Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church, September 21, 2014
Joy and Generosity
[Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16]
Let’s pray. Loving God, we rejoice that Christ’s love and generosity continue to be proclaimed and experienced over 2,000 years AFTER Jesus walked, talked and lived on this earth. Open our ears to receive GOOD NEWS for ourselves and for this congregation. May our hearts be soft and ready, not stiff and resistant to the Holy Spirit’s touch! Help us “…listen for how the Spirit is loosening, planting, pruning, healing and enjoying us.” Together we will probe what God is growing here. Please allow us to be “responsive to and willing to celebrate God’s energy at work. This mysterious divine energy flares out among us in ever-surprising ways.” In Jesus’ name, we pray. And all God’s children say: Amen.
Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi expresses deep love. The Philippians were Paul’s BFFs – his best friends in the faith, because they prayed for him continuously and sent him financial gifts at critical times when he was in need. The theme of his letter is JOY, even though it was written from prison. Paul begins with a prayer of thanksgiving, utterly confident that “the one who began a good work among them would bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (1:6) The Philippian Christians held Paul in their hearts during his imprisonment, defending his Gospel message and sending him whatever he needed: messengers, money and love. When the going gets tough, real friends stand with us. The Philippians were real friends & Paul longed for them with all his heart.
Paul prayed “their love would overflow more and more with knowledge and insight to guide them into the future, so that they would remain pure, blameless and also bear a harvest of righteousness for the glory and praise of God.”
After the prayer, Paul described his imprisonment. Instead of complaining about his distress, Paul saw it as an opportunity for the Gospel to spread further. The evangelist introduced the imperial guards and other prisoners to Jesus Christ.
Janice and John Pridgen shared their testimony last Wednesday night at our Prayer and Wholeness Service about how a crisis in their lives turned into an opportunity like Paul’s. Janice spent 13 years in a wheel chair and couldn’t walk, crippled by the most debilitating form of multiple sclerosis, considered an incurable disease by the medical community. However, God spoke to Janice one Sunday morning as Pastor David Hodge began to preach. God asked her to take off her shoes and walk three times around the sanctuary. She became the “sermon of the day.” Janice is still walking around 10 years later, “stomping” on Satan’s head as she describes it & praising God. As a result of God’s healing, Janice & her husband now minister in Scotland County prison, leading men to Christ through her testimony and their faithful visits. Janice and John never lost their passion for Christ during 13 years of confinement. Janice prayerfully and stubbornly stayed faithful to Christ in her wheel chair, hoping she would walk again, but always putting Christ first. She read the Bible from cover to cover several times and began typing it from start to finish as a way of digesting God’s word and making it an integral part of her life.
God saw fit to heal her physical body & equip this couple for prison ministry, which is their mission and way of serving others today. I will invite Janice & John to anoint our newly renovated handicapped facilities with oil today, praying that God’s grace will be poured out here in our congregation, as God’s grace has been poured into their lives. Janice didn’t change her spiritual practices. Whether in a wheel chair or not, Janice Pridgen was & is 100% INVESTED in sharing the love of Jesus Christ with all people. She and John are partners in this mission and have a transitional home for prisoners who are released from jail. Those willing to attend church during their transition are given free housing for 3 months and all their immediate needs are met. Many incarcerated friends of the Pridgens REJOICE in prison, because they would be “dead” today, if God had not sent the Pridgens to share Christ with them.
Paul’s statement is profound: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” Paul was willing to live 100% for Christ even if it meant imprisonment, illness or persecution, as long as he could be an encouragement to his Philippian friends and could evangelize those who didn’t know Christ. The suffering was secondary; God’s purpose for his life was undivided. He proclaimed good news from a jail cell, a hospital bed, even a cross if needed. But the best of all would be to die and live in communion with Jesus Christ for eternity. Paul was ready for death, even preferred it, but was willing to continue living if he could fill the cups of others with the love, joy & generosity of Jesus.
Paul asks his best friends in Philippi: PLEASE, live your lives in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I am able to see you again or not, I will sense your solidarity. Don’t be intimidated by your opponents, just as I don’t allow my opponents to intimidate me. God allowed me to suffer, Paul writes, but it was always for a purpose. The Philippians were also suffering, but Paul assured them it wouldn’t last forever. This is God’s doing and will result in your salvation.
Did you know suffering is part of the job description of a Christian disciple? Paul calls it a “privilege” – to share in Christ’s suffering. Any suffering— and I mean ANY— no matter how undeserved or horrible, is transformed into a “privilege” – when it results from following Christ. Paul isn’t talking about the consequences of sin. It’s natural that we reap what we sow if we sow to the flesh, not the spirit. If addicted to alcohol or drugs, we have to go through the hell of withdrawal. If a married person cheats on their spouse and breaks up his family, the resulting pain is a natural consequence of sin.
However, Paul talks about suffering which results from following in the footsteps of Christ. If you haven’t experienced this, perhaps you haven’t been following. According to Paul, “suffering” is inevitable; it’s the seedbed of a maturing faith. And the harvest of this suffering is always overflowing JOY, a much deeper emotion than “happiness.” We feel happy when we get what we want or do what we want, but human happiness comes and goes like clouds and weather. JOY, on the other hand, is the fruit of living in communion with the Lord Jesus Christ and in the fellowship of a vital Christian community. Joy is an inside job. It’s the harvest of faith. Paul’s most JOYFUL letter emerges out of his imprisonment & he harvests the faith of his sisters and brothers in Christ, who lift him up in prayer & provide for his needs.
To experience deeper joy in this congregation it’s possible we need to take more seriously God’s call to a life of mission and service. We’ve been exposed to people who live for God 100% – Dr. Cindy and Les Morgan, Dr. Rebecca Young, Ken McDonald and his team who travel to Mexico to build homes for the poor. There are also local, grassroots servants, like the Pridgens and like Rev. Mac Ledgerton who works at the Center for Community Action in Lumberton. Have you met people who are overflowing with Christian JOY, despite the suffering they experience? Do you have that joy? Are you giving your life away for the glory of God? What is our mission here? How are we serving others?
Let’s look briefly at Jesus’ parable in Matthew 20:1-16. “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” Let’s imagine this landowner is GOD, the laborers are Christians, and the vineyard to tend is where we live and work every day. God’s harvest is people. He wants us to introduce people to Jesus Christ and bring them into the church. Matthew’s not talking about vegetables! Jesus tells us the “harvest is ready” – but the workers are few.
God offers the early workers a fair daily wage and sends them to work. But there are never enough workers and the harvest is ready. If we leave crops un-harvested for too long, they rot. At 9:00 a.m. God’s still looking for laborers. He promises a fair wage to whoever is idle & needs work. God goes again at 12:00 noon and 3:00 p.m. and still finds idle Christians. God urges them to work for God & promises a fair wage. God continues recruiting. Is there anyone “idle” today? God needs you! Will you share the love of Jesus Christ with those who don’t know his love, joy or generosity?
At the end of the day the workers receive their wages. God/the landowner pays the last workers first and gives the usual daily wage. Those who started early get excited to see what God/the landowner might pay them, since God was so generous to the late arrivers. Will it be 8 times more? Whoopee! As it turns out, God pays them the exact same wage, even though they worked much longer. The early workers grumble. As good capitalists, they were sure they deserved more, based on their stellar performance and availability earlier in the day. God/the landowner says: Friends, didn’t you agree to work for the usual daily wage? Is it your business what I pay others? Their families also need to eat. My harvest would have spoiled in the fields without their help. Are you ENVIOUS because I am so GENEROUS to others?
Friends, God’s harvest is rotting in the fields, because there aren’t enough disciples willing to embrace Christ’s mission. How many of us stand idle? It doesn’t matter to God how early or late you embrace God’s mission to love and serve others in the name of Jesus Christ. What matters is that you start! The Good Shepherd left 99 sheep to find one. We have 50 sheep worshiping regularly, what if each of us shared God’s loving embrace with one lost sheep? Who will YOU reach out to love? Is this God’s church with God’s mission, or are we here simply to serve ourselves and pat ourselves on the back?
Are we envious that God is so GENEROUS? Or are we ENLIGHTENED laborers in God’s field: sharing God’s contagious joy, celebrating God’s generosity, searching for the lost? Next Sunday is EVANGELISM SUNDAY in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Are you willing to reach out, starting tomorrow? Whether you start tomorrow at 7:00 a.m. or next Saturday night after your last T.V. show, God will be equally delighted if you get out of your easy chair and bring home one lost person that God loves. Let us pray.
Tilden Edwards, Spiritual Director Spiritual Companion: Guide to Tending the Soul,
(New York: Paulist Press, 2001), p. 194.