Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Sermon – “Finally, Beloved…” (Philippians 4:8-23)


I don’t think it was ulterior. However, there was a motive behind my choosing Paul’s letter to the Philippians for my last few weeks of preaching at Messiah. It was all so that we could come to the verses before us this morning, which begin, “Finally, beloved…” How do we sum up ten and a half years of journeying together in Christ—ten and a half years in which so much water has gone under our collective bridge here at Messiah and yet for me at least have gone by so unbelievably quickly? It seems like just yesterday that Karen and I were sitting towards the back of the sanctuary on a Sunday morning and asking ourselves, “Is this where God is leading us?” As we left the service and walked along Ford Parkway to our car, I well remember her words: “I think I could worship in that church.” And the rest is history.
Now here we are, “Finally…” It should come as no surprise to you after hearing me preach all these years that that word “finally” is not quite as final in the original Greek as it is in English. You will find it translated elsewhere in the New Testament in such ways as “furthermore” or “from now on” or “beyond that”.[1] I recognize that these are my final words to you as your rector, as part of that precious and hallowed relationship that we have enjoyed as congregation and pastor over more than a decade. Yet I want them not to be a retrospective but prospective, looking ahead to the future that God has in store for you. But first just a little retrospection…

Brothers and sisters

In our NRSV pew Bibles Paul addresses his readers as “beloved”. The word he actually uses is “brothers”—or, more accurately, “brothers and sisters” since he clearly intended to include not only the men but also the women in the congregation such as Euodia and Syntyche. While no doubt “beloved” is an appropriate way to address one’s fellow Christians, it seems to me that “brothers and sisters” says something that is considerably more profound, that describes us at a much deeper level.
Three Sundays ago the Gospel reading included the incident in which Jesus was teaching and healing and members of his family came looking for him. We read that Jesus responded, “ ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother’ ” (Mark 3:33-35). In these early weeks of Pentecost in the Eucharistic Prayer we have been making the acclamation,
Leader  We are brothers and sisters through his blood.
All         We have died together,
  we will rise together,
  we will live together.
Our reason for going back to Nova Scotia is to be reunited with members of our family—primarily our son, our daughter-in-law and three adorable grandsons. Yet what Jesus was teaching and what we affirm in that acclamation is that there is a bond that unites us more closely even than the ties of blood, and that is the blood of Christ. Karen and I first recognized that bond with Messiah when Gayle Miels and Paul Saxton came to visit us in Halifax and talk with us about Messiah. We knew that we were with kindred spirits and that sense only grew later that summer when we came to Saint Paul and met with members of the search team, the vestry, the staff and others. Now, a decade later, as we have gone through struggles and celebrations together on both individual and communal levels, those ties have only been strengthened and deepened.
While we will be separated by distance and eventually by death, neither of those barriers can break the deep and indissoluble bond that unites us in Christ. Paul was addressing the Philippians from a great distance, and yet still as brothers and sisters, whom he loved and longed for, his joy and his crown. “It is right for me to think this way about all of you,” he wrote, “because I hold you in my heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me”[2]—and that is the way Karen and I will always feel about you.

Think on … keep on

So it is, to these dear brothers and sisters, that Paul writes some of the most beautiful and inspiring words in all of Scripture:
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
I want to pause there for just a moment and smell the roses as it were, to breathe into our lungs the rich fragrance of each of those words.
·      “Whatever is true”—not just in the factual sense, but in the moral sense, the things that are true to God as he has revealed himself in Jesus Christ.
·      “Whatever is honorable”, that is, noble, reputable, lofty, majestic, magnificent, sublime.
·      “Whatever is just”: the word here can also mean “righteous” and is often translated that way. Eugene Peterson translates it as “authentic” and rightly so, as it has more to do with being in right relationships than with being right.
·      “Whatever is pure” can refer to chastity, but at its root it carries the sense of awakening awe, such as we find in Psalm 104: “Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all!”
·      “Whatever is pleasing”—attractive, winsome, admirable, lovely, compelling—being drawn to goodness wherever it is found. And here the opening verse of Psalm 19 comes to mind: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”
·      “Whatever is commendable”, which in the Old King James Version of the Bible was rendered “of good report”, that is, worth listening to, or again, as Eugene Peterson puts it, gracious.
·      “If there is any excellence”, and while we may rightly commend the excellence of a great athlete or artist, scholar or leader, what we are looking at here is really moral excellence, virtue. In the words of Psalm 1, “those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord.”
·      And finally, “if there is anything worthy of praise”—and here Paul means not so much human praise as what brings pleasure to the heart of God.
I took a few moments to see if I could find in the Bible what brings God delight and I came up with this list: uprightness, humility, repentance, thankfulness, purity, truthfulness, mercy, faith, generosity.[3] It sounds peculiarly like the list that Paul has already drawn up for us and given to the Philippians. And so, Paul says, think about these things. Reflect on them. Consider them. Focus on them. Concentrate on them. Probe them. Explore them. Fill your minds with them so that there isn’t room for anything else. It’s all summed up in words that we hear every week and that we will hear later on in this morning’s service: “Lift up your hearts.” To which we answer: “We lift them to the Lord.” And that is something we need to learn to do not just on Sunday mornings as we stand at the Lord’s Table. It is developing a whole posture of mind and heart that we carry with us into every situation, every circumstance, every area of life.
But then Paul says, “Don’t stop there!” Don’t just think: act. “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.” I have no need to tell you that the life of discipleship is not just a matter of learning to think in a certain way, but allowing the Holy Spirit to transform the whole of our lives. How many evidences of that have I seen at Messiah over the years, and long may it continue! One of my resolutions as I leave is that I may keep on doing the things that I have been privileged to learn and receive and hear from so many of you.

According to God’s riches

Paul began this passage by writing, “Finally…” Yet more than three hundred words later he still hasn’t finished what he wants to say. I have to admit that I identify with that. There is a part of me that wishes that our time together here at Messiah would never end. A couple of years ago when Bishop Russell Jacobus was preparing for his retirement from the Diocese of Fond du Lac, he told me that he had often wondered how he would know when the time had come. He shared this with another bishop whose wisdom he respected and who said to him, “You probably won’t be able point to anything specific, but you just will.” And so for me also the time has come. I could point to a number of specific factors—age and grandchildren among them. Yet more fundamentally than that, in spite of the regrets and the pain involved, I just know that this is the right time, for me and for all of us. But back to our passage this morning…
Before he concludes, Paul leaves the Philippians with one last gem. It comes in verse 19: “And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” As I leave Messiah, I do so with that assurance and I want to leave you with the same assurance. I am so grateful to be able to entrust the pastoral care of this church to Mary Gustafson, whom I believe the Lord has sent to us “for just a time as this”. I have every confidence in the leadership of our Wardens, Rachael, Mark and Anne, who not only share a deep commitment to Christ but carry out their office with wisdom, energy and a true servant heart. And the same may be said of our staff, Jeff, Paul, Ann, Janice, Judy, Bobbie and Lori, all of whom work tirelessly to serve not merely the organizational needs of the church (which they do!), but far more importantly, you its people, and above all Jesus, its Lord.
These have been a pivotal ten years. We have seen parishioners go and come. We have seen our building expand and every new corner be filled to accommodate more ministry. We have been challenged financially and yet have never lacked. We have survived General Conventions. We have pondered our place in the Episcopal Church. We have been blessed by the coming of our Karen brothers and sisters. Our life together has had its unexpected twists and turns. (And surely that is more often than not the way of God, isn’t it, who calls us to walk by faith and not by sight?) Yet who can deny that God’s gracious leading and provision have been evident throughout?
In my first sermon here exactly ten years and ten months ago, I concluded with these words:
My hope and prayer for you and me at Messiah is that we may grow as a community that has no doubt about the power of the gospel—that as we proclaim it and live it we may know daily the wonderful life-giving presence of Jesus in our midst and never be the same as a result.
While the path may not have been entirely smooth and there were bumps and potholes and even the occasional sidetrack along the way, I hope that that has been our experience together. It has certainly been mine and I will not leave this place or you people the same as when I came. But I do leave in full confidence that “my God will fully satisfy your every need according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus”.




[1]     See 1 Corinthians 1:16; Galatians 6:17; 1 Thessalonians 4:1 (KJV); 2 Timothy 4:8.
[2]     Philippians 1:7, alternative translation
[3]     See 1 Chronicles 29:7; Psalm 149:4; Psalm 51:17; Luke 15:7,10; Psalm 69:30,31; Proverbs 11:20; Proverbs 12:22; Micah 6:7,8; Micah 7:18; Hebrews 11:6; Philippians 4:18

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