Heavenly Creatures

Passage: Philippians 3:17-4:1
Date: March 17, 2019
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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Maybe you all had a similar experience to mine. When I was younger, often when I’d leave the house for one reason or another, my mother would call out, “Remember who you’re representing!” I’m not sure if she meant that as a joke or a warning, but either way the implication was the same: the way we behave says a great deal about who we are, who our people are, and where we come from.

I thought of that as I read the text for this week. We find ourselves in the middle of Paul’s lovely and strong letter to the Philippians. A few things to remember about Philippians: Paul had had a long and happy relationship with this community which he helped to establish. He now writes this letter from prison, and despite his circumstances, chooses to write in joy and faith.

Philippi had been a Roman colony for about a hundred years, and as part of the great Roman empire, its citizens had certain privileges. As Romans, they had rights to property and legal protections, and they were exempt from taxes levied on those who were not citizens of Rome. As a city loyal to Rome, its citizens would be surrounded by worship of the emperor. Scholars believe the city was made up of those with both Greek and Italian ancestry and that there was actually a minimal Jewish presence there.

So from prison Paul writes this beloved community of Jesus followers, encouraging them to join him in imitating Christ. He reminds them that they are not of this world, that they are, in fact, citizens of Heaven, living as foreigners in a strange land.

In reminding them that they are from the colony of Heaven, Paul is urging the Philippians to remember whom they are representing. Remember, he writes, you follow Jesus Christ, and there are places he goes and things he does that you do too. There are also places he does not go, and things he does not do, and those are off limits for you. In essence, Paul believes that there are behaviors that are not worthy of the gospel, and not loving neighbor, not being in solidarity with the neighbor, is a primary unworthy behavior.

That says something to us, doesn’t it? Now I don’t know how often you think about whether or not your behavior reflects the good news of Jesus Christ, the call to love neighbor. I think about it a lot, but I’m a pastor, and we are an odd sort of people. But sometimes I can’t quite follow Jesus – I need to imitate another human being who is imitating Jesus.

That happens for me with art, too. If I want to draw a rose, going out to the parking lot in the summer with my sketchpad and pencil to draw a rose from real life doesn’t work for me. I have a much easier time looking at someone else’s drawing of a rose, and working from that.

Jesus is so remote. We read about him in the gospels, and we tell each other the stories about him and the parables and all of that, but sometimes we need not our memory and picture of Jesus but a real person.

We have had some of those people here at Westminster. I so wish I had known Louise Scott – the stories told about her are stories of a generous, wise, courageous, faithful woman. I am grateful that I did know Ann and Bruce Huntwork, who could have had so much worldly success with all the benefits that a doctor’s family can have, but they chose a different way, a way of sacrifice and peace. I miss the example that they set for us. Harold Kurtz is another person I wish I had known – a former missionary to Ethiopia who would take advantage of the time to share joys and concerns to offer a mini (or not so mini) sermon. He was not afraid to claim his citizenship in Heaven and to proclaim the good news.

There are people I follow in imitation of Christ, but as some of them are here, I won’t name them for fear of embarrassing them. Do you have people whose behavior sets your standard? Are there people in your life – real people whom you know, not people you read about – whose faithful living sets a high bar for you?I hope so.We need those people.

What makes you a Christian, not in theory but in practice?
Not the words you say but the deeds you do.
Not the beliefs you can agree with but the sacrifices you make.
Not stating that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior, but following him into the darkness and into the light.

I love how commentator Elsa Tamez put it. She writes, “In Paul’s view, to be a mere human being, a citizen of God’s reign, means being shaped according to Christ, and not according to Caesar. This implies a radical transformation.” (commentary on Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon) Put more plainly, we who would imitate Christ are called to live a cross-shaped life. A cross-shaped life. This is what that means to me.

The vertical of the cross both grounds us and lifts us up. Our feet are firmly planted on this earth created by God and declared good, this earth that we are managing to destroy little by little. We are not untethered, floating aimlessly. We tread the same earth as our friends and brothers and sisters in New Zealand, in Israel and Palestine, in Alabama and under the Broadway Bridge.

The vertical of the cross always points us upward, where we may imagine Heaven, our true home, to be. We lift up our eyes to the vaults of the day and night skies, and we see the handiwork of God there, and we connect with our Creator, whose vastness is beyond our imagining, whose love is beyond our hope.

We are called to live a cross-shaped life. 

We stretch out our arms to the person sitting next to us in the pew, to the families who call our parking lot their home, to the kids who walked out of school on Friday because they desperately want Earth to sustain them into old age. We stretch out our arms to those who grieve – grieve the death of someone they loved so deeply, grieve the change in the world order where the old ways no longer have sway, grieve the diminishment of their life.

We stretch out our arms to those people whom Jesus reached: the beggar, the dying, the hated tax-collector, the foreign woman who didn’t know her place, the tired, those carrying heavy burdens, the lost, and the unrepentant.

We are called to live a cross-shaped life, described this way by commentator Mark Hopper.“Cruciform living is the opposite of escapism. It is our active engagement in the suffering of the world as we empty ourselves and discover the scandal of a life never before imagined. This life points to something beyond all hope, that God … will transform this life into something of a different kind altogether….Imitating Christ is never joyless drudgery. It is the confident hope that we shall be like him.”(Feasting on the Word, Second Sunday in Lent, Year C.)

This Lent we are preaching from the letters of Paul and we are encouraging our own letter writing. This week, I invite you to write a letter to someone whose faith walk you imitate. It may be someone who inspires you or humbles you by the way they love their neighbor. It may be someone living or someone long dead whose example you have never forgotten.If they’re living, send the letter to them. If they have returned to their true home in Heaven, send the letter to one of their descendants.

We might call these people we write to our ancestors in the faith, the people who went before us and showed us how. If we go back far enough, eventually we look to our scripture to see our ancestors. We see Paul, certainly, and Dorcas and Lydia, and the disciples and Mary Magdalene.We see King David and his great grandmother Ruth.If we go back even further, we see Father Abraham.

I’ve been thinking about Father Abraham this week, that patriarch in Genesis whom the three monotheistic faiths hold in common. We and our Jewish kin are descended from Father Abraham and Mother Sarah. Our Muslim kin are descended from Father Abraham and Mother Hagar.

Our prayers have gone out to our distant kin these past few days, to those reeling from the violence and hatred shown in Christchurch. The irony, right? In Christchurch where hate of neighbor took the lives of 49 people. The terror is made all the worse by the fact that these people were gathered in their holy places to worship God. They were deep in prayer. They were vulnerable.

Our Muslim kin do not practice cross-shaped lives, nor should they. The pattern of their faith is different. We might describe it as a prayer-shaped life, as they commit to stopping all activity five times a day to fall to their knees in humility and submission before their God.

Our cross-shaped lives have never stopped their reach with our Christian kin. I believe we are called to reach out as far as we can – to our Christian kin, even those whose beliefs and practices are so strange to us; to our Muslim and Jewish kin; to the Buddhists and the Sikhs and the agnostics and atheists. Christ reached out to Jew, to Gentile, to the powerful and the powerless; he reached out to those who were righteous and those who were wrong. He reached out to those who loved him and those who hated him. And we are called to imitate that.

I’d like to close today with a prayer that comes from the Muslim tradition, a prayer of the prophet Mohammed. In hearing, and in joining our hearts in this prayer, we may realize that though our lives are shaped differently, all our lives belong to God.

Let us pray.
Lord, put courage into my heart, and take away all that may hinder me serving you. Free my tongue to proclaim your goodness, that all may understand me. Give me friends to advise and help me, that by working together our efforts may bear abundant fruit. And, above all, let me constantly remember that my actions are worthless unless they are guided by your hand. Amen.