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Growing in Grace

In his 2008 TED Talk, Bernie Dunlap, an American academic and former president of Wofford College, tells about his friendship with Sandor Teszler.[1] Teszler was born in 1903 in an area of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that would later become Yugoslavia. He was born with two club feet and required many surgeries throughout his childhood to be able to walk. As a young adult in the business of textile engineering, Teszler built manufacturing plants, married, had two children, and became a well-respected businessman in his country.

One night, the security guard at one of his plants called Teszler to say that he had caught an employee stealing “mountains of socks” from the hosiery mill. At the plant, Teszler confronted the thief saying “"But why do you steal from me? If you need money you have only to ask." Teszler refused to call the police, certain that the employee would never steal from him again. Shortly after that, the Nazis entered Austria and arrests and deportations began in Budapest. After some time, Teszler and his family were arrested and brought into a building. Local men had been brought into carry out the violent work of the Nazis and Teszler was beaten by none other than that same employee who he had once allowed to walk free after stealing from him. As the man pummeled Teszler, he whispered into his ear, “Help is on the way.” And shortly after that, someone from the Swiss Embassy came and took the Teszler family away. They were given papers that allowed them to stay safe and eventually leave their home for Great Britain, then Long Island, and then finally, in the hope of returning to his career in textiles, to Spartanburg, SC. And once again, Teszler built a successful business, including his new invention- double-knit.

In the wake of racial integration required by Brown v. Board of Education, violence threatened many in the South and the Ku Klux Klan became more visible. Teszler, remembering similar talk from his life in Austria asked his assistant, “where would you say, in this region, racism is most virulent?” His answer was Kings Mountain, NC. So Teszler bought some land there and built a major plant- a plant that in employing talented workers, regardless of their race would integrate the textile industry in the area.

In retirement and old age, even in his 80s and 90s, Teszler audited nearly every single class offered by Wofford College. Students and staff alike called him “Opi,” Magyar (his native language) for grandfather. He was known to be loving and kind, generous, and deeply interested in life. And throughout his life, Teszler, who had seen so much of the very worst of people, who had every reason to be skeptical and cynical, believed and worked to convince others, that “human beings are fundamentally good.” Dunlap concludes his TED talk with this point, borrowed from Mahatma Gandhi, “Live each day as if it is your last…learn as if you’ll live forever.” His point, as he learned from Teszler, we must keep learning and living, no matter what befalls us or what challenges we may face. We must keep trying, reinventing ourselves, growing, and becoming- there is no such thing as having reached completion.

Today we read several verses to us from the beginning and ending of the book of Philippians. It’s a wonderful and quick read from the New Testament, and I encourage you to make time this week to read through it in its entirety. You might not know from these few verses that Paul wrote this letter to the church in Philippi from jail. He had been arrested for the seditious act of teaching the good news of Jesus- news that sets the oppressed free, that scatters the proud, sends the rich away empty, and lifts up the lowly- a message that was, and is, a threat to the established powers. This letter from jail is not what you might expect. It is a letter of gratitude and most especially joy. In his own crisis, Paul is shored up by the love, faithfulness, and generosity he sees in the Philippian church.

The opening verses of this book form what in ancient literature was called the “exordium,” which is a fancy way of saying introduction. The exordium exists to help set the tone for the rest of the book and to help the reader to anticipate what will be coming up. Professor Jacob Myers says this part of Philippians 1 is the “tuning fork for the rest of the letter and its sonic vibrations carry Paul’s theological freight with resonant frequency.” Here we see Paul’s joy in regard to the work of the Philippian community, the way they have worked together and cared for him, the way they have grown in their understanding of the gospel, and the ways they are living out their faith. The last verses we heard are from the conclusion of the letter. Paul reminds the church, that among other things, he has learned contentment and how to carry on despite his circumstances. Paul has learned that his strength comes from Jesus. What we learn from these texts, and what our children learned this week in Vacation Bible School is this- regardless of what circumstances and hardships come our way, God will continue to work in and through us. What joy!

It is critical for us to understand that Paul is writing to the entire church, the whole faith family. We with our American sensibilities like to think we operate as individuals, but Paul is talking to “y’all” here, not just “you.” In fact, we see throughout Philippians one of the clearest descriptions of Christian community, or as Paul would have said, koinonia. Koinonia is one of my favorite Greek words. It simply means community, but in a wonderfully complex way. Koinonia is the kind of community that is a partnership, a true fellowship, a way of sharing, the kind of community where everyone has a place and the whole is more than the sum of its parts. And of course, that is the kind of community that the church is called to be. So, throughout this book, when Paul talks about the joy he feels in this community, the way they share, the good work that is being done in and around them, he’s putting all of this in the context of their koinonia.

The Philippian church had come together to share generously. Paul, as I mentioned previously, was in jail. At that time, prisoners were fully dependent on free people to care for them. Their food, water, clothes, and more was not provided by their jailers; their family and friends brought them everything they needed to live. And in Paul’s case, the Philippian church had provided for him. They had sent a man named Epaphroditus to visit Paul and deliver life-sustaining gifts from the congregation. These people, in the midst of their own work and lives and struggles had prioritized generosity as a community. They had been faithful to Paul, their teacher and friend, but most importantly, they had been faithful to the good news of Jesus, faithful to the call to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

And so, when Paul 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,” what he is saying is something like “when I see your commitment to Jesus’ message of love, when I see what you have been doing, the ways you’ve been growing, I am convinced that God’s grace is going to continually shape y’all into whatever it is God is calling y’all to be.”

When John Panter, age 7 and his sister Marion, age 9 saw a news broadcast about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, John decided he needed to find a way to help. His mom suggested they start with prayer. And then, John decided he and his sister could start making beaded pins and bracelets with Ukrainian flags on them. They would sell their handiwork and donate the money to help refugee children. His next step was to meet with his pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Cartersville, Georgia. They got Session approval to mobilize and sell at church and then they got to work. Now the church manages the donations, forwarding them to a nonprofit, while John and Marion do the heavy lifting. The kids, along with their church family, have raised more than $10,000 to help their peers across the globe.

When I look at a story like that- a church that allows a 7-year-old to lead, a church that hears his wisdom and honors his work, a mom who suggests prayer and a session who supports fresh ideas… when I see that kind of faithfulness, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among FPC Cartersville, Georgia will bring it to completion.”

Of course, Paul was talking to the whole church, but a congregation is the sum of its parts. The assembled body cannot do more than what the individuals are capable of imagining, willing to try, open to exploring. If we want our congregation to continue growing in grace and understanding and faithfulness as we see in the church at Philippi, we have to be willing to do that ourselves. We have to be willing to wonder how God wants to use us. We have to be open to generosity, faithfulness, and invention.

This week, as this verse about God bringing good work to completion rolled around in my head, I found myself thinking about the lyrics to “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac- “Oh, mirror in the sky, what is love? Can the child within my heart rise above? Can I sail through the changin' ocean tides? Can I handle the seasons of my life? Well, I've been afraid of changing 'Cause I've built my life around you But time makes you bolder, even children get older And I'm getting older too.” It’s a song, of course, about how scary it is to change, especially when you know you must. I think that song is so beloved because we all know the feeling of standing on the precipice of something new, trying to figure out if we’re brave enough to take that first step towards change. It’s not less scary to change just because God is calling us to it.

This week at Vacation Bible School, we had the opportunity to connect with many children. It was a joy to welcome these families into our building this week. The conversations I had this week with kids and parents were an encouragement to me in many ways. We are so aware that the world is hurting and changing. We know, of course, that the particulars about how we do church may be different than they have been in the past. We may even be asking if we can handle the seasons of our lives, the seasons of humanity. But seeing the faithfulness of our volunteers, of these parents and caregivers, the open-hearted joy of these children, the ways they were learning and loving being here- “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among Pocket Presbyterian Church will bring it to completion.”

We’ve been saying it to our children all week- God is still working on us. As individuals and as a church family, God is still working on us. And thanks be to God! It’s this commitment to growth, to going on holy adventures with God, to developing as disciples, to evolving as people that will bring us to the wisdom that Paul seems to have developed. I think back to those verses in chapter 4- “in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret…I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” We can count on storms coming. We know that we will face hardship. And also, because we are growing in grace, we can do all things through God who gives us strength. Amen.

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