Sermon of the Week:
What Thinks Do You Think You Can Think?
Week four of a four part sermon series:
Good Vibes: Finding Joy
Keywords: Personal Letter. Rejoice Always. Pray with Thanksgiving. Goldfish Crackers. Practice the Faith. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
Let’s talk a bit about the Apostle Paul.
We’ve arrived at the final chapter of this little letter
that Paul wrote to the church at Philippi,
which, as I mentioned a few weeks ago,
is one of my favorite books in the New Testament.
Each week in July we lifted up a different passage,
exploring some of the more intriguing parts of this letter,
so let’s take a moment to remember
some of the key observations we found as we have explored Philippians.
The first week we discussed Paul’s unique way of talking about community…
Paul uses the word koinonia, which sometimes we translate as community
but which might better be expressed by using the words
“participation,” or “belonging,” or “connection,”
and we spent some time exploring
how a somewhat obscure observation about Paul’s grammar
reveals something important about that community, about koinonia:
I hold you in my heart, while you hold me in yours,
and the ambiguity that Paul invites, about who holds whom,
is beautiful and poignant and meaningful
because it suggests that the love of friendship and Christian community is non-competitive
that our relationships are built on more than what you’ve done for me lately….
Church is supposed to be about koinonia,
and we commend those kinds of relationships as central to God’s efforts
to build the beloved community.
Build those relationships. You deserve those kinds of relationships,
both inside the church and just everywhere.
They will bring you joy, and will bring God happiness.
That passage alone is enough for me to kinda love this letter.
Then we talked about the Christ Hymn, found in chapter two,
where Paul outlines what it meant for God to send us Jesus Christ
the incarnate one,
and in so doing, how God offered an example of humility and compassion for us to follow.
More than that, it shows the depths and the breadth of God’s love for us,
for you and for me, and how remembering that, paying attention to that,
can get us through almost anything.
And then last week, in our reading from Chapter three,
we noticed how Paul started talking about
what it is like to make that story
the story about Jesus, Jesus’ love and Jesus’ compassion,
what it is like to make that story the most important story in our lives.
For all the status that Paul had acquired,
for all the accolades he had achieved
for everything that he had supposedly done right,
none of that matters, he says.
He realized: it’s not about him. None of this is about him.
It’s all about God, and God’s love for our neighbor.
The world measures success in all sorts of ways, but God measures things differently.
And the only thing that matters, truly, for our success
is that God is doing this amazing work in our world
work that we get to be a part of.
And if you are able to give up the drive to attain some kind of worldly status in life,
and focus first and foremost on the calling to love and serve one another
because we are loved and served and cared for by God,
then you are on your way to building true koinonia
on your way to experiencing the profound peace of God.
So: community, humility, and finding your true status in God’s gracious love,
three important ways that Paul says that we can experience joy,
which he describes as the excitement and the meaning that we find
as we think about God’s purpose for us and for the world.
I hope you’ve gotten a sense through these sermons
about why Paul’s faith is so fascinating to think about.
Indeed, Paul is such an interesting persona in the history of the Christian church.
Arguably no one has had more influence, or more clout…
at least once all the dust settled,
three or four hundred years
after the life and ministry of Jesus,
the gift of the Holy Spirit to his followers,
and those dynamic early days
where they were all trying to figure out what it meant.
There were other leaders, to be sure.
Peter, “the rock” upon whom the church would be built,
became a major figure among the apostles,
and tradition claims him as the first bishop of Rome.
There was James, and John,
and some others too…
women and men who were captivated by the power of God
to bring about a new day, and a new hope,
in the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth.
Some of their efforts survive.
The book we call The Acts of the Apostles talks about some of it.
There are letters in the New Testament by other authors,
and other writings, too, writings that we have copies of or bits and pieces of
but which weren’t included in the new canon, didn’t make it in the Bible for one reason or another,
when the church developed an authoritative list of books
toward the end of the fourth century.
There’s a lot of history there we can’t get into here,
church councils and debates and major disagreements,
but as time went on, Paul’s writings in particular helped to clarify some things,
offered creative ways of understanding others
and solidified his standing as a crucial voice among his peers.
Paul was one figure among many, sure,
but it was his work,
his evangelizing, that is, his sharing the good news with people
in such a way that they found it as amazing and life giving as he did
and so they wanted to be a part of it,
his church building,
and, importantly, his writing,
that made him stand out.
No single author has more writings included in the New Testament than Paul.
Some people even put his name on their own writing,
to try to give it some extra caché.
My pastor friends have varied perspectives about Paul
some good, some critical,
but there is no doubting his influence and his importance.
But here’s the fascinating thing to consider:
When Paul put quill to vellum, pen to paper so to speak,
and composed the letters that are now in our bible
he wasn’t setting out to write Scripture.
He couldn’t have known that we’d be scrutinizing his words,
two thousand years later.
Instead, he was communicating with people he knew or that he was connected with in some way,
addressing actual issues, topics that they raised with him hoping that he would help them with,
offering real-time theological and practical answers.
There was no email or text messaging or snapchat.
What he had was these writings,
letters that some early house-church read and found invigorating for their own faith
and so they copied them and shared them with other churches,
which copied and shared them too, and in this way,
Paul’s correspondence has helped shape our faith to this day.
This last reading, our reading for today,
is a great example of how this personal component shines through.
We usually skip over the first part,
the part that feels like an aside
where Paul urges Euodia and Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.
These women were important leaders in the church there at Philippi,
co-workers with Paul in his work to share the Good News.
For anyone looking for clear examples of women in leadership roles in the early church
these two are great and important highlights.
But they found themselves at odds over something,
disagreeing about something,
not sure what to do about something.
Biblical Scholars don’t think that this was a significant or deep seated conflict.
Usually, if Paul is dealing with that sort of problem, he doesn’t name names.
Instead, by lifting up these two, he’s probably addressing something that they’ve asked him about
and they want him to settle the issue for them.
And so Paul urges them to reflect on the issues we lifted up about this letter
community, and mutual love for one another
humility, not thinking of yourself as of first and only importance
true status, the surpassing value of knowing Christ, and seeing our lives in his resurrection,
and after doing so,
that they should therefore be able to work out how they can of the same mind going forward.
Paul is making an appeal for unity here,
not a uniformity of opinion,
not a dissolution of what makes people different,
but a conscious decision to work together for a greater end, a higher purpose.
Help them do that, says Paul.
They’ve struggled with me in the work of the gospel,
just like Clement did (whoever that was)
just like the other co-workers did
and all of them have their name written in the book of life…
which is an ancient idea from the old testament
about the good deeds being chronicled by God, held in good esteem.
This disagreement between Euodia and Syntyche
is one of the major reasons why Paul
wrote this letter to the Philippians in the first place,
and it is also quite likely that most of us have never heard of them.
But maybe because we all know those kinds of disagreements
those things that stress us out in dealing with other people
or worse: those conflicts that we get into
when we don’t communicate very well
or when we’ve been snubbed
or when we make a mistake and try to make light of it rather than apologizing for it
or when we just don’t agree on the right path to take going forward…
because we all know those kinds of struggles
maybe we can see something of ourselves in what these faithful women are experiencing
and can appreciate what Paul is trying to do to keep them together,
for their own good, and for the good of the church.
Sometimes being together in community is hard.
And there are things we can do to break community, sometimes irreparably.
Violence or racism or breach of trust.
But Paul isn’t really talking about those right now, it seems.
More often, it is more the “little things” that cause disruption among us:
we might get frustrated at change, or, on the other hand, upset at the slow pace of things.
Or maybe there’s confusion and anxiety about our future and we have different ways of handling it.
Our communities are made up of human beings,
and because of that we stumble and miss the mark.
Sometimes people say things that are inappropriate, uninformed, or rude,
and we do that for all sorts of reasons, intentional or accidental,
maybe due to ignorance or just not paying enough attention.
Goodness, my closest friends do that,
the people in my family do that,
I do that.
Now expand that to a group of people like a church.
What do you do with that sort of mess?
How do you nurture unity, togetherness, koinonia,
when we know that we stumble from time to time,
how gathering five people in a room
often will yield six different opinions about something.
Well, Paul has some advice for a situation like that.
And while it was meant for Euodia and Syntyche,
and for his close friends in that little church in Philippi
the beautiful thing is that it can also nurture us
as we think about ways we, ourselves, can promote unity and build cohesiveness.
Here’s how he starts:
Rejoice in the Lord Always;
again I will say, Rejoice.
Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is Near.
Do not worry about anything
but in everything
by prayer, and supplication with thanksgiving,
let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God,
that peace which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds
in Christ Jesus…
Let’s not get too bogged down in some of the ways that this seems to be impossible.
Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS?
Always, Paul? Really?
I woke up pretty grumpy this morning.
I’m rather upset at systemic racism and hungry children and covid-19,
Don’t worry about ANYTHING?
Yeah, see my response to the last point. I worry about a lot of things.
Let’s not get too bogged down here.
Paul knows that he’s using hyperbole to make a point…
lean on the practice of prayer, of giving thanks for what good we see in the world
and with God’s help
there is the promise of a peace that passes all understanding
one that can help calm our minds even in the midst of all this pain and hurt in the world
a peace that can equip us for living lives of faith today, and tomorrow.
But what do we pray for?
What do we seek after,
how do we do this with our siblings in Christ,
particularly when we differ, when we disagree?
And there, Paul says, be generous with one another,
seeing all sorts of options and opportunity,
urging the Philippians, and urging us, not to fret so much the particulars,
but instead realizing that there are many different ways to pray
and many different things that we can focus on:
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, and pure, and pleasing…
think about these things….and the God of peace will be with you.
In the end, an honest prayer to God
speaks from our own particular context
and at the same time
allows others to do the same, from their context.
And when we adopt that sort of posture,
does it not fit nicely into the other topics we’ve been learning about:
the mystery of being held in the heart
the humility of seeking out the best for others
and the abandoning of worldly status for God’s glory?
Last week I went to the grocery store.
We’ve been trying to go less often,
reducing the number of trips we’re out in public during the pandemic and all,
and so I was loading our cart with all sorts of stuff
hoping to get enough to tide us over for a few weeks.
It takes a lot of work to get two weeks of groceries in a standard size cart
at least for our family, with a couple of teenagers.
By the time you get the fruit and vegetables in there,
the pasta and the can goods and the milk and the eggs and the cheese
and then the cereal and the bread and the chips…
well, by the time I’m almost done with my shopping, its stuffed full.
I have to maneuver the cart very carefully
because it doesn’t turn well, and it’s hard to control.
Here’s the thing:
I bumped into someone rounding the frozen food section last week.
Not too much of a bump. And not on purpose.
I didn’t quite see him in time and my grocery cart,
which (did I mention?) looked quite impressive
all packed up like that,
got the back of his cart and clipped the side of a display for goldfish crackers.
I know you’re maybe leaning forward
wondering if I caused a huge mess
and the answer is no, thankfully.
I did lose a couple of bags of popcorn and some bread and a box or two of raisin nut bran
that were just barely hanging on the top of the cart anyway.
A gallon of milk somehow ended up on the floor too.
Now, the guy I bumped into was backing up when this happened.
That’s why I didn’t really see him in time, that and I was pushing hard to get my cart to move.
He was muttering something under his breath, grumpy about what he saw in front of him.
He himself was trying to avoid bumping a little girl with his cart.
She was maybe 6 or 7 years old,
twirling and dancing in the aisle,
next to a mother who was trying to handle her
while holding onto an infant in her arm.
The little girl’s dancing was noticed by an elderly couple,
who was trying to keep distance and worried about the little girl’s twirling…
they’re the ones who gasped audibly when my monstrous cart imperiled the goldfish crackers.
It could have been a disaster.
Everyone was clearly stressed out a bit.
Wearing these masks.
Trying to keep a safe distance,
get in and get out
so much more to think about and to worry about.
Everyone on edge.
And, here’s the amazing thing,
because I had been tending these past few days
the values that we have been learning
in a personal letter that that guy named Paul wrote his buddies in Philippi
I told myself, in that moment:
rejoice in the Lord always, yes even now,
let your gentleness be known,
the lord is near,
whatever is pleasing and commendable and just and pure and true, think those thinks
and the peace of God will be with you.
And so took a deep breath, and I apologized, even though there was clearly a lot going on here,
he was backing up, the girl was a twirling, what have you…
And maybe the other people were thinking something similar, who knows,
or maybe the spirit of God was moving in them too
because that little girl looked at her mom,
who told her it was ok to help pick up the bread that was on the ground
and the elderly couple thanked her for helping,
and it felt like she beamed the biggest smile
behind that little mask of hers,
which made the mother sigh with relief,
and the guy that I bumped
chuckled at the sight of all this,
and made a joke about how I must be feeding the whole Royals active roster with that cart…
Just one relatively minor encounter,
but a reminder to me
of how God has given us practices to try
values to uphold
thinks to think
decisions to make
that can bring us closer together, and make reconciliation possible,
if we let them, if we use them, if we open our hearts to them.
Among those practices and values and thoughts and decisions,
Paul teaches us in this letter,
are a steadfast commitment to building non-competitive relationships with our neighbor
that seeks to engage them with humble hearts
with Christ at the center of our lives,
and, when we do that,
we have the chance to experience the peace of God
in this chaotic, turbulent world of ours.
may we welcome with thanksgiving and joy this lesson from the apostle Paul
and seek to find moments in our own lives when we can try them out
and, when we do,
may we give God thanks for an opportunity to nurture healthy relating with one another
as together we seek to promote the realm of God in our communities.
May it be so.