A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church of Prairie Village, Kansas. September 8, 2013.
It was a weeknight in late October of 2010
and we were almost through
with Nora and Tessa’s bedtime routine.
Teeth had been brushed. Pajamas were on. Books had been read.
One last playtime for the night,
and now it was time to say our parting words
turn the lights off and go to bed.
We had been trying to prepare the girls for a few days
that their daddy would be leaving the next morning for Guatemala
as part of our Presbytery’s delegation
to our friends in the Maya Quiche presbytery
But they were four,
and they had no real concept of where Guatemala was
all they knew was that I was going on an airplane
for a whole week!
I had been away on trips many times,
and sometimes even for a whole week
but when you add an airplane to the mix
it’s a completely different deal.
So I lingered a bit on our bedtime routine, as I tucked in my daughters
and kissed their foreheads
and we sang them their good night song,
when my daughter stopped me with a smile.
Daddy, she said, Give me your hand.
And so I dutifully gave her my hand, which she took, gently,
and brought it up to her lips.
And she kissed my palm with a loud smack.
Put it up on your cheek, she instructed. And I did.
There. Now you hold my kiss in your heart.
When you go on the airplane, and when you miss me
just put your hand on your cheek and you’ll feel my kiss.
And she had me kiss her hand, too,
whereupon she put it on her cheek with a satisfied smile
and she turned over to go off to bed.
I’m in new territory today. I’ve never had to write a final sermon before.
Goodbyes are hard. I don’t like them very much, generally,
but its even harder when you are leaving a community that you love.
One on one, saying goodbye is challenging,
and this is true even when goodbye is tempered with a kiss on the palm
or one of the many hugs we’ve shared in the past few weeks
or through words of affirmation and support and kindness.
But magnify that by the number of people in a community
and it is all that much harder.
So much warmth. So much love.
The gratitude I have fills my heart
and I really have no words for it.
All of this is in fact mumbling, grasping, searching
for ways to explain it.
And so maybe I’ll turn to Paul for help.
I admit, this has become one of my favorite passages from Paul,
these opening words to the Philippians.
This wasn’t always the case,
and I had glossed over it in my younger days,
preferring other passages
like the hymn about Christ emptying himself
or the call to rejoice, rejoice,
again, Paul said, rejoice.
Or other Pauline passages in Corinthians or Romans.
And maybe it was my Daughter’s expression of love to me
before that Guatemala trip,
combined with the fact that I used to preach on this passage
when we traveled from church to church there
that brought it more to my attention.
I have come to love these words from Paul.
They are words of friendship, of companionship,
They are words of love.
I thank my God every time I remember you Paul writes
Constantly praying with joy
in every one of my prayers for all of you
because of your sharing in the gospel
from the first day until now.
I am confident of this: that the one who began a GOOD work
among you will bring it to completion
by the day of Jesus Christ.
It is RIGHT for me to think this way about all of you,
because you HOLD me in your heart,
for all of you share in God’s grace with me…
For God is my witness, how I long for all of you
with the compassion of Jesus Christ.
This opening prayer sets the context for this letter written
from Paul’s Roman Prison,
words of thanksgiving to God for the relationship
Paul has forged with the church at Philippi.
The Greek work Koinonia means something like “fellowship,”
the kind of community where people love one another
grow close to one another.
It is another expression for church, the community of the faithful
bound together by God’s love.
What has always been the most striking feature of this text for me
isn’t Paul’s joy in remembering his friends,
from the dank confines of a roman prison.
Its not the attitude of celebration
in this midst of this difficult circumstance,
the stubborn defiance because of the conviction of the Gospel.
Its not the deep expression of affection or longing.
Its this line hidden in the middle:
“It is right for me to think this way about all of you,
because you hold me in your heart,
for all of you share in God’s grace with me.”
Its striking, because the original Greek text is ambiguous.
Forgive me for getting a little technical here,
but in the Greek language, sometimes the subject and the object
of the sentence isn’t always clearly defined.
Sometimes it is, but sometimes it isn’t.
And usually you can tell, from the context or other clues,
just what the author is trying to say.
But with this sentence, its not so easy.
This line, “because you hold me in your heart”
could also read “because I hold you in my heart”
and, in fact, biblical translators have rendered it that way
in many other versions.
Now, in one sense, it doesn’t really matter all that much.
Either way, the overall point of the passage is the same:
Paul is offering a thanksgiving to God for the gifts of the Philippians,
for their friendship and their support and their faithful work.
Why trifle with one small blip of translation?
Who really cares what Paul is trying to say exactly,
whether he meant that he held them in his heart
or they held Paul in their heart?
But in another sense, the ambiguity is so beautiful.
The ambiguity itself gives so much more meaning
than if Paul had been crystal clear.
In fact, I like to think that Paul knew just what he was doing
when he wrote it this way:
In community, we hold each other in our hearts.
I hold you in mine. You hold me in yours.
And it is this very thing that seals us in Christ’s love
and makes us a koinonia, a fellowship,
a community set apart to bear God’s grace in the world.
It has been striking, thinking about how we’ve practiced this
over the past eight years.
Every community has its struggles.
No community does this perfectly,
and we like all others are far from perfect.
But we are full of love.
And I give God thanks for the opportunity to be your associate pastor
and to grow with you
as we seek out how to be community together.
I remember how church members greeted us at home
before our luggage even arrived, with lawn chairs
and Southminster mugs and instant coffee.
I remember my first Journey to Bethlehem,
where Brook and I were Mary and Joseph
in the final manger scene
laughing with you between groups about the
awe-filled looks little kids had for the baby-Jesus doll
and sharing amazement with you
at the many gifts those kids offered us when the scene was over.
I remember crop walks and stewardship dinners
and worship service blunders and silly dinner theatres
and taking a hammer to Iowa City and New Orleans
and Nashville and Creede and Alabama
and Mission Texas with our youth.
I remember baptisms, and weddings, and funerals.
I remember the baby shower held for us,
and your amazing love for our daughters,
and for all the beautiful kids of this church.
I remember youth looking at their watches, on purpose,
on the flank during my prayers.
I remember committee meetings (though some I’d like to forget)
and your patience with me as I was learning how to preach.
I remember visits to your homes,
trips to the hospital
phone calls about deep things…
And I can begin to understand Paul here when he says:
“I thank my God every time I remember you…”
For I hold you in my heart,
and I feel in my heart that you hold me in yours too.
It is a wonderful thing, to be held in the heart.
In this age, with so many people hurting, struggling, yearning, aching,
this kind of community is so important
and I continue to celebrate the ways in which
Southminster seeks to be a place that ANYONE can come to.
I will be taking this spirit with me as I move across town to
the John Knox Kirk.
Unlike Paul, I’ll still see you from time to time.
I’ll drive by the church when I drop my kids off at Highlands.
I’ll see your invitations in the Prairie Village Post.
But my work as one of your pastors will conclude next Sunday,
and you will begin the work of starting a new chapter yourselves.
And so we say Goodbye.
Which itself is a way of saying “God be with you”
Goodbye is a word of hope and a word of blessing,
a prayer for those we love.
So I want to end with a couple of prayers for us this day.
First, the other scripture reading, from the Gospel according to John,
describes the ways in which Jesus attempted to show
the centrality of friendship to the life of faith.
We bear fruit that will last, Jesus says,
by loving one another, by treating each other as friends.
And Paul, in this section to the Philippians,
ends with the words:
“And this is my prayer,
that your love may overflow more and more”
So with Paul and with Jesus,
my prayer is that God’s love may continue to abound among you:
your love for each other, your love for yourselves,
your love for God
and out of this love,
may you dare acts of love and welcome and grace
that help those who yearn for love feel it too.
That’s my first prayer. May all of us feel this love, share this love,
grow in this love.
It is the heart of Christian community.
My second prayer is more personal:
Give me your hand, and I will give you mine.
And hold me in your heart.
And I know that when I miss you, I can put my hand to my cheek
and feel your warmth there.
Thank you, so very much, for the fellowship we have in Christ.