Sermon of the Week:
Who Goes First?
Week one of a four part sermon series: Good Vibes: Finding Joy
Keywords: Community. Non-Competitive Relationship. Hold in the Heart. Leroy Sutton. Koinonia #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
There was a moment, ten years ago,
that was seared into my memory.
It was a weeknight, in late October, 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 off the lights
and go to bed.
We had been trying to prepare them 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.
The assurance of belonging.
In this age, with so many people hurting, struggling, yearning, aching,
so many people lonely, or wanting to connect
this kind of community is so important.
What is it we are doing here?
What am I to you, and what are you to me?
Do you ever wonder:
Is there anything special about the Christian Community?
The Christian Family?
The Church—the called-out people…
Us…you, me, all of us, who are following God on the way of Jesus Christ.
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 boot up facebook or zoom on Sunday morning
join a bible study…
decide to go give of your time on a work project
while understanding that time to be in service of something bigger, something holy…
call on another church member 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.
For Paul, the idea of community is central
to his experience of faith
to his effort to walk on the path of Jesus Christ.
And Paul explored the idea of community
through a particular Greek word that he liked to use–
KOINONIA doesn’t have a clean, clear, crisp translation into English.
The sense of it is suggested by our English words FELLOWSHIP
And, for Paul, this idea of Koinonia was really important.
Because 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…
Community looks different, in this time of coronavirus,
than it did even a few months ago.
But we all have ideas in our head
about what we mean when we talk about people gathering together
even if it’s not a good idea to do so in person at the moment.
To volunteer on a service project
or to walk for the cause of justice.
We get together at shopping malls
concert venues and Sports Stadia—man, I miss the sound of the crowd at Kauffman stadium,
but when the Royals were at full capacity during the 2014 and 2015 seasons
the roar when Cain ripped a double or Gordon robbed a batter was so powerful.
So we gather for all sorts of reasons,
to pay the bills,
to learn and get a degree,
to raise our voices to bring about change,
to root for the best team in sports…
And then there’s church.
How is this a different sort of gathering than any of those?
Paul opens his letter, like he often does,
with words of thanksgiving,
a prayer of gratitude for his relationship with the Philippians.
It is 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 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,
which he in fact suggests he is, as he is composing this letter.
Unlike any other letter of Paul’s that we have,
this one is bursting with love
for the community to which he is writing.
Paul and the people there were united by a special kind of bond, you see,
one that nourished each other when they were together,
and, importantly, now that they’re apart.
THAT is KOINONIA,
a belonging born of a special kind of relationship
that God enables and nurtures and deepens, somehow.
So, Paul begins his letter with his prayers of thanksgiving to God,
but note how he talks about the nature of his relationship to them:
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,
and 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 you in my heart” is what Paul is meaning.
That didn’t have any different meaning then than it does for us today,
it means a powerful form of affection, of care and concern.
But it is impossible to know, from the Greek, just who is holding whom in the heart.
The translation I read from today has the Philippians holding Paul in their heart.
“you hold me in your heart”
But the other five translations I checked for this sermon don’t all agree.
Some put it this way, or include this version in a footnote:
“It is right for me to feel this way about all of you,
since I have you in my heart….”
So, which is it?
Does Paul hold the Philippians in his heart,
or do the Philippians hold Paul in their heart?
Chad, why are you spending all this time
on what seems like a rather trivial matter,
on something as silly as Greek grammar.
Well, sure, this might seem like a rather trivial matter,
and it is easy to just breeze right by it,
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 about 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.
(Back before the pandemic, but stay with me…)
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 symptomatic 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, but … 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 it’s hard to tell where it starts and where it stops…
Many years ago now I read a story
about Leroy Sutton,
who, when he was 11 years old,
was walking to school with his brother
along the Wheeling and Lake Erie railroad tracks
near his home in East Akron, Ohio.[ii]
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.
When Leroy woke he said that he knew what had happened,
but didn’t understand what all he’d lost
until a day later, when he lifted the sheets and looked down.
He left the hospital six weeks later, and after many 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 one-time 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 grew close, and Leroy helped Dartanyon read his school work.
They’re almost inseparable.
Now, ESPN noted, the majority of students at Lincoln-West high school never earn a diploma.
The school had a graduation rate of roughly 40 percent.
But on an early June night, in 2009, the graduates gathered on a stage.
Leroy had dreamed of this night for a long time.
“My Goal,” he said that 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 vitally important about the nature of what
relationships in the church look like when 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 life giving 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 community 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 serve God, to love our neighbor.
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?
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] My girls likely had recently read The Kissing Hand, by Audrey Penn.
[ii] “High School Teammates Carry On” from https://www.espn.com/espn/otl/news/story?id=4371874, accessed June 28, 2020.
Image Credit: Hand Held Heart by Arrieta-Art