Year A; FB; Proper 23; 10.11.2020
Dawn was my sister’s friend for nearly 20 years. Marilyn, my sister and Dawn worked in business development for a non-profit hospice organization in San Diego. They were nurses. Dawn and her husband Jim always included Marilyn, who is single, in holiday dinners at their home. Dawn told Marilyn, “You are the sister I never had.” It was a special friendship.
I met Dawn a summer ago when I visited Marilyn and cooked for a dinner party Marilyn had. Dawn’s presence was of a calm, curious, joyful friend. She was good for Marilyn because her joy was contagious for Marilyn.
Dawn was raised Presbyterian, but was eager to learn about the Episcopal Church because that was Marilyn’s church. Dawn had an advancing chronic case of pulmonary fibrosis that left her increasingly breathless. These past months, she became more and more isolated after the coronavirus hit California because she was quite high risk.
But she found St. Paul’s on line. She was one of our early virtual community members. She enjoyed Morning Prayer so much that she bought her own prayer book. On Sundays, she would write in our Facebook page her gratitude for the meaningful Morning Prayer service and would greet us “from San Diego.” She asked us to pray for her, and we’ve held her in prayer for these months – both the daily live stream prayers and Sunday prayers.
On Thursday, Marilyn wrote me bereft to say that Dawn had died. And today, we pray for Dawn in death, and ask God to grant her a holy rest. Marilyn is consoled that our community, St. Paul’s here in Maine was a virtual place of faith and prayer for Dawn in her last days.
I’m telling the story of Dawn today because right in front of our eyes, the landscape of what it means to be in a community of faith has shifted significantly over these months of the pandemic. The need for meaningful connection has grown. People are able to create community despite geographic limitations. Dawn and a few others across the country found in us a place of prayer and peace on line. Community is being reshaped as the need for meaningful connection increases.
God is calling us anew to be church in a very different way. What does that call look like to us? How is our congregation out of necessity creating new ways of being in fellowship and worship? And how do we nurture the joy and vitality of being in community when many of us can’t be face-to-face?
Possibly, first century Apostle Paul, our patron can be our guide. He was a “virtual” member of his many communities, becoming an active letter writer to all his communities from various places including prison. In fact, in the Letter to the Philippians we heard today, he was writing from a jail cell, charged with a capital offense against Rome. He had been founding communities in Christ for 20 years, and was still at it late in his vocation. And still, from his pen in prison, he offers the most joyful and confident words to his beloved Philippians.
The Letter to the Philippians is the happiest letter of the entire canon of letters Paul wrote to his communities. Listen to the very introduction of the letter:
“We greet you with the grace and peace that comes from God our Father and our Master, Jesus Christ. Every time you cross my mind, I break out in exclamations of thanks to God. Each exclamation is a trigger to prayer. I find myself praying for you with [joy in my] heart. I am so pleased that you have continued on in this with us, believing and proclaiming God’s Message, from the day you heard it right up to the present. There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears.”
Paul writes the word “joy” or “rejoice” more than eleven times in this short letter. He conveys a joy that has no bounds, and it’s from a deep source within him. He is writing to a community that is small and very likely not wealthy. They were probably poor and many were slaves. They could have dropped away from this idea of the body of Christ and returned to their pagan practices. But his joy and confidence in them is contagious and is a seal for their new community in Christ.
In past sermons, I have preached about love, not as a romantic, emotional feeling, but as a daily discipline and decision. As Christians we decide to love as Christ decided to love even those who persecuted him. I think it works the same way with joy. Like love, joy is a daily discipline and decision. Some of Jesus’ last words in John’s gospel were to pass on his joy to his disciples knowing he was headed for the cross. “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15:11)
Paul calls his followers to decide for joy. We are called to decide for joy and to share it; share it in our families, communities, in letters, in texts and email messages, in the digital world, and in distanced in-person encounters. We decide for joy because God dwells in us; an outcome of living in Christ.
One writer on Paul’s infectious joy in the throes of prison gives us this important reflection: “For Paul, joy and life beyond constant worry come not when one has mastered this or that spirituality…but when one perceived God’s action, even amid difficulty and pain….Joy itself is not the goal, as if it were a drug. It is an outcome and a sign of the presence of the risen Christ…”
At our first Stewardship Committee planning meeting on Zoom, we were given the assignment to develop a list of attributes of St. Paul’s in order to pin what the reality is for us in these shifting sands of the pandemic. In the lists, three things stand out:
One, St. Paul’s commitment to giving generously even in a pandemic, has not diminished. Thank you.
Two, our community has vitality as we rise to the challenge of adapting to our life together digitally and in-person now and for the future.
Three, our joyful commitment to the work of social justice continues to be broad and deep. I say “joyful” because I see that we joyfully distributed last year’s Christmas fair proceeds in the pandemic. We are joyfully figuring out how to have a “deconstructed,” safe Christmas Fair for Outreach fund-raising. AND there is deep, transforming work going on in our Sacred Ground groups that are studying race and faith.
By now, you have received the inspiring Stewardship letter from the Wardens and the letter and pledge card from me. I invite you wholeheartedly to come to our small in-person circles in the garden at 1:00 p.m. today for conversation and fellowship. Or, later today at 4:00 p.m. join the Zoom conversation. And I invite you to make your financial response to the work God is calling us to in 2021.
Beloved, one and all, imagine Christ’s joy being so present in us that it spreads throughout our town and country!