Proper 21, Year A, 2011

Listen to the sermon here.

Do you remember being a little kid in the middle of a stupid argument over a tea set or a football game?  Do you remember how frustrating it was when your friends would fight over something and ruin your time together?  Do you remember thinking to yourself, I cannot wait to grow up.  When I grow up, my friends will be grown ups and we will act like grown ups.

Then do you remember the crushing disappointment when you realized adults don’t really deal with conflict any better than children do?   Do you remember the first time you witnessed or were involved in a conflict at church?  Church conflicts are the worst!  Church is where you expect to feel safe and welcomed.  You give of your time and energy to serve God and your community and then all of a sudden someone is yelling at you!

When I was a new Christian, I assumed church conflicts would be rooted in theology.  Surely people would argue about  Jesus’ sinlessness or how to discern what the Holy Spirit was doing in a community.  Instead, as it turns out, church conflicts tend to be about flower pots. The first church conflict I ever witnessed was about a flower pot in the entry way of a church office. That flower pot contained a plant.  Someone in the parish decided that plant was not quite decorative enough, and placed some holiday themed decorations in the flower pot next to the plant.  Somehow, this led to an incredibly virulent series of shouting matches, with members of the congregation lining up on one side or the other of the great flower pot decoration debate.

As far as I know, the flower pots of Trinity have not caused any great consternation.   But I bet those of you who have been here awhile or have ever served on a committee can think of several inanimate objects that have provoked outrage. Of course, the objects themselves have done nothing to offend. A table cloth or lamp cannot insult a person.  However, because people invest so much of their soul into church life, when someone else messes with their tablecloth, lamp, or flower pot, a person’s feelings can get hurt pretty quickly.  Those feelings of hurt can lead to lashing out, which hurts the other person’s feelings and a major church conflict is born.

In today’s Letter to the Philippians the Apostle Paul offers the Phillipians an  invitation to help them deal with their own conflict. The Philippians have been through the wringer.  While visiting, the Apostle Paul healed a demon possessed slave whose owners had paraded her around as a fortune teller to make money.  Once she was healed, she was useless to them and they were furious.  The owners had Paul arrested and thrown in jail.  Paul writes the letter to the Philippians from jail.  He implies that the church has had some blowback from the community after the event and he is writing to encourage them.  However, he is also writing to help them work through an inner conflict.  This conflict is not identified in the letter, but in chapter 4, verse 2, Paul does call out two women in the parish.  He writes:  “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.”

I am dying to know the source of Euodia and Syntyche’s argument—were they fighting over who got to host the next church meeting?  Were they arguing over how to keep the congregation safe?  Were they at odds because they had different ideas about how to fund the work of the church?  Ultimately, not knowing the source of the argument doesn’t matter.  Paul’s response would be the same regardless.

Instead of rebuking them, Paul invites the community to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” and then shares this beautiful hymn about Jesus.  The hymn celebrates the humility of Christ,  “who, though he was in the form of God, did hot regard equality with God as something to be exploited”.  Jesus could have used his power to bring himself fame and fortune.  He could have used his power to have a battle with his Father.  Instead, he emptied himself to become human, and then humbled himself and died on the cross.  In return, his Father lifted him up, exalted him.  Their relationship was one of respect and mutuality.  They celebrated each other rather than competed with each other.

Paul reminds the Philippians that as Christians, they share the mind of Christ.  He invites them to live into that reality.  He invites them to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility [to] regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you not look to your own interests, but to the interest of others.”

I extend this same invitation to you. You share the mind of Christ.  Inside you, you have the same ability to humble yourself and exalt the other.  All you have to do is get out of your own way, and let the mind of Christ operate freely.

There is a lot of territory in this church over which we can be possessive.  We have traditions, events, and spaces that all have meaning to us.  What if this year, we behave differently when we see someone encroaching on our territory?  What if this year we gave each other the benefit of the doubt, rather than accusing each other of perceived slights?  What if this year we speak in love to those who have offended us, instead of gossiping about them at the receptionist’s desk?  What if this year we thought first and foremost about how to make others feel loved and welcomed rather than worrying about an event being perfect?

The deck is stacked against us.  Our country is experiencing an incredible amount of national anxiety right now as we worry about money and resources.  Everyone seems to be ducking for cover and trying to protect themselves as best they can, no matter what the consequences for others.  And that kind of anxiety is catching.  All of us are a little on edge, so living into the mind of Christ and treating each other with kindness is going to take work, hard work, for all of us.

Thankfully, we are not in the struggle alone!  Remember, the mind of Christ is in us.  We follow Jesus’ example from the Gospels, but our connection with him is deeper than that of a role model.  Every time we share communion, we become spiritually one with Christ.  Something shifts in the universe and we become united with him.

Our nature leads us to be selfish and defensive, but the Spirit of Christ in us fights against those impulses and gives us the courage to be open and generous.

And if we are able to be open and generous with one another, our community will grow and deepen.  This community already does so much for the world around us.  Just imagine how God could work if we added additional layers of trust and respect in our relationships with each other.

Remember, the Christian life is not only about outcomes.  To paraphrase 1 Corinthians 13,

And if we have the most beautiful grounds and the most majestic music, but do not have love, we are nothing.
If we give away all our possessions to Rummage, and if we raise $30,000 at St. Nick’s and if we have 200 people come to One Table Cafe, but do not have love, we gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant
or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

We are no longer children on the playground.  We can do better than grabbing our ball and going home.  We can be the adults we wished adults were.  We can be the loving, Christian community that Paul hoped for the Philippians.  We can share the mind of Christ.

May it be so.

Amen.

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