A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown CT on March 13, 2022
Philippians 3:17—4:1 — Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
A million years ago, I lived in California. It really wasn’t my choice; I was then in the Marines and I’d been transferred to a base not far from the original Disneyland. Even though I’d not chosen to go there, I was glad to go. I wanted to see more of our country. I was excited to make the trip and looking forward to seeing places I’d only heard about. The first time I saw a real, live, Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe train engine, I was thrilled.
California was everything I’d expected… look, over there is San Juan Capistrano, and Laguna Beach…. and deserts and orange groves, and even the occasional cactus. But there were things I’d not expected. I had not expected that everything would be brown…. brown houses, brown roofs, brown yards, brown, brown….
Most of all, as I look back on that time, the thing that most disconcerted me was that the ocean was in the wrong place. I was born and bred on the East Coast of the US. Here the ocean is always to our east. But in California, it’s in the west. Now that seems simple and clear, but it turned out that, somewhere in my subconscious, it’s an important factor in my navigational skills. I can’t tell you how many times I’d take off to visit cousins who lived north of Los Angeles, and I’d find myself seeing signs that said “welcome to San Diego”. I was in a new place, and could not reliably find my way around. I was not sorry when I received new orders that returned me to the East Coast after only a few months, orders that returned me to a world that felt like home.
I bet most of us have had similar experiences…. we’ve moved to a new place where, no matter how nice, there’s something that just throws us off, makes us feel like perpetual visitors in a place we’d thought would be home. Or you’ve taken a wrong turn on a long drive and found yourself totally lost.
I think something of the same thing happens when we’re betrayed by someone in whom we’ve put our trust. We thought we knew what was what, but it turned out…. that our hero really does have feet of clay. Maybe it’s not so much, but sometimes… it’s like the scandals in the Roman Catholic Church… and the accumulating pressure makes you abandon your trust in what has been the foundation of your lives.
Today’s Scripture reading from Philippians speaks to that kind of disorientation I’m talking about. There is a foundation upon which we can build with confidence. There is a foundation which carries us through those times when we’re totally disoriented. There is a base on which we can build a life that has value and purpose.
Where do we belong? We belong to our brother, our friend, our Savior Jesus Christ. Our citizenship, when you get right down to it, is with God.
Now, just because I’ve said it, and even though it is true, it’s also true that there are and will be times when we’ll find we are still lost, still feel as though everything that gave us meaning is gone. There are and will be times when we question everything we know and believe. “Where is God when there is war once again?” is a real and powerful question – and really it’s another whole sermon. Today, I want just to say that in those times in my own life, it’s been the community that has carried me through. It was the community which welcomed me back when I couldn’t believe.
The words from Philippians are important because it’s so easy to get distracted into putting your ultimate trust into something or someone other than God and God’s community.
We can put our trust in our continuing good health… and maybe, for some of us, that’ll last right up to the day of our death. But for most of us good health is a relative matter.
We could put our trust in our business acumen… or in our smarts… or in the power of the box office…. or in our own innate ability to get people to follow us. Those are all real, but they are secondary powers. You can be a great business person, but the question is still there — to what purpose do we do these things? People will follow you, but to what place?
It is in our following God that we find the answer to that ultimate question… what point is there to all this?
Here’s the point: our task, our goal, our purpose is to build community, to create a world that is built on peace, practice justice, lives mercy. We can best do that when we build our lives on the foundation of God’s love. Then we can allow that belief – for instance, that God’s accepts everyone, that every one of us was made in God’s image – to inform our business decisions, or guide our teaching work…. to influence every other decision we make.
There’s a story which circulates on Facebook from time to time – about a small child who, having heard in church that God welcomes everyone, takes that lesson to school…. and sits down at lunch with another child who’s been deliberately ignored by all their classmates. The friendship of the two children changes the dynamics of the classroom.
That sort of thing won’t happen magically every time it’s tried, but it will make a difference, when we keep on trying.
So, where do we belong?
On the side of those who seek to build up.
Standing with those who are suffering.
Working with those who seek an end to the dividing walls of hostility.
Gathered with our siblings as one community of love throughout the world.
We belong, body and soul, in live and in death, not to ourselves but to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
© 2022, Virginia H. Child