Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2018

Narrative Lectionary, Year 4

Summer Sermon Series: Ten Commandments

Exodus 19:1-6, 20:1-2

This Sunday, we leave behind the Roman Empire of the 1st century AD. We leave behind the pagan streets of Greece, where Christianity was just beginning to gain a foothold, and we leave behind the dusty streets of Jerusalem, where the Holy Spirit fell upon all of Jesus’ disciples. We are now going centuries back in time, where a group of Hebrew people have just been led out of slavery in Egypt by God, through his servants, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, and have arrived at a mountain in the wilderness named Sinai. Here Moses will receive what would come to be known as the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone: those laws that would become foundational for not only the Jewish people, but for Christians—whose faith sprang out of the Jewish faith—and the foundation of laws for much of Western civilization. We wrestle with different aspects of these commandments all of the time; the most public dispute is whether or not they should be on display at government facilities like courthouses. As we begin this first of our summer series on the Ten Commandments, we’re going to go back to the basics and try to understand the context in which these commandments arose. And today, we begin with the storyteller of Exodus setting the scene in which Moses begins to speak with God and will receive the Ten Commandments. This setting of the scene begins with the reason why God is giving this covenant to the people, and that can be summarized with one word: relationship.

The Israelites have just come out of Egypt and into the wilderness, and God has protected them the entire way. God has split the waters of the Red Sea, and the Israelites have passed through on dry ground, and when the Egyptians try to pursue them, the waters come back and drown them. Now these people, who do not know life outside of Egypt, begin to flounder in the wilderness. They encounter water that is not drinkable because it is bitter, and through Moses, God makes the water sweet. When they realize that they have nothing to eat, God rains down bread from heaven, which the Israelites call “manna,” meaning literally, “What is it?” Again, they have no water to drink, and through Moses, God provides water from a rock. The Amalekites come to battle against the Israelites, and God protects them and enables them to win against their enemies. God has done all of this and more for God’s people, the Israelites. Based on this relationship, God tells the Israelites that it is time to make a covenant, and that, if they obey the covenant, they will be God’s treasured people, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.

But one thing that the text is clear about, and the one thing that I want to make certain that we understand is this: these commandments that God gives the Israelites are not some arbitrary set of rules that God made up to take all of the fun out of life. Rather, I want to have us try and approach these commandments as things that make our life with God and our life with one another run more smoothly. I once heard Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, a Jewish professor of the New Testament at Vanderbilt University, say that the Jewish people look at the Law as a married couple would look at household rules. A married couple would have rules to make living together easier, such as this: When one spouse comes home from work, she needs time to herself to decompress and read a portion of a book for fun before she is able to talk about her day with her husband. When that rule isn’t followed, there could be the potential for more friction between the couple, and so the husband, out of love for his wife, finds it joyful and not burdensome to follow that rule and to make life for his wife a little easier. Just so, as we look at the Ten Commandments, we should see these laws not as a burden for us to carry, but as a joy for us to follow, so that our relationship with God and our relationships with one another can be easier and more joyful.

Therefore, the first thing that God does before God even utters the actual laws is to establish that God does have a relationship with the Israelites. God states that God brought the Israelites out of the house of slavery in Egypt, and because God has freed them from slavery, therefore this is how the Israelites should behave. I want you to notice how God frames this: because I have done this, therefore you do this. It is the language, first of all, of ancient covenant treaties. But second, and more importantly, these laws are not to be obeyed so that God will love the Israelites. God already loves the people; if God didn’t love them, then God wouldn’t have freed them from slavery. The Israelite people, and today the Jewish people, rest securely in God’s love. But because they are God’s people, and because they want this relationship with God to work well, and because they love God, therefore they strive to honor God by following the commandments that God gives them. It’s all about relationship.

And this means that the Law is actually good news for us. God loves you so much that God tells me not to murder you, because God loves you. And God loves me so much that God tells you not to steal something from me, because that would hurt me and God does not want to see me hurting. Once again, these commandments are not to be burdensome obligations for us, but they are, rather, to be a testament to how much God loves us, a testament to how much God wants to be in a good relationship with us, and how much God wants us to be in a good relationship with one another and with everything that God has created.

Now that you’ve heard the ideal, though, here is the reality. We are sinful human beings. We make mistakes. We miss the mark. That’s what sin is. The sin that keeps us turned in on ourselves rears its ugly head and breaks relationships: both with God and with one another. We may not actually be worshiping other gods, but, for example, if every decision we make in life thinks about money and about our survival before anything else, then we are putting money above God. We may find it difficult to honor our father and our mother if they suffer from dementia and don’t recognize us anymore. I may not actually murder someone, but if I call that person an idiot, then I am destroying a piece of their soul. The law shows us our sins, as a mirror shows us what we truly look like, and it shows us our need for Jesus.

And just as God showed his love for the Israelites in freeing them from slavery, God shows God’s love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (to quote St. Paul in Romans 5). Just as God established his relationship with the Israelites before giving them the Law on Mount Sinai, reminding them that God had freed them from slavery, God shows God’s love for us by sending God’s Son, Jesus, to die on the cross for our sins. All of those times that we miss the mark, that we sin—Jesus has died for those sins, and he sets us free from our slavery to those sins. So now, just as the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt, we are freed from slavery to sin, and we are now set free to love God and to love our neighbor, as Jesus summarizes the law for us.

But here’s the problem: the word “love” in English too often means “to have warm, fuzzy feelings for someone”. But in the Greek, love means more than that. Love is an action word. In English we have the phrase, “to put your money where your mouth is”. To love as Jesus commands us to do is not simply to have that warm, fuzzy feeling for someone. It means putting our money where our mouth is. It means that, when there is yet another school shooting, we do more than simply say, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” True love for these children would mean working for sensible gun control laws and working to improve both the ways we talk about mental health, as well as improving access to mental health care. True love for our neighbors would mean standing up to our government and saying, “We know that these immigrants came here illegally, but it is not acceptable to separate mothers from their children, no matter who they are.” True love for our neighbor means doing things that put our neighbor’s interests above our own, advocating for them even when whatever the issue is does not seem to affect us. Because if our neighbor is hurting, then it means that we are hurting, too.

Today we celebrate Trinity Sunday, the mystery of three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—in one God. Many people have tried to explain the Trinity over thousands of years and have fallen short. And I think that’s natural: God is much bigger than the human mind can comprehend, and no one explanation of God is going to get everything right. But one explanation that helps me, and makes sense to me at this point in my spiritual journey, is that God is a God of relationships. There is no hierarchy in the Trinity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are, as the Athanasian Creed says, “equal in glory, coequal in majesty”. That’s hard for us humans to understand, because in every society, even a democracy, there are still hierarchies. But whatever else this Three-in-One God is, it is a God who is in relationship with God-self, and it is a loving relationship. And God gives us the Ten Commandments to help us to understand how to live in loving relationship with God and with one another. So, come, let us joyfully live into all of these relationships that God invites us into. Amen.

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Sermon for Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:1-21

Besides being a fan of superhero movies, I am also a fan of other sci-fi movies, including Star Wars. When I went to see the latest Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, after Christmas with my parents, this is the conversation that we had after the movie was over. My mother said that, despite the fact that Kylo Ren tells Rey that her parents were nobody special, she still believes that Kylo Ren and Rey are related somehow. I responded that this was Star Wars and not a soap opera. My parents’ response was that Star Wars was in fact very much like a soap opera, and the Skywalker family was like the royal family, specially gifted by the Force, so that everyone who can use the Force must be related to the Skywalkers somehow. For a while after this conversation, I was a bit disillusioned. But then I started thinking about this, and realized that this is not entirely true. Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi, after all, were not related to the Skywalker family and could use the Force. Before the Empire took over, if you watched the Star Wars prequels, there were other people, unrelated to the Skywalker family, who could use the Force, and finally, in The Last Jedi, the very last scene of the movie shows a small boy sweeping a floor and using the Force to grab his broom. It would seem the Force is more democratic than we have made it out to be.

So, why am I telling you this? As we hear the story of the Holy Spirit coming down upon the disciples today, I think it’s important that we remember that this is not the first time in Luke’s story that the Holy Spirit has appeared. Remember that Acts is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, and in the first book, Luke tells us of a number of times that the Holy Spirit has come upon people. When Mary asks the angel Gabriel how she will conceive a child, since she is a virgin, the angel answers that, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” When Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and speaks of how the child in her womb leapt when she heard the sound of Mary’s greeting. When John the Baptist is born, the Holy Spirit fills his father Zechariah, who prophesies about his son’s ministry. When Jesus is born, and Mary and Joseph take him to the temple, the Holy Spirit fills Simeon, who prophesies about what Jesus will do. And when Jesus is baptized, the Holy Spirit descends on him. So we see that the Holy Spirit has come upon a select few people before the day of Pentecost, according to the story that Luke tells. But what makes the day of Pentecost different is this: the Holy Spirit falls not just on a few people, but rather, on all of Jesus’ disciples who are gathered together and praying. The Holy Spirit is not just for the “royalty,” the Biblical heroes, but rather, it is for everyone: all of Jesus’ disciples.

And that means that the Holy Spirit is for us, too. The Holy Spirit has come upon each one of us and is with us from the moment we are baptized. We may not be empowered to speak in different languages like the first disciples were—as fun as that might be!—but we are empowered to speak about Jesus in words that people around us will understand. When we are divided from other people by barriers of race, class, citizenship vs. immigrant status, sexuality, religion, and so on and so forth: the Holy Spirit is with each one of us and has empowered and will empower each one of us to break down whatever the barrier is in order to speak in words that the other person will understand, so that the good news of Jesus can continue to be proclaimed.

But even more than that: Peter connects this pouring out of the Holy Spirit on all people so that they can tell the good news of Jesus in many different languages to an Old Testament prophecy from the book of Joel. He says that “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” Because we have been given the Holy Spirit, we are now given the ability to prophesy: in other words, to proclaim to the world the love that God has for us; we are given the ability to see the visions and the dreams that God has for this world that God has created. Each one of you has that ability, because each one of you has the Holy Spirit within you. But before you go off and start telling people that, “the Lord has come to me in a vision and this is what he says,” we need to take a step back for a moment. Because the truth is that we are still sinful people, and sometimes our ability to hear and see what God wants is marred by our sin, and sometimes what we think God wants turns out to be really what we want.

And so, I think the best way to test any visions or dreams that we have is this: First, test it against Scripture. There are two Scripture verses that are easy for us to remember when we are thinking about what God wants from us, one from the Old Testament, and one from the New. The one from the Old Testament is Micah 6:8: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” And the one from the New Testament comes from Matthew 22:34-40. When the Pharisees tested Jesus and asked him which commandment was the greatest, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And the second was this: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If the vision or dream that you have does not fall in line with these two parts of Scripture, then it’s probably your own agenda, and not God’s.

But let’s say that your vision or dream does fall in line with these two sections of Scripture. The second thing you should do, then, is to test it within the community of Christians of which you are a part. For example, and I hope that he doesn’t mind me using him as an example, Jeff will often come into choir practice on Wednesday night and announce, “Hey, guys, I had a dream.” The choir will groan, but once Jeff tells us what his dream is, we usually try it out, and I think the stats will say that 9 times out of 10, we go along with whatever his musical dream or vision was. And it turns out fine. The same thing applies when you think that God has given you a dream or a vision of what God wants from you: talk to the Christian community around you and see what they have to say about it. If you have a dream, for example, that God wants you to go and proclaim the good news by going to Guatemala and living among the people there and serving them, then talk to your sisters and brothers in Christ and see if they think that God is calling you to do this. God often makes God’s voice heard in the voices of the community around you.

So, this is what I think God’s dream is for the communities that surround our churches. God wants to see God’s people leading the way in these communities in doing justice. That means that we need to roll up our sleeves and find out what’s going on out there—what are the concerns that the community has. One issue that I see is that both Oberlin and Steelton lie in what is called “food deserts”. That means that the only places within walking distance for people to get food are Turkey Hill, Rite Aid, and other convenience stores. This means this food is more expensive and not as healthy. I know that the city has plans to bring in a grocery store, but that could still take a while. In the meantime, we churches could increase the number of community meals that we offer, or we could participate in caring for the community gardens that are being planned in Steelton, or we could organize transportation for people who need to get to grocery stores outside of the area. In these small ways, we would be working to do justice in our neighborhoods: by helping to fill the gap created by a lack of healthy food.

Besides doing justice in our communities, God’s dream is for us to love kindness. Loving kindness can take many different forms. It can mean listening to people in our communities and hearing their stories. It can mean that when someone makes a racist remark or an off-color joke, kindly explaining to that person why such speech is not okay and is not God-pleasing. It can mean helping a stranger haul their groceries or other load into their home. Most of all, it means just being gentle with one another, knowing that we all have problems in our lives, and it means helping one another to carry our burdens.

Finally, after doing justice and loving kindness, God’s dream is for us to walk humbly with our God. For me, this means realizing that we don’t have all the answers, and we never will, because we are not God. Do you know that one of the top 10 reasons that people outside the church don’t come to church is that they believe that religious people are too judgmental? When did we Christians forget Jesus’ teaching, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged?” As we strive to walk humbly with our God, I believe that the Holy Spirit is calling us to repent of being judgmental. I believe that God dreams of a time when Christians are truly known for their love, rather than for sitting in judgment of other people and the decisions that they make.

The Holy Spirit is for all of us, and is in all of us. The Holy Spirit calls each of us to different tasks, but unifies us as Christians and points to Jesus as the leader in everything we do. The Holy Spirit helps to break down barriers between different groups of people. The Holy Spirit reminds us that we are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. In doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God, we show our love for both God and for our neighbors. Don’t be afraid of visions and dreams—these are often how the Holy Spirit nudges us to love God and neighbor. Test the visions and dreams, and when you are satisfied that God is the one calling you, don’t be afraid to take that leap of faith that God is calling you towards. God will be there beside you the whole way, and the community of faith in Jesus will be with you to support you. So don’t be afraid to let the Holy Spirit have its say, and don’t be afraid to have your world turned upside down. Amen.

Sermon for Easter 7 Narrative Lectionary

Philippians 2:1-13

In the first Avengers movie, there is a scene where our heroes have captured the villain, Loki, who is from Asgard, and are flying him on a plane to a secure location. All of a sudden, there is a thunderstorm, and Thor, the god of thunder, lands on the airplane, grabs Loki, and jumps out. As our heroes Iron Man and Captain America follow them out of the plane, Black Widow says to Captain America that he might want to sit this fight out, because Loki and Thor both come out of legend and are basically gods. And Captain America’s response is this: “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t look like that.” This movie conversation came to mind as I was thinking about today’s text from Philippians. In this text, Paul writes to the Philippians that they should have the same mind in them as that mind found in Christ Jesus. And his description of Christ Jesus, whom they—and we—worship as the Lord, is completely different from any gods that this group might have worshiped before hearing the good news of Jesus Christ. As Captain America might have said, Jesus certainly doesn’t look like any other god that they might see around them.

As I was saying to the Thursday morning Bible study group this week, when we compare 1st century Greco-Roman society to 21st century North American society, we may find some general similarities, but there are still a lot of differences. From our vantage point of a society where Christianity is generally regarded as an acceptable faith to have, we can’t understand how radical and how dangerous a faith it was to have in the Roman Empire. And as we look at Paul’s description of who Jesus Christ was in this chapter, we have to try to hear it first with the ears of the 1st century Greco-Roman Empire before we try to understand what it means to us in this American Empire that we live in.

So, first, let’s look at what theologians call the idea of the incarnation in this hymn. Incarnation is a big, fancy word that means Jesus, as God, became human and lived among us. Now in the Greco-Roman world, this was not anything new. There were stories about gods, especially Zeus, the king of the gods, putting on human form and coming down to live among humans for a time. But the difference between the Greek gods and what Paul is describing here in Philippians is this: the reason that the divine became human. For example, when Zeus became human, according to the legends, it was mostly to play tricks on humanity, including sleeping with human women and getting them pregnant. Jesus doesn’t do that. Jesus, as the second person of the Trinity, empties himself. He takes the form of a slave. He serves humanity by showing us how to love and to serve one another. And he becomes obedient to the point of death. He chooses to die on a cross, which was the most humiliating and lowly way that anyone in the Roman Empire could be executed. Zeus and the other Greek gods would never, ever have done that. So this idea of the divine loving humankind so much that he would come to earth to serve us and die for us instead of playing tricks on us was so new, radical, and different, that it would have caught the attention of people who were very concerned about their status in society.

So, now we come to the next part of the description of Jesus. Because Jesus did this, God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. You all are probably going to get tired of hearing me say this, but this is the learning that heavily impressed itself in my brain when I was traveling in Greece and Turkey to all of these sites where Paul had been. Every person in the Roman Empire was supposed to acknowledge that the Emperor was a god. That means going to one of the many temples dedicated to the Emperor, burning some incense, and saying, “Caesar is Lord”. For most people in the Empire, this was not a big deal: they just added the emperor to the list of the many gods that they already had. For the Jewish people, who worshiped only one God, the Empire said that as long as prayers were said for the emperor in the temple, they did not have to acknowledge the emperor as divine. But consider now how it would sound for Christians to be going around denying that Caesar is Lord, but saying instead that Jesus is Lord: someone whom the Romans had shamefully crucified is higher than the Emperor. That’s treason, and the punishment for treason is death.

Jesus is Lord. Such a simple statement for us to make today. No one thinks twice about it, because all those of us who believe this statement have no problem saying it, and those who don’t: well, they may want to discuss it with us, but they’re not able to throw us in prison for treason because of it. Jesus is Lord. What was treason once upon a time is something that is easy for us to say in the American Empire in which we live. But do we understand what it means for us to say that Jesus is Lord?

Scholars think that these verses describing who Jesus is and what he did are not original to Paul, but rather that Paul quoted a hymn that the Philippian church would have been familiar with. Why does he do that? Well, like any church, there were disagreements among the people about how ministry should happen. Later on in this letter, Paul calls out two of the women who were arguing, Euodia and Syntyche, to stop their disagreement and be of one mind in the Lord. Being of one mind in the Lord does not mean that we in the church will always agree with one another. It does mean, however, that disagreements with one another should not divide the congregation. When we have disagreements, we should come together and discuss them, remembering that even though we have different opinions about something, the statement that Jesus Christ is Lord is what unifies us above all other things.

And because Jesus Christ is Lord, and we know that at his name every knee should bend, it means that the things we disagree about are not of ultimate importance in the long run. Therefore, when we look to resolve our disagreements about which direction the church should go in its ministry, we need to do so with the humility that Jesus modeled for us. We should consciously be seeking the welfare of others, and not ourselves. And that consciously seeking the welfare of others means not just those of us inside these church walls, but also those outside of our church walls as well. Just as God emptied God-self into human form in the person of Jesus in order to serve humankind and to become obedient to death in the most humiliating way possible—for us, and not for his own glory—we too are called to empty ourselves and to love and serve one another, sometimes in ways we cannot possibly imagine.

What does this emptying of ourselves to love and serve one another look like? Well, here are some examples. It looks like a woman caring for her husband who has dementia and does not remember who she is any longer. It looks like the man in Australia, who, when doctors discovered that he had antibodies in his blood that could save the lives of many children, donated blood every week until he was too old to do so any longer, so that those children could live. It looks like offering comfort to a complete stranger in the vet’s office because she’s just had to have her dog put down and she has no one there with her to hug her and give her a shoulder to cry on. And it looks like not separating immigrant mothers from their children at the border even when they have violated the law in crossing our borders illegally. And when that does happen, self-emptying looks like church communities, clothed in compassion, who go to these families who are being detained to offer comfort, material support, and advocacy so that parents may be reunited with their children.

“There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t look like that.” Our God does not look flashy and handsome like Thor, and he doesn’t play tricks on us like Zeus. Our God is Jesus, the one who had nothing in his appearance to attract anyone to him. Our God emptied himself and became human for us. He served us and he loved us and he showed us what it means to love and serve one another, to empty ourselves and put the interests of others before ourselves. And ultimately, Jesus, our God, died the most humiliating death possible—for us. Therefore, how can we not follow the model of our God as we interact with one another? We’re human, and we’re not going to get it right all of the time—far from it. And God gives us forgiveness and grace when we stumble and fall. But let us strive to model Jesus in our dealings with one another, being of one mind in Christ Jesus, and confessing with our tongue that Jesus Christ is Lord. Amen.

Sermon for Easter 6 Narrative Lectionary

Philippians 1:1-18a

This week, we move from the book of Acts to Paul’s letter to the Philippians. And I want to take a step back for a moment, and have us remember why people used to write letters. In the days before email, Facebook, Twitter, and all of the other social media platforms, it wasn’t as easy to communicate with friends and family who lived at a distance from where you were. Many of us here today, including myself, remember hand-written letters, and it’s a reminder to us that these instant forms of communication that we have today haven’t always been around, and are, in fact, relatively new in the history of people communicating with one another. For example, when I was growing up, my parents told me that, whenever my grandparents or my aunts or uncles sent me birthday or Christmas gifts, I was required to sit down and hand write a note saying thank you. It didn’t have to be a long letter, maybe I could write a couple of sentences about what I was doing or, if the gift was money, how I was planning to spend it, but my parents impressed on me the importance of letting people know that I was thankful for whatever they had done for me. And of course, people wrote letters for other purposes as well, from legal notices to just saying hello to someone they hadn’t seen for a long time.

Today, though, I want to focus on the thank-you letter, for this is part of what Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi is about. In the first chapter that we have before us today, we read that Paul is currently in prison. He does not say, in this letter, where he is in prison, and so scholars try to guess where he is from other clues that he left both in this letter and in some of his other letters, as well as Luke’s account of Paul’s missionary journeys in the book of Acts. When Paul wrote this letter, he might have been in prison in Ephesus, in which case the letter to the Philippians would have been one of his earlier letters. Or, Paul could have been in prison in Rome, in which case Philippians would have been one of his last letters. Scholars have fun arguing about this, and if you are interested in the case for each side, I can tell you more about that after worship. It really doesn’t matter for our purposes today. What we do see is Paul thanking God for the Christian community at Philippi, because they have shared in spreading the good news of Jesus from the very first day of the community up until this point, when Paul is writing to them. Paul is thankful for many things that the Philippian community has done, but one thing in particular he is thankful for is this: in the first century, when you were in prison, your family and friends were responsible for coming to the prison and providing you with food and other care, not the prison guards. The Philippians have provided Paul with that material support, and for that, among other reasons, he is giving thanks for this Christian community.

So, let’s take a quick look at the people to whom Paul is writing. We were in Philippi two weeks ago, when we heard the story of Paul and Silas in prison, so some of what I’m going to say may sound familiar to those of you who were here on that Sunday. Philippi was a small town in northern Greece, nestled in a valley with high mountains all around it. If there were a way to project pictures in here, I would show you some of the pictures I took so you would be able to have a better idea of what the surroundings looked like. Philippi was a stop on a major Roman road called the Via Egnatia, which ran from the Bosporus Strait, near Istanbul, through Greece, all the way to the Adriatic Sea. Philippi was named after King Philip II, who had conquered this area of Greece for himself and who was the father of Alexander the Great. It was a sleepy town until the year 42 BC, when Marc Antony and Octavian defeated Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar, on this site. As a reward to the veterans of the victorious armies, these former soldiers were allowed to retire here and enjoy a good standard of living, including Roman citizenship and exemption from all taxes. This was a town steeped in the Greco-Roman lifestyle, and one whose people probably understood well the concepts of duty, loyalty, and honor.

So, Paul came to this town, started a church, and then continued on his way. He winds up in prison in another city, and the church that he started in Philippi sends him things that he needs to survive in prison, as well as probably sending a letter along with the person taking the supplies to let Paul know how they are and what is happening. And Paul is thankful for what they have done for him, but even more so, he is thankful for the Philippians’ partnership in the gospel with him. That partnership is not simply sending money and goods to Paul when he is in need, although it does include that. The Greek word that is translated as “sharing” here is koinonia, which can mean fellowship, association, communion, or close relationship. This word goes far beyond the idea of sharing things. It is a deep and close relationship of love that Paul has with the Philippian community. They have all experienced Jesus together, and they are unified in purpose with Jesus as their head.

And so, with this idea of koinonia, a deep, loving, abiding relationship with one another, unified in purpose with Jesus as our head, I would like for us to ask ourselves if we are experiencing this koinonia in our congregations. I think we are good at some aspects of this idea. For example, we understand the idea of material support for one another. We have collections for our local food banks. St. John’s has taken on hosting responsibilities for Family Promise, and Salem has provided material support and volunteers for that program. St. John’s hosts a free community breakfast and clothes bank once a month. We have various combined dinners where we come together and get to know one another better, and we have fellowship with one another. We are now working more closely with Trinity in Steelton and St. Peter’s in Highspire on various projects, presenting a more unified Lutheran front to the community around us, including a joint Vacation Bible School. These things, and probably others that I have not named, are some of the joys that I have seen in the last year that I have been here working and living among all of you. These are the joys of koinonia that I give thanks for.

But along with the joys that we experience, there are also challenges. And here is one major challenge that I see for us: most of these things that we do are able to be duplicated by non-religious groups around us. So, what makes us different from groups like the Rotary Club, the Lions Club, or Kiwanis? Well, it should be Jesus, but I don’t really hear a lot of us speaking about our faith when we have these events. I know that many of us hope, every time we have a meal or another event that we open to the community, that people who come may be interested enough to join us again for worship. But again, people who come to these meals and other events need to hear about Jesus’ love for them a little more explicitly than what we are currently doing. They could go, and they do go, to dozens of other places for free meals. What makes us different? We need to learn how to speak more freely about our faith—not with the hope of converting people, because that’s the Holy Spirit’s job—but with that deep joy that we have experienced because Jesus loved us enough to die on the cross for us, and then, three days later, be resurrected and give us, too, that promise of resurrection.

In the passage that we have from Philippians today, Paul writes this: “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” This is my prayer for you, too. I want all of you to grow and to deepen in the faith that I know you already have, so that you not only can determine what is best, but also so that the harvest that Jesus produces through you may be even greater than it already is, and may be for the witness to the community around us and the glory and praise of God. So, this week, I am giving all of you an assignment. Find someone you trust and start to practice speaking about your faith with that person. This is practice, so this person can be either inside the church or outside of it. I’m thinking that if you start with someone you trust, then it will become easier for you to speak about your faith with a person you don’t know as well who needs to hear the good news. You can tell them about your faith in Jesus, and that this is why you come to church on Sundays, so that you can see Jesus. But please, try to make Jesus your starting point when you invite someone to church, and not the people in the church. Yes, we have a good community, but people can find friends anywhere. If we are not about Jesus and about seeing Jesus, then we really don’t have anything to offer people that they cannot find elsewhere.

Just as Paul was thankful for the Philippians, I am thankful for all of you at both Salem and St. John’s. I am thankful for the many ways I have seen Jesus at work in you and through you in this past year. And my prayer for this next year is that you would all keep growing and deepening in your faith, and that our koinonia, our fellowship, our relationships with one another, would become more loving and unified in purpose, with Jesus as our head. So, please don’t forget about this assignment: speak about your faith to one person this week, and why it matters to you. I believe that we do have something still to offer this community, and I believe that Jesus is working through our koinonia to make his presence known to Steelton and Oberlin. Jesus has made a difference in my life, and I know that he has made a difference in your lives, too. Go out now from this place, and find ways to share this good news with others. Amen.