This is the message I preached on Sunday, April 22, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC. I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us! Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.
12 Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13 God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes. 14 Do everything without grumbling and arguing 15 so that you may be blameless and pure, innocent children of God surrounded by people who are crooked and corrupt. Among these people you shine like stars in the world 16 because you hold on to the word of life. This will allow me to say on the day of Christ that I haven’t run for nothing or worked for nothing. 17 But even if I am poured out like a drink offering upon the altar of service for your faith, I am glad. I’m glad with all of you. 18 You should be glad about this in the same way. Be glad with me!
19 I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to see you soon so that I may be encouraged by hearing about you. 20 I have no one like him. He is a person who genuinely cares about your well-being. 21 All the others put their own business ahead of Jesus Christ’s business. 22 You know his character, how he labors with me for the gospel like a son works with his father. 23 So he is the one that I hope to send as soon as I find out how things turn out here for me. 24 I trust in the Lord that I also will visit you soon.
25 I think it is also necessary to send Epaphroditus to you. He is my brother, coworker, and fellow soldier; and he is your representative who serves my needs.26 He misses you all, and he was upset because you heard he was sick. 27 In fact, he was so sick that he nearly died. But God had mercy on him—and not just on him but also on me, because his death would have caused me great sorrow.28 Therefore, I am sending him immediately so that when you see him again you can be glad and I won’t worry. 29 So welcome him in the Lord with great joy and show great respect for people like him. 30 He risked his life and almost died for the work of Christ, and he did this to make up for the help you couldn’t give me.
Still-speaking God whose voice echoes through all you have made and whose fingerprints can be found upon all life , we know you have yet more light and truth to break forth from your holy Word. Open the eyes of our minds, and ears of our hearts, so we might see and know what Word you have for us in these words of Scripture. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, my God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
One of my favorite memories of my mother growing up was her working in her garden. She liked to make the world beautiful — often painting, sewing clothing, helping others. But in her garden I got to be a part of her work of beautifying God’s world. She would often ask me to come and lend a hand, digging into the ground and helping her plant and water in her garden. Sometimes she would even have me help her gather up lady bugs to sprinkle on the plants – telling me each time how lady bugs were good luck because they killed the bugs that would eat her flowers and plants. When I was older I remember helping her move stones, dig deep to set aside spots for plants to grow, and even helping her install a fish pond in that garden. Even to this day when I grab a fresh ripe tomato from the vine, or even from a table at the farmer’s market, and bite in to taste of its juice, I am flooded with memories of times I got to taste the tomatoes from her garden after a busy afternoon helping momma make life beautiful there and I feel for a moment I am there with her, gardening again.
This image of gardening shows up again in the Gospel story. If you will remember, on Easter Sunday when Mary Magdalene encounters Jesus, tears in her eyes, she does not recognize him as Christ risen from the dead until he calls her name. Instead, she thinks he is the gardener who tends the garden where Jesus was buried. The song “I come to the Garden alone,” one of my favorite Easter hymns, celebrates this encounter.
Yet that image of the risen Christ who opens us up to new life and new futures as a gardener, who working to add new beauty, life, and vibrancy into our lives and world, and who calls us like the first people were called, to help tend the garden of our world so it thrives, flourishes, and is full of beauty and peace with more than enough for everyone,this image of the risen Christ as gardener is so appropriate, isn’t it?
It is especially appropriate when we consider the call of today’s Scripture — “carry out”, or as some translations put it, “work at” or “work out”, “ your own salvation with fear and trembling” for “God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.”
This verse is not saying that you and I have to live in fear that if we don’t live perfect lives, don’t have all the right beliefs about God, don’t study our Bibles enough, somehow we won’t have done enough work to earn God’s love, God’s forgiveness, or a place in God’s heaven. As we heard last week, God went to the ultimate length — becoming one of us, humbling serving us, offering up his own life in Jesus on the cross for each of us — so that we might know we are welcomed, embraced, and known as God’s own children both now and forever. God would not go to those lengths to simply forget us, forsake us, or cast us aside, for being imperfect. No, as Paul tells us in Ephesians 2, “ For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” God’s love, God’s forgiveness, being known as God’s own child, and having a place in heaven is something God gives as a free gift to all who will accept it not because of how good or bad they have lived their life, not because they are perfect Bible students or have it all figured out, but simply because God loves each of us freely and indiscriminately. And that is a gift God doesn’t take back — but gives unconditionally.
Yet the “salvation” we are called to work out is not just about us individually being loved, us individually being forgiven, and us individually going to heaven. The word we translate save or salvation in the Bible — which comes from sozo in Greek — means to heal, the make whole, to liberate, to free. Working out our salvation is also about us all — individually, in our families, in our communities — growing into the people God made us to be. It is about us finding our place in God’s dream or plan for our lives and our world. And this is why the book of Ephesians which I quoted a moment ago does not end things by saying God’s salvation is a free gift we cannot earn or deserve, nor disqualify ourselves from by our failings. It does say that, but then adds immediately in the next verse — “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
We are not just forgiven, accepted as God’s children, and given a place forever with God in heaven in order to sit comfortably on our couches all on by our lonesome selves watching Netflix, with no more responsibility. No, God gives us these gifts to call us into the work of helping God’s dream of healing, liberating, and setting free others in our world. This is what Paul means in Philippians when he calls us citizens of heaven, when he says we are to shine like stars in a dark and crooked world. We are invited to join God in gardening, in picking up our shovels, our spades, and shaping the little plot of earth we are put in to bring beauty. We are to make it like a place where heaven is breaking out in the here and now.
This is what Paul is talking about when he is saying we are to work out or carry out our own salvation since God is already at work within us to bring it about. When Paul talks about “salvation” here he isn’t just talking about forgiveness and going to heaven; he is talking about the dream of God’s Jesus spoke about using the language “the kingdom of heaven has come near. Repent and believe”. He is talking about what Jesus meant when Jesus told people “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” When the Bible uses the word peace it means the Hebrew word shalom which is not just a truce — not just people stopping fighting. This kind of peace is the peace that comes when every person, all living things, can fully thrive and blossom as what God made them to be. When everyone can find a place in our communities to be their fullest selves, and where no one is struggling to get by but everyone has more than enough. It is the dream the Gardens that are bookends to the Bible story — the Garden of Eden where Genesis says life began, and the Garden of Heaven which Revelation says all who are willing to walk together with God will be welcomed — point toward. It is working together with God to help make the prayer Jesus taught us — “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” a reality here and now.
Ultimately such a huge calling — to be ones through whom heaven breaks out in our families, workplaces, neighborhoods, and communities — is not something we can do on our own. God has to be at work within us, as Zechariah says — “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.” Paul promises God already is at work within us, just as the breath of life is already at work in the seeds we plant in the earth, the ground itself, the water and air and sunlight, when we work our in own gardens. It is that breath of life working within them, the gift of the Holy Spirit, that makes those plants thrive in our garden — and the same is true with what we are called to here.
In some ways, much of the Bible is aimed at pointing toward what this looks like. If you get a chance sometime, read Jesus’ teachings — especially the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus paints a picture — if we want to live like heaven can break out in this real world — like swords can be beaten into plowshares, guns into garden tools, like everyone can have more than enough and not be excluded, which is what the prophets of Scripture say heaven looks like — what does that look like here and now? Jesus tells us how to live if we want to live as if heaven can break out here and now through our lives. As we saw last week, his words and example are our blueprint and roadmap to get there.
When the Old Testament imagines a better world, it is painting this same picture. In fact, the verse I was named for, Micah 6:8, shows us the key ingredients our daily gardening needs: “God has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
Do we want to be people who work out our salvation together with the one who is already working it out within us? If so, we need to act justly. We need to work every day to tear down walls that keep people out, that push people down, that kick them when they are hurting, no matter how different they are to us. This is what we need to plant, water, and grow. We need to act justly — leveling the playing field for all, wherever we are: at home, at work, in our families, our neighborhoods, our communities, our churches. This is what we need to harvest.
We need to to love mercy — when we see someone hurting, we need to show up, individually and as families, neighborhoods, communities, and most of all as God’s church. This is what we need to plant, water, and grow. We need to offer our companionship, lend listening ears and shoulders to cry on, and when we see a practical need, not just look away, but work to meet it. This is what we need to harvest.
We need to walk humbly with God. This means not assuming we have the answers, not pushing our way around, but being willing to listen, to learn, to hear others’ stories and most of all listen for where God is still speaking in the situations we face — knowing if God spoken through a donkey to Balaam on the road, it is as often in the unlikely and overlooked we find God’s voice as in the long-time Christian, the person with power and authority, and even preachers like me. This humble walking with God is what we need to plant, water, and grow.
We need to be willing to lay aside our pride and work together with each other, and others God calls to join us in this work of healing, setting free, and making beautiful our little part of God’s world so everyone and every thing in it can flourish, grow, and fully express who and what God made them to be. This is what we need to harvest.
This is why Paul spends so much time talking about Timothy and Epaphroditus. These two men really get it. They understand that when God saves us, sets us free, and calls us, God is not doing it just for us. God is also calling us to engage in what our Jewish brothers and sisters call tikkun olam, the perfecting or mending of our world. Timothy and Epaphroditus have put their hands to the plow at this cause, together with Paul, at great personal cost. Being people who perfect or mend our world, who work out salvation with God, means being people of healing, people who use the new life Christ has given us to help God’s new resurrection life spread to others who also need to encounter new life in different ways themselves, in helping bring healing, wholeness, care and compassion, and fairness to those desperately needing it all around us. Timothy and Epaphroditus realize this means putting aside our need to be right, to be comfortable, to do things the way we always did it. They know it means working together with each other, with others, and with God.
Friends, what an amazing calling we have! To be people of healing, people who take the love and mercy God has given us, take the ways God has and is healing our hearts and lives — the ways God is setting us free — to help spread that healing, love, forgiveness, and beauty everywhere we touch.
May we hear that call, pick up our spades and shovels, and join Christ, the Gardener, in helping God’s garden of compassion, justice, love, and beauty grow & thrive today and all our days. Amen and Amen.