Phil 1:1-11 Thanks, and yes
June 19, 2022 Phil 1:1-11 Thanks, and yes Paul L. Escamilla
Paul is in prison in Rome, having been arrested for his open proclamation of the Christian gospel. Before his imprisonment he traveled from city to city across Asia minor, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, finding many receptive minds and responsive hearts. Communities of faith sprang up. Followers of the way, as they were called, gathered in Jesus’ name to worship and pray and serve, to learn and live the gospel life. One of those churches Paul helped to establish was in Philippi. Arriving there, he shared the gospel among a group of women, one of whom was a certain Lydia. Wesley Craig told us about Lydia in a sermon a few weeks ago. A dealer in fine cloth, Lydia was assertive and self-assured, a person of intellect and vision. She heard the gospel, responded in faith, and in what was very much a man’s world nevertheless proceeded to organize a faith community.
Does that story sound familiar? It’s yours, too. The idea of Laurel Heights was originally conceived by a woman named Mattie Terrell over a hundred years ago in an era when women’s rights were far more limited. At the time Mattie didn’t have a vote, but she had a vision. She nevertheless had a vision for the future of God’s church in this area of the city. From her vision, Laurel Heights was born.
Against the odds these two women, Lydia in Philippi, Mattie in San Antonio, answered the call in their respective cities and centuries to establish churches that would bear witness to the love of Christ in their communities and beyond. The Philippian Church prospered, coming to know and love and serve God through the practices of worship and welcome, generosity and service. And so have you. How could Paul, either Paul, not love such a church with all the affection of Christ Jesus?
As the apostle sat in his drab prison cell, he took a quill in hand and began to write a letter to his beloved church. It could easily have been a letter of wistful reminiscence start to finish I remember, I wish, I miss, those were the days. A curdling nostalgia for the way things used to be. But instead, that ink creates a bold yet gentle path across that parchment page that moves from past to present to future; from memory to hope; from a sense of gratitude for all that has been to a spirit of expectancy regarding all that is yet to be.
By the end of this opening section, the majority of Paul’s words will be not about the past, but about the future. From deep affection, fond memory, and heartfelt gratitude he moves right away to hopeful anticipation and assurance of what God will do next in the life of the Philippian Church he loves so dearly. From thanks . . . to yes!
Liz and I first came to Laurel Heights on a weekday evening in the spring of 2018 to meet the Staff-Parish Relations Committee of our new church. We drove down from Austin, entered the education building, and climbed way up to the top of the stairs, where we were greeted not by the SPRC, but by 12-year-old Sasha and her 9-year-old brother Greyson. Their mother, Laura, was in the meeting inside the classroom, and these two were in the hall supposedly doing their homework.
In fact, they were doing diplomacy work—greeting their new pastor and his wife. You couldn’t have picked better ambassadors. They were warm and friendly, completely at ease with the two of us. We had a wonderful visit during our meeting before the meeting. Is it any wonder the children of Laurel Heights have claimed my heart? Soon the door of the meeting room opened and Liz and I were invited into a room full of people. I thought, Oh—this church has grown-ups, too. In the meeting each one shared their deepest hopes and their realistic concerns for the church they clearly loved dearly. There were stories, laughter, tears. And I thought, how beautiful: this is a church that speaks in the language of hopes and dreams, that allows for tears as well as for laughter. Is it any wonder my heart has also been claimed by the grownups of Laurel Heights?
As we ended our meeting, Thomas Sanders led us all to the sanctuary to pray. As I stepped into this beautiful room, I drew my breath in awe. I thought to myself, “All these wonderful people, and this room, too.” We made a circle near the altar. As we did so we were all of course mindful of my predecessor, Jim McClain, who had for the previous eight years shepherded the Laurel Heights congregation and was now being appointed to Windcrest UMC. And so, there were sentiments of all sorts—the sadness of letting go as well as welcome and anticipation. I don’t remember specifically our prayer that night here at this altar, but we could easily have borrowed that expansive prayer of Dag Hammarskjold: For all that has been, thanks; to all that shall be, yes.
Four years later, as we all gather near this altar today for another new beginning, I am once again thankful for all that has been and so very expectant for all that shall be. Liz and I will cherish these four wonderful years in which we’ve shared ministry and friendship with you. “We have been through great rooms together” I think is Carl Sandberg’s phrase. And in our case, we have also been displaced from great rooms together. The grit and grace of shepherding our congregation through a pandemic has been intense. And yet there is no other work I would have rather been doing than caring for you through this unprecedented experience, seeking to offer leadership across an uncharted landscape, looking for signs of Easter at every turn.
I am humbled now to think of all we have shared, all we have lost, and oh my goodness—all we have found. Signs of Easter have abounded, even through the wilderness season. Your patience, agility, trust, improvisation, and reliance on God and each other have inspired and deepened my own. And your extraordinary graciousness and supportiveness toward me and toward the entire church staff was a saving gift. For all that has been, I can only say thanks! To God, to you.
When Bishop Ann Scherer-Simpson retired from active ministry several years ago she said, In the gospel life there are no dead ends. I always thought those words were self-referential—she would find new ways to be in ministry in this new season of her life. I’ve come to understand her message was for us, too—beyond her presence in episcopal leadership, we, too would find new ways to be in vibrant and fruitful ministry.
In the gospel life there are no dead ends. Beyond this pause for remembrance, and for sadness, for laughter and for tears . . . we’re called to follow the path of Paul’s quill across that parchment: from memory to hope and from gratitude to renewed purpose. There are more children to be met at the top of the stairs. More grown-ups who seek a community of faith in which they can cry as well as laugh. More sojourners to assist as they move through our city or settle here as neighbors and friends. More dreams to dream, more visions to cast. More prayers to pray, and songs to sing. There is more generosity to practice; more hospitality, more leadership, more daring; more faith, more hope; more love. Perhaps this is your Lydia season, your Mattie moment? To meet the obstacles to faith and action, inside or out, with God’s nevertheless . . . The God who has been with us in season and out across these four years will continue to bless our life together . . . yourlife together as you move into this future that waits with such promise and possibility to unfold before you. To all that shall be, yes!
Soon after beginning my work at Laurel Heights, I made my way to the home of two beloved Laurel Heights members, Larry and Sydney Thompson. They were now mostly confined to their home, cared for so lovingly by their daughter, our own Cindy Birdwell, and her brothers; assisted day to day by a caregiver named Sarah who was a remarkable human being. Sarah was attentive, patient, thoughtful, and kind—the perfect combination of qualities for her chosen vocation.
One day I asked her, “Where did you come by such gifts and graces for this work?” My father, she said. He was a pastor. I am who I am today because of him. “Is he still in the work?” Oh, no. He died when I was seven. “When you were seven.” Yes. “And you credit him for your way of serving and caring for others?” I do. She paused, and then said the most remarkable thing. In those first seven years of my life when he was with us, he loved me in such a way that I was given all I needed for loving others in that same way for my whole lifetime.
All the love and devotion we’ve shared in Christ across four beautiful years in the Laurel Heights family I will carry with me, as does Liz, into our next chapter of life, a treasure trove to open and share in our new places of worship and serving in Houston, Texas. Lisa brings with her the love and devotion of a faith community in Buda nurtured over four years of shared ministry, a treasure trove all its own that she will offer here among you. You bring with you to this next season with Lisa as your pastor your own treasure trove: love and devotion, nurtured and deepened and enriched by so many before, and so many among you.
And so, for all that has been, thanks! To all that shall be, yes! That prayer is a path, isn’t it? Like Paul’s across the parchment page. Or like ours over the last four years. A path from memory to hope; from gratitude for what has been to openness toward all that will be. It’s a path. It’s also a pledge of sorts. By faith you will go this way together with partners new and familiar; with Lisa, with one another, and with those you have yet to meet, into a new season with a heartfelt thanks and a resounding yes!
It’s a path, it’s a pledge. Mostly, it’s a prayer, as though, before the altar of God, we bring all of the goodness of these things, the sheer beauty of life together in Christ; the memory, the gratitude; the past, the present, the promise the future holds; the cautious readiness we feel, the growing openness inside of us, the tentative willingness to trust that God is near and will provide—far more abundantly than we could even imagine.
It’s a prayer; it’s certainly my prayer for you and me, and for you now. It’s my prayer; I hope in time, maybe even in this hour, it can be yours, too. For all that has been, thanks; to all that shall be, yes!