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Sermon: Waiting for the Day of the Lord

Grace Presbyterian Church

November 29, 2020, Advent 1B (recorded)

Isaiah 64:1-9; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

Waiting for the Day of the Lord

The liturgical season of Advent, which we mark beginning today, tends to start off with a bang. 

While the liturgical season is framed as both remembering the coming of Jesus the first time and looking ahead to the return of Christ, the structure of the season tends to move backwards. That “looking ahead” part of the season tends to be confined to the first Sunday, while later Sundays move backward from there – presenting the proclamation of John the Baptizer in advance of Jesus’s public ministry, and finally working back to the events before the birth of Jesus such as Gabriel’s announcement to Mary or other events, depending on the gospel of the year. (With this new liturgical year B focused on the gospel of Mark, there is no pre-birth narrative to work from, so bits get borrowed from the gospels of John and Luke; but that’s a few weeks ahead.)

The texts for this first Sunday of Advent B do bring the fireworks. The gospel selection for today brings us Mark’s “mini-apocalypse,” a spectacle to taunt even the flashiest of Hollywood special-effects types. Those first verses are the stuff of more hellfire-and-brimstone “rapture” sermons than you can shake a stick at, with the sun and moon going dark, stars falling from the sky, and “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with angels scattering in all directions to gather in the faithful. The verses that follow turn to encouraging disciples to “be alert” and “keep awake” with all sorts of sign-watching and being prepared thrown in. It’s a nerve-jangler of a passage, to be sure.

The reading from Isaiah cuts a surprisingly similar profile, although from a different perspective; rather than foretelling the coming of the Lord, the prophetic oracle is practically begging for it. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence” – that would also be a Hollywood-worthy spectacle, but here the tone is of longing rather than of warning. Speaking from the midst of a people who have fallen away from faithfulness and have lost touch with God altogether, the prophet pleads for God to return – with as much drama as necessary, one might say. 

So it’s no surprise that these two passages get most of the attention on this day, to be sure. However, it might just be that in this time of Advent, particularly in this year of all years, the most important or needful statement out of today’s readings might just be in the one passage that quite possibly no preacher ever has preached to inaugurate this liturgical season: the epistle reading from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth.

This is at least the second letter Paul has written to this church, although it is the first we have in scriptural canon. Apparently some things have gone off the rails since Paul last wrote, and the Corinthians have gotten to be a bunch of folks rather pleased with themselves, for all the wrong reasons. The backhanded complimentary tone of this “thanksgiving” points to the trouble spots; it turns out the Corinthians are rather proud of the “knowledge” mentioned in verse 5 and the “spiritual gifts” noted in verse 7, as if, somehow, they were themselves responsible for them or had somehow earned them. Paul gently rebukes that idea, reminding the Corinthians that both of those were gifts of God; to put it in a modern idiom, Paul reminds the folks in this church that, apart from the gifts and the grace and the strengthening that comes from God, you aren’t ‘all that.’

But the key phrase, really, is the seemingly offhand line that comes after that spiritual gift bit: “…as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (emphasis mine) 

The word to the Corinthians, as it is to any church that thinks it is ‘all that,’ is: you do not hasten the “day of our Lord Jesus Christ” by your knowledge or your spiritual gifts or your money or your votes or by any thing you do. As Jesus says in that mini-apocalypse passage in Mark, nobody knows when that day will be, not even the Son, only the Father. And you can’t do anything to change that or hurry it up. What you do is wait.

Waiting is not passive. Waiting is doing the work the church has always been called to do. Waiting is ministering to one another and to the world around us as Jesus showed us how to do. 

That’s why we keep going with things like St. Francis House and Family Promise even in this time. That’s why you are still making your pledge commitments to the work and ministry of this congregation (you are doing this, right?) Because waiting, in this case, means doing the work.

If we’ve learned anything in this pandemic tide, it is that we live in a society that is abhorrently bad at waiting. Had we had leadership and citizens who were willing to do the hard work of waiting back when this virus first appeared, we wouldn’t be the world’s official coronavirus petri dish. (For evidence of this claim I offer basically every other country in the world.) We have proven ourselves incapable of or unwilling to wait, to the point of hostility and threat of violence. Apparently, the numbers of those dead and sickened cannot hold a candle to the right – no, imperative – to have exactly what we want and to have it right now. We have utterly failed at waiting and it has cost us.

Guess what? When it comes to the “day of the Lord,” that is our main job: to wait. We do the stuff Jesus called us to do, and we keep doing it, and we keep doing it. We don’t get to ‘force the issue’ or hasten the timetable in any way. We don’t get to negotiate an accelerated schedule. We don’t earn our way to a quicker second Advent. We don’t manipulate Jesus into an early return. 

We do our job, and we wait. 

For the time of waiting, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #347, Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence; #—, I Thank My God for You; #348, Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending

Sermon: Who Reigns?

Grace Presbyterian Church

November 22, 2020, Reign of Christ A

Ezekiel 34:11-22; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46

Who Reigns?

This has been a year in which it has seemingly become impossible to keep track of the passage of time. 

Days stream by without any seeming differentiation. Weeks feel like months, months like years. Our calendar says it’s November 22nd, but honestly it feels like the calendar never has flipped and today is actually March 267th. It feels as though Covid-19 has been spreading forever (the satirical website The Onion refers to its “first 15,000 years of coronavirus coverage), but in fact the first known case was diagnosed only a year ago this past week.

Within the life of the church this same sense of disorientation can be found. Do you remember we were just a short time into Lent when the first shutdowns were put in place? The church made it through Lent and Holy Week and Easter mostly online (with a few foolhardy churches meeting in person and spreading the virus even more), and then came the season of Easter and then Pentecost and finally the long, winding stretch of what it just seems wrong to call “ordinary time.” 

Finally we approach the end of that stretch; having observed All Saints’ Day three weeks ago, we have finally arrived at the final Sunday of the liturgical year. Yes, next Sunday really will be the first week of Advent, with purple vestments and Advent wreaths and all that. But for today we observe the final Sunday of Year A of the three-year cycle known as the Revised Common Lectionary. And as with all three years of that lectionary, the scriptures appointed for the occasion point us toward not an event in the annals of scripture or the history of the church, but to a particular tenet of the church’s belief: the exaltation of the resurrected Jesus as the ruler of all, for all eternity.

For decades, even centuries, this date has been known as Christ the King Sunday, which is a logical enough and seemingly straightforward name. You can read the concluding verses of today’s reading from the epistle to the Ephesians, as it practically sings of how God “raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion,” and it makes pretty good sense to speak of Christ the King.

Recent years, though, have seen a move toward a slightly different label for the day. In some resources you will see the day labeled as “Reign of Christ” Sunday. For some folks this probably sounds like some kind of political correctness run amok, but I’ve frankly come to believe that the change of label is probably a good idea. 

One reason is this: we human beings do terrible things to the whole idea of having a king. To be specific, we humanize it, in the worst sense of that word. 

Take the image that crops up towards the end of that passage, describing how God “has put all things under his (that is, Christ’s) feet.” In its context it’s a vivid enough metaphor for the way in which Christ is installed by God above any authority humanity can muster. We, however, are prone to ramp up the violence inherent in such an image, real or potential. We imagine those feet crushing those under it.

Furthermore, we also presume ourselves somehow worthy to decide exactly who they are who are placed under the feet of Christ. As Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor has observed, “many of the people who need saving are in churches, and at least part of what they need saving from is the idea that God sees the world the same way as they do.” We get ourselves excited about the idea that King Jesus is gonna crush those … well, frankly, whoever we don’t like. Jesus the King basically becomes our revenge machine, allowing us to fantasize about all those people we imagine have slighted us or belittled us or mocked us for our faith being routed and ruined the way the villain in an action movie might ultimately be vanquished. Even worse, that revenge fantasy can be awfully prone to getting mixed up in not only professed religious beliefs, but into our civic and social and even political life as well, with disastrous and even deadly results. 

That second reason for preferring “Reign of Christ” as a title for the day follows from this first reason somewhat. To put it bluntly, very few people really have a grasp of what the Reign of Christ really looks like, and that’s sadly true of an awful lot of the “good church folk” even more than those outside the church. Maybe we really need to use the energy of such a day to remind ourselves of what that reign really does look like, and our other two readings address this pretty well.

The famous “parable of the sheep and goats” points to exactly how the reign of Christ, the one who will “sit on his throne in glory,” will not conform to our human, power-happy conceptions of kingship. The ones favored by this king are not the powerful, the wealthy, the influential, the important; indeed, none of these even factors into this account at all. The only division between the welcomed and the banished in this parable is how they behaved toward “the least of these,” the ones the king calls “members of my family.” Those who cared for “the least of these” are welcomed; those who didn’t are not. And there’s no indication that our opinion of either group is at all relevant to the judgment of the king here.

The oracle from the prophet Ezekiel puts a different spin on the role of the king. Following a longstanding prophetic tradition, Ezekiel identifies the role of “king” with the work of a shepherd, one who gathers up the scattered sheep, brings them to good pastures and places of safety. That’s familiar enough territory – you can get that out of Psalm 23 – but there’s also this discourse about lean and fat sheep that suggests how this king-shepherd will not only care for, but also judge the sheep as well; those who foul the waters and tread under the grasses of the pasture will be judged, and it’s pretty clear the judgment won’t be kind. Here more than just direct interaction or care for “the least of these” is invoked; the ones who make life unlivable for “the least of these” are under judgment as well.

In short, the Reign of Christ demands a world in which we not only care for one another in the form of direct help to “the least of these”; the Reign of Christ demands that we live with and among one another in such a way that “the least of these” are not dragged down into poverty or hunger or thirst or sickness or homelessness or imprisonment; the Reign of Christ demands that we live in the world without ruining it for others. If we can’t live in such a way, we are not living in the Reign of Christ.

We are living in a world where plenty of the louder Christians are quite willing to scream and holler about Christ the King but show absolutely no awareness of what the Reign of Christ actually looks like. Maybe that itself is a good reason to take this day to reflect upon the alternate name, and to make it our calling to live into it.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #363, Rejoice! The Lord is King; #268, Crown Him With Many Crowns

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Sermon: Who Do We Serve?

Grace Presbyterian Church

November 15, 2020, Pentecost 24A (recorded)

1 Thessalonians 5:12-28

Who Do We Serve?

We read the beginning of this letter, back in October; it’s only fitting, I suppose, that we take in the end of this, possibly the first of Paul’s letters to the churches under his care, as well.

What we have here in these final verses of chapter 5 is a pretty fair summary of what would become typical for the apostle in concluding his letters to the churches. First we have what might seem a rather random “laundry list” of exhortations to the community; in some later letters these exhortations might become even more compact and broad-ranging. Here the “laundry list” extends from verse 12 all the way through verse 22, and while the initial exhortation about respecting “those who labor among you” is somewhat elaborated, by the time we get to verse 14 Paul really gets rolling. 

This “laundry list” is followed by a blessing, a very typical part of Paul’s closing formula. (The blessing I usually invoke at the end of the service is taken from Paul’s blessing at the end of the second letter to Corinth: see 2 Corinthians 13:13.) The letter wraps up with a couple more instructions and a fairly typical closing statement, also applicable as a blessing. The one part of this formula that is a little unusual is the strong instruction of verse 27: “I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them.” This would evolve as typical practice in the churches to which Paul wrote, and it may be that at this early stage Paul felt the need to clarify that this letter was for the whole church, not just those leaders laboring among them mentioned above. 

So for all that, what’s the point of such a closing?

We can certainly acknowledge the practical aspect of such a list; it’s time to wrap up the letter (some of you remember writing letters, right?), but there are a few last things you need to say quickly before signing. Some of this is certainly at play.

We can also suspect that such reminders are tied to the things Paul instructed the Thessalonians when he was with them in person. Remember, these are still new followers of Christ. As noted in an earlier sermon, most of the Thessalonians apparently came from a Gentile background and did not have the grounding in the Jewish tradition from which Jesus (or Paul for that matter) came. Some basic review was going to be necessary for a while. 

There is, though, a more significant function to all of these seemingly varied instructions, and it has to do with how the church at Thessalonica, or any church for that matter, bears witness, and by extension serves the God we claim to serve.

Small as the behaviors listed here may seem, they are visible signs of what the community is about. When the community respects those who lead it, lives at peace with one another, admonishes the “idlers” (not a great translation; probably better rendered as “disorderly” or “disruptive” ones), encourages the faint-hearted and weak, rejoices regularly, gives thanks constantly, and prays always; when the community never quenches the Spirit but always tests everything; when it keeps itself away from evil; these things are not only beneficial to the community itself, but also bear witness to those in the larger city or state or empire as to what kind of people are found here. 

And perhaps even more on point, these small things bear witness to the One whom such a community ultimately serves by serving one another. These aren’t “normal” behaviors. To see them practiced with anything approaching consistency and faithfulness will inevitably catch the attention of those around. It is a form of bearing witness to live together in these ways, one that defies the logic of the empire that reigns around any church community, in which the powerful rule and the disposable are disposed of. In the body of Christ no one is disposed of, though some may choose to turn away. 

Now please hear what I am not saying. These are not behaviors or “tricks” to “grow your church.” There may be some who are attracted to the fellowship by seeing such community in action, but that is not the point of such counsel as Paul gives here. Paul would likely be quite befuddled by the church growth strategists of today; even Grace Presbyterian, small as it is, is probably larger than some of the church communities Paul worked with, and he largely didn’t concern himself with how large or how small they were. Their faithfulness, their compassion and service to one another and to the Lord were paramount, and anything that interfered with those things was to be put aside. 

If there is such a thing as a gift for discerning the future, God didn’t give it to me. I have no idea what Grace will look like on the other side of this pandemic. Already some of our members are discovering that their lives need to change; one has already decided to move away to live with a family member for health reasons, and others may do so as well. On the other hand, someone who came upon this church in this time of streaming and pre-recorded services may decide to give us a live look when it becomes non-hazardous to get together in worship again. We don’t know. God makes no promises about getting bigger.

God makes promises about being faithful, such as those Paul invokes in his blessing: to sanctify us, and to keep us “sound and blameless” against that day when we are, at long last, reunited with our Lord Jesus, whatever way that happens. 

That’s harder than ever to feel, particularly in this time of distancing and mask-wearing. It’s so tempting to feel cut off and isolated, confined and maybe more than a little stir-crazy. Yet we are not abandoned; we are still under the care of the Lord who first called us into this life, and will not abandon us whether we live or die, as was talked about in chapter 4. We hold fast, we continue to care for one another, we admonish those who try to break up this communion, we both respect those who lead and teach and test what they say against the witness of Christ. All of these things and more are not only part of serving one another, they are part of serving our God and bearing witness to that God who loves us and saves us.

It’s not always easy, and there’s no guarantee we’ll see big obvious tangible results from it. But it is part of being the body of Christ, and yes, it is our call.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #667, When Morning Gilds the Skies; #548, May God Support You All Your Days (Psalm 20)

Sermon: Who Do We Wait For?

Grace Presbyterian Church

November 8, 2020, Pentecost 23A

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Who Do We Wait For?

After his words to the Thessalonians about those members of their community who had died, Paul picks up in this next portion of his letter by moving from the what of that coming resurrection and reunion to the when. That particular answer is not Paul’s point – he blows by almost dismissively without even a pretense of a specific answer; rather, this becomes a opportunity to talk to the Thessalonian church about just how they should comport themselves in the time of waiting. 

More than a few preachers in the church’s history, particularly in this country, have failed to follow Paul’s wise course of non-action. Perhaps the most famous recent example of such rashness remains the multiple predictions of radio evangelist Harold Camping, who predicted first a series of dates in 1994, then dates first in May and finally October 2011 that would bring about the Rapture and destruction of the earth. Camping lived long enough to repent of those predictions and even to call them “sinful,” something which few of his predecessors ever did. Perhaps the largest-scale such event in US church history revolved around the predictions of one William Miller, a Baptist preacher who forecasted the second coming of Jesus in October 1844. Many followers even went so far as to get rid of all their possessions in anticipation, only to be in difficult straits and great disappointment when the day passed without incident. 

Paul is having none of that here. He will be drawn into speculation about something Jesus claimed not even to know himself (see Mark 13:32).

His message to the Thessalonians is not complicated; stay alert, don’t get “drunk” on the distractions of the world, wear the faith and hope and love God gives us (echoes of 1 Corinthians 13!), remember who is in charge, and encourage one another (echoes of 4:18 of this book). The way that Paul gets to this message, however, includes some images and metaphors that have, in the years since, been twisted and tortured into positions and theologies quite the opposite of Paul’s intent. For example:

  • like a thief in the night

Here Paul intends to suggest the suddenness of this event of the Lord’s return. Particularly when combined with the description of “peace and security” in verse 3, giving way to “sudden destruction,” it’s a striking and dynamic image. However, more recent generations of Christians (like, um, ours) tend to be all about peace and security, whether it comes in the form of a politician we trust to give us (the church) what we want, a big bank account and a big building with no debt, or even simply some measure of “status” or “respect” in the world (whatever those words mean). Somehow we manage to forget that Jesus largely rejected such claims for us in this life – recall his proclamation in Matthew 10:34 that he came “not to bring peace, but a sword”. This description of a “thief in the night” turns bleak and threatening in our souls, when Paul makes clear in verses 8-10 that’s exactly how we’re not supposed to react. But we fear losing our “stuff,” and we get scared, and we follow leaders who prey upon those fears. 

  • light and darkness

In a culture with no artificial lighting or no lighting at all outside of towns or cities, darkness was a fearful and dangerous thing. This metaphor was for Paul’s readers and hearers extremely accessible and vivid. However, when these images of “light” and “dark” get twisted in later centuries to suggest that the qualities of sinfulness and inferiority are found in persons of darker skin color, this is nothing less than a theological crime. Yet such imagery here and elsewhere in scripture became useful to those who wanted to defend, for just one example, the enslavement of Africans and persons of African descent. This is completely alien to Paul’s message. 

  • “us” 

In this passage Paul is not overly concerned with those outside the church, not yet joined to the body of Christ. Aside from the encouragement not to be like those who sleep or are drunk (images that aren’t developed here at all), Paul has nothing to say about such persons. Again, however, the later church has presumed that Paul’s talk of “us” must be balanced by some kind of “them,” and “them” must be an enemy against which we are called to wage war. That language is easily found in corners of today’s church, and many times over the centuries (like, oh, maybe the Crusades, for example). 

All of these represent more than just seeking excuses for hatred or cruelty, which is bad enough to be sure. More damning, though, is that all of these distortions of Paul’s language here are nothing less than a rejection of the provision of God and the redemption that is ours in Jesus. We cling to our earthly “peace and security” and threaten the recalcitrant with the threat of the “thief in the night”; we trust in our own “light”-ness and demonize and oppress the dark; we go to war against “them” (sometimes literally) and trust in our own strength instead of God’s salvation. 

Our call to keep awake and to show faith, hope, and love doesn’t leave room for taking matters into our own hands. Waiting faithfully for Jesus isn’t about conquering everybody else or pushing the right buttons to manipulate some Rapture into happening. It involves waiting, living faithfully, doing the stuff Jesus told us to do and showed us how to do, and encouraging one another along the way. Sometimes the job is simply, to borrow from the parable in Matthew 25 and today’s first hymn, to “keep your lamps trimmed and burning.” It’s not easy for impatient people like us, but it is the only faithful way. 

And yes, it is our call.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #350, Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning; #358, Steal Away

Sermon: Who Do We Listen To?

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 25, 2020, Pentecost 21A (recorded)

1 Thessalonians 2:1-13

Who Do We Listen To?

Thus may poor fools believe false teachers: 

though those that are betray’d do feel the treason sharply,

yet the traitor stands in worse case of woe.

–Shakespeare, Cymbeline, King of Britain, act III scene 4

Who do we listen to?

More specifically: who do we as the church, the church writ large, the Church Universal, listen to?

It seems painfully clear that, given the wild divergence of opinion and action and attitude on the part of the various corners of the church in the US, much less the world, there really isn’t one voice to which the church as a whole truly listens. One would of course like to say that the church hearkens (to use fancy biblical-sounding language) only to the voice of God, but (to put it bluntly) it’s hard to trust in that in all cases and places. It takes only minimal amounts of looking around to run into examples of “the church” that don’t seem to have listened to a word from the Lord in a very, very long time. The venom spewed by such churches or their pastors “in the name of God” sickens. 

(Remember, I spent four years living about a half-hour from the infamous Westboro Baptist “Church” in Kansas. The stories you’d see in the newspapers about their, um, actions? Those stories likely undersold the vitriol of that congregation.)

I’m not necessarily talking about the voices of those who are up before the congregation on Sunday mornings, virtually or otherwise these days, offering up a portion of scripture and a hopefully-valiant attempt to say something about it with the Holy Spirit’s help, although those people (like, uh, me) are certainly the “first line” of voices an average congregation might hear. The multiplicity of voices vying for the attention of the church extends well beyond the walls of any one pastor or church staff, and can be found emanating from the halls of political power, fame or celebrity, the performance stage or the pages of books. 

Paul’s entreaties here in 1 Thessalonians 2 may seem to be a distant subject in comparison to the noise of politicians and megapastors and media mavens who seek to lead the church in one direction or the other. It’s not, though. Remembering that Paul uses the common Greco-Roman rhetorical practice of offering himself as an example (we first encountered that in Philippians), what we discover here is perhaps a less explicit but no less pointed demonstration of what the Thessalonians were to seek in those who claimed to be called to lead them. Those who lacked such traits or indeed practiced the opposite of such deeds among the people were, in turn, not to be trusted.

So, when Paul recalls that he and his co-workers Silvanus and Timothy “had the courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition,” there’s a clue to the kind of voices we need to listen to; those that do not flinch from speaking the truth of Jesus in a time or place where speaking that truth will be opposed and challenged. We’ve already observed just last week that Jesus his own self faced opposition and even death for the gospel he proclaimed and the life he lived; it won’t be any different for us, and those who aren’t up to that challenge should probably not occupy a lot of our time.

When Paul speaks of appealing to the Thessalonians not from “deceit or impure motives or trickery,” things get more challenging; it’s not always easy to spot a con man (or woman). This kind of selection requires discernment; we have to be paying attention to the track record of those who clamor for our attention. Speaking “not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts” points to a characteristic that is not easily received; we are often enough the mortals who want to be pleased by the words of the preachers or prophets or singers or best-selling authors or politicians. Similarly, we are susceptible to the “flattery” Paul forswears in verse 5; but the one who truly fulfills the call of proclamation will not be seeking to tickle our ears with how we’re such good people, God’s favorites even. The “greed” reference in that same verse is hard to miss, sometimes, given the ever-swelling bank accounts of many of those preachers and politicians and authors and whatnot clamoring for our attention. 

Perhaps the most notable part of this description is the care Paul describes for the church folk at Thessalonica, “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” (notice that Paul isn’t afraid to invoke a quite “feminine” image to describe God’s care for us, and the care that he and his co-workers were thus called to show as well). When the care shown is for the church and its people first, in the way that God cares for the church, you’re hearing a voice that’s probably worth listening to; a voice that will build up and encourage and care for and exhort and occasionally cajole and prod and poke not for the sake of worldly gain or power or wealth or influence, but for the good of God’s people – all of God’s people, to be sure, not just “us.” 

Of course there are other passages of scripture to which one can point for examples of what or who to listen to; one might think of those who show the “fruits of the Spirit” described in Galatians 5, or those virtues to think on from back in Philippians 4, as further examples of what we would do well to seek in those we choose to listen to. And of course there are those gospels again, with all the words and deeds of Jesus that we just identified as our only model to imitate and emulate back in chapter 1 of this epistle. We do have guides for how we direct our attention; we just need to heed them.

Paul was writing in a time when these letters he wrote to congregations had to be carried by hand, on foot or sometimes by boat, over distances of many miles. We live in a different time; A person can type in a few words and maybe add a picture of an approaching storm, an unfolding tragedy, or a grotesque indiscretion of a public figure, and then with a click of an “enter” key or an icon on their phone that report can travel worldwide in an instant to anyone who has that particular social media app, and before long even beyond that number. What we amplify with our attention matters.

There are voices out there coming from folks who want nothing less than to destroy those they hate. There are voices out there coming from folks who want only to rake in everything they can for themselves, with no regard for those from whom it is taken. There are voices out there who only want all the control, as long as you pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Our call is, among other things, not to feed those particular beasts.

Who do we listen to? That is an ongoing choice, and one which we need to make with prayerful discernment and care, seeking out the voices of those who speak from God’s integrity and Christ’s compassion and the Spirit’s power, lifting up the least of these and demanding justice and mercy and the fruits of the Spirit and the virtues to think on. It isn’t necessarily easy to find; those voices are often not amplified much, and they don’t necessarily flatter us. But it is another one of those ways of bearing witness, and yes, it is our call.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: #303, God the Spirit, Guide, and Guardian; #722, Lord, Speak to Me That I May Speak

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Sermon: Who Do We Imitate?

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 18, 2020, Pentecost 20A (recorded)

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Who Do We Imitate?

One of the more talked-about and provocative books released on the subject of Christianity this year addresses the increasingly evident presence of what is commonly called “toxic masculinity” in many quarters of the church in the United States over the course of the past century. The book, by Kristin Kobes Du Mez of Calvin University in Michigan, traces this development as far back as the fascination with “muscular Christianity” of the early twentieth century, but particularly observes the post-WWII rise of a strain of thought in the church that claims particular privileges for men within Christianity.

This is hardly new in the church’s history. In this case, however, the results are terribly present with us today: a heavy degree of politization of church leaders; encouragement of aggressive or even potentially violent aspects of stereotypically “male” behavior; encouragement of behaviors among male church leaders that deny roles of leadership to pretty much anybody other than white males; justification or excusing of abusive or illegal behavior by those leaders; and reduction of women to roles of subservience to men. Along the way the book also notes occasional “role models” of this hypermasculine model of Christian manhood – oddly enough, not always men who practice any sort of Christianity. While Oliver North, he of the Iran-Contra scandal, or William Wallace, the Scottish warrior played by Mel Gibson in the movie Braveheart, turn up as well, the most prominent such figure cited by those studied in the book is the one who turns up in the book’s title alongside our actual Messiah: Jesus and John Wayne.[1]

It is impossible to avoid drawing a sharp contrast here with a theme to which Paul alluded in the letter to the Philippians and which he states overtly here in the greeting of his first letter to the church at Thessalonica. 

Somewhat like the church at Philippi, the Thessalonian community was still largely on good terms with Paul, and vice versa. We read in Acts 17 that Paul had a rough time on his visit to Thessalonica and had to be slipped out of town under cover of darkness. From that account we also learn that while a few members of the local synagogue heard and received the gospel, the number of “Greeks” (the city was located in Macedonia) who did so was apparently a good bit larger. As a result, the numbers in the Thessalonian community skewed far more towards Gentile converts, unlike other churches Paul founded in which the balance between Greek and Jewish believers was more even. 

One thing this means is that many of the Thessalonians had in fact been literal worshipers of idols, to which Paul alludes in verse 9. He also notes in verse 6 that they had suffered attacks by others in the community, noted in Acts 17 when Paul’s host in the city, a man named Jason, had seen his home attacked and had been dragged with some others before the city authorities on false charges. Their faithfulness, both as new converts and in the face of outside agitation, had apparently built a reputation and endeared them to Paul particularly. The result is this particularly effusive greeting from Paul, along with his co-workers Silvanus and Timothy. 

But back on the subject of idols for a moment. As noted a few moments ago, Thessalonica was in the region of Macedonia. Alert followers of ancient history might recognize that name: it was the home of no less a historical figure than Alexander the Great, who had taken his father Philip’s already substantial empire and expanded it as far as the Greek world could see. Even decades after his death, and even under the rule of Rome, Alexander’s fame and glorification still remained strong in his homeland, so to speak. Folks living in Macedonia had plenty of alternate role models, beyond the mere idols of wood or stone that were scattered throughout the cities.

It is against this backdrop that we read Paul’s greeting to the Thessalonians. Even for the standard letter greeting style of this period it is an effusively warm greeting, fulsome in its praise for the church at Thessalonica and giving a glowing report of its reputation not only with Paul and his co-workers, but among other churches of the region as observed in verses 8-9. 

What is it that so exhilarates Paul about the Thessalonians? It is most succinctly described in verses 5-6: the gospel came among them not just in word, but “in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction,” and the Thessalonians “became imitators of us (Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy) and of the Lord.”

You know what? On the surface, to us moderns, this might not look all that impressive. What does it even mean to say that the message of the gospel came among them in power and in the Holy Spirit with full conviction? From the twenty-first century that sounds like religious platitudes more than anything else. And frankly, from our perspective in history talk about anything being “in the Holy Spirit” can frankly sound suspicious, polluted by decades of false preachers and con artists for which such talk is a way to bamboozle the easily fooled and to play folks for suckers.

And becoming imitators of Paul and his colleagues? We don’t know much about Silvanus and Timothy, but we’re painfully aware of Paul’s imperfections, both from his letters and from the accounts of his missionary journeys in Acts. There we see a man who, for all his successes, was extremely short-tempered, not quick to forgive (as demonstrated in the split with Barnabas over bringing John Mark back into the work in Acts 15), and just maybe given to whining a little bit about his difficulties on occasion.

The only thing that works here is that, for all their imperfections, the example that Paul and Silvanus and Timothy had set among the Thessalonians led them towards the imitation of the Lord.

Here is a point where we need to hold two seemingly contradictory truths in our heads and hearts:

  • There is no one worthy of imitation for the Christian other than Jesus Christ.
  • Our example will be observed and imitated, for good or bad.

Any parent can tell you about the latter phenomenon – being caught in, say, a slip of the tongue that gets endlessly copied by your child? There is but a small example of what happens when others, perhaps especially Christians still in formation, see us and strive to use us as an example. The other possibility, of course, is that our example might be seen as wanting and that those who see us might be dissuaded from the faith by our bad example.

But the former point is the one that sticks. There is really no other model for us to imitate besides the Jesus who is revealed to us in the gospels. Not Moses – ask that Egyptian who was murdered by him. Certainly not David – ask Bathsheba, or even more her husband Uriah the Hittite, left for dead by the army at David’s order. And no, not Paul. Not even John Wayne. If we’re going to claim to be followers of Christ, we must be imitators of Christ. And if you’re read the gospels, you know that’s a risky thing to do. Jesus made trouble. Jesus didn’t always play nice with the authorities. And Jesus paid the price for it.

And yet, being imitators of Jesus is about the only way we’re going to present the kind of example that caused Paul to gush so warmly about the Thessalonians. It’s about the only thing that will make folks stop and pay attention, and maybe draw them to Christ. It is all we can do.

And yes, it is our call.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #644, Give Thanks, O Christian People; #300, We Are One in the Spirit

[1] Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne. Published 2020 Liveright Publishing Corp, a division of W.W. Norton.

Sermon: Think Joyful

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 11, 2020, Pentecost 19A

Philippians 4:1-9

Think Joyful

Unlike letters such as those to the churches in Corinth and Rome, which served in the former case to address some major foul-ups in the church and to introduce Paul in the latter, this epistle to the church at Philippi is quite brief, and in fact we are coming to its end. As a result we now encounter some recapitulation of subjects Paul has already addressed in the letter, along with a few closing instructions, final greetings, and some reflection on Paul’s part (as well as words of thanks for the gift the Philippians had sent him). It’s a fairly typical way for Paul to end a letter, particularly in a situation where he is not having to clean up after some major conflict or trauma in the church in question.

What has long been interpreted as the conflict in question in Philippi comes up quickly in this passage, as Paul addresses to the congregation his concern that two of their members, Euodia and Syntyche, “be of the same mind in the Lord.” This is familiar language from the very beginning of the letter, as you may remember. Most interpreters argue that the two, whom Paul says “have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel,” have come into some sort of conflict or disagreement, one which (as modern churches know all too well) could cause division in the larger body. 

Some interpreters, though, offer an alternate and quite opposite suggestion; Paul is offering up the two women leaders in the church as examples not of conflict, but of exactly that being “of the same mind.” Paul is recommending these leaders in the church (for that is what they are, to the dismay of those who don’t think women can do that) as being worthy of the members’ emulation and support in the work. I’m not biblical scholar enough to weigh in with any credibility, but in one sense it does make sense that their names be invoked here, in the wrap-up of the letter, rather than in the early part of the letter if they are being named as models for emulation rather than as sources of division. But I leave that for you to ponder.

As is also common in his letter conclusions, Paul starts to wax rhapsodic here, or at least seems to. The word “rejoice” becomes quite important rather suddenly in verse 4. That became the source of one of those simple repetitive songs* I was taught as a child – “rejoice in the Lord a-al-ways, and again I say rejoice!” or something like that – that had the unfortunate effect of making the verse impossible to think about in any kind of depth as I got older and especially as I got into this particular vocation. Listen to it again: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” 

*I have to say that it never sounded like that when I was a kid.

Seriously, Paul? Are you looking around at all? It is a statement that resounds with seeming tone deafness at a time like our current time. Rejoice in a pandemic? Rejoice with so much rampant injustice? Rejoice over an increasingly ruined climate spewing deadly weather all over? Rejoice, Paul?

Well, here’s another spot where we need to go back and remember from chapter 1 Paul’s situation as he writes this letter. Remember, he’s in prison. Being in a Roman prison wasn’t a hopeful situation to be in; most who entered a Roman prison didn’t leave alive. Back in that first chapter, Paul had noted how his imprisonment had opened up some new opportunities for witness to the gospel. Here, he seems more concerned to equip the Philippians for whatever kind of difficulty might be coming their way, at least partly so that their own witness in time of conflict or even persecution would be similarly fruitful.

For many readers, the verses that follow directly after verse 4 can seem rather like random bits of counsel being poured out before Paul runs out of parchment or ink. I’d like to suggest, though (hopefully under the prompting of the Holy Spirit), that these following verses are actually pointed towards enabling the Philippians to live up to that exhortation in verse 4? Rejoice? Now? How? Well, Paul says, doing these things will help.

Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.

I can’t help but be reminded of a verse that stood out from that series in the book of Ecclesiastes several weeks ago: 9:17, “The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouting of a ruler among fools.” The blustering bullying of a so-called leader obsessed with looking “tough” or “manly” or “strong” really doesn’t impress the world when it comes from one who claims to be a follower of Christ. Gentleness, particularly to those who have been treated by the world with anything but gentleness, is a witness like no other. Living like those who know the Spirit is with us makes all kinds of difference in how the world hears us.

Do not worry about anything…

Here’s one where we really need to hear the whole thought: “…but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Living in anxiety does not solve those needs we have, but the rest of the verse doesn’t give us leave to quit caring about those needs once we have offered them to God, nor is it a prompting to break out in the old Bobby McFerrin hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” If our prayers don’t have feet in some way, they’re not worth the oxygen required to breathe them. And it is in this putting our needs before God that we are brought into the peace of God, which the Greek literally says will “stand sentinel over” our hearts and minds. What we don’t put before God cannot be guarded with the peace of God, and our ability to rejoice is cut short.

Finally, brethren…” 

This list of virtues in verse 8 is perhaps one of the most well-known passages in the book, even if it can be challenging to keep them in your memory in the right order. One of the remarkable things about this list is that it is not necessarily distinctly “Christian” in its origin. Any ethicist of the Greco-Roman realm would have almost reflexively put forth these virtues as those that their students should learn and emulate. 

Further, thinking on these things – things that are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy – requires more than just thinking happy thoughts. This isn’t about some kind of Norman Vincent Peale positive thinking business, nor is it an excuse to break into a different song – “Accentuate the Positive” in this case. No, this is about a process of training and shaping our minds to know and recognize these virtues in ourselves and one another and the world around us. Other epistles, such as Galatians and Colossians, use the metaphor of clothing to make the same point – applied here, Paul might have said “clothe yourselves in what is true, honorable” and so forth, with the idea that in this case clothes really do make the wearer. Study these things, contemplate them deeply, reflect on them; these habits in turn make these virtues basic to your own thinking and reflecting on the world around you – both to spot the presence of these virtures and their absence. Paul then follows in verse 9 by again offering himself as an example, and again invoking that in doing these things “the God of peace will be with you.” 

In short, these exhortations are about being made into followers of Christ able to “rejoice in the Lord always,” even in prison or pandemic. To quote Debie Thomas, an Episcopalian Christian educator and contributor to The Christian Century:

So I wonder whether these famous verses from Philippians are not about feeling good so much as they are about cultivating the inner life of the soul. In Paul’s view, peace and joy are not emotions we can conjure up within ourselves. They come from God, and the only way we can receive them is through consistent spiritual practice…

In short, these encouragements are not about simple happy thoughts, but the hard-but-necessary work of soul rehabilitation. Spiritual exercise, if you will. Thomas continues:

In other words, joy requires us to sidestep sentimentality and cynicism alike. It requires that we hold onto two realities at once; the reality of the world’s brokenness in one hand, and the reality of God’s love in the other. Joy is what happens when we daily live into the belief that God can and will bridge the gap between the world we long for and the world we see before our eyes.

This doesn’t happen easily. That trust is hard when the world we see before our eyes is cold and brutal and callous. Joy will shed some tears along the way. Joy won’t sit quietly in the face of injustice of any kind. But it is this cultivated discipline that makes joy – the real stuff – possible at all, and that in turn makes our lives able even a little bit to bear witness to the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

The serious work of cultivating disciplined joy, practicing fierce gentleness, studying genuine virtue, and bearing real witness is not at all easy. Far from it, no matter how easily Paul seems to toss it off in the final flourishes of this letter. And yet, one more time, this is our call. 

Thanks be to God. Amen. 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #821, My Life Flows On (How Can I Keep From Singing?); #852, When the Lord Redeems the Very Least

Sermon: Press On

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 4, 2020, Pentecost 18A (recorded)

Philippians 3:4b-14

Press On

Honestly, there are times when Paul can be quite infuriating with his way of tossing off seemingly impossible challenges and instructions to his readers as if they were nothing.

Only two weeks ago, in the first chapter of this letter to the church at Philippi, we read Paul’s instruction to the Philippians to “only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel,” with Paul seeming to toss that off as if it were no big deal. The following instructions in chapters 1 and 2 continue in that vein, with Paul tossing out such instruction as “be of the same mind” and “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” remembering that “it is God who is at work in you.” Seriously, Paul, do you have any idea what you’re asking for? 

As we come to the next step through this epistle, there is a slight shift in Paul’s address to this church. As would be expected in rhetorical practice of the time Paul puts himself forward as an exemplar of the instruction and exhortation he is giving. (Yes, in modern speech this would sound like pretty awful bragging, but not in first-century Greco-Roman rhetorical tradition.) One result is an answer to that last rhetorical question; to our exasperated do you have any idea what you’re asking for? comes the answer from Paul yes, yes I do, and here’s how it works

A second, perhaps unintended result it that we get a moment of insight into Paul’s own view of his rather notorious past. Paul’s story takes up much of the book of Acts, including his first introduction as Saul, persecutor of those deceived followers of that scandalous crucified rabbi Jesus. The story of his Damascus road conversion into one of the most fervent of followers of that same scandalous crucified and resurrected Jesus and his subsequent life of missionary travel and preaching takes over Acts after a certain point. We can’t know for certain how much of this story the Philippians actually know by this time, but if they don’t already know they’re finding out.

What provokes this reflection is a warning from Paul about “the dogs … the evil workers … those who mutilate the flesh.” At this point in the church’s history one could say that this body of Christ-followers doesn’t even know what it is yet. Is it a subset of Judaism, which still required the ritual of circumcision for those men who became a part of it? Or is it something new and different, for which no such ritual act was or should be required?

There were plenty who held the first view that circumcision – that “mutilation of the flesh” to which Paul refers – was and should be required of all these new Gentile converts to the way of Jesus. Paul has had sharp disagreements with that party in different churches on his missionary circuit. His virulently negative response to them becomes an occasion to reflect on his own religious heritage, in which he was raised and trained, and at which – by his own account – he was quite successful:

  • circumcised on the eighth day” – raised and nurtured in the tradition from his birth;
  • a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews” – you might imagine someone in this country boasting that their ancestors came over on the Mayflower for a similar effect; 
  • as to the law, a Pharisee” – not merely an average person, but sell-studied and well-taught in the whole corpus of Jewish law, and scrupulous about keeping it;
  • as to zeal, a persecutor of the church” – he was so passionate about his faith that he sought to “correct” those who deviated from it (and “correct” is an extremely mild way to put it!); we have a lot of that going around today in the modern church…and;
  • as to righteousness under the law, blameless” – all that law he had so studied? He kept it, down to the letter. 

Paul, in short, needed to defer to no one in terms of having “lived right” according to the law those claimed who insisted on the circumcision of converts. He had them beat. And to him, all of that was nothing anymore.

Verses 7 and 8 use a pair of different words in translating what Paul writes here. First we read Paul has “come to regard as loss” all of those things, and then that he counts all those things as “rubbish.” This is far too mild a word for what Paul actually says. This is one of those cases where the old familiar King James Version comes closer with its word choice: “dung.” Yes, Paul really does use a word for what we moderns flush down the toilet to describe all that old righteousness. 

The only righteousness that matters anymore to Paul is the righteousness that is Paul’s strictly through faith in Christ. Paul has done nothing to earn it (it comes by grace, though the word is not used here). It is no less than the gift of God, manifested in the love of Christ and ministered through the working of the Holy Spirit. And that is all that counts to Paul. What matters is to know Christ, to share in the suffering of Christ, to become like Christ even unto death, and (by the grace of God) to share in the resurrection of Christ.

And to that end, Paul describes, “I press on to make it my own.” He’s not there yet and he knows that. He can only say even this, as he says, “because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Even that is not of his own doing; he wasn’t looking for anything like what happened when the risen Jesus accosted him on that road to Damascus. He freely acknowledges he can do none of this on his own. All he can do, he says again, is “press on towards the goal.” 

Even as we can see that Paul is making this claim for himself, we can’t help but feel how challenging such a declared goal is. Particularly at this moment, the idea of “pressing on” feels perhaps more like a death sentence than a promise of life. Living in a pandemic that only seems to get worse every time we yearn for a glimmer of hope, when cries for justice are met repeatedly with violence and threats, when it can become impossible to keep track of what day of the week it is and when six months ago seems like six years ago, “pressing on” just feels brutal. I’ll be honest with you; it feels an awful lot of the time right now as if I’ve lost my mind just trying to keep up with the routine things. 

But in the end, what else is there? Perhaps we’ve lived long enough to know that any righteousness we think we’ve earned is even less than the stuff we flush down the toilet. Perhaps we’ve been reminded how little our own efforts really mean in this time.

Perhaps, if nothing else, living in this moment reminds us that the righteousness we have in Christ, solely by the grace of God, is the only thing worth boasting about. Perhaps we can now understand that only in this righteousness that is in Christ is the means to live even in this seemingly endless and mind-numbing season of out-of-the- ordinary Ordinary Time. 

Still, it’s hard. Giving up on the idea that our own efforts – anything we can earn – will save us is frankly offensive, if we’re honest about it. But that is the challenge that is laid before us. Still, to learn to count it all as loss and to seek only Christ? That is our call.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #450, Be Thou My Vision; #223, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

Sermon: Pull Together

Grace Presbyterian Church

September 27, 2020, Pentecost 17A

Philippians 2:1-13

Pull Together

Despite the chapter break inserted many years later by those who came to edit the books of scripture into chapters and verses, today’s reading is a continuation of last week’s, particularly from verses 27-30 of the first chapter. The thought of this reading is continuous, in other words, from verse 27’s instruction to “only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ…“. This current reading adds to and fills out this instruction, but itself also reminds us that sometimes in reading scripture, we need to bring other parts of scripture to bear on how we read the passage before us.

The first four verses of chapter 2 are in particular so pointed towards Paul’s theme, with their repeated invocation of the challenge to be of “the same mind” or of “one mind,” that many scholars suspect that there must have been some division in the church at Philippi after all, comparable to other churches in Paul’s missionary circuit. Later in this letter, Paul will speak to two particular members of the Philippian church, Euodia and Syntyche, using that same phrase – “be of the same mind in the Lord.” 

Frankly, this passage would probably provoke less critical fretting if he had said that the first time. To insist on being of “one mind” or of “the same mind” can frankly sound anywhere from disturbing to offensive; what happened to diversity of thought? What about creativity, or even the basic ability to have a conversation (which never goes very far if the two conversants agree about everything)? At least the qualifying phrase “in the Lord” pushes us a little closer to the point here, which is not to enforce total and unrelenting unanimity on everything that is ever said or done or thought.

Let’s be blunt here: it is far too often demonstrated in history that the church can become quite maniacal about enforcing uniformity or conformity in the name of “unity.” Between the existence of fundamentalist impulses in the church in many corners, several crusades over several centuries, patters of exclusion, excommunication, shunning, shaming, and too many other enforcement mechanisms to count, the church has far too often resorted to enforcing conformity in lieu of, well, almost anything else, and on those outside the church as well as those within it.

We must be clear that this is not Paul’s instruction here. To be of “the same mind in the Lord” is not about some sort of lockstep march to doom. No. To be of “the same mind in the Lord” is to seek only one outcome, one which conforms only to God’s will – not to any human will. It is, as verse 4 reminds us, to care more about the well-being and sustaining of others than about our own satisfaction. To be concerned about the interests of others pretty much rules out trying to enforce anything on them.

With verse 5 we turn to understanding what exactly this “one mind” is supposed to be like. We get this in the form of what has become known as the “Christ hymn,” a poetic interjection that is, in the eyes of most scholars, a hymn (maybe by Paul himself, but likely not) that was apparently familiar enough to the Philippians (and quite likely other churches as well) for Paul to use it to demonstrate what the mind “that was in Christ Jesus” is like: 

  • in the form of God” – the very nature of God; we express this idea in a slightly different context when we speak of the doctrine of the Trinity;
  • did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” – did not cling to that nature to boost himself or to “lord it over” humanity;
  • emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” – lowered himself far beyond his God-ness (without forsaking his God-ness) to be human at the same time;
  • humbled himself” – held himself of no status above any of the “least of these” he came to serve; 
  • obedient to the point of death” – not even holding his life in any kind of regard, but willingly laying it aside. Paul adds that the death was “on a cross” – the most painful and humiliating kind of execution known at the time.

This is the pattern that being of “the same mind” is meant to take. It calls upon us to take up service as our only call and only goal.  And this is the only kind of uniformity being demanded of the Philippians – or of any of Paul’s readers here. 

After all, in another of Paul’s letters he will expend a great deal of ink on the very diversity of the gifts of the body of Christ, as he plays out the metaphor in fairly specific ways to point out that not all parts of the physical body have the same function or purpose, and neither do the parts of the body of Christ. All of those parts, however, are directed towards the same goal – the health of the physical body, or the service of the body of Christ. And we aren’t all forced to like, who knows, the same flavor of ice cream or have the same favorite verses of scripture or hymns or other such outer expression. 

It isn’t all about being all the same – how boring that would be. It is about being of the same mind as Christ, having the same goal and purpose and ultimate calling (expressed as it is in distinct individual ways). It is, to use a more modern idiom, about pulling together, from all our different places, to get the job done.

There is one more challenge to address, one more point that requires interrogation by other scripture. Christ, as the hymn puts it, took “the form of a slave.” Squeamish terminology, to be sure, but unsparing. What we often forget to ask when reading this scripture is this: “taking the form of a slave” to who?

The reflexive answer might be “humanity,” but is that really so? There are numerous Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, law-teaches, priests and other religious authorities of the time who would roar with indignation at the idea that Jesus was in any way a “slave” or even “servant” to them. Jesus frankly did not show much submission to religious authority, or political authority for that matter. When Pilate asked Jesus a direct question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus’s answer might be best translated with the modern slang “If you say so, dude.” After that he clammed up. (See Mark 15, and similar passages in Matthew and Luke.) Jesus didn’t strike much of a servant pose before authority. 

That’s because Jesus was “taking the form of a slave” to only one authority; only God, the one we call God the Father, the one who would exalt him and give him the “name that is above every name” so that all knees will bow and every tongue will confess.

And the same God, it should be noted, who is at work in us so that we “work out” our salvation – our being what God made us to be – “with fear and trembling.” God is the one who enables this service from us, this “same mind” service that in the life of Jesus entailed being servant to the least of these, to side always with the oppressed and never with the oppressor, and to follow and serve all the way to the end. 

Pull together, for the only end that matters. Paul encourages us to this in such lofty language, even knowing where that was leading in his own life, and what it would mean to those folk who read or heard his letter and followed. 

The end for Paul would be death, as it was for the Jesus he served. We don’t know what our end is when we serve those who make us uncomfortable and resist those who make us comfortable. And yet that is our call.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #264, At the Name of Jesus; #—, Take On the Mind of Christ