Sermon September 20 -- Philippians 1:20-30 Keeping On Rev. Betsy Hogan
You know that thing where you don't really want to do something but you kind of feel like you should anyway? Well… I don't really like preaching on Paul. On his writings, his letters, like the one to the Philippians that we just heard.
I've honestly never really liked preaching on Paul, as opposed to the gospels or the books of the older testament… But it’s not because I have anything particularly against Paul. I quite like the letter to the Philippians, actually, though my favourite of his letters is definitely First Corinthians…
But the thing is, Paul's letters are really kind of already sermons -- he takes the message of Jesus, the teachings of the older testament, and then he unpacks them for his congregations in each of their contexts. So his letters are essentially already sermons, in that sense.
Which makes it feel for me kind of weird to preach on Paul because it's a bit like trying to preach on someone else's preaching, rather than preaching on the Story with a capital S itself. So I don’t love it.
But sometimes, needs must. And last week, our gospel lesson was about forgiveness. Jesus' teaching about forgiveness. How many times do we need to forgive?, Peter asks him. To let go of the need for revenge, the need for retaliation, even the need for an apology, decide the books are balanced as they are, and move on? How many times do we need to forgive?
And Jesus answers him, not once, not even seven times, but seventy times seven times. Which already sounds like a whole lot of times, and then we remember that what that means in bible-speak is actually infinity times, and that’s just ludicrous.
It's a seriously difficult message. There really isn't any way to make it NOT a difficult message, and so there's never a surprise when it makes us reactive. Like, what would Jesus say about people who lie, and just keep lying? What would Jesus say about a neighbour who's getting more and more belligerent? What would Jesus say when all you want to do is have the tiny little livelihood fishery a treaty allows you to have and the court's upheld that, and you keep getting sabotaged. And harassed. And threatened. Over and over and over.
The thing is, of course, that what Jesus would say about any of these things is exactly what Jesus would say about everything else. How many times do we forgive? Let go of the need for revenge, retaliation, just done and keep on keeping on? Infinity times.
Jesus is not a contextual theologian -- when he says it, he means it. World without end, amen. How many times do we forgive, let go and move on, rather than needing revenge, needing to retaliate, needing an apology, punishment, anything? Infinity times. There's a reason he landed up on that cross.
Which is NOT to say, as I noted last week at some length, that his intent is that WE’RE meant to line ourselves up to just keep taking it. Because that is NOT his intent, not ever. Let go and move on, yes, refrain from retaliating in kind, yes, turn the other cheek, absolutely – but turn the whole rest of yourself too, if you need to, and get gone.
Because we are not Jesus. And that cross is not our mission. Which is good, and it’s fine, but in some ways it makes it even more frustrating that what we’re still left with, even taking into consideration that we are NOT being asked to submit and resubmit ourselves to repeated and unrelenting danger, what we’re still left with is “forgive infinity times”.
It's just so…. unrealistic. A teaching like forgive infinity times, it’s so unrealistic. It feels naïve in the face of real trauma, it's not contextually-flexible in the face of despotic dictators, it's not nuanced when the world is complicated -- and there isn't any way around that. There's never been any way around that, though theologians for centuries have of course built up beautiful theories to attempt to get around it.
Which are fascinating, and they've helped humanity cope with devastating infringements on life and freedom, for centuries… But they're also all ultimately flawed in the sense that to get where they want to go, they all have to sort of sneak around that immoveable wall that is… Jesus being Completely Unrealistic!
Because, infinity times. And when he said it, he meant it. As our call to transform the world by behaving as though it's already transformed.
Which is why… I am this week forced to admit that it actually can be helpful to also have Paul to preach on. To also have Paul's letters to preach on. His sermons, as it were, on Jesus' teachings.
Because at least Paul's writings give us a glimpse, early on, at the very beginning of this whole Christian enterprise, into how all the teachings of Jesus the Completely Unrealistic started trying to be lived out in the actual world.
Because Paul IS realistic. Paul lives in the real world. Did Jesus ever say that we should forgive our enemies in part because it's superfun to heap hot coals on their heads and watch them squirm? No he did not. But Paul does. In his letter to the Romans.
And why? Because Paul lives in the real world and he knows that sometimes a spoonful of sugar helps that medicine go down.
And I don't say this by way of letting Paul completely off the hook. Because there are a lot of ways in which life in the real world led Paul down some roads that I think might have made Jesus cringe.
I often think, when I consider Paul versus Jesus, for example, of a fundamentalist former Salvation Army woman in my first congregation. Who -- despite Paul's firm injunction that women be silent in church -- had no difficulty at all in embracing a woman minister.
Because biblical literalist though she was – and she really was – she considered there to be a very distinct hierarchy in what and who she had to pay attention to, even in the Bible. And so “Pfft”, she said when I asked her about it. “That’s just Paul. Jesus would never have said anything so foolish".
Which of course is absolutely true! He didn't! And sometimes life in the real world did indeed lead Paul and other early church leaders to, let's say, "adapt" the message of Jesus in ways that Jesus would have found appalling, just so it'd go down a little easier in that real world… where, say, letting women lead in worship’s just going to be one more thing for the neighbours to get riled up about. Paul and other early church leaders did do that.
But nevertheless, it's still helpful, particularly when it comes to the most difficult of Jesus' teachings, to find through the writings of Paul a glimpse into how these teachings played out on the ground. And to go there for insight. To preach on Paul, in fact. Even though it's like preaching on preaching.
Because it's hard to get more "real world" than the fact that the passage from Philippians that we heard earlier is actually written by Paul from prison. It's not 100% clear whether he's in prison in Ephesus or he's in prison in Rome, but he's in prison. He's been arrested for sedition -- for continuing to preach the Way of Jesus as over-against devotion to the Roman Empire despite ever-more-violent "warnings" and attempts to silence him.
And it is not pleasant, in prison. But the nice thing about Paul is that he's completely clear about that. It is not pleasant. He is not enjoying himself. There's no sort of gloriously heavenly plane on which he's hovering, untouched by it all -- he's in prison and it's desperate. And he writes to the Philippians completely honestly about that -- as Martin Luther King wrote from the Birmingham Jail, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Tegel Prison -- he's in prison and it's desperate. And he is not feeling very forgiving.
It's terrible enough, in fact, Paul writes to the Philippians, that as he sits there, in his stinking freezing cell, he finds himself honestly thinking "Why keep at this? Why fight to live? I'm not afraid to die, I know God awaits me in the realm beyond, whatever that looks like -- why keep at this? Because it's awful."
He's so tired. And it's the honesty of that, that I think is what's so important, that's the reason why I'm glad (however briefly) that we DO have Paul to get preached on by times.
Not that he softens Jesus' message in any way, but at least -- unlike Jesus, who pretty much puts it out there: infinity times, amen -- at least Paul acknowledges out loud the fact that it's hard. It's hard to plug away at forgiveness and non-violence and hope and justice and better in a culture of empire and power and fear. At least Paul acknowledges out loud the fact that he actually spends in his prison cell a not insignificant amount of time debating the relative wisdom, under the circumstances, of just packing it in.
Like, how much swimming against the current did he really sign up for when in the grand scheme of things it seems -- no matter how hard he swims, and how hard he keeps swimming against Big Empire and the Powers that Be -- like he's not getting anywhere?
Paul in prison is tired. He is not feeling forgiving and hopeful. And he's honest about that. He's tired and he's discouraged. What he wants, and what he’s given his life’s work to building, is the kind of humane and just and peaceful world that Jesus’ teaching lifts up for him. And what he keeps hitting instead is Big Empire getting bigger. And even less just. And even less peaceful. And he’s tired. And he’s discouraged.
And even though it may not seem like it, I think that it's a gift to the Philippians and to us that he admits it. That he says to them out loud, well, in writing, "You know what? Sometimes, sitting here, I find myself daydreaming about just packing it in."
Because he knows – he says it in his letter – he knows that that’s exactly how the Philippians have been feeling sometimes too. He knows the Philippians are having the same struggles that he is. Swimming against the current, trying to keep alive a belief in better when it feels like grasping at straws.
So did it help the Philippians to know -- since as he says, they're having the same struggles he is -- did it help them to know he didn't find it easy? That swimming against the current is real work? That he got tired? That he got discouraged?
I have to believe it did. Because there's a danger, I think, when the message itself is so patently "unrealistic" -- how many times? infinity times -- there's a danger of that message just winding up archived. Unless someone also says from deep in the middle of honest weariness "but it's still worth it". The arc of history may be horrendously long, but by God it does bend toward justice.
So I think it did help the Philippians. The usual Bible-rule is that if it's in there, it's because someone thought it ought to be remembered. So I think it did help the Philippians to receive the gift of Paul's honesty about how weary he was.
Not only because I would imagine they were plenty weary too -- but, maybe even more importantly, because if nothing else.... It meant they ALSO knew he really meant it -- and we ALSO know he really means it -- when he then says to the Philippians "But then I thought of all of you, and I knew that of course it’s still worth it".
Because what’s he reminding them, and us, of in that moment? Over and against Big Empire getting bigger? And uglier? And seemingly more intractable than ever?
That this "unrealistic" belief in better – it's not just a theory. It's not just an intellectual exercise. It matters because of each other. Paul's in prison. He'll probably die there. He could just check out. "But then I think of all of you," he says – and keeping on keeping on matters.
THEY matter. To him. Enough that no matter how tired he is, he still wants to add goodness into the world, moments of grace and kindness and care. He still wants to on purpose listen and learn more and understand better. He still wants to keep praying, keep speaking up, keep encouraging and comforting and demanding better. Even though he's tired. Because they matter. And they know he really means it because he's been honest about how tired he is.
They're tired too. We might be tired too. But when we think of each other? The goodness we have to add into the world, the better we hope for and pray for and stand up for – when we think of each other, even if we're tired, these still matter. The difference, the difference, the difference, we do actually make, incrementally, by keeping on keeping on, by being the caring people God invites us to be – when we think of it in terms of each other, of course these still matter.
So, you know that thing where you don’t really want to do something? Because you're tired or you're discouraged, or it just seems like why even bother? Do it for someone else, is what Paul says. Think about them and do it for them. Keep on keeping on, and do it for each other. Remember that others are doing it for you. Because we're not alone. Ever. Thanks be to God. Amen.