Bible Text: Philemon 1:1-9 | Preacher: Pastor Rae | Hello Hedding Family! Welcome Home! It’s homecoming day! The Sunday after Labor Day is often celebrated as a new start to the church program year, a time to welcome people back from Summer vacation, and a time to invite new people into the church community. So welcome home! We’ll even have a barbeque after worship! For some of us gathered here, this has been a church home for many many years. For others, maybe this is your first time sitting in our pews. Either way, welcome home! I feel incredibly blessed to be with you and these last couple months have felt like a homecoming for me, too!
A couple weeks ago I went to visit one of our beloved members who has a hard time getting here for Sunday morning worship. She grew up here then raised her family here, enjoyed friends and fellowship here, and was involved in many different ways around the church. These days mobility and various ailments make it difficult to join us for morning worship, but it doesn’t keep her from thinking about her church family. I was particularly struck by her words when she told me that as she reflects back on her life, so many of her fondest memories are of this church. What a blessing. This has been a place and a family that has provided love and support, as well as given opportunities for growth and service. Here, she has been known and loved.
The truth is, we’re all looking for a place to call home, a place where we are known and loved because of, and in spite of, the fact that people know us. People look for the community that they need all the time. “Sometimes you want to go/Where everybody knows your name” Sometimes it is in a bar. Sometimes it’s in a country club. Sometimes it is in a bowling league or a gaming group or a book group or whatever. And sometimes these groups will go deep enough to be supportive during tough times, but not always and not by design.
Churches, by design, are meant to create deep communities of transformation. Churches, by design, and from the beginning, are meant to be like families.
The passage that we just read is from the shortest book of the Christian Testament. There have been a number of troublesome ways that this letter to Philemon has been read, but that’s not what I want to focus on today. Today I want to look at the words used in it to describe the people involved: brother, sister, son, father, my child. All of these were used for people who were not directly related to one another, but who had learned to think of one another as family. In fact, in verse two we see lifted up the early church’s common worship space: people’s homes.
The church was never meant to be a building, instead, the church family gathered in one another’s homes – like family. Somewhere along the way we went from calling ourselves “the church” to calling the building “the church.” But other things have changed over time, too. Somewhere along the way we started thinking that living in community was optional – like humans can survive without one another. We’ve also started to believe that living in community is easy…. Kind of like our culture has mistaken fairy tale “happily-ever-afters” as a blueprint for happy marriages. Community, like marriage, like family, takes work, takes compromise, takes putting up with idiosyncrasies that annoy us sometimes. It requires us to rely on one another and sometimes get let down by one another and it requires learning how to forgive and how to be forgiven. It takes a whole lot of trust – trust in one another and trust in the process. We’ve been promised that if we live in Christian community for long enough that we will be transformed.
In Methodist terms we call this transformation sanctification. It is the grace that God works upon us to transform our hearts so that we can learn to love perfectly as God loves us. Now let me tell you something. That sounds all lovely and stuff, loving as God loves, but the process to get there – sanctification – it ain’t pretty.
I like to joke (but it really isn’t a joke) that my children have been my primary sanctification. I prayed for patience and God gave me children. “You wanna learn patience, honey? Here, have a couple kids. That’ll learn ya.” Oh it’s so true. My children have been my teachers, they have taught me how to love. Remember the line from Mother Theresa last week? “Do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired.” I’m still learning, as you can imagine. I still get tired sometimes, and I still occasionally lose my temper. But I can look back and see that I’ve come an awful long way.
And that’s part of it. I’ve heard folks say things over the years in various circles about people who “claim to be christian.” I’ve heard things like “how can that person be a christian? They are so judgemental!” or “They are so cranky.” or “they aren’t very generous.” etc. But here’s the thing, we don’t know where that person started. Maybe they are far more generous than they’d ever been, or far less cranky than they were before. We’re all still learning, right?
So here we are, brothers and sisters – siblings of all genders – we’re a family, a community. It isn’t always going to be easy or pretty, but it will transform us. The longer we stay authentically in community the better known we will be and the more we will be loved and learn to be loving. There will be days when you want to quit. There will be days when you wish someone else would quit. But I’m telling you, stick with it. It’s hard work but it’s worth it. And it’s not all hard work. There will be moments of bliss, of joy, of laughter, and of contentment.
Whether you have been here since birth or this is your first time in our building, we hope that you will consider us your church family. We’re not perfect, but I’m guessing that you aren’t either – so, you should fit in just fine! Welcome home.