Sermon – Sunday, May 25, 2014
St. Bartholomew’s Church – Hanover, PA
Mentors can make a significant impact on a person’s life. Today’s letter from Paul to the Philippians reminds me of a true story about a young girl who I’ll call Stella. She found herself in her junior year of high school at a brand new school in a brand new state. Stella was far away from the couple of friends she had made in her early years of school. But now she was in a strange place and she didn’t want to be there. She wanted to go home, back to the place of comfort. It may have been a tough school with kids who would bully you just because you might dress differently, but it was what she knew. The unknown of where she was now terrified her. Stella knew that her mom had a good reason for moving Stella and her sister there. As a struggling single mom who had gotten out of an abusive relationship, Stella’s mom had the chance to turn their lives around with this new job opportunity at a college. Yet while Stella and her sister understood the reason behind the move, they were unhappy about having to start over again.
Stella’s grade’s weren’t the greatest, in fact they were pretty poor, and Mr. Herbert took particular notice. He couldn’t help but see the big baggy pants, the gloomy face, the downcast stares. Did she even care about school? He wondered. This was not going to turn out well and believed in her, but Stella’s mom was, well….Stella’s mom. Stella needed an objective third party individual – someone on the outside of the family who was not biased – who would encourage her. Stella needed a mentor.
Paul needed a mentor too. Yes, it was true that St. Paul – as we call him now – though a leader in the early Christian movement, found himself in need of a lot of help. He was known all over the ancient Greco-Roman world, but not necessarily in a good way. His preaching was not always well received. Sometimes he had to tell the churches things they did not want to hear. He was in trouble with the Roman authorities on many occasions. In Philippi he freed a slave girl from an evil spirit and her owners were upset because now she couldn’t earn money for them. And now Paul is in prison. He needs a mentor – a guide, supporter, one who accompanied him, one who would be in partnership with him though his difficult time.
Ancient prisons were really glorified pits. Prisoners had to rely on people outside the prisons in order to get their needs met. Unlike today, if someone did not bring them food they would starve to death. It is clear in his writings that Paul suffered physically. He wrote late in Philippians that it was so bad that he would prefer death over life, yet “to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.” Paul’s imprisonment was a real and torturous event. He was in the pit.
So many people are in the same circumstances as Paul. Many people suffer in prison for what they have done and for being falsely accused. Yet even more people are in prisons and pits of despair that are not confined to walls. They suffer from mental illness, bullying, poverty, discrimination, and isolation. They walk free, yet they are really caged behind bars of shame, guilt, and regret. They, like Paul, cannot survive without the help of others. They need mentors, partners to accompany them in their journey from darkness into light. This is what Paul is writing about to the church of Philippi in this letter. He is thanking them for their partnership with him in spreading the gospel. Even though Paul was in prison he was filled with gratitude. It was this very situation that caused him to write this letter to the Philippians. Paul says, “what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel.” The congregation at Philippi continued to pray, and support financially the mission work of spreading the gospel, even though Paul was not physically with them. Through their dedication to the work of the church they were a witness that the gospel is more powerful than any chains. It is their willingness to commit to being in a holy partnership that was focused on the mission of Jesus Christ, that gave Paul the strength he needed while in prison. Their love was the visible sign of their partnership in the gospel.
Love is still the sign of the Christian witness today – love that is Christ’s love for as Paul says, “it is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Through our baptism Christ lives and moves through us too. Paul’s prayer for the church in Philippi was that their “love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best.” Through the waters of baptism Christ’s love overflows in and through us to be partners in the gospel with the Triune God and with one another. It is Christ’s love, not fear, that breaks the bonds of injustice. It is Christ’s love that heals the body, mind, and spirit. It is Christ’s love that gives us joy even in the midst of our sufferings because we know that we do not suffer alone. The church is the visible witness of Christ in the world. We are the body of Christ sent into the world to proclaim the Good News – the gospel that delivers all people. The gospel has the power to break the chains of not only injustice, but death itself. This was the hope that Paul clung to as he wrote this letter in prison. His hope is echoed in the writings of others from prison.
In a letter written from a prison cell in Tegel, Germany, on May 21, 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – pastor and theologian – imprisoned for his involvement to put an end to the Nazi regime – clung to this Christian hope. He writes, “If in the middle of an air raid God sends out the gospel call to his kingdom in baptism, it will be quite clear what that kingdom is and what it means. It is a kingdom stronger than war and danger, a kingdom of power and authority, signifying eternal terror and judgment to some, and eternal joy and righteousness to others, not a kingdom of the heart, but one as wide as the earth, not transitory but eternal, a kingdom that makes a way for itself and summons men to itself to prepare its way, a kingdom for which it is worth while risking our lives.” Throughout history, men and women have risked their lives for the sake of the gospel and freedom.
On April 16, 1963, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – imprisoned for participating in a civil rights demonstration – wrote another letter from a city jail in Birmingham, Alabama stating, “Just as the apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Graeco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.” Dr. King knew that the spreading of the gospel of Jesus Christ depended on the partnership of the whole community of believers. And that partnership depends on standing up for justice.
St. Paul in the letter to the Philippians said, “for all of you share in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.” Because we are all united in Christ, we are united in each other. Dr. King stated in his letter from prison, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” We are indeed all God’s children and our partnership in the gospel is a response to the love that God has first shown to each one of us.
While Paul was in prison he had to rely on the good will of others and his congregation supplied those needs. We are called by God to lift up each other and to reveal Christ’s love through living lives of love toward one another. The gospel is heard not merely through our words, but through our actions. Through our baptism, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to embrace the different gifts we each have been given and to live our lives for the sake of others and the gospel. The letter of Paul to the Philippians is a letter to us as well. It is a reminder that the church exists to proclaim God mission for the church and not the church’s mission. It is a gospel of hope and love that shines even in the darkest moments of our lives. It is a gospel that transforms and turns our lives around.
Stella’s life was turned around by the compassion of Mr. Herbert, her high school teacher. Mr. Herbert saw past the big baggy pants that Stella wore to cover up her fear. Mr. Herbert saw behind Stella’s gloomy face and into her kind heart that longed to be infused with confidence. Stella loved to learn, she just didn’t think she was smart, even though she was. Mr. Herbert could see that in the conversations she had after class. And slowly month after month, Stella’s grades improved because of the confidence Mr. Herbert had in her. By the time she graduated high school her grades and her attitude toward school had turned around. He wrote her a glowing recommendation for college that said she was a “diamond in the rough” and that they needed to “look beyond the person on the outside and also see the person on the inside.” Today, thanks to this mentor, Stella just graduated with honors with a master’s degree in elementary education. Because of one person’s belief in her, Stella’s life was transformed. Because of one person’s belief in each one of us – because of Jesus Christ – our lives are forever transformed. That is an experience worth sharing! Amen.