The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 23], October 14-15, 2017
Washington Memorial Chapel, Valley Forge, PA + The Rev. Roy Almquist
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women for they have struggled beside me in the work of the Gospel … [Philippians 4: 2-3]
All three of our readings today deal with conflict and division …
The reading from Exodus recalls the rebellion of the people of Israel when they were so angry with God and Moses that they were prepared to melt their jewelry and fashion a golden calf, something visible and substantial that they could worship;
Our Epistle lesson from Philippians introduces us to two women, church leaders in the Philippi congregation, who have had a significant falling out. We do not know what role they played in the Philippian congregation or the cause of their discord. They remind us how quickly conflict and strife can become a demoralizing factor within a congregation if leaders do not work to quell and defeat such divisions.
Finally our Gospel lesson focuses our attention on a troubling parable … I wish I could find a nicer way to describe it, but it is harsh and violent. Matthew claims it is a story that describes the Kingdom of God, but it sounds to me more like the Kingdom of King Herod of Galilee.
In our Gospel lesson, Jesus tells the story of a king who planned a wedding banquet. At the appointed time, he sent out servants to call in all the invited guests. But they would not come! Then the story gets ugly:
(The king) sent out another round of servants, instructing them to tell the guests, ‘Look, everything is on the table, the prime rib is ready for carving. Come to the feast!’ They only shrugged their shoulders and went off, one to weed his garden, another to work in his shop. The rest, with nothing better to do, beat up on the messengers and then killed them. The king was outraged and sent his soldiers to destroy those thugs and level their city. [Eugene Peterson, The Message, 57-58]
Jesus tries to put a more positive spin on the narrative by gathering up all the outsiders and having them come to the banquet to honor the King’s son, but it is hard to get beyond the violence at the heart of the story.
With the pain and horror of Las Vegas still vivid in our thinking, I did not have a desire to deal with the Gospel lesson today! Instead, I would like us to focus our attention on our Second Lesson, the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. When Paul wrote this epistle, he was in prison and faced charges that could cost him his life. But despite his own problems, his greatest concern was the congregation he had established in Philippi.
Members of the Philippian congregation were people who lived at the margins of society. Many of them were slaves. Very few of the early Christians were people of wealth or status. This is a challenge to us as people who belong to a suburban congregation in contemporary America. Not all of us, but many of us, live with varying degrees of affluence and comfort. But despite our relative sense of well-being, many of us live with high levels of fear and anxiety. We are often frustrated, disappointed in how our lives have unfolded, and, if we are not careful, we can bring these concerns and resentments to church with us.
Our Epistle lesson is fascinating because it calls our attention to two unknown women. Paul writes: I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to agree in the Lord.
We know nothing about these two ladies, save their names. Clearly, Paul held them in high regard. It would appear that these women were valued co-workers who had shared Paul’s struggles and joys. This reference to Euodia and Syntyche serves as a reminder that women played significant leadership roles in the congregations Paul established. This brief passage also reminds us of the danger of division. How sad that the only reason these women are remembered is because of their conflict! In reality, we have no idea what drove them apart, but we understand how easily this can happen.
Most people experience Washington Memorial Chapel as a mellow, friendly, up-beat congregation. But this was not always the case. Folks who have been members for a while can remember times in the past when there was significant discord … groups in conflict with each other … three-hour Annual Meetings … people expressing their anger by abandoning the congregation.
Earlier in this letter to the Philippians, Paul had challenged his readers to try to maintain what he called the mind of Christ. He urged the Christians in Philippi to be less self-centered and more willing to put the welfare of others above their own interests. He lifted up for them the example of Jesus Christ, who refused to take advantage of his special relationship to God, but emptied himself and became a servant to all. And then in some wonderful and continually relevant words, Paul told the Philippians that they needed to do all things without grumbling or questioning [Philippians 2: 5-11].
Euodia and Syntyche … Help these women. I think it is significant to note that when there was a division within the church in Philippi, Paul mobilized all the resources he could muster to mend the breach. Paul understood what I hope we know as well: a quarrelling Church quickly becomes no Church at all.
A congregation that is divided is a barrier to proclaiming the Gospel
A congregation that is marked by strife is a congregation that has barred the door to Christ and those who want to know more about him.
What will change our sinful world? I would insist, with Paul, only joy! Only joy will bring other people close to you and only love will keep them near. Joy and love … not conflict and strife. Only joy and love can convince the world of the promises of God. Joy and love alone are evidence that our faith is good and a thing that others would want to have. Thus Paul tells us today: Rejoice in the Lord, always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. [Philippians 4: 4-5]
I am convinced that these two things alone … joy and love … can win the world to Jesus Christ. For the first creates a holy covetousness in the hearts of lonely, desolate people … people who yearn to be filled with joy. And then when we love them, we fill their hearts with a happiness and contentment that is transforming.
So today I beg all of you who know the joy of Jesus … put it in your faces. Let the love of Jesus be sensed through all that you say and in all that you do. Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice … Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. So let us be winsome Christians. Let us try as best we can to love one another. And may we be signs of joy and peace in the midst of our troubled world. AMEN.