This week was a big one for our students, parents, caregivers, teachers, school staff and administrators. For most of them, it marked the official start of school. After spending so much time trying to do the impossible – putting pieces of different puzzles together to create one picture – both physical and virtual doors opened, and learning began for another school year.
There are some who find back to school to be an exciting time, to reconnect with friends, to get back into routines, to start something new. There are others who find back to school anxiety producing, uncertain about classes and workloads, unsure of what to expect.
No matter how one generally approaches back to school, I think it is safe to say that this year, everyone is feeling some anxiety. Those who are directly linked to school – and those who have no ties to school anymore.
We are nervous about keeping everyone safe, we are worried about catching or passing on the COVID-19 virus, we worry about variants and another wave.
So yes, back to school is always filled with a myriad of emotions – for children and caregivers and teachers and school staff alike! But this year as we once again navigate life amidst these times I am reminded of wise words from that great film, “Finding Nemo.”
You see, Marlin is just like any other parent who wants to keep their child safe. He says, “I promised I’d never let anything happen to Nemo.”
“Hmmm…” says his friend, Dory, “That’s a funny thing to promise.”
“What?” Marlin asks.
“Well,” Dory responds, “you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.”
I needed these words for back to school this year. As you think of the children in your lives, perhaps you do too.
I have loved seeing all the first day of school photos posted by our Parkminster families this week. How everyone is growing! And perhaps like some of you, I’ve gone into this new school year with those other words I quoted from Finding Nemo a few weeks ago…” just keep swimming.”
This expression, “just keep swimming” – has become my mantra this year. It has been my mantra for dealing with the more frivolous things – like when I dye my own hair much to my hair stylist’s dismay. It has been my mantra for dealing with work-related conundrums – like technical glitches in worship and meetings and working with this amazing staff team and others to work together to coordinate the many elements of hybrid worship. It’s learning to run pageants and family parties online knowing they aren’t the same but sure loving the enthusiasm and participation, nonetheless. It has also been my mantra for dealing with the bigger things – like having major surgery in another city during lockdown. This mantra has been tested at times – like when I read the news and lament the crowds gathering to protest outside of hospitals and threatening to disrupt essential services.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it my friends…just keep swimming. This mantra reminds me that 1. it is okay if every now and then I have to adjust my expectations and 2. big picture, it is going to be okay, even if it is really hard right now. This mantra has, at times over these many months, been a battle cry; a declaration of my refusal to let this pandemic beat me. It has been a constant affirmation that my faith will help carry me through the hard times we are experiencing right now; that if I continue to chart the course – to lean into my faith – that I will journey safely through these uncharted waters.
In many ways, this is very similar to what Paul is saying in this morning’s scripture reading from his letter to the Philippians.
Philippi was a Roman colony in Macedonia. According to the Acts of the Apostles, Paul had traveled to Philippi and founded a church. The members of this church were predominantly gentile; and Paul loved them very much. The tone of this letter shows that Paul regarded the Philippians with great affection and deep longing; he had a lot of hope for this church that he had planted.
I know hope is something that a lot of us are struggling with at times, so it is important to point out that hope was not necessarily something that came easy for Paul at the time of writing this letter; in fact, he wrote it from prison. The Philippians’, knowing Paul was in prison, sent a member of their church to bring him gifts. The church member became ill when he arrived and, once he recovered, Paul decided he should go back to Philippi. Paul sent him back with this letter.
One of the main focuses of this letter is that we need to distinguish the things that truly matter from the things that don’t. I could see where, being in prison, Paul would have the opportunity to reflect on this. The word “joy” appears five times in this letter and the verbs “rejoice” and “be glad” appear 11 times. Even though Paul was living through a hard and arduous season in his own life, he was refusing to let that win; he was determined to proclaim the Gospel of Christ, to live in Christ and, live “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”
Again, I think joy is something that a lot of us are struggling with in these times. And so it is, again, important to think about the fact that Paul’s focus on joy comes from a place of deep pain and sorrow and vulnerability.
And yet he continued to live with hope.
That’s not to negate the challenging undertones of this text. Paul starts off by saying, “For to me, “life” means Christ; hence, dying is only so much gain.” The expression, “life means Christ” is one that does not have a great translation into English, but essentially what Paul is saying is that he does not want to live his life apart from his obligations to Christ. When he says, “dying is only so much gain” he is insinuating that death might be a better option – that his desire to be with Christ is more than his desire to be in the flesh. It is a challenging text.
One theologian unpacks it this way: Seen from the perspective of the oppressed, Paul’s statement in this passage shows Paul wrestling with this issue of the tenacity of death and hardship. He writes that he is “pressed in between the two [life and death]” (1:23). This condition of in-between-ness, of liminality, is the reality of life for subjugated people. They are alive but the threat of death from the empire is immanent. Placing this text in a larger social context of his time, we recognize that both Paul and the Philippians are colonized subjects under the rule of the Roman Empire. Paul, on the one hand, is imprisoned by the Romans (1:13); the city of Philippi, on the other, is a Roman colony. They share the experience of living under the rule of the Roman Empire. Life at the margin of the empire is truly “a permanent struggle against an omnipresent death,” as Frantz Fanon puts it. It is like living at the edge of death, right at the threshold of life and death. (Ekaputra Tupamahu, Commentary on Philippians 1:21-30, workingpreacher.org)
But there is an important shift where Paul talks about it being more necessary for him to remain in the flesh. And then he talks about why. And then he talks about how.
The thing is, Paul is experiencing what, months ago, I would have called an unimaginable suffering that most of us would never comprehend in our lifetime. But this past year and a half has challenged us all in ways that no one ever saw coming. And so, Paul’s words – his suffering – are so much more real to me now.
But this is not where it ends. Because as real as Paul’s suffering is to me right now – this makes his faith and his desire to stand in the flesh and proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ even more convicting, as well.
There are so many of us who believe that a better world is possible. The late, great, Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said, “Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” These words are so poignant at this moment in our history. Because we do have to fight for the things we care about; in this moment of chaos in our history, they do not necessarily come easily. As Canada sits on the eve of another election, we are once again given an opportunity to vote on how we imagine this country. How will we give voice and action to the things we so deeply care about?
Paul reminds the Philippians that as followers of Christ, they have to be a citizen of Philippi worthy of the gospel of Christ (1:27). The imperative in verse 27 is often translated “conduct yourself” (The Inclusive Bible) or “live your life” (NRSV). This is a political term. It refers to the way one would live or conduct oneself as a citizen in a political community (a polis). To put it differently, Paul is telling them to get involved in politics. Politics is not a dirty word. To be a follower of Christ means to be political in a way that is worthy of the gospel of Christ. (Ekaputra Tupamahu, Commentary on Philippians 1:21-30, workingpreacher.org)
And so, we keep swimming, keep fighting. For hope. For the Gospel, for the truth that love will always win and that, even in the most challenging of moments, hope will breathe through. For justice to prevail – and for the least of these to be cared for. For our church to not only survive this pandemic, but to thrive during it and do what God is calling us to do in this moment. We fight to find ways for our community – our faith family – to give back and to care for one another. We fight to keep our faith – and to trust that God will lead us through all the challenges of this pandemic.
And we fight in a way that will lead others to join us. For climate justice. For racial justice. For Indigenous justice. We fight in a way that is compelling and hospitable and inspiring. We fight in a way that demonstrates a deep longing and affection for others, like Paul so clearly felt about the Philippians. We fight in a way that will change people’s lives, that will bring about a better world.
Paul says we have to live our lives in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ; in a manner worthy of the sacrifice that Christ made, of the grace and forgiveness and reconciliation bestowed upon us. Paul says that these matters; that our lives in the flesh matter and that they have meaning, and they give people the kind of hope they need to believe in.
Now more than ever, the way we live our lives matters. We cannot afford to be silent or complacent. There is too much at stake.
And the thing is – we have hope. At its core, Christianity is about hope. At its core, Christianity is about the fact that there is always hope, even when, from the outside, it looks like death, itself, has won.
And so right now we have to show people what it means to believe in this kind hope; this death-defying, life-inspiring hope. Right now, we have to not only proclaim our faith, but live it through our words and actions. We have to live our lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel, showing people that hope is real, and it is alive, and it is worth holding onto.
And this isn’t going to be fun or easy amidst a global pandemic and a time that has already taken away so much from us. But Paul never thought it was going to be easy; in fact, for Paul it was really, really difficult.
But he believed it was possible. And that’s the really amazing part. When faced with imprisonment and the possibility of death, himself, Paul still had hope and he still thought the way he lived his life mattered.
So let us go live our lives worthy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, holding onto a hope that will transform our minds, our hearts, and our lives.
And may we do so in a way that will lead others to join us.
And then may we all proclaim this hope that will change the world.
Thanks be to God! Amen.
Rev. Heather Power