“The Holy Habit of Gladness & Generosity: An Introduction”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
First in Gladness & Generosity Series/Holy Habits
Homecoming Sunday, 13 September 2020
It can be easy to forget, when we read the Bible, that we’re occasionally reading what were first intended only to be personal letters to specific people. Our Scripture lesson this morning was a passage from what the apostle Paul only ever expected was a letter to the congregation he adored in Philippi. He knew the people there well, and his affection for them was deep. So, the word he’d received about an ongoing conflict between two key women in the congregation—Euodia and Syntyche—was troubling. He knew each of them, their strengths, growing edges, and idiosyncrasies.
He understood the dynamics of the community, as well—which individuals threw their weight around, which ones retreated from conflict, the ones who were more contemplative and those whose spiritual mode was more activist. With his pastoral heart, Paul appreciated the alchemy of their distinct and God-given characters; he recognized how the combination of them somehow achieved far greater things than the sum of each individual might have done. They were a family in Christ. And healthy families periodically experience conflict—it’s part of the human experience. It’s not something to be avoided so much as learned from, and when we acknowledge and work through our differences with eachother in good faith, we grow stronger not just as individuals but as a whole Body.
And that’s why Paul appealed to his “loyal companion” there to help the women; he cared about them all, and he felt the pain of their conflict. He knew their hearts. As he said, they had struggled beside him in the work of the gospel—in sharing the Good News of God’s love and grace. But now something was tripping them up in their relationship with each other—which meant that their relationship with God was being impeded, and it was having ripple effects on the wider community.
In fact, Paul’s entire letter to the Philippians gives repeated advice about pursuing a life characterized by joy, gladness, and generosity. Even, maybe especially, when you are shackled, weighed down, or prevented from flourishing, by the activities of others—whether fellow church members, or governing authorities, or by the challenges and burdens that inevitably accompany embodied life in this world.
Paul might have gone in person to help Euodia and Syntyche sort things out, if he weren’t writing from prison. And yet, if you read his entire letter (which I strongly encourage you to do today or sometime this week; it’s very short—104 verses divided into four chapters; it shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes even if you read slowly), you’ll see that the imprisoned apostle sounds positively joyful. That’s how trained his attention is on the amazing things God is doing in spite of the dragging forces in his life.
“Rejoice in the Lord always,” he writes; “again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Time and again throughout his letter, Paul names and acknowledges various challenges and hardships he and the Christians in Philippi and elsewhere are weathering in their different contexts: there is internal conflict in the faith community, which diminishes the gospel work they’re trying to do. He and many other Christians are being persecuted. He’s unjustly being imprisoned. Social and political divisions were as fraught then as they are today. Paul doesn’t pretend that the life of a Christian is free from conflict, or suffering, or people with malign intentions. No, he names them for what they are.
But he knows that the way to deal with life’s troubling realities is neither to ignore them, nor to be consumed or defined by them. He doesn’t allow the challenges and negative forces to frame the narrative. Instead, he looks around at all the good things that are happening—where he sees God, and the power of love, and transformation and resurrection, at work. The apostle advised his original audience in ancient Greece, and the enduring divine word expressed in his letter directs you and me still today, to search out what is “true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable”; if there is any excellence, and anything worthy of praise,” we’re exhorted, “think about these things.” Because by focusing attention first and foremost on these things, the other realities are transformed.
Friends, I’m not going to even try to pretend that life isn’t frustrating in many ways just now. I miss you. I’m very sad that this meetinghouse is empty, and that we won’t be sharing a picnic after church. I’ve spoken with many of you who are heartbroken by the distance you must keep from loved ones; social distancing required to prevent the spread of a noxious virus is resulting in debilitating isolation for too many. I’m as distressed as most people are by the social and political climate, the growing hostility and incivility we’re witnessing in so many ways everywhere we look. Last night, a stranger spat in my son’s masked face as he walked home from the Old Home Days activities at Nichol’s Field. Talk about a moment that tests one’s convictions about turning the other cheek in response to another’s abuse! So, yes: there are many ways in which faith, hope, and love are being challenged, tested (sometimes severely!) during these times.
But, I am persuaded by the truths of Scripture. And, this morning, the words Paul put to a congregation in Philippi some 2,000 years ago ring as relevant and full of God’s own Word as they ever did. By setting our focus on that which is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, and in any way commendable—in other words, by searching out those places and activities where we see God’s faithful and steady presence—we will find our spirits fortified to grapple with the challenges that God will also help us to transform and overcome. We will be fostering the Holy Habit of Gladness and Generosity.
And so, while I’ve named a few things that trouble me, I’m here to tell you that despite the challenges and frustrations, I see and hear from many of you how God is at work, faithfully abiding with us and shaping hopeful new possibilities out of the debris. I miss having all of us gather in the Meetinghouse for worship—but I am so grateful and glad for the technology that allows us still to gather, even from very remote places, which is allowing us to expand our community and connections in completely unexpected ways! I am troubled by the fears, suspicions, and hostilities that seem to be growing like weeds—but I am so inspired by the even greater generosity, enthusiasm, and hard work of so many in this congregation to find creative ways to stay connected and to keep struggling together in the work of the gospel. And, I am excited about the ways that our congregation’s vision is taking shape in the transformation of our building. Finally, as the conclusion of this morning’s message, I’m going to invite Ed Wigfield and Sarah May from the Building Our Vision team to give you all a “sneak peek” of the progress… [view it here: just scroll down and find the “Sneak Peek” video!]