I thank my God

Passage: Philippians 1:3-11
Date: September 07, 2008
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
Guest Preacher:

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Before there were pastors and seminaries and a New Testament, prior to church committees and budgets and buildings, the apostle Paul had birthed a tiny new religious group. Near the northern edge of the Aegean Sea, he had founded this house-church congregation. Then he left them to start others elsewhere. Some time later, imprisoned by Rome, waiting trial, Paul wrote a letter to this community he loved. Simply a letter to be heard, it was never imagined to be saved, let alone become Scripture. Paul sought to bridge the distance, the separation he felt with these close to his heart. This tenderest of his letters contains an interplay of his presence and absence, and their continuing faithfulness to Jesus Christ. Not addressed to "occupant, % the Roman Empire," his words were intended for this family of faith in Philippi. Listen. Listen for the word of God this day. (1:3-11)

"I give thanks to God," (eucharisto) says Paul. Eucharisto-eucharist-this table of gratitude, of thanksgiving. When it is from God, the word is translated "grace," when from us to God, "gratitude." "I give thanks to God in all my remembrance of you, all," he says. The bitter, the amazing, the painful, the depressing, the inspiring-all. "Because of your partnership, your sharing (koinonia) in the gospel from the first day until now....I hold you in my heart."

For weeks, I have struggled, wondering what to say to all of you, you my beloved, you with whom I have had the privilege of ministry here and elsewhere for more than four decades. I still do not know what to say except that I am so grateful to God for my life, for what I have had the astonishing privilege to do with you and so many others. I look at you and remember places our lives have intersected. I am deeply moved.

Who would have guessed? The week after 8th grade graduation, I received a letter from my minister. He had said the invocation at our ceremony, and I had been one of the student speakers. He wondered if might consider ministry as a vocation. I threw the letter away. Now, half a century later, I am so thankful God did not throw me away.

Years after, California raised, working with senior highs in Berkeley in the mid 60's (let that sink in a bit), I wakened one morning to find myself the associate minister of a congregation in a small semi-rural town in Idaho (a foreign country). That position had been an interview invitation at the seminary that I had literally thrown away, not interested. I had hardly known where Idaho was. Before I left for there, I asked my grandfather if I'd find good people there. He said, "Jim, you will find good people wherever you go." He was right. I did, and I have, always. And some scoundrels, too. The people in Caldwell taught me so much, as I tried to be faithful to my calling. There were wondrous things: Christmas eve services where everyone in the packed sanctuary held lit candles-I had never been to a Christmas eve service in my life; mission trips with outstanding senior highs to Seattle, San Francisco, and Portland; being directly confronted and loved by deeply faithful and genuinely conservative ranchers-a new thing for me. There were agonizing experiences as well: The loving and feeling-threatened father, who in my presence yelled at his high school son that as long as he had long hair, he was not his son and was not welcome in the family home. The Sunday bulletin cover pictured the front steps and doors of the church. Climbing up them were three beautiful toddlers, bundled for winter. One of them, having grown to a young man, Tim, died senselessly in Viet Nam while I was there. I cried out to God, wondering if this is what we raise our children to do. That would not be the only time I would cry out to God. In that same town that I met a beautiful, young, blondish Methodist, who would become my wife and the mother of our children. I thank my God every time I remember Caldwell because of that partnership in the gospel. I hold them in my heart.

One day I wakened to find myself as the only minister for the tiny urban congregation of Kenilworth, in SE Portland, about as unlikely a place and match as I could have imagined. Basically, it was everything I thought I was not called to do and be. Kenilworth, middle to lower-income blue collar-not typically Presbyterian. Three weeks after I arrived, I called my predecessor there, Bud Frimoth, and asked him what in the world I had gotten myself into. I had met more physically and emotionally handicapped people there than in any group I had ever known. And they were the ones with whom I was to partner the gospel. What actually happened was that they partnered Jesus Christ to me. I did not know I needed it, but God did, graciously. Years there were filled with laughter, amazing victories, and wrenching agony. More than once I cried out to God wondering why. And more than once, I stood incredulous at what God was doing in and through this faithful group I was privileged to know. I thank my God every time I remember because of that partnership in the gospel. I hold them in my heart.

At Kenilworth, "I" had become "we," in fact, by the time we moved to Milwaukie, there were four "we-s," which over the course of time became five. In Caldwell, Milwaukie, and here, I have had the privilege of working with amazing professional colleagues. Mary Boeschen, educator par excellence, welcomed me to Milwaukie. Later, Doug McClure was called as that congregation's first associate minister. I continue to value our friendship. That congregation encouraged me in my doctoral studies, and became guinea pigs in its project.

One afternoon in Milwaukie, I went to visit Lillian. I had been doing that for some time, all during her husband's final illness. We had become close friends, this out-spoken, crusty delightful woman and I. As she lay on her bed and I sat on a low stool next to her, I said I had something to tell her. She listened carefully as I announced that my wife and I were expecting our third child. Without batting an eye, she shot back, "Well, is it yours?" I nearly fell off the stool in laughter. Several months later, Lillian died. I had promised her that I would conduct her service, and if I didn't, I was quite sure she would haunt me. The morning of the day of her service, Linda went into labor. As I left to prepare for the memorial, I suggested that she try to slow it down. As morning changed to mid-day, it became clear that Anna would not wait for Lillian. So, reluctantly, I gave my script to Doug and went home to get Linda. On the way to the hospital, we stopped at the cemetery where people were gathering in the parking lot to go together to Lillian's graveside service. It was one of those astonishing gifts from God. Celebrating a life well-lived and one just beginning, all embraced in Christ's love. We were all overcome, with tears rolling down our faces, as they encouraged us to get going. And we knew that Lillian was laughing.

As in the previous two, leaving Milwaukie was again excruciatingly painful. I thank my God every time I remember because of that partnership in the gospel which we shared. I hold them in my heart.

More than 18 ½ years ago, I wakened one morning a little dazed to realize that I had been called to be the minister here. Since then, more than once, I have seriously questioned God's wisdom, or my perception of God's leading. God and I have had some very hard conversations. Like the time the city storm drains filled to overflowing, and the toilets in the women's restrooms downstairs became gushing fountains. Of course, we were between custodians, and I got to vacuum up the amazingly odorous liquid on the carpet. Or those annual meetings, where sincere devoted members argued over their parts of the budget. Or people angry because of a session decision, or upset because of a particular hymn selection (yes).

I have also been in awe by of the presence of Christ again in and through this congregation. When former minister, Larry Byers, who had been asked to leave, returned with his wife years later, they found welcome here, and you modeled the forgiveness and grace of Christ. When very divisive issues arose in church and community, you decided to study and pray and discuss, and disagree, while still valuing each other as loved by God. When opportunities for ministry presented themselves, you sought God's leading. To an amazing number, you responded with generosity and energy: Grace meals, the Cuban partnership, Habitat for Humanity and so many more. In large measure, it has been your witness to Christ, the quality of your life together that has motivated eight women and men to enter seminary training recently from here, to explore the possibility of ministry.

Several years ago, Linda's cancer returned. In ways I could never have foreseen, you became Christ to us, with us, for us. Again, God and I had some very hard conversations. There was a lot of yelling, at least on my part. In that excruciating journey, we received untold gifts, life-changing learnings, immense blessings. In the midst of it all, even Linda felt blessed.

Recently Frederic Buechner reminded me that to suffer in love for another's suffering is to live life not only at its fullest but at its holiest. Every place I have been called, you have invited me into such holy places with you. And, you have been there with me and my family as well. Astonishing! I thank my God every time I remember you, all of you, every one of you, because of your partnership in the gospel. I hold you in my heart.

Whenever I leave a beloved community, no longer to be its pastor, I count on those people I leave. I count on them, on you, in this instance, Westminster. I expect you to be the people of Christ, to make Christ proud, even more in my absence than in my presence. I am not the church. I have had the holy privilege of serving with you for a time. You are the body of Christ here. In the uncertain future, I pray for you, with great confidence in God. I believe beyond what I can imagine that God will do amazing things here in the future. I encourage you to pray for and support each other and your strong staff during the transition, trusting in the One who has brought you through the last 116 + years here. The months ahead will bring both anxiety and excitement. Great things are coming. Now is not the time to pull back, to sit on the sidelines, to wait to see what happens. There is so much possibility in Christ opening to you. Now is God's time in and among you. You will need each other and the presence of Christ more than ever. It is also a fabulous opportunity to grow in your faith and your faith together in new ways. So I charge you: in all that you do and are, be grateful to God. And remember, remember who you are and to whom you ultimately belong. Nothing is more important.

More than forty-one consecutive years. What an amazing privilege has been mine. I thank my God every time I remember you because of our partnership in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I hold you in my heart. Amen.