A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 12, 2014, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures: Philippians 4:1-9 and Exodus 32:1-14
Copyright © 2014 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Once upon a time, a woman on a cruise met a man who claimed that he was an expert at guessing men’s professions.[1] Apparently this skill did not cross over to guessing women’s professions, but he claimed he could do it for men. Intrigued, the woman asked her new friend to prove he had this skill, and since the boat was filled with people neither of them knew, it seemed to be a good test population. The woman pointed to a man seated on a deckchair. “What’s his profession?”

“He’s a doctor,” the man said. They walked over to check and, sure enough, he was right.

“How did you know?’ she asked him.

“Notice the lines of caring on his forehead. I knew he was a man of great compassion.”

“How about that man over there?” she challenged, pointing to a man playing shuffle board.

“Oh, he’s a lawyer,” the man said confidently. They checked and, sure enough, he was right. “He seemed to have a scholarly and formal look despite the game he is playing, so I figured he’s a lawyer,” the man explained before he could be asked. “And that man over there by the railing,” he said confidently, “he’s a minister.”

They went over to check. “Are you a minister?” the woman asked him.

“No. No, I’m seasick.”

Christians in general and clergy in particular have a reputation in wider society of being far too serious, even dower – and hypocritical of course. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul suggests that we should live in such a way as to challenge that first reputation.

This letter is part of his prison correspondence, letters he wrote to Christian communities during his various incarcerations. This time he was imprisoned in the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor. This was part of the Roman Empire, so he was imprisoned under Roman imperial authority. Earlier in the letter, he wrote about how he was imprisoned “for Christ” and “for defense of the gospel.” I take that to mean that he was imprisoned for proclaiming the good news of Jesus, the crucified and risen One, and I take the imprisonment to mean that the good new of Jesus was seen as a challenge to imperial rule, a challenge to the domination system. And, given that his imprisonment in Rome for the same reasons ended in his death, I assume that this imprisonment was not without risk.

In our reading from the letter today, Paul admonishes Euodia and Syntyche “to be of the same mind in the Lord.” Many interpret this to mean that these two leaders of the church in Philippi were in conflict with each other, and that might be accurate. It is also possible that they were in conflict with Paul about something, or that the whole church was in conflict and these to women represented the opposing points of view. Whatever the particulars of the conflict and whoever it was that was in conflict, what is clear is that Paul has expounded on the power of the gospel being rooted in love, not violence (in contrast to Rome’s power). So, to have the mind of Christ is to choose God’s power of love over Rome’s power of domination.

Wall Street Bull (via news.com.au)

Consider for a moment what powers seek to claim you. Rome’s power of domination and violence certainly still tries to claim us. Ego, I know, tries to claim me, and I suspect I’m not alone. It’s been said, “When the center of the universe is discovered, there will be a lot of people who are disappointed to find out it’s not them.” Using lies, fantasy, and fear, commercials (whether for products or for politics) seek to claim us. The accumulation of wealth tries to claim us. There are golden calves of all sorts around us that want our worship, false gods that claim their power is the best power to have.

Paul says that as followers of Jesus, we should choose God’s power of love.

Paul’s call for unity in the phrase “be of the same mind” is not a call to conformity or submission. “The Greek phroneo means to exercise the mind … It is striking that in this story of powerful women, exercising the mind – together in Christ and with the support of companions – is the way of problem-solving.”[2] Community is central to this passage.

Paul is suffering in prison and the community in Philippi is suffering in conflict. And Paul says, “Get together. Be of the same mind. Support one another. And rejoice.” And not just “rejoice,” but “Rejoice always.” And just in case he wasn’t clear the first time, he repeats himself: “Again I will say, Rejoice.” Don’t live like you’re at the rail, seasick. Rejoice.

Now, Paul is not talking about some Pollyanna cheerfulness. Paul is calling upon the church in Philippi to a bold and courageous testimony to the power of Christ’s way, a way that pours itself out in love and in so doing transforms the world. (He talked about that in chapter 2.) To get there, he encourages the community at Philippi to focus on all that is just, pure, pleasing, excellent, and worthy of praise.

In fact, the word “rejoice” is in the plural in Greek.[3] “All y’all rejoice,” might be how Paul would have said it had he been from Texas. And even that might not capture it, because all y’all can still be separate, each of us doing it on our own. His call is for the church to rejoice together. Joy is incomplete unless it is shared in community. And I think Paul is right — and I suddenly understand one of my personal Facebook rules: If I literally laugh out loud at something someone else has posted, I share it, I repost it. I think, maybe, I do this because my joy isn’t complete unless I share that joy. Like I said, community is central to Paul’s message.

Now, if you’ll allow me a slight diversion, a quick poll: How many of you here today are in a marriage or had a marriage that lasted more than 30 years? I ask because you’ll be able to confirm or refute this theory of mine. I’m convinced that love is wonderful, but what really makes a marriage last is commitment. No matter how wonderful you mate is, he or she has done some things or has some habits or said some things or fails to do something that really grates. And I mean really grates – to the point of making that person pretty unlovable. And the reason you don’t toss in the towel is that you have a commitment to that person. And so you’ve found ways to put up with the grating habits, and to overlook the failures, and to forgive the hurts. Does that ring true to your experience? I see nodding heads.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone,” Paul wrote. Except, of course, he wrote in Greek, and what we read is a translation, so that’s how the New Revised Standard Version translates it. A few scholars I read this week like the older Revised Standard Version’s translation better. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all know your forbearance.”

Rejoice in the Lord always. That’s not so easy when your spouse or your fellow community member is grating on your nerves. Forbearance makes it possible. It’s not easy when you’re in conflict. Forbearance makes it possible. Rejoicing always isn’t so easy when you’re facing some power of opposition. Forbearance makes it possible.

And rejoicing in the face of challenge, in the face of adversity is a subversive activity. “It overturns threatening situations and frustrates those with selfish plans. Tyrants in every age have feared it, because they do not understand its origin.… In situations of opposition, Paul perceives another actor God, whose gracious action is not self-evident. [Rejoicing] is not an escape from the pain of life; it is a reconsideration and reinvestment in life from a different liberating perspective.”[4]

I find this thought reassuring. A quick scroll through Google’s news page and it’s enough to leave one quite depressed. The protests in Ferguson continue, two months after the homicide of Michael Brown by a uniformed police officer. The Ebola crisis continues in western Africa, though the news stories might make you think the crisis was happening in America and western Europe. The war with ISIL continues. A major typhoon slammed into Japan on Saturday and another one hit the coast of India last night.

How does one rejoice in the midst of such pain and devastation? The answer, I think, is prayer. And I don’t just mean the technique of prayer. I’m talking about the act of being in relationship with God. When we practice an awareness of the presence of God, even in difficult situations, we let go of being our own savior, we let go of thinking that violence can save us, we let go of the need to accumulate, we let go of the golden calves that would have us worship them. When we practice an awareness of the presence of God, we are able to rejoice in the Lord always.

And perhaps it becomes like a feedback loop. I think is was Teilhard de Chardin who said, “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.” When we are aware of the presence of God, we are able to rejoice. And when we rejoice, we are witness to the infallible sign of the presence of God.

There is always a danger in trivializing prayer. I’ve been told that Reinhold Niebuhr often quoted an agnostic friend who objected to the church, “not because of its dogmas but because of its trivialities,” by which he meant its “preoccupation with trivial concerns with the world hanging on the rim of disaster.”

Fred Craddock

There’s a story told about one of my preaching heroes, Fred Craddock, that illustrates what I mean.[5] It’s one of those stories that’s true even if it never happened. He was invited to attend a prayer meeting at a home in a wealthy suburb of Atlanta. The group shared their “weighty” prayer concerns — things like a date coming up on Friday night and the purchase of a new car. One man announced they had had 75 answered prayers since the group started meeting. Then one of them turned to Craddock and asked, “What do you think, Dr. Craddock?”

Craddock is a small man who speaks and preached in a gentle voice. I imagine him being more than reticent to criticize anyone’s praying But that night, he was offended by the reduction of God to what Paul Tillich called, “the Cosmic Bellhop.” He couldn’t help himself.  He said, “Do you mean to tell me when people are starving in Africa and the poor are suffering in India and parents in Latin America can’t sleep through the night wondering if the death squads will visit them, you folks are praying about dates and new cars?”

There is always a danger of trivializing prayer. But when prayer is about being in relationship with God, about the practice of being aware of the presence of God, it can transform us. And we will be able to rejoice always.

Amen.

[1] Based on a joke attributed to Bill Bouknight, that was included in an email from sermons.com dated 7 October 2014.

[2] Laurel A. Dykstra, “Euodia and Syntuche,” Sojourners, http://www.sojo.net/preaching-the-word/euodia-and-syntyche (accessed 5 October 2014).

[3] Nathan Eddy, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 159.

[4] Ibid, p. 161.

[5] This story is attributed to Larry Bethune in a sermon titled “Friends in High Places” in that email from sermons.com cited earlier.

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