Sunday, October 27, 2019

Anniversary Sunday

Joel 2
26 You will have plenty to eat, until you are full,
and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has worked wonders for you;
never again will my people be shamed.
27 Then you will know that I am in Israel,
that I am the Lord your God,
and that there is no other;
never again will my people be shamed.
28 “And afterward,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

I want to begin by saying it’s not my fault.

I’m just gonna put that out there, and then tell you about the scary slides. But before we get to the scary slides, I have to step back further and tell you about my not-so-secret life as a consultant. For you see, every once and a while I spend a Saturday trying to help some other congregation think about mission.

It is the context of these occasional opportunities to help that I show the scary slides. It happens like this: first we look at the nature of change in our society, and the extent to which everything that held in the past no longer seems to hold. For example: when a rather amateurish-looking video with a catchy song about a baby shark gets three-and-a-half-BILLION views online, you know the world has changed.

Next, we talk about the late Professor Phyllis Tickle, and her concept of the Great Rummage Sale, how the Holy Spirit seems intent on shaking things up about every 500 years. The last time it was the Reformation, and the time before that the Great Schism. According to the professor, then, we’re in the midst of one of these great spiritual rummage sales, and there is no way to know where it will lead (spoiler alert, Dr. Tickle was a big fan of the Holy Spirit).

And after such a lofty and abstract discussion, we retreat to more practical topics like duty versus choice, the current tension that plagues congregations with a population between the ages of 60 and 90. The older group still loves the D-word, and will drop everything to do their duty, while the younger cohort thinks duty is four-letter-word. There are usually smiles of recognition, and hopefully a little more understanding between members.

And then we look at the scary slides. For you see, all the mainline Protestant denominations—United, Presbyterian, Anglican—began to decline in 1965. And there are scary slides to prove it. Church membership began to decline, but the truly scary numbers were downstairs, where 600,000 kids in Sunday School across the church in 1965 became 250,000 just eight years later. Let me state that in the reverse. There were 600,000 kids in our Sunday Schools in 1965, and 350,000 less kids just eight years later. Other stats are equally scary. In 1963 there were 718 people preparing for the ministry, and five years later there were just 94. In another decade the number would rebound—in part because women were entering the ministry—but it still fits the overall pattern of decline.

Just now you’re thinking that this the weirdest Anniversary Sunday sermon ever, and you might be right. Still, born in 1965, it’s not my fault. I’m sure I screwed up somewhere along the way—but with the decline beginning in 1965, I think you get the point. And further, there is virtually no one left who was a church leader in 1965, which lets everyone else off the hook too. You see, we are constantly trying to understand what happened, or where we went wrong: was it the New Curriculum in the 60s or our look at human sexuality in the 80s, or some other outrage or misstep along the way? No, not when the scary slides show the opposite. Something was happening in society in the late 60s, something that we’re still trying to understand, in this church, and every other church, across most denominations, and throughout the land.

This would be the moment that I move to the reading, but before I do, I should finish the story. After all the theory, and dropping the D-word, and showing the scary slides, I try to inspire people with stories of congregations that have reinvented themselves and found a way to reconnect with their communities—which is the real secret of congregational renewal. So I talk about Central, our outreach, our commitment to study, and the habit of testimony that we developed almost by accident; I talk about Hillhurst in Calgary and ‘radical hospitality’ (some ideas we have already stolen) and I talk about what’s happening in the UK, where they got a 20-year head start in terms of decline, yet continue to innovate.

And in each example, we see the Spirit at work, the same Spirit described by the prophet Joel:

28 “And afterward,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your old men will dream dreams,
your young men will see visions.
29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

Poor Joel, always a minor prophet, always a victim of the smash-and-grab approach to biblical literature—where one quote seems to sum up all we know about him. But what a quote! And if you’re thinking ‘dream dreams’ and ‘see visions,’ where have I heard that lately, you need only remember Pentecost, some twenty Sundays past, and still the season we inhabit. The church in its wisdom gave half the year to the spirit of Pentecost, the season that begins with Peter’s sermon at Pentecost.

It is the moment that the first church comes out of hiding and finds her voice. With wind and flame the Spirit greets them, and a thousand tongues are loosed to sing God’s praise. But there is more happening in this moment that the birth of the church: it is the moment that dreams and visions are unleashed, when the Spirit takes hold of some very ordinary people and compels them to do some extraordinary things. Extraordinary things like creating a church: a church to love and serve others, a church to extend mercy, a church to embody all we know about the compassionate way of Jesus Christ. It almost feels like the moment to land the plane (sermon-speak for end the sermon) but I see you’re still chewing on something, so let’s go back.

Why 1965? You used to love 1965: a new flag for Canada and the year Heather and Dave made their debut (among others). What on earth was happening to cause such a shift in 1965? Well, a couple of my colleagues were losing sleep over this question too, so Larry Doyle and David Ewart did some digging. The root of the problem came with a rule: in order to have your little bundle of joy baptized, you needed to join the church. So, throughout the 1950’s parents of those first-born boomers were joining the church, swelling our numbers, and making the whole picture look good. Every week there was a new church or Sunday School building being dedicated, all because people wanted their children baptized.

But around 1957 or ‘58, we were into the subsequent born. Sure there were more kids, but the parents were already members, so that source was getting cut off. At the same time those first boomer babies were nearing the end of Sunday School, and only some of them were being confirmed. In other words, we hit a peak. It also explains why I spent so much time in the 90s asking about names on the roll—who are all these people, does anyone know them? Not really, because they came for a reason or a season, then they moved on.

Now I can land the plane. But just before I do, I want to tell you about Dr. Rob Fennell and some of his work related to thriving congregations. I heard him speak at a recent event, and he teased us with some of his research (he has a book in the works, so he didn’t want to give it all away). After interviews and surveys across Canada, he has identified six attributes of thriving congregations, and then he shared four.

The first one he called ‘starting with yes.’ He described congregations that answer ‘yes’ when challenged, and then try to work out how to make it happen. Our tour after worship might be a good example (new food bank). The next attribute is having a strong identity, which means knowing who you are and to whom you belong. The next is risk-taking, getting involved with activities that others might find surprising or off-putting (a needle exchange comes to mind). And the last—that he was willing to share—was leadership: elders and members who embody the first three, starting with yes, knowing who they are, and taking risks for the sake of the gospel.

Now, we ought not get sore patting ourselves on the back. These attributes are always aspirational, and we could certainly think of ways we failed to live up to one through four. But I would argue we are on the right side of the ledger, that work and worship happen in this place, that faithful people remain open to the Good News and all it demands, and that we make 198 look good.

So as we begin the next 198 years, may God continue to bless us, may the Risen one walk beside us, and may the Spirit move within us, new and always, Amen.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 18
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. 2 He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? 8 I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

It all begins with Jethro.

No, not that Jethro—son of Jed’s cousin Pearl. Although he does drive them to California at the beginning of the show, so you could say it all begins with Jethro, but that would another sermon altogether.

Our Jethro, for the purpose of this sermon, is Moses’ father-in-law Jethro, who plays a small but critical role in the development of Jewish law. And it begins with an intervention. Moses, you will recall, led the people into the desert, helped them through some moments of great peril, and generally acted as the sole judge of these people. It was no small job.

In Exodus 18 we learn that Moses is adjudicating day and night, wearing himself out, trying to settle disputes between the people he is called to lead. Enter Jethro. Verse 14 begins with this: “When Jethro saw what Moses was trying to do, he took him aside and said ‘You idiot! (I’m paraphrasing here) Why on earth are you doing this alone? You should appoint some judges to do this work, maybe just after you teach the people how God expects them to live.’”

So Moses does. But before he does, Jethro has more advice, again from Exodus 18:

They must be God-fearing men who can be trusted and who cannot be bribed. 22 Let them serve as judges for the people on a permanent basis. They can bring all the difficult cases to you, but they themselves can decide all the smaller disputes. That will make it easier for you, as they share your burden.

Everyone who participated in our Lenten study should be feeling a flush of recognition, this description of the beginnings of the legal tradition in ancient Judea. Moses (on Jethro’s advice) becomes the High Court to these wandering people, with judges appointed to do the day-to-day work of administering justice. It’s the basis of a legal system that will feature in our parable, and it’s the basis for the legal system that exists in Canada today. Notice Jethro says ‘let them serve on a permanent basis,’ still a bedrock principle of the justice system, still protecting judges (and the system itself) from the ever-changing whim of popular opinion.

But before we move to the parable, a bit more on these judges appointed by Moses. At this moment in the story of Israel, Moses is the sole connection to God. He is the prophet who teaches God’s commands, interprets these commands in the administration of justice, and appoints judges. There are no priests at this stage (there will be soon) so the judge is a more religious figure than our modern minds might assume. They are appointed to carry out God’s commands, with Moses standing by to help.

And this got me thinking. What kind of person might fill this role? Interpreting God’s commands, settling disputes, seeking justice for the vulnerable. Then I remembered The List. But before I tell you about The List, you need a little more ancient history.

Back in my day, you could join the church on Sunday, meet the elders of the congregation on Sunday afternoon, go to presbytery on Tuesday, have an interview, and become a candidate for ministry the same evening. Obviously this rarely happened, but it was possible. The church, in its wisdom put the brakes on that path, and created something called discernment instead. But that’s not the ancient history that matters here.

The history that matters was a new process and the articulation (for the first time) of the attributes that a congregation should see if they think there’s potential minister in their midst. So here is the list:

A deep spiritual life
Personal integrity
An understanding of human behaviour
A passion for justice
The capacity for critical thinking
The integration of self
The capacity to be a life-long learner

I didn’t share the list so you could go ‘Michael, Michael, hmmm, let’s see, yup, yup, nope, maybe.’ I actually won a scholarship at Queen’s for being sixth place overall, a standard I strive to maintain. Don’t ask me how that fits with the list. Nevertheless, the list exists, and as congregations were compelled to see these attributes in potential ministers, they were also reminded that everyone is a minister, so the list applies to them (and you) as well. Again, that’s another sermon.

So assuming that the list also describes the kind of people that Moses might appoint as judges, let’s finally meet the judge of our parable:

“In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. 3 And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’ 4 “For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice.”

You will notice that I have shared only the parable portion, not the frame that Luke provides. Yes, I think you should pray always and not give up, but I’m not sure that that is the point of the parable. And yes, I think God will attend to the needs of God’s chosen ones, but I’m not sure that’s the point of the parable either. All Luke was trying to do was provide some context to a difficult parable—so we might better look for meaning ourselves.

So first things first. We can agree that this is an unrighteous judge. The clue is when he says to himself “I don’t fear God or care what people think.” Clearly he would not find himself on The List, although he does have excellent self-understanding and an understanding of human behaviour. But two out of nine makes him unfit to serve as a judge, something that is so obvious that it may be extraneous to the point of the parable. I think Jesus was simply creating a foil for the widow, a character Jack Nicholson might play. (“You want the truth…”)

So that leaves the widow. What do we know about her? She seeks justice, she has an adversary, and she is relentless in her pursuit of justice. Having an adversary is a bit of a red herring in the parable, because the system was based on having an adversary—there were no prosecutors in the modern sense. All proceedings involved two parties, a detail we can set aside.

So the focus of the parable is a someone who seeks justice, and is relentless in the pursuit of justice. And who does that sound like? I’m going to suggest that God is the widow, constantly saying ‘grant me justice, grant me justice’ seeking it among creatures God created, seeking it for all the other widows, all the vulnerable ones who also cry out for justice. The unrighteous judge says he doesn’t fear God, but he sure does fear the widow and her constant cry for justice.

I’m going to let that settle in your imagination for a while, ever mindful that the preacher who made this suggestion finished sixth overall. I want to turn now to another topic that may be filling your imagination, a certain exercise in civic duty happening tomorrow. You will recall that we are non-partisan, strictly non-partisan and a law-abiding registered charity. We promote voting, we don’t suggest who to vote for.

A primary demand of Christian ethics is to pursue the common good. One of the most effective vehicles for this is voting, seeking to elect leaders that align with our sense of the common good. Put simply, we seek a “communitarian vision” (Anderson) where we live together peaceably, protect each other, and ensure that everyone thrives. Your tool to achieve this is your vote, cast for the person or party that (for you) best represents this vision.

But I also want to expand your toolkit, and for this, I think we need The List. Ignore that this as a list for potential ministers and eager lay people who take seriously the priesthood of all believers—imagine that this list describes someone who might be well placed to seek the common good. Let me walk through it once more, and add some annotation. I hope you vote for someone who has:

A deep spiritual life, not in the religious sense, but in the sense that they understand that life is more than the material or the tangible
Personal integrity, actions and word in alignment
Self-knowledge, especially a sense of their limitations
An understanding of human behaviour, and the way people can act against their own self-interest.
Intelligence, both smarts and emotional intelligence
A passion for justice, not just the charter, but justice for the most vulnerable members of our society
The capacity for critical thinking, seeing context and nuance, and the ability to see all sides
The integration of self, a sense of who they are and how they came to be who they are
The capacity to be a life-long learner, aware that there is always more to learn, that they don’t have all the answers.

May God be with you tomorrow, and may you join God in the relentless pursuit of justice, Amen.

Sunday, October 13, 2019


Luke 17
11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy[b] met him. They stood at a distance 13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. 16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

Are you feeling thankful?

Is that even the right word? Maybe you’re feeling grateful instead. Maybe you’re gratified, gruntled (the opposite of disgruntled, of course) or just tickled pink. Maybe you’re chuffed, and if you don’t know what that means, you’re going to need to ask Harold, Barbara or Judith. Or someone who watches Top Gear.

And since we’ve crossed the pond for a moment, we should visit Oxford, or more specifically the Oxford dictionary, and investigate the difference between thankful and grateful. And you’ll be chuffed to know that there is a difference, something that doesn’t seem to be the case on our side of the pond.

So thankful, according to Oxford, means “pleased and relieved,” giving the example “they were thankful that the war was finally over.” Odd. And the second example, “I was very thankful to be alive,” seems to have been written by the same person who wrote the first. It doesn’t exactly say turkey and pumpkin pie, does it? So on to grateful.

Grateful, for Oxford, means “feeling or showing an appreciation for something done or received.” And then gives the rather obvious example: “I'm grateful to you for all your help.” This seems much closer to the mark, which makes me think everything we’re doing has been mislabeled. But before you toss out your Happy Thanksgiving napkins and party hats, maybe we should dig a little deeper—and for this we need scripture.

Ten lepers cry out for help: “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” And without a thought, ten lepers were healed. ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests—the only ones who can declare you clean—and they will discover that you are clean.’ So, off they go, but one turns back, praising God, throwing himself at Jesus’ feet, and being thankful. At this moment Luke adds a ‘by the way’ to the story, saying ‘and by the way, he was a Samaritan.’ More on that in a minute. Jesus then transforms this healing into a teachable moment, saying ‘didn’t I just heal ten of you? Where are the others? Has no one else returned to praise God except this foreigner? Rise and go; your faith has made you well.’

So two things to consider here, the first is the tenth leper and the nature of his response, and the second is the obvious plot twist when we learn that this man is a Samaritan. Now, not wanting to wear you out with the dictionary, but I should point out that the nine who kept walking were likely “pleased and relieved,” meaning thankful, but it didn’t translate into any kind of tangible response. The tenth leper, “showing an appreciation for something done,” was grateful, and therefore returned to praise God and throw himself at Jesus’ feet. Now you can throw out the napkins.

And what about the plot twist? Does it matter that this man is a Samaritan? And why do Samaritans keep appearing anyway? So we’ll start there. In the literary world we find the idea of the ‘stock character,’ a person or group of people that frequently appear in a story to play a specific role—most often to embody a characteristic or trait. So Samaritans play the role of ‘the last person you would expect to do something’—like help someone beaten by robbers, or return to Jesus to express thanks. We don’t have time to do a full survey of the bad blood between Jews and Samaritans, so I’ll give you some shorthand instead. Jews viewed Samaritans the way evangelical Christians view Mormons, or the way the NDP view the Green Party—and if that makes no sense, see me later.

For Luke, then, the Samaritan is playing a role. And like the Good Samaritan helping out when the so-called religious ones refuse to do so, the Samaritan leper turns around when the nine locals don’t. In other words, when the stock character—whoever that may be—understands the need to help or provides a grateful response, then we’re really going to be disappointed in everyone else. In other, other words, shame on the people who can’t respond as well as the outcast/foreigner/outsider/etcetera.

Now that the religious people have received their ‘direct message’ found in the lesson, what about those nine others? What are we to make of them? First thing to note is that they are still healed. Still released from a terrible ailment, still able to show the priest and be declared clean, still able to return to kin and clan, still able to rejoin the life they knew. With Jesus there are no take-backs, no retractions, no post-healing reassessment. They remain healed. A tad rude perhaps, but still healed.

And to understand the God of the no take-backs, we’re going to need to take a road trip, first to ancient Sparta, then Rotterdam, and finally a lovely town on the shores of Lake Zurich. Someday the readings will allow me to speak at length about Sparta, but for today I will only share a message from the Oracle at Delphi. It seems that when asked by some Spartan if they should go to war with Athens, the Oracle said "Called or not called, the god will be there” (vocatus atque non vocatus deus aderit). I have no idea what happened next.

Meanwhile, 1,110 years later, a Dutch scholar named Erasmus is busy compiling Greek and Latin proverbs for publication (Collectanea Adagiorum) and includes this quote from Delphi (along with 4,000 others). Jump another 400 years, and a precocious 19 year-old named Carl Jung finds the quote and makes it his own. Decades later, as a pioneer in psychology, he will have the quote carved over his front door, a reminder to all who enter that “called or not called, God is with you.”*

Called or uncalled, God is with you. I actually prefer the alternate translation, “Bidden or unbidden, God is with you.” It takes the quote into the realm of worship, thinking of the bidding prayer—any words that express the sentiment “God, hear our prayer.” In other words, whether you acknowledge God or not, call on God or not, return and thank God or not, God is with you. So write it down, have it tattooed somewhere you can see it, or add it to your Twitter profile: “Bidden or unbidden, God is with you.” But please, use the Latin, ‘cause Latin makes everything classy.

So back to the no-show nine, or than thankless nine, God is with them. They have been released from sorrow whether they run back or not. And this is the nature of God’s unfathomable grace. You can sit out Thanksgiving, but God will still send sun and rain, secret growth beneath the earth, germination and growth, long summer days given to shorter, cooler ones, maturation and harvest, skilled hands at mill and kiln. You can neglect to thank God and still eat, but the experience will not be the same. Bidden or unbidden, God is with you.

Better, in the spirit of gratefulness, to show some appreciation. Grace received, new life given, hope restored—and we can give thanks. Meister Eckhart said “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough.” Gratitude transforms us, makes us into new people, restores us to the realm of grace where we can simply receive.

So, to you I say Happy Thanksgiving, or whatever combination of gratefulness and giving thanks you can make, knowing always that God is with you. Amen.


Sunday, October 06, 2019

Philippians 4.4-9

Philippians 4
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

I have a vague memory of a time when every third word was ‘gentle.’

And it usually comes amid a parental word salad, along with ‘no’ and ‘be careful’ and ‘you better let me take this.’ Smashing, ripping, thumping, throwing—all part of the learning process, I suppose—discovering things like cause and effect, or what gets the best reaction. I recall a week when Isaac destroyed both remotes (it was a simpler time) and the VCR itself. Maybe he knew the technology was out of date.

I recall some years ago preparing for worship at a senior’s home, waiting for the staff to roll out the notoriously unreliable sound system for our use. On this day the staff person fiddled and fiddled until they reached the point that they were smashing the amplifier with the microphone and shouting “I don’t know why this thing’s not working!” Excuse me, I think I know.

You gotta be gentle. It works for toddlers, the frustrated—really anyone who thinks that you can smash your way to solving a problem. It generally works when dealing with other people, and it’s even good advice when dealing with ourselves. And it’s something that can be taught, as the smashing, ripping, thumping, and throwing behaviors give way to a new set of behaviours—like constantly asking why.

But that’s another sermon. For today, the advice is simple: You gotta be gentle. And don’t just take my word for it, listen to St. Paul, who begins this section of his letter to the church at Philippi with these simple words: “You gotta be gentle.” Then he says “The Lord is near.” We’ll come back to the second part of the verse in a while, but for now, it’s all about gentleness.

Recognizing that nothing ruins a perfectly adequate sermon like parsing the Greek, I’m going to parse the Greek. But I’m parsing with purpose, because sometimes a word needs to be explored in greater depth, and for this, we need Greek. Gentleness, in Philippians 4.5 comes from epieikos, one of those compound words that only makes sense if you break it down.

So epi- means ‘over’ or ‘in addition to’ and eikos- means ‘to yield’ or ‘to submit.’ You can see why we have Bible translators then, because telling someone to ‘over-yield’ sounds cumbersome and not quite right. So your pew Bible (NIV) gives us ‘gentleness,’ while other translations suggest ‘moderation’ (KJV) or ‘forbearance’ (ERV).

And just because we’re on a bit of a roll here, here is the English poet Matthew Arnold, who had his own swing at epieikos, suggesting it means “sweet-reasonableness.’ This sounds like something we all should strive for, like something you might want to overhear at a party: ‘That Michael—he’s known for his sweet-reasonableness.’

So what’s the context here? Why is St. Paul urging the church at Philippi to embrace sweet-reasonableness for all to see? To get to the request, it might be time to make a list, in this case ten things to know about Paul, his letters, and Philippi.

Paul wrote letters to people he knew, and letter was meant as a substitute for his presence with them.
Paul’s letters address specific issues within the church.
These letters really were meant to be correspondence— maybe shared around, but very much a letter.
A letter from Paul was meant to read aloud in worship, hence all the prayers, blessings, and fragments of hymns.
Paul sees no need to remind the church at Philippi of his authority as an apostle—indicating greater intimacy.
Paul describes the congregation at Philippi as a ‘house church,’ meaning small, and maybe very small.
The combination of a small church and greater intimacy with Paul gives the letter to the Philippians it’s hallmark beauty, simplicity and warmth.*
Immediately before our passage he urges two leaders in the congregation, Euodia and Syntyche (YO-de-ah and SEN-te-key) to try to come to a common mind on some matter.
He doesn’t state the matter because he doesn’t have to— everyone in this small church understood why these two women were at odds, Euodia and Syntyche.
Paul seems intent on overwhelming them with love, something that seems plain from the language of our passage.

I guess I could have simply said two elders were fighting and Paul said ‘be gentle.’ That pretty much sums up the context, but now you also know that Paul knew and loved these people, he was invested in their success—if that’s even the right word. He wanted to convince them of a higher way, and he wanted to do it in the context of worship: praising the author of love through his words to the church.

So that’s the why of the matter, what about the how? How do you foster the sweet-reasonableness needed to move forward as a church? How do you become gentle, or at least mindful that gentleness is needed? Paul has an answer for that too, and he gives the answer in two of the most moving (and familiar) passages in all of Paul. The first is a blessing:

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

You may know this (in part) because it is part of our funeral liturgy, a blessing meant to calm hearts and quiet minds in the midst of suffering. It is Paul’s testimony that only the peace of God, the peace that frail human minds cannot fully comprehend, is the peace that will help us overcome trouble.

In other words, Paul is saying “I don’t know how this works, but it works.” Amazing, really, considering that Paul is Paul: he’s the architect of the Christian Church, and the foundational source of much of our theology, yet still doesn’t know the exact nature of God’s peace. I take great comfort in this—I don’t need to understand how God’s peace with protect my heart and mind, I only need to trust God in Christ Jesus.

And then this:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Obviously gentleness—the peace of God within you—requires practice, requires intentionality, requires mindfulness. I can’t really say ‘in other words’ at a moment like this, basking in the poetry of divine peace—whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy. Meditate on these and find some peace. Find the sweet-reasonableness that will allow you to live with others, and be a blessing to others.

Today we will share the most gentle of rituals, the sacrament of communion. Bread broken and wine poured—gifts of God for the people of God. Then the salvation history of our people will be recited in prayer, all leading to a single moment in time when Jesus said ‘this is my body, broken for you.’ The sign behind the symbol may be violent and cruel, but the remembrance is nothing but gentle, terror transformed by the peace of God—which transcends all understanding—transforming our hearts and minds through the self-giving love of Christ Jesus.

Worldwide Communion is more than geography and joining together on the same day. Communion, worldwide or otherwise, exists outside of time and joins us with believers back to that house church in Philippi long ago and forward to the church of the future, whatever form it may take.

Most of all, we know that whenever we gather at this table, the Lord is near. The Lord is near because our hearts are joined in this peaceable ritual, drawn together in the sweet-reasonableness that is a life in Christ. Amen.

*Most of the list is suggested by Fred Craddock, Interpretation, p. 1-8.