Rev. Don Beyers
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“Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Phil. 4:8
Last spring Bishop Andrew, our diocesan bishop, met virtually with a number of us clergy to hear how we were enduring the global pandemic. He asked all of us what we found most difficult about the pandemic. One by one my fellow priests expressed how hard it was to minister during this time and the profound uncertainty they felt as they navigated the new ways of being church. I remained silent for most of the conversation as I pondered what I found to be difficult about the pandemic. After my friends shared their thoughts, Andrew asked me what I found most challenging.
Unlike my coworkers in ministry, I didn’t find myself uncertain about my work in the parish. Rather, I’ve found the past few months to be some of the richest months of ministry in many years. This in’t to say they were easy, but ministry wasn’t difficult. The pandemic simply challenged me to think of new ways of proclaiming the Gospel and serving God’s people.
What was trying for me, however, was the turmoil in our society and Church. Strangely, you would think people would come together in a crisis. Yet, as so many of you have seen in the news, our world seems to have fractured into many pieces and people appear to be more interested in defending their points of view, no matter the cost. This has certainly been the case with politics, and not just south of our border, but in our country as well.
The cultural and political polarization also crept its way into the life of the Church. Ignited by certain decisions made by the bishops, clergy responded to the new guidelines in multiple ways. As you can imagine, there certainly wasn’t agreement among us during that time.
As I watched the discussions unfold in the early days and weeks of the pandemic, I hoped we might be able to have some respectful dialogue around the heated topics of the day. In retrospect, I think I might’ve been too naive. Against my better instincts, I engaged in some of the discussions only to find myself caught up in fierce conversations that left me discouraged and angry. Regrettably, rather than step back and take some time away from the discussions, I continued to participate in the debates and found myself more concerned about defending my point of view, rather than listening to my friends’ and colleagues’ perspectives.
Within time the anger I felt in those discussions began to creep into other aspects of my life. To be entirely honest, I was miserable. Here I was letting the enjoyment of my ministry and vocation be tarnished by discussions that quite frankly did nothing to further my life’s work and purpose. I needed to make a decision: either persist in the polarized discussions and be miserable or focus on the work God has entrusted me to do and to grow in holiness.
Right about the time that I was faced with this decision, a dear priest friend of mine and I went for one of our usual walks. I learned from her that I wasn’t alone in my struggle. As we both walked and shared our spiritual reflections, we realized the debates were doing no good for us, our spiritual life, or our ministry. I recalled as well a passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, the passage we read today, and Paul’s words spoke deeply to both of us: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil. 4:8) I needed to hear those words. My friend needed to hear them as well. She later shared with me that Paul’s message was so important for her that she printed the passage and posted it on her office wall.
Maybe we all need listen to Paul’s message to his friends in Philippi.
The strange thing about conflict and debate is that it causes us to return to a primordial tribalism and we lose sight of all that is good, true, and beautiful; we lose sight of God. Now you might think I’m being too strong in suggesting that, but I firmly believe that when we get so concerned about upholding what we think is right we forget to listen to God and each other. Our vision becomes narrow, and the more restricted our view becomes, the less able we are to see others. That isn’t only dangerous for our health and social wellbeing, it also damages our spiritual health.
We know not what the division was between the two women, Euodia and Syntyche, that Paul references to in our scripture lesson today. What we do know is that whatever their difference was, it caused their companion in ministry great pain, for Paul proceeds to encourage the church to help the women: “Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.” (Phil 4:3) Paul clearly doesn’t want to engage in the fight, but rather to return the community’s focus to our ultimate vocation: to live and proclaim the gospel: “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Phil 4:9)
Those final words of this passage are telling: “the God of peace will be with you.” If we truly yearn to have peace, the eyes of our heart, mind, and soul must be focused on what is true, good, and beautiful. This is not to say that many of our contemporary debates aren’t important, for indeed we have to wrestle with the social justice and theological questions of our day, but those discussions must first and foremost be rooted in God and a driven by a quest to seek what is true, good, and beautiful in all things. If we communally ground ourselves in the living God and seek first the peace which only he can give, then with time we will be able to navigate the important questions with charity, grace, and humility. Yet we must always keep our feet firmly planted in God and attentively listen to the quiet voice of God speaking to us in the silence of our hearts.
And we can begin doing so today. I couldn’t think of a better way to ground ourselves than in the living God given to us in Word and Sacrament. We gather this weekend to give thanks to God for an abundant harvest and for his many blessings. Yet this is not the first or only time we do. Every time we celebrate the Eucharist we ground ourselves in the Living God and are fed by him. Our gaze turns away from ourselves and to God and we are drawn by God into one body gathered around the heavenly banquet, the eucharistic feast. Not only do we encounter the good, the beautiful, and the true in this feast, but we are fed by the good, the beautiful, and the true in the breaking of the bread and outpouring of wine.
Our shared experience of this table not only draws here today, but unites us in a bond of love and charity with all God’s people. No longer can we leave this feast and live as we lived before; rather, we go from here transformed by the grace of God and go forth guarded by the peace of God: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:7)
My friends, let not our hearts be consumed by hate and division, but let them be drawn into the peace of God. Let us live another way, a way of humility, peace, and gentleness, and truly live of a life of gratitude for all the good things God has done for us. Amen.