This is the message I preached on Sunday, May 13, at Hanks Chapel United Church of Christ in Pittsboro, NC. I hope it blesses you! If you find yourself in or near Pittsboro, please join us! Hanks Chapel has Sunday school at 9 AM, with worship beginning at 10 AM, and is located at 190 Hanks Chapel Loop, Pittsboro, NC.
In addition to our reading from Philippians, since it is both Mother’s Day Sunday and Ascension Day Sunday, I want to also read an excerpt from Acts’ account of Christ’s ascension, in addition to our reading from Philippians.
“It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 9 After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.
17 Brothers and sisters, become imitators of me and watch those who live this way—you can use us as models. 18 As I have told you many times and now say with deep sadness, many people live as enemies of the cross. 19 Their lives end with destruction. Their god is their stomach, and they take pride in their disgrace because their thoughts focus on earthly things. 20 Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a savior that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. 21 He will transform our humble bodies so that they are like his glorious body, by the power that also makes him able to subject all things to himself.
4:1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord.
Loved ones, 2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to come to an agreement in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I’m also asking you, loyal friend, to help these women who have struggled together with me in the ministry of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my coworkers whose names are in the scroll of life.
4 Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! 5 Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. 6 Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. 7 Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.
8 From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.9 Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.
Still-speaking God who speaks to us through a mother’s touch, a friend’s caring voice, the embrace of loving spouses who stand with us through trials, and in every place true love bursts forth, we know you have yet more light and truth to break forth from your holy Word. Open the eyes of our minds, and ears of our hearts, so we might see and know what Word you have for us in these words of Scripture. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, my God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
The Sunday after Easter I was blessed to witness something that speaks right to the text in front of us. Some of you might remember that I serve as vice president of our denomination’s board for Eastern North Carolina. In that role, I get called to help with installing new pastors. In the United Church of Christ in our area, due to our churches’ long tradition of fighting for civil rights, from the days of slavery when many churches fought for abolition, to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s when our denomination was a key voice, many more of our Eastern NC churches are historically black churches than some other denominations. In fact when the diverse churches in our area in the 1960’s met to join to form the United Church of Christ, doing so defied laws on the books then in North Carolina saying black people and white people couldn’t sit at the same table in the way they had to for the vote to form the UCC.
Because of this background, many of the churches I visit through my work in our association, including the one I was asked to help install a pastor that Sunday after Easter, are historically black.
As happens in installation services, there was alot more pomp and circumstance at this church service than I am ever comfortable with — one pastor after another, including myself, each was asked stand to preach a bit and pray a bit, all while great Gospel music echoed in the background. This continued unstopped, until something I’ve never seen in a historically white church happened: All at once, suddenly everybody closed their mouths. Suddenly everyone stood at attention. Suddenly the music stopped and you could hear a pin drop, as all eyes turned to a little woman in a wheelchair being pushed up to the altar.
“Let the mother of the church speak” somebody shouted. Then a 90-some-year old woman who had served that church with God’s love and care her whole life talked about being there in the 1920’s when the church was founded, of the ways she had seen God speak and work there since it first started, and of the lessons she thinks God would never want its new pastor and its members to forget. There was hardly a dry eye in the room when she had finished. Though we all might have forgotten what the many distinguished preachers said, I don’t think a one of us forgot what this mother of the church did and said that day.
Her title, “mother of church,” is a common one in historically black churches here in the south, but not one I hear alot in historically white ones. That’s too bad. It is a term worth picking up, especially on this mother’s day Sunday, a term that honors the women who have worked hard for God and God’s people in our midst, often without title, without pay, without thanks. Our reading from Philippians focuses on two such mothers of the church in Philippi — Euodia and Syntyche. These women, though they have momentarily lost sight of the high calling being mothers of the church brings and so must be reminded of it by Paul and others, were ones who had consistently been such mothers in the church to which Paul is writing.
The church in Philippi was a church whose backbone was strong godly women. Not only were Euodia and Syntyche such pillars of the church that, when they got at odds with each other, it threw the whole church into turmoil, but the book of Acts also shows us its founding was as much out of the work and contribution of a successful business woman — a dyer of fabrics — named Lydia as it was the tent-making preacher, the apostle Paul. This was true of Phillippi but also true of other early churches as well, according to Scripture: in Corinth ,there was Priscilla, whom Paul praises in the books of Corinthians as a fellow minister of the Gospel alongside him; in the book of Romans the apostle Paul names a woman, Junia, as a fellow apostle together with him and the twelve, helping spread the Gospel where none had yet heard it and helping plant new churches where none existed. And no wonder! It is a woman, after all, Mary Magdalene, who first shares in the Gospels that Jesus is risen, becoming the lady whom the earliest church called “the apostle to the apostles” for it is she who first confronts the other apostles, those men who had huddled themselves away behind locked doors for fear, with the hopeful message “He is risen!” Wherever you turn, strong woman, mothers of the faith, pave the way.
A mother of the church is a woman who does as Jesus challenges all people to do on ascension day: they stand hearts open, waiting for and actually receiving the power from on high Jesus promises, the power of God the Holy Spirit. This is the same Spirit we call to come down and give power on everyone, regardless of their gender, at their baptism, when they confirm their faith as teens or adults, when they join the church, and whenever we take part in communion. This power Jesus promises, which we pray so often to have poured out in us, is one mothers of the church model having & using. This Power is pictured in Scripture often in mothering terms too: in the book of Genesis, we are told that at creation, the Spirit brooded over the lifeless world God made like a mother bird brooding over her nest of eggs, warming them with her own body until life fills those eggs and they hatch into new thriving little birds. Likewise at Jesus’ baptism, the Gospels tell us that the heavens are torn open, and a voice echoes from heaven “this is my Child, Whom I love, in Whom I am well-pleased”. At that very moment the Spirit appears like a mother dove over Jesus, brooding over him like a mother bird seeking to take her baby safely under the shelter of her wing. Even the word that gets translated “Spirit” in our Bible for this One who brings the Power from on High Jesus promises is originally ruach, a feminine name for God in the original Hebrew found in the oldest parts of our Bible.
These Mothers of the church are those who have lived their lives faithfully among God’s people, full of the Spirit who brooded over creation and Jesus, wielding the Spirit’s Power to call people to recognize and grow into their God-given identity as God’s own children, ones whom God loves and ones in whom God is well-pleased. They are ones who work to allow all such beloved ones to be gathered in, as Psalm 91 says, underneath the shelter of God’s wings, and who labor night and day in that same Spirit until our world treats each person as ones so beloved by God.
Paul paints a great picture of how not just mothers, but also fathers of the church look. All who act as leaders and mentors, who help others discover their own identity as God’s children, their own calling as God’s people, and their own place in God’s work of healing and setting free, are easy to identify. Rather than falling into the selfishness to push for their own way, their own pleasure, at any cost, which Paul calls making their stomachs their god, these folk prioritize the values of heaven, their true home. They work to live and act as if their ultimate reward is there and as if the big or little choices they make while on this earth can help make this world a little more a place heaven breaks out here and now. They don’t let anxiety — fear of what might go wrong, fear of not being or having enough — rule their life. Such anxiety is what leads us to put up walls to keep out others we feel are too different, fearing their difference threatens us all. We fear that God cannot provide for us and also for them at the same time, forgetting we are all part of God’s family, and others being welcomed in need not mean we go without. It is this anxiety that drives leaders like Euodia and Syntyche to turn on each other, fighting, splitting the church into factions — fear leads us to think it is our way or the highway, forgetting there is a wideness in God’s mercy so that in Christ there is no east or west, north or south, as the old hymn says.
To live out these values is to be a person who trusts that in God there is more than enough for everyone, to trust that we can turn to prayer for others rather than falling into anxiety about our future or theirs. When Paul talks about focusing on what is true, noble, excellent, praiseworthy, he is not talking about being like the statues of the three monkeys who cover their eyes, ears, and mouth saying “see no evil, hear no evil, say no evil” you often see at novelty stores — he is not talking about being Polyannas who just put on a happy face, but hide our heads in the sand by not seeing the trouble in front of us, so can’t warn people away from bad choices. We’ve all seen mothers of the church, like our own mothers, do warn us to avoid dangerous paths, don’t they?
What Paul is talking about is being people who focus with each person they meet, not on what makes them too wrong or different, but in what it is within them that reflects the image of God. It is being able to see and call out their identity as ones God looks at and says as God did over Jesus: this one is the the one I love, this one is the one in whom I am well pleased. It is being able to not just see the problems in front of us but asking ourselves and others, “how will you be part of the solution?” The mothers of the church we have known — and fathers too — have lived out these values, and in their example, called us to be more fully who God made us to be. They do deserve to be celebrated — and, as Paul says, emulated.
I wonder if any of you have examples of such mothers of the church you have seen live this out in your life — or in our life together here at Hanks Chapel?
Of course the challenge we have is not just to be thankful and remember these role models in our life, but also to take up their mantles. Whether we have biological children of our own or not, we can be mothers and fathers of the faith for others, when we choose to intentionally point others to who they are in Christ, to their unique gifts and callings, to the ways they can live out that calling intentionally, to how they can find their place in being agents of healing and setting free others in our world.
May we hear and answer that call together!