October 9, 2011

ON BEING RIGHT … AND WRONG

 Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 9 October, 2011

 Reading for the Epistle: Philippians 4: 1-9

Oh! How the clergy have to love their parishioners!  There are times when you give us so much joy, but there are times when you give us so much pain.  There are those times when you are so right, but there are times that you are so wrong!  But we still love you, because each and every one of you is a child of God, a sibling of our Lord Jesus Christ, and is inspired, at least a lot of the time, by the same Holy Spirit.  But sometimes it is not the easiest thing in this world to love you as we would wish, for all too often some of you at times forget that you are not of this world!

How often in my nearly half a century of ordained ministry have I been able to identify with what Paul writes about in the epistle for our reading this morning.

 My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, stand firm in the Lord, my beloved.  I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.  Yes, I ask you also, my loyal companions, help these women, for they have struggled along with me in the work of the Gospel.

These were two Christian women who may have taken these names at their baptism.  Euodia means “on the right way”, while Syntyche means “being with good fortune”.  Or these might have been nicknames by which they were known by Paul and their fellow Christians at Philippi.  However they acquired these names, these were two women who were recognized by Paul and Clement and his companions as leaders of the Christian community in Philippi, and for some reason they had fallen out with one another, and this was causing or might have caused division within the Christian community.

The very first parish in which I served there was a Euodia and a Syntyche (although those were not their names).  They were two women each possessed of a very strong personality.  Each of them wanted to have things her own way when it came to organizing the women in the parish.  The Euodia wanted things done in the right way, which in an English parish meant that the women should be organized in a branch of the Mothers Union, the equivalent of the ECW.  The Syntyche, for some reason, did not like the way things were done in the Mothers Union and so she set up what she called the Young Wives’ Fellowship. Some women in the parish were members of both groups, but by and large the Mothers Union was attended by older women – the Vicar and I would sometimes in private call them the Grandmothers’ Union – while the Young Wives’ Fellowship attracted their daughters, many of whom had been in the group so long that they hardly qualified as “Young” Wives.

Euodias and Syntyches do not necessarily have to be women, and they do not necessarily have to be lay members of the Church.  I served in another parish which had a very large membership, numbering in the several thousands.  It was not surprising that there were several different groupings within the parish, but it was sad the way in which some of the clergy almost fostered the differences between the groupings. Some liked the old Book of Common Prayer, by which was meant the 1662 Book of the Church of England, even though this parish was not in England.  Others preferred the service to be in the national language, even though this was merely a translation of the 1662 Prayer Book service, and the number of people  who  actually  spoke  the  national  language,  rather  than  English  or  a  tribal  language,  was comparatively small.  But as one of their number was a retired bishop who spoke very little English, they were able to have a weekly service on a Sunday morning.  Another group liked what its members called contemporary music, by which they meant the music that they had sung at evangelical rallies when they were young.  They even put together a book of such hymns, but they were hymns and songs that I can remember singing at evangelical rallies in the 1950s, and young people of the 1990s were singing very different songs.  The message was the same, but the way it was delivered was very different.  And now that we are in the 2010s, those 1990s songs look quite old-fashioned.

Yet as an ordained minister I was called to serve all these very different folk, and over the past five decades I have had to serve other very different folk as well, all of whom thought that they were Euodia and someone else was Syntyche.  And things are very much the same here at Holy Faith.  I am not going to say who is a Euodia and who is a Syntyche, just that we have examples of both in all our worship groups and in other parish activities as well.  And sometimes a person who is a Euodia today can be a Syntyche tomorrow, and then switch back, depending on the activities in which he or she is involved.

Some of you love “tradition”, by which is meant, as one wise man once put it, “what we did when I was young”.  Yet, as the Bible so frequently demonstrates, the people of God are not men and women who hanker for the past, to go back into the slavery of Egypt, but long for the future, to go forward to our rightful place in the realm of God.  We are a pilgrim people, and we do not clutter ourselves with worn-out baggage.  And not one of us has all the answers to everything or to anything.  We are all here to do the task that has been appointed for today so that we can move forward to tomorrow, not back to yesterday. Yes, we may well have lots of experience, but that is experience of what worked yesterday.  Today the tools of yesterday may very well hamper us from doing what we are called today.

Again, I say, not one of us has the answers.  One of the things that strikes me is how even Jesus admitted he did not have all the answers.  What he did have was access to the source of all knowledge, to the one whom we call Omniscient.  And Jesus gained access to the Omniscient through stepping back, going apart and praying.  As the Gospels remind us, Jesus prayed before making any major decision or undertaking any major activity.  He took to heart the saying of the prophet that those who wait upon the Lord will renew their faith and will rise up like eagles.  If there is such a thing as “Tradition”, it is not to be found in doing things in the same way that they were done in the past just for the sake of doing things in the same way as they were done in the past.  True tradition is found in observing how our forebears in the Faith went about things, and that was through seeking first the guidance of God individually and in company.

As the one called to be your minister at this time, I watch and I see.  I see how devoted so many of you are, how so many of you want to be a Euodia and do things the right way, or to be a Syntyche and gain a good reputation.  I see you squabbling with one another, and I hear from so many of you as to how things should be, even have to be, done!  I sympathize with you, I empathize in your efforts, and I love each of you as much as Paul loved his Euodia and Syntyche in Philippi.  And my advice to each of you is the same as he offered to the Christians at Philippi.

Rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone.  Do not worry about anything, but in everything, by prayer and by supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God.

 …  Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of prayer, think about these things.

We are not here to reclaim our past.  We are here to accept our place in God’s present and his future, and we do this by doing things in the same manner as did Paul and Clement and his companions, and when we do that, as Paul told the Philippians, the God of peace will be with you.