Sometimes, I think it’s okay to look at a Biblical text and want to shout at it, “THIS ISN’T HELPFUL.”
It’s not the text’s fault that it catches us on a bad day (or month, or year). There’s still beauty and wisdom in it. But when you’re in the depths of stress, anxiety, confusion, and uncertainty, deeply cynical and mourning the fact that the world you live in is nothing like you think it should be, a gentle, comforting exhortation like this one from Paul can feel more like a platitude. Platitudes, it should be noted, are naturally infuriating.
“Do not be anxious about anything!” Right, sure, I’ll get on that just as soon as I answer 7 more emails at 10pm so that I can look like a good worker in the midst of a global pandemic. “The peace of God will guard your hearts!” Well, it hasn’t yet, so when is that supposed to arrive? “If anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things.” Oh Paul, dear sweet Paul, you wouldn’t survive 6 seconds on social media. We don’t think about the good things. We find every dumpster fire in the world and spend our time sharing articles about those instead.
The trick, then, is figuring out how to take this reading seriously instead of setting it (and those like it) on fire by the laser-beam force of our own cynicism. Paul, after all, wasn’t exactly a sunshine and butterflies sort of fellow, and plenty of his letters are basically a face-palm in epistolary format (case in point: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?!”). He lived in a real world full of greed and terror and anxiety, just as we do. His words surely weren’t just about being comforting and vapid. In fact, his instructions are a lot more interesting if you assume they’re coming from a fellow cynic.
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” These aren’t banalities, they’re marching orders. Rejoicing can be hard work, and right now is one of those times. Paul is insisting that it’s work worth doing – just like quelling our own anxiety, and presenting our struggles to God rather than flailing around with them by ourselves. He tells us to fill our mind with beautiful things, and I don’t think he means to ignore the pain of the world to do so, but to see where the world’s pain is being tended to or healed and to think about those things. This meditation isn’t just so we can feel better – it’s so we can do better, having been inspired and enlivened by imagining what actions are within our power. He promises the peace of God, but maybe this is less the tranquil peace of a still pond and more the kind of exhausted satisfaction we find when, at the end of a very long and very difficult day, we settle into bed knowing we’ve given what we could.
I prefer this Paul, who faces the chaos of the world and digs in deep to find the beauty, and I think a lot of other people – especially those who are run ragged, down but not out – would too. It’s a helpful reminder as we pass each day that this is the work that means the most and that will sustain us the longest. As for that peace of God, well, I haven’t found it yet; but for the moment, I can dig down deeper and trust that maybe it’ll find me when I need it the most.
Emily Kahm, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Theology at the College of St. Mary in Omaha, Nebraska, where she is a recovering cynic. She lives with her spouse, Chris, and her toddler son, Xavier.
For me, preaching and leading liturgy during the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging and exhausting. Everything has changed, and I am having to learn what it means to lead God’s people in new ways. Today’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the Philippians offers not only a familiar text to return to as a touchstone of what it means to be church, but it also provides a model for how we can grow in faith through the challenges of the pandemic.
Paul, most likely quoting a well-known hymn or liturgical response, charges the followers of Jesus in Philippi to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5 NRSV). First, it is worth noting that the “you” in this passage is the plural form. (A favorite professor of mine used to provide students with her own translations of the Greek Scriptures, and she frequently used “y’all” to indicate the plural. One of many reasons I highly recommend reading the Bible with scholars from Texas.) Second, the “same mind” mentioned by Paul could be translated as the same “attitude,” which connotes a habitual action.
Becoming imitators of Christ, which Paul charges the people at Philippi to do in order to remain faithful community, requires a group effort and growth into maturity that comes through practice. In other words, if you are not yet perfect, that’s ok. It takes time. It takes teamwork. It takes practice.
It occurs to me that much of what we do in our liturgical life is practicing being the people of God. A mentor of mine once likened going to church to kids playing “house.” When you’re a kid and you play “house,” everything is perfect. You’re a happy family. You live in a beautiful house. You have the best car. Real life, however, even for those with the fancy houses and cars, is not perfect.
When we come to church, we play the Kingdom of God. Through our actions of praying together, learning together, praising God together, confessing our sins together, and turning back toward God together, we get a glimpse of the emerging Kingdom of God wherein there is no pain, nor suffering, nor division, nor death. Eucharistic worship heightens this even more as it culminates in a moment of the gathered assembly physically uniting with God and one another through the sacrament.
Our liturgical rites transform us in community through Christ.
One of the greatest challenges for churches during this time of pandemic has been that our centuries-old ways of being together have changed. While I have deep gratitude and respect for the many ways churches have engaged worship online, outdoors, and in other creative ways, we cannot ignore the incredible loss of our habitual ways of worshiping and being together. I am not suggesting here that the new ways of being church are better or worse than the ways we were church prior to the pandemic—I am suggesting that they are different and difficult.
As an Episcopalian, I have a deep love of my inherited tradition in the Book of Common Prayer. I also recognize that the book from which I preside was formally instituted in our church in 1979—hardly an ancient text. Its contents, not only the words but its formulations, however, span traditions and centuries. It is a container of liturgies both ancient and new. This is not unique to Episcopal worship. (Lutherans, for example, know the difference between “the red book” and “the cranberry book.”)
Part of the struggle of corona-tide, as we’ve come to call it in my parish, is that we are not practiced in the new ways of being church. Taking on the mind of Christ, being perfect imitators of Christ, requires a collective rehearsing much in the same way that an orchestra or dance troupe or soccer team must practice together over and over to form cohesion and perfection.
When Paul tells the people of Philippi to “look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Phil 2:4), he is not suggesting that people’s own interests and wellbeing do not matter. Rather, he is showing the people that selfish interest denies the wholeness of community, and therefore, hinders the collective rehearsing of being one in Christ. Paul develops this theme more in his letter to the Corinthians when he lays out his Body of Christ theology (1 Cor 12).
If the old ways of being church have changed, how do we know if we are rightly rehearsing how to be the people of God through unity in Christ? The Christ Hymn in today’s epistle gives us something of a game plan.
Let the same habitual attitude of Jesus be in y’all (Phil 2:5 my translation)
However we worship in corona-tide, right worship that forms us in the mind of Christ is rooted in community. Community can look like comments in a YouTube chat; it can look like a Zoom meeting; it can look like an old-fashioned letter-writing campaign or phone call; it can look a million different ways.
How are y’all practicing community during the pandemic?
He humbled himself (Phil 2:8 NRSV)
Right worship that forms us in the mind of Christ is humble. It does not seek to exalt the self, but to humble one’s self in service to God and others. Jesus, the pre-existing Word of God, did not revel and delight in his lordship over the earth, but rather joined humanity as one of us as an act of love.
How are y’all practicing humility during the pandemic?
[He] became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (2:8)
Right worship that forms us in the mind of Christ is obedient to God. We read the Holy Scriptures and dwell in God’s word in order to learn how God has taught us to live. We keep God’s holy commandments, and when we stray from them, we ask for forgiveness and turn (repent) back toward God.
How are y’all practicing obedience during the pandemic?
Preaching on this text in this time could be an entryway into a parish-wide conversation of what it means to be beloved community and what it means to be imitators of Christ. One might reflect on liturgical decisions made by your church in corona-tide and see where they reflect the practice of humility and obedience and how those practices might lead to the exalted life in Christ. Likewise, a meditation on these practices could reveal new ways of being community and new ways of practicing the Kingdom of God.
As a note to the leaders of the church, take comfort in this Christ Hymn. For me, I find I am exhausted more quickly and feeling the deep grief of losing “the way things were.” Learning new ways of being is hard! It can be life-giving, but initially, it is hard! If imitating Christ only comes about through habitual actions and practice, it makes sense that new ways are harder than old ones. Much as the marathon runner must train for months and months before jumping into a race, we are only beginning our training.
May God bless you with community, humility, and obedience that brings us ever closer to the exalted name of Jesus.
The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen is Associate Rector of Trinity Episcopal Parish (Trinity and Old Swedes) in Wilmington, Delaware. He has a passion for studying feminist and queer readings of the Bible with a particular interest in the Pauline epistles. Charles spent over a decade as a professional actor, puppeteer, and director before completing his M.Div. at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. He loves being in nature and learning new cooking techniques.
 Bonnie B. Thurston, “Philippians” in Philippians and Philemon, ed. Daniel J. Harrington, vol. 10, Sacra Pagina Series (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2009).
 The Rev. Michael K. Adams in a bazillion (stunningly beautiful) sermons.
Even though St. Paul found himself penning another letter behind the dank walls of a jail cell, he must have been humming when writing, “At the name of Jesus every knee should bend…every tongue confess…” Within Chapter 2 of his optimistic letter to the Philippians, Paul stops his prose and begins quoting poetry. It’s a song of praise, a whirring hymn, an ode to Jesus Christ our Lord. Like any meaningful melody, music petitions a response. Aaron, acting as priest, blesses the Israelites with poetry. God, in turn, blesses God’s people (Num 6:22-27). Choirs of angels teach lowly shepherds a song of adoration, sending them on their way to Bethlehem where they would welcome Christ the King. While returning to their work they found themselves whistling the refrain just learned, hearts expanded (Lk 2:15-21). Not missing a beat, the Church’s lectionary gifts us with Psalm 8, a righteous hymn revealing the divine majesty of God’s creation. This time the response comes “out of the mouths of infants and children” in the form of cheers and acclamation (Ps 8:2).
By now, the Christmas music has ceased. While no longer played in department stores, on radios, or family road trips, within the walls of churches, parishes, and cathedrals it is still unabashedly Christmas. The Church finds herself on its eighth day singing carols through Sunday—the twelfth and last day of this short feast. Unbeknownst to most, the “New Year” was the first Sunday of Advent (this past year, falling on December 1st) so on today’s Feast of the Holy Name, the Church continues to celebrate. Today, the Christ child has been “given [a name] by the angel before being conceived in the womb” (Lk 2:21). Enduring to still sing carols is counter-cultural, offsetting what transpires outside the walls of the church; and yet, like St. Paul we must pause in the middle of prose and quote poetry. Today, the culture is quoting “Auld Lang Syne,” an 18th century poem written by Robert Burns. The opening lines are:
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?
It’s a poem asking the rhetorical question, “Should we remember the old times?” When asked in the context of New Year’s Day it serves as a reminder not only to remember the old, but to anticipate the coming year with new learnings and recollections, bearing in mind the experience of the past when discernment may be needed in the future. When asking this question in the context of Christianity, the Christian will ultimately point to Christ as its answer. For it is Christ who resolves Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, new and old. In his very body and being the living and the dead are made alive as the audacity of hope births unfamiliar imagination. Quoting St. Paul again, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (v.5). Put differently, if Christ is the music, then our minds respond accordingly – Take note, keep awake, and listen. Christ, like music and poetry, has the potential to transform our attitudes and ambitions. Like the shepherds, we walk away from the angelic concert changed. We are sent out on mission wanting to teach anyone and everyone this new way of participating in the Divine mind. When was the last time you stopped in the middle of conversation and quoted lyrics to a poem, song, or hymn? On this octave of Christmas why not give it a go?
The Rev. Brandon Duke serves as parish priest to St. Julian’s Episcopal Church in Douglasville, Georgia. Follow his blog at https://fatherbrandon.com.