Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Church in Philippi

Proper 21A.  28 September 2014.

Alexander D. MacPhail


Philippians 2.1-13


            For the next three Sundays we will be reading Paul's letter to the church in Philippi.  The letter to Philippi is unique among Paul's letters, because it is without question the most affectionate letter he wrote that we know of.  It is possible that the letter is compilation of several letters, as we know that Paul wrote to them several times. 


            For a moment let's back up and consider Philippi itself.  It was one of the Macedonian cities in what is now northern Greece, along the ancient Roman highway known as the Via Egnatia. 


            Philippi was originally settled around 356 BC by the king of Macedonia, Philip II, near the head of the Aegean Sea, at the foot of Mt. Orbelos.   And it was founded so that the king could take control of the surrounding gold mines, and establish a military garrison.  It was a prosperous and well respected city throughout the Roman era, until it was destroyed by the Ottoman conquest in the 1300s.  The present day Filippoi is built near the ruins of the ancient city.


            Though the first church building during Paul's time was little more than a small house for prayer, due to Paul's affection and his letters, the church grew, and in time several beautiful church buildings were built. 


            But about the community itself—the people: these were mostly Christians who had not first been Jews, so they are mostly, culturally, Roman—and specifically Macedonian. 


            Paul is writing to them from prison.  We don't know for sure where, but likely from prison in Ephesus, just across the Aegean Sea.  People were not imprisoned then as an act of punishment, as we punish people now.  If you were in prison it meant that you were being held for trial.  And there were only two ways out.  You were either tried and convicted, which meant you were put to death; or you were found innocent, which meant that you were flogged and released.  Remember that that's what Pilate wanted to do with Jesus—is just have him flogged and released; remember Jesus was found innocent by Pilate.


            But the prison itself was simply a place of restraint.  It could be a military barracks; it could be a house where someone was kept.  For people who were considered of noble birth, it could be that they would simply be exiled.  But no matter where it was, it was considered, obviously, shameful.


            So for a moment consider the gravity of this letter.  Paul is writing to them from prison.  He's not sunning himself after a day of making tents near Corinth; he has been imprisoned for attempting to spread the gospel.  And he writes to them with such tenderness.  He says things, like, "I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you.."  He writes, "I hold you in my heart."  He writes, "My beloved and longed-for brothers and sisters, my joy and my crown…"  The letter is caressive, tender.  


            He also writes, "I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard that my imprisonment is for Christ…" 


            So the point is made that what may seem to be a shameful occurrence, something that puts Paul and the Christian cause back a few squares, has actually advanced the gospel.  People know that it isn't for misbehavior that Paul has been arrested, but for the faith.


            It was quite appropriate that Paul write in the tone of the father to the children.  We sort of bristle at that now.  Paul's tone can seem patronizing to modern hearers, but as with all of Paul's letters, he is writing in the role of the pater familias—the head of the household—the one who has the right both to approve and correct. 


            So here we come to the lesson for today.  And as we do, we have a translation problem that needs to be addressed.  It's the very first word of this lesson: If. 


"If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, and sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy…"


            It seems like Paul is speaking from ignorance about their culture, because the word is translated "If."  In fact, the Greek is closer to "Since."  And that is meaningful. 


            "Since there is any encouragement, any consolation from love, and sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy…"  Since all of those wonderful hallmarks of your common life are present, he writes, "make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind."


            And that's where we learn that just like the Corinthians, and the Romans, the Christians in Philippi are having a little trouble getting along.  As in the letter to the Romans, Paul is urging them to regard each other with affection and respect.  "Same mind, full accord."  "Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others."  "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus."


            And here Paul lays out the most basic theology of Christ himself—or what scholars call Christology—that is, how the church understands the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus.  Paul writes—and I'm going to paraphrase:


Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who though he was God, he did not think of his status as something to be used for his own personal gain, but instead, he emptied himself.  Humbled himself.  He became a slave for us, and not only that, but he offered himself to death—even the violent and humiliating death of the cross.  And since God values self-emptying, self-sacrificing love, God has rewarded him by exalting him and giving him a position of unrivaled honor, that everyone may know him, and that he is worthy of worship and honor. 


            Paul is giving this formula for the Christian life—as it was exemplified by Christ.  When you lay down your own interests for the betterment of others, even if is painful, or humiliating, God will honor and redeem you.


            Humility is considered a virtue now, but it may surprise you to learn that it wasn't back then.  You may recall when I was talking two Sundays ago about how everyone showed honor differently, depending on where one was in the social order.  To show honor to those above you was a duty.   And everyone always wanted more honor.  It was considered to be of greater value than money.


            The idea of laying aside one's honor or status was even more unthinkable than to throw one's money away.  And here is Jesus, whom the Church has recognized—in perfect hindsight—as the Son of the God, and Jesus—Paul writes—has laid down that most honored status.


            So here is the ultimate reversal.  Jesus ascends by humility.  He is born the Son of God, but he lays it down, and God honors this paradoxical behavior, by exalting him and giving him even more honor.  So Paul says, "Here is your standard.   Here is the model for human life.  This is how people will know that you—that we, Christians—are unlike everyone else.  Instead of spending our lives trying to get honor—we lay it down in the service of the poor—and God will award us with more honor than we could ever get on our own.


            So now, do you feel the rhetorical punch in this letter?  Consider where is he writing from!  Prison.  He is facing either death or flogging.  And through the dishonor of it he is saying, "This is not a bad thing! The Gospel is going forward!  Even in my incarceration God has been at work."


            He writes, "Just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure."


            Paul writes from this unwavering perspective that what is visible is only the surface of a much deeper story that God is bringing to fulfillment.  That even when it seems that we are spinning our wheels, God is making progress.  (Pause.)


            And from the perspective of someone in my role, this is a helpful message.  It is too easy to be seduced by the belief that success in the kingdom of God is like success in the world.  That for a church to be a success, more time must be spent, more income, more people, more of everything. 


            Yet, again and again, we are drawn back to that wonderful canticle in Morning Prayer.  Those of you who pray the Daily Office on your own may be familiar with the Second Song of Isaiah,



For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, says the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.  (Isaiah 55.6-11)


I believe it was the former Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, who expressed this concern: that the clergy would become—and I believe this was his expression—"technicians of the holy."  That we would no longer have a sense of awe at the majesty and sovereignty of God.  That Church would be considered something we do.


            The Church is never something that we do, whether we are lay or ordained.  The Church is what God has created, and is always creating by the power of his Spirit.  And though we can and should do what we can to support it, the church remains God's—and God's alone.


            During my vacation, in fact, the last Sunday of it, my wife was back at her parish, and she took our children with her.  I decided that I wanted to know what it was like to just stay home on a Sunday morning.  The opportunities for that are obviously very rare, and I'd forgotten what it was like. 


            But I took the time to pray and meditate and do spiritual reading.  And several times, over the course of the morning, I would hear church bells, calling people to worship in Woodstock.  I was disarmed by the sound, as I usually hear them up close.  I have rarely heard them call to me from a distance.


            At first I felt pangs of guilt, but then I considered the gift of hearing the bells from various churches.  Each time I heard them, it reminded me that God was calling people together to give thanks, to worship.  The bells themselves were an act of worship.


            And I wondered what people who don't go to church think about when they hear those bells.  Do they think about God?  Do they think about the Christians who have gathered under that sound?  Do they consider that God may be using us to help bring something to fulfillment?  I hope so, because I do believe that God is bringing something beautiful to completion, and I believe that we, who do come to Church, and pray, and care, are given glimpses into it.


            For God's thoughts are not our thoughts, nor our ways, his. 




Monday, September 15, 2014

There are always reasons.

Proper 19A.  14 September 2014.


Romans 14.1-12



            Karin and I recently watched Saving Mr. Banks, the movie that came out recently about the struggle to produce the movie Mary Poppins.  If you haven't seen Saving Mr. Banks, you are in for a treat.  It's a beautiful and meaningful movie that is really for adults, not children.  I marveled at the movie's ability to bypass all my emotional defenses. 


            I don't want to spoil any of it for you, if you haven't seen it, but as is so often the case, the deeper plot hinges on a perceived misunderstanding.  The author of the book, P.L. Travers, does not believe that Walt Disney understands the character of her Mary Poppins—and we, the audience, see Mrs. Travers' bluster and frustration, but we do not understand from whence it comes.


            The resolution of the plot, and the coming together of the characters occurs when we understand the person of P.L. Travers—the tragedy she has known.  And she, once she feels understood, begins to let others into her life.


            As is so often the case, people don't trust each other, because they don't understand each other—they don't know, they don't see what makes the other different, and why.  You and I know this.  We form judgments about people based on decisions they make about how they dress, what they drive, how they talk.  Each outward sign or behavior indicates a story, a relationship, a promise, a grief, a joy. 


            Yet, it is human nature to see what we wish, and to form conclusions about what it means.  From there we sometimes decide the level of our engagement with that person—often without really knowing them.  Some of that is meant to protect us.  Sometimes people have been deeply, deeply hurt, and because they have not known enough of the milk of human kindness, they lash out verbally or even physically. 


            We make judgments about people and situations quite often because it is easier to see what someone else is doing, than to see ourselves and our own context.  We are living our lives—we think, we hope—in a reasonable, honorable fashion; so it makes us wonder when people make choices that—we think, if we were presented with them—we would never make.  But we don't really see everything that goes into the decisions of other people. 


            We don't even really see everything that goes into our own decisions.  Everyone is a complex amalgamation of experiences and preferences—with our own comfort levels for risk, impulsivity, reflection, etc.  So to look at someone else, and believe that we can see what they see can never be the whole story. 


            A couple weeks ago, you may have seen in the news where a seven year old girl was learning to shoot at a shooting range, and the instructor allowed her to attempt to use an Uzi.  For those of you who don't know, an Uzi is an Israeli open-boltblowback-operated submachine gun.  It was one of the first weapons to use a telescoping bolt design, which allows the magazine to be housed in the pistol grip.  (I didn't know any of that…I looked it up to impress you.)


            The instructor was right beside her, and after she fired the gun once successfully, the instructor switched the gun to allow multiple shots, and the little girl couldn't control the recoil, and she fatally shot the instructor. 


            If you heard this, you likely had many of the same thoughts I did.  Not only how sad it was for the instructor who died, but how sad that this little girl—in total innocence—did something that she will live with.  And those thoughts quickly switch to blame.  Who puts an Uzi in the hands of a seven year old?—shooting range notwithstanding. 


            Yet, we do not know the maturity level of the girl or the instructor, or if he was making good on a promise, or if she had begged him to let her.  We do not know the reasons why—seemingly—good judgment was abandoned.           


            What I am trying to say is that there are always reasons—and it wise to try to learn them.  To understand.  For it is in understanding each other that we find unity, and justice, and peace.



            Paul was trying to teach this to the church in Rome.  He had people from all kinds of backgrounds: Christians who had been raised outside of the Jewish culture; Christians who had been raised in the Jewish faith, but had come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, different ideas about how those traditions were to relate to the Roman culture and context.  We're not in Palestine, here.  This is Rome.  This is the center of the known world at this time, and there are disagreements about keeping feasts.


            And all the bickering between them boils down to a lack of understanding—it almost always does.        


            It can be particularly thorny in the church, because even though we expect a lot of almost anyone, we especially expect a lot of other Christians.  We expect them to be more forgiving, more generous of spirit, more compassionate—and rightfully so.  We are the baptized—and yes, there is a covenant to live up to.  No one does it perfectly.  That's why God provides grace to those who stumble, but I won't let the Church off the hook by saying that we're no better than anyone.  We should be better.  We are called to righteousness and holiness of character.


            And I would say that of any person who follows any religious path, Christian or non-Christian, because every major faith tradition in the world holds up the notion that our impact on the world is deeper and wider than we can possible imagine. 



            Just by the very nature of belief in a spiritual world, we are saying that there is more to life than just what we can see.  The person of faith believes that choices have consequences—prayers have consequences—and so we do expect a bit more from people of faith.


            But the conflict that Paul is handling is between people who are attempting to honor God with different methods.  Some people are of a tradition where you honor God by not eating meat.  And some people are of a tradition where some days are more sacred than other days.  And they're fighting about it, because they don't understand—they don't see—that their motivations are identical.  It's the practice that is different.


            And this becomes a perennial stumbling block because some practices are vital and meaningful to some folks, who have a hard time accepting that other people aren't moved by them. 


            Let me ask you a question.  When does Christmas come?  (By the way it's only 103 days…)  Does it come on December 24th after dark?  Mid-night?  Or is it Christmas Day?  In the Orthodox Church, it's January 7th


            But when does your Christmas come?  The moment where it's like…okay now it's Christmas!  The tree is lit?  The baby is placed in the crèche?  The family is sitting around the dinner table?  Presents?


            When I was at Eastern Mennonite High School we had a tradition on the last day of school before the break, we sang Christmas hymns at chapel.  And at the very end of the hymn-sing, the curtains on the stage were opened and there was a green, wooden form of a Christmas tree.  And on the wooden form were about ten or twelve lit candles.  It was one of the most oddly beautiful and moving things to behold.  The lights in the chapel were dimmed, and we sang Silent Night in front of it. 


            It might seem silly.  It's just a wooden form of a tree.  It may not even seem all that "Christian."  If you ask me, now, as an Episcopalian and as a priest what any of that meant liturgically, I couldn't give you answer to save my soul.  But I can tell you what it meant…it meant that Christmas has come


            If you go up to St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. on any Sunday evening, you can listen to the most beautiful Evensong you've ever heard, and then after it they offer Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament—a beautiful and mystical devotion.  The Sacrament is brought out of the tabernacle, and prayers are offered, and the Host is honored. 


            It might sound strange to you.  It might even seem somewhat offensive that the Sacrament is held up, but not consumed.  The devotion dates back many years from when the Sacrament was carried from the tabernacle in a monastery chapel, to be reserved in the cloistered confines of the monastery. 


            Some Christians are put off by the devotion.  It's not meaningful to them.  I can't tell you exactly what it means liturgically or even theologically, but I can tell you what it means.  It means that Jesus is here with us, and we love him.  And beyond that…who knows?  For those of us who are moved, it's meaningful.


            You light a candle and pray your prayers.  I sound a bell and pray my prayers.  He sings a song, and prays his prayers.  You fast; I feast.  I fast; you feast.  All that really matters is that we understand between each other that Jesus loves us—all of us—and we love him. 


            Can I get an Ah-men?  Or an Ay-men? 






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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Showing honor, being a host for the Kingdom of God

Proper 18A.  7 September 2014.

Alexander D. MacPhail


Romans 13.8-14



            It's nice to be back with you on a normal Sunday morning.  I am grateful that the pulpit was well tended in my absence by Richard and Elizabeth; and I want to thank them publicly for their ministry.


            Today and next Sunday, I want to consider the lessons from Paul's letter to the Romans.  It is helpful when doing so always to remember that these really are letters, and as such they have a well defined writer and recipient.  Paul was not likely writing with the belief that his words would be compiled and handed down in the most widely translated and published book of all time.  He was writing to the Church, and not—in this case—to any church, but to the Church in Rome.


            As with any letter, there may be subtleties to its writing that make the original hearing of the letter unknowable; however, we do know something about the history of the church in Rome from other sources, which shines something of a light—perhaps a flashlight—on what Paul was trying to accomplish.  So that's where we will begin.


            We know that there was a considerable Jewish population in Rome around 40AD, which would have been close to when Paul was corresponding with them.  That Jewish population was likely the product of the Diaspora which was started by the Babylonian exile--when Assyria and Egypt were fighting over political control of the Holy Land, long about 597 BC.  So the Jewish population in Rome had likely been there for the better part of six hundred years.  They would have had synagogues; they would have learned to live as faithful Jews outside of the land of Israel.


            So along comes the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Rome, likely brought by Christ's apostles, and later by Paul.  We know that that early Christian preaching caused an uproar in Rome.  It's understandable why.  They have been faithful to the Torah and worship of God in a foreign soil, and now news is coming from the home of their faith that something new is starting.  Not to prick at an old wound—and this really isn't a perfect metaphor—but they are a Rite One community being told of Rite Two. 


            So within Rome there were Jews resistant to the Gospel, and Gentile Christians—that is, Christians who do not have a Jewish ethnicity or religious background—and you had Jews who had become Christians.  And there was fighting, even rioting between the two.


            Because the rioting could not easily be contained, the Emperor Claudius decreed an expulsion edict, requiring all the Jews to leave Rome.  Claudius died fourteen years later, and his son Nero rescinded his father's decrees, allowing Jews to return to Rome. 



            Paul is writing after the decrees had been rescinded, so for a moment let's just step back, take a breath, and consider this cultural and emotional environment.  You have a church made up of Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians who had been expelled, but then allowed to return. 


            There is resentment on both sides because of recent history and because both sides consider themselves chosen by God—and with a legitimate claim to their chosenness.


            Would you like to be their priest?  I think if the bishop called me and laid out a situation like that, I would probably fake a heart attack and hang up.


            But Paul, unlike many, can speak to both sides.  He is Pharisee by birth, but his efforts of evangelism have made him sensitive to people of all backgrounds.  He's trying to mediate the two sides.  Really, he just wants them to get along and stop bickering.


            So in this section of his letter, he writes a lot about love and right behavior.  When Paul writes about love, however, he isn't really speaking of an emotion—as if emotional love is going to blossom and they'll all just get along.  We all know that in communities of faith, you cannot rely on emotional—affective—love or the whole thing will collapse when someone makes the coffee too strong. 


            Paul's understanding of love is a combination of things: duty, respect, a sense of camaraderie, and…well, okay, emotional affection.  But to love one another—for Paul—is really to maintain honor for one another—respect.


            This was something deeply ingraining in both Roman and Jewish culture that everyone is deserving of some measure of honor.  But whereas the secular culture viewed honor as something one gave in unequal measures, depending on social position, the Christian honor, or love, is given equally to all.  And that value remains countercultural—at least within classical Christianity—to this day: the idea that a President or a pauper get the same Baptism, the same bread and wine, the same sermon, the same pew. 


            But because this honoring is also meant to be tender and affectionate at some level, Paul uses the word "love."


            I've told you this before, so forgive me.  (We've been together for almost seven years, so you are likely to hear me repeat myself from time to time.)  I will never forget when a friend at seminary told me that the one piece of advice his priest gave him was to never forget that beside every person in the pews is a pool of tears. 


            It's a very poetic and very sobering piece of advice that attached itself to my soul as soon as I heard it.  And I think St. Paul would include it along with this lesson, if he knew it. 

            Love one another, he writes.  Respect the fact that both communities within the Church in Rome have their own pool of tears, their own backgrounds and pains, and that you are called—by God—to be a church together. 


            He writes—perhaps with emphasis to the Jewish Christians—about the Commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder, etc." that they are all summed up in the commandment of Christ, "Love your neighbor as yourself."  If you want to fulfill the law, and live appropriately, and get along with each other, then you need to respect each other's pool of tears. 


            He tells them to "wake from sleep," to "lay aside the works of darkness" and to "live honorably..not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness."  Well, of course.  They knew that.  Even if they were doing those things, they knew better, and those are very clearly not appropriate behaviors in any religion.


            But then he really gives it to them.  In the same breath he writes, "not in quarreling and jealousy."  Do you see what he did there?  He put quarreling and jealousy on par with those other, more obvious sins.  So those who are quarreling are considered just as bad, in Paul's eyes, as those who are sleeping around, or who are partying all the time.  Wow.  That is very sobering, isn't it?


            But you see, there is so much at stake here.  So much more than just the people who are in that Church—incalculably valuable as they are.  You see, the greater narrative of the Church and of the people of Israel is that they are to be God's people.  They are to represent wholeness and righteousness so that others may discover the goodness of God, too.


            And that is something that is so easy to forget—that we aren't just for us.  That God, in fact, has called us into a living relationship not just for our own benefit, but for the salvation of the world.  So for the Church in Rome and for the Church in the Shenandoah Valley, or the Church wherever, we are reminded that our presence and ministry is far more than what we can see.  And that it isn't just about our own spiritual satisfaction.  We are to be gracious hosts for the kingdom of God.


            This is something that I've been thinking a lot about lately.  It came to me in my private devotional life.  I don't really like sayings that there are two types of people…you know the sayings?  "There are two types of people in the world, those who are X and those who are Y,"  because the truth is that we are all a work-in-progress. 


            But for the purpose of making a point: there are hosts; and there are guests.  Or maybe it's more that some people are more like hosts or more like guests.  Guests wish to be catered to; they want others to serve them; they complain when things aren't the way they wish.  And they can be very insensitive about how their behavior affects those around them.  We can all be like this at times.  I can be like this without coffee.


            And then there are the hosts.  They tend to go through life without those expectations.  They see a need or a problem and they try to fix it—they don't wonder why someone else isn't doing it.  When they see you, they try to put you at ease.  They give you space to be yourself.  They are hosts.


            Both hosts and guests have pools of tears.  But hosts do the most wonderful thing: when the time is right, they use their tears to water the lives of others. 


            Jesus was a host.  He spread the table; he washed the feet.  Even when he was a guest in someone's home, he hosted their needs and their pains.  He hosted our sins in his body on the cross.  He hosts our prayers, and prays with us, and for us.


            And here is the Apostle Paul saying to the church in Rome, "Be like him.  Put on the Lord Jesus."  You have been received by the host.  Become a host.  Love, respect, honor other people; and in so doing, others will come to know that they are God's beloved. (Pause.)


            You and I have no idea what impact we have on the lives of those around us.  Down to the simplest things we do: the wave, the greeting, the smile…it all adds up.  I was driving around with the kids recently and there was someone on the street, and I waved, and Peter said, "Do you know him?"  I said, "No."  He asked, "Why did you wave?" 


            I had that exact exchange with my father when I was his age.  I don't have to explain to you why I waved.  It's what we do in the Shenandoah Valley.  If you're driving, it can be just an index finger coming off the top of the steering wheel.  It means something to the other person…depending on the finger, of course.  The person who waves is a host.  The person who waits for the wave to come first is a guest.  


            In ways large and small we have an impact on the world, and we largely have no idea how much.  Neither do we know the true impact we have corporately—as a parish—on the culture of Shenandoah County.  Were we able to see our place in the spiritual realm, I think we would be dumbfounded at how meaningful it is that we gather together and share the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and care for this little valley.


            We once were lost, but now are found.  We once were guests, but now are hosts.  Hosts for the kingdom of God.  That is our call; and that is our joy and our song.  And the Lord has said that through that ministry—which is the Gospel—the salvation of the world will come. 




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Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel