, was the Savior who died on the cross for us.  We’d learned all about love and the golden rule; we understood (as best our 16 year old minds could ever possibly comprehend) the presence and power of God Almighty… but this?  These questions that Snigg the postmaster was challenging us to ask ourselves?  This was about us!  This was about how our Christian faith leading us to actively discern what was “the right thing to do” in any given situation… and then to actually do it!

Which leads us to our text for this morning, the Apostle Paul’s own very personal letter to a friend and co-worker by the name of Philemon.

First off, a little background:  at only 25 verses and 335 Greek words, the Epistle to Philemon is the shortest of Paul’s letters to be found in the New Testament as well as one of the most obscure, easily missed nestled between the books of Titus and Hebrews; truth be told, a lot of people don’t even know it exists!  Moreover, it is not, as is the case of most of Paul’s letters, written to the members of an entire congregation or a group of new Christians; and it’s decidedly not filled with any sort of theological discourse and weighty doctrines as what you find in Romans or Galatians.  It’s actually, and amazingly, a lot simpler than that:  it’s just a letter… albeit an open letter sent from Paul to Philemon, who was likely a member and leader of the church in Colossae in what is now Turkey.

This was a letter written from one man to another, friend to friend, regarding a kind of sticky situation involving a third man by the name of Onesimus, who was a slave owned by Philemon.  Basically, there had been some kind of falling out between master and servant: some scholars maintain that Onesimus was a runaway slave, others claim that perhaps Onesimus stole from Philemon or else committed some other kind of transgression against him and now was on the run for fear of reprisal or mistreatment.  And now Onesimus is with Paul, and while he’s with Paul Onesimus not only comes to faith in Jesus Christ, he’s also become as a son to Paul, to whom he refers to as his “own heart.”  Paul realizes, however, that Onesimus really does need to be sent back to Philemon because as a slave, Onesimus does technically belong to Philemon.  So… Paul decides to write this diplomatic and very flowery letter to his friend Philemon, appealing to his better nature (“I appeal to you on the basis of love,” he writes) but most of all to his faith in Christ (as The Message translates it, “I keep hearing of the love and faith you have for the Master Jesus, which brims over to other Christians”), finally asking Philemon if he might please forgive Onesimus “so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother,” adding that this is who Onesimus was to him and certainly, “he’ll be even more than that to you.”

A couple of things that should be said here: first of all, that we need to understand and own the fact that there have been many times throughout history – including, it should be noted, 400 years’ worth of American history as well – that this particular Epistle has been misinterpreted and misused as a way of sanctioning the enslavement of others, in part by virtue of the fact that Paul never condemns the practice.  Now, obviously today we know better – or at least most of the world knows better – but we also need to understand that this letter, and Paul’s words within, were written in the historical context of a Greco-Roman culture in which slavery was the norm and upwards of 35-40% of the populace were, in fact, slaves; which for me makes it all the more powerful and telling that Paul writes this very moving personal letter encouraging – no, urging… imploring (!) – true and loving reconciliation between Philemon and Onesimus, and not out some desire to “drop all charges,” so to speak, or as an effort to maintain the status quo, but rather something said and done out of faith, and Christian love, and because it’s the right thing to do.

Now I realize that you and I today might look at this relatively obscure bit of scripture and dismiss it as something totally out of sync – inappropriate, even – given our more enlightened understanding of the world and our faith in this age (though by the same token, I also have to say that I’m not willing to believe, as some have been saying as of late, that the ongoing and egregious sin of racism can be entirely pinned to verses such as what we’ve read today).  It’s true that this little letter of Paul to his friend Philemon comes off as little dissonant given its background; frankly, it’s probably the reason that this isn’t a passage that gets preached on all that often!

But then again, if you go back and read it again… if we hear in Paul’s words his earnest plea that Onesimus not be punished but welcomed home (“If you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me,” he says) and consider how Paul himself is more than willing to take the weight for any damages or debt that Onesimus might have incurred, and assures Philemon of this by emphasizing, “I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it,”  (Actually, I have a feeling that if this were something written online, this verse would have been in all caps!) for me what becomes clear in this letter is that Paul is doing more here than trying to smooth things over; no, he’s seeking to do what’s right in this difficult situation and challenging Philemon to do the same, ever and always for the sake of Jesus Christ.  And so when we look at these verses that way, the question being asked both of Philemon and to you and me is no different, really, than “Is there a Christian way to go to McDonald’s?”)

I love what the Rev. Rick Morely, Episcopal priest and blogger from New Jersey says about this:  he writes, “if you dare to take a third glance at this passage what you’ll find is faith hitting the road in the lives of real people dealing with real difficult issues and relationships.  It’s the story of three people… struggling to live out their faith, and being challenged by it over and over again.”  This is what faith looks like, you see, when things get real in this life, when the rubber meets the road, when you have to make a decision solely because of what it is you believe in faith and nothing else, and when you’re put in the position of having to explain it or to challenge someone else because of it!  This is what happens when you or I actually have to live out of all those lessons learned in Sunday School; it’s about what happens after we’ve said “Amen” to the pastor’s Sunday sermon and have headed out these doors into the real world!

It’s one thing, after all, to hear Jesus’ words about forgiving someone “seventy times seven;” quite another when it’s that family member or friend with whom you had a falling out years ago.  It’s laudable to show concern for the poor and dispossessed, the prisoner and the outcast; but what about when he or she’s sitting there looking at you?  I suspect that most of us know, down deep inside, just how much there is that we might just need to change about ourselves on the basis of faith… but what happens when all of a sudden there’s this situation, this person, this request of us to do, by faith, exactly that which has always made us feel uncomfortable?  What do we do?  And how will that affect us moving forward?

I think that’s exactly the kind of challenge that letter Paul wrote to Philemon offers up for you and me… the day to day challenge of living our faith, friends in real time and in real ways; discerning the right thing to do, and then to actually do it!  It’s as simple – and as utterly complicated – as that.

Snigg Larlee also introduced me to the concept of a “suitcoat religion;” that is, the many believers have of wearing their faith like they would their Sunday clothes, looking good on Sunday morning but taking it off and putting it away once the rest of the week has begun.  In other words, Christianity is not meant to be relegated to a couple of hours once a week but is something meant to be an integral part of every hour of every day; in our work, our play, in and through our relationships with family and friends, in how we greet the stranger and in how we relate to all those who Jesus loves.  It is as Paul wrote to the whole church in Colossae: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe [our]selves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” (Colossians 3:12); to forgive and to bear with one another, no matter how difficult that may be at times; to seek wisdom and understanding as we walk through these days, and to “let the peace of Christ rule in [our] hearts, to which indeed we were called in the one body… and whatever we do, in word or deed, [to] do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (v. 15, 17)

Maybe it’s a letter; maybe a well-spoken word at the right time; perhaps standing strong in the face of opposition or ridicule.  It’s always being who we are, which is how God has created us to be and has redeemed us in Christ.  It’s finding, and knowing, the right thing to do.

May the Lord in Christ lead us and bless us in that discernment… and may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN.

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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Made to Worship: What Do We Tell the Children?

(a sermon for September 23, 2018, the 18th Sunday after Pentecost; third in a series, based on Proverbs 3:1-12 and Matthew 19:13-15)

It is, at least from my perspective, by far the most unpredictable part of our worship service.

I’m referring, of course, to our weekly “Ministry with the Children,” also known in many churches as the “Children’s Sermon;” and while, as I’m sure you are very much aware, as a pastor I’ve always enjoyed that part of the service and can’t imagine it not being a part of our worship, I have also learned that you have to come into this time with our churches’ children expecting the unexpected!

Oh, yes, many has been the time when I had a perfectly good, reasonably well-prepared message planned, but that wasn’t what the kids wanted to talk about that day!  And then there are countless moments when one random comment or question from one random kid completely undoes anything and everything I was trying to get across!  For instance, there was the time, years ago, when during advent I was trying to talk to the children about “preparing the way” for the coming of the Lord only to be wholly derailed by the little redheaded sparkplug who announced to the entire congregation that his whole family had helped to put up a Christmas tree, that is, everybody except for his father who, said the little boy, was “just sitting around drinking a beer!”  Oh, and did I mention his Dad, one of the Deacons of that church, was right there slinking in the pew amid the riotous laughter?  Suffice to say from there on, nobody was hearing the words of the prophet Isaiah!

On the other hand, I can tell you of “holy moments” that came about because of the unpredictability of a children’s ministry:  like the day, again years ago, the little boy shared with us all that his Mom and Dad were getting a divorce; something that none of us, myself included, knew about up until that moment but which allowed for the whole church to embrace that family with much needed love and prayer.  Or like how we were able, on the children’s level, to faithfully deal with the loss of some much beloved members of our church family, or to respond to the aftermath of 9/11.  Or simply those incredible days when you discover that despite your best efforts, a solid biblical truth got through to those kids in a way you could have never planned for; and moreover, it turned out that they remembered it, even years later as adults!  And that certainly makes all the ever-present potential of derailment worthwhile for me!

What’s interesting, you know, is that while the idea of including children in the life of the church is as old as the church itself (indeed, from that very moment in our gospel reading when Jesus rebuked his all-too proper disciples for trying to scurry the children away from him!), having a children’s “sermon,” per se, hasn’t always been a part of the landscape of our worship. There are actually a lot of theories I could offer for that:  one may be that because “back in the day” a lot of churches kept the hours of Sunday School and Morning Worship separate and children were not necessarily encouraged to come to worship until they were of a certain age!  Even in a couple of the churches I served where worship happened at the same hour as Sunday School there was often a distinction made between Sunday School and “big church” with it being a red letter day when they would be allowed in worship!

Over the past few decades, however, I think we’ve come to understand how important it is for children to have both the opportunity to learn about God and the experience of worship together with their families; and that’s where a children’s ministry has become a fairly regular part of our time together.  And thank the Lord for it!  I think you’ll agree with me when I say that having the kids we have here, ministering unto them even as they minister unto us, is a good part of what gives our life together here at East Church its vitality and its purpose.  It’s so often said that they are the future of the church; well, let me just repeat what I truly believe and have said quite often myself: that these kids are not just our future, they are our present, and we would do well to remember that!

I don’t have to tell you that these days across the church spectrum the whole concept of Sunday School, children’s ministries and even including children’s sermons in the liturgy of our worship has fallen on difficult times; sadly, a lot of churches have come to the point, what with dwindling numbers and budget cuts, where they’ve been forced to give up on it altogether.  And you know the reasons: some of it comes down to how busy families have become in these days; the reasons for which include economics and the necessity for two income families, the preponderance of Sunday sports and other activities, the fact that there’s so much competition for time and attention out there, and on and on it goes.  But it’s more than that; quite frankly, oftentimes things like Sunday School and children’s worship has just ceased to be a priority in the lives of families, an even at times, the church itself.

That’s pretty sad, and ultimately tragic, especially when one considers that most people who discover their Christian faith will do when they’re children and as they’re growing up!  Or, to put this another way, consider the words of Wilbert M. Van Dyk of the Reformed Church of America:  “The church must attend to the spiritual nurture of its children.  A congregation that neglects to ‘feed the lambs’ fails in a critical responsibility that Christ has laid on his church.” That’s a pretty sobering assessment, but it speaks to a great truth and an even greater responsibility:  we need to understand, you and me sitting in these pews, that right here is one of the most important places our children have to come and learn about a God who loves them completely, just as they are; this is where they will build a lifelong relationship with Jesus Christ; this is where they will begin to be inspired and led by God’s Holy Spirit.  This is where the lifelong journey of faith and service begins.

But let me just add here that this Christian nurture isn’t wholly the responsibility of the families of these young people; it in fact, belongs to each one of us here. As we have been saying throughout this sermon series, you and I are “made to worship.”  But understand that our worshipping together every Sunday is not simply for our own benefit; it also holds great implications for those who are around us, most especially for the youngest members of our church family.  Each and every one of us in this room are responsible for the spiritual upbringing of the children of this church.  It’s part of the responsibility we took on at the time of their baptism; it’s what we promise to do as people of faith and disciples of Jesus Christ!  And things like Sunday School, children’s sermons, Christmas pageants and even a few silly songs are a part of that!

So what do we tell the children… about God, about Jesus, about the Bible, and about faith?  Well, in the words of our Old Testament reading today, we want their hearts to keep God’s commandments “so [they] will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and of people.” And in that, we do want them to grow up with some understanding of scripture, so that they might have some reverence for God’s Word and begin to have a sense of how the Bible speaks to them in their lives.  We want to tell them all about what it means to live life as a believer, and how to stand strong in God’s love and his peace and his strength and his joy in whatever challenges come their way.  We want them to know the joy of being part of the church, the Body of Christ, both here at East Church and in other communities of faith wherever they happen to go in their lives and living.  And we want them, in whatever path they follow on their journeys of faith, to ever and always be about the work of God’s kingdom.

Mostly, however, we want to tell them they are ever and always loved beyond measure and unconditionally.  John Claypool, in his book Stories Jesus Still Tells, writes about trying to put his four-year-old to bed while she took three trips to the bathroom, asked for a drink of water, wanted another story and all the rest of the stalls that go with bedtime for a preschooler (it was part of what we in our family used to refer to as “zoo time!”).  Claypool wrote that finally, he thought he’d gotten his daughter settled down to sleep, but no… soon enough here was his daughter standing at the living room door.  “‘Laura, what do you want me to do?’ he asked with more irritation in his voice than he wanted to betray.  She padded into the room and grabbed his arm.  ‘Nothing, Daddy.  I just want to be close to you.’” (quoted from Mike Yaconnelli’s book “Getting Fired for the Glory of God.”)

I cannot convey to you often or strongly enough just how very important our ministry with the children is here at East Church, and I cannot stress enough how crucial it is that each one of us here share in that ministry through Sunday School, in the Youth Group or in special events like the Christmas pageant.  But may I say to you now that as children of God and disciples of Christ – and, in that, the hands and heart of Jesus himself – the best thing you can be doing is simply to “be close” to these children; to teach them your faith and show them the love of the Lord simply by who you are!

That might be the best by-product of our Christian worship, and the most shining example of a thankful heart I could name for you today.

So let us love, nurture and enable our children in the name of Jesus Christ.  And may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2018 in Ministry, Sermon, Sermon Series, Worship

 

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The Lessons We Share

10471158_814195258599841_7719467859240146499_nIn what I suppose could easily be described as a pastor’s version of a “busman’s holiday,” while on my recent summer vacation I was asked if I might step in and lead a graveside memorial service at the cemetery in my home town.  In the interest of full disclosure (and proper pastoral ethics), I should add here that I wouldn’t have ordinarily been asked to do this; but as it happened, the family’s pastor had concluded her ministry at their church just a few days before and had already left the state; the funeral director, a long-time friend and neighbor on the lake, was in dire need of clergy and knew I was available (!); and, as it turned out, this service would include a great many people from that town and congregation where I grew up, some of whom I hadn’t seen in well over 30 years.

So how could I say “no” to that?

It ended up a rather moving experience for me, as before and after the service I was greeted with smiles and tears by old friends who, each in their own way, were instrumental in the nurturing of my Christian faith as a youth, as well as in the discernment and cultivation of my own call to ministry:  the Sunday School teacher who brought scripture to life by coming to our classroom dressed as biblical figures; the Deacon and “Deaconess” (as they were known then!) who recommended that I be granted “in-care” status (as that used to be known) by the Aroostook Association of the United Church of Christ; the woman with whom I once sang in the choir and who, as a UCC lay minister in her own right, in my early years of ministry became a valued colleague in many a wedding, funeral and worship service; and so many others – old neighbors, former classmates and family friends – people who opened up a floodgate of memories for me; and who, whether they knew it or not, shared a great many lessons of life, faith and ministry that I still carry with me all these many years later.

This past week at East Church was “Homecoming Sunday,” which traditionally marks the beginning of a new year of Sunday School; and so, much of our service on Sunday was purposefully and joyfully “child friendly.”  Our opening hymn was “It Is Good,” an epic children’s song about God’s Creation with a chorus that will, I promise you, stay in your head forever (!); and the Children’s Message for the day had to do with “imitating God” in all things, and featured truly horrendous animal imitations on the part of this pastor (the highlight was when one of the kids asked me, “How do you even keep a straight face when you do that?”). Afterward, the children met with their teachers, and together they developed a classroom covenant in which they promised, among other things, to “treat other people how they’d like to be treated.”  There were stories, games and even an after-church pizza luncheon with the whole church family.

And all through the day there was laughter, and love, and above all, faith shared and nurtured.

As of late there has been much written on the so-called “blogosphere” and elsewhere about Christian Education and Children’s Ministry in this current age; the gist of these articles being that the traditional model of Sunday School is long since outmoded.  These articles inevitably speak of how much the world, culture and the family dynamic has changed over the last 25 years (which is true); how stressed-out and time-poor today’s average family has become (also true); how churches need to minister to families as they are today, not how they were (or at least how we perceived them to be) years ago when Sunday School classrooms were usually filled to overflowing (sadly, yes).

Granted, these ministries have fallen on hard times in our churches; but the answer is not, as some have opined, that we simply let go of the idea of Sunday School altogether.  On the contrary; it seems to me that now is the time for broadening our understanding of Christian Education; for churches to embrace the idea that to truly nurture the faith of the next generation of believers requires a holistic approach; in which we welcome our children, youth and seeking adults into the whole life and experience of the church: a ministry that certainly includes Sunday School, yes; but also involves worship and fellowship as an experience that involves the whole congregation, that includes shared mission and outreach as a caring community, and which ever and always emphasizes the mutual care and support that comes in being part of a family of faith.

More simply stated, the lessons we’ve learned as Christians and as the church are the very lessons we need to teach to our children. Sometimes those lessons do come in the form of goofball songs, bible stories and arts and crafts that happen in an hour on a Sunday morning; it might happen in a moment of prayer and reflection at a worship service; or else it’ll be found in the warm smile and loving embrace of the person sitting next to at the pot-luck dinner.  But make no mistake, these will be the lessons that our kids will remember, and which will take root in their hearts as they grow in faith…

…and years later, whether they know it or not, these will be lessons they will share with their own children.

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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