September 25, 2011 Gospel: Matthew 21:23-32 Psalm 25:1-9
1st Reading: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 2nd Reading: Philippians 2:1-13
I can really appreciate Paul’s comments in his letter to the Philippians this morning, “Just as you have always obeyed me, not just in my presence, but much more now in my absence…” It is kind of a tongue in cheek comment, since the Philippians weren’t doing very well being faithful in Paul’s absence. I couldn’t help but relate thinking of my upcoming absence and hoping for your steadiness and faithfulness while I am away. Not that I need you to obey me, but that I need you to keep on listening to God and obeying God and also keep this place running.
I can appreciate Paul’s approach. He starts with why we’re all here. “If there is any…encouragement, consolation, sharing, compassion, or sympathy in Christ…” Well, of course someone is going to pick one or more out of that list. Even if church is not going well at all, in order to keep people there, one or more out of that list has to be happening. And I would hope that as we look through that list, we’d see several that we’d found to be true at King of Kings. So let’s say we all agree that something good is coming out of our relationship with Christ and our work in this congregation, just as the people of Philippi could find at least one of those good things happening at their church. We all agree then so we can go to the “then” of the “if…then” clause.
If that’s true, then Paul asks that the members complete his joy. How could they refuse him? He had been imprisoned for his faith. He was in a terrible situation because he had brought them the good news—arrested as a criminal and held in chains and still writing to encourage them, despite all that.
I’d like to ask the same of you—make my joy complete. Do you want to make me happy? Look at me, asking for your cooperation and continued participation. Who of you would tell me, no, that you aren’t going to continue on in faithfulness while I am away, working for the Gospel and keeping this church and your fellow members strong and our ministries making a difference in the neighborhood? And it is in your interest to keep on working for the Gospel, because in many ways this is even more your church than mine.
If you want to make Paul happy, he asks you to put on the mind of Christ. Get a brain-transplant and put Christ’s brain inside your own head. Start thinking how Christ would think. And he outlines some of what that would mean. Look to other’s interests rather than your own. Be selfless. Don’t take advantage of other people. Use your privileges to help others. Empty yourselves and give up some things you’d prefer in order to help others. Trust God fully. Be willing to face death as well as all the scary places in life that make you think you’re going to die. Confess Jesus Christ and worship him. And follow through on your commitments.
This description of Paul’s is about all the things we believe about Jesus and reminds us of who he is for us. This is one of the very first creeds, like the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed. It is a statement of what is most important in our faith and what we need to remember for when our community is arguing or our leader is absent or we just need to stay on track. And it should describe us as his followers if we really believe in him. I think of the video last week with Shane Claiborn when he says that even the demons believed in Jesus. You can believe in Jesus and his power and not follow his ways. To be a Christian is more than believing. It is following.
So what can an imperfect people do with this overwhelming job description of Jesus’ that Paul is reminding them of while Paul is away? First, let’s remember this is a job description for the whole community. It isn’t for individuals. We can all do our part in fulfilling and following Jesus together. It doesn’t just rest on one person. Second, this job description sets us up to fail. We aren’t going to be able to do it. We are sinners. We aren’t Jesus. If we were, we wouldn’t need Jesus. It brings us to the very humility that it asks of us. We die a kind of death to the notion that we could do it. Instead, when we read all this, we realize we can’t do it, and we turn to Jesus who can and did. And we experience that forgiveness. We forgive ourselves. We forgive each other. We are raised with him in a way to new life. So we move forward in that state of forgiveness to try to live a new way that comes close to this job description, but also gives us that feeling of freedom instead of failure.
Soon I will be leaving you temporarily. I have a list of things I’d like you to do, that I have been preparing you for. I have to say you have showed a level of commitment that impresses me, following through on visitation and using what you learned in the Children’s Message refresher course. You aren’t just saying what I want to hear like the first son in the vineyard. You have more than just good intentions. Most of you have been here a lot longer than I have and have the experience of taking up the slack when there has been an interim or in the time when your new pastors have been getting to know you.
When I say, “Make my joy complete,” I have on that list that you would keep coming to church. It isn’t that church is going to get you to heaven or make everything right in the universe. I’d like you to keep coming because at church we get reminders of why we are people of faith. We see that good that can be done for others. We remember what is most important to us. We also get strength and encouragement, being here. The ancient stories combined with the current ones of good friends, help us keep moving forward on our journey of faith and keep us going when we feel discouraged. There is accountability here at church. We aren’t just living for ourselves, but as part of a community and we get to check in about how we’re carrying the good news to the neighborhood through donations or smiles or volunteering or in our work.
When I go into labor, after I’ve made that call to the Church Council President or Nick does, I’m pretty sure my mind will be elsewhere. I am preparing myself to place you and this congregation entirely in God’s hands. And although I will be praying for you and thinking of you now and then in the weeks while I am away, I will treasure that time to concentrate on my new family and my new role and getting some sleep and having patience. I will not be fretting about you, because I know only you can decide whether to follow through and knowing you that you will for the most part and when you can’t you will forgive yourself and others will forgive you and you’ll all move forward anyway.
I’m sure you’ll want to be here, to experience the different preachers we’ll have, to experience worship in a different way. Heck, I’m sorry to miss some of what you’re going to hear and see. You’ll want to get in on the work that will still be going on because it is God’s work, and God working through you, rather than being my work as your pastor. I also encourage you to be here, regardless of whether you feel like it or not, because that’s part of putting others before yourself and emptying yourself in that job description. You have a community that needs you here. Even if you think you’d rather have the sleep, there may be someone here that only you know the right words to say to, or only your hand squeeze could console them, or only your smile could make their day. So come for each other and support each other and make God’s joy complete.