Editorial note: the first of the sermon can also be found in my November 14th post, Falling Down.
My family and I are hikers. As often as we can, we take to the trails, enjoying nature in all its peace and solitude. Recently, the family went on a short two-mile trek, mostly just to get out of the house and enjoy a warm sunny day in November. As we hiked, the mental noise and clutter of all the things going on in my life began to intrude, robbing me of the relaxed mood. I didn’t realize just how much until I yelled at my son for falling down. He’s eight, a little wobbly on his feet, but full of energy and at that moment in need of expending some. He took off down the trail, running full tilt and stumbled over some rocks. As he hit the ground, I yelled something at him about getting up, a response born not out of the situation itself but mostly from my own anxieties about the ‘clutter’ in my head. My wife looked at me and offered a few less than gracious words about yelling at him and then added, “He has to learn to fall. He has to know how to hit the ground and pick himself up.”
Those words, He has to learn to fall. He has to know how to hit the ground and pick himself up, are, I think, apropos for the situation that United Methodism finds itself in now. Historically, it seems like every generation of every denomination has needed to fall and pick itself up again. In this case, Methodists have been falling for years: since 1840 and the schism into MEC (Methodist Episcopal Church) and MEC, South; since the end of the classes and bands in the late nineteenth century; since the 1920’s and rise of Liberal/Boston theology in our seminaries; since 1972 when the General Conference instituted the wording on homosexual ministers and homosexual marriage. Depending on your context, any or all of these things can be positive or negative and yet each of them marks a point at which disagreement arose and was never really settled. In each of these cases, we as Methodists decided either to ‘leave each to his own’ or we simply ignored the existence of these things happening by hiding in our local contexts.
What is happening right now with the Commission on a Way Forward and the 2019 General Conference is simply the UMC having to figure out how to get up. We have been falling and now we’ve hit the ground. The question is, how will we get up? Options exist from the extremes and the middle with a great deal of commentary from all sides, at times polite in the name of good discourse and at others hostile with ill intent, to the point that this week, the Council of Bishops had to issue a letter saying,
“In recent months, we have experienced these negative behaviors escalating into more aggressive, and violent expressions of hate, prejudice, and anger directed against others. We are hearing of and observing angry words now escalating to actions that are resulting in fear, anxiety, loss of security, and even physical harm. These actions are repugnant to us as your bishops.”
As I watched my son lie there on the trail, every instinct demanded I reach down and help him up. I’m his father, he’s my son, this is a no brainer. And yet he needed to lie there, feel the sting of those scratches and bruises as a reminder that next time, he’ll have to be more careful. In a way, I think God is allowing us to hit the ground, feel the sting and sharp pain from the wounds we have inflicted on ourselves and pick ourselves up again. Many questions abound as to how and frankly, I have no idea what that will look like: a single denomination segmented into local areas that contextualize their theology to the people they serve, a fracturing into three or four denominations, an implosion of the whole thing. Who knows? I believe, however, that no matter what it is done we will have to correct the hostile attitudes and take more of a gracious, thankful attitude in order to hear and respond to one another.
I believe that this kind of situation is something familiar to Paul as he writes to the Philippian church.
Gratitude in the face of hostility
Philippians is possibly a two-fer, meaning that it may have been two or more letters collected together over time as a single piece of correspondence, similar to Second Corinthians. Paul wrote the letter of Philippians after a not so gracious beginning in Philippi, making the first section of the ‘friendship letter’ part an even more gracious response from the Apostle, as Paul wrote to them from a prison cell in another city. As with most of Paul’s letters, and those of antiquity, this one follows a formula: salutation, thanksgiving, body of the letter, moral and ethical instruction, and closing.
As we look at the thanksgiving section, we will notice that there are three sections: an expression of gratitude (vv.3-6), an expression of affection (vv.7-9), and a prayer for the church (vv.9-11). Paul starts by talking about how thankful he is for the Philippian congregation, specifically that he is thankful when he prays, saying that a prayer about and for the congregation is “a prayer full of joy.” In the second part, Paul talks of his affection for the congregation saying that he keeps the congregation in his heart and calling them his partners in grace. He even compares his feelings toward the congregation to the compassion of Jesus. Paul ends this section with a prayer for the Philippian congregation that they will be insightful and knowledgeable and that the knowledge would be used to make good decisions about “what really matters” while being “filled with the fruit of righteousness…in order to give glory and praise to God.”
What makes this an interesting expression of thanksgiving is reading Acts chapter 16 and seeing what Paul dealt with on his first trip to Philippi. In verses 6-10 of that chapter, Paul has a vision of a man from Macedonia who pleads with Paul, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Paul, along with his companions that included Timothy and Silas, went to Philippi and began to minister to people. They met a woman named Lydia, ‘a Gentile God-worshiper’ who dealt in dyed purple cloth, a business that would have catered to the elite of the city and been relatively profitable. Lydia became a follower of Jesus and her and her household was baptized, a practice common in the early church. Lydia would become a prominent member and supporter of Paul’s ministry in Philippi.
Paul’s work in Philippi was not without difficulty, however. As he and Silas were walking to pray one morning a slave woman who ‘had a spirit that enabled her to predict the future’ called out to them. “These people are servants of the Most High God! They are proclaiming a way of salvation to you.” This annoyed Paul, most likely because of the woman being used and abused as a slave by her owners, even as she declared a truth. Paul drove the spirit out of the woman, leaving her owners without the means of making money off her ‘gift’. The owners decided to get even with Paul by claiming to the authorities that, “These people are causing an uproar in our city. They are Jews who promote customs that we Romans can’t accept or practice.” The crowds began to join the slave owners, no doubt afraid that Paul and Silas might take away their entertainment or livelihoods, and eventually, the authorities had Paul and Silas stripped, beaten, and thrown in jail. After this, we have the rather famous incident of the earthquake that shook the prison and the prisoners who didn’t try to escape leading to the eventual conversion of the jailer and his household and afterward, the release of Paul and Silas.
You would think that this might leave a bad taste in someone’s mouth regarding a certain city where they were beaten and jailed. You might even think that someone would consider never stepping foot in that city again and never contacting anyone there again. It would not be an unreasonable response given the suffering that Paul experienced. And yet we hear Paul offering these words of affirmation and encouragement to the church at Philippi. How is that?
Paul saw the big picture. The situation with the slave woman and the slavers had nothing to do with the church at Philippi. From everything we see in Acts 16, Paul is treated well and supported in his efforts by Lydia, the jailer, and others who come to believe and those are the people he writes to in this letter. You will notice that the letter does not begin with the salutation, “To the slavers and people of the marketplace who had us thrown in prison.” No, it is addressed to “all those in Philippi who are God’s people in Christ Jesus, along with your supervisors and servants.” Paul was able to see the big picture and recognize that the people of the church at Philippi were not responsible for his suffering there and offer the church his encouragement and affirmation.
When we look at life, often we lump the bad in with the good, especially if that bad was particularly painful to experience and to remember. Yet, in the bad, there is usually good. Off the top of my head, I can think of places I would never want to serve as pastor again. The experience of those places was painful to my family and me in a way that just being there would bring back to mind all the difficulty suffered. Yet, I have many friends in those places who supported our ministry and work and continue to do so to this day. While I would not see me being the pastor of those places as a profitable appointment, I still see immense value in the ministries there and have great affection for those who loved and cared for us while we served there. It reminds me of the old saying about throwing out the baby with the bathwater. You need to make sure there isn’t anything valuable in the tub before the dump out the water.
So, I ask you, what is your Philippi, your place to be thankful for in spite of the adversity you experienced?
Craddock, F. B. (2012). Philippians: Interpretation, a bible commentary for teaching and preaching. Louisville: Westminster / John Knox Press.
Ehrman, B. D. (2004). The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Powell, M. A. (2009). Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.
 (Ehrman, 2004, p. 340), (Craddock, 2012, p. 5), (Powell, 2009, p. 348)
 (Craddock, 2012, pp. 3-4)
 (Craddock, 2012)
 Acts 16:11-15
 Acts 16:16-18