Monday, October 12, 2020

Again, I say, Rejoice! Paul, Pollyanna, and Philippi

Sermon preached in the Anglican/Episcopal Church in Ljubljana, Slovenia 

October 11, 2020

Lectionary focus text: Philippians 4:1-9

Hayley Mills as Pollyanna
Hayley Mills as Pollyanna

One of my favorite films growing up was Disney's 1960 adaptation of the novel Pollyanna, starring Hayley Mills. In it, a young girl comes to live with her stern wealthy aunt in a puritanical town. Gradually, Pollyanna’s infectious positive attitude transforms the people of this community. One scene that inspired a long-running joke in my family is when the pastor walks up to the pulpit and begins a fire and brimstone sermon with a booming “Death comes unexpectedly!” Thankfully for the pastor and his congregation, Pollyanna is able to gently give him feedback on his preaching style and persuades him to shift his focus to the numerous "glad texts" in the Bible, such as today’s letter from Paul, which encourages the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord. 

I was an adult before I began to understand the depth and nuance of Pollyanna and the theological discourse in the tale. If you come away thinking that the moral of the story is to always be cheerful—to practice what theologian Barbara Brown Taylor describes in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark as a solar Christianity where acknowledging injustice, doubt, and despair is taboo—then I encourage you to look again. Pollyanna may have presented as an abnormally optimistic child, but she was processing major trauma and culture shock underneath her sunny demeanor. She had been extremely close to her missionary parents who had both just died, and she had grown up until that point in the West Indies in poverty conditions, having never even owned a doll, let alone worn a fancy dress. Her parents had taught her to deal with disappointment by playing a game requiring her to identify something she could still be thankful for, and answers involving humor were encouraged. And so, when her whole world is ripped out from under her, Pollyanna clings to their glad game and invites others to join her, because that is a family ritual that cannot be taken away from her.     

Today’s lectionary reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is also more than it may appear at first glance. The thing about reading old letters is that, without knowing the context of the conversation—the people and their past conversations and interactions—it is a bit like listening to a stranger talking on the phone. We can imagine the other half of the conversation, and we can make educated guesses about what the stranger is trying to communicate, but some things we simply cannot know.  For example, who exactly are Euodia and Syntyche? About all we know for certain is that they were Christian women who worked alongside Paul, that Paul urged the two to be of the same mind in the Lord, and he asked the community to help them. Many a sermon has been preached about the alleged squabbling between Euodia and Syntyche, but as I searched through scripture commentaries this week, I found a number of New Testament scholars arguing that these women have been unjustly maligned over the years. David Fredrickson writes that “people in antiquity were often encouraged to do what they were already doing; this was the polite way of moral direction.” 

Frederickson believes that Paul was not scolding but instead writing them a letter of recommendation, telling the community that they should help these women who had struggled alongside him. The exact word Paul used to describe the nature of their relationship to him translates better to “co-athletes.” The metaphorical imagery is that of the two running in the stadium with Paul, which may have been rather jarring to the recipients of the letter considering that that during this time only those society viewed as true men were allowed to compete in or even watch the games, and to ensure that others could not disguise themselves and sneak in, no one in the stadium was allowed to wear clothing. 

After vouching for Euodia, Syntyche, and Clement as colleagues in the faith who have proven their dedication and valor, Paul encourages them repeatedly to rejoice in the Lord. Paul speaks of gentleness and says to not worry about anything but to make requests known to God. He writes that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:7).

Rejoice! Don’t worry about anything. Just tell God what you want. Taken out of context, these sound like the words of a prosperity gospel preacher writing from his private jet. But Paul isn’t a wealthy man who has no major worries. He is writing from prison, and he doesn’t know whether he will get out of there alive. Professor Christian A. Eberhart asserts that “the Apostle Paul could rejoice because he did not fear death.” His joy is not superficial; “it has little in common with the obligatory laughter of invisible (non-existing?) audiences in TV sitcoms. There is a difference between something funny and deep joy, which has a lasting effect and the power to change us.” 

Sisters and brothers, rejoicing in times of crisis and uncertainty and handing over our worries and laments to God does not mean we are naive, insensitive, or willfully ignorant. It is easy to praise God in the good times. Doing so in the hard times is a bold declaration of our source of hope and where our loyalties lie.  

A lot will happen between now and the next time we gather. Covid numbers around the globe will change. There might be another lockdown, and there might be a new treatment discovered. There will have been another presidential election in the USA. I suspect this fall is going to take us on an emotional rollercoaster. And so, my spiritual and mental health advice for us today comes directly from Paul. “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” (Phil 4:8).


The pastor's joy-filled testimony from the 1989 musical remake, Polly (Yes, I own the soundtrack)

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