The sermon for week October 09, 2011
October 9, 2011
Euodia and Synthyche, Philippians 4:1-9
I feel a connection to the Book of Philippians unlike any other of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, or any of the other epistles. For one thing, it is a short book, easily read in one sitting. For another, it is filled with joy. Paul begins it by saying to the people of Philippi, “I thank my God for every remembrance of you,” and continues through the book to speak of joy and to encourage the congregation to be a people who rejoice, and when I am down and blue I remind myself, Paul wrote this letter while he was a prisoner.
There is much encouragement in his words, including that in our aspirations we attempt to be more Christ like, and in that spirit we be more gentle and kind with one another, and in our daily living we try not to worry but to pray, and that we fill our thoughts with what is true and honorable and just, all words to live by, beginning and ending with the admonition to “rejoice,” “again, I say to you,” he says, “rejoice.”
But, if I am truthful, there is another reason I appreciate this book most of all and it is this: though I had read Philippians before, the first time it hit me, as if Paul was writing directly to me and that he truly understood the dynamics of church life and particularly the church I was serving, was when as a young pastor I read this verse in the 4th chapter of Philippians, “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind.”
What a peculiar verse, set amongst all the joy and rejoicing and elevation of Christian virtues, but in the middle of this litany of aspiration, is this very local reference to two women of the congregation, “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind.” I couldn’t get off these words. I literally stared at them, and my heart beat, and I thought, Paul understands what it is like to be a pastor, he gets the church, and with relief I thought, I guess my church is just the same as any other church, even the church in the New Testament.
What we have here is a situation. Two women in the church weren’t getting along with one another. This very same church Paul praises and thanks God for, was as human as the church I was pastoring. I breathed a sigh of relief.
We are all so human.
Fresh in my mind was the most recent trustee meeting of the rural church I was pastoring. This meant we met in the basement of the church building. The first member to arrive for the meeting put the coffee on, and then over the freshly brewed cups of coffee we had our meeting, occasionally discussing trustee business. There never was a printed agenda and most decisions just kind of came to be. Prior to this most recent meeting, however, a couple of trustees had asked the treasurer to provide them with a list of the most recent expenditures. The treasurer was married to one of the trustees. That night, her husband, the trustee, came into the meeting carrying a hugh ledge book under his arm. He stood before his fellow trustees, slammed the book on the table, accused the other trustees of not trusting his wife, left the ledger on the table, said that he and his wife were resigning, and walked out. We sat there in stunned silence, looking at one another, heard the door slam upstairs, listened, heard him start his truck and peel out of the parking lot.
Oh, Paul, thank you for mentioning Euodia and Syntyche in your letter.
Two women in a church I also pastored sang together in the choir. I think it could be said they were rivals and had been so for over twenty years. I had moved on to another pastorate but I was told one of the women left the church. She stayed away for almost a year, then returned one Sunday and sat in worship. She was warmly received by everyone, but as another friend tried to assure her how pleased everyone had been to see her, said only, “Maybe, but did you see how (then naming her rival) stared at me from the choir.”
Thank you, Paul, for mentioning Euodia and Syntyche.”
We don’t know what caused the rift between Euodia and Syntyche. It could have been they each were fairly wealthy and took turns hosting the local church in their respective homes, a common practice during this time, and it might be that they were each jealous of the level of hospitality practice by the other, thinking perhaps that it was excessive. Or, it might be that both were leaders in the church, for the Philippian church included women leaders, and both strove to have the greater influence within the congregation. Or, it might be the other felt the one was not carrying her full weight of responsibility within the church, yet seemed to bask in the unearned praise she received, or perhaps one felt the other had received credit for something that had been the other’s idea.
Who knows, but we know this, it happens in every church and it happens to all of us, and that none of us are immune from at times feeling slighted or doing the slighting, or questioning another’s motive or having our motive questioned, or letting slip an unkind word of judgment or gossip or being the subject of a misspoken word or hurtful statement from another, perhaps even someone we thought our companion or friend.
A line gets crossed and its effect ripples outward into the congregation causing others to chose sides and creating tension in meetings and at social gatherings, in the choir or the classroom, and possibly the spirit of the whole congregation or within a family or among a group of friends.
It happens in small churches, large churches, rural churches, urban churches, single ethnic churches, multi cultural churches, and it happened in the church at Philippi, but even still, Paul rejoices in this church, praises the Philippians and expresses his love for the church at Philippi, but then he addresses the two women, and we listen, because in Euodia and Syntyche we recognize a part of ourselves, and in the Philippian church, we see a part of the dynamic that is part of every church, reminding us it is mercy not perfection, grace not sinlessness that makes us all members of the Body of Christ.
So, here is what Paul says and we should listen. First he addresses the two women and he says, “Work it out.” It is a gentle command. Tensions occur, rifts develop, personalities clash, who knows what might have precipitated it, but to let it linger is a choice you make. The exact words Paul uses are, “...be of the same mind.” I don’t think he means there should be no differences. The early church embraced diversity, but your relationships should exist so the Spirit can continue to flow between you, and like an exclamation point Paul adds the words, “in the Lord.”
“Be of the same mind in the Lord,” and wrapped around this exhortation are the words Paul uses to describe what it means to be “in the Lord,” including such words as “gentleness,” “kindness,” and everything that is true, honorable, and just. Think on these things, he says. You can’t come into church and not be reminded these are the attributes to which you are to aspire, and that from time to time they will require from you a bigger self that God knows is in you to become.
But sometimes we need help, so Paul turns from the women and addresses a loyal companion in the church and says, “help them out.’’ His exact words are, “help these women.”
So, on that frosty night when the trustee member slammed the ledger on the table and walked out, I ended up sitting in his living room, no hero, my stomach tied in knots, but letting him vent and reassuring him of the respect the trustees had for both him and his wife and their gratitude for the service each of them gave to the church. And, for the woman consumed with the stares of her rival, other church members stepped forward to assure her of a welcome. We are the church. This is what we do. We help one another. We care what happens to each other. We support one another.
During the next few and several months there are very important decisions that will be made by this congregation. There is a pledge campaign, a budget that will be voted upon, a vision statement that will require support, a search committee to be named and voted upon, and a new pastor to be called. These are hugh decisions, but it is in the day to dayness of congregational life, in the ordinary occurrences, where the soul of this congregation will be nurtured and the spirit of who we are will be revealed. All will be determined by how we treat one another and how we treat the stranger who enters our midst.
Dr. Glenn Hinson, author, seminary professor, sometime interim pastor, and a member of the same congregation to which my daughter and her family belong, has written that the church should be “what Bernard of Clairvaux desired a monastery to be, a schola caritatis - a school of love.” (Weavings, 26:4).
There is one last statement Paul makes regarding the two women in the Philippian Church. First he tells them, “work it out,” then he says to the church, “help them out,” and then there are these words, referring to Euodia and Syntcyche, “for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel.” Paul saw the good in them. Paul saw them as Christ looked upon them, his sisters in the Lord, his companions in service.
Paul knew the good in them, and it was that memory that stayed with him and prompted his words to the women and the church. He had seen the image of God in them, as they sought to serve the Lord, and though a rift had developed between them, still Paul saw them as he remembered them, good people created in the image of God.
It was true of the trustee member and it was true of both the woman and her perceived rival, they were all good people who had given years of themselves in devoted service to the churches to which they belonged, but stuff happens, yet in the end they worked it out, helped along by other members, and they returned to their churches, and as one who pastored each of those churches, I can write of both churches, “I thank God for my memories of you.”
Stories are told about President Truman and the capacity he had for remembering the good in people, including his rivals. Showing his respect, he attended many of their funerals. The Presbyterian minister of Independence, Missouri, recorded such an incident. The minister was to conduct a graveside funeral service for a man who had been brought back to Independence for burial. The pastor with the funeral director stood by the coffin in the cemetery. It was winter and the day was frigid and snow was deep. No one came, but at the appointed hour as he was to begin a green Chrysler road up. The minister said, “I knew it was Mr. Truman’s car.”
The Secret Service Agent step out and stood by the car and an older Mr. Truman, the former President, got out and walked up to the graveside stood beside the casket as the minister conducted the service. His response was always the same if asked why he had come. He’d say of the deceased, “He was a good man, from a good family.”
This is how we all want to be remembered, and it is how we should be treated, and how we should remember one another, good people, from a good family, the family of The Sylvania United Church of Christ. Amen.