May Love Overflow

Advent II
December 9, 2018
Philippians 1:3-11
Rev. Alice Fleming Townley

A few weeks ago, after worship had ended, and nearly everyone had left the sanctuary, my eyes met the radiant face of a visitor.

“Do you remember me?”  she asked expectantly.

I didn’t want to disappoint her because I couldn’t think of her name, but I did remember her story and why she returns each year.

Years ago, her son Matthew was a student Michigan State student and volunteered at Sparrow hospital.  One day he pushed Phil Henderson’s[i] wheelchair from his hospital room, through the hall and down the elevator, to the car with Carolyn waiting at the curb. Phil took notice of Matthew, engaged him in conversation, and said, ‘thank you.’  That exchange continued for years afterwards, through letters and phone calls, through many challenges for both.  Phil expressed encouragement through thick and thin, and sometimes added a little cash, maybe a $5 or $10 bill, inside his note to the young student.

Matthew’s family noticed the effect that Phil’s care had on Matthew, and gave thanks to Phil and Carolyn, writing them notes and sending treats at Christmas.  Matthew is now a doctor in the ICU unit at Harvard.  At Phil’s death, he wrote a letter to Carolyn about how much Phil’s correspondences had meant to him and included pictures of the bills Phil had sent and he had saved as treasure.  Mathew’s sister, Ellen, lives in this area and has befriended Carolyn.   About once a year, Pamela, Matthew’s mother, returns from Boston to visit our church, to Phil’s church, and to say thank you again.  Near the anniversary of his death, and her husband’s death, she sends the church flowers in memory of them.  And as the story gets retold, we can’t help but marvel at the power of such a simple encounter that turned into such a nurturing relationship, and the way it continues to radiate energy.[ii]

The apostle Paul wrote to the church in Philippi,

“I thank my God every time I remember you . . . and include you constantly in my prayers.”

Paul was writing to them from jail—not knowing if he’d ever get out—enduring hunger, thirst, beatings, and whatever else the authorities devised to break him, threatening even death.   And the church in Phillipi, they were deeply divided in conflict that threatened their survival.  Life for both Paul and the church was fragile.  And Paul continued, “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.”  The one who was, and is, and is to be—has done, is doing, and will continue doing what God does through you.

Paul continued, “It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because ‘you hold me in your heart.”[iii]  This can also be translated, because ‘I hold you in my heart.’  Such mutual holding gave Paul strength and faith for the living of such difficult days.  Paul continued,

And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine the best way forward.[iv]

In this week’s Advent devotional “Draw Near,” Lauren Wright Pittman shared,

“Gratitude creates space in my heart, my mind, and my worldview for hope, and casts away the anxiety that often rules my life.  It almost feels as though gratitude carves out physical space for me to breathe more easily when the world feels so heavy on my chest.”[v]

Instead of getting stuck in our fear and heaviness, such space gives us a chance to choose next steps from our core understanding of who God is and calls us to be.  Paul prays that the struggling church members might be renewed by love and gratitude, and that their love might overflow and guide them in this difficult time.

Could we join Paul, and Pamela, in giving thanks for people who have encouraged us and made a difference in our own lives, and in the lives dear to us?  Perhaps it was a teacher, or a parent, or a friend.  What happens to us when we remember them?  And what might it mean to them? pause

Mr. Catania was my fifth grade art teacher at an experimental racially integrated public magnet school in Benton Harbor, the Creative Arts Academy.  5th grade was a bit awkward for me, with a new school, new braces, new glasses, new treatment for scoliosis and bangs in my eyes…  Mr. Catania was full of encouragement that nurtured in me confidence and creativity.

What I didn’t know then is that after serving in the PeaceCorps, Mr. Catania studied glass blowing under Dale Chiluly.  Mr. Catania and his wife Kathy went on to develop the Benton Harbor Arts District.  The city of Benton Harbor has known the violence of poverty, racism, and abandonment.  Mr. Catania says he likes to go to the metal scrap yard and imagine what pieces could become.   In 2004, the Catanias opened Water Street Glassworks, a nonprofit school of glass and metal art that hosts guest artists from around the country, and teens for after-school program Fired Up!  I give thanks for Mr. Catania, and for the creations and people and places in which he has nurtured possibilities.

Remembering and giving thanks gives me energy.  And that’s what Paul was trying to give to his community in Philippi.  They were all trying, but demands were hard, and they felt threatened.  “Remember, the One who has begun a good work in you will continue to work through you.”  And this is the message we hear on this second Sunday in Advent.  Now while we are waiting and yearning for the world to be different.  Now, when the news cycle keeps getting worse.  Now, when we feel small and fragile, and issues and -isms loom large and threatening.  Now, when we wonder, ‘why bother’, and ‘what difference do we make.’ And now when people seem so polarized.  Paul’s words from jail, ‘I remember. I am grateful. Let love overflow and guide you now.’

Recently I was moved by words by Duke professor Kate Bowler, “I know this is a divisive issue for many, but  . . .for us this “issue” is a beloved.”  The ‘issue’ she was referring to was immigration, and the student, Samuel Oliver-Bruno, a pastor in her community and student at Duke Divinity. The temporary permit under which he had been working in the US was not renewed as a result of federal policy charges.  Wanting to continue caring for his son and his seriously ill wife Julia, Samuel entered protective sanctuary at a local Methodist church.  When he could not come to class any longer, the Duke Divinity classes came to him and Samuel continued his studies.   He had been part of an immigration process to adjudicate his case, and Congressmen and United Methodist Bishops advocated for him.  He showed up to the appointment and was arrested by I.C.E., and then deported on November 29, just 2 days later.   Seminary president Greg Jones said, “We do not merely stand with Samuel and his family out of a sense of obligation.  Samuel is known to us.  He is loved by us.  He is one of us.  And we stand as one with him.”[vi] Faculty, students, friends, and churches continue to raise money for on-going support and legal fees. [vii]  Their mutual love overflows and guides them.  I can imagine them as Paul and his community in Philippi, giving thanks daily for each other, and holding each other in prayer, and in that Holy flow, giving each other energy.

This next week is designated as, “Love Knows No Borders,” a national week of action to learn, give and act in solidarity with those seeking refuge in the U.S. Recently Judi Harris shared with area clergy who gathered in our fellowship hall about financial needs at the immigration law clinic and in refugee resettlement at St. Vincent’s in Lansing.  Rabbi Bigman responded, “All of us as faith communities should do something.” Today at PCO we dedicate gifts of clothes, blankets, coats, and supplies for area refugee families.  In January, we’ll have opportunity to sit down to learn from Judi Harris, and with Stephanie Nawyn during the education hour. May love guide us.

“Do you remember me?” asked Pamela Moll.  We remember how Phil Henderson looked and saw not just a volunteer and a stranger, not just his own pain and illness, but an opportunity to relate human to human and say thank you.  We remember Mr. Catania, and how he saw not just a struggling city, and a scrap yard, and awkward young people, but beauty and art and possibilities not yet imagined.   We remember Kate Bowler and the Duke Divinity School community, and their own student and pastor Samuel Oliver-Bruno and his family.  We remember how they not only helped provide sanctuary but held class and worship within the sanctuary.  And now those ties remain despite separation.  Look around.  Be alert.

From a prison cell to a fragile church Paul wrote,

“I give thanks every time I remember you, constantly praying in joy because of your sharing of the gospel from the first day until now.”[viii]

In Advent yearning, let us remember where we have seen light shine and love take flesh.  Let us hold one another in our hearts and in our prayers.  Let us trust the One who has begun a good work within us will continue until its completion.  And may the love of our Lord Jesus Christ which has guided us, guide us now, and forevermore.


[i] Phil Henderson was a beloved retired pastor in our congregation.

[ii] When I wrote to Pamela and asked if I could share this story, her affirmation continued.  And please thank the church for the beautiful music, and for being the place that I can go where I trust one or two will greet me even though I am a stranger.  “I really believe that it’s a wonderful thing to remember and be grateful to the people who have made big difference and impacted our lives.”

[iii] Philippians 1:7a

[iv] Philippians 1:9

[v] 11, Lauren Wright Pittman, “Abound in Love,” Draw Near: 2018 Advent Devotional, A Sanctified Art.

[vi] Kate Bowler@KateBowler, November 28, 2018, https://twitter.com/KatecBowler/status/1067817826906447875

[vii] For updates on Samuel and ways to support: https://www.sanctuaryatcitywell.org/

[viii] Philippians 1:3-5