It was late November, 2016, about ten months ago. Our country had just been through a brutal presidential election. Many, many people were terrified. Many, many people were triumphant. Just about everybody was angry. I was just trying to keep my bearings enough to keep on pastoring, you know? One day I sat down to put together the leaflet for our little Thanksgiving service, a simple Eucharist on the Wednesday evening before the holiday. And the lectionary offered me this text as the Epistle: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, 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.”
I put the text into the Thanksgiving leaflet, and then I put it on a page by itself, and printed it out, and put it near my desk, where I could look at it. And I did look at it, often, as we all fumbled through the changed American political landscape, those first weeks and months. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just… think about these things.
Those words are from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the source of today’s Epistle. They’ll roll around in the lectionary again in a couple of weeks.The letter to the church in Philippi is short, only four chapters, and it has a pretty coherent message. Philippi was a city in the Macedonian region of Greece. Paul had helped found the church there, on one of his missionary journeys. And the Philippian church was apparently one of his successes. He speaks of them so warmly in this letter. He warns them against some bad influences, and urges resolution of a conflict, but doesn’t rebuke them for misbehavior as he does in some of his letters to other early churches. It’s clear throughout the letter that he loves this church, and is proud of them, and anxious for them, as they face struggle and persecution for their faith.
Paul was writing to the Philippians from prison. It’s not clear whether this was his final imprisonment in Rome, before he was executed, or an earlier period of jail time. But either way, he wasn’t sure whether he’d get out, this time. He says he hopes to visit them again – but he’s also clearly trying to give them some words to hold onto, to live by… just in case. And much of Paul’s message to the Philippians could be summed up in one word: Abide.
Abiding is one of our Discipleship Practices. It’s not quite as hot today so you might not have a church fan in your hand, but maybe you remember the list from warmer Sundays! About two years ago, as a parish project, we explored how we practice our faith in daily life. The choices we make, the habits we cultivate, because we are followers of Jesus. And we summed up all our answers with seven practices: Welcoming, Abiding, Wondering, Proclaiming, Turning, Reconciling, and Making.
Abide is an odd, churchy word. When’s the last time you used it in conversation? It mostly shows up in old hymns and in the Gospel of John. Abide means Stay, but it means more than Stay. It means to hold fast with intention and love, to anchor yourself in something, even when it’s hard. Abiding is the spiritual practice of sticking with something or someone. Committing, investing, going deeper, putting down roots. Abiding is a practice that happens both among us and within us. Among us, abiding means building and nurturing a community of trust, solidarity, fidelity, and love. Within us, abiding means taking it all in – Scriptures and songs, symbols and sacraments, and the concerns and joys of our companions too – and letting it find a home in us, and shape us.
Paul doesn’t use the word Abide in this letter. But he does talk about Abiding a lot. He begs his friends in the church in Philippi to abide with one another – stick together, and love each other – and to abide with the Gospel as they have received it. In chapter 1: “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents.” Chapter 2, part of today’s lesson: “It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labour in vain.” Chapter 3: “Let us hold fast to what we have attained…”
And chapter 4, the beautiful culmination of the letter, is a call to abiding:
“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved…. Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, 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. 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.”
The fourth chapter is one of Paul’s most eloquent passages, and I’m sure his hope was to give this beloved church some words to live by, to come back to again and again, to pass down to the next generation and pass on to other churches. Words to abide with. Christians have been abiding with these words for nearly 2000 years.
The Epistles, the books that are letters to the early churches, are some of the texts in the Bible that address us most directly as Christians. And one of the ways we can use those texts, one of the ways to receive their gifts and let God speak and work through them, is by abiding with them. Finding a verse or two that touches us, or stirs something in us, and carrying it with us for a while -memorizing it or turning it into a simple song, or putting it in your smartphone, or carrying a slip of paper in your purse or pocket… Or posting it near your desk where you can see it when you look up from your work, as I did with that portion of Philippians 4.
So today, I’m going to offer us an exercise in abiding, based in Paul’s letter about abiding. I’ve taken some snippets of text from the letter to the Philippians, and printed them out. Take one when the basket comes around. There should be plenty of extras so if your first one doesn’t speak to you, you can try again later.
Take the verse or verses and, well, abide with it. Maybe it’s carrying the slip around with you, or sticking it to your mirror or your dashboard, or using it as a bookmark, or using some fancy app on your phone to set it in a nice font over an artsy photo and set it as your home screen. Whatever works for you! Just try to come back to it, now and then, for a while. Read it and notice the words, and the meaning, and the feeling. If the Spirit of God has something to say to you through this text, try to listen. It could take time. If you spend enough time with these words for them to settle into you, they may swim up in your mind sometime when you don’t expect them – but when you need them. That certainly happens to me, with bits of Scripture and hymn and prayer text that I’ve taken in, by dwelling with them intentionally or just by being an Episcopalian for 42 years. Take a text and abide with it. For a while. A day, a week, a month? I don’t know. That’s up to you and God. I’d love to hear what you try, and what you find.
I want to say one more thing about abiding. Abiding sounds like it would make you more and more settled – into one way of thinking or being, one place or community, one understanding of God. And that can be true up to a point – but not always. In fact, the opposite often happens – at least if what you’re abiding with is true and just and commendable and lovely.
Paul knew that, expected that, too: That abiding with God’s words, God’s truth, God’s purposes, doesn’t lead to getting more and more sure and settled. Abiding with the Gospel leads you new places. Abiding leads to Turning.
Turning is another of our practices of discipleship. We follow the teaching of Jesus Christ by being open to repentance, transformation, and call. The word “turning” springs from the New Testament word “metanoia,” meaning a change of mind that bears fruit in a changed life. In the words of the old hymn, “To turn, turn, shall be our delight, till by turning, turning, we come round right.” In the words of Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, in a sermon I heard long ago and have never forgotten, “God loves you just the way you are, but God’s not going to leave you that way.” Our turnings aren’t always dramatic; most of them are small and everyday. A simple choice to do what ought to be done, or not to do what ought not to be done. A choice to help bear someone’s cross. A choice to speak and act from love.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul talks about abiding, about holding fast and standing firm and keeping on; but Paul also expects all that abiding to form and to transform the community and its people. As much as he loves this church, as much pride as he takes in them, he knows that God has only begun to work in them. Chapter 1, verse 6: I am confident that the One who has begun a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Christ Jesus, when he returns to earth. Chapter 2, verses 12 and 13: Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you.
Yes, fear and trembling! Abiding with the living word of God is serious business. A serious commitment to the good of others will change you. A serious commitment to dwell with what is good and just and honorable and lovely will change you. “Think upon these things” isn’t an invitation to build yourself a beautiful bubble and ignore what’s going on outside. It’s a call to keep your eyes fixed on what’s good and true and important, and trust that light to guide you.
Abiding and turning – twin practices that only seem like opposites. Holding fast and letting go, standing firm and marching on, putting down roots and developing new growth. I invite you to abide with Paul’s words, passed down to us by the faithfulness of the church and the grace of the Holy Spirit. I invite you to let the words that come to you be a tool for God’s continued good work in you, helping you to desire and to work for God’s purposes, and to shine like stars in a dark world. And may these words and their work bless you, my beloved friends, my joy and my crown.