Friday, September 19, 2014

Living, Dying, Politics, and the Gospel - September 21, 2014

Text: Philippians 1:21-30

Do you remember Match Game?  It has had more recent incarnations and is probably still on the Game Show Network or some such cable channel, but I remember the Match Game with host Gene Rayburn and assorted stars (maybe a lowercase “s” on “stars” such as Charles Nelson Reilly, Fanny Flagg and Patty Deutsch.)  Anyway, the idea was that you fill in the blank on a sentence and try to match the celebrities’ answers. 

We’re going to start with a little Match Game this morning with the sentence: _____ is really living.

What is involved in really living?  There was a beer commercial some time ago with some guys sitting around a campfire somewhere in the Rockies.  They lift their beer (I don’t remember what brand), and one of them says, “Now this is living.”

In the middle of January, there is a foot of snow on the ground and the temperature is 14 degrees below zero.  You get on a plane, and a few short hours later you are on a sandy beach in Florida, soaking in the sun, enjoying the waves and the beautiful view.  And you say, “Now this is living.”

A couple of weeks ago I had a chance to go to the ISU football game and sit in a skybox.  There is a bunch of free food, it is climate controlled, you have a comfortable seat, you enjoy all of the amenities that the great unwashed masses can only dream of, and you start to think, “I could get used to this.”  The Cyclones were ahead 14-0 and UNI was also beating Iowa, and I thought, “This is the life.”

A pastor told about going to visit a wealthy parishioner.  A seminary student went along.  They drove through this posh neighborhood and passed an incredibly large home with a huge, beautifully landscaped yard and a five car garage.  There was a BMW and Jaguar in front of two of the doors and a huge RV in front of a third.  The last two garage doors were closed because they don’t like exposing their Rolls-Royce to public view.  “Now these people really know how to live!” the student exclaimed.

If you are scoring at home in Match Game, the answers are:

A campfire and beer is really living.
A beach is really living.
A skybox at the game is really living.
A Rolls Royce and a humongous house is really living.

Cars, boats, beautiful homes, fabulous food, wonderful vacations, big bank accounts, you could add other items to the list of what life is really about.  But deep down, we know that all of these answers are pretty shallow.  These are not what life is really about.  A phone call from the doctor’s office with unwanted news can change our idea of what really matters in an instant.

What does it mean to live?  To really live?  While there is this sentiment out there that if one is able to enjoy the finest life has to offer and have awesome experiences - that is truly living.  While most of us wouldn’t mind those things, we know better.  We could name a bunch of things that are more important.  Family, friendships, relationships, loving and being loved, fulfilling and meaningful work, truly making a difference in another’s life. 

The Apostle Paul deals with this issue of really living.  He writes from prison.  We are not sure where he is in prison – traditionally it was thought to be in Rome, but more recently scholars have argued convincingly for Caesarea or Ephesus or perhaps even Corinth.  He writes a letter to the church he had started in Philippi, and it is the most upbeat of all his letters – never mind the fact he writes from prison.  The church in Corinth was plagued by scandal and dissension.  He writes to the Galatians, apparently dense folks, and at one point actually says, “You stupid Galatians.”  But the church in Philippi was his pride and joy, and he writes with obvious affection.

When Paul was arrested, the news traveled fast.  It was all that anybody could talk about – the preacher is in jail.  When the church had heard about it, they sent Epaphroditus to see how Paul was and what they could do to help.  But Epaphroditus became ill, deathly ill; in fact, he almost died.  When he was well enough to travel, Paul said, “I really appreciate you coming to see me, but I don’t need a sick deacon around here,” and sent him back to Philippi.

So, one Sunday everybody gathered for worship and lo and behold, Epaphroditus shows up.  “What are you doing here?”  “I have a letter from Paul.  He wants it to be read in church today.”  The letter was not posted on the bulletin board; they didn’t just publish it in the Spire or forward emails to everybody.  Many of those in the church probably could not read and even if they could, internet service was spotty at best in the ancient world.

So the letter is read in worship.  Not just a few verses, the whole thing.  There are greetings and preliminary remarks, Paul says how much he loves and appreciates the church, and then he launches into a report about his current circumstances. 

And he says, “For me, to live is Christ.”  For Paul, this is what living is all about.   It is a very countercultural understanding because as opposed to all of those Match Game answers, Paul is saying that my life is not all about me.  What matters most are relationships, beginning with the relationship we have in Christ.

Those who have children may remember bringing a child home from the hospital, and the overwhelming sense of responsibility – the sense that there must be some mistake, you mean they are actually entrusting this tiny, fragile, beautiful human life to me?  And if it hasn’t already hit you, it does then: my life is not just about me.

Through our work, through our family life, through friendships, through this church, we share our life with others, we make the joys and the pain of others our own, and hopefully we come to understand that life simply lived for yourself is not really much of a life.  For Paul, it all centers on his life in Christ: to live is Christ.

But then he makes an odd statement: to die is gain.  To live is Christ – and then to die is even better than that?  And then he launches into this soliloquy about whether it is better to live or die.

Without the context, it seems very strange and pretty morbid.  But here is the deal: life in a first century prison is awful.  And Paul has been through a lot already; he is not what you would call the picture of health to start with.  He knows that a death sentence is a possible outcome, maybe the likely outcome.  He speaks as though he is trying to decide whether to live or die, as though the choice is his: to live means fruitful work, he says; to die means to be with Christ, which is better – I’m not sure which I prefer but finally he says, I think that for me to remain in the flesh with you is more necessary – so I am convinced I will continue here on this earth and come and see you again.

Paul wrote to his friends in Philippi, “To live is Christ and to die is gain.”  He wrote out of a deep conviction that both in life and in death, God was with him.  In Romans he wrote, “Nothing in all creation, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”  Sitting in a prison cell, looking at a possible death sentence, you contemplate such things.  But he realizes that he has more to do and believes that he will be released from prison.

And so he says to the church in Philippi, “Whether I come to see you in person or whether I just hear about you, I want you to stand firm in Christ.”  Christian faith was very much a minority religion.  There was persecution and threats and dangers.

Paul speaks of the privilege of suffering for Christ.  This past week I’ve been watching the Ken Burns series on the Roosevelts.  It has been fascinating and I have learned a lot about Teddy and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.  During WWII, Eleanor went to visit the troops and inspect field hospitals in the Pacific.  She got a lot flak for this in the press.  The Commanding Officer of the group she traveled with thought it was a ridiculous political stunt.  But he changed his mind 180 degrees on the first day.

She visited troops, attended rallies, and lifted morale.  She inspected a lot of hospitals.  But that did not mean just chatting with the CO and having a photo op.  She visited every single patient.  She took time to ask how they were doing, ask about home, ask if there was anything she could do.  And letter she wrote the parents of every soldier, sailor, and Marine she visited.

But here’s the thing: she was completely unprepared for what she saw.  There were gruesome and grizzly injuries.  She said that she never forgot the smells of the burn unit.  She made herself go on but that first night she felt totally unraveled by the experience.  But then she got up the next day and did it again, and again.  She made a huge difference; one general said that she gave the boys something they had not seen for over a year: an American mother.

We tend to hear something like “the privilege of suffering for Christ” and think about persecution or suffering that is inflicted on us  and that is certainly part of it.  But maybe more, it means choosing to do those things that are hard and which may bring suffering upon ourselves, but we nevertheless choose for the sake of Christ and the sake of others.

So Paul writes to his friends in Philippi.  He says that suffering for Christ is a privilege.  And then he says, “Get your mind off of me.  I am not the church.  If you are worried about me, I’ll be fine. Whether I live or die, I am just fine.

He turns to his hopes for the church.  Epaphroditus, or whoever is reading the letter on that Sunday morning, reads on, “Let your manner of living be worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

This is a really interesting verse.  The Greek word that is translated “manner of living,” or “the way you live your life,” is politeuesthe.  It is from the root from which we get the word “politics.”  It would not be incorrect to translate this verse as, “Let your politics be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” 

(Now it might be said here, with all of the campaign ads that we are having to endure, that these words of Paul may deserve a little more attention.  There is an awful lot in the political world that is not worthy of the gospel of Christ.)

But the sense of the word Paul uses here is more than simply one’s involvement in the political system.  Of course, those in the Roman Empire did not have the opportunity to vote or run for office, and they certainly did not have the opportunity to protest or demonstrate about Roman policies, or to write a critical letter to the editor.  Well, I guess you could do that, but probably only once.

Politics is literally the way one lives among the citizens or in the city, the polis, and it has to do with our involvement in the community.  Paul is talking about the way we live our lives in the public sphere – the things we do and the way we carry ourselves that affect the community and that others in the community may notice.  In some ways it reminds me of Jesus’ words, “Let your light so shine before others that they will see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

In a difficult environment, the church at Philippi was striving to live out its faith in its community.  In their first-century way, they did what we strive to do today.  For us, it is seen in things like helping to provide affordable housing through Ames Ecumenical Housing and Habitat for Humanity and a small project our church supports called Home For Awhile.  It is seen in our involvement in the CROP Walk or in helping MICA and the Emergency Residence Project.  Living lives worthy of the gospel also happens when we sing our hearts out on a Sunday morning and when we learn to trust our lives to God.  Our living is worthy of the gospel of Christ when we are able to forgive one another.  Our living is worthy of the gospel of Christ when we live lives of generosity and gratitude, day by day.  Our living is worthy of the gospel of Christ when we our lives show peace, patience, kindness, and goodness.  Our living is worthy of the gospel of Christ when we see needs around us and do our best to meet them.  

Fred Craddock told about going to speak at a conference at Clemson University in South Carolina.  He was a keynote speaker but before he spoke, a young woman began the program with a devotional.  She walked up to the podium with a yellow legal pad and Craddock though, “Oh great, we’re going to be here for a while.”

Her voice was low and quiet, but she said something and Craddock was sure it was in another language.  And then another.  And another.  She was making the same statement in language after language.  Craddock didn’t keep count, but he said it was probably 60 or 70 statements in 60 or 70 languages.  He thought he knew what she was saying when she spoke German and was pretty sure he knew when she got to French.  And then she ended by reading in English.  “Mommy, I’m hungry.”

He said that he thought about what she said all the way home.  He got to the north edge of Atlanta and saw a billboard – “All you can eat $5.99.”  But all he could think about was, “Mommy, I’m hungry.”

Paul said to the church, “Don’t worry about me.  Whether I live or die, I’ll be just fine.  Now you have Christ and you have all of these human needs around you.  Go and be the church.  Make me proud.  Let the way that you live be worthy of the gospel.”  Amen.

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