First Congregational Church
May 11, 2014
Fourth Sunday after Easter
“JOY - Jesus, Others, You: What It Is; What It Ain’t”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
In case you missed the acronym in the title, if you take the letters in the word joy, line them up vertically, j would stand for Jesus, o for others and y for you. It’s a perfect acronym for summing up this morning’s scripture passage. Last week we started a four week series on Philippians, convenient for the four chapters of the book/letter and the four weeks of May. Having the passage read from Eugene Peterson’s version, The Message, made chapter 1 leap off the page, far more as a personal letter than many of us have heard scripture before. So if it’s a letter, it seems only right that we hear the same voice to keep the flow and continuity.
Philippians 2 The Message
1-4 If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.
5-8 Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
9-11 Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.
12-13 What I’m getting at, friends, is that you should simply keep on doing what you’ve done from the beginning. When I was living among you, you lived in responsive obedience. Now that I’m separated from you, keep it up. Better yet, redouble your efforts. Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God. That energy is God’s energy, an energy deep within you, God himself willing and working at what will give him the most pleasure.
14-16 Do everything readily and cheerfully—no bickering, no second-guessing allowed! Go out into the world uncorrupted, a breath of fresh air in this squalid and polluted society. Provide people with a glimpse of good living and of the living God. Carry the light-giving Message into the night so I’ll have good cause to be proud of you on the day that Christ returns. You’ll be living proof that I didn’t go to all this work for nothing.
17-18 Even if I am executed here and now, I’ll rejoice in being an element in the offering of your faith that you make on Christ’s altar, a part of your rejoicing. But turnabout’s fair play—you must join me in my rejoicing. Whatever you do, don’t feel sorry for me.
19-24 I plan (according to Jesus’ plan) to send Timothy to you very soon so he can bring back all the news of you he can gather. Oh, how that will do my heart good! I have no one quite like Timothy. He is loyal, and genuinely concerned for you. Most people around here are looking out for themselves, with little concern for the things of Jesus. But you know yourselves that Timothy’s the real thing. He’s been a devoted son to me as together we’ve delivered the Message. As soon as I see how things are going to fall out for me here, I plan to send him off. And then I’m hoping and praying to be right on his heels.
25-27 But for right now, I’m dispatching Epaphroditus, my good friend and companion in my work. You sent him to help me out; now I’m sending him to help you out. He has been wanting in the worst way to get back with you. Especially since recovering from the illness you heard about, he’s been wanting to get back and reassure you that he is just fine. He nearly died, as you know, but God had mercy on him. And not only on him—he had mercy on me, too. His death would have been one huge grief piled on top of all the others.
28-30 So you can see why I’m so delighted to send him on to you. When you see him again, hale and hearty, how you’ll rejoice and how relieved I’ll be. Give him a grand welcome, a joyful embrace! People like him deserve the best you can give. Remember the ministry to me that you started but weren’t able to complete? Well, in the process of finishing up that work, he put his life on the line and nearly died doing it.
Thank you, Andy. Congregationalism - from it’s roots - doesn’t support creeds - mostly because a creed is a shared statement of beliefs, and the Pilgrims believed that everyone had a brain, so they should come to their own conclusions. When there are confusing places in the Bible, we are to study them and figure them out for ourselves. The Nicene Creed (which deals with the idea of the Trinity) and the Apostle’s Creed (which deals with the divinity and humanity of Christ) and other such creeds take stances, to which one agrees or not. If there is an over-all Christian creed, it would mostly likely be from this chapter, and most specifically the last half of verse 5-11. Many of us are more familiar with our pew version of that section.
“have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Most weeks, regardless of time or commitment restraints, I try really hard to develop a flow of concepts. Obviously, if you’ve been around at all, sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. But this week, it seemed more like a pop-corn sort of week - a phrase that popped out here and another phrase that popped out there. There’s a logic theory called Occam’s Razor that is basically the idea of “the simple solution is usually the best.”
So in a deliberate dismissal of continuity, except in progression of our passage, and making more room for the Holy Spirit to do it’s thing, the first kernel is “agree with each other.” It’s an interesting phrase, because it doesn’t say ‘believe the same thing, or claim the same creeds. It could even mean to agree to disagree.
Be deep-spirited friends. Paul doesn’t say how many we need, but just that we need some folks in our lives that are safe to reveal our deepest hopes and fears - people that are Jesus with skin on. We need those folks to share the load so that unloading our burdens on one person doesn’t bury that person under a pile of “stuff.” A team of two oxen can pull a lot more than just one. But the power behind a team of four oxen or even six is nothing to get in the way of. (And yes, I just violated the prepositional ending rule violation.)
Put yourself aside. Paul doesn’t say to be a door-mat, allowing people to walk all over you and stomp on you.
“help others get ahead” We mistakenly believe that diversity is the enemy of unity. Yet God's Word teaches us that selfishness, not diversity, is the opponent of an atmosphere of unity.
“Be energetic in your life of salvation.” Who of us ever thought about our faith being energetic, much less a reverent and sensitive energy? “Go out into the world uncorrupted, a breath of fresh air in this squalid and polluted society.” If there isn’t motivation there, then allow me a cuff to the back of your head, Jethro Gibbs from NCIS style. I know, some days we don’t feel so energetic. Thank goodness it’s not our energy that propels us, but God’s. It’s interesting, too, that not all of society is squalid and polluted, Mr. Apostle Paul.
Be cheerful - no bickering. But by the grace of God, there go we. At least if there’s a high level of bickering going on here, I’m completely immune to it, out of touch, and should hang up the ministry robe. Bickering may well be one of the top ten reasons people are ‘spiritual but not religious,’ meaning that they believe God but don’t do church. If only we could invent a bickering filter, we could help a lot of churches and we could raise some cash. But then, what church needs cash?
“Being in a community of the Spirit,” or as the New International version says, ”If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ:" A couple of gentlemen, Matthew Heard and Randy Umfleet, wrote this about being “united in Christ.” “Take an inventory of your church or a fellowship group you have visited recently. You can usually tell quite quickly if a person or a church is encouraged by the reality that they are united to Christ. If they are, it will show in their relationships!” (That’s true in and outside the church, by-the-way.)
Paul says, “I plan (according to Jesus’ plan.”)…. The former Pharisee Saul, now apostle Paul, like any of us, had a high potential for high-horse syndrome, and could have forgotten the order: Jesus first, others second, Paul third, which would be Jop, not Joy, but you understand. So often we get that order mixed up - maybe most often reversed. When we get the order j-o-y right, that joy allows us to whistle even in the dark moments of life.
I so wish that all of you could “live” in this building as much as I have. It’s such joy to have people pop in, to hear people playing the piano or organ on occasion. But one of the most delightful moments come when I hear people whistling a tune of one kind or another. When people whistle a tune, they are usually in that happy place where the joy in their heart is sort of spilling over the brim. We don’t generally feel that way in our dark moments. But when it’s Christ’s joy in our hearts, we can whistle, even it’s a dirge or an “in-your-face” sort of whistle - “I will overcome!”. When we can whistle in the dark places, we are not defeated, and that’s what Christ’s joy helps us do.
So let us quickly pray before we take our joy out into the world. Gracious God of delight and joy, thank you for this time together today. For some of us, this message of joy is stocking up our heart’s larder, for those times when we need to remember the joy that marks our connection to you. For others, this message is hard, because pain or sorrow or disconnect or any of a million other reasons seem to divide our hearts. Help us, in those dark times, to remember that joy is not always about jumping up-and-down or out-of-control, that sometimes it’s a quiet joy, and that sort of joy is every bit as holy as any other. So help those who are struggling with joy this day, and lead each of us into ever greater joy as we pray these things in Jesus’ name. And all your kids say, Amen.
First Congregational Church
May 4, 2014
First Sunday after Easter, Holy Humor Sunday
“Easter, Holy Humor, Now What?”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Some of you may remember that when the Apostle Paul was out doing ministry, so that he wouldn’t be a burden on those with whom he stayed, his full-time job was as a tent-maker. But he also had another little-known occupation as a baker. The Apostle Paul became a baker when he went to the city - to Philippi.
For a long time, I’ve wanted to do a sermon series on the book of Philippians. Part of the reason is that it’s a short book. Secondly, with four chapters, it can fit nicely in a liturgical season - or can be the liturgical season. And yes, I’ve wanted to have a broader look at the book that contains my favorite scripture passage of all time - from chapter 4, verse 7. But what makes a study on Philippians so appropriate at just this time is because it focuses so much on joy, and what better time to look at joy than right out of Easter - right on the tails of Holy Humor Sunday?
It’s also been a while since we’ve heard large sections of scripture read aloud during worship. Some of you may read large sections at home, but probably not aloud. When we get those opportunities to look at large vistas, we do well to stay with them for a moment, to soak them in, and let them speak to the depths of our beings. It’s sort of a scriptural version of sitting on the Elberta bluff and looking at the full scene.
As Andy comes to the pulpit, I will remind you that the Apostle Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians under less than ideal circumstances: from prison —a place that begets pain, loneliness, and anxiety. Some of the prisons at that time were rather loose - the prisoners almost on an honor system to stay in the house. Others were pretty rugged - dank, dark, wet or moldy - in an old well. Imprisoned, Paul had experienced multiple losses: of freedom, of relationships, of much of his ministry, perhaps even of hope for his future. With all this context, the words of Philippians 1 seem to jump off the page with their joy.
Philippians 1 The Message
1-2 Paul and Timothy, both of us committed servants of Christ Jesus, write this letter to all the followers of Jesus in Philippi, pastors and ministers included. We greet you with the grace and peace that comes from God our Father and our Master, Jesus Christ.
A Love That Will Grow
3-6 Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God. Each exclamation is a trigger to prayer. I find myself praying for you with a glad heart. I am so pleased that you have continued on in this with us, believing and proclaiming God’s Message, from the day you heard it right up to the present. There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.
7-8 It’s not at all fanciful for me to think this way about you. My prayers and hopes have deep roots in reality. You have, after all, stuck with me all the way from the time I was thrown in jail, put on trial, and came out of it in one piece. All along you have experienced with me the most generous help from God. He knows how much I love and miss you these days. Sometimes I think I feel as strongly about you as Christ does!
9-11 So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush. Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God.
They Can’t Imprison the Message
12-14 I want to report to you, friends, that my imprisonment here has had the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of being squelched, the Message has actually prospered. All the soldiers here, and everyone else, too, found out that I’m in jail because of this Messiah. That piqued their curiosity, and now they’ve learned all about him. Not only that, but most of the followers of Jesus here have become far more sure of themselves in the faith than ever, speaking out fearlessly about God, about the Messiah.
15-17 It’s true that some here preach Christ because with me out of the way, they think they’ll step right into the spotlight. But the others do it with the best heart in the world. One group is motivated by pure love, knowing that I am here defending the Message, wanting to help. The others, now that I’m out of the picture, are merely greedy, hoping to get something out of it for themselves. Their motives are bad. They see me as their competition, and so the worse it goes for me, the better—they think—for them.
18-21 So how am I to respond? I’ve decided that I really don’t care about their motives, whether mixed, bad, or indifferent. Every time one of them opens his mouth, Christ is proclaimed, so I just cheer them on!
And I’m going to keep that celebration going because I know how it’s going to turn out. Through your faithful prayers and the generous response of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, everything he wants to do in and through me will be done. I can hardly wait to continue on my course. I don’t expect to be embarrassed in the least. On the contrary, everything happening to me in this jail only serves to make Christ more accurately known, regardless of whether I live or die. They didn’t shut me up; they gave me a pulpit! Alive, I’m Christ’s messenger; dead, I’m his bounty. Life versus even more life! I can’t lose.
22-26 As long as I’m alive in this body, there is good work for me to do. If I had to choose right now, I hardly know which I’d choose. Hard choice! The desire to break camp here and be with Christ is powerful. Some days I can think of nothing better. But most days, because of what you are going through, I am sure that it’s better for me to stick it out here. So I plan to be around awhile, companion to you as your growth and joy in this life of trusting God continues. You can start looking forward to a great reunion when I come visit you again. We’ll be praising Christ, enjoying each other.
27-30 Meanwhile, live in such a way that you are a credit to the Message of Christ. Let nothing in your conduct hang on whether I come or not. Your conduct must be the same whether I show up to see things for myself or hear of it from a distance. Stand united, singular in vision, contending for people’s trust in the Message, the good news, not flinching or dodging in the slightest before the opposition. Your courage and unity will show them what they’re up against: defeat for them, victory for you—and both because of God. There’s far more to this life than trusting in Christ. There’s also suffering for him. And the suffering is as much a gift as the trusting. You’re involved in the same kind of struggle you saw me go through, on which you are now getting an updated report in this letter.
Thank you, Andy. I was listening to a radio program this week that was debating the proposition: millennial’s don’t stand a chance. Those of you born between 1925 and 1945 are called the Silent Generation, those of us from 1946-1964 are known as Baby Boomers, 1965-1979 are labeled Generation X’s and those born since 1980 are the Millennials or Generation Y.
I didn’t get to finish the radio program, but I’ve had that statement running through my mind ever since I heard it. Maybe a good many of us can understand the creation of the sentiment, from the economy to politics to social media to name the hurdle. How would you encourage them - Millennials — not just in keeping their head above water, but that there might even be joy? Going back to our chapter for today, “There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish.” “I find myself praying for you with a glad heart.” As so many of us know, the power of praying for someone is huge - not only in our own soul and heart, but most especially in the heart and soul of those for whom we pray, even if they don’t fully appreciate what a big thing that is.
It also occurred to me that in our prayers, as we may thank God for certain individuals, we might - tell them that. Sometimes not asking anything of God, but simply thanking God for a person can deliver a hopeful joy that can’t come any other way. And yet, we are sometimes so reluctant to say so. If nothing else, our scripture passage this morning can gear us up to bless a soul that may need to know that they are appreciated simply for who they are.
The jewel of this chapter and its various promises and encouragements is that it is true for the Gen. Xs, the Boomers as well as the Silent Generation - which - of those I know - aren’t all that silent! It gives us a reminder to check our motivations - that we move to do what we do by pure love. If we realize that we are not doing what we do out of pure love, then we need to decide if a change of focus is needed. The big thing about keeping a check on our motivations is that we diminish our joy when we are motivated more by greed or “what’s in it for me.”
So what is the secret to Paul being able to write with such joy while in such dire straits? I think it’s because he’s confident that through his union with Christ, Paul would receive strength to cope with difficult circumstances. That was how he “lived in such a way that he was a credit to the Message of Christ.” It’s always so much easier to say than to do. But there’s a line in the middle of the last section from this chapter that makes it easier to do.
“Stand united, singular in vision, contending for people’s trust in the Message, the good news, not flinching or dodging in the slightest before the opposition.” “Stand united.” It doesn’t say “Stand alone.” or “Lay down.” or “Believe the same thing.” or any other oxymoronic command. “Stand united.”
When we don’t feel perfectly courageous, perfectly strong, perfectly joyous, we can lean on those among us so that our sufferings are shared. Some of us tend to think we are hiding our burdens, or that our situations are “private.” Respectfully, the thing is, we all have belly buttons.
Being so united also makes our shared joys all the greater. We often get a hint of that during the sharing of Joys and Concerns each week, and we know the joy when a big prayer is answered. So let us recommit ourselves as followers of Christ, united in Christ’s joy and strengthened in our struggles as we pray.
God of each moment and all people, we thank you for giving us the gifts of example, encouragement, joy and unity. Help each one of us lean into the yoke of your gospel, that we may be surprised by the joy in our faith and lives. For all your gifts and all your answers to prayers, all your people say Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.