Rev. Christa Fuller Burns
Faith Presbyterian Church
Philippians 1:1-18 – May 6 2018
A letter from Christa, a servant of Jesus Christ, to all those in Baltimore, specifically those at Faith Church, who are God’s people.
First of all, when Paul wrote a letter to his folk in Philippi, he addressed it to the saints in Philippi. The translation you heard this morning translates saints as those “who are God’s people in Christ Jesus”. Now, you may automatically assume that “you who are God’s people” means saints but I am not taking that for granted especially since in his letters to the church in Corinth, for example, he says “ to the church in Corinth”, which may or may not include some saints. In his letter to Philippi, there is no ambiguity: “To all the saints in Christ Jesus”. We know Paul had a special deal for the people in Philippi. He was especially close to the Philippian church. In his mind, they were all saints.
So, too, I want to address my letter to all the saints because that is how I see the people of Faith – all – all of you are saints.
So, to all the saints at Faith:
May the grace and peace from God and from Jesus Christ be with you.
I know this greeting runs the risk of sounding like “Yo, how ya doin’?” or my standard “blessings” but I think we should take a moment and think about what it means to tell someone that you wish God’s peace and grace for them. It occurs to me that we might take this kind of greeting for granted. I wonder if, even though we know a person is full up with all manner of anxiety and conflict, simply speaking those words – grace and peace be with you – has power. Just speaking those words brings at least a portion of them into reality. I was out for my morning walk last week especially early and I passed the apartment building I always pass on the way. A man came out carrying a small suit case. Shortly thereafter a woman came out who was very pregnant. I stopped and asked, because I am nosy, “Are you on the way to the hospital? Yes, she said. Hopkins. I said something so simple to me, “Blessings to you” at which point the woman was visibly touched. I could have said grace and peace be with you – simply speaking those words brings them into reality. So. Wherever you are this morning, whatever burden you are carrying, whatever hurt you feel deep in your heart, whatever you are fearful of – May grace and peace be with you.
I want you to know how thankful I am for you. Another way of saying that is “I am thankful for you every time I remember you in my prayers. I remember Garrison Keillor in one of his Lake Wobegon stories telling about, as a small boy, the Sunday dinners at his grandparents’ house and how important it was to him to hear his grandfather mention him by name in prayer. We’ve had many debates over the years about how we do the prayers on Sunday morning but isn’t it important to lift people up in prayer by naming them?
I admit, I probably do not pray as much as I should, at least in the way people think you should pray. I do not kneel every night by my bed and talk to God (first of all, I do not kneel for much of anything anymore). I figure there are lots of ways to pray. Sometimes I pray when I’m driving around. Sometimes I pray when I can’t decide what to do. Sometimes I pray at baseball games – something like, since Friday was May 4th, Star Wars day – May the force be with you. Sometimes I pray and I say “just relax – it’s all going to be okay”.
Back to my letter: I want you to know how much you are in my thoughts and, I admit, worries. I want you to know how much you are in my prayers and when I think about you I am full of joy because of the way you have been partners with me in ministry. When I think about all the worship we’ve led together, all the meetings, all the decisions, all the budgets, all the meals, all the marches, all the working in the community, all the times we’ve been in communion with each other around this table – I am thankful for you.
And, I am convinced that God will enable you to complete the job of being church together. No. We haven’t done everything we’d hoped to. No. We haven’t welcomed our community through our doors in the numbers like we wanted. I still hope we can pull off a new sound system and an updated personnel policy before I leave. We still have unfinished projects. There will always be unfinished projects. There is, in fact, unfinished business. And, I know, you feel uncertain and perhaps anxious about what the future will bring. But that’s OK because I am confident that God will use you to complete the work of the church of Jesus Christ on Loch Raven Boulevard. No matter where I am, you will always be my partners in God’s grace. Isn’t that a beautiful idea? I will keep you in my heart and together we will still be working for the same end, the same gospel, the same Jesus. We will continue to be partners in God’s grace.
This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich and that you will continue to grow in knowledge and understanding of what it means to follow Christ. I pray that, in the days and years ahead, you will be able to decide what is really important because a lot of the stuff the church does isn’t all that important. Our trips to Cuba have helped me to see what is important. Our sister churches in Cuba have no hymnals, no detailed budgets, no personnel policies. Our sister churches don’t even have pastors! What is important? Worship that is alive and vibrant and daring and prophetic and that has integrity is important. Your relationships are important – the care you give each other when there is hurt or joy or need. Our children are important. May they always feel empowered and at home in this church. Witnessing is important. I know a lot of you feel you have no voice. I was at the baseball game last week and saw an acquaintance and when I told her I was retiring, she said, Oh you should come to our church! You’d love it! She was witnessing. That is all you have to do sometimes – extend an invitation.
I say all the time, there is not any other church like Faith. I know I am bragging (Paul did say certain types of boasting are OK) but it’s true. We are diverse in every way but we are also committed to taking the gospel of justice to those places that sorely need it. Our little church raised close to $3000 for DACA applications. I’m proud of that. We were among the first churches to have partnerships in Cuba. Because we were committed to Gay Pride, St. Matthews joined us and now we have close to 40 congregations who march together. We’ve used our voices and our money to stand for inclusive love and the rights of all people. Paul says there is fruit in righteousness. Let’s consider that sentence: “I pray that you then be filled with the fruit of righteousness: “Filled” means not only completed but brought to maturity; perfected. Scholars tell us that “the idea is not only spatial but moral and spiritual” (Thurston and Ryan, Philippians and Philemon). The term “Fruits of righteousness” comes from the Hebrew scriptures. In Proverbs 11:30 we read: The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, but violence takes lives away.” And in Amos, we read: “But you have turned justice into poison and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood…” (6:13). Justice is righteousness. So, I pray that you will be full of righteousness!
Brothers and sisters – well, I just have to point out that Paul, in his letter, specifically refers to brothers and sisters indicating the importance women had in his church and ours. Brothers and sisters, my retirement is actually going to mean growth for this congregation! While I am not in prison like Paul was when he wrote his letter to the church in Philippi, I know that my departure will be hard if for no other reason than the questions it raises: Who will come to see me when I am in the hospital? Who will bury me? Who will marry me? What will happen to the budget? What will happen to our membership? We have to listen to Paul, then, when he says this transition will actually advance the gospel. We have to trust Paul when he implies that change can be the occasion for growth. Paul says this: “Most of the brothers and sisters have had more confidence through the Lord to speak the word boldly and bravely because of my jail time.
What do I think about this? Just this: since Christ is proclaimed in every possible way, especially in those times of transition, I am glad and I will continue to be glad!