Life A’int Been No Crystal Stair

Pastor Rachel B. Livingston

I. Beginning

Persecution and hardship.  We meet Paul, one of the most influential people within our doctrine, on his journey of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, as he is facing imprisonment.  We aren’t exactly sure where, because there were quite a few times that Paul was in prison.  However, we encounter a piece of his letter to the Christians in Philippi, a church that he established, and a church that holds a special place in his heart.  These Christians of Philippi cared for Paul, just as much as he cared for them – it was a mutual relationship of respect and compassion.  When the Christians of Philippi heard of Paul’s imprisonment they sent a messenger to him that they might meet his needs – they functioned as a collective communal unit in ways that meet the needs of the collective, bringing comfort to those experiencing pain and turmoil.  They were what the church aspires to be, they are an example for how we should care for one another within the body. And as Paul receives care from the Philippians, he sends back this letter of exhortation and encouragement that pushes them to continue in following the gospel of Jesus Christ.

 II. The Hardships of Paul

Throughout his ministry, Paul has worked hard for the gospel of Jesus Christ.  He has built new churches, he has taught the gospel, he has entered into controversial debate with those that have tried to pervert or misrepresent the gospel, he has been persecuted on behalf of proclaiming the word of Jesus Christ, he has had to flee from areas in the interest of saving his own life, and now he has endured the physical strain of imprisonment – he has in some ways hit rock bottom.  He has put his entire life on the line – he has dedicated himself to the one true Christ, the Messiah, the God here on earth with us – he has transformed his life for the sake of Christ – and yet this dedication, this theology that he gave his heart to, placed him at rock bottom.  He was likely chained in a dark cellar with very little light, it was probably damp and smelly, cold and encapsulating, like the walls were caving in.  He was confined to this small space without permission to go anywhere because he was at the mercy of the Roman Empire, waiting for their judgement, that was likely saturated in systemic oppression that seemed to flow out of the Imperial power.  He had hit rock bottom – in some ways with no glimpse of any hope that may be considered sunshine.

We even see in our scripture this morning that his current situation weighed so heavy on his heart that some of the words he used implied a sense of dark, depressed emotion.  To live is Christ, but to die is gain.  Yes we see in this phrasing that Paul is saying that as long as he lives he will dedicate himself to the work of Christ, and if he were to die for his work then he would gain to be in the presence of Christ, the one that he has dedicated his life to.  I mean it is true that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, but for Paul to be painting death as not only a viable option, but even a desired option, it is quite clear that he has reached rock bottom.  He has encountered a situation, that without his faith, would likely break his spirit and bruise his soul. He has hit rock bottom. He had given his all to his life with Christ and he wasn’t regretting his choice, but his current situation was making even death look appealing, he had reached rock bottom.

 III. What Happens When We Hit Rock Bottom

What can we do, what can we say, how must we live when we have hit rock bottom? Last week we discussed the Shema, and while this text is far removed from the shema in location within the text and chronological years, we as the people of God take heart in the fact that scripture is our primary text that reveals to us our connection with God in the context of human history.  Therefore, all of scripture can be connected as it tells us the story of our relationship with God.  And, as people of God, we embrace the main instruction to love the Lord, our God, with all of our heart, soul, and all our might. But could it be possible that dedicating our lives to our God, centering ourselves in Christ, loving God fully and loving our neighbor as ourselves, could it be that all this could cause us to hit rock bottom?  Well apparently, that is what happened to Paul, and he implies that this is also the case for Christians in Philippi, or at least could be a strong possibility for what is to come for this community.

As the People of God, as we love God and love our neighbor, as we work to bring about God’s Beloved Community that has been defined by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Howard Thurman as a society that is based on and functions in love, equality, and justice and is society where all of humanity can be embraced in love, we have to acknowledge that there may be times that we endure great hardship on behalf of our Lord.  For example if we look at the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. we see that he was persecuted for seeking equality and justice for all people, his life was threatened, he faced judgement, he was mocked, he was even killed for his work that was rooted in establishing God’s justice through love, in some cases we may say that there are moments in his ministry where he had hit rock bottom on behalf of his work in the name of Jesus Christ.  And some of our work as the church may cause us the same friction. As we seek to feed the hungry some may say we are wasting our time, as we seek to profess the good news of Jesus Christ to the imprisoned some may say that the people we serve are beyond redemption, as we seek to love the outcast some may reject us and say that we are ruining our reputation, as we seek to offer money to the poor we may have to give up certain luxuries in our lives, and as we seek to console the hurting we may end up in a place of deep empathy that breaks our heart as well, and we may even do the work of justice in the world that might put us in harm’s way for the sake of spreading Christ’s love.  The reality is that the work of Christ is costly, it will cost us something.  Even Jesus Christ himself, as he took on the task of bringing salvation to the world, had a moment where he asked God to take this cup from him, he had hit rock bottom. The Christian journey is filled with love, compassion, hope, and comradery, but all of the Christian journey is not filled with moments of Kumbaya, it may have thorns and tacks, it may cause us to weep and cry out, it may cause us to reach rock bottom.  And as we read Paul’s letter to the Philippians we see that he seeks to give encouragement while saying that this Christian life is not easy.

 IV. Keep Pushing

Through Paul’s words I am reminded of Langston Hughes’s poem “Mother to Son” – that says “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.  It’s had tacks in it, and splinters, and boards torn up, and places with no carpet on the floor – Bare. But all the time I’se been a-climbin’ on, and reachin’landin’s, and turning corners, and sometimes goin’ in the dark where there ain’t been no light”  As we hear these words and feel the emotion of this poem we can see the same feelings coming from Paul as he explains his journey and encourages the Philippians to stay on the Christian journey. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians we see Paul is saying, I have been on the battlefield for the Lord and the road has not been easy, I have suffered for the Lord and have even contemplated death.  But he continues to encourage the Philippians to keep on the race because God will grant salvation because we have chosen God. You see we serve a God who granted us salvation in the sacrifice of a savior that extended grace that we did not deserve.  And we were able to receive it because we chose to follow Christ, we chose to accept his sacrifice and take him into our life, but that may cause hardship.  But it is in this that we are saved, because we have chosen to live for Christ, we are saved.  Paul’s encouragement is reminiscent of the mother in Hughes’s poem that encourages her Son to keep on the journey, “So boy, don’t you turn back. Don’t you set down on the steps, ’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard. Don’t you fall now – For I’se still goin’, honey, I’se still climbin’ and life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”

You see in the midst of the struggle that he is enduring and in the midst of the struggle that the Christians of Philippi are likely enduring, Paul gives direction. Which we can take today, if we were to envision that this letter was written to us and can speak to our situation.  He says only live in a manner that is worthy of the gospel of Christ.  That means that we are to put on the mind of Christ, internalizing the Shema that we talked about last week in which we Love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and might that we may be transformed within, and that our actions may cause us to love our neighbor as ourselves, that our whole being might act in love.  That we might work for the creation of Beloved Community to establish God’s love, peace, and justice.  But what Paul also uplifts, is that when we do this, when we live according to Christ then we are standing firm in one spirit, striving, side by side one another for the faith – we are tied together as the Body of Christ, in the Holy Spirit.  As we center ourselves on Christ, allowing Christ to transform our hearts and minds, that we might be able to live out his teachings, we are then bound together as a unit, as the people of God.

So you see this Christian journey ain’t been no crystal stair, it’s had tacks in it, and there will likely be splinters in it, it’s had its moments where everything seemed bare, sometimes it has seemed like we are walking in the dark and there was no sense of light. But keep on going, cause we’re still climbing, we’re still going, and this journey hasn’t been easy, but on the other side is hope, on the other side is salvation, on the other side is a savior who loved us so much that he stretched his arms wide on a cross, sat quiet in the grave, and on the third day rose from the dead that we might find redemption.  On the other side we meet Jesus, so keep pushing, Keep holding on – cause this life won’t be a crystal stair, but in this life with Christ there is life, there is salvation, and there is redemption. Amen