“My beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
I could not have asked for a better text on which to preach this Sunday, my final Sunday with you all.
Now the fact of the matter is that I didn’t ask you to obey me, which is probably a good thing, since you are an independent bunch of folks and that would have been a high-risk proposition on my part.
But what you have done is to listen to what words of wisdom I’ve had to share with you, you have taken more of it in than I often realized, and you have taken on the responsibility of working out your own salvation.
That’s the scary part of being a parish priest – our task is to encourage you to take on the responsibility of working out your own salvation. If I say the wrong thing, it is possible you might take a wrong path to that end. If my words make it seem too hard, you might not even try. If I make it seem to easy, you might think you don’t actually have to do anything at all, that it will just fall into your lap.
But the work of salvation, the recognition that Jesus Christ is our Savior and that he died for us, that is something each and every one of us must take on. And some days it is harder than other days. Yes, Jesus died for us. Yes, we are saved by his actions, not our own. So what does working on our own salvation look like?
It means striving to be like Christ. Not just working on our own failings, but working on correcting the failings of the community and the world, to bring the reign of God closer to this troubled world. Working out our salvation is a corporate task – our communal task – as much as it is a personal one.
I know that sounds daunting. Jesus Christ is God. We are not. But at its simplest, it means that we put the needs of others ahead of our own. At its most complex and challenging, we embrace everyone else around us, even the ones who are different or scary or strange, as Christ embraces us and cares for us. It means, as Paul says in this passage, that we live in unity as we work out our salvation in community.
It would be challenging enough if the expectation of which Paul speaks was only that everybody at Epiphany would live in unity. We are a diverse group of people by age, gender, sexual orientation, race, theological understanding, political belief. Living in unity means stretching beyond the differences to the one thing that binds us – the love of Jesus Christ.
But the obligation to live in unity truly extends beyond these four walls, because Jesus Christ didn’t limit his love to his fellow Jews in Nazareth – he extended that love to everybody. Everybody. No exceptions. We can only live in unity if we act as community.
We already do that at Epiphany in many ways – mission trips, Lamb’s Basket, outreach lunches, CARITAS, among others – but it is not just an occasional thing. It has to be the manner of our entire lives together.
Seems impossible, right? Well, it would be were it not for what we get from God to help us.
The line in the Epistle you just heard was “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” But a more helpful translation of the Greek might be “God is giving you the desire and the energy to do God’s work in the world.” All we have to do is pay attention to that desire and energy planted in us and act upon it.
Paul writes this letter to the Philippians from prison. He is far from them, yet he remembers them with great affection. His pastoral guidance shows his love for them, and his trust that they will understand that guidance is evident.
That is the thing about leaving a place that you have pastored and loved. It requires those of us who leave to trust those who have been left. Trust that the work will continue. Trust that the working out of salvation will still be central. Trust that the leaders, both lay and ordained, will continue to rejoice in the Good News of Jesus Christ. Trust that God will work out in this place, as in Philippi and in so many other places, the communal and personal salvation that is our joy and promise.
And I do trust that this will be true.
Why? Because I’ve seen it in action already.
This parish overcame the tensions of a conflict that preceded me, and due to Charles Poindexter’s brilliant and loving work, was on its way to full healing when I arrived. This parish suffered losses of some of our most faithful and senior members during my time here, and other individuals stepped up to leadership positions after those losses. This parish welcomed new members who now are active and beloved, some of whom now have leadership roles.
This parish adjusted with grace to changes I proposed, helped form three new priests and a deacon, gained a well-deserved reputation in the diocese as a healthy and strong community of faith, worked in concert with other faith traditions in shared service and worship, and changed lives within these walls and outside of them.
And it will continue to do so.
My time with you is drawing to a close, and I am grateful that I have had the privilege of serving you. You have formed me as a priest as I hope I have helped form you as Christians. But know that this time of change is not just about my departure, it is about being present to God giving you the desire and energy to continue to become what God intends. It is not just about loss, although we should be honest that parting is hard, but about what the future holds.
And so I end with a paraphrase of Paul’s words to the church in Philippi: dear friends, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more in the days to come in my absence, keep on working out your own salvation. God is at work in you and in this lovely place, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.