19th Sunday after Trinity
Phil 4:1-9, 21-23; Luke 10:-9
St Barbara’s 18.10.2020
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Over the last few months I’m sure we have all learnt lots of new skills, especially around the area of technology. We may have even learnt new words – “let’s meet on zoom” – we may say – words I may never have thought I would say this time last year.
One of the interesting things about zoom, or Microsoft Teams (and other communication platforms are also available at all good retailers) is that you can see people’s background, the view of their study or kitchen. Well on Wednesday I was chatting with someone on zoom, and behind her in her kitchen were some household rules: “No whining; Dream big; Eat your greens; give hugs and kisses; play nice, work hard; forgive; and most popular) share chocolate”. These were just some of the rules I read, while I was also obviously paying full attention to what she was saying.
In our final reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we find that Paul is giving us a list a bit like those household rules – pithy, easy to remember statements, that sum up in just a few words whole discourses on theology and Christian living that he does not now have the time to go into.
And a bit like those household rules, some will speak to us straightaway, right into our current situation; others we may need to return to in time.
One of the first thing he says as he draws to the close of his letter, is “sort out divisions, seek reconciliation.” Two women, Euodia and Syntche, have clearly had a strong difference of opinion, strong enough that even Paul should be aware of it and concerned about it from several hundred miles away. He appeals to them – be of one mind in the Lord. In other words, whatever your differences, whether they are personal, social, spiritual – recognise first and foremost that you are one in Christ, that your unity is far more important than any cause to fall out over. And Paul doesn’t just address the two women; he addresses the whole church, asking them to come alongside them both, and help them work out their differences, help them achieve reconciliation.
We can fall out over the biggest of things and the smallest of things. I read recently of a woman who stopped going to church for 15 years because at a church fete she was told she could only buy one cake, not two. If you have fallen out with someone, or if you know of people who have fallen out with each other, maybe this is the prompt to work for reconciliation. We are to be peace-makers and unity builders.
The next thing on Paul’s list is: “Rejoice in the Lord always”. And in case his readers might miss it, he writes: “I will say it again, rejoice!” Indeed, 16 times in the letter Paul encourages the Philippians to rejoice. Such an encouragement would possibly be difficult to hear for a church that was suffering persecution for their faith. But this encouragement was from Paul, a man in prison and facing a likely death penalty. And Paul has a good track record on this. When he was with them 10 years earlier, after having been beaten and thrown into prison, at midnight he joyfully sang hymns from his cell.
Rejoicing for Paul was not about pretending bad things didn’t happen. It was about consciously choosing to give thanks to God in the midst of the ups and downs of life. For us too life may appear to hold many challenges. We may, for example, be looking ahead to this coming winter with a slightly sinking heart. And we do not need to deny that. But in the midst of it, we may still find there is much to give thanks to God for. To use a quote I have used several times before with us all: “Happiness does not make us grateful; gratitude is what make us happy.”
Next on Paul’s list: “Let your gentleness be evident to all.” This takes us back to the heart of Paul’s letter and his description of Christ as one “who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, humbling himself.” Gentleness is the attitude of heart and mind that causes you to respect and affirm and value and love others; that does not seek to lord it over others or force your agenda. Over the years I have taken a number of funerals where people have been described to me as “a real gentleman”, always polite, civil, courteous. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were known as “gentle people”, in the fullest sense of the word, full of grace, kindness, humility, loving service. Imagine how such a simple rule – “be gentle” – could shape your actions and words today.
Next on the list is less an instruction and more a truth to hold in one’s mind: “The Lord is near.” Paul probably meant this in at least two ways. Know that God is present with you now, by His Spirit. Each moment of each day is a holy gift, for it is an opportunity to experience the loving presence of God. And God is near in that a day will come when God will make himself fully known to us, a day when his will will be done on earth as fully as it is in heaven, a day of healing, hope, transformation. It is the message that Jesus sent the 72 out to proclaim: “The kingdom of God is near you.” Such a truth gives us comfort and wonder in the present, and hope and expectation for the future.
Next on Paul’s list comes prayer. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” There is a whole series of sermons just in these few words, but the simple nub of it is simply this: pray! Bring everything that bothers you, the small as well as the big, before God. At Prayers and Bears we sing a song that says “nothing’s too big for his power; nothing’s too small for his care.” As a parent I am delighted when my children openly share with me their worries – its a sign of trust, a sign of love. I don’t keep them at arms distance, evaluating whether their anxiety is reasonable. I want them to share. That is even more the case with our heavenly Father.
And when we do so – and with thanksgiving: thanksgiving for answered prayer and thanksgiving just for the privilege of prayer itself – we will find a peace that transcends all understanding. As I have chatted with many of you over the last few months, I know how many of you have said that to me: that as you pray, you know God’s peace. Those words are worth learning by heart and putting into practice every time you feel anxious or worried this week.
Next up: focus on what is good. Paul puts it in much more beautiful language: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praise-worthy – think about such things.” If you are anything like me, you may find it all too easy to focus on the negative things, to get absorbed by all that is wrong with the world, to get pulled down by humanity’s propensity to do inhumane things to one another. We are not to deny or ignore such things, but we are to turn the focus of our energies and attention elsewhere. We are to take time to appreciate beauty, whether its in art or creation, in music or drama, sports or fine workmanship. We are to take time to reflect on those whose lives point us to good and hope. One of the profound privileges of taking funerals is I get to hear of all the goodness that people saw in the ones who have died. But we don’t need to wait till death before we start valuing and appreciating others. We are, in Paul’s words, to “think on such things” now, to train our minds to think on and delight in all that is good. It is a discipline, but one that will transform us through and through.
Paul’s bullet point reminders of Christian living is at an end, as is our journey with him through this wonderful letter. But as we finish it is worth hearing the letter’s final words again. He finishes with greetings from all the saints in Rome to all the saints in Christ Jesus. In other words, let us love one another – we are one family no matter how distant we may feel from one another. And he prays: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ – the incredible, extravagant, abundant gift of God’s love shown us and made possible in Jesus – be with your spirit. Amen.” And one can imagine the Christians of Philippi as they heard those final words read, responding “Amen – let it be so”. Amen – Let it be so for us too.