Advent began on Sunday, December 1. Often, we’re tempted to see these weeks as the “run up” to Christmas – time to organize our shopping, plan our giving, and enlarge our pile of stuff… It is, of course, much more than that – it is an opportunity for us to focus on key themes of hope, joy, peace, love, and the reconciliation that comes about as God sends the Son into the world. During these weeks, the congregation of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights will consider stories of great reconciliation from the scriptures as an encouragement for us to seek to be reconciled with those who surround us. The series concluded on December 22 as we read someone else’s mail: Paul’s letter to the Philippians – a letter/sermon in which Paul invited the church to take responsibility for healing in relationships. Our scripture consisted of Philippians 4:1-9 as well as Psalm 122.
To hear this message as preached in worship, please use the media player below:
Not long ago I attended a worship service to mark the installation of a colleague as pastor of a local congregation. To be honest, it was a tough day for me, and I was mostly going because I’d promised I’d go. When I saw that my friend Saleem was the preacher for the day, I perked up. And when he made a point in the sermon, and then said something like, “my friend Dave Carver is a wonderful example of this kind of living”… Well, let me say that it was humbling, affirming, and really turned the whole day around for me.
That’s a “shout out”. You know, when you’re in church (or some other crowd) and you’re sort of daydreaming along and the preacher mentions you by name and everyone smiles and you are lifted up as a positive example. That feels pretty great.
How about the other end of the spectrum? Instead of a “shout out”, have you ever seen a “call out”? You know, the pastor is up there preaching a sermon entitled something like, “Stupid Things That Horrible People Do” and then you hear your name lifted up as an example? Yikes. That does not feel too good… Nobody wants to be called out in the morning’s message.
The Apostle Paul is in prison, probably in Rome, near the end of his life. He gets news from a church that he started some time ago in Philippi, and he takes the time to write a letter. When that letter is delivered, it is, in all probability, read to the community as a whole – it is the morning’s sermon. It is, by and large, a lovely message. He seeks to put his friends’ minds at ease by assuring them of his own welfare; he encourages them to grow in humility and grace and to follow the footsteps of Jesus, and he warns them about the dangers of false teaching and heresy.
And then, about three-quarters of the way through the morning message, Pastor Paul drops a bunch of names in what becomes a “daily double” of both call out and shout out. First, he names two women who are apparently having some sort of a conflict and says, essentially, “Look, Euodia and Syntyche – you can do better than this…” And then he mentions another name, Syzygus, which is often simply translated as “loyal yokefellow”, and then offers another man named Clement a shout out in dealing with difficult situations.
Wow. I don’t know how often I’ve ever called out anyone from the pulpit, but I can’t imagine that would feel good. And that’s just in this little church in a small neighborhood. What would it be like to be called out by the guy who wrote half of the New Testament? And for us to be reading about it two thousand years later? That seems kind of harsh.
How do you like hearing your name when you’re in a crowd? When would that make sense?
I think in this case, Paul is naming a situation of which everyone in the congregation is aware, and then he’s making a very simple point: that the church ought to play a role in bringing about the healing and reconciliation that is needed.
Paul mentions these folks by name, not in order to shame anyone, but to compel the church to action. It’s as if the old apostle is saying, “Listen up, church: you know these people, and you love them. You need to help them find a way to work through this pain. What we have here is not good for anyone.”
So who are these people? This is the only time in the Bible that we read these names, and on the surface we don’t know much about these folks. But we can say this: both Euodia (which can mean “pleasant journey”) and Syntyche (which translates roughly to “good luck”) are respected leaders in their community. On Paul’s first trip to Philippi, an account of which is contained in the book of Acts, we find him preaching to a group of women gathered outside the city. Paul’s usual practice was to preach to the Jews in a town first, and to do that, he’d go to a synagogue. Most scholars believe that the fact that he goes straight to a gathering of women indicates the fact that the Roman colony of Philippi did not have ten adult men who were willing to identify as Jews, and therefore Philippi did not have a synagogue in which anyone could preach.
While some of the men were apparently reticent or simply absent, there is a rich tradition supporting the leadership of women in this congregation. The first person in all of Europe to respond to an invitation to hear more about Jesus was a businesswoman and entrepreneur named Lydia. She welcomes Paul and his companions into her home and circle of friends, and it seems logical that the first church in Europe, there in Philippi, grew from that gathering.
In his letter to that community, Paul commends – he offers a shout out to – Euodia and Syntyche for the fact that they “contended with me for the Gospel”. That’s the exact same phrase that he used earlier when he was describing the importance of the ministries of his friends Timothy and Epaphroditus. Using language that is parallel at every turn, Paul emphasizes the fact that the church of Jesus Christ would not exist without the selfless service and valuable leadership offered by women such as Syntyche and Euodia. And more than being leaders, they are his friends, and he laments this brokenness in the fabric of relationship in the household of God.
Paul goes on to invite a particular person, Syzygus or “loyal yokefellow” to work with these two women in reconciling their differences. In doing so, Paul is putting this person in a difficult spot – literally inserting him in the midst of what is now a public conflict. Why would Paul do this? It seems as though the only explanation is that Paul believes that this person has the tools, the skills, and the relational capital to help move this situation towards health. While he is in prison and therefore unable to deal with this himself, Paul deputizes Syzygus to lead the church in bringing healing – because his core belief is that the current state of affairs isn’t good for anyone.
In the past three weeks, we’ve had the opportunity to look at some fairly detailed biblical narratives of people enmeshed in conflict. In the lives of Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and the “Prodigal Son” and his family, we saw several ways in which conflict can eat away at the bonds of family and friendship. I hope we also noted some ways in which we can take steps to effect reconciliation and healing when we’ve been wounded. This morning, I’d like to invite you to consider the ways in which you might be called to be Syzygus in the lives of those around you. It’s pretty simple: Paul implies that even those who are not directly embroiled in pain are called to help lead the community out of it. How can we assist other people in times of conflict?
We can do that by remembering who we are. We are Syzygus. Are we, in some way, equipped to encourage a healthy resolution to a nagging problem? Note that even as he calls these women out, Paul avoids anything that even looks like gossip. He presents each party in a very positive light and emphasizes the gifts and integrity of each. He does not take sides nor encourage Syzygus to do so. If there is an attack to be launched, it is on the problem at hand, and not the people involved. At the end of the day, it is not about demonstrating who is “right” and who is “wrong”, but rather how we can get to a place where everyone is contributing toward the ministry of Christ.
In addition to remembering who we are, we do well to remember where we are. I don’t know if you’re the kind of person who notices things like this, but in these nine brief verses, Paul reminds those who are struggling that they are “in the Lord” three times and “in Christ Jesus” once. You might say that’s just a literary device, but I will suggest that it’s an important way of remembering that the landscape is different when we are actively dwelling “in the Lord.”
Many years ago I was learning how to drive a car in Africa. Now, I’d been driving for more than twenty years in the USA before I ever took the keys anywhere else. But here’s the deal: in South Africa and in Malawi, traffic proceeds on the LEFT – as in England, it’s the opposite of the way we do things in the USA. And I remember driving down a deserted street in Johannesburg South Africa with Erin in the car, turning left onto a divided road, and being so confused that I stopped the car and called for a vote as to which side of the road I was supposed to be on.
When we are navigating tricky situations, it’s important to remember where we are – in what context are we having these discussions? Our perception of what should be done and who can do it might change when we are able to center ourselves with a proper perspective. When we are “in the Lord”, our own personal agendas and ideas can and should often take a back seat for the greater good.
Similarly, those of us who are called Syzygus and thereby seeking to help community through conflict will find it essential to reflect on why we are here. If you follow any kind of social media, you are familiar with the phrase or the meme, “I’m just here for the comments.” Someone has posted a message that has made a stringent point, and another person has found fault with that post, and then the comments light up! People attack each other’s credibility, politics, family structure, educational background – you name it – and lots of us follow along not necessarily because we care about the issue raised by the original post, but because we want to be entertained by the conflict that ensues.
We are here, Paul would say, to point to what God is doing in the world. We are here to do what we can to move the cause of the Gospel of Jesus Christ forward in the world. As we do so, we are called to do all that we can to dispel anxiety, to rebuke harshness, and to speak against fear. Last week I asked our confirmation class to read this passage and tell me what I should say to you about it. One of the most cogent comments was this: “It’s right there, Pastor Dave. ‘The Lord is near.’” Everything else needs to be understood in light of the fact that God is close to us and those who are currently struggling. It may very well be that the reason we are where we are right now is to remind those who struggle that they are close to the heart of God.
And lastly, we have to remember what we are doing as we stand with those who are conflicted. As the church of Jesus Christ, we who are in the Lord are called to embody the unity that God intends for all creation. In a few moments you will find a phrase rolling off your tongue without a thought: you will join me in praying that the fullness of God’s presence and authority might be shown “on earth as it is in heaven.” Who do you suppose is responsible for the “on earth” part of that sentence? The world needs us to have our acts together – if we are constantly picking at each other, or standing idly by while others in our community are hurting, then our entire witness toward “peace on earth and goodwill to all” will be meaningless.
The reading from the Psalms really emphasizes this point as over and over again we are told to ‘pray for the shalom of the community’. I love the way that song ends: “For the sake of my family and friends, I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’ For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your prosperity.” We are not commended for simply staying out of conflict; we are not invited to ignore one another. No, the model is clear: we are to seek one another’s good. We are here to actively promote healing and wholeness, wherever the dis-ease began.
As our new members began their study of what it means to be the church, we considered the call of Abram and Sarai, and we emphasized the fact that since then, those who have understood themselves to be called by God are called out for service; we are called out in order to be a blessing to the world around us; we are called to give all that we can in order that the world might be a better, healthier, more just, and loving place as we seek to give away that which we have received in abundance from our God in Christ Jesus.
Beloved in the Lord, let me encourage you to live into the calling to be one who promotes peace by doing your best to create a scenario whereby everyone can realize that same call. It starts, as it must, with each one of us. With Syzygus. Thanks be to God. Amen.