Because we do a stewardship series at this time of year, it is really the last series of the year, because it leads up to Advent. Advent in the first season of the Christian year. So this has been a time to reflect on 2020. I shared my favorite meme two weeks ago of the burning porta toilets, but here’s another one.
This year has stung, especially for people who have lost loved ones this year due to Covid 19. We aren’t exactly sure what that number is at St. Luke’s. We know it’s at least a dozen of our members, and related family members is close to 40. Of course, we’ve had many who have been sick from Covid but recovered. With all of the things people have had to let go of this year, today we recognize the hardest letting go people have had to do, let go of loved ones.
Today is All Saints’ Day, a historic day in the life of the church, going back to Catholicism, when the official saints in the church were honored. As Dr. Ted Campbell points out in today’s Anchor Point, over time there developed All Souls’ Day, which is tomorrow, Nov.2, to recognize the unofficial saints who influenced and blessed our lives. In most Protestant churches we combine these days on Nov. 1, and recognize the members of the church who completed their earthly journeys this year.
One of those saints to me is Bishop Mike Coyner. He is the reason I am at St. Luke’s. He was the bishop who brought me here in 2011 and then retired in 2016. Bishop Mike didn’t have Covid. He died shortly before the pandemic hit. He found out on Christmas Eve that he had an aggressive cancer that had spread rapidly. Just a few weeks later he passed away. The night before he died he wrote in his blog a simple message that captures the kind of man, minister and leader he was:
I find my own prayers go through 3 stages (not necessarily linear): 1. “Why me?” Which leads toward a pity-party. 2. “Why not me?” Which leads to the realization that being a Christian is not a guarantee of a life without problems but a promise that God is with us in the midst of problems. 3. “It’s not about me” which leads to the greatest prayer of Jesus “Thy will be done.” The more I can live in 3 the more peace I can find.”
I shared that the Sunday after Bishop Mike’s funeral, and I share it again today, because it reflects the same attitude of the Apostle Paul when he spoke of his own death to the Philippians. This is the main reason Paul wrote to them—to let them know how he was doing and prepare them for letting go of him when the time came.
Today our time in Philippi won’t be a tour. We won’t climb on ruins and old rocks. Besides it’s a cold, blustery day. We’re just going to stay inside and be warm and dry and learn about the relationship between Paul and this community. I imagine if you asked Paul which was his favorite of all the churches he started he would say, “Philippi.” There was a special bond between them. As far as we know Philippi was the only church to have all women leaders. It started under Lydia and Paul mentions Euodia and Syntyche. The church sent gifts to Paul to help him in need. They prayed for him and he for them. They shared in Paul’s work in every way. Just listen to how he begins his letter to them, “I thank my God every time I remember you…It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart…how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.”
No where else does Paul write words like this. They were perhaps the only family Paul had. He loves them deeply, and so, in verse 12 Paul gets to this point: “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the Gospel…” Paul is in prison and he’s answering a letter from the Philippians. They are wondering how he’s doing. They are worried. Remember, no telephones. No internet. All they have are rumors. And you know how rumors get created. Every time someone retells a story it gets a little more embellished. By the time it reaches Philippi people are hearing all sorts of things. One says, “I heard Paul is in prison.” Another says, “I heard he’s about dead.” Still another says, “I heard he did die!”
So they write a letter and send it with gifts by way of a young man named Epaphroditus. They want to know how Paul is doing. He’s the only pastor they have ever known. They came to faith under him. Paul knows there is a very real chance he will never see them again, and so he needs to have a frank, serious conversation with them about his death.
Paul begins saying, “What has happened to me has helped spread the Gospel,” I can just see someone reading this letter out loud in the Philippian community and looking up and saying, “Isn’t that just like Paul. He’s in jail, just like he was here, and bringing the jailors to faith. That is so Paul!”
And then Paul procrastinates for a few sentences, and when he returns to topic is where our reading picks up today: I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance. It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way, but that by my speaking with all boldness, Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. (vv18-21) What did Paul mean? Some people live for sports. Some people live for their work. Some live for their families. For me, says Paul, I live for Christ. I want everything I do to advance His cause. But that doesn’t mean my life has been easy. I’ve been shipwrecked. I’ve been beaten and left for dead. I’ve been bitten by venomous snakes. I’ve been imprisoned. But when I die, I’ll be with Christ. All of these afflictions will be over. All of the things that don’t make sense in this life will be understood. Death will be an improvement. I’ve made peace with death. I’m okay. I want you to know that.
But this wasn’t Paul’s only concern, to let the Philippians know that is okay. He’s also concerned about them and how they will handle his death when it happens. It’s one thing to face your own death with confidence, it’s another thing to be the person who has to face life after losing someone you love. Paul knows this won’t be easy for them.
This is where Paul writes some of the most confusing sentences in all of his letters. The phrases in Greek are awkward and disjointed. Scholars today say it’s hard to know for sure just what Paul is saying. Just listen for yourself: If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.
What would you think if a friend sent that kind of letter to you? “If I live long enough I hope to come see you, but I don’t know, I think I’d rather stay here and die.”
Some scholars say this reflects Paul’s mental anguish. His years in prison are taking a toll and his mind is starting to slip. But I don’t know. He seems pretty lucid in the rest of the letter. Others say Paul is practicing emotional distancing. You know how that works. When something is hard you purposely withdraw to make the goodbye easier to take. But look at what he says in just the next chapter when he tells about Epaphroditus who came to Paul from Philippi and nearly died. Paul says, God spared not only him but me because I would have had sorrow after sorrow! Paul’s isn’t practicing emotional distancing there.
Why is Paul talking this way? I believe…it’s because he is talking to people he loves about death and its hard. How many of us if we were asked to write an essay about our Christian belief about death couldn’t say at least a few things that make sense, maybe reference a scripture or two; perhaps provide a good quote from someone well known. But if we are told to write to a good friend who is losing a loved one, o my goodness! What do you say? It feels impossible to write one word!
My wife, Susan, lost her mother almost four years ago. At the start of the pandemic her dad came to live with us. The other day Susan said to him, “Dad, you used to always say, ‘This is the greatest day of my life!’ But you don’t say that anymore. Why?” He said, “My wife died. But I’m grateful to be here with you and Rob, and life is good.” What do you say to that? She just took him by the hand and said, “Let’s go for a walk.”
Well Paul could not take the Philippians by the hand. He couldn’t walk with them. He knew they would have to walk on their own. All he could do was write to them and share his thoughts.
I’ll admit, it’s not easy to understand exactly what Paul is saying to the Philippians, but I know what he doesn’t say. He doesn’t say, “You’ll get over it. Just give it a little time and you won’t miss me any more.” He also doesn’t say, “Just focus on happy things. Don’t focus on grief.” Paul talked a lot about joy but he didn’t deny pain. He doesn’t say those things. So what exactly does he say to the Philippians to prepare them for his death?
Let’s look at his own words: “I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel…”
This is what I believe Paul is saying to them. These are not Paul’s words. These are mine. I believe Paul is saying, “I know we will see each other again. That will be my expectation regardless of how long I have to live. Whether in this life or the next, I know, I will live with an expectant hope, I know I will see each of you again. And even though it’s hard. Even though it’s painful, you can keep going because that is what I want for you. I don’t want you to curl up and quit living because you are sad. You continue to do what God has made you to do, and I believe you will find God’s help to keep going.”
I am not a professor. I am no New Testament scholar, but that is what I believe Paul meant. And more than that, I believe it’s true.
One of the St. Luke’s members who died in the faith this year is Ed Siegel who died from Covid back in April. Ed was high school basketball coach who is in the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame.
Ed and his wife Carmen have three children. The Sunday after he died I told about the death of their son Mark. He was an outstanding basketball player who played for his dad. He got a scholarship to play for the University of Evansville and was on the fateful crash that killed all the members of that team in 1977. I shared how he came to Carver McGriff, pastor of St. Luke’s at the time, shortly after the funeral to say he couldn’t coach any more. Carver assured him no one would hold it against him if he didn’t, but Carver, with an insight that must have come from God, said, “Let me just ask one thing: what would Mark say?” And Ed knew Mark would say, “Dad, keep coaching.” Keep doing what you do Dad. I know its hard, but don’t stop. And, of course, he did. He went on to have a profound influence on a whole generation of boys, one of them being our current governor, Eric Holcomb.
I share it with you again today, because there is another part of that story I didn’t know. You see a few days after that Sunday I got a letter from Carver. He had watched the service.