Sunday, October 6, 2019
Scripture: Psalm 148 & Philippians 2:12-18
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
None of us would be here today if it were not for the faithfulness of others. I’m serious when I say that. Each of us has at least one other person – and quite likely we have had scores of people – who have encouraged us to learn about Jesus and to follow him. Maybe it was your parents. Perhaps it was a friend you met in college. Maybe it was a neighbor how took you to church when your family didn’t go. It could be a camp counselor. Or a youth leader. And even if you can make the claim that you’re in the church today as a 100% independent effort on your part, then you are now participating in a community that stands on the shoulders of others. You can read your Bible in English because devoted disciples translated those Greek and Hebrew texts for you. You understand faith and life as you do because of others. Frankly, we exist as a church in Grand Haven today because the Apostle Paul had a vision of a man in Macedonia begging him to bring the gospel, and thus the church in the western world started. These words we encounter in Philippians remain words to us because we trace the lineage of our faith down through thousands of years right into this small faith community trying to understand what it means to follow Jesus in their busy and thriving city. How cool is that?
That’s why texts like today’s are worth our attention, yet it’s rare to hear a sermon on them. The lectionary, that cycle of prescribed texts for the church’s preaching, doesn’t include what we read today. Most would pass it over as biographical information, but I think there’s something in there for us because it reminds us that we are all in this together and that no one does this alone – not even Paul in prison. In our text Paul names two people who have been of great service to him, so let’s learn about Timothy and Epaphroditus just a bit.
I’ll begin with Timothy. He’s been with Paul over the past couple of years. Paul met him in Lystra during his second missionary journey. Timothy would have accompanied Paul into Macedonia and Philippi, so he was there for the founding of the Philippian church and what followed. He knows this congregation, and he knows Paul. This relationship is so close that Paul actually gives Timothy co-author status on this letter, although it’s clear Paul is the one writing it. Paul never had children, and Timothy is the closest thing Paul has to a son. He says as much in our passage in verse 22, “But Timothy’s worth you know, how like a son with a father he has served with me in the work of the gospel.” We see in the following verse that Paul is still awaiting a trial and its outcome. He hopes he will be freed, but he doesn’t know. Still, once news of Paul’s future comes into shape, he’s going to send Timothy ahead with news to the Philippians about what has happened to Paul. But for now, Timothy will stay by Paul’s side in the waiting.
But, there’s another person who can go while Paul is waiting. His name is Epaphroditus, and he was sent from Philippi to Paul in prison in Ephesus. We don’t know a ton about him, but his name does reveal his parents were Greek, both ethnically and religiously. He’s actually named after Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. The church in Philippi has only been around for a couple of years, yet it has expanded to include a pagan like Epaphroditus. In fact, he’s become so dear to this church that they’ve given him a ton of trust. Paul has been working on a collection of money for the poor in Jerusalem, and the Philippians have been among the most active in that collection. So, they have sent Epaphroditus on a long journey with this money both to deliver it to Paul and to check up on him.
The journey from Philippi to Ephesus was around 300 miles as the crow flies. I Googled directions, and it’s almost a 500 mile drive that includes tolls, a ferry, and an international border. If you were to drive it today, Google claims it’s about a nine-hour commute. To Americanize this, it would be the distance between here and Nashville, Tennessee. Google tells me it would take 173 hours to walk there. Anyone up for that? So, let’s pretend for a minute that I’m Epaphroditus and that you are sending me to visit Paul. You give me the collection I am to deliver to Paul – let’s say $50,000 cash. You give me a walking stick, a backpack, a tent, and a map. You wish me luck and send me on my way. You think I should be back in a few weeks, but then I don’t show up on time. The weeks turn into months, and then you start wondering. Is Troy OK? Did something happen to him? I thought we knew him, but did he just run off with our cash?
In a world where communication moved at the speed of walking, there really was no way of knowing what had happened to Epaphroditus. He could have been robbed. He could have been killed. He could have taken the money and run. Paul is aware that these questions could be coming up in the community, and so he seeks to counter them. He tells them of Epaphroditus’ illness. He tells them of his care. He wants them to know that he is trustworthy and that he has done everything they asked of him and more. This very letter we are reading together as a church came by the hand of Epaphroditus to Philippi. So, just like we are here because of the faithfulness of others, we are also here because one man named after a Greek goddess survived a terrible illness, hiked his way back from Ephesus to Philippi, and shared Paul’s letter with them. This family of faith, indeed, has some interesting stories.
Isaiah 52:7 begins, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger bringing good news.” It’s a text Paul will later quote in his letter to the Romans. We have all had people who have delivered the good news to us in our lives, and so I want to take the rest of my time this morning to tell you some stories of those from my own life who have beautiful, good-news-bringing feet. I’ll begin back at Wayne Park Baptist Temple, where I spent my first twelve years in the church. There was an older man in the church named John Birley. Those were the days when everyone still wore suits to church. (I’m pretty sure I even wore one until around ten, when I had a battle of the wills with my dad over my desire to wear soccer shorts to church.) Anyway, I don’t even know what John’s role was in the church. He wasn’t a Sunday School teacher. He wasn’t in the choir. He was just around the church, but in John’s suit coat was a never-ending supply of Tootsie Rolls. John would circulate through the church, particularly the Sunday School classes, and pass around Tootsie Rolls to the children in there. John’s generosity was one of the reasons I enjoyed coming to church. How beautiful are the feet of John Birley! Here I am decades later telling you about the impact his Tootsie Rolls had one me, but that’s exactly the point.
I can also remember some of those Sunday School teachers with their King James’ Bibles and flannel graphs. You remember those, right? Those characters that could stick to a flannel board to make the Bible stories come to life? My great aunt Marion was once my Sunday School teacher. Week after week she sat at a table with a bunch of second graders telling us Bible stories. I wonder how much of my scriptural knowledge started in those classes. Or in fourth grade I had the “fun” teacher. His name was Bill Munn, and he owned a local furniture store. Bill had travelled to the Holy Land and he brought back pictures to share with us. These are places I visited decades later, and Bill was on my mind when I took pictures of those same places, preparing myself to come home and share my pictures and stories with others about the things that once happened there. Bill was the first Sunday School teacher who would have fun with our questions. I always knew I was welcome with him.
In high school I had moved to a different church and found my family of faith among my friends at school. We all adopted a United Methodist Church as our youth group home. I wonder what that was like for them to have this onslaught of Catholics, Baptists, Episcopalians, and people just exploring this Jesus thing descending down upon their youth group. Thankfully, they welcomed us. It was the first church where I ate ice cream from a 75-foot gutter. It’s still the largest sundae I’ve eaten. A couple in that church named Rick and Becky Standley took this crew of rambunctious teenagers under their wing. For a year’s worth of Sunday afternoons, we gathered in their living room to explore Christianity, to pray for each other, and to learn what it means to follow Jesus. It wasn’t their job to do this. They were just members of the church, yet they heard the call to share the good news with us. How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!
I could go on about others. There are so many friends from college who asked great questions and pushed my faith to deeper levels. There are everyday members of churches I have pastored who keep this work from becoming a job. There are missionaries I’ve encountered who regularly inspire my faith. They all have beautiful, good-news bringing feet. I wish I had time to tell you all those stories. Actually, what I wish I had time for was to hear the stories of those who have brought you good news.
What are your stories? I know you have them. Who are the ordinary people in your life who gave of themselves to you to share faith and life with you? You’ll notice that none of the people I mentioned this morning are pastors. Now, I hope you find pastors important and a part of your encouragement, but studies show that it’s the everyday people who have the biggest faith impact on others. Kristine and I are two people, and there are around 800 of you. It should come as no surprise that you play a significant role in the faith of others. It’s also why we are so eager to have each of you in relationship with others in the church. Just sharing your life with another for an hour a week will make a huge difference. We have places where you are wanted and needed right now! We’ll help put you in the position to share faith and life with another.
Since we’re spending so much time in a letter, we’ve been encouraging you to write letters. This month, we’re encouraging you to write a letter that reflects on your faith development. This could be something you do just for your personal reflection, but if you’re able, I’d encourage you to write a letter to someone who has shaped your faith. Could you imagine what this would do to the recipient of the letter – how it would encourage them? Thank God we have each other, this family of faith that shares life with us, that carries burdens for us, and that opens its arms wide to others who want to join in. I am so glad to be a part of the church, and I hope you are too.