Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Fish Story

Jonah 1
by Daniel Harrell

Epiphany, which commemorates the first revelation of Jesus to Gentiles (the Gentiles in this case being the magi), is the perfect time of the year to think about outreach and mission. Inasmuch Jesus was sent to the world as the embodiment of God, so the church is sent as the embodiment of Jesus to love and to serve and to grow his kingdom. Tonight at our potluck dinner we’re excited to share a new outreach initiative we’re thinking about. Outreach is the only reason that the church remains on earth. Everything else we do is just a preview of heaven. Granted, the earthbound nature of mission does make it rough. It was deadly for Jesus—and for much of the New Testament church and many Christians since. Ask any missionary, and if they’re honest, they’ll have all kinds of adversity to tell you about. The same goes for any Christian who steps it up and steps out for the sake of the gospel. Just try to do what Jesus says: love an enemy, serve the poor, speak the truth, share the gospel, forgive an abuser, give away money, fight for justice—you’ll find it can be a tough way to live.

It was hard for the Old Testament prophets too. Moses got blasted constantly by his own people. Elijah was hunted down by the government and put on a hit list. Jeremiah was exiled to Babylon. Daniel got tossed into a lions’ den. No wonder that when the word of the Lord came to Jonah he ran for his life. God told him to go at once to Nineveh and forecast its doom on account of their wickedness. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the ancient nemesis of Israel’s northern kingdom. Sort of like Green Bay is to Minneapolis. Any good Hebrew would have delighted in their downfall, just as every good Vikings fan relished the fall of the Packers last Sunday. But Jonah said no. Admittedly, if my intent is to preach about mission and outreach, Jonah is an odd choice. Consider it a bit of unfinished water business—if you’ll recall all those sermons last fall. I did leave Jonah’s watery adventure out of the rotation. Consider it also a foretaste of Easter. Comparing himself to Jonah, Jesus said: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.”

Given Jonah’s disobedience and cowardice, it is strange to have Jesus make the comparison. Jonah reminds me more of that cruise ship captain in the news this week. Reportedly wanting to show off his $450M ocean liner to gawkers on shore, he steered off course, hit a reef and ruptured the hull of his ship. As water gushed in and the boat listed, passengers panicked including the captain who abandoned ship for the safety of a lifeboat. Or as he explained it, he accidently tripped and fell into a lifeboat when the ship tipped to its side. A furious Coast Guard officer radioed the captain to get his butt back on board—using an Italian bad word that is now available all across the country on handbags and espresso cups. One Italian newspaper claimed the episode contrasted the “two souls of Italy” —one of them represented by a “cowardly fellow who flees his own responsibilities, both as a man and as an official” and the other by a man who works to get the coward to do his job.

Jonah is the only Old Testament prophet to flee his responsibility. The only one to refuse an assignment. The only prophet to reject a direct command from God. Like an employee who skips out early to avoid an unwelcome assignment, or a soldier who goes AWOL to avoid following an order, Jonah flees the word of the Lord. He runs in the opposite direction from Nineveh to the seaside city of Joppa where he finds what was known as a “Tarshish ship,” the ancient equivalent to a modern day ocean liner. We read that Jonah “paid his fare”, but the Hebrew actually says he “paid her fare,” meaning he bought the whole boat. He didn’t want this cruise ship making any stops along the way. Of course being a prophet and knowing the Lord as he did, it’s difficult to imagine where Jonah thought he could hide. As the Psalmist sings, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? … If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there… your hand shall hold me fast.” What for most reads as a psalm of consolation was for Jonah a psalm of calamity. He knew he was doomed.

Like any defied boss or disobeyed commander, the Lord could not countenance such insubordination on the part of his prophet. So God hurled a hurricane at Jonah’s boat, so furiously that the experienced sailors on board feared for their lives. They started hurling cargo overboard and praying to every god they could think of. Jonah, meanwhile, was somehow sleeping below deck. The picture reminds me of the young son of friends who would fall fast asleep every Fourth of July once the fireworks commenced. It was how he dealt with the stress. It also reminds me of Jesus asleep in a boat as a storm raged and threatened to sink his disciples—experienced sailors too. Like the sailors with Jonah, the disciples screamed at Jesus demanding to know why he didn’t seem to care that they drowned. What did they expect Jesus to do? The same thing the sailors and their captain expected from Jonah: “Wake up! Say a prayer! Maybe your God will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.” Of course, Jonah, like Jesus, knew exactly how to stop the storm—Jesus much more directly, of course. This may also explain why each slept so soundly.

In ancient times bad weather was always somebody’s fault, so the sailors drew straws to see who was to blame. Once Jonah drew the short one, the sailors pounced on him for corroborating evidence: “Why has this awful storm come down on us?” they demanded. “Who are you? What is your line of work? What country are you from? What is your nationality?” Jonah tells him he’s a Hebrew prophet. That he works for the God of heaven who created the sea and the land. And that he’s shirking his work. Leaving the scene. Hopping a lifeboat. Gone AWOL. Hearing this, the sailors became even more afraid. “What have you done?!” they shriek. You work for the God who made the ocean and you think you can escape God on the ocean? What kind of dumb prophet are you? They demand to know how he plans to placate his God, and Jonah tells them to throw him overboard. And what, make the sailors guilty of murder on top of harboring a fugitive? I always wonder why Jonah didn’t just dive in himself. But another way to read this is for Jonah to say, “Hand me over to the Lord.” Jonah finally surrenders.

Why couldn’t Jonah have just had them turn the boat around and take him to Nineveh? Wouldn’t that have made God happy? Like when Jesus tells that parable about two sons, each directed to go work the vineyard by their father. One son says yes, but then he doesn’t go. The other son says no, but then changes his mind and obeys. “Which of the two did the will of his father?” Jesus asked. The answer was the second son, whom Jesus commends. But apparently Jonah would rather die than change his mind and obey. The author has yet to reveal why—though if you’re curious you can skip ahead to chapter 4. Jonah says that he worships the Lord, but his actions betray a duplicity. The contrasting behavior of the godless sailors further the indictment. They pray while Jonah sleeps. They fear the Lord, Jonah rejects the Lord. The sailors are willing to do whatever God wants, as soon as they can figure it out. Jonah knows exactly what God wants, but cannot stand to be a part of it.

I was sharing with the Friday Morning Men’s Group this week how I ended up as a minister. I heard the call at a fraternity party of all places. But then again Jesus was something of a party guy. I can’t exactly say what happened. I hadn’t been drinking. I just got this sense that ministry was for me. I confirmed the notion with a couple of friends and mentors, and by the next afternoon had dropped my business major and picked up religion and Greek. My fraternity brothers were horrified. They’d thought me to be rather normal. But instead I was throwing away a budding and creative career in graphic design and marketing for sake of pot luck suppers and committee meetings? They did have a point. You don’t have to go to seminary or work in a church to do the work of the Lord. If anything, the Kingdom of God could probably do more, missionally speaking, with fewer pastors and more Christians viewing themselves as “ministers” in other vocations. As the apostle Paul exhorts us, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, working for the Lord and not for people.” When our jobs are done before God, they have their own integrity apart from anything else they might accomplish, for the labor itself brings glory to the Lord. I could do whatever career I wanted for the Lord. Had I been drinking? People do make a lot of decisions when in their 20s that we really shouldn’t be allowed to make.

Maybe my fraternity brothers were right. So I delayed going to seminary, just to be sure. I could still do plenty of ministry in the meantime. In fact, I’d been invited to lead a small group as part of a Christian fellowship conference. Unfortunately, the conference fell on the same weekend as my university graduation. But the girl I was dating was going to the conference, and delaying seminary was going to give me more time to spend with her. So I decided to have the university just mail me my diploma. My parents tried to talk me out of it; said they at least deserved a moment in the sun for putting me through school, but I’d made up my mind. Besides, in addition to becoming a pastor, God also told me that this woman could be the one. So my mom made me a cake with a little plastic graduate figurine on top and I ate a piece and that was basically it.

Up at the conference, the woman for me decided I wasn’t for her. I think she said God told her that. She was up for marrying an ad exec, but what woman in her right mind would ever opt to be a preacher’s wife? Rejected, I went back home to live with my parents who informed me that if I was going to live with them I would need to pay rent. With extra money each week if I wanted laundry. So now I needed to make some money. I tried my hand at the only thing I could find: selling dictionaries and Bible story books door-to-door.

My first day on the job I called on a mobile home and was greeted by this lowly housewife who politely agreed to hear my pitch. I was in the middle of it when her husband drove up in his pick-up, saw my car, came bursting through the door, caught me showing dictionaries to his wife and went full vent into a violent and jealous rampage. “I oughta kill you,” he shouted. He let loose such a string a expletives that I couldn’t help but suggest he might like one of my dictionaries, just to amend his vocabulary. Instead he went for his shotgun which was my cue to leave. Needless to say I didn’t sell a single book. I drove home to discover that the postman had unceremoniously delivered my college diploma into our mailbox. I pulled it out and stared at it and then it hit me: the best years of my life were now over. College was finished, my girlfriend was gone, my parents were charging me rent, my friends had moved on to lucrative careers while I had crazy husbands pointing shotguns at me, a pathetic peddler of books trying to make money for seminary in order to become a minister. Just throw me overboard and put us all out of our misery.

The sailors finally concede, but not without first praying to the Lord they’d never met and begging him not to hold this deed against them. Again, the pagan sailors display more reverence than Israel’s prophet. “Do not make us guilty of innocent blood;” they pray, “for it is you, O LORD, who has done as it pleased you.” Jonah knew this too. The sailors pitched him overboard and the storm stopped. Like with the disciples in the boat with Jesus: the storm terrified them all right, but Jesus stopping the storm scared the crap out them. Like the disciples, I imagine these sailors turning white as sheets, their eyes a-bug and their mouths agape as they say, “Oh-my-God!” Which really is the point of both stories.

And yet despite Jonah’s disobedience, God won’t let him drown. Instead, “the LORD provided a huge fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” If the book ended here, you’d conclude that “to swallow” is the same as “to eat.” It wasn’t good enough for disobedient Jonah to drown. God wanted him digested too. But knowing the rest of the story, we know that what looked like Jonah’s demise was in fact his salvation. Which is why Jesus ties his own death to this story. And also why early Christians used the fish as a sign of their faith and stuck fish shaped bumper stickers on the back of their burros. Jesus called his resurrection the “sign of Jonah.” Even though Jonah rejected the Lord and disobeyed his commands, God saved him anyway. We’re left with this question: If salvation was the outcome of Jonah’s disobedience, what will things be like when he finally decides to obey?

For me it meant finally getting to seminary and into ministry where despite plenty of hardship, I’ve come out with more than my share of joy. I’m very grateful man for whom God has granted all sorts of grace as I’ve shared the lives of his people in this great mission we know as the church.

As we will see with Jonah, the grace that saves us does not absolve us of responsibility. But neither does it bully us into obedience. I like how the fifteenth century mystic, Julian of Norwich envisioned grace as courtesy rather than coercion; as invitation rather than imposition. “Grace works with mercy,” she said, “by lifting up, rewarding, endlessly surpassing all that our loving and our travail deserves, spreading abroad and making plain the high abundance and largesse of God’s royal Lordship in his marvelous courtesy. … ” she said, “He comes to us, to the lowest part of our need. For he despises nothing of what he has made. … he surrounds us so tenderly while we are yet in our sins.” And even when we, like Jonah refuse the embrace, grace still surrounds us like a mighty ocean, until finally, grace swallows us whole and we really can’t refuse it anymore. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

About That Widow's Mite

Mark 12:41-44
by Daniel Harrell

Epiphany, which for church calendar devotees commemorates the Magi’s visit to Bethlehem not only stretches out Christmas (falling as it does on January 6), but historically ranks right up there in importance with Easter and Pentecost. Epiphany was celebrated not because three kings or wise men (actually we have no idea how many there were) traversed afar. Epiphany was celebrated because the Magi were not Jewish. Their meeting Jesus constituted the first revelation of Christ to Gentiles. This is of monumental importance to the Church because the church grew to be comprised almost totally of Gentiles, in fulfillment, ironically, of Old Testament prophecy. That the Magi bore extravagant gifts of worship to Christ signified their immense gratitude to God for reaching out beyond the bounds of Israel’s covenant to include even them. When it comes down to it, for all Christians our giving is ultimately an act of gratitude and worship. We see it with the Magi, we see it presumably with this sacrificial gift from a destitute widow who drops two copper coins in the Temple treasury.

The familiar account of the widow’s two coins—or as the King James renders it, the widow’s mite—has become so familiar because of its frequent use as a shining example of sacrificial giving. Unlike the pompous rich folks in the Temple who sauntered up to the offering box and dumped over gratuitous sums of cash out of their surplus, this poor widow gave everything she had to live on. Jesus calls attention to her sacrifice presumably because that’s how we should all act when it comes to our money. Presumably she exemplifies Jesus’ teaching elsewhere about loving the Lord with all that you have; about how you can’t serve both God and money, about how wherever you put your treasure is where your heart is, about how you’re not supposed to worry about what you eat or wear because God will provide for your needs, about how the kingdom of God belongs to the poor and how if anyone wants to follow Jesus you have to deny yourself and lose your life to do it. It’s not that the widow’s two cents were really going to help the church make budget, but if everybody would follow her example, church finances would be in spectacular shape. It’s what makes this passage such a favorite for Stewardship Sundays.

Of course to follow the widow’s example would make your own personal finances a spectacular mess. Which is why I keep saying presumably in regard to the widow’s mite. Is destitute poverty for all what Jesus intends? Some might say yes. After all, in another passage from Mark that often gets pulled out for Stewardship Sundays, Jesus tells a rich man, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” It interesting to note, however, that Jesus does tell the rich man to give it all to the poor, not to the church. So much for universal destitution. And so much for church stewardship. Not that it matters. The rich man was so shocked by Jesus he walked away without giving anything. He was not going to sell all his possessions to follow Jesus. That was too hard to do. A lot harder than it was for the poor widow. After all, two cents didn’t buy much more then than it does now. Why not give it all?

It’s like the retiree down to her final quarter in Vegas. She might as well take one last shot at the slots. Maybe she’ll hit the jackpot. Or better, like the person at the end of her rope who figures she might as well give God one last shot. What more does she have to lose? Jesus did say, “If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—O ye of little faith?” Fine, I’ll show a little faith. Let’s see what God can do. Who knows, maybe once she got back outside, she discovered a whole pocketful of money—like Jesus miraculously made appear in that fish’s mouth when he needed cash to pay his own taxes. Or maybe that rich man had a change of heart and decided to give all his money to her anyway.

You know, when you actually read this morning’s passage, you’ll see that Jesus doesn’t exactly approve the poor widow’s sacrificial gift. All he says is that she “put in more than all those who contributed out of their abundance” because “she put in all she had to live on.” Was this a good thing? Most commentators insist that the her simple piety was a powerful contrast to the scribe’s pomposity and to the rich people’s money parade. Surely Jesus approved. The children’s version of the widow’s mite that Dawn and I read to our four-year-old Violet concludes, “This story shows what our God thinks about the gifts we bring/ To help our church and missions too, to honor Christ the king.” The children’s version goes so far as to have the now destitute widow holding her dependent child by the hand—a child who will now have to go without food because her mother gave their last dime to the church. Was this what Jesus intends?

Flip back five chapters in Mark and you’ll find Jesus letting loose a scathing indictment against the scribes and Pharisees for the way they hoodwinked poor people into giving when their own personal needs or the needs of their families were at stake. Jesus says, “Moses gave you this law from God: ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ In this way, you let them disregard their needy parents. And so you cancel the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition. And this is only one example among many others.”

You don’t even have to go back five chapters to see how mad all this makes Jesus. You don’t even have to go back five verses. Look at the context for the widow’s mite—both here and in Luke where the story also appears—and what you discover is it follows directly on the heels of Jesus lambasting the scribes and Pharisees again, this time for bilking poor women out of whatever dower they inherit upon their husband’s deaths. “Beware of these teachers of religious law!” Jesus warned, “For they like to parade around in flowing robes and receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces. And how they love the seats of honor in church and the head table at banquets. Yet they shamelessly devour widows’ houses, cheating them out of their property, and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public. Because of this, they will receive the greater condemnation.” Here in Mark and in Luke, Jesus condemns ministers for “devouring widows’ houses” and then points out the widow, a severely disadvantaged and vulnerable member in ancient Jewish society. All she has left to her name is two cents which she gives entirely to the Temple—doing what she thought she was supposed to do because that’s what the teachers of the law told her to do. Her house has now been completely devoured. It’s like the elderly grandmother of a friend of mine who was conned into handing over most of her social security check each month to some huckster preacher she watched on TV because he said he was doing God’s work. She said, “He preached that if I truly believed I should give all my money to his ministry and I’d be blessed.” How could Jesus ever approve of that?

Far from providing a pious contrast to the pompous conduct of the scribes and the rich; this story darkly illustrates of the dangers of misguided devotion (thanks to Addison Wright for insights). The vulnerable widow was swindled by the religious leaders to donate as she does. Jesus condemns the ill-advised values that motivated her action, and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it. Read on in the verses immediately after this and Jesus condemns the entire Temple system, labeling it corrupt and doomed to destruction. The disciples marvel at the magnificence of the Temple itself—which people’s offerings had gone to construct and maintain. They tell Jesus to check out the impressive stones and the beautiful architecture, to which Jesus replies, “Yes, look at these great buildings. They will all be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!” How is it possible to feel inspired by the widow’s offering now? Not only was her contribution totally foolish, thanks to her being manipulated by the ministers, but given the future of the Temple itself, her gift was a total waste.

Obviously this has turned into a train wreck of stewardship sermon. How to salvage it? Let me try by suggesting to you what may in fact be the main points of this passage; namely, four reasons not to give or pledge any of your money to this church:

First: If your giving is in any way coerced or manipulated by ministers who have every motivation to manipulate you since our salaries are paid by your generosity, do not give or pledge any of your money to this church.

Second: If your giving is in any way motivated by a misguided sense of religious guilt or shame or fear whereby you worry that God will condemn you harshly for not forking over enough, do not give or pledge any of your money to this church.

Third: If your giving in any way threatens your ability to feed your family, pay your bills or keep a roof over your head, do not give or pledge any of your money to this church.

And finally: If your giving in any way comes with any implicit strings attached, or if by giving you seek recognition or applause for being such a generous person, do not give or pledge any of your money to this church. The church does not want your money—at least we’re not supposed to, not under circumstances or motivations like these.

There’s this beautiful stone congregational church near Boston that I used to bike past all the time. It’s called Wellesley Hills Congregational Church, and I was reading about they had launched a recent stewardship campaign in order to raise $100,000 to renovate their rundown Sunday School space for kids. Their pastor, Matt Fitzgerald, turns out to be a Minnesota native. He grew up in Duluth and lived for many years in the Twin Cities with his family and is familiar with Colonial Church. I found this out after emailing him on the heels of reading his story. As the stewardship committee stuffed the last pledge card and licked the final stewardship campaign envelope to go in the mail, a knock came at the office door. It was a Hollywood movie scout. Having seen their beautiful church, he was ready to give them $10K to shut down for three days so that his company could film a wedding scene from an upcoming Adam Sandler movie. The movie plot involved a teenager who gets his schoolteacher pregnant with the wedding scene taking place several years later, when the offspring of this illicit union is a grown man getting married. The scene had something to do with the guy punching a guest who wouldn’t shut off his cell phone or something. Or maybe the minister punched him, I don’t know.

Anyway, Matt wrote how he had seen enough Adam Sandler movies to know they can be pretty funny sometimes, if not pretty ridiculous. And making space for that particular kind of ridiculousness in his somewhat stodgy sanctuary did make him smile a bit. Not only that, but $10K would get the stewardship campaign off to a nice start. It’s not like they’d be filming on a Sunday. So sure, he thought about saying yes. But then he remembered what a pain it was to rent out the church for anything— there were always spills, odd requests, demanding guests and insurance riders to worry about. All the clean up afterwards. At best his church was good at being a church—they didn’t do much else that well, certainly not as a site of a major motion picture. For better or worse, Matt described his church as a classic mainline, main-street, tall-steeple, in-bed-with-the-larger-culture kind of place. But he couldn’t see his church as a Hollywood kind of place. “I am not the sort of Christian who would boycott a movie (I might even wind up watching this one),” he wrote. “And we could use the money. But the church I serve is not mine, and I found myself wanting to protect its true owner from the world.” He said no.

So the Hollywood scout upped his offer to $60K. That’s $20K per day just to use the building.

Now according to congregational polity a pastor has the authority to turn down money, but Matt wasn’t sure he had the authority to turn down this much money. So he called a Congregational Meeting. At the meeting, most of the congregation turned out to be pragmatic types—with a few Adam Sandler fans to boot. They thought it would be fine to take the money. Congregationalists don’t believe the church to be the building. It’s the people. Besides, times were tight. This unexpected windfall would be a huge help to the kids of the church. They’d get a brand new Sunday School wing. And the renovation would make that part as beautiful as the rest of the building. Why look a gift horse in the mouth?

However a small number of the members, five to be exact, thought the gift horse looked more like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. They felt very strongly that no matter how lightly the treatment might be, their church should not be involved in a story that gets laughs from the sexual exploitation of an adolescent. The Congregation Meeting went round and round about this for several hours, desiring to reach a consensus which for Congregationalists signals the confirmation of the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately they weren’t getting confirmation. And it appeared as if they would have to settle for a lack of consensus—albeit one with a nice payoff. By majority rule, they’d take the money and try to patch things up with the people who were offended afterwards.

But just then one of the deacons, one who supported taking the money, stood up and said, “Look—it seems as if saying yes to this offer is going to hurt some members of our congregation. Not most people. Obviously not the majority. But some people. So I guess the question isn’t about a movie. It’s about us. Is $60,000 worth hurting a part of our community?”

Five minutes later the congregation voted unanimously to turn down the Hollywood offer even though most of them thought it was OK to accept it. They went from polarized to selfless in a matter of seconds. Matt the minister wrote, “I have mouthed unanswered prayers inviting Jesus to join our meetings dozens of times. I have interrupted agendas to speak confidently about his presence when he is nowhere to be found. This time I kept my mouth shut, and he walked right in.”

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Finishing Work

Philippians 1:3-12
by Daniel Harrell

Happy New Year. We begin again. And Merry Christmas too! Clearly with the hymns we’ve sung this morning we are still officially in Christmas. Eight maids-a-milking to be exact. According to the church calendar, Christmas runs until January 5, which I think is great since Christmas is an exponentially better holiday once you get past December 25. It’s been nice not to having to travel this year—though we did miss time with our families back east. A number of you were worried about that. You’d ask what we were doing for Christmas, and we’d reply how we were just staying put. You’d then assume that meant we had family coming out here, but we’d say nope, just us. The something like a mild panic would appear across your face. “Can you have Christmas without family?” And then, uh-oh, “does this mean we should invite the Reverend over to our house for Christmas?” I understand the panic. Having the Reverend show up at your house for Christmas dinner is not like having Santa Claus. You have to be on your best behavior for both of us but at least Santa brings presents.

Had we traveled to North Carolina where my family abides, we would have gathered at my grandmother’s house for some fine, gut-busting southern cooking. The highlight would have been my grandmother’s roast turkey and cornbread dressing soaked in a sweet lard-enriched gravy. Like drinking butter only better. You could feel your arteries harden with every morsel. It’s good eating. As it was we stayed here and as I need me some roasted something for Christmas to be Christmas, I roasted a goose that I shot out by the pond here (I’m kidding about that last part). If you’ve ever roasted a goose you know that it puts off a lot of fat—making for some serious gravy—just like my grandmother’s. We put out an all call on Facebook and around the church and delightfully ended up with two other Christmas-orphaned families at our table. They ate up that goose too—especially the ten-year-old boy who did his best impression of Tiny Tim. I’m surprised he didn’t sprout feathers given all the poultry he consumed.

Dawn and I were talking about how much we enjoyed this entire Christmas season—the gatherings, the beautiful church services, the lights, even the lack of snow. It was just like North Carolina. And yet I’m still amazed with how abruptly everything coems to a halt every December 26. “Joy to the world” and then back to work. Everybody starts fretting about year end finances and gift returns and getting to all those things you put off until “after the holidays.” There’s some momentary hope for a new year—except that you have to make resolutions and try to keep them more than a week. And of course the Iowa Caucuses are on Tuesday. So much for peace on earth. Was this what it was like that first Christmas?

Take the shepherds. Did you ever wonder what happened to them after the herald angels sang and they got back from the manger? What do you do once you’ve seen a Messiah? Luke tells us they ran to town and amazed everyone with their report, but afterwards we presume they went back to their fields to keep watch over their flocks by night again. There wouldn’t be much action on the Messiah front for another thirty years. Were they discouraged? Concerned? Worried that they had imagined the whole thing? Christmas can sometimes be that way. Which is why it’s good that there’s a verse in the Bible like Philippians 1:6—“the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

It’s one of the best loved verses of Scripture. I remember receiving a framed, cross-stitched rendition of Philippians 1:6 many years ago. It was crafted for me by an old girlfriend as her way (I think) of reminding me that I had plenty of room for improvement. It’s a great verse for New Year’s Day. January 1st draws out our deep longing for the future and a commitment to change, to work harder to make it happen this time or fix it so it won’t happen again. And yet having tried and failed so many times, most of us refrain from New Year’s resolutions because we know we can’t keep them. Better to just avoid the disappointment. But according to Philippians 1:6 you don’t have to try so hard anymore. God’s doing all the work. He has you covered.

Paul embedded this verse within an extended salutation wherein he thanks the Philippians for their monetary support. He describes this support as their sharing or “partnership” in the gospel, a translation of the Greek word koinonia which we typically translate as fellowship. Koinonia means to have all things in common; it’s where we get words like community and communion. Koinonia was epitomized in the book of Acts church where no one had any tangible needs because everything was communally shared. In this way fellowship is connected to stewardship, which we will emphasize next Sunday. Remember to bear your pledge cards for 2012 to church as we partner in the gospel once again together as a community. We will give because God gave to us. He brought us into community with himself as participants in the gospel of grace and if you have truly experienced grace, then you know how impossible it is to hoard it. You have to give it away. Paul prays for the Philippians that their love and grace may overflow more and more. Grace is what makes the church the church.

The koinonia of Philippians 1 is certainly economic. The life and mission of the church always requires financial support, therefore God spurs our giving until his return on “the day of Jesus Christ.” However, for Paul, the only New Testament author who uses the word koinonia, partnership or community also goes beyond resource sharing. For Paul any koinonia of material resources derived from a deeper koinonia of Spirit. In Galatians, Paul speaks of the right hand of fellowship (koinonia), which we extend to each other whenever we pass the peace. More than a handshake, the right hand of koinonia tangibly acknowledges our common bond through the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians, Paul speaks of communion as our koinonia in the body and blood of Jesus. More than bread and wine, communion tangibly acknowledges our fellowship in Jesus’ death and resurrection: His dying and rising will be our dying and rising too. No longer fearful of any condemnation because of our sin, the communion table assures us that we will rise to feast with Jesus as sure as eating my grandmother’s turkey on Christmas Eve. God who began his good work in us will get it done.

Specifically described as God’s good work yet to be completed, Paul’s emphasis is plainly on the future. His reference is to God’s saving work, which we all know takes a lifetime. Christians might customarily speak of somebody getting saved, but in reality we’re just as much people in the process of being saved. Like Peter who sank when he tried to walk on the open sea, our troubles and doubts still overwhelm us and drag us down too.

Paul penned Philippians from a prison cell, with no guarantee of earthly release. Which is why he described God’s good work as not yet completed. But unlike our own familiarity with unfinished work, there’s no question that God will not finish what he started. God operates from the future where the end has already happened. His good work is already a good job to be fully revealed on the day Christ comes back. His good work is as good as done. The focus of Christian hope is not on the future but on God for whom the future is present; the focus is not our creaturely destiny but on the God who destines us; we no longer worry about the end, but trust in the God who draws us toward his glorious ends. This is all that really matters, Paul writes. Our hope for a certain future makes the present immensely livable.

So instead of spending the rest of your New Year’s Day trying to make resolutions you know that you’ll break, trust God instead. Practice your resolutions as if they’re already kept. Paul encourages the Philippians and us to be pure and blameless not because we could if they tried, but because in Christ we already are. This is true even when we spectacularly fail because then we get to show what genuine repentance and resurrection look like. To be Christian is not to be flawless, but honest and humble and brave and full of grace.

God is the one who began a good work among us and it is God who will bring it to completion. Christian hope is based on his work in us, not on ourselves or our own ability. Christian hope fosters no illusions of human self-improvement. As opposed to optimists who look on the bright side and deny the effects of evil and sin, Christian hope understands that any real hope cannot found itself upon human potential or wishful thinking. Christian hope sees the effects of evil and sin for the tragedies they are, but then translates them into what they really are by the power of the cross. Suffering, rather than meaningless pain or just desserts, translates into meaningful redemption and reinforced character. Death, rather than a terrifying end to be feared, becomes the gateway to life. Christian weaves life’s tragedies into the necessary pattern of resurrection, pointing toward that day, when by grace, all things will be made new.

And because God will do this, the good end is as sure as my grandmother’s turkey on Christmas Eve—even when I’m not there to enjoy it. Actually it’s even surer than that. The fact is, my grandmother stopped roasting turkeys a few Christmases ago. After 50-some Christmases, she turned 80 and decided she was tired frankly of cooking. That first year without her turkey and dressing was spent at my aunt’s house feasting on fried chicken wings and cold shrimp and pork sausage balls. I understood, but I was really disappointed. Christmas just wasn’t the same without a big bird from the oven. So when Dawn and I got back to Boston, the first order of business was a trip to the grocery store. I needed me some roasted something for Christmas to be Christmas.

Since we were still technically in Christmas when we returned, like today, there was still time. However when I went to the poultry case, all they stocked were these 20 pound monster turkeys which would have meant 10 pounds of meat per person (that’s me and Dawn, Violet thinks turkey are fowl—ba-ba-boom). But turkey was tradition and the grocery store was running a special ($7 off with my shopping card), so I figured why not? I lugged the bird to the check-out line and watched to see the discount beep on the screen above the cash register, you know the one that displays your “savings” once they scan your card. However the turkey discount never appeared. So I called the cashier’s attention to this discrepancy and showed her the tag on the turkey, fully expecting to receive the $7 discount to which I was entitled. She said, “You know what this means?” Sure, I said, it means I get $7 off my turkey anyway. “No,” she informed me, “if it’s not in the scanner it means you get it for free!” Wow! Merry Christmas! I gave her a high-five and left with a totally unexpected, unmerited free 20-pound bird just like Scrooge’s gift to the Cratchets on Christmas morning.

OK, so obviously this is an experience in search of something to illustrate, so here it is: God who began His good work among us will carry it to completion by the day of Christ Jesus as sure as turkey at Christmas however that turkey shows up. Because it is God who does it, it does get done. But because it is God who does it, it doesn’t always get done is ways you expect. It gets done through suffering and death, through tragedies and troubles, through endings that transform into beginnings, through grace you receive though you never deserve it. God always finishes what he starts and therefore we confidently hope. Our koinonia in the body and blood of Jesus points to our koinonia in Christ’s death and resurrection as well as our koinonia in a free Christmas feast that promises to last into eternity.