“Faithfulness” Colchester Federated Church, September 20, 2020, (Philippians 1:21-30) Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

This week I was watching the local news and the meteorologist was talking about the hazy skies we were seeing.  He shared that the hazy days we had here in Connecticut were because the wildfire smoke from the west coast had reached the eastern seaboard.  That’s hard to believe that the smoke from these devastating fires made it all the way across our country to us here on the east coast.  That’s how bad it is out west right now. 

I texted my sister who lives in Pasco, Washington and asked how bad the smoky air was in her community.  Maureen sent me a screen shot where her phone indicated that the air quality index was 386 (in the hazardous category.)  We can keep in mind that good air quality index readings are from 0-50!  Then she texted a picture from her office where it looked like an apocalyptic sky.  As communities grapple with these fires and people like my sister and some of your family members out west deal with hazardous air—it can be a reminder that once again, we belong to each other.  Our world is an interconnected web of relationships and we would do well to remember this as parts of our country face wildfires in the west and hurricanes down south.

Now this Sunday we’re turning to a new letter from the Apostle Paul—the letter he wrote to the Christian community in Philippi (in modern-day Greece.)  It was a community that was also facing hardship.  Paul wrote to the Philippians from prison, though the letter is known for its emphasis on joy.  That’s a bit of a disconnect right there.  Though it’s not joy as in happiness and life is always sunshine and roses.  Life is certainly not.  Paul knew that better than most people considering all that Paul suffered during his lifetime with multiple imprisonments, his own medical condition he once described as “a thorn in my body” in 2 Corinthians, and physical violence inflicted upon him as he went about his work to witness to the new life we can have in Christ.[1]  Even in this letter he speaks about having to appear in court soon to face charges against him, and the verdict could lead to execution though he’s hopeful that he’ll be released soon instead. 

Can we begin to understand how absurd it is that Paul is writing to the Philippians from prison about joy of all things?  The joy that Paul emphasizes comes from having trust in God’s faithfulness no matter what.  Believers know deep down in our hearts that when we have problems or even endure harassment, that doesn’t mean that God has abandoned us.  God is with us in the midst of all life’s challenges and even heartbreaks.  God doesn’t promise that bad things will never happen in our lives.  Though God promises that God is with us until the end of time.  None of us know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future.  Paul’s words about joy even during times of hardship have more weight perhaps because he wrote this letter from a prison cell where he himself was suffering because of his faith in Jesus Christ.

So Paul hopes that focusing on joy will help the Philippians overcome fear (as they themselves were facing harassment because of their faith.)  Further, he hopes that focusing on joy will help them put aside their differences.  He gave instructions about a dispute between two church leaders who were likely the leaders of different house churches in this region.  He calls them out by name when he wrote in Chapter 4, “Loved ones, I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to come to an agreement in the Lord.  Yes, and I’m also asking you, loyal friend, to help these women who have struggled together with me in the ministry of the gospel.”[2] 

Let it be known that these two women were probably the leaders of house churches. Notice Paul doesn’t condemn them for being church leaders who just so happen to be women (some Christians these days love emphasizing Paul’s sexism.)  It’s not that these women are leading house churches that’s the problem, he just wants them to get along better.  Because over all the appeal of Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is for anyone who hears his words to imitate Christ by putting the good of other people above ourselves so that the Christian community can be united in God’s love.[3]

It can remind us that Rev. James Forbes of Riverside Church in New York City once said that in a truly vital church, you’re only happy with what’s going on 75% of the time, because you’re giving up the other 25% for someone down the pew who’s different from you—and who really needs what you may not even want.[4]  When churches are healthy and vital it means that no one is going to be happy 100% of the time.  Because we’re not just thinking about our own personal preferences, we’re thinking about other people in the community.  That demonstrates a great deal of faithfulness—the reality check that church is never just about me, it’s about you and it’s about us.  In a society that often tells us that we should be happy all the time, it’s a counter cultural way of being in community.

Paul told the Christians in Philippi, “Most important, live together in a manner worthy of Christ’s gospel.  Do this, whether I come and see you or I’m absent and hear about you.  Do this so that you stand firm, united in one spirit and mind as you struggle together to remain faithful to the gospel.”[5]  Paul wants these Christians to cease their inner-church disputes and to remain united to help them maintain their faith in the midst of persecution.  Paul wants to see them again.  Though he wants them to go about this work of reconciliation whether he can be there with them in person again or not.  United we stand, divided we fall. 

Though does unity mean that we all have to be exactly the same? 
Can we have unity in our diversity?

These are questions that we continue to wrestle with here and now.  The thing is living together in community isn’t always easy.  It’s not easy in the Church anymore than it’s easy in a town or a school system or a business or a family.  We’ve probably experienced this a great deal of late when we’ve seen all sorts of responses to covid-19.  Or we see our country burning with these wildfires and flooding with Hurricane Sally.  Or we see people out in communities protesting injustice.  It seems that we get into the most trouble when we forget that we belong to God and that we are one another’s keeper. 

In the end, Paul reminded the Christian community in Philippi to be united in one spirit and mind as they struggled together.  When we forget that it’s not just about me, it’s about you and about us, then we have these selfish moments of not recognizing the gifts that come when we live together in community.  In communities where we’re not going to be happy 100% of the time, in communities where we recognize that it’s never been just about my wants and preferences, but it’s about yours too.  Because we are one another’s keeper.  This is really hard stuff and we’re not going to always get it right.  Though the call today is to hold onto that deep and abiding joy that comes from having faith that no matter what we face, God is with us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] 2 Corinthians 12:7, Common English Bible.
[2] Philippians 4:2-3.
[3] Introduction to Philippians, The CEB Study Bible with Apocrypha, 373-374NT.
[4] Rev. James Forbes as quoted by Molly Phinney Baskette, Real Good Church: How our Church came back from the Dead, and yours can, too, 149.
[5] Philippians 1:27.