Sermon For September 23, 2012

“Why We Need Each Other: Love Overflowing”

Philippians 1:3-18

Today is the second of seven sermons as part of our congregation’s journey through 40 Days Of Community

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

We apologize there is no podcast again this week because of technical difficulties.

To see a video of this sermon, go to:

To download the digital presentation in PowerPoint format, click HERE:  12092340Days2  (available in Keynote – the original file)

*Why do we need each other?  Why do I need you and why do you need me?  Aren’t we so often like the toddler when a parent tries to help them up the stairs or to use a fork?  We knock the helping hand away and say, “I can do it all by myself!”  Well, as any parent knows, striving for independence may be a goal on one level, but a toddler doesn’t have the skill sets yet, nor the larger wisdom, to do it “all by herself!”

*And then we come to our older years, and as our bodies and minds begin to fail us, we come back in an odd sort of way to our younger years, only now it isn’t our children who are pushing us away, but, rather, we push our children away saying, “Don’t treat me like a child, I can still do it all by myself!”  But we know in our hearts that as time goes by, we won’t be able to do it “all by ourselves” for very long.  Ah, the cycles of life!

*So, the question is, in those intervening years… Is that the time when we really can “do it all by ourselves?”  Can we ever really “do it all by ourselves?”  Or, the question we will be asking these 40 days will be, “Were we ever meant to do it all by ourselves?”  Did God ever intend for us to be so self-sufficient that we would never truly need one another?

*The Apostle Paul writes his letter to the church at Philippi, an early center of Christianity in Greece, while in prison in Rome and awaiting sentencing for his seemingly counter-revolutionary acts of preaching the Gospel of Christ.  In this letter, while Paul is clearly making a specific case regarding how his imprisonment affects the churches which he helped to found and which he feels a great deal of responsibility for, it serves nonetheless as a charter for all of us as to the mutual care and support of one another we should offer in the name of Christ and out of our desire to imitate Christ.

*Paul begins his letter with a generous greeting: “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you…”  Unlike so many of our conversations where we take the casual greeting “How are you?” as a challenge to tell the person asking every single ache and pain and frustration of life, to the nth degree, Paul, rather, greets his beloved church friends with a word of thanksgiving and joy.  And how powerful it is to have someone say that they thank God every time they remember you?

Don’t you have folks like that who, upon every remembrance of them a smile comes to your face, a lilt comes to your spirit, a gentle warmth flows through your body?  Perhaps it is a beloved teacher from school?  Maybe it’s your first crush or being with your current boyfriend or girlfriend?  Maybe it’s even someone you’ve never met, but who you’ve respected from a distance because of some great cause they championed or inspiring words they spoke or wrote.  In any case, Paul thanks God upon every remembrance of the Philippians and he prays constantly with joy every time for them.

Wow!  What different people we would be if every time we thought of someone we actually said a prayer for them!  “And when I brought the package over to Joanne’s house (Thank you God for Joanne!) I discovered that her neighbor, Carl was there having coffee with her (Thank you God for Carl!)  Joanne (Thank you God for Joanne!) told me about her brother, Grover’s cancer treatments (Thank you God for Grover!).  After I left Joanne and Carl (Thank you God for Joanne and Carl!) I got a text message from my sister, Lynda (Thank you God, for Lynda!)”  You can see that would get mighty tiring, but oh what an amazing impact on your conversation… and your heart that would make!

*The first step to understanding why we need each other is to remember each other and pray for each other!

*And then Paul recognizes the good work the people in Philippi have been doing: “…because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.  I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”  And how often do you meet someone who recognizes the good work you are doing?  We live in a day and an age where there is so much fear of being judged or anxiety about scarcity that we seem to want to put out in front of us the good things that we do, almost so that we can “one up” our friends and those who we meet.  I love people being proud of their accomplishments, don’t get me wrong, but what does it say about a culture when we put our achievements on our sleeves before we acknowledge the other persons good works?

Or, put more positively, what would it mean if we followed Paul’s example and celebrated the good work they are doing in their lives and in the world?  “Greetings, Bailey!  I heard that you are working so hard to find employment.  I wanted to support you in that!”  “Good morning, Juanita!  A little bird told me you’ve been volunteering down at the Adopt-A-Pet shelter, and I wanted to thank you for doing that!”

And notice, Paul gives thanks for the good work that the Philippians are doing… even though it is not yet complete!  If we waited to congratulate people only upon completion of their endeavors, we’ve missed the chance to be part of the support system they – and we – need to do good deeds!

* The second step to understanding why we need each other is to notice what people are doing and support them in their attempts to do good!

*Next, Paul acknowledges this “right way of thinking” by celebrating its mutuality: “It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.”  Need we say much more?  It’s really hard to know which came first, the chicken or the egg.  The same thing is true for shared encouragement.  Do you celebrate me and my accomplishments more because I first celebrated you and your accomplishments?  Or do I celebrate you and your accomplishments more because you first celebrated mine?  I ask: “Does it matter?” It may sound a bit like a mutual admiration society, but so be it!  When we are in community, we celebrate one another!

*The spiritual truth Paul is revealing is that encouragement builds on itself.  Just as negativity, cynicism, and spite can spiral a conversation or community downward into the pit, so can mutual admiration, support, and prayer spiral us upward into the grace of God.

*Moving on, we see Paul move to the point of all of this thanksgiving, prayer, admiration, and mutuality: “For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.  And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, *so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”

The point of all of this?  Love.  Love born of compassion.  Compassion literally means to “suffer with” or to ache, to grieve, to hurt alongside someone.  In one of the greatest paradoxes of all of life, the giving up of oneself to the suffering of another is the point at which love bursts forth like water from a crumbling dam.  In the emptying of oneself to the agony of another, one becomes filled to overflowing with love.

But I want to take just a moment to point out one very personal reflection that comes from this passage.  *Paul states, “that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight…”  This has perplexed me, because, in my struggles to have compassion for my sisters and my brothers on this earth, in hopes that I might overflow with love, I get stuck on this “knowledge and full insight” thing.  Quite frankly, I don’t understand why people suffer!  I know sometimes people suffer because of their own actions, but even that doesn’t always make sense.  And it never makes sense when people suffer because of circumstances far beyond their control, like natural disasters.  I don’t have anything even close to “knowledge and full insight.”  If compassion, and therefore overflowing love is dependent upon me getting it up here, then it ain’t gonna happen.  No way.  No how. Un uh!

That’s what I thought until the summer that brought the death of both my mother and my brother, Patrick.  My mother died of a heart attack the summer of 1995 after a year long battle with something seemingly insignificant, a terrible outbreak all over her body of psoriasis.  It dogged her for most of twelve months.  So she and her family were frustrated by what seemed, quite literally, a superficial ailment that wrecked so much havoc with her system.  But if that wasn’t enough, when my mother died, we learned quite quickly that she died not just penniless, but in debt, in large part because of her constant attempts at trying to care for my brother who was possessed by the demons of addiction to alcohol, drugs, and hard living.  I couldn’t understand how my mother would literally risk her own health and welfare for a son who simply would not change his deadly behaviors.  And finally, as if to make my confusion utterly horrifyingly complete, my brother died.  We have never known if the drugs in his system were taken to the degree they were accidentally or intentionally, but there he was, this man with whom I had wrestled for love, respect, hope, dignity all of my life to that point was laying in a coffin gone forever to me.

“Knowledge and full insight” as a prerequisite to love overflowing.  Incomprehensible.  And then, as I prepared to officiate at my brother’s graveside service, I remembered a scene in the movie “A River Runs Through It” that has touched me deeply.  Reading from the book of the same title, by Norman McClean, I found the passage that had spoken to me.  It is the words of the preacher father of a similarly wayward son, shared at the son’s funeral.  The father said,

*“Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question, ‘We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed?’  It is true that we can seldom help those who are closest to us.  Either, we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted.  And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us, but we can still love them.  We can love completely without complete understanding.”

Did you hear that?  *“And so it is with those we live with and should know who elude us, but we can still love them.  We can love completely without complete understanding.”

What if Paul, who was certainly speaking from the depths of his relationship with Jesus Christ, compassion and love incarnate, was trying to tell us that we have it all wrong when we try to understand someone first, and then love them?  What if it is the loving that comes first, and then, and only then, will the knowledge and full insight come?  This rings true with everything we read about, hear about, know, and experience in our relationship with Jesus Christ, who most certainly could not have truly comprehended why we do the things we do, why we are the way we are, but loved us just the same.  Actually, not in spite of what we do and who we are, but perhaps even because of what we do and who we are!!!

*The third step to understanding why we need each other is to realize we don’t have to understand each other to love each other!

And it is here that we come to a pivotal point in our understanding of community.  Whether we are talking about the community that is found in partnerships with a beloved, or community that comes in family, or community that is found in our school, our place of employment, or social group; or the community that is found in our neighborhood or our apartment building.  We have the tendency to flip the equation and *typically believe we have to *understand others to *love them, and then *compassion flows from that.  Jesus, through the ministry of Paul to the church at Philippi, reminds us that the *gospel calls us to something much different:  *We must be willing to “suffer alongside” those in our community, have compassion.  Then, and only then, will truly be able to love.  Then *understanding will follow.  And if we love completely, that love will overflow to more and more in our community, and even to other communities.  And, with faith and time, understanding will come.  But by that point, *we usually don’t even see the need to understand them, because we love them so very much.  We love them if they are homeless or in poverty, if they are addicted to drugs or sex or food, if they are apathetic, if they have tattoos or are unmarried, if they are LGBT or identify as Queer, if they are unchurched, wealthy, a Democrat, Republican, or Independent!

*And Paul concludes this by returning to his specific situation: his imprisonment for the sake of the gospel: “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.”

And while we hope that what happens to us as we love our community more and more is not that we will be thrown into prison, we need to acknowledge that if we truly love out of compassion, it will change the way we live.  Who we associate with, where we hang out, what our money is used for, and the priorities of our time, talent, energy, and resources will be very different.

*The fourth step to understanding why we need each other is that our lives will be reordered around one thing, and one thing only: Love

Finally, to bring his case to a close, Paul addresses the critique and the motives of some of those who argue about his approach to his missionary work and his ministry:  *“Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill.  These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering and my imprisonment.  What does it matter?  Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.  Yes, and I will continue to rejoice…”

*And the spiritual truth Paul is proclaiming here: When we love, motives become inconsequential.  When we love – truly love – and we are intent on spreading that love to more and more people, we worry less and less about the motives of others who are also trying to love more and more people.  Second guessing motives is always a tricky thing!  If love is pouring out abundantly in our community, who am I to say why others need to be doing it out of the same place that I am.  Just love!

*So, if we are going to take these 40 Days Of Community seriously, we need to remember these steps:

*1. We will remember each other and pray for each other.

*2. We will notice what other people are doing and support them in their attempts to do good.

*3. We don’t have to understand each other to love each other.

*4. Our lives will be reordered around love alone.

You know, we really cannot do it all by ourselves, because, quite frankly, we were not created to live life all by ourselves.  Why do we need each other?  Because God designed us that way!  So if we can believe that, then our task is to figure out the best way to live with each other.   *We can do it… TOGETHER!

*And you are invited to participate!  There are still individual books available if you did not get one previously.  This week we begin our daily devotional tomorrow which is Day 1.  If you already started, don’t panic, just begin again so that we will all be on the same page!  (God must have wanted you to learn the first few lessons more fully!)  This week the theme of our devotions will be:  “We’re Compelled To Love God’s Family”

And please join a Small Group.  The listing of groups is in your bulletin and the sign up board is in the chapel.  This week we will look in our small groups at the topic: “What Matters Most” – 1 Corinthians 13 (love chapter), and our Memory Verse John 13:35 “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.”

There is so much more to say about community, but we will continue the conversation in our personal prayer and devotional life, in our small groups, and each week as we gather together as the community known as Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in worship each Sunday.