The Church Ladies, Philippians 4.1-9

Sermon:        The Church Ladies
Scripture:     Philippians 4.1-9
Preacher:     Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Date:              October 15, 2017

 

The-Church-Lady

Years ago, former cast member for Saturday Night Live, Dana Carvey, played a character called the Church Lady and the Church Lady hosted a little television show called, Church Chat; she was always dressed in penitential purple and had a way of making everyone she spoke with feel less of a person by the time they finished the interview. The character was a wonderful form of artistic hyperbole that pushed the far limits of the culture’s view of life in the church. It portrayed Christians as boorish, judgmental, petty, and who are intentionally looking for little things to become upset about. Sadly, Carvey’s character was so popular because it resonated with people out in the world and how they view our life in the Christian community.

Church Ladies.  All churches have them.  These are the well-meaning ones who “know better than anyone else” on how things are to operate in the church.  They have opinions on what’s proper procedure and protocol and vocalize definite attitudes about how Jesus is to be interpreted and how the coffee is to be made in that place.

I look over the churches I’ve served for 35 years and I can pick out who all the church ladies were and what their particular issues and hot-topic were at the time.  I learned early in ministry that if you are going to get along in a congregation as a new pastor, you had better find out who the church ladies are and get on their good side! These are people who have called me out in public forums for unintentionally forgetting to list their ministry in a list of ministries we were celebrating. They are the ones who stop by your office and leave a book on grammar with the secretary and tells her, “Tell the pastor to read this.”  They are the ones who walk into the church manse during dinner time while your family is trying to eat and complain about the way you handled a situation with another member of the church who just happens to be their second-cousin Frances.  They are the ones who put money in an envelope and slide it under the office door anonymously telling you to get a haircut.  Church ladies hold official or unofficial places of power and leadership in the church community. They can be eccentric and loving at best or they can be very divisive to the community at worst. This is what Paul is dealing with in Philippians.

There are two de facto leaders in the Philippian church everyone knows and Paul is left with no choice but to come out and address them directly by name in the letter. Throughout the letter, Paul has been addressing the issues of his love for the people there and the gratitude he has for them in sharing his financial support in the Gospel while he sits in a Roman prison cell. The letter goes on to address spiritual and theological issues that were being proffered about that were undermining the gospel news of grace through allegiance to Jesus Christ and these teachers were encouraging folks to follow old Jewish religious rites instead. And the final reason Paul wrote the letter is that he has heard there is dissension in the ranks and he is imploring the community to be of one mind and one spirit in promoting the Gospel of Christ Jesus. Indeed, in chapter 1:15ff., Paul describes how there were preachers and teachers who were performing their duties out of rivalry and selfish ambition while others were preaching and teaching from sincere, loving motives. The kicker comes in verse 18 when Paul declares: “What then? Only in that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that, I rejoice!”

The deal for Paul is that nothing is to get in the way of proclaiming the grace-full message of wholeness and salvation in Christ. Nothing. Not personal agendas or wish-dreams.  Not interpretations of Christian dogmatics nor personal interpretations of good preaching versus bad preaching.  Nothing is to usurp the prominence and preeminence of Jesus.  Nothing.

Just to make sure you heard me, what is more, important to Jesus for Paul?  Nothing! Absolutely! This leads us to today’s text where we read about our first-century church ladies.  Listen to the Word of God. I am reading from Presbyterian pastor/author/treasure Eugene Peterson’s version of the scripture called, The Message. Listen!

Philippians 4:1-9, The Message (MSG)

4.1 My dear, dear friends! I love you so much. I do want the very best for you. You make me feel such joy, fill me with such pride. Don’t waver. Stay on track, steady in God.

I urge Euodia and Syntyche to iron out their differences and make up. God doesn’t want his children holding grudges.

And, oh, yes, Syzygus, since you’re right there to help them work things out, do your best with them. These women worked for the Message hand in hand with Clement and me, and with the other veterans—worked as hard as any of us. Remember, their names are also in the Book of Life.

4-5 Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him! Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them. Help them see that the Master is about to arrive. He could show up any minute!

6-7 Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.

8-9 Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies. [1]

There are two things to note immediately. One, the church ladies in our Story are named as leadership of the church. They are described as standing, running, working together side-by-side with the Apostle Paul, Clement and the other “veterans” striving for the ministry. The imagery is all athletic and Paul says the Euodia and Syntyche were equally equipped with all the other leaders to fulfill and lead the work of ministry.  And perhaps this is why Paul calls them out in his letter by name.  Euodia and Syntyche are leaders and as such, they need to lead by positive example.

The second item to note about our text is that Paul’s words are not just to the “church ladies” of the congregation. He’s writing to all of us in places of leadership in the church whether a man or a woman.  Bill Self, long retired pastor of the huge Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta once remarked of the group he called the “disgruntled men’s cigarette-butt stompers” who would gather in the parking lot and would gossip and supplant others in the church. So, lest we forget, there are Church Men just as much as there are Church Ladies. Paul is talking to all of them, all of us, who have parts in leadership.

What’s he saying to them? In verses 4-5 Paul implores them,

4-5 Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him! Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them. Help them see that the Master is about to arrive. He could show up any minute!

Paul is telling the church to revel in God each and every day and do so in a way that works alongside with people they may disagree with but who are still brothers and sisters in the Lord. Euodia and Syntyche may have their differences but they are told to place their individual differences, feelings of entitlement and being correct and push them to the background. They are not to work against one another but alongside each other for the real purpose of the church community in Philippi which is to focus on and revel in Christ Jesus.

Have you ever wondered why the two women disagreed?  We may not know what the one hot-button issue was at the time but we do know that if a person takes a strong personal stance on an issue or belief, it is because there is not only a personal feeling “I’m right!” but there is a subterranean fear that says, “the other side is going to win.” Paul is trying to encourage the church to see the only other side there is to be concerned about is the side that is against God in Christ.  Quit working against one another and instead work with one another for the common goal in Christ!  Consequently, he reminds the Church in verses 6-7:

6-7 Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.

Paul tells the Philippians to quit worrying about who is right and who is wrong and lift it to God in unifying prayer.  When that happens, a sense of God’s wholeness, completeness, dare we say, peacefulness? alights on the Body of believers. The fears of forfeiting our personal issues, ambitions, agendas, and dogmatics will not become so important once they are brought up under the light of Jesus Christ’s illuminating Presence.

Today’s lectionary passage is a vital one for those of us in Mainline churches today. It serves as a lighthouse marking the way of the safe course. You see, American churches are not only under the pressures from outside the church in our culture trying to rip it apart but it’s also under strain from the inside out as our mutual Euodias and Syntyches, the church’s own leadership – lay or otherwise – are taking sides against one another pushing their own causes. Those of us in the Church have lost sight of the Lighthouse, i.e. Christ, and have looked instead to multiple-placed buoys of issues or political agendas in the channel which bob up and down in the waves to guide our course.  We get distracted from a safe course because we are so trying, straining to see when our buoy, or rather, my issue, bobs up into view that we will end up crashing the ship on the rocks because we failed to look at the one constant, the Lighthouse, to guide our way. If you don’t believe me, look at the state of American Christianity today.

Church, we have been watching and have become worked up over multiple issues for the last fifty years.  It’s not to say that some of those issues aren’t important to look at but they are still subsidiary issues compared to the Christ. Economics, social reconciliation and justice, race, and gender issues are all important issues but they must be seen with the Light of Christ illuminating them and not vice-versa. Issues of the day will come and go but the Christ is always the same. Paul is imploring Euodia and Syntyche to grab their differences, the personal buoys they are hung up on, and drag them along together to the beach where the Light of Christ can shine down on them together.

So, I leave this question for the Holy Spirit to haunt you with this week. Are you a Euodia and Syntyche that is sucking the life and energy out of the Christian community you’re in? Are you one of Dr. Self’s “disgruntled men’s cigarette-butt stompers” meeting in the parking lot pulling attention away from Christ Jesus onto your particular “thing”? If so, speaking on Paul’s behalf, then stop it!  The world has enough problems without us Christians creating our own. How can the Church be the Light on a hill for Christ if we cannot get along ourselves? A new generation is watching; what will they see? Let it be.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1]The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Walking into the Future Facing Backwards is a Dangerous Thing to Do!, Philippians 3:4b-14

Sermon:          Walking Into the Future Facing Backwards is a Dangerous Thing to Do!
Scripture:        Philippians 3:4b-14
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:         First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:                  October 8, 2017

You may listen to the sermon by clicking here.

There was a time in my ministry when I used to go to pastoral conferences but the same thing happened over and over again and I got tired of going.  You see, when you go a pastor’s conference you run into a bunch of other pastors which is not a bad thing, mind you, but then it begins to become all types of competition in the breakout sessions.  You introduce yourself and they do the same.  It immediately begins to devolve into some form of Freudian competition where he or she begins to brag about their church and its ministries, its size, and how impressive a pastor they are.  It got to be very old and I quit going to them.

This is what Paul is dealing with in the Philippian church, too.  There were people who were emerging as bigger, better, more theologically and doctrinally correct than Paul, or so they claimed.  They began to call into Paul’s credentials and credibility and Paul, and I can see his head and closing his eyes with a sigh, has to produce his resume and curriculum vitae. This leads to our text this morning.  Turn in your Bible to Philippians 3 beginning with the latter part of verse 4.  Hear the Word of the Lord!

Philippians 3:4b-14

4If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 

7Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 12Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.[1]

Paul is not preaching some prosperity gospel that if you live a good life or a certain type of life you will be blessed by God with material riches; on the contrary, he is reminding the people that the true path to God is by following Christ Jesus’ example. It’s not about living a life that follows every jot and tittle of the Law to complete some Divine scorecard; no, it’s about giving up one’s position of power and privilege to become a servant of the Master. It’s about cutting all cords to what we think is owed to us by others or society in general and rely on the gracious provision of God. It requires a Christ-Follower to make ethical and moral choices in a world where morals and ethics are now based on how a person personally feels at the time in how their behaviour or attitudes affect them over and against how their behaviour and attitudes affect others. Living as a Christian requires us to turn around and walk against the flow of the crowds indicating we are different and are heading to a better destination. He is telling them that to pledge one’s life and allegiance to Christ Jesus means one must rely completely on God’s grace and mercy as opposed to one’s own merits in living a “good life.” Paul then goes on to tell the church the only way they as a congregation and as individual believers can accomplish this shift; it’s a shift that will not be easy. Look at verses 13 and 14.  Paul says,

13Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Forgetting what lies behind.  What did that mean for Paul? In his day, “to forget”, meant to release something or someone to oblivion. A few years ago, a movie was released with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock called Gravity. The story revolves around what happens when astronaut crew members on a space-walk outside of the International Space Station encounter a large asteroid shower pummeling the space station.  The space station begins to disintegrate and the only remaining survivors, Bullock and Clooney of course, tether themselves together as they float off into oblivion, total silence and nothingness.  This is what Paul is talking about.  When he says he is forgetting everything that lies behind him, he is saying that he cuts it off into oblivion, nothingness, lost.

He is a member of God’s chosen people, the Israelites.  It matters little to him now.

He is born from the tribe of Benjamin.  In Paul’s mind, so what?

He is a Hebrew of Hebrews. He cuts it off into oblivion.

He is a Pharisee, a scholar and strict follower of the Torah, the Law. It means absolutely nothing to him and its cast into oblivion.

He is passionate about his Jewish faith and goes so far as to persecute who don’t follow the rules. He recasts that former passion into the opposite direction.

He is totally blameless with his following the Law and is considered righteous by every Jewish standard of the day. For Paul, it means nothing at all.

Paul goes so far as to say that not only is he forgetting all those accomplishments and his spiritual and cultural pedigree, he counts all those things as pure rubbish. Our English word ‘rubbish’ makes us think of what we find at the local dump. In Paul’s time, the word ‘rubbish’ meant human excrement. And why is he forgetting all his achievements?  First, they were his own self-righteous achievements based on the notion that, “If I do certain religious activities I will be loved by God.”  Second, Paul has come to realize salvation is a gift freely given by God and there is absolutely nothing we can do to earn it. Paul knew all his accomplishments of the past meant nothing at all compared to the high calling of Christ Jesus his Lord. Forgetting what was in the past meant that Paul had to turn around and face in an entirely different direction. He would cease ‘doing religion’ and turn in the direction of Christ Jesus to live a life of sacrificial allegiance to the Lord.  Paul discovered a vital spiritual and life principle and it’s this: You cannot walk into the future facing backwards.

Think about that for a moment. You cannot walk into the future facing backwards. Why is that? Well, imagine you and me go for a walk in downtown DeLand. Imagine the people on the sidewalk, the tables from the restaurants taking up space on the sidewalk, all the cars and intersections, not to mention the wares of the merchants positioned by opened doors and sidewalk sales. As we are about to take our first steps past Hunter’s Restaurant across Rich Avenue, I tell you, ‘Before we go any further, I need you to turn around and walk through town backwards based on what you think you remember is in the way.”  What do you think would happen as you made your way?  You will fall, trip, crash into things and people making yourself uncomfortable and the people you run into will be none-too-pleased either. What will those people yell at you as you walk into them backwards?  “Hey (insert your favourite derisive term), what are you doing walk backwards!? Turn around before you hurt yourself and somebody else!”

Walking through town facing backwards is a pretty silly and dangerous thing to do but let me let you in a little secret: All of us do that time to time in our own lives.  Instead of forgetting what lies behind, we cling to the past in unhealthy ways that inhibit our spiritual, emotional, or social growth.  Let’s look at a few examples.

Regret.  There are those people we have hurt or passed by, opportunities we have missed or ignored in the past we regret not pursuing. We get mired in, “I wish I did such-in-such back then because my life would be better now.” When we walk into the future facing backwards at our regret for what should’ve, could’ve, would’ve been or done, we miss the opportunities God has placed in front of us if we would only turn around!

Remorse. There are those moments in our lives we are locked up in remorse for what we have done or left undone in the past. Instead of swimming in the grace God bestows on us in Christ, we walk into the future facing backwards with guilt and remorse for what we did or did not do or say.

Anger.  Anger is another one of those feelings and attitudes that force us to walk into the future facing backwards. Someone or something has hurt us badly in the past; we have been emotionally, financially, or perhaps even physically violated.  We are consumed with horrible thoughts towards people who caused us this unfair pain and we seethe. The anger prevents us from developing new relationships, makes us distrustful of others, and leery of making or receiving commitments. Anger eventually turns in on itself and manifests itself as a deep-seeded depression. Walking into the future facing backwards at old anger and resentments means you are carrying a very heavy load that will cause you to miss your step and fall; all that we have to do is put the anger down and release it into forgiveness as we face forward to a lighter, brighter tomorrow.

Loss. Loss is another issue that keeps us walking into the future facing backwards. Instead of grieving and incorporating the loss into our lives, we grow sad or resentful because of it. It means seeing life as hopeless and hapless. All we have to do is turn around and walk forward and our sense of loss is bathed in the warm waters of Christ’s love and we can begin incorporating that loss into our lives resurrecting hope when there was none.

Nostalgia, also known as the “the good old days.”  The nostalgic dreaming of the good old days is a way to walk into the future facing backwards.  Nostalgia is simply a wanting to go back home or to a time that never really existed in the first place.  We create a past in our minds that help us remember redemptive and positive times.  “Oh, don’t you remember when the church did this or did that? Weren’t those days the best days of the church?”  Walking into the future facing backwards with nostalgic thinking will cause us to trip over new opportunities waiting for us in the future but we will miss them because we have fallen fanny-over-tea kettle on top of them.

The Peter-Pan syndrome.  This is a way we walk into the future facing backwards because we refuse to grow up and mature in our social, emotional, professional or spiritual lives.  Change is hard and so to escape the chipping away of old habits or ways we look at the world, we find it easier to stay stuck where we are.  We remained mired in either/or thinking, right/wrong thinking, you/me or us/them thinking instead of facing forward into the teaching of the Holy Spirit that your box, your world, your thinking is too small. Like Paul, we need to let go of the past and lean into the exciting mind and spirit-blowing power of God and see the world, people, and God with new eyes and perspectives.  This was Paul’s issue and if God can work with Paul in his stubborn ways, then there is great hope God will do the same for us!

Regret. Remorse. Anger. Loss. Nostalgia. Peter Pan syndrome.  None of these is bad in and of themselves; it’s the power they have at keeping us stuck in the past that is the problem.  What, beloved, is causing you to walk into the future facing backwards?  What do you and I need to let go of so that we can turn and walk into God’s glorious Presence in the now and in tomorrow? Let us let that question lean on us a little bit this week.

Forgetting what lies behind, let’s strain forward to the wonderful life ahead awaiting us in Christ. And all of God’s people say, Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

The Message: Who Do We Work For?, Philippians 1.1-8

Sermon:           Who Do We Work For?
Scripture:        Philippians 1.1-8
Preacher:        Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location:         First Presbyterian Church, DeLand
Date:                 September 17, 2017

You may listen to the Sermon by clicking here.

One of my favorite paintings is the one of the Apostle Paul by Dutch painter Rembrandt. Paul is sitting in his cell and the room is lit by soft candlelight. He is pushed back slightly from his desk slouched over a bit while his right hand, dangling at his side, holds a pen.  His white hair frames a kind but beleaguered face that is full of lines of wisdom and sadness.  Hanging behind him in the corner is a small sword. I love this picture because it shows Paul as a vulnerable and real human being as opposed to the fiery Apostle that went around stirring everyone up.

rembrandt-paul-at-writing-desk-854x1019x72

It’s a picture of an old man whose face shows the wear and tear of what a life in ministry can produce. Paul, at an age where he cannot do much more, is pictured writing his love letters to the churches he helped establish.[1]
This morning, we are going to begin a series of messages that will take us through one of the most loving and tender books in the Bible as we tarry in Paul’s letter to the Church in Philippi. This is a church located just miles from the Aegean Sea in today’s Greece.  Located on the ancient Egnation Way that connected Italy in the west to modern-day Istanbul on the east, it was a merchant town of about 10,000 people located about 800 miles due east of Rome.

Paul is presumably writing from his jail cell in Rome while he waits to face the Caesar about the charges leveled against him. He writes the church in Philippi for several reasons.

First, the Philippian church was a generous church. They were the only church in the day that sent Paul gifts to support his ministry. Not only did they send financial gifts, but they sent a member of the church to Rome to help care for Paul’s needs whose name was Epaphroditus. Paul’s letter to the Philippians was a thank you letter for the gifts and for sending their friend to him.

A second reason for the letter was to address an issue that may have been burning below the surface in the Philippian church and that issue dealt with the tension between unity in Christ and divisiveness in the church.

Can you imagine that happening in a church?

We are not exactly certain what the divisiveness was but many conjectures that it was a result of some unhealthy preaching and teaching that was going on that was contradicting Paul’s views of who Jesus is.

A third possible reason for this loving letter is that Paul senses there are those in the church who are actively working against him and the letter is his way of reminding the Philippians how special they are to him and his ministry.[2]  Let’s listen to the opening verses of Philippians from verses 1 – 8. Hear the Word of the Lord!

Philippians 1:1-8

1.1 Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,

To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: 2Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

3I thank my God every time I remember you, 4constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

7It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. [3]

In the midst of our digital age, our culture has lost its ability to write well; we write in snippets with a cultural shorthand as opposed to sitting down and writing a well thought out letter.  It takes time to write a thoughtful letter and its time most of us fail to invest in. Even handwriting is being excluded from many students in elementary education as the students are taught to type instead! In Paul’s day, however, he had all the time he needed to write and writing a letter followed certain forms.  Today we are looking at the very opening of Paul’s letter.

The letter opens with who the writer is along with his or her title.  Next, the recipient of the letter is mentioned and then it concludes with a greeting of some sort.  Paul follows this form perfectly but he adds a spiritual twist to it.

Letters in antiquity were generally sent under the name of one person but this is the one letter of Paul’s where he includes Timothy as an equal colleague.  Not only that, he indicates that their title is “servants of Christ.” They were servants of Christ but the original texts describe them as “slaves for Christ.”  There is no doubt as to whom they work and labor for in their ministry.  It’s not for the Philippian church any more than it was for the Ephesian church; as leaders of the flock, Paul and Timothy were conscripted by Jesus for a purpose. Who do they work for? Jesus. Who do they work with?  The church.

Sadly today, we have subconsciously turned that around in our thinking.  Today, who do the pastors work for?  The members of the Church.  Who do they work with? Hopefully, Jesus. This is something pastors of all Christian traditions must face daily. It is so easy to confuse the demands of church busy-ness with the edict of Christ to go, tell, baptize and make disciples of the nations, or at least, in the neighborhood.  When pastors and their congregations forget who works for whom, ministry becomes compromised.

One of my favorite writers is Welsh poet, R. S. Thomas. His words are full of grit and hardship wafting up from the mores and dales of his native land in Wales.  Here is part of a poem called, The Minister.

…The (Church) choose their pastors as they chose their horses
For hard work. But the last one died
Sooner than they expected; nothing sinister,
You understand, but just the natural
Breaking of the heart beneath a load
Unfit for horses. ‘Ay, he’s a good ‘un,’
Job Davies had said, and Job was a master
Hand at choosing a nag or a pastor.

And Job was right, but he forgot,
They all forgot that even a pastor
Is a man first and a minister after,
Although he wears the sober armour
Of God, and wields the fiery tongue
Of God, and listens to the voice
Of God, the voice no others listen to;
The voice that is the well-kept secret
Of man, like Santa Claus,
Or where baby came from;
The secret waiting to be told
When we are older and can stand the truth.[4]

“Patrick and Michael, slaves of Jesus Christ, to all the saints, i.e. holy ones, in the church of DeLand!” Like Paul, Michael’s call, my call, is to be the slave and servant of Christ with you, the members of this incredible church First Presbyterian Church. As a result, we will not always say or do what you want us to say or do as we are slaves of Christ and not of the congregation.  Our preaching may pinch at times because we cannot help it; the Gospel, Jesus, demands a response and change from those who encounter it.  The temptation is for pastors and preachers to cave into congregational peer pressure so we don’t offend the big givers or make people mad.  Yes, there is a place for tact but tact cannot invalidate or contradict whom we work for: Jesus.

One example of this is how I have chosen to respond to the whole Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage.  There were members of the church who left because I did not stand up and condemn the Supreme Court’s ruling. “You’re not taking a Christian stand!” I was told. It is during moments like this Michael and I are forced to remember, we are slaves and servants of Christ and not of influential congregational members. The people who left did so because they were not able to see I was a slave of Christ.

In my attempts to be true as a servant of Christ with the people in the church, I have equally offended all sides of this issue. You see, one of the ordination vows Michael and I made was to promise to work for the unity of the church. When I was told to preach against gay marriage, I was being asked to split a congregation; you see, we have several gay members and visitors and if I condemn them, how does that advance the Kingdom of Grace?  On the other hand, when asked to perform a gay wedding, I replied to the sweet couple that frankly, I could not do it because it would split the congregation. Ironically, it is the same reason I use for both sides of the issue! I am, Michael is, a slave and servant of Christ and we are working with you in making ministry happen. Our goal is to mobilize each of us in this room to be active, vibrant movers and shakers in the Kingdom of Heaven in and through this place. This is a theme Paul develops in his letter to the Philippians.

Beloved, who do you work for? You see, not only is Michael and I slaves and servants of Jesus Christ, but all who call upon that wonderful Name becomes a slave and servant of Jesus Christ. That simple reality requires all of us to ponder and decide where our ultimate allegiance is; is it to Christian fundamentalism or liberalism? Is it a board or to the Body of Christ?  Is it to my class, Bible study, opinion or political affiliation? Or is it to Jesus? Our allegiance is not to a cause; our allegiance is to the God-Who-Comes-Down in the person of the Nazarene.  Beloved, we are all bondservants of the Christ to be in ministry with others. Who do you work for, beloved?

I close with another poem by R.S. Thomas. It’s entitled The Country Clergy. Let the words wash over you like a warm washcloth on your face helping you to wake up.  It reads…

I see them working in old rectories
By the sun’s light, by candlelight,
Venerable men, their black cloth
A little dusty, a little green
With holy mildew. And yet their skulls,
Ripening over so many prayers,
Toppled into the same grave
With oafs and yokels. The left no books,
Memorial to their lonely thought
In grey parishes; rather they wrote
On men’s hearts and in the minds
Of young children sublime words
Too soon forgotten.  God in his time
Or out of time will correct this.[5]

Who do you work for, beloved? Amen.

Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
724 North Woodland Blvd.
DeLand, Florida 32720
pwrisley@drew.edu
Wrisley.org

© 2017 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, DeLand, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission.   All rights reserved.

[1] See Acts 16.

[2] See Craddock.

[3] The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989, 1995 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[4] R. S. Thomas. Collected Poems 1945-1990 (London: Phoenix, 1993), 42-43.

[5] Ibid., 82