As Jeremy pointed out last week, Paul’s letter to the Philippians is an intimate one. It’s a letter between friends—partners in ministry—people who are trying their hardest to figure out what it means to live out the gospel in the world. One of the things I like most about Paul’s letters, and particularly the letter of Philippians, is that it shows us a little bit about how people talked to each other back then. In preparation for this sermon, I got interested in certain kinds of phrases that have gone in and out of vogue; phrases that we use to ask each other questions about our lives—to see how things are going.
All of us will no doubt be familiar with some of today’s more common ones. I’m sure we all say “how’s it going?” or “how are you?” And, most of the time, I don’t think we ever expect or want the other person to say anything but, “Good, how about you?”
There’s another phrase, one that’s quite popular with our Irish friends across the pond that I’m sure you’re all familiar with: “Top o’ the mornin’ to ya!”
We could go Shakespearean: “How dost thou, sweet Lord?”
We could get really theological and old-fashioned: “How is it with your soul?”
And I think we should all be familiar with that phrase that tore through the late 90s and early 2000s. Anyone remember it? “Wazzzzzup!?”
Here’s another question, one that we may or may not ask that often: “What happened to you?”
In our passage today, Paul begins as though someone has just asked him this question. He writes in v. 12: “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel…” I imagine this group of people who love Paul, who have supported him financially, invited him into their homes, fed him, cared for him, built a relationship with him—I imagine them being so concerned, so scared, hoping that he’s not hurt, hoping that he’s okay. I imagine them saying to Paul: “What happened to you?” Paul’s response, though, is to put on a brave face. He is a man on a mission, after all. In the midst of pain, in the midst of suffering, and probably in the midst of grief, Paul talks about how his present circumstances advance the gospel, rather than what his present circumstances really mean.
Now, one of my own biases that I’ll share with you all is that I am constantly wondering whether or not I’m misunderstanding Paul or just disagreeing with him altogether. But I don’t feel that Paul is being all that honest with us. Does Paul really believe that the whole purpose he is imprisoned is to spread the gospel? And if that is the reason, is it worth it? And is it really true that suffering is a necessary part of living out the gospel? I don’t know.
Something that I do think is part of the gospel, though, is community. We need each other. I need you, you need me. We both need Grant Park Church, just like Paul needs the Philippians.
And one of the most important parts of any community is our speech--how we talk to each other. I’d like to meditate together this morning about this idea. I’d like to suggest that the kinds of questions we ask each other are crucial not only to our common life together, but to our “living out the gospel” together.
To do this I’d like to ask three different, but similar questions:
What happened to you?
What happened to us?
What happened to them?
“What happened to you?” Is a question that demands an actual response. It’s not like those other questions I began the sermon with, like “how are ya?” or “whazzzup?” It’s a question that cuts through all the fluff and gets to the heart of the matter. It’s a way to begin a kind of conversation with someone, often one-on-one, in which person A is actually concerned with person B. But context is everything. And the meaning of that question can drastically change depending on the relationship between the two people. The relationship must have certain qualities. The first and most important part of any relationship is trust. Trust that I won’t share with anyone the information you just gave me and asked me not to share with anyone. Trust that I’ll be available to you when you need someone to talk to. Trust that you’ll be believed. Trust that you really do want the best for me. This kind of trust is the cornerstone of a relationship in which difficult questions are asked and answered. And so I find Paul’s response here quite puzzling. What’s the meaning behind Paul’s diatribe about suffering and how it’s actually a really good thing and this bit about rival teachers? Paul says in v. 12 “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me will serve to advance the gospel” and again in v.19 “what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance,” but, Paul, what happened to you? What happened to you?
Paul’s response seems, to me, almost like a cry for help—a plea from one person to his community that loves him. It’s a community of people, by the way, that might just have a similar question to ask themselves. The question is “what happened to us?”
“What happened to us?”, despite sounding like two people wanting to hold a postmortem of their romantic relationship, is actually a really important question for communities to ask themselves. “What happened to us?” is the kind of question that constantly finds its way back our thoughts. We think about it when we zone out at work and it keeps us up at night. Perhaps this question looks like a family wondering how they got from point A to point B. When did my children stop liking to hang out with me? When did my parents give up on me? Why haven’t I talked to my brother in years? Why doesn’t my sister want to be a part of my life? Maybe it looks like that group of friends you had in high school or college. Those people you believed you would be close with for the rest of your life. And after several years of moving to different states and finding different jobs, starting families and attending different churches, you just don’t hang out that often. And, maybe, this question looks like a community of people who come to a particular church on Sunday mornings in NE Portland who remember the days of a much more thoroughly packed sanctuary. And who are wondering what seems perfectly normal to wonder: what happened to us?
The church in Philippi, I think, would probably have been wondering the same thing. Paul, one of the founding leaders of this community, has gone—Paul, their leader, their brother in Christ, their loved one. Paul always comes back. But unfortunately, it seems, maybe this is it. Maybe Paul’s not coming back this time. And so here’s a church asking the question “what happened to us?” But if a community is full of people who are able to ask one other the question “what happened to you?” and then are bold enough to ask the question of “what happened to us?”, I think the next step in the process is “what happened to them?”
“What happened to them?” is a question I feel that I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. What ever happened to that guy who was on death row? What happened to that woman I met who was in line for food downtown at Union Gospel Mission? What happened to Philando Castille? What happened to Tamir Rice? What happened to them? To ask this question seriously and honestly is a difficult thing to do. And the main reason, at least for me, is because to ask about other people’s wellbeing typically means that I have to admit something about how we’re different.
Last year, when I was still living in North Carolina, a man on my street was murdered. I didn’t know him. One of the press releases immediately following this shooting noted that the murder was quote-unquote “gang related,” and not a random occurrence—which, at the time, I understood to mean that I didn’t have anything to worry about. After all, I’m not involved with gangs. So, I’m safe. The interesting thing is that this man and I lived in the same neighborhood, but we lived in different worlds—mine being a world of safety, relative ease, and comfort. His being a world of constant antagonism by police officers, a lack of social concern for the working poor, defunded schools, a stagnant minimum wage. This was his world, a world that drives one to act desperately—to do what it takes to survive. What else is there to life than these realities?
After that shooting, I found myself wondering about that man and his family. What happened to them? What do you do after someone you love is murdered just outside a convenience store? How do you move on from that? I couldn’t fathom how difficult that must be. Once we have the kind of relationships to be able to ask each other “what happened to you?” and once we as a community are able to ask “what happened to us?”, our concern moves outward to those who are different from us.
Paul really seems to believe that things are going to get better—that it’s all going to work out. I have to be honest in saying that I don’t always share that same view. I struggle to join Paul’s optimism and his fearless hope. Maybe I have a lot to learn from Paul. And maybe in my learning I’ll come to the realization that there are other people in my life who will have that same hope when I don’t. They’ll ask what happened to me. We’ll ask together what happened to them. Maybe we’ll realize a hopeful kind of community. And maybe then we’ll realize in the process that there’s nothing more we could have wanted.