“Living and Dying”- A Letter of Joy
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
August 6, 2017
Tasha likes to call my high school “play school.” I went to a private school in Oklahoma City called Heritage Hall and, if I am being really honest, you can make the case that maybe it was a little cushy. To reach my school, one drove through a large gate and then down a long lane to an abundant parking lot. Just getting there told you that it was not an everyday school. In this way, getting to my school in Oklahoma City, and getting to the Epiphanie School, just outside of Cherident in Haiti, could not be more different. While kids today drive down that same lane to Heritage Hall, kids in Cherident are basically scaling a mountain to reach their school. I remember when I first arrived at the foot of that mountain. Our trucks stopped down on the road and when I asked where the school was, our leader merely pointed up. And, boy, was that right. I would say the climb to our school in Haiti is a good 600 feet, at least, almost straight up. It was a hike.
And let me tell you, getting down was no picnic either. We took a different path down the mountain, and I will tell you I will not soon forget that trek. I won’t forget it because it was long, and windy and beautiful and strange; but I also won’t forget it because of what Donna Young had to do to get down. Many of you know Donna, she is one of our members and went on the trip, and Donna’s knees were killing her so getting down was not going to be easy, but we had to. So the principal of the school, whose name I have sadly forgotten, stepped in. He was an unbelievably kind and gracious man, and he simply stepped in front of Donna and walked directly in front of her for the whole descent. And Donna placed her hands on his shoulders and he eased her down every single slope and step on that mountain. If he had not been there, I believe Donna might have become a permanent resident at the Epiphanie School.
Sometimes in life, there is somebody right there to help us when we most need them. Donna needed his help to get down, and it was more help than I or any of the rest of us may also have been able to offer, but she got more than that. He helped her without ever making her feel like she was a burden or difficulty to him. He helped her with grace. That’s the type of person we need sometimes. Somebody who can not only help us out of the jam we are in, but somebody who can do it in a way that makes us feel as if they are truly pleased to be doing it. And this is what Paul was for the Philippians. He was the one who helped them. He had gotten them off the ground. He had helped them get to know Christ. And he had protected them from the charlatans who preyed upon these new congregations. But by the time he writes Philippians we are wondering, how long will he be there for them?
They were a new congregation, started by Paul, and you can tell how much they mean to him in this letter. . Philippians has been called an epistle of joy, and it is a remarkable letter. Paul, as you may know, is not in any ordinary situation when he writes this epistle. He is in prison, under the armed guard of the Roman Empire, awaiting appeal of the death sentence which he had received. In short, he was in mortal danger and he knew it.
So we can see that Paul had always been there for the Philippians. He is at the juncture of life or death and he knows it. He can see two paths lying before him. There is death, which he calls “gain.” Death would unite him with Christ and, as he writes, would be “far better.” But then there is life. And here is where it gets interesting because Paul acknowledges the value of his life only insofar as he can help the Philippians in their “progress and joy in the faith.” They need him. And so he says that, because of this, he will continue to strive for life.
More than a few times in my ministry I have been visiting a person who has reached advanced years and they have asked me, “Why am I still here?” Their spouse is gone. Many of their friends are gone. They can no longer work, and they wonder to themselves, what is now the purpose of their life? What do they have left to accomplish on earth? It is a fair question and one which I always struggle to answer because I feel like all my responses come across as platitudes. But what if they, what if in fact all of us, put ourselves in the position of Paul in this letter? What if all of us looked at our lives for a moment in this way? Shall we live or shall we die? If we die, we gain because we will be with Christ. This is the core of our faith. But if we live, we live not so we might enjoy life, not so we might be useful, not so we might have some purpose that the world around us recognizes as good. No. We live so that we may continue to be necessary for the faith, for the faith mind you, of someone else. What if we saw that, regardless of our stage of life, as our purpose? What if we saw ourselves as someone instrumental to the progress and joy in faith of someone else? Then would that not change more than our desire but also our lives?
Let me just tell you this, and I believe it truly. Someone needs you. Someone right now is in a spiritual jam. Their faith is stuck at the top of a mountain and the only way to salvage it is for you to step in front of them and guide them down. You. Not me. Not some expert somewhere. Not Tasha. Not some author. You. You are there to help them, not out of a life jam but out of a faith jam. You are there to help them to keep growing in their faith. You are there to help them find joy in their faith. You are there to help them derive strength from their faith. If you’ve never believed anything I’ve told you in a sermon before, then believe this. Someone needs your faith in their life.
Now, for us as Presbyterians, this is tough because we do not really speak of our faith. We are bad at it and we tend to wall off areas of our lives from our faith. This is neither healthy nor faithful but I understand it. And we can only change if we realize that somebody needs us. Somebody needs to hear how Jesus Christ has helped you. They need to hear that you are praying fervently especially for them. They need to know that you are a safe person with whom they can share their doubts and struggles and that you won’t cast them aside or shame them. Someone needs you! And I don’t know who it is, but it is somebody. It is your child or spouse. Your friend or sibling. Your co-worker or acquaintance. It is somebody. But let me tell you this, if you are alive, you are needed and we can all just sit around and wonder what we are supposed to be doing and wait for something to happen that never does, or we can understand that our lives have purpose and meaning in the eyes of God and other people. Someone needs you.
As Donna made her way down that mountain, I dare say the most important person in her life at that moment was the principal of Epiphanie School. She needed him. And in the same way, the most important person to the Philippians was Paul, Paul the prisoner, who kept them firm and secure in their faith, whose unshakable faith had shaped them so powerfully. And in the same way you are the most spiritually significant person in somebody’s life, and if you don’t know who that person is, and if you haven’t fully discovered that aspect of yourself, then there is no better time than right now. It’s not enough to just walk around and say, “God loves me.” It’s true, God loves you, but that love carries with it a burden and purpose, and that purpose is the single most important thing calling us away from the death to life. Someone needs you. Today. For their faith! You can choose death…or life. Amen