Sermon September 24 Phil 1:20-30 Stand Firm Rev. Betsy Hogan
Have you ever experienced a déja vu? It’s a notion thought to have been coined by French philopher Emile Boilac in the late 19th century.
Déja vu just means “already seen” in French, and the idea of it is that one finds oneself in a place or in the midst of an experience, and suddenly there’s the feeling of having been there before. In a way that’s not about logic or empirical evidence, like we know that we literally have been there before –
But instead ISN’T logical or apparently rational, and yet it’s very real. We have a sudden sense we’ve been there before. Either the actual place, or the feeling of the experience, there’s a sense of familiarity. Like a latent memory, or a call back.
Déja vu. I heard the phrase a lot this past week, from colleagues and many others, as we contended in various ways all week long with the furious protests across the country. Parents petitioning governments, on the basis of religion, to use the notwithstanding clause to eliminate in our schools any mention of people being gay or trans. Like that’s a thing that’s okay. And protected under Canadian human rights legislation. Which it is.
So it was a really heavy week of déja vu. To the point that I will actually wholly own, with full exhausted openness, that when I finally had enough space and time this week to sit down and look at the lectionary readings assigned for this week, and read the words of Paul’s letter to the Philippians that we heard this morning, in order to prepare for the sermon, his words made me cry.
With sheer gratitude for how weirdly and inexplicably and wonderfully the Bible words written two thousand years ago can still speak into the now. And with great comfort and the gift of grounded strength.
“Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” Paul writes to the church in Philippi from his prison in Rome. “So that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents.”
I think the best distillation of this past week for me was offered up by a young woman I spoke to who said “I can’t believe we’re having to do this again.”
If nothing else, it was a good reminder to me that it’s not only United Church ministers of a certain age who are feeling like that right now. Because in all honesty, for United Church ministers of a certain age, for United Church ministers like me, as we cast our eyes back over the length of our ministries, over the length of our bearing witness to the gospel in this place – in service of justice and kindness and traveling humbly with God –
It was the one signficant and meaningful thing we could feel like we’d done. We participated HARD-CORE from the beginning and it was NOT FUN, in making this country a place where well-being and full human rights and belovedness by God are for EVERYONE. Regardless of orientation or gender identity.
It was the one thing we’d done. Last year, as some of you will know, I was invited by our United Church chaplain at Dal Rev. Robyn Brown-Hewitt to join her for the Dal Queer Formal. And we sat there and we watched all these young people, gay and bisexual and trangender, having a beautiful and joyful time just being themselves, created and beloved, and it was like – we were part of making this. If we’ve done nothing else with our calls to ministry, we did this.
And what I mean is WE did this. Ordinary faithful United Church people. From our comfortable pews in the 1980s that became a lot less comfortable, but we still did it. We bore witness to a gospel of unconditional love and the goodness of God’s creation – and not only to others but to ourselves too.
Because it also meant grappling with our OWN long-held values, with what we’d been taught and never questioned, with the norms that were so familiar that we’d never really thought about them – we DID then think about them. We listened, and we struggled, and we considered the import of unconditional love, and we learned – the gospel spoke not just “out” but to us ourselves too.
The comfortable pew became not so very comfortable, but the gospel spoke TO us and it spoke THROUGH us, and it was expansive and it was the breath of the Holy Spirit and it lived. And it mattered.
By the time my children went to school in the 2000s, their experience there as a matter of course was simply that people come in straight and cis-gendered and they also come in gay and they come in transgendered and it’s all good, and no big whoop, and people are people. Be who you are, and you are beloved.
It wasn’t an ideology. It was just the experience they were granted in the space where they were, in this place where we are. And because of it, my kids’ friends who are gay, my kids’ friends who are bisexual, my kids’ friends who are trans, they’re not suffering and closeted and hiding and desperate. They’re alive. They’re alive and happy and being who they are. And assuming statistics are anything to go by, with probably little if any direct experience of the gospel of love to which we bore and bear witness – and yet, at the same time, at least in part because of it.
At least in part because we went out on that limb, forty years ago. It mattered. So ya. This week? Déja vu. Feeling cast right back to the late 1980s and thinking “I can’t believe we’re having to do this again.” With the very same weariness as the Apostle Paul. Who sits under house arrest in Rome while his fellow Christians in Philippi and elsewhere are still out fighting the good fight – bearing witness to the gospel of love. And he confesses that he’s just so exhausted with two steps forward and one step back that he sometimes just wants to pack it in.
He’s torn, he says. “I’m hard-pressed between the two”, he says. Because on the one hand he just wants to retreat peace and be with Christ – devote himself to “the breaking of bread and the prayers” as he always puts it -- live out his last days and then rest in God’s presence… but at the same time, he recognizes that “to remain is more necessary to you”. To the Philippians he’s writing to. To his fellow Christians.
To the world around them. Paul can’t believe he’s having to muster it up to do it again, and the struggle is real. He’s HONEST about that in this letter to the Philippians. He’s weary and he’s dispirited and he’s frustrated and he’s honestly not sure he’s got it in him to dive into that ‘déja vu all over again’ –
But faithfulness is faithfulness, and God is good, and God abides. And we can practically hear it in this letter: Paul taking that deep breath, and yes. We keep going.
“Only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ,” he tells the Philippians, “standing side by side with one mind for the sake of the faith of the gospel, and in no way intimidated by your opponents.” And he hopes that soon he’ll be released from prison and able to join them.
Christian faithfulness begins and ends with love. Unconditional and outpouring love for others and for their well-being. But it’s not just indiscriminate. Jesus wasn’t just indiscriminate. What he ALSO embodied and taught in his sermons and in his miracles and in his parables is that Christian faithfulness begins and ends with love – but ESPECIALLY for the most vulnerable, for the rejected, for the despised.
That’s what the gospels show us lived-out in Jesus. An unconditional outpouring love for ALL, but at the same time a specific default ALWAYS toward those who in his own culture were sidelined. Rejected, unclean, second-rate. Lepers and women and despised corrupt tax collectors. Widows and orphans and Samaritans. Sheep that go missing and sons that go prodigal. And “let the little children come unto me, for in such is the kindom of heaven”.
Our faithfulness as Jesus’ followers begins and ends with a love for the most vulnerable that’s deeply protective of their knowing themselves to be beloved of God. As they are. It’s exactly the SAME faithfulness as Jesus’ followers that the Philippians and the Corinthians and the Galatians and the Romans were having to “stay firm” about, in relation to a world around them that was harassing and bashing them and arresting Paul for “welcoming sinners” and manifesting belovedness to “the unclean”.
Like it’s “promoting an ideology” their opponents raged at them. But no, the early Christians responded. It’s just making an experience. We’re just making an experience of all of us here being loved by God as we are. It really is that straightforward. And if we also take time to specifically mention that lepers and women and prodigal sons are ALSO specifically loved by God as they are TOO, that’s only because it’s not always the experience out there, so it might be new for them. Or uncertain. It might need to be specially noted. Just for the sake of clarity.
Just so they really know. Just so they can relax into the experience of it, and feel safe, and… get on with the living.
I suspect that Paul and the early Christians in Philippi would be astounded at the experience their firmness about God’s love for ALL God’s people as they are has contributed to here in this place, albeit not without some pretty egregious stumbles on the way. Because that’s the gospel we bore witness to and embodied starting four decades ago.
We made our comfortable pews quite a bit less comfortable. But we also helped make an experience in this place, in this country, of belovedness and goodness as we all are. Embedded in public policy, in life, in work, in school.
But if THAT would surprise Paul, I don’t know that he’d be quite so surprised that “yep, we can’t believe it, but we’re having to do it again.” He’s honest, in this letter to the Philippians. It’s exhausting. It’s wearying to his spirit. He sometimes just thinks “enough”. But then he remembers, it matters. “I know,” he says to the Philippians, “it’s necessary for YOU.”
Our bearing witness to the gospel of love – again – it matters. For children whose parents might not even have been born when we did it the last time. It matters. To simply uphold and protect and sustain for them an experience at school of knowing themselves and each other to be good and right and beloved as they are. Because they are. In a country in which ALL of us get to know ourselves and others to be good and right and beloved as we are. Because we are.
So it matters, says Paul. And I get it. It’s a little bit of déja vu. Which is pretty exhausting and dispiriting, but there it is. And welcome to the privilege, he says to the Philippians and to us – and I suspect not a little wryly – of not only believing in Christ but of suffering for him as well.
Thanks be to God, who grieves with us but also abides with us, as we faithfully bear the gospel of love into a world where it’s needed. Again. Amen.