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Psalm 122 (Inclusive Psalms Translation)
Philippians 1:1-11 (New Revised Standard Translation)
So, for the month of September we’re going to look at some of the whys and the hows of churching, using Paul’s correspondence with the Philippians as a guide for the next 5 Sundays. We begin on the Sunday of Labor Day Weekend, which may turn out to be as much providence as coincidence. Labor Day, after all, began as the promotion of the value of labor. Now it’s more about mattress sales and a day at the lake, or perhaps the end of the cultural summer, even if the weather is not cooperating. But Labor Day began as a protest, not as a party. It began as noncompliance with the systems that were in place, something Paul knows a lot about. It is clear from the letter that the group in Philippi is under threat, and Paul writes to console and support. Why are they under threat? Well, that is more speculative, but many scholars feel that they are threatened because of their non-compliance – with the social system, with the cultural hierarchy, with the way of Empire. Seeking a change of the season, an end to the era of empire, this group under the guidance of Paul, seeking the Way of Jesus, looks for change.
The signs are out there right now, despite the heat and humidity. Have you seen them? The flocks of geese headed south? The sizable acorns on the sidewalk outside? Pumpkin spice everything hitting the shelves? The seasons are changing. And the signs are here for us as church, too. The old theological models are becoming increasingly unappetizing, whether from a eulogy at the Queen of Soul’s funeral or on church signs around town…from assertions made by the dinosaurs of white, patriarchal, homophobic theology that seem less like the voice of power and more like the voice of antiquity or the weight of a Catholic Church’s culpability in it’s own sin, deep and cultural, that seems to fuel this new Reformation towards an even more profound set of changes in how we seek to follow Jesus, how we think what church ought to look like and how we will relate to and use the Bible – the single most influential part of our faith over the last two hundred years. And more signs are out there during an intense political crisis in which our values are being constantly tested, in a small town in Iowa where the horrific murder of a young woman by a person who also happens to be undocumented has placed before people a choice about how they will view the world around them, where the death of a Senator with a mixed record, to be honest, is rightly lifted up as the potential death of a way of being in the political world…his funeral becoming perhaps a moment of resistance in and of itself, a last hurrah for what we worry may be lost.
And yet despite that harsh edge, we still have a dream for the future, don’t we? A dream of peace and justice, of kindness and mercy, of at least cooperation and civility. It’s a dream we call the kin-dom. At times it seems to me a rather meager dream, and at times like the mightiest of wishes set against overwhelming opposition.
For the past year or so, our own Sheri Curry has been getting regular correspondence from an inmate at a Federal Correctional Facility in Kansas. As you might imagine, the letters are full of dreams for things that aren’t yet reality, and, frankly, may never be reality, for as Sheri knows all too well as she reads these letters, the outside world may not be nearly as welcoming as the inmate envisions. The same is true for the communication The New Sanctuary Network has with detainees seeking refuge in this country. Many of them have been lead to this dream of America from the nightmare of their own countries. And while we sometimes want to tell them that this dream of America that they seek is perhaps less real than they hope for, that’s not what dreams do. They don’t label reality. Like the kin-dom that Jesus teaches us about, dreams are both here and not here, real and not real, realized and still yet to come.
The general opinion is that Paul writes this letter to the Philippians from a jail cell, perhaps in Rome, and almost certainly not his first time in prison. He writes it not knowing what his future holds, and knowing that this dream he has dreamed is in jeopardy. Paul’s words to the Philippians are basic, almost rudimentary, and in this section you have heard today – what is a standard intro for a Greek letter, a greeting we might say – Paul lifts up the basics of Christian life…grace, compassion, love…and something that we might not expect – knowledge and insight. For what Paul suggests is that when we actually hold on to our values, when we practice grace, compassion and love, it gives us knowledge and insight, it does something more that just satisfy our emotions or give us a “feel good” moment. It actually shapes our perceptions.
When Paul writes his letter, he’s not certain who will be receiving it. There’s no Facetime, he can’t see the people on the other end and it’s been months since he’s been there. If church then is anything like church now, could be a whole new set of people. He doesn’t know if they are ones that he’d even welcome to the way of Jesus. And he’s not writing based on what he knows. He’s writing based on what he dreams, on a vision for something. It is not certainty that fuels his correspondence, but his celebration of possibility. He’s been in enough churches to know that grace, compassion and love are not the first three things on the list of interactive motivators. But they could be.
Here’s the practical point for this morning. I’m not sure how best to be a welcoming church. I don’t know if it’s name tags or no name tags, if it’s a “passing of the peace” meet-and-greet moment that I’m sure is like nails on a chalkboard to many of the more introverted here. I don’t know if someone remembering your name is as important as someone just saying “hi”, offering a handshake or a hug, letting the point be known that they are glad you’re here and then the recipient making sure to also be a deliverer of the same good news. And I know we want the 10 easy steps to being a welcoming church. They don’t exist. Frankly, in my experience, because when you start focusing on those things you often forget the reason you are doing those things, and the sincerity of the effort is diminished.
So perhaps Paul’s beginning to his letter holds some good advice for us. Our resistance isn’t just resistance for the sake of resistance. It is rooted in something – grounded in a value. Love first, Paul tells the Philippians, love first as Christ loved, and let that love grow your insight, let it shape your perspective. For the Gospel value is this – welcome the stranger first, whether you know their name or not, whether you consider them “worthy” or not, for we all have our prejudices, and let that kindness work on you. For insight is found in the heart, given freely, strength is gained from sharing with another person, impact is felt when we hear of God’s love for every one of us – every single other. That kind of deep welcome, that kind of hope for a place of total peace and compassion, giving us insight and guiding our dreams, it’s not something you might easily find here. Heck, it’s not even the primary thing that you will find here. But it could be.