This scripture is a letter from Paul to a community of people seeking how to get along despite their differences. It is important to note that scholars mostly agree that the historical Paul wrote this letter and it holds true to Paul’s insights on the Christian movement.
Philippians 4:1-9Common English Bible (CEB)
Stand firm in the Lord
4 Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord.
Loved ones, 2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to come to an agreement in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I’m also asking you, loyal friend, to help these women who have struggled together with me in the ministry of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my coworkers whose names are in the scroll of life.
4 Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! 5 Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. 6 Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. 7 Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.
8 From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. 9 Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.
I would invite us to listen to a story I heard recently.
There is a beautiful land where people lived on either side of a great river. The river provides life and nurture for the land and the people. The people became quite good at building bridges across the river. The bridges helped the people share stories, goods, livelihood, and knowledge with one another. Across these bridges the people would come together over the great river to build life in their beautiful home.
This land was also subject to great storms with lots of rain and flooding. Almost every year the water would rush down the river and wipe out the bridges that people had built. Each year the people would see their connection wiped out, the bridges they had worked so hard on wiped away by the storms. Then they would spend time rebuilding the bridges to connect one another again. This pattern continued year after year, season after season.
Eventually the people decided they would build a grand bridge that would withstand the yearly storms. They invited engineers and builders from around the world to come and help them construct this great structure. Then after the bridge was completed there was a great storm, hurricane Mitch came and did terrible damage to the region. Imagine what happened to the bridge.
Christianity in the 20th century was supposed to be the solid bridge crossing the river, the amazing connection that was supposed to bring people together. We built a mighty church and sent people around the world. Only these people encountered diversity so deep and wide that we found Christianity, as we understood it, could not bridge everything. Then a storm of increasing progress, globalization, connectivity, wars that involved the whole world, and a literally forcing together of our interaction moved that river. When the river moved and the purpose for our bridge of faith no longer made sense, it no longer bridged the river to connect humanity.
Used to seem like our religion was a grand bridge that would bring us peace and understanding. When we used to see scriptures from Paul, like the one we are studying today we would understand them as saying, “Pray and be present in God’s peace and God’s unity will come to the earth.” The peace that passed understanding that we received from God came from being nice to our neighbor and in most cases it was assumed our neighbor would look, act, and be like us.
This weekend Dr. Diana Eck a professor of Harvard and director of the Pluralism project was our lecturer for the George Harper Expanding Faith Lecture series here at St. Paul’s. Dr. Eck’s background stems from a childhood rooted deeply in the lessons of Methodism in Montana and as a child of Bozeman to her current reality in which she has directed interfaith projects and explorations into how people of dynamically different religious backgrounds are interacting throughout the world. The goal of her work is that through deeper understanding we might work to live together and work together in our diverse and colliding world.
Through most of the 20th Century America seemed to be a comfortable nation seeing Christianity as our primary tradition. Whether this was true or not the loss of this sense has caused fear in our country because the loss of this sense has created a sense in which people feel outsiders are changing our own home country. We hear examples in the news of Muslims living down the road and stories of communities struggling to allow for the call to prayer instead of cathedral bells. We learn that we have a large Sikh community only when the news reports about an awful shooting in a temple in Wisconsin. And it seems as if there is a massive collisions of religion happening right here at home.
While it may seem as if this has been sneaking up on us it is important to remember that Montana itself has been and is religiously diverse. Directly behind St. Helena’s Cathedral is the Chancery of the Diocese of Helena. This building used to be the first Jewish Temple in Montana, built in 1891. Or there is this great picture Dianna Eck shared this weekend of a Chinese Temple in the early Virginia City.[i] And there is also the stats shared by Pastor Rick a few weeks ago from Eck’s “Pluralism Project” in which we learn Montana’s religious diversity includes: Eleven Native American tribes, forty-five Hutterite Colonies, and Amish communities are only a few examples. Add to those the specifically religious communities that inhabit our land with the Christian communities. These include 13 Buddhist Sangha’s (assemblies), three Muslim community centers (Billings, Bozeman and Missoula), 225 Baha’is assemblies, 14 pagan groups and three interfaith associations in addition to a strong Jewish community of half a dozen Jewish congregations.
This story about the bridge was shared with me at a recent training United Methodist Clergy in our region attended. The point our speaker was making is that we as people of faith can continue to sustain our beautiful bridge we built or we can look where the river is now and see what is needed now. Or perhaps we as Christians are invited to build the boat, hovercraft, or other conveyance that can get us back and forth. Our tradition has always been based in hospitality, so how do we provide support and caring for all those who seek to rebuild our future. How do we help one another cross the river to engage with each another in peace filled ways?
This weekend Diana Eck’s lecture crystalized for me that we cannot do good Christian ministry in our community without developing our sense of how Christian practice invites us to encounter those who worship and think differently than us. To learn how God invites us are to be hospitable to the stranger in this changing landscape as we work toward a better world alongside our neighbor.
There are two lessons I have found in Christian faith that we must learn in order to help this generation discover how to best cross the river. Both of these will help us support encounters with people of diverse backgrounds in a peaceful and life giving way:
- We need a deep understanding of our own Christian Faith.
- Christian Faith should guide us to seek excellence in diversity.
- From Paul today we hear: 4 Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord.
In the past standing firm in the Lord or our own Christian faith meant absolute assurance that our religion was superior and that we were the only ones capable of saving souls. This religious exclusivism is one of what Dianna Eck calls “trace(es) of abusive dogmatism, that often hurts so many.” It comes from a belief drawn from the gospel of John that when Jesus says, “I am the way,” he means the only way. However, what this belief structure has led to has been consistently seeking ways to exclude or de-humanize people. It has been most apparent in how colonialist enterprise co-opted Christianity, an example that can be seen in how we saw the Native peoples of this land as inferior while we moved west to civilize the land. Even now it can be seen in the churches attempt to exclude the minority we know as homosexuals who seek inclusion in a church that seems to constantly reject them.
Standing firm in our scripture and tradition of Christianity there is another way to see what Paul is talking about. Instead of exclusivism we can see a deeply inclusive Christ. Who brought God’s peace to outsiders in the Samaritan, the leper, or any other number of excluded people of the 1st century. We see it in a message of salvation that states God cared for the world so much that God came to live among us, to suffer and die because the power systems of the world could not handle the depth of compassion, and then to be resurrected to shatter the one last fear we had in death.
Knowing the Christian faith is knowing the peace of God. God is with us, Christ has come to know our experience, and that the Holy Spirit is here guiding us to God’s deep mystery of unending love.
When I was in seminary I went to the Shambhala Buddhist Center in the mountains of Colorado for a meditation retreat. When I was registering for the retreat and getting support form my school to go, one of my professors, a Methodists, was concerned I was taking one of my spiritual retreats with the Buddhists. I knew from experience that I needed to learn some deep forms of meditation, but I believe her concern was that it would stray too far from the teachings of our traditions. That I might be “shopping around” too much in my religious practices.
Dianna Eck explained this concern greatly as a spectrum from “Dwelling” to “seeking” in faith. Many in our American culture have become purely seekers going from on tradition to the next, borrowing what works and moving on. The problem with this way of doing things is that no depth is ever achieved. You never really know your tradition or are a part of a community long enough to allow the relationship with the tradition to help form you.
I went on the retreat and the practices of meditation I learned on that retreat were incredibly useful. I still withdraw to them in times of prayer and a need to empty my mind. They are incredibly useful to release the noise of the world and to listen for God’s, still small voice.
Jesus life, death and resurrection are our practice in it the yearly cycle of practicing living into the image of Christ. We live that in prayer and worship through Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and the ordinary seasons of the calendar. This cycle I love because they are about different parts of our relationship with God. In my short experience of practicing meditation with the Buddhists in the Mountains of Colorado I learned one deep piece of our tradition. I like to be in relationship with God as I meditate. In the practices I learned of meditation the purpose was to completely empty your mind of thought, but I always wanted to allow the chance that God might speak in the quiet. The truth is I might not make a great Buddhist, but it was in studying another tradition that I became more firmly rooted in my own.
The last night at the Mountain center I was sitting outside with 3 other participants in the retreat. All 3 of them were Christian by background and they asked me a question that has stuck with me especially in my listening to Diana Eck this weekend. “How can you train to be a pastor and still find the teachings of the Buddhist helpful to your faith life?”
The answer I gave then and I still hold tight to is that my God is big enough to communicate to us through a variety of faith practices, and I know that God came near in the being of Jesus, and that God’s Spirit is and always has been near to us all.
My strength in my witness to my fellow retreaters that night was helpful to them because most of them had written Christianity off as a useless practice.
The additional piece I would add to that night is that Christian grace is a powerful force and message in this world. It is a message that you are never beyond the reach of God’s love, no matter the depth distance you have hurt or been hurt by others. God can reach through the pain and love you right where you are. This redeeming love has turned the hearts of the worst and the best among us to seeking how to share this love with others. I know without this love my life would not have the same meaning it has today.
It is through reflecting on my time studying another tradition that I continue to find depth in my own tradition. By sharing this insight and being asked this question my own Christian faith has become all the more valuable to me as I seek to live as faithful citizen in this diverse world.
Finally, as I heard something yesterday from Diana Eck that made me rethink one major piece of my statement to my friends that evening. I said “my God” was big enough. Claiming that God is “my God” is part of stating within Christianity a personal relationship with God is a powerful part of our theology. I can connect God directly, but saying “my God” is perhaps stepping too far in that only I can encounter God. Our tradition would say God belongs to all people, is available to all people. “My God” language is perhaps blasphemous. Diana Eck said God is not ours and this echoes in Paul’s writings today as he shares God with other faithful people. Diana shared this from her own Methodist upbringing here in Montana. Being deeply rooted in our tradition is to know that God and God’s love is meant to be shared inclusively, not by excluding. God came near, because God living the life we know demonstrates the holy is found in living alongside each other. And that we believe anyone has access to holy connection, not just Christians.
Being deeply rooted in our faith means knowing the God we encounter is big enough to love the world whole. That our job as Christians is to be hospitable and provide a place for all people
- Christian Faith should guide us to seek excellence in diversity.
Paul continues todays letter to the Phillipians: 5 Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. 6 Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. 7 Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.
Images like this travel in an instant around our world now. Globalization has happened and information can travel in an instant from one side of the globe to another. This image of Pope Francis depicts a moment where he suddenly stopped the pope mobile got out and spontaneously went to this. wall to pray. This is the wall that separates Jerusalem from Bethlehem, Palestinian areas from Israeli areas. Paul instructs us as Christians in this passage to pray for the peace of God as we work with others in gentleness. That in this practice the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will be in our hearts and minds. Excellence in diversity is working to see how this picture can change us. We are not Catholic perhaps or like the Pope, we may not agree on the Palestine/Israel conflict, but when the this man demonstrates that prayer might be our best choice right now we are changed in our own faith through diversity.
Diana Eck shared a moment of walking by a sign at Harvard Divinity School that read “diversity is excellence.” Dr. Eck shared with us yesterday that this is not always true. Diversity can be shared in healthy and peaceful ways as in this image we see above. Or even in the story Dr. Eck shared about how cities around the world shared in prayer with us when the towers fell on September 11th, 2001. Or diversity can be shared in violent and awful ways as has been seen in the recent ISIS videos of the beheadings of journalists.
Grounding ourselves in prayer, gentleness and peaceful engagement with others practices excellence in diversity. One way we try to do this each year at St. Paul’s is by hosting an interfaith solstice service. Christians and Jewish brothers and sisters gather with Jazz and celebrate the need for light on the darkest night of the year. This may seem like a simple thing, but it begins that sharing that can help us better know our neighbor.
At the lecture this weekend people were wondering how to start other interfaith interactions. Dr. Eck shared some ways to start and there are other things we can do. Check out Dr. Eck’s pluralism project and learn more about our diversity here in Montana and across the United States. On Facebook and Twitter post pictures and stories of people of all faiths making the world more hopeful. As you get to know people in our community of different faith backgrounds, invite them to our community to interact with us and in turn we may spark an opportunity for a larger sharing between faith communities. Or if you befriend someone of another faith background take time to discuss faith with them and invite times of sharing.
The answer to me about how we start practicing excellence in diversity is grounded in our scripture today. Be in prayer that it will happen in our community and then when we are at peace in God we will see the opportunity to be in practice. It is clear that our worlds diversity is increasingly colliding and by practicing excellence in diversity we are attempting to be Christlike in our living with our neighbor.
To illustrate how being grounded in the Christian Faith and practice calls us to diversity I found a short excerpt from a baccalaureate address given at Harvard Divinity School in 1983 by Mary Moschella. She shares,
“Last summer I was in Israel, working on an archaeological dig. At the site of the ancient city of Dor, each day as I swung my pick into the age-old soil, I was inwardly chipping away at issues of personal faith and belief, and the global issues of human struggle — militarism, racism, sexism. I expended a good deal of energy cursing the facts of human suffering in the world, and trying to imagine some kind of hope of restoration.
Excavating at the level of the Iron Age can be rather tedious, she says. Only rarely did we turn up any precious small finds. Most of the time was spent staring at dirt walls and broken pottery shards. In my square, not even one whole vessel was uncovered all season — just so many broken pieces, scraps of ancient civilization. All of the brokenness appeared to me as an accurate metaphor for understanding the world.
Broken and crushed, every piece of it; broken with small personal pains, as well as with overwhelmingly large human struggles. Yet as the summer went on, and I kept staring at the pottery, I slowly started to notice something more than just the brokenness. Some of the pieces of clay, however broken, were really quite beautiful.
Later in the summer, I found out about the business of pottery mending. This tedious work goes on year-round in a cathedral-like building not far from the tel. Here ancient vessels have been slowly and carefully reconstructed. I remember being completely amazed at seeing those huge restored jugs for the first time. How could anyone have possibly managed to piece together so many small nondescript chips of clay?
Seeing those restored vessels encouraged me, says Moschella, encouraged me to imagine perhaps that at least some of the world’s brokenness could be overcome. I began to picture myself in a kind of vocation of mending, of repairing some of the world’s brokenness.” [ii]
By practicing the vocation of our Christian Faith we are working that tradition of pottery mending. Our tradition is a discipline of the tediously reconstructing the brokenness of the world by creating space for God’s love. We are not the only people or way of doing this, but by knowing our tradition can do it well.
We must remember that God is the bringer of life and is love like a river. Our job is to build a connection between all of creation with Christlike love and when the river moves in response to the storm we are called to change our way of connecting. We are called to reconstruct the brokenness by being grounded in our own Christian practice and by practicing excellence in diversity.
Perhaps we are not to build a monolithic bridge that will last forever, because the river moves. Perhaps this generation of Christians will work with others to discover a way to cross the river that is able to move with the river. God will keep moving in response to the worlds problems and we are called to move with God. Perhaps we will be part of the solution that will help our world connect to one another in hospitality and flowing with the river of love.
May we do this, grounded in the waters of God’s peace and Christ’s love that surpasses all understanding.
[i] Diana Eck PhD, lecture, George Harper Expanding Faith Lecture Series, St. Paul’s UMC Helena, MT, October 10-11, 2014. (All notes referring to Dr. Eck in this sermon come from her lectures in Helena. Thank you to her for her generosity and willingness to help us grow in our faith.)
[ii] Mary Mochella, baccalaureate address, Harvard Divinity School, June 8, 1983.
Listen to the audio here: http://www.stpaulshelena.org/hp_wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Sermon-Sunday-101214-9.20-AM.mp3