I was thinking about this text from Paul,
and I remembered
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 now
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. [i]
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.
It is a wonderful thing, to be held in the heart.
It is the seat of happiness, the feeling of salvation.
In this age, with so many people hurting, struggling, yearning, aching,
so many people lonely, or wanting to connect
this kind of feeling, this kind of love is so important.
What is it we are doing here?
What am I to you, and what are you to me? [ii]
I often wonder:
Is there anything special about this thing we call the Christian Community?
The Christian Family?
The Church—the called out people…
Us…you, me, all of us.
Is this just a glorified volunteer group?
Do we come together for our own selfish reasons—
each of us trying to get something more out of our interactions
and our experiences than what we put into it….
Or is there something ELSE going on when you step through the threshold
and sit in a pew for some quiet meditation and worship
or munch on a cookie while talking about the week in coffee hour
or go over to a member’s house with some soup for them
after he got some pretty harsh news.
For the next several weeks we’re going to be looking at this question
as we ponder Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
We’re going to be looking at a concept about Christian Community
that the Apostle Paul promoted in his letters,
and particularly in the letter he wrote to the church at Phillipi.
The concept was promoted through this Greek word that he liked to use—KOINONIA.
This Greek word doesn’t have a clear, clean, crisp translation into English.
The sense of it is suggested by our English words FELLOWSHIP
But, for Paul, this idea of Koinonia was really important.
It cut to the heart of something helpful for us to think about:
what is unique, special,
indeed, what is vital about the Christian community,
the Christian Koinonia,
that you can’t get just anywhere else.
There’s something about the community that forms around God’s love
that the world hungers for, that you and I hunger for…
Now, there are gatherings of people all over the place.
People gather into workplaces, into schools,
into shopping malls, into restaurants,
into sports stadia, even into service organizations and activities.
And people gather into these groups for a number of reasons:
to pay the bills
to learn and get a degree
to root on the Chiefs! (as an aside: there’s still hope, I think!)
to raise money for a good cause,
perhaps because most who come together,
say for a charity walk,
have suffered a similar experience together.
What makes this Church business special. Is it special?
What is it that, when done with the right spirit, makes this enterprise different?
So, here Paul enters into a prayer of thanksgiving
for his relationship with the Philippians.
It’s a thanksgiving that is deeply felt.
So much so that Paul says he thanks God not just for the Philippians themselves,
but for his very MEMORY of them, every time they come to his mind,
because it is in the very fact that he remembers them
that joy comes to his heart—
even when he is experiencing great difficulty,
such as being held in an imperial prison,
as he suggests is exactly where he is
when he was writing this letter.
Unlike any other letter of Paul’s that we have,
this letter is bursting with love for the community that Paul is writing to.
Paul and the community at Philippi were united by a special kind of bond
that nourished each other both when they were together
and when they were apart.
THAT is KOINONIA, a belonging borne of a deep relationship
that God enables, somehow.
Paul begins with his prayers of thanksgiving to God,
but note how he talks about the nature of their relationship:
I thank God every time I remember you,
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.
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,
both in my imprisonment
and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.
This phrase “because you hold me in your heart” is so AMAZING to me.
It gives us a clue into the core of these kind of relationships
that are shaped by the community we find God building up.
This phrase, “because you hold me in your heart,”
is actually rather…ambiguous in the Greek.
It is clear from the verb that “holding in the heart” is what Paul is meaning.
But it is impossible to know, from the Greek,
who is holding whom in the heart.
The translation I read from today has the Philippians holding Paul in their heart.
But the other five translations I checked for this sermon don’t all agree.
Others put it this way:
“It is right for me to feel this way about all of you,
since I have you in my heart….”
I bet your bible footnotes it both ways, too.
So, which is it?
Does Paul hold the Philippians in HIS heart,
or do the Philippians hold Paul in THEIRS?
This might seem like a rather trivial matter, but I want to suggest that it isn’t.
In fact, I like to think that Paul knew exactly what he was doing
when he wrote this phrase that way.
So many of our relationships can be built on a kind of transactional basis,
some calculus of “what have you done for me lately?”
Where relationships are built on debt, and owing, and repaying.
I give to you. You give to me. Everything is run with a scorecard.
Where we keep track of everything…
Someone invites you over for dinner, say.
And you have a great time.
Then one month passes.
And two month passes…
And you say to whoever you live with,
you know what, they invited us over
and we had a good time
but I’ve not been able to invite them over in return,
and I feel so bad…
They did that and we’ve not called them
and you know what, I’m starting to feel…GUILTY.
How did this act of generosity in inviting you over
they just did it because it was enjoyable, it was fun, lets have them over,
How did an act of generosity turn into a feeling of…GUILT?
This is a symptom of seeing our relationships, at their heart,
on a scale of transaction: the giant scoreboard of rights and wrongs
of actions accomplished and/or failed, somehow.
Many people think, wrongly, that God works this way, too:
that God keep tabs of rights and wrongs and boy do we have to work
hard to be on the good side of the ledger…
But for Paul, relationships are not rooted in transaction.
Relationships for those who are grasped by the incredible story of God’s love in Jesus
the very one who shows that God loves us
regardless of any so-called debt, obligation, action of ours in the past
for those of us who are drawn into THIS story of God’s free,
unearned, boundless love in Jesus Christ,
our human relationships are rooted instead in a three-way love,
with God at the center of this friendship between you and me.
In THIS kind of relationship, we still give and receive from one another,
but NOT in order to keep score,
NOT to repay each other for something we owe.
Relationships in Christ are not transactional. They are non-competitive.
We lose track of who is giving what to whom…
we stop keeping score,
and start enjoying the joy that comes from being together.
A kind of relationship that is generous, spontaneous,
bursting forth because of our love for one another
in the joy and the celebration of the possibilities that are there in that relationship.
In that kind of relationship, we lose track of any idea of a score card.
Do I hold you in my heart? Do you hold me in your heart?
Sometimes its hard to tell where it starts and where it stops…
When Leroy Sutton was 11 years old, in 2001,
he was walking to school with his brother
along the Wheeling and Lake Erie railroad tracks
near his home in East Akron, Ohio.[iii]
A freight train approached, and Leroy got too close.
His backpack got caught on one of the passing cars,
and he was pulled beneath the wheels.
The paramedics who arrived within minutes saved Leroy’s life,
but the doctors could not save his entire body.
At Children’s Hospital in Akron, his left leg was amputated below the knee,
his right leg below the hip.
Leroy says that he knew what had happened, but didn’t understand what he’d lost
until a day later, when he lifted the sheets and looked down.
He left the hospital six weeks later, and after long, difficult hours of rehabilitation,
he accepted that a wheelchair would be a part of his life.
He was determined to make it a small part.
Midway through his Junior year in high school,
Leroy transferred to Lincoln-West High in Cleveland.
He joined the wrestling team, just as he’d done at his previous school,
and the coaches welcomed him.
His coach told him: “You’ve been hit by a train.
What else, what kid, what wrestler, what can stop you?”
At Leroy’s first practice, his first partner was the only other wrestler on the team
powerful enough to handle him.
Dartanyon Crockett was Lincoln High’s best and strongest talent.
He was 5-foot-10 with muscles bunched like walnuts,
and already a winner in multiple weight classes.
But when Leroy hopped off his chair and onto the wrestling mat,
the competition was more than Dartanyon expected.
“He was a complete powerhouse,” Dartanyon said,
recalling their first drills together.
“I never wrestled anyone as strong as him. We pushed each other to our limits,
and we didn’t let each other give up.”
So, hour after hour, month after month, practices connected these two in ways
that went beyond the gym.
They went everywhere together:
between classes, on team bus rides, at each other’s houses.
But their simplest connection was the one everyone saw and no one anticipated.
“One day I’m coming out of my office,” said Kyro Taylor, the school’s lifting coach.
“I look over to the corner of the gym where the mats were at,
and right up the steps I see Dartanyon with something on his back,
and the closer I get, I’m like, ‘Is that Leroy?’
And it was Leroy on his back. Dartanyon’s carrying him.”
It was not a onetime ride.
Dartanyon lifted Leroy onto his back and carried him to and from every match,
on and off every bus, into and out of every gym.
All season long.
At more than 170 pounds, Leroy was not a light load.
But Dartanyon never cared, and the carrying never stopped.
Tom Rinaldi, who wrote about their story for ESPN, explained what was going on:
Dartanyon lifted Leroy onto his back for the playing of every national anthem,
and carried him down the bleachers before each match.
Yet as inseparable as they were, a team unto themselves in a way,
they also shared something greater than their sport.
That’s because the teammate who carried Leroy on his back
all season long knows about challenges himself.
Dartanyon Crockett knows, because he’s legally blind.
“I can see clearly now, the rain is gone.”
Leroy listens, then corrects him: “but you can’t see.”
“So, I can still sing.”
And they pick up the song together, twice as loud…”
And the two students grow, and Leroy helps Dartanyon read his school work.
They’re almost inseparable.
Now, The majority of students at Lincoln-West high school never earn a diploma.
This year, in 2009, the school had a graduation rate of roughly 40 percent.
But on an early June night, the graduates gathered on a stage.
Leroy had dreamed of this night for a long time.
“My Goal,” he said in May, “is to actually walk across the stage.
No one on the stage that night understood that goal more than Dartanyon.
That’s why, when Leroy’s name was called,
Dartanyon stood, too, right beside him.
What would you do for a friend, one you carried on your back all year long?
You’d put him down, and walk beside him, which is exactly what Dartanyon did.
He helped Leroy stand –
upon new prosthetic legs he was fitted for just weeks earlier –
then moved along side him as Leroy crossed the stage…
This is an incredible story,
about the bond of friendship that these two young men forged,
their graduation from high school, their future.
When you look at it, you could ask yourself:
Who carries whom in that friendship?
Who owes what to whom?
Who’s giving? Who’s receiving?
But you’d miss the bond of love, of friendship, of community
that they formed if you asked it in that way.
These two deep friends have formed something more powerful than that,
where each love and support each other, giving what they can to the other
and each growing together along the way.
They hold each other in their hearts.
When Paul starts his letter with this ambiguity of who is holding who in the heart,
he’s actually getting at something deep about the nature of what
relationships in the church look like they have God at the center.
I hold you. You hold me. God holds us.
All of us get to participate in this AWESOME experience
where it is not about racking up enough credit to earn friendship
or to be made right with God
but knowing that we ALREADY are friends with God,
we already are worthy to be friends with each other
and we want to contribute to this relationship because it is
so WONDERFUL to be part of a community like that.
KOINONIA, Christian Community, Authentic Family, True Partnership
is about adopting THIS as the basis of our participation in God’s way,
that we form relationships joyfully, that we lose track of who does what
and we just participate
and we give what we can
and we receive what others offer to us
and we celebrate together the God who is at the heart of all of it.
What am I to you? What are you, to me?
Where does it start? Where does it end? Who gave first? Who gave last?
Who receives? Who’s responsible for whom?
In the end, when God is involved, our fellowship is one that invites us
to see THIS as a great opportunity to give up an accounting of such things
and to just start LIVING for one another.
Where the very thought, the very memory, the very recollection of one another
can lift our spirits, and help us to think about what we can do
to deepen this community, and to invite others to join us.
Look around you.
Look at those whom we call our brothers and sisters in Christ.
God calls us into THAT kind of relationship with one another.
The kind of relationship where we THRIVE by giving and getting
and simply enjoying the love that God gives us.
Where we can say: give me your hand,
and I’ll give you mine,
and I will hold you in my heart. Will you hold me in yours?
[i] My girls likely had recently read The Kissing Hand, by Audrey Penn.
[ii] This question posed most memorably for me by the Rev. Brian Ellison in his sermon to Heartland Presbytery, 2008.
[iii] “High School Teammates Carry On” from http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/otl/news/story?id=4371874, accessed August 7, 2009.
Image Credit: Hand Held Heart by Arrieta-Art