Scripture – Philippians 4:1-9 – Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost – October 15, 2017
Bob does for me what no one else does. Bob manages my expectations on a nearly daily basis. He often dictates my clothing choices. His words at times even affect my larger decisions, my own future plans. Bob, of course, is Bob Maxon the morning weather man on NBC Connecticut TV, who has a knack for making the weather forecast particularly relevant to our daily lives….suggesting what the kids should wear at the bus stop that morning, for instance; and last Thursday he offered his advice to the residents of the northwest corner of CT to bring inside some of their more fragile vegetation as a frost was sure to occur in their area that night.
Over the last several weeks, as we all know, we have lived with a weather pattern that can’t seem to come to terms with at least the calendar’s shifting from the hot and humid conditions of summer to the cool dry temperatures of fall. Weather almost divided against itself as we breathed in the unexpected cool dry air back in August but could cut the humidity with a knife just a week ago in mid-October. In Bob Maxon’s attempt to reconcile the fleeting forecast for frost last Thursday to be followed by temperatures close to 80 degrees this weekend, he narrowly specified his instructions to bring in the fragile vegetation but immediately followed with, “But it’s okay to leave the mums outside. The mums will be fine.”
The mums will be fine: in a strange and unexpected way, Bob offered comforting words of assurance that those hardy mums will certainly survive both this early frost and the unseasonal warm temperatures which will follow. The mums will be fine.
The new church in Philippi, founded and formed during the first century by the Apostle Paul, had become divided against itself. Philippi was a major city in Macedonia and the site of the westernmost Pauline church at the time of its founding. Paul is writing to the Philippians – dubbed by scholars as “his favorite church” – from prison, held there for his subversive activity of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. And like many of the early churches, the Philippians were also experiencing opposition from the outside and that hostility was having an effect on its leadership and its ranks, splitting them and pitching them against each other. Paul is writing to encourage cohesiveness and unity in the face of difficulty, specifically urging the church’s two leaders, women named Euodia and Syntyche, to be of the same mind and calling on others to help them.
Although we could go down the road of making the point that the very early church of Jesus Christ had female leaders, instead, today let’s examine this passage from another perspective: the perspective of its offering encouragement to us during a time of deep division in our own country and in many other environments here and throughout the world.
Biblical scholar Carolyn Osiek, in her introduction to and explanation of Paul’s letter in the New Oxford Annotated Bible, uses these words: “[Paul] attempts to turn the Philippians from partisan interest to unity.” Her words. Who says the Bible has no relevance for today?
What’s striking about Paul’s attempt, though, are his suggested attitudes and methods and reasons for achieving that unity in comparison to advice we may hear elsewhere today. After Paul lavishes words of love on his beloved Philippians and encourages Euodia and Syntyche to reconcile, he suggests the new church “stand firm in the Lord this way”: “Rejoice in the Lord always” and “let your gentleness be known to everyone”. Let’s start with the gentleness first.
Most commentators point to “gentleness” as being better translated from the Greek as “forbearance”. Let your “forbearance” be known to everyone. Your patient endurance, your self-control or as indicated by one author, your putting up with one another! Professor David Burrell writes: “’Living in Jesus’ means living together with others, and persons living together can easily grate on each other…People engaged in a common pursuit will inevitably jostle one another, often employing their sharp edges to find space for themselves.”
So Paul says let that gentleness, that mutual forbearance be the way to stand firm in the Lord. Professor Burrell maintains that “Nothing short of forbearance will succeed in eliciting so constructive an ethos from us, as our natural propensity is rather to render harsh judgment on one another.” Ya think?
So if we’re patiently enduring, keeping ourselves under control so as not to jab each other with our harsh sharp-edged judgment, how do we get to rejoicing? “For Paul, … joy comes when [we] perceive God’s action even amid difficulty and pain.” Chaplain Nathan Eddy writes that “Joy itself is not the goal, as if it were a drug. It is an outcome and a sign of the presence of the risen Christ…Joy is a discipline of perception, not an emotion dependent on circumstances.”
Joy is a discipline of perception. So when Paul tells his beloved Philippians to think about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, or praiseworthy, he is not just glibly telling his troubled folks to think happy thoughts and everything will be ducky; he is telling them and us to look for the presence of Christ. See the joy of the Lord in the good that is also around us so you can see it, too, in the divided, contentious mess. Chaplain Eddy continues: “Joy is not an escape from the pain of life; it is a reconsideration and reinvestment in life from a different, liberating perspective.”
In the midst of it all, Paul tells the Philippians don’t worry about a thing. The Lord is near. Yes, we are being imprisoned, tortured, martyred for the sake of the Gospel, but the Lord is near. A deadly frost is on its way, but the mums are going to be fine. Don’t worry – take it all to God in prayer:
• prayer – the way to relationship with God,
• prayer – the way not only to let your requests be made known, but a way to listen for God,
• a way to better perceive the presence of Christ in all things,
• a way to tap into the source for solutions that you would never come up with on your own,
• prayer – the intentional, disciplined way to joy.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
Sometimes, my brothers and sisters, I wonder if we put more faith in the promises of Bob Maxon the weatherman than we do in the words of scripture. Last Thursday he said the mums would be fine if left outside and I felt this odd peace and comfort that the pain of winter is still a long way off. Perhaps Bob Maxon should start uttering assurances about the split down the middle of our political system or the prospects of recovery for Puerto Rico or when the wildfires in California will finally be contained. No, my friends, this morning we are reminded by the Apostle Paul, writing from his prison cell to a new, small, struggling and divided church, to have faith in God and to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ…..
to remember that the Lord is near; to rejoice in the Lord because his presence is everywhere, especially in the mess; and to keep our relationship with God open and active through prayer. And, oh my goodness, my friends, to let our gentleness out, especially in these days of unparalleled divisiveness, to patiently listen to each other instead of jumping immediately to criticize, to seek out common ground, to concentrate on our mutual goals of making devastated people whole again, to remember the Lord is near – not only to comfort, not only to strengthen, not only to guide, but near to us as a reminder of what we have learned and received through his teachings and Resurrection and how we are called to respond.
And note the promise: not wealth, nor walls, nor war, nor being the best or having the most, no…through our efforts toward unity, toward our being of the same mind, the promise assured by Paul is nothing less than the peace of God. So, it’s not Bob. It’s God who does for us what no one else can. Amen.