“You Shine Like a Star, You Know Who You Are, You Make Everything Beautiful”- A Letter of Joy
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
August 13, 2017
There are a lot of stars in the sky and none of them are more significant to me and you than the sun. The sun, obviously, is the source of all life here on the earth. It’s a pretty simple equation. No sun, no life. It’s kind of hard to comprehend the power of the sun. It sits some 93 million miles away from the earth, which seems like kind of a long way. Its core temperature is 27 million degrees Fahrenheit, but in all fairness it’s a dry heat. The sun is the size of 109 earths and it is the mass of 330,000 earths. Could it stand to lose a few pounds? Sure, but I’m not going to tell it that. The sun is an extraordinary object but because we are so used to it, we rarely appreciate it for what it is, the greatest thing we have going for us.
Now consider the Church for a moment. Not this church, but the Church, the Church in the world. The Church is, in its ideal form, the source of all spiritual life here on earth. It is the visible body of Christ. Today there are over 2 billion Christians in the world; that means roughly one out of every three people identify as Christian. The Church has translated the full Bible into 636 languages, and the New Testament into over 1400. It has existed in some form in the world for 2,000 years and it grew out of an original group of 12 rural Galilean peasants. It is an incredible thing. But because we have mostly grown up in the Church, and because it was here before we showed up and will be here after we leave, we rarely think about it. But in truth the Church is the best thing going on the planet, at least on its good days.
So, why am I talking about the sun and the church in such terms? The answer is simple, because Paul did. Ok, he didn’t literally say “the sun.” He said the church should shine like stars in the earth, and he probably didn’t know that the earth was a star, but the Holy Spirit was working too and so we can, I believe, make this connection. Paul, as you will recall, was writing from prison. He was encouraging what appears to have been his most beloved church, the Philippians, in their life together. He has acknowledged that things won’t be easy for them; that they are facing adversity, but still he wants them to shine. He implores them to “hold fast to the word of life,” and to be “blameless and innocent.” In doing this, Paul believes that they will fulfill their calling in the world.
Now consider for a moment, the moon. The Moon is a mere 238,000 miles from earth. It is one quarter the size of the earth and the earth is 80 times more massive than the moon. It certainly influences life but, let’s be honest, it is not nearly as important as the sun. Compared to the sun, or the earth for that matter, the moon is a trifle. It is a lumpy ball of worthless rock spinning around the earth and decorating our night sky. But in 8 days, it will have its moment in the sun. We in America will get our first look, in quite some time, of a full moon lunar eclipse. The orbit of the moon will pass directly between the earth and the sun and, for a few moments, the sun will be completely blocked out. The moon will hold sway, taking away the life-giving light from the sun and replacing it with darkness. For a few moments, this is novel; but if it persisted for any length of time, it would not be so amusing as crops withered, temperatures fell, and seasonal affective disorder overtook us all. So we will be thankful it lasts only for a moment.
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians he doesn’t just implore them to be shine like stars on the earth. No. He warns them. He warns them about the generation in whose midst they exist. He calls them a crooked and perverse generation. What was so bad about them, you ask? Well we can’t say what Paul’s exact complaints were, but we can infer from his warnings to the Philippians. He warned them against “murmuring and arguing.” Murmuring is the most interesting, as it literally meant to mutter under ones breath, but in short we can see that the crooked and perverse generation was adept at sowing the seeds of discord and creating warring factions. It was a generation which tore apart rather than built up.
And Paul understood that even a great star can be blotted out by a small moon. The Church, in all its grandeur and majesty, all its beauty and splendor, can find itself eclipsed, in any generation, by the darkness of the world in which it dwells. These words to the Philippians were not just a warning to that church but to all churches in all times and places. We have a very clear mission in the world but we must always be careful not to allow the world we seek to serve to take away our life giving light.
Over the history of the Church, it has regrettably allowed this to happen all too often. Too many times the Church has become eclipsed by the whims of its generations. It has capitulated to corrupt rulers. It has propped up devastating policies, and it has been a force of oppression rather than liberation. And the Church has done these things, almost uniformly, because it has failed to shine like stars and has instead allowed itself to be corrupted by the world.
If Paul were writing to you and me today, I fear he would make a similar admonition to us. But how, today, can we shine like stars? For me, there are two important ways. The first is unity. In a culture that has become completely polarized and politicizes everything, the Church can best stand against that by being united, by loving each other, and embracing the world, regardless of our political ideologies. Let me just be blunt. In the Church, it doesn’t matter who you voted for. It doesn’t matter if you are liberal or conservative. It doesn’t matter if you watch Fox or MSNBC. It doesn’t matter because our shared mission to be followers of Jesus outstrips any of our petty political disagreements. Those disagreements are the moon and when we allow them to impede our unity then they can become a lasting eclipse that makes our work impossible.
Second is selflessness. The culture around us encourages us to think only of ourselves. I remember when we worked at Second Presbyterian in Indianapolis, the local paper published a story about younger folks who attended church. The headline was, “Wanted: A Church that meets my needs.” The Church does not exist to meet our needs. It exists to do the work of Jesus Christ in the world, and to be Christ’s visible body. It exists so we can follow, serve and worship God in this world in community.
In a few days the eclipse will happen. It will be dark for a moment and it will pass. And the thing I want you to remember is that every corrupt and perverse generation has passed away from this earth, and the Church remains. And it remains because God desires it to remain, and it remains because there are followers of Jesus in every generation who manage to shine like a star in the midst of a broken and fallen world, calling people to Christ by setting themselves apart from the rancor of the day. Wouldn’t you like that to be us? It can be. It is. Paul told the Philippians that God was at work within them, and that was the truth. It remains the truth today, and it is by embracing that truth that we will be able to shine. Amen.