First lesson: Philippians 2:1-4
Children: I Samuel 1:1-20
I do love the book of Philippians! And I love how it was written. I have this picture in my mind. The apostle Paul is sitting in prison somewhere, maybe in Rome though we can’t be positive about that, and probably in about the year 60 or 63 or so. In other words about thirty years after Jesus’death. He is writing to the church he founded in the Philippi, in Greece, about ten years earlier.
We’ve talked about that little church in Philippi and the business owner named Lydia and her friends who met for worship beside the river there. It was the first Christian Church in Europe as you recall. The first time the story of Jesus ever came to Europe. And you remember how Paul and his companion Silas met with Lydia and her friends beside the river and introduced them to Jesus. Shortly after that, Paul and Silas were thrown into prison there in Philippi and you remember how Paul baptized the jailor and his entire family right there at their home in the middle of the night. (I’m skipping over a great deal here.) And the next morning he left – on his way to the next town down the road. He may have been there for a few days or maybe a couple of weeks. But a little church had been formed there, with a business woman named Lydia and her friends and a jailor as a nucleus of that little church. And Paul stayed in touch with them, lovingly, through the years. They sent gifts to him through messengers and he received them gratefully.
And now he’s in prison, writing to them. The reason for this letter is that they have sent him another gift – brought to him by Epaphroditus. Now think about that for a moment. Presuming that Paul was indeed in prison in Rome, that’s a trip of 800 miles. Maybe he walked or road a horse overland, for most of the way. Or maybe he found passage on a ship carrying freight on the Mediterranean sea between Greece and Rome. But 800 miles in 800 miles. In ancient times.
And think about this. Those were the years when Nero was emperor in Rome. You remember Nero. He’s the man who took great pleasure in tying Christians to poles throughout his garden. And then he would set them on fire to provide light for his elegant garden parties. Among other things too awful to mention. That Nero. And Paul is in prison, awaiting trial. He knows that he may be sentenced to death and he speaks about his death when he writes this letter.
I picture that he’s sitting in a cold, damp mostly stone cell, perhaps chained hand and feet to a Roman soldier standing guard over him.(As he sometimes was.) He’s been given a piece of parchment and somebody had brought him something to write with. Maybe he’s wearing the warm cloak that Timothy had brought to him, and he would have needed it in the cold dampness of his cell. If we read between the lines we suppose that Timothy – his co-worker whom he loved like son, was somewhere nearby with him. He’s sitting hunched over at some sort of table, writing and pouring out his heart to the congregation he loves. He says, “I thank God every time I think of you and my prayers for you are joyful prayers.” He says, “You share in God’s grace with me and I long for you.” It’s a love letter to a congregation from a man facing his death.
But he’s also pained. Because he has heard that there has been conflict in that church. Two of the leaders in the church – two women – hard workers in the church – his strong companions there - Euodia and Syntyche - have somehow been at odds with each other. And that hurts Paul’s heart. We don’t know who these women were or what they were at odds about. I can only wonder if they were two of the women who met with Lydia beside the river – the very first members of that congregation.
So he writes to them and the love he has for them pours out of every word he says. He reminds them of another way of living. These days we would say that he’s giving them a picture of what spiritual leaders look like. They are people who have let go of their anxiety in continual prayer. They surrender all their pain to God, and all their hard questions that they don’t have answers for and all their fears. And the peace of God flows in and under and around and through them. They have learned how to be thankful in every circumstance (and Paul was their model in that.) He encourages them to fill their minds and their lives and their moments with things that are true and noble. He asked them to concentrate on what is lovely and admirable and excellent. He reminds them to center their thoughts on positive praise instead of negative thoughts and nasty comments.
Now this is contrary to our normal pattern. We prefer to plan our lives our own way rather than give them to God. We prefer to worry about our finances and our jobs and our families and our health rather than give them to God. We have a tendency to think the worst of people and talk about their faults among our friends and coworkers. We’d rather focus on what is dirty and ugly than on what is beautiful. We prefer complaining over gratitude. We prefer sloppiness over excellence. So what Paul is talking about requires a real a transformation of our spirits.
But there’s a great benefit in that transformation. Because then Paul says, when that’s what your life is, when that’s how you look, you’ll be full of peace. The peace of God will surround you. I like to say that you’ll live your life in a bubble of blessing.
So let me tell you about my mother. These are her favorite Bible verses. She has lived her entire life with these verses as her companion and she has repeated them to me often. She’s 94 years old, now, and in a wheelchair most of the time. But she is gracious and grateful as she has been all her life. For sixty years she was the wife of a pastor and she was his partner in every way. The churches he served were large ones and she visited the sick and troubled with him. She led the women’s Bible study group for years and years and sang in the choir and taught Vacation Bible School every summer. She surrounded her life in prayer and she knew the scripture well.
There were no hotels or motels in the very small town where we lived and no real restaurants either. But we lived in a large three story manse. So my mother hosted hundreds of people in our home for cake and coffee and often times entire meals – and overnight - often on very little notice. I remember one day when one family of six had been staying with us for a whole week. She had been putting food on the table for all of them and cleaning up after all of them for three meals a day for a whole week. By that time the cupboard was bare, but more to the point, she was exhausted from it all. She gave me a ten dollar bill and told me to take them all to our village drug store for ice cream cones for lunch. She raised a huge garden full of vegetables which she canned and served to our guests all winter long. The baker in our town knew about all of this and saved day old pastries for her and she served them graciously. She provided hospitality for people from all over the world, often for several days a time. Sometimes she and I could barely get the sheets and pillow cases washed and back on the beds in time between housefuls of guests.
My mother had a way of knowing who was troubled, and who needed some support and she gave it, graciously and quietly, and they loved her for it. She knew people who were hard and hurtful, and she always spoke kindly to them. She knew people who were selfish and self-centered and she was unfailingly gentle with them. She knew people who were negative and nasty and she served them coffee and her really, really good apple pie around our kitchen table. There were people who abused her kindness and took advantage of her and I can remember some of them, but she can’t. If she ever got angry she did it only the presence of my dad, and I never heard it. I truly do not recall that my mother ever spoke an untrue or unkind word about anybody and instead, she always found the best in people and brought out the good in them. She taught us all to put the best construction on somebody else’s words and to try to understand why somebody may have said what they did. My mother cared for her parents in their later years and for my father’s parents – always lovingly and faithfully and creatively. And in the midst of all that she raised three children including one daughter who thought she knew everything (me) and who must have tried her patience severely.
My mother truly does center her life around what is true, and noble, and right and pure and lovely and admirable. She truly does think about what is excellent and praiseworthy. And she lets the rest fall away. She gives it little thought and goes on with her life serenely and steadfastly being good and doing good in all the places she can. I love her for that, and I honor her. She truly does live the words that Paul wrote to the church he loved in Philippi.
And so we can we.
First Lesson Matthew 26:17-30
Children’s story – II Kings 5:1-19
World Communion Sunday
I almost never talk about the book of Revelation, because the truth is that I do not understand much of it. In fact I have often said that when I am 90 years old and sitting in a wheelchair in a nursing home, I’ll finally have the time to study up and learn about the book of Revelation and maybe then maybe I’ll dare to talk about it. Until then, I say very little about that complex and mysterious book.
But I do see this picture, from the words we have just read and from the verses before that. I see a throne with a person sitting on it. The one on the throne reminds me of precious gem stones – orange-red carnelian, and dark red jasper. And there’s a rainbow around the throne that reminds me of deep green emeralds. And the more I look the more I see more thrones and people on those thrones dressed in brilliant white robes and they are surrounded by flaming torches. And I see a sea there – maybe more like a river - that looks like moving, flowing crystal coming from the throne of God.
And I see Jesus, looking like a lamb that was slaughtered and around him I see thousands and thousands of angels singing in a massive joyful powerful chorus: “Worthy is the lamb who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise.” And then I see that all the millions and millions of creatures who ever lived in the seas or on land or in the sky join in the song to praise the Lamb who was dead and now is alive forever more. Singing at the tops of their voices to Jesus who is now their king.
And then I see the people – an uncountable number of people from every country of the world, including places that I’ve never heard of and places that I don’t know where they are and places that don’t exist anymore. There are people from every tribe all over Africa and Asia and every tribe in this country. I hear a happy, holy, hubbub as all of them are speaking in their own languages. They are speaking in French and Spanish and Portuguese and Dutch and Chinese and Japanese and Greek and Turkish and Hindi. They are singing in Navajo and the people from Indonesia are speaking in Tagalog and the ones from Thailand are singing in Thai and Karen and the folks from Syria are speaking in Arabic dialects.
I see young brown boys and girls from Itapagipe Presbyterian church in Salvador, in Brazil. And I see their mothers joining in the grand celebration. Those children in Salvador dig into huge garbage piles in the city and bring home food for their mothers to prepare for supper every evening. And my friend Cecilia Valdivieso teaches cooking classes to the mothers so they can make nutritious meals for their families from other peoples’ garbage. There they are – those Brazilian children singing to Jesus. I see the Presbyterian women from Thailand and their Pastor, Sirirat Pusurinkham. Those women make beautiful handmade clothing and sell their vests and jackets and purses so that they don’t have to work in sweat shops like Nike and so that their children don’t have to be sold into sex slavery. And I see the women and men from the Presbyterian Church in Wum, in Cameroon, with their beautiful black faces and dressed in their colorful dresses and shirts. Safe water has recently come to their village thanks to Presbyterians in Michigan. Now they don’t have to walk several miles every day for safe water. Now they can bring their water pails to the spigots in a central place in their village and take it home with them. They are singing to Jesus in this immense, uncountable company. And I see my cousin Lars-Göran in the magnificent old cathedral in Stockholm and all the Bishops of Sweden in their flowing white robes and their elaborate head pieces and beautiful ornate gold vestments. They are singing their songs to Jesus and mingling among the others. I see refugees from Syria and Afghanistan and Pakistan – men and women and children – glad and grateful and thronging around Jesus’ table I see men and women and children from Jamaica and Ghana and Kenya with their black skin and their bright turbans and their brilliant clothing. I hear their tambourines and drums and I see them clapping and swaying their bodies in rhythm to the song. I see men and women from Wales, looking much like us, and especially the men, singing the way only Welsh men can sing in perfect multi-part harmony. I see Korean women wearing their long billowing dresses in bright yellow and bright orange, and I see Korean peasants wearing the pajama like clothing they wear to work in the fields, sometimes in slave conditions. But this time they are not bending down and this time their backs are not breaking because this time they are singing with all their might to that slaughtered lamb now on his glorious throne. They are all singing in the languages they know best and somehow we all understand each other.
And I see Jesus, inviting us all to the Table he has prepared for us. Inviting us to the Feast he has made ready for us. Eating bread and drinking wine with us as he promised he would. A great multitude of people – which nobody can begin to count. Men and women and children from the north and south and east and west – all sitting down at the Table with Jesus. I see the colors of their faces and the colors of their clothing and I hear them all joined in singing in languages I cannot begin to know - and praising and loving and adoring Jesus. That Lamb that was slaughtered and rose again to the rule the world in great glory. And who sits at the Table in that boisterous company of all his children from all over the world.
We are Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic and Anglican and Baptist and Assemblies of God and United Methodists and Lutherans and Presbyterians and Episcopalians and Pentecostals. We surely don’t agree on everything about our faith, and in fact we’ve had our share of fights with each other down through the centuries. Almost as soon as Jesus rose again and went back into heaven we have had bitter arguments about which of us knew him best and believed in him best and used the right words to describe him. Down for two thousand years of that. But on this we do agree: That Jesus, who was dead is alive again and is Lord of the Universe. We bow down to him and we raise our hands to him and we join him at his Table, in profound gratitude.
And almost as soon as Jesus rose again and went back into heaven the peoples of the world have been fighting with each other – sometimes going to war in his name. We have proudly announced that God was on our side and we have bombed each other to pieces. The Germans have bombed the Dutch and the Russians are attacking the Syrians and the Americans have attacked the Iraqis and pretty much every county that has bomb has used it on their neighbors and those who don’t have bombs have used their own evil weapons. We have slaughtered each other with evil cruelty and often for the wrong reasons. And we have built walls, literally built walls to keep our neighbors out.
But here we all together, around Jesus’ Table. Eating and drinking with him, and singing at the top of our lungs to him, and thanking him for what he has done for us – all of us together. Never mind the colors of our faces. Never mind the languages we speak or the countries we come from. Never mind our past political histories and wars with each other. Never mind our fights over doctrines. We are all together, at Jesus’ table this morning. In one boisterous, holy hubbub.
And I see us – members of this congregation, gathered with all the others who love Jesus around this Table in this house that you have built for God. Joining in the praise and reading the prayers from God’s people in so many other places and singing their songs and swaying to their music and there are even tambourines.
So come to this Table and receive the blessing and the love which Jesus has poured out for us here.