Today was the last Sunday for Rev. Colette Lane, who is retiring after 14 years of service to Crestwood and over 35 years in ministry. This sermon is a tribute to her ministry and to God’s work through her.
Philippians 1:1-11 – Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all God’s holy people in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.
When I was in high school, my step-sister Lisa came to stay with us for a summer. While she was with us, she developed quite a crush on my best friend, Jay. So when she left to go back home, she handed me a sealed envelope that stank of perfume and gave two very explicit instructions: (1) Deliver this to Jay, and (2) Don’t open it! So of course, I opened it. The letter was full of the typical mushy stuff, all the I’s were dotted with hearts, and at the bottom in big, bold letters, Lisa had written, “Kory, I told you not to open this!”
I feel like we’re doing today what I did back then: we’re reading someone else’s personal letter. Most of Paul’s letters to churches are like inter-office memos. While they contain an element of familiarity, they are more business-like, addressing leadership questions or theological difficulties or community squabbles. They read as if they were written for public consumption. But not Philippians. When we read this letter, it’s obvious we’re reading something much more personal. This is not a letter from a consultant to an organization; it’s a letter written to friends.
The context of the writing is important to understanding its purpose. We know that Paul is writing from prison, a place he often found himself while trying to preach the gospel. He was in prison a total of four times, the last time being in Rome, where he was executed. So he very well could be writing this letter to the Philippians shortly before his death. That would explain his message of encouraging that church to continue their work after he is gone.
Here at Crestwood, we also have a minister who is about to be gone, thankfully only from her official capacity. Today we send off Rev. Colette Lane into her retirement, the next chapter of her life and ministry. I say “ministry” because as Colette well knows, a minister never stops being a minister. No matter what comes next, because of her integrity and compassion, it will be a ministry for her. Even Paul, while locked in jail and facing execution, never stopped ministering. So, as we prepare to make this transition to Crestwood AC (after Colette), what can we learn from Paul’s letter to the Philippians?
While we’re separated from Paul’s writing by about 2000 years, I believe there is much here that is applicable. For example, Paul was writing to a group of people who were more than just his responsibility; they were his friends. In v. 8, he says, “I long for all of with the compassion of Christ Jesus.” He had built relationships with them, helped them grow in their faith, attended their births and weddings and deaths. There’s a deep love here that rises from the page as Paul encourages the Philippians.
Likewise, Colette’s leaving is more than just a staffing change. When a minister leaves a congregation, it’s unlike any other job change because of the relationships. Colette has been a part of our lives for 14 years, and many of us have shared our deepest and darkest moments with her at our side. And we have been privileged to stand with her during some of her must difficult times. There’s a deep love here, forged through births and weddings and deaths, that mirrors the loving relationship of Paul and the Philippians.
The overall theme of this letter is one of joy, which we hear in the first few verses. “I thank God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.” That may strike is as ironic, since Paul is writing this from a jail cell. How can the man be talking about joy when he is confined? Because true joy can’t be confined! Not by a jail cell or a dead-end job or a broken relationship. The joy Paul feels for the church in Philippi has a resilient longevity, because it has deep roots. This is not the joy of people who have no problems to face. This is not the joy found only in the midst of prosperity. This is joy in the midst of difficulty, the kind of joy that finds a way to break through the most challenging of circumstances, like a plant growing toward the sunlight. This is the joy of taking the lemons that life gives us and making sweet, thirst-quenching lemonade. When we seek to love and serve God, when we strive to glorify God in all the circumstances of life, no matter how good or how challenging, we are making lemonade.
Paul finishes that sentence by naming the source of this joy: “I thank God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” The Greek word for “sharing” here is “koinonia,” which loosely translates as “deep fellowship.” Paul and the Philippians had in common their mutual love of Christ and their commitment to the good news. In this passage, Paul is giving thanks for them because they have been his partners in ministry.
From her first day until now, we have had the privilege of partnering with Colette. That’s one of the greatest joys and frustrations of ministry: you can’t do it alone. I’m sure Colette would admit that there were days when her job would have been a whole lot easier if the church didn’t have all these people in it, but for the most part, the success of her ministry here is completely dependent upon her partners in sharing the gospel. Even if sometimes you have to deal with lemons, you can’t do the work of the church alone.
That doesn’t mean working together makes things easier. Often times, it makes it a whole lot messier, because you get all tangled up together in whatever the other person is going through. Paul tells the Philippians in v. 7, “All of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.” When Paul is preaching the gospel, the Philippians are with him. When Paul is traveling, the Philippians go with him. And when Paul is in prison, the Philippians are in prison with him.
And so it is between a minister and a congregation. Now, Colette has never been in prison – as far as we know! – but she has been in other dark places. And we have been there with her. And we’ve all been in our own versions of captivity, chained by grief or loss or crisis. And she has been there with us, crying with us, holding our hands, saying a prayer, extending God’s grace. We’ve made lemonade together. This mutuality is highlighted at the beginning of v. 7, where Paul says, “It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart.” Because of the challenge of translating from Greek to English, biblical scholars aren’t sure if that sentence reads, “because you hold me in your heart” or “because I hold you in my heart.” To which I would say, “Yes.”
Even as Paul prepares to say goodbye to his beloved church, he still exudes joy, because he knows God is not done with them yet. Verse 6 says, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” There’s a quality of reminiscence here, as Paul reflects back on his time with the Philippians. As Paul’s relationship with them draws to a close, he uses this opportunity to look back with gratitude at all the have accomplished, to sip the lemonade of life they had made together.
We’re certainly done the same these last few weeks with Colette as we have celebrated her ministry and all that has happened in her 14 years with us. The memories are plentiful, the joy is boundless, and our cups overflow with lemonade. I love how Paul always ties together the acts of remembrance and gratitude. He never says, “As I think back on our time together, I sure am glad that’s over!” He says, “I remember you with joy.” Times of reflection should be filled with gratitude as we remember the good work we have done together.
But Paul is not only looking backward. He is also encouraging the Philippians for the future. He says in v. 9, “This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best.” In other words, “Hey, Philippians, you still have work to do! Just because I’m going to be around doesn’t mean God is done with you.” I’m confident that Colette would echo those words. The best way we can honor her ministry with us is to continue the work God sets before us, determining what is best for us in serving God’s kingdom. And the wonderful thing we have that the Philippians didn’t is that Colette will join us in that work! She will make the transition from staff member to congregation member, and we need her, just as we need each other. After all, you can’t do the work of the church alone.
So, we prepare to move forward, seeking to produce the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. We do so with a renewed resolve, to honor the legacy of those who have served before us by continuing their work. We do so with more than a touch of sadness, because their leaving has left a void, even if technically they are still here. As the saying goes, “How can I miss you went you won’t go away?” Colette, we are thankful you’re not going away, but we will still miss you.
We also move forward with hearts overflowing with joy for the amazing blessings of God we have enjoyed in our partnership together. We have shared in the gospel from the first day until now, and we hope that God has been glorified in our laughter, in our tears, in our worship, and in our friendship. And we trust that as we seek to determine what is best, God will guide us and go with us, just as God has been with us in the past.
Meister Eckehart said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your life is ‘thank you,’ that would be enough.” So, today we say thank you. Thank you, Colette, for your faithful service. We hold you in our hearts, and trust that you will hold us in yours. Thank you, Paul, for your words of joy and encouragement in the midst of trials. And thank you, God, for Colette, for this church, for Jesus Christ, for everything. Thank you.