Sunday, November 23, 2014

Barbara Moyer Lehman: A Prayer for the Church Today

Thanksgiving Sunday
Philippians 1:1-11

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While under house arrest in a secure place, probably in or near Rome around 60 A.D., the apostle Paul and his co-worker and scribe, Timothy, crafted a letter for the Christian believers at Philippi.  It is a beautiful letter that expresses deep affection and connection with this body of believers who were part of the first church Paul established on European soil.  It also included words of encouragement, gratitude, thankfulness, some admonition.  Overall the letter breathes JOY - CONFIDENCE - DEEP FAITH IN JESUS CHRIST.

This past summer (2014), I was not under house arrest, but was on a 3 month sabbatical in or near Harrisonburg.  One of my goals was to learn by heart the book of Philippians to ‘tell’.  I haven’t quite accomplished that goal, but I am still working on it.  As I immersed myself in this text, or ‘marinated in the scriptures’, as Dan Longenecker would describe it to ‘biblical storytellers’, I realized that these words were not only Paul’s words to his brothers and sisters at Philippi, but they felt more and more like my words, thoughts and prayers that I wanted to convey to my brothers and sisters here at PV, at least some of them.
So open your heart, mind and ears to hear Paul’s words from the first part of chapter 1 which are also my heart felt thoughts to you.

“From Paul and Timothy, (and Pastor Barbara), servants of Christ Jesus.
To all the saints, God’s holy people, in Christ Jesus at Philippi, (and Park View), together with the elders and overseers.
Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I thank my God every time I remember you.  In all of my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel with me from the first day until now.  I am confident of this that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you since I have you in my heart, and whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace, God’s mission with me.  God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight so that you may be able to discern what is best and so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness, those good qualities, that come through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God."

A paragraph of thanksgiving is pretty standard for Paul at the beginning of his letters, but this one is especially beautiful and shows deep connection with this body of believers.  It sets the direction and tone for the entire letter....sometimes it is referred to as “the Pauline thanksgiving”.  How appropriate that we remind ourselves of it this Sunday.

Paul was troubled by some things he heard about the Philippian believers.  For the most part they were doing well and supporting his mission, but he knew they were being pressured and influenced by outside forces to pay homage to the emperor. He senses they need some pastoral encouragement.  In a later part of the letter he gives thanks for the financial gift that Epaphroditus brought to him from the Philippian church during a time of need, but this opening part, this “Pauline thanksgiving”, is filled with joy and  gratitude, for them...his brothers and sisters for which he has deep affection.

These opening verses of chapter 1 unfold in a 3 part structure:
1.)  vs. 3-6 - expression of gratitude.  He remembers then often and prays for ALL of them, not just a select or favored few.  ALL seems to be repeated a few places...maybe there was a feeling that some were favored and he wanted to reinforce that he was including all of them, no exceptions!  He was reflecting on the PAST. His expression of gratitude was for their partnership in the gospel with him from the very beginning.  He experienced them as faithful partakers, partners, sharers in the ministry.  Not only did they receive the message, but they actively supported his ministry!  He was confident that God who began a work in them, would continue to do so into the future. God will complete, finish, bring to fulfillment that work, at the day of Christ Jesus. This was reason to rejoice.  This was reason for Paul to give thanks!

2.)  vs. 7-8 - expression of Paul’s affection for them.  It carries unusual strength.  It is a language of persuasion.  What he was feeling in the PRESENT as he was writing this letter shows a depth of intimacy and a deep yearning.  The intense compassionate love exhibited by Jesus is now fostered in Paul by his own union with Christ. The deep feeling Paul has for them comes from the heart of Christ Jesus himself.  He is justified in feeling this way.  They are all partners with him in this ministry no matter what happens to him or them.  All share in God’s grace/mission.

3.)  vs. 9-11 - expression of prayer for the church. Paul doesn’t stay in the past, nor dwell in the present with his thoughts, but brings the Philippian believers into the future, by offering his heart felt prayer for them.  He longs for them to have a love that continues to grow and mature.  A love that is not sentimental, shallow, easy.  This kind of love does not shrink away from tough discernment and discussion and dialogue.  It is a love that can withstand truth-telling and even debate, testing a decision in real life situations.  Growing in love, discerning wisely, making good choices...that is Paul’s prayer for the church. 

Isn’t that our prayer, as well?

As I learned and embraced Paul’s letter to the Philippians, especially this first chapter, I wanted to also share similar thoughts with you.

This summer, even though I did not worship with you for 3 months, my thoughts and prayers were often with you and for you.  I prayed with joy and thanksgiving for this congregation and the larger church.  I have felt your support of my work and ministry among you for these 13 years.  You have welcomed me, given me room to grow and mature.  You have respected and honored me for my gifts and affirmed me for who I am.  God has been at work in this congregation long before I became one of your pastors and I believe that God will continue to work here in the future, bringing it to completion and fulfillment at the day of Christ Jesus.

The longer I am here and the more we learn to know each other and to trust each other, our bonds of love are strengthened and I am encouraged by your support.  I have you in my heart.  No matter how we are being called to work and minister here in this community and beyond, we all share in God’s grace and are part of this larger mission.  We are partners in the gospel.  And because we are rooted and grounded in the love of Jesus Christ, our love for one another comes from that center.

And my prayer is similar to Paul’s prayer for the church.  For this congregation, PVMC, for the congregations belonging to VA conference and for the congregations belonging to MCUSA, I pray that our love for one another will grow and grow and mature in ways we can’t even imagine.  I pray that in the midst of these difficult and challenging times, as we face decisions regarding same gender marriages and relationships, and any other potentially divisive issues, that we can value others above ourselves, that we learn to listen respectfully, set our pride aside, discern and probe and work together, to move forward, empowered through the Holy Spirit and in a way that honors and glorifies God.

Can we allow God’s love to abound more and more in us, to “spill out”, to “spill over” into areas of our lives and congregational life to heal, to mend, to transform, to keep us moving forward with hope for the future?

Paul’s letter to the Philippians was marked by joy, confidence, unity, perseverance in the Christian faith and life.  If you were writing your letter to PV or another congregation, facing challenging times, how would you encourage and reassure?  Would your letter be filled with joy, with expressions of love and gratitude?   What would your prayer be for the church today?

And this is my prayer: that our love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that we may be able to discern what is best and so that we may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ....To the glory and praise of God. 

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