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.