16 Oct, 2017

Life Together: Help These People!

16 Oct, 2017

Life Together: Help These People!

by Louise Westfall

I know this story is true, because it’s attributed to three different ancient cultures.  A wealthy trader died and left each of his three sons a portion of a 17-camel herd, the heart of his estate: one-half to the eldest, one-third to the middle, and one-ninth to the youngest.  They wanted to follow their father’s wishes, but couldn’t figure out how to do so without the loss of camel life.  Half of a camel isn’t worth much.  The story has them taking the problem to a wise elder who contemplates the matter until she (okay, I’m taking a few liberties with the story) hits upon a solution: she adds her own camel to the mix and then does the math: half of 18 is 9; one-third of eighteen is 6; one-ninth of eighteen is 2.  Everyone gets their allotted portion … and 9+6+2 equals … 17; the wise elder’s camel is returned to her.  And they all lived happily ever after.

Mathematicians among us will know why this works out.  I like it, not so much for the magic of numbers, as for its willingness to go “out of the box” to seek and find solutions to situations that challenge and er … divide the community.

The morning Scripture text is part of a letter sent to the churches of Philippi, a flourishing metropolitan area in northern Greece, from the apostle Paul.  He writes from prison, offering general advice and counsel about living faithfully in a culture largely indifferent to the gospel, but also about specific conflicts that have reached him.  The section we’re reading is in the final part and you get the feeling that Paul — known for his soaring theological treatises and complex sentences — is getting personal and maybe even a little emotional as the faces of beloved ones come to mind.  See yourself among that number as we read from the fourth chapter at the first verse.  Listen for God’s word to our church.  [Philippians 4:1-9]

The name Euodia is translated as “sweet fragrance,” or “prosperous journey.”  Syntyche means “fortunate” or “lucky one.”  Though their names were given to them by their parents, they help me picture these faithful women, whom Paul entreats to be of one mind.  I know them, because along with “Clement,” they have been members, elders, deacons, leaders in every church I’ve served.  They’re the backbone of the congregation, always showing up, always willing to take on another task, one more ministry, one more assignment that will advance God’s Kingdom on earth.  They’re here in abundance, so first of all I want to say a hearty thank you to each one.  You prosper our journey, and we are fortunate because of it.

Where there is great commitment, however, there is great potential for conflict.  Sunday kinds of members, casual in attendance, keeping to the edges, are not likely to experience it, because this is a danger mainly for those who are heavily invested here.  These are the stakeholders who care about what goes on here — what our central message is, and how that message is communicated; what groups are using our building and what accommodations we’re making to welcome them.  You’re the ones who have put your money where your mouth is, and care about how those financial resources are used.  You may have been here a long time, or a not so long time, but the changes matter to you, and you want to have some assurance they are for Central’s growth, not destruction.

We don’t know what Eudoia and Syntyche were at odds about; and it doesn’t really matter.  Be of the same mind, Paul urges them directly.  And then he widens the plea to help these women, for they have worked effectively alongside Paul and the others.

You sort of assume what will follow will be some plan, some step-by-step conflict resolution process through which Eudoia and Syntyche will get over their mad and get on with the show.  But no.

What follows instead is a punchy summary of that work, delivered in uncharacteristically (for Paul) short lines: trust in the constant presence of God … live without fear … demonstrate empathy … pray … and experience the deep-down, overflowing joy of knowing God and knowing the peace of God.  This is not a first-century version of positive thinking or happy-clappy spirituality that won’t sustain much of anything beyond the annoyance of a hangnail.

Paul is calling these good women (and the church universal) to lay aside differences by focusing on the central mission.  To keep the message of God’s love at the forefront of everything they do and think about.  He even acknowledges the great latitude in personal perspective: whatever is true and just and worthy of praise –consider those things.  Act on those things.  Paul understood there would be differences: he just knew that if you get the most important thing right, all the other important things would find their place.  Be of the same mind, Paul exhorted, but do not miss the rest of the sentence: in the Lord.  

The unity of the people of God will not be found in our like-mindedness or agreement.  It does not depend upon lock-step obedience to church leaders, not even the pastor.  Dang!  What unites us is a Spirit beyond our own will or conjuring: the Spirit of the living God we’ve come to know in Jesus Christ.  That’s why we offer the peace “of Christ” to one another.  That’s why we do not demand (or expect) members to see the world the same way, to vote for the same candidates, to occupy the same social, economic, or geographic location.   If you’re here, you belong.  Christ is our peace, and in Christ, we can be of the same mind.

Friends, this is such a basic teaching, such a foundational principle for our life together!   But do not mistake the fact that it is counter-cultural, especially in this bitter and divisive time in our nation’s history.  I read that the National Football League owners are going to sit down this week and hammer out a solution to the conflict triggered by “taking a knee” during the singing of the National Anthem before games.  Good luck with that.  Be of the same mind in the spirit of a free nation in which the right to protest peacefully is guaranteed by the Constitution. (and this from a woman who loves the National Anthem and belts it out with gusto!)

I subscribe to Presbyterian Outlook, a newsmagazine devoted to nurturing our life together as some 10,000 congregations across the country.  Every month there is a feature called “What’s right about my church?” in which someone (probably named Eudoia, Syntyche, or Clement) writes a paragraph about an outstanding ministry or initiative in their local church that’s been successful.  They’re all very similar, except one that appeared recently.  The person wrote the very first, and best thing right about my church is that it’s not my church.  It’s not, and never has been mine, but remains the church of One whose grace and mercy reaches wide and deep to welcome one and all, invites them to belong, and be at home.   [Presbyterian Outlook, January 2017]

As we consider our life together this year, and as we embark on an ambitious capital campaign for the first time in 60 years, I know we are vulnerable to conflict.  We all won’t agree about the projects being chosen, or the priorities they represent.  Some may think the price tag is too much to ask.   When I hear Paul’s words not to worry about anything, I know he is preaching to me, as I struggle with “worry” about it all the time.  But it’s not about me.  It’s not about you.  I have faith that as long as we remember the most important thing: proclaiming and demonstrating God’s love to one another and the world beyond our threshold, we will be fine.  We will have the same mind in the Lord.   And the peace of God will be with us every step of the way.

I invite us to practice this truth by learning a song; a prayer for peace in a language not our own, and in three parts, all sung together at the same time.  #752.  Like being church, congregational singing is not about any one individual (and that’s one of the reasons we’re experimenting with sitting closer together).  The beauty of this song comes not because it’s in unison, but because the three parts, sung together, create harmony that is … well, heavenly.  The music will resound with Paul’s exhortation: Help these people!  Help … us.

After a time of silence, we’ll stand and sing it.  Lord, grant us peace.

Amen.

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