“I thank my God every time I remember you ..." - Paul
My dearest St. Margaret’s, “I thank my 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. 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 Christ Jesus.”
If ever I were to write a love letter to St. Margaret’s, I would steal these words from Paul to the Philippians. You see, Paul saw in the Philippians what I see in you: a community of faith alive with the Holy Spirit, sharing the Good News of Christ Jesus in our community. A little over four years ago, I became your rector. You were bruised and battered, having not only survived a tumultuous relationship with your last rector, but also a strained relationship with an interim, as well as the absence of consistent leadership for over two years through the limits of a supply priest. Having had years of struggle, I quickly came to realize that St. Margaret’s had some baggage. But St. Margaret’s also had a sense of tenacity, determination, and a deep-rooted joy that could not be stifled. You see, as Paul writes, I could see that over fifty years ago, “the one who began a good work among you [would] bring [that good work] to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” I knew God was not done with us yet.
And so, over time, I came to love each of you: not the dreamy romantic love of love birds, but the kind of love that family has for each other. That is what people usually describe as being so wonderful about St. Margaret’s: that we are like family. Now when I first heard that description, I got a little nervous. I have served at too many funerals and weddings to know that every family has some drama. Every family has a loud Uncle Carl, crazy Aunt Bessie, or overbearing Grandma Jones. Every family has experienced sibling drama or tensions between parent and child. Describing St. Margaret’s as being like a family made me wary. I began to wonder who the loud uncle, the crazy aunt, or the overbearing grandma were in this community. But over the years, I began to understand more fully why the description of St. Margaret’s as family works so well. Don’t get me wrong, we have our loud uncles, crazy aunts, and overbearing grandmas – though I will never tell you who they are! But like a family, we know each other. We know each other’s foibles, quirks, and tendencies. We know each other’s hurts, failures, and embarrassing moments. We even know how to predict the reactions of each other to any given situation. But also like family, we love each other anyway. We love each other in the way that loving mothers, protective fathers, supporting sisters, and encouraging brothers can. We love each other not despite our weaknesses but because of those weaknesses. In fact, no matter how much we might annoy each other at times, those foibles, quirks, and tendencies are what we have come to love about one another. In essence, we have come to see each other with the loving eyes that Christ has for each of us. We have come to love like Paul.[i] Somewhere deep in our hearts, we too pray, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.”
Paul gushes about the Philippians today: about how much he loves them, how proud he is of their work to spread the Good News, and how he sees Christ moving and acting among them for good. But Paul’s letter is not simply a letter of affirmation – a love letter for the Philippians to put under their pillows and pull out when they are feeling low. Paul’s letter is more. Paul’s letter comes with a charge. “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.” Paul does not want the Philippians to keep this love to themselves. He wants them to let their love overflow into action. [ii]
The more and more I read Paul’s charge this week, the more and more I began to see the mission of St. Margaret’s in his words.[iii] Several years ago, St. Margaret’s took up a mantra. We want to be a community of faith seeking Christ, serving Christ, and sharing Christ in our community and beyond. First, we want to be a community seeking Christ – a community committed to learning more about this God we follow, and deepening our journey with Christ. As Paul says, we want to build up knowledge and full insight to help us determine what is best. And so that is a part of our work here. We are teaching our children how to walk in the way of Christ. We are studying God’s word and challenging one another to grow through prayer, reading, and reflection. We are engaging in meaningful worship that inspires and delights us, and helps us to connect with our God. We are a community of faith seeking Christ.
We are also a community of faith serving Christ. As Paul says, we are letting our love overflow. St. Margaret’s is a community that cares about others – not just those inside the doors, but outside the doors too. I see that love in the ways that wallets open as soon as we learn of a need in our community. I see that love when you think of others when grocery shopping for yourselves, adding in a few extra cans or boxes for people you have never met. I see that love when we spread peanut butter and scoop jelly, praying that the recipient of that sandwich might know the love of Christ that you have known and be encouraged in their struggle. Our love overflows into vegetable gardens, into grief support groups, and into the hearts and minds of those who long for love. We are a community of faith serving Christ.
We are also a community of faith sharing Christ. As Paul says, we are to let our love overflow so that it might produce a harvest. What I have loved about this community is that although we are nervous about sharing the Good News – of evangelizing – we share the Good News anyway. When you gush with friends about the meaningful thing that happened at church, when you tell a stranger about how your church is doing good work, or when you serve as an example of Christ-like love in the world, you are sharing the Good News. We do that when we walk in the parade, we do that when we put our name on baseball jerseys, and we do that when we wear our St. Margaret’s shirts to the gym, grocery store, or shopping mall. We are a community of faith sharing Christ.
We are a community of faith seeking Christ, serving Christ, and sharing Christ because the love, joy, and acceptance we have found inside these walls is not just for us. Fifty-two years ago, God began a good work in us. God planted the seeds of righteousness in this community, and today we are invited to harvest that work. And Paul assures us, as he assured the Philippians years ago, that God will bring to completion the good work began in us. All we have to do is let our love overflow – overflow from us, overflow from our beautiful, complicated relationships with one another, and overflow from our community out into the world. So tuck that love letter under your pillow when you need affirmation and a reminder that you are doing the good work that God calls you to do. But also pull out that love letter when you feel weary – when you need to be inspired to get back out there, to seek Christ, serve Christ, and share Christ. God loves you with a deep affection; and God wants your love to overflow to others more and more. Amen.
[i] Leander E. Keck, ed., New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 11 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 484.
[ii] Philip E. Campbell, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 39.
[iii] Edward Pillar, “Commentary on Philippians 1.3-11,” December 6, 2015 as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2695 on December 3, 2015.