Stand Firm as One
Sept. 20 Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16
I recently walked into my current favorite bakery, Hope’s Bakery on East Burnside in Gresham, and received a funny, whimsical smile, covered by a mask as it was, when I told the woman behind the counter how wonderful it smelled in there. She replied: “it always does!” This came after leaving our stuffy and stale house to brave the smoky air, not as bad as it had been that morning but still in the “very unhealthy” range. I have become somewhat obsessed with a phone app called “AirNow” which gives the current Air Quality Index reading from the EPA. I have been checking 2 or 3 times per hour, even in the middle of the night, even though I know it doesn’t get updated as often as I check it. I have made a curious observation about how my nose works. While it was still smoky outside, when I first opened the door, I was immediately hit by the smell of smoke. But after a couple of seconds, the smell went away. It was just as smoky, but the smell was lessened by my brain, I guess. It wasn’t like being in the bakery, where I could finally smell something else, it was almost like my sense of smell was turned off or perhaps overcome by the intensity of smoke. I find this all to be rather disturbing, for it means I was unconsciously filtering out the messages that should be telling me how dangerous the air quality was.
You then must wonder how our brains filter out other signals of danger. How this relates to the “Fight or Flight Response”, I am not sure, but this too is probably a survival mechanism of some kind. Last week, I mentioned that our worldviews become hard-wired, and over time we react to things without consciously thinking about them. Here, we are unconsciously using our brain’s ability to filter out sensory data that might lead to overload and confusion. Our brains seek a sense of order and understanding, even though this means shutting out some stimuli and getting an incomplete assessment of what is going on. I have to wonder how this influences our perceptions of our world right now. There is just so much going on from so many different directions, how can we really get an accurate assessment of it all when our brains are not able to take it all in to begin with, and filter out much of it without us being aware of it? Is there a point where are brains simply shut down all stimuli in an attempt simply to survive the chaos?
I am the first to admit that I have a flimsy hold on reality, so let’s just stop here and get re-centered. The question that we are really trying to answer here is, since we are at church, is who and what can we trust during this troubled time, and on what should we build are faith? Jesus alone is that foundation, of course, but I have to wonder how much I am staying focused on Him right now. If you are like me, you are at the point of sensory overload from all the things we are seeing on the news and in the media. You don’t know who or what to believe anyway, and my brain is filtering out so much simply as a survival mechanism that I don’t even trust my own perceptions. My brain was already fuzzy, and the smoke has only made things worse, to the point where I am feeling dizzy physically and emotionally and am having more trouble focusing than usual. Even with the air now clear, my brain is still fuzzy. So it seems wise to stop and re-focus on our one true center this morning, Jesus Christ, and this church family He has provided for us. We need to be reminded what life is all about!
Whenever I am going through a time of suffering or confusion, the first place I turn for guidance and comfort is Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Paul is writing from prison, with little reason to believe he will be set free or even be alive much longer. Even so, he gives a message of profound hope in Christ. And as I usually do when the Lectionary brings us to Philippians, I am going to read the entire 1st chapter, not just the chosen selection. So here is Philippians 1:
Compared to some of his letters, this seems very warm and inviting. Paul encourages us to stand firm in our faith and our unity as a people until Christ returns. Regardless of whatever temporary problems we have right now, Jesus will bring to fruition the work He has begun in us. This passage is usually quoted to individuals going through a tough time but is written to the entire church family. When we suffer, we tend to isolate ourselves from others, perhaps asking for prayer but not really sharing enough to let others help carry our burdens. We are in this together and seek to support each other and encourage each other towards a better future together. Even bad things can be used by God to further His kingdom, so we always continue to work for the advancement of the Gospel, filled with the love of God in the Spirit. Again, we were never meant to do this alone: God provides us with a church family to share the good and bad experiences of our lives and grow together in holiness. We are to stand firm, doing works of righteousness in Christ’s name. In all that we say and do, our main task is to proclaim Jesus to a world that desperately needs Him.
Paul is not only writing this letter from prison, isolated and lonely, but is also distant from the church he writes to. He is living in enforced social distancing! He probably didn’t even know if he would live long enough for the letter to be read by the Philippians, and has suffered greatly, feeling hemmed in from all sides. And yet he is hopeful, for he knows that his suffering will be used to advance the Kingdom of God. When most of us would probably give up, Paul holds firm to his faith and looks beyond his current struggles into the glory of eternity in Christ. Can anyone identify with this right now? We may not be able to relate to the suffering Paul went through, but we certainly have enough of our own problems these days to have some sense of connection. Paul writes:
Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ; so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel; in no way alarmed by your opponents– which is a sign of destruction for them, but of salvation for you, and that too, from God. For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me. (Phi 1:27-30 NAS)
In other words: Stand firm and stay busy! Suffering and conflict are here now and more will come; but continue to perform acts of righteousness to advance the Kingdom of God. What does “Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” mean to you? Just because Paul warns his readers to be ready for his next visit does not mean we ignore this statement, of course, for now we are awaiting the return of our Lord!
With so many problems in the world distracting us, it is easy to lose sight of what we should be doing as a church. With the awfulness of the present, the eternal may stray from our conscious minds. We may feel overwhelmed by it all and fail to act on what really needs to be done. But Paul reminds us to look past our current suffering and turn our eyes upon Jesus. Stay focused on Him, for He will see us through this. Stand firm, for He is our one foundation, and stand as one people, for He has called us together to be His hands of love in a broken world. Paul says:
For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well– since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
What do you think of that?! Perhaps you are thinking: “I have enough suffering already, why should I suffer even more, even if it is for Jesus!” What would we suffer for Jesus right now anyway? We don’t have to worry about being put in jail for Jesus, although persecution does come in less obvious ways in our country. Whatever our suffering for Jesus may be, we are called to do it together as one people, just as we share our joys in Christ together. As Paul said to the Philippians, may we be known for “standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.” Amen.