Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Sep 20, 2020

Passage:Philippians 1:21-30

Preacher: The Rev. Jared Houze

Series: Season After Pentecost

Category: Discipleship, Joy, Ecclesiology

Keywords: discipleship, joy, growth, philippians


I’m going to ask you to imagine something with me. Something which, hopefully, will allow us to delve deeply into the scripture this morning and over the course of the next several weeks, as we make our way through a four week sermon series on Paul’s letter to the Philippians.


What I’m going to ask you to imagine is this: I want you to imagine you are a young Curate – a new priest – the ink on your ordination certificate is barely dry and you find yourself at your first appointment – the church in Philippi. There you are...eagerly hanging your seminary diploma on your new office wall at the church in Philippi, you are unpacking all the books you accumulated through your education, finding a place for each one on the shelf because you have not yet learned that half of those books you’ll never use, you have yet to learn that all those books might make you smart but they won’t make you good – you have yet to learn that all the words written in books cannot compare to the words written on the hearts of those who speak to you out of some deep joy, or sadness, or longing. So there you are shelving all your books…and then comes a knock at the door. It’s the Sr. Warden – Oxford button down, neatly pressed Dockers, an aging face full of wisdom and humor. “Welcome to the Church in Philippi, we are so excited you are here.” The two of you exchange light-hearted conversation for a few minutes until the old Warden says, “Well, I came by here today because I want to help you get to know the church. So, I have two words of advice. The first is this: I’ve been a lawyer for over thirty years specializing in corporate litigation. I’ve gone toe-to-toe with the fattest cats around and the only people who scare me are the Altar Guild ladies. So, if you get cross with them, you’re on your own. Plus, they know what they’re doing – so trust them.”


“And the second is this…” the Sr. Warden then pulls out a stack papers, which seem to be a letter and he says, “Read this. You see Paul wrote this letter to the founders of our church here in Philippi many, many years ago.”


“Oh yeah…I know this. Philippians! We studied this in seminary. I know this letter,” you reply.

The Sr. Warden looks at you with the subtle tenderness of a grandfather and says, “Well, it’s a little more than that. Paul wrote to many churches and he cared for many churches, but out of all the churches Paul was closest to our church here in Philippi. Here he made steadfast friendships, here he developed a unique closeness with people that nourished faith even in the most difficult of times. And this letter is different. You see Paul wrote it knowing he was about to die at the hands of Rome. They are the words of a restless man gentled by time and tiredness written to friends he loved deeply to encourage them, to prepare them for what laid ahead. It might be one of the last letters Paul ever wrote full of what he discerned most important at the end of his life.”


Before leaving the Warden hands you the letter, crinkled, scribbled handwriting, a coffee stain, dog-eared corners it smells like the pages of an old book you might find in the back of a dusty library. You pull up a chair and begin to read…and you can’t get what the Sr. Warden said out of your head.


I mean if this is one of Paul’s last letters, if this is written with death breathing down the old apostle’s neck, if this was written to his close friends…what’s most important to Paul? What would he want to get across?


There are the salutations and greetings, of course, and Paul is trying to lessen the anxiety people might be feeling about him being in prison. But then…then there’s this…


I am hard pressed…my desire is to part and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain here in more necessary for you…


The words of a man who is tired, who knows what waits on the horizon and is finding a peace in a union with Christ through his own death BUT at the same time doesn’t want to leave his friends and wants to remind them of what’s most important and he writes…


I want to remain with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith.

There it is: he seems to care about their progress and joy.


Progress, we can think about progress as growth – discipleship, being shaped more and more into the image of Jesus Christ. For Paul our life with God is never stagnant, because the Spirit is at work within us. So, even when circumstances and external factors look one way, there is still a movement occurring within. I have a friend who’s really into cars and sometimes he’ll see this car parked on the road or in some lot and he’ll say. “That car looks fast even sitting still.” That’s one way we might understand our life with God – looks fast even when sitting still. And I know St. Andrew’s that you’ve been sitting still since March and it’s been hard.


But do you actually think that God hasn’t been at work this whole time? Do you actually think  

that sitting still is equal to stagnation in our life with God? St. Andrew’s I know I’m new but to me – you look fast even when sitting still. Because God is at work for your progress in the faith.

And Paul reminds us of that because he can write those words even from the stark stillness of a Roman cell in the shadow of a death sentence.


But he uses another word too.

I want to remain with all of you for your growth and JOY…

Joy? How can Paul write about joy in such a time of his life? From prison? Awaiting execution? Joy?




Here’s something fascinating about the letter to the Philippians. Paul uses the word “Joy” or one of its derivatives in Philippians more than any other letter he wrote. In fact, you can add up all the times in all of his other letters he uses the word “Joy” and it still fails in comparison to how many times he uses it in Philippians.


Many times I find exceptionally happy people rather annoying. It makes me wonder how anyone could live in the world we live in and just be happy. I question their sanity.

But have you ever met someone so contagiously joyful, that it cut through all the cynicism, and you somehow found yourself joyful too? You know what I’ve found remarkable about those people? They are people who are experiencing or have experienced life at its hardest.


What’s that about?


I love the words of Frederick Buechner on joy in his book The Hungering Dark. He distills two aspects of how joy works in our lives.


First (Buechner writes)…joy is always all-encompassing; there is nothing of us left over to hate with or to be afraid with, to feel guilty with or to be selfish about. Joy is where the whole being is pointed in one direction. The second thing is that joy is a mystery because it can happen anywhere, anytime, even under the most unpromising circumstances, even in the midst of suffering, with tears in its eyes. Even nailed to a tree.  


Or even…as Paul discovered…inside a Roman prison. And he wants to remind his friends, he wants to encourage the church he so dearly loves that they can experience joy, that their whole being can be pointed in one direction and that can occur even in the most difficult of circumstances.


St. Andrew’s, growth and joy in faith…that’s what the letter to the Philippians holds before us, it’s the life we are invited to in Christ; and it’s my hope and prayer that over the next several Sundays we can see more and more how growth and joy can take shape in our lives.


And if it helps, keep imagining yourself as that young Curate, some wet behind the ears priest, immersed in an old letter, trying to understand the Church in Philippi.


Who knows, you might find our Church in there too.