Sermon - 17 Pentecost
In the Name...
A few years ago, Sue and I were traveling in Ireland and we stopped late one night to get some fish and chips. The town where we stopped, however, had hosted a major football match earlier in the day and the shop had been cleaned out by the ravenous hoards. All they could offer us was fried smoked cod. Probably, one of the worst meals I've ever eaten, but, I can truly say, it was the piece of cod which passeth all understanding.
This mornings' selection from the Letter to the Philippians contains one of the classic New Testament statement on the subject of peace. Now, peace is something with which we should all be concerned and yet every time we think that conditions should be ripe for it, it seems as elusive as ever. The last century began with a war to end all wars and yet it was followed only a generation later, by one which was much worse. The founding of the United Nations in a spirit of optimism coincided with a period of Cold War and decades of living with the spectre of nuclear annihilation. The collapse of Communist regimes led to the unleashing of long-suppressed ethnic tensions which resulted in even more conflict. And, in our own century, the greatest threat has come from international terrorism on an unprecedented scale.
And, it's not just among nations. Everybody seems to be encouraged to be suspicious of everybody else. Add to that the usual tensions of society with its economic, racial, or political fault lines. Even in the home, disunity and discord are often the rule and not the exception.
Everywhere we look we find a tragic absence of peace. And what should the Church be doing about this? One idea, commonly held, is that Church leaders should make regular public appeals for mutual understanding and general goodwill. This approach is rooted in a view of the Church as an institution whose task is to appeal to the latent goodness within us and teach the bonds of our common humanity. Failure of people to respond is the failure of the Church for not being clear or forceful enough in its efforts to change the world.
This was quite a popular view for much of the 20thC, but, looking back, it seems incredible to think that people once thought that peace could possibly be achieved simply by telling people that it was a Good Thing. The enduring popularity of the idea, however, may be because it is a superficial response to a complex problem and puts the burden of responsibility on someone else.
Which brings us to what we heard from St. Paul this morning in his letter to the Philippians. What is the reason for discord in the world? Paul sums it up. There is too much "selfish ambition and conceit" and people spend more time looking to their "own interests" and not "to the interests of others." In other words, the problem, not the solution, is what is within us and the solution comes when we replace what is within us with something from outside of us, namely, "the same mind... that was in Christ Jesus."
Now, that is far from superficial and puts the burden of responsibility firmly on me which may be why it's not so popular. Nobody wants to admit that something might be askew with the way they see the world. We may know the story of a tremendously obese man who walked into a doctor's office and said he needed help with his problem. "Your weight problem?” observed the doctor. "No", the man replied, "My height problem. I'm too short for my weight."
The Greek word "eritheon" that was translated in our lectionary as "selfish ambition" is a word that also meant to the Ancient Greeks what we would call "political party strife" or "faction." The spirit of faction is unreasonable and unreasoning and it is all around us. Back in the 1980's, when I lived in the D.C. area, I remember someone did a study of the voting patterns of liberal Democrat Senator Ted Kennedy and conservative Republican Senator Jesse Helms and found that, despite their public tangling on some major issues, they voted together 80% of the time. Today, politicians are afraid to even think that the other party's ideas might have merit, let alone say so. If the other guy proposed it, it must be wrong.
Which brings us to another word Paul uses, "kenodoxian" meaning "conceit" or "vanity." And, Paul knew quite a bit about this from his own experience. In his letters he tells us how his Damascus Road experience was a conversion, not from self-indulgent immorality, a life of wine, women and song, but, a conversion from immoral self-righteousness, a life of anger, bitterness and judgmentalism. As a Pharisee, he was the sort of fellow who felt God should agree with him. He needed to learn that his idea of who was acceptable to God might not be the same as God's.
So, the trouble of the world is not merely on the surface and not something I can blame on somebody else. Discord has deep roots in the individual and if we can admit that, then we can begin to do something about it as St. Paul urges.
First, he says, we must "be of the same mind, having the same love." That is, the antidote to faction and conceit is a strongly held common goal. Observe how when a natural disaster strikes, a flood or hurricane, people who are complete strangers separated by dozens of man-made barriers amazingly put all those aside and pull together for a common good they would have never imagined possible. It's unfortunate that that is often what it takes, but maybe that's why natural disasters are called "acts of God."
And the second thing Paul says we need to do is "look not to your own interests but, the interests of others." Now, this doesn't mean having a low opinion of yourself or being a doormat for the world. All it means is that instead of starting and finishing with ourselves all the time we make some space to ask what's right for others, as well.
There's a story told about George Washington. One night he was making the rounds at Valley Forge dressed in a heavy cloak. He passed by three soldiers struggling with a log, or rather, two soldiers were struggling and one was watching. Without revealing who he was, Washington went over and helped them put the log in place. Turning to the watching soldier he asked, "Why didn't you help them." "I'm a corporal. I give the orders." the soldier replied. "Oh", said Washington, opening his cloak, "I apologize. I'm only a general."
In the Gospel, we heard Jesus tell a parable of two sons. One of them was rude and the other polite. The polite one, however, turned out to be the one who didn't do what he was asked. And it's like that with a lot of Christians. They claim to follow a certain way of life, yet, statistically, when it comes to most matters of ethics, values, and morals; they behave no differently than people who are non-religious. In other words, what we know is not always lived out in what we do.
The mind of Christ is a mind that is not natural. It's something we have to work at, to work at imitating and, by imitating, get it inside ourselves. The bonds of our common humanity are all well and good to recognize and teach, but, the bond of ourselves with Christ is what determines how much the spirit of peace dwells within us. And how much it dwells within us determines how much it dwells in the world.
"Be of the same mind, having the same love." "Look not to your own interests but, the interests of others." "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus."
In the Name...