09/13/20 “Rally ‘Round the R’s”

Philippians 4:1, 4-13     (Watch on YouTube)

Today is “Rally Day” here at Zion UMC. I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “rally” lately. That word “rally” has a variety of meanings. It can refer to a large gathering of people who support a person or a cause. There are “road rallies”—races where all the cars have a common destination and follow a specified route. Troops and teams and markets rally when they regroup in order to keep fighting after a loss or a setback. People and communities rally when they begin to recover after being hit by illness or disaster.

We’re witnessing a lot of rallies this year. We’re certainly seeing lots of rallies in support of political candidates and social causes. We rally each time we regroup after the COVID numbers worsen and we redouble our efforts to do the things that keep ourselves and others safe, even when it’s not comfortable or convenient.  Every day we hear the stories of people who rallied after having the virus, communities that are beginning to carefully reopen their schools and businesses, and states that are planning how to rebuild after wildfire or water or wind.

Rally Day in the church touches on all those meanings. The tradition of Rally Day began sometime around the late 1800s or early 1900s as an event to regather church members after a summer break from Sunday School and other regular programs, with the goal of getting people excited about supporting the mission of the Church. Here at Zion, we don’t take much of a break in the summer, but Rally Day is a good time to think about new opportunities for worship and mission and study. It gives a chance to think about our faith journeys—to reflect on what routes we might take to grow in our faith.

This year, Rally Day also feels like a symbol of how, in spite of all that has changed and keeps changing because of the pandemic, Zion has regrouped and reorganized so that we can be the Church in this community. When gatherings in person became unsafe, we rallied—with online worship and modified Food Pantry procedures and Zoom Bible studies. When masks and distancing made being outside together an option, we rallied with our parking lot services.

Today, we rally by finding ways to honor our traditions and our mission, even as we continue to live within virus-related limitations.  We rally to proclaim our faith in Jesus Christ and our support of the mission of the Church. We begin a new leg of the road rally that is our faith journey. We rally to show that, even when our world is turned upside down, we can adapt and continue to live out our faith in new ways.

As we have in the past, we adopted a theme for our Rally Day. This year, the theme is “Rally ‘Round the R’s.” For our Rally Day mission tie-in, we focused on making sure schoolchildren have what they need to learn the “Three R’s”—reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.  But, this morning, I’d like for us to rally ‘round three different R’s. We find all three of these in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. These R’s are relationship, redemption, and resilience.

Paul is writing from prison. We’re not sure exactly where this prison was, although the traditional thinking is that he was in Rome, having been charged with a capital crime. Imprisonment is only one among many hardships Paul endured during his ministry. Here’s the list he included in his second letter to the Corinthians: he had had great labors, imprisonments, countless floggings, a stoning, and was often near death. Five times he received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times he was beaten with rods. Three times he was shipwrecked; for a night and a day he was adrift at sea.

He was frequently on the road, in danger from rivers and bandits, from his own people, from the Gentiles, and from false brothers and sisters. He was in danger in the city, in danger in the wilderness, in danger at sea. He faced danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters, toil and hardship, sleepless nights, and was often hungry and thirsty, cold, and naked. “And, besides all that,” Paul says, “I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.”

If years of that kind of stress wouldn’t wear you down, I don’t know what would. And yet, he writes to the Philippians with gratitude and confidence. He writes with satisfaction in the work he has accomplished and hope for the future. How is possible for someone who has already suffered so much and now sits in a jail cell hundreds of miles from his friends, under the threat of execution, write with such joy? What does Paul know or have that enables him to remain so positive, and where can we find it as we face the hardships in our own lives?

First of all, Paul is blessed with strong, loving, caring relationships. The Philippians are the ones who give him confidence that his life’s work hasn’t been in vain; he calls them his “joy and crown.” They worry about him and are concerned about his physical well-being—enough so that they have sent Epaphroditus with needed material support. And, the concern is mutual. Paul cares enough about them to send Epaphroditus back to them.

Paul also decides to send Timothy to them, because Paul feels that no one will care as much for the Philippians as Timothy. Timothy is like a son to Paul, but he cares so much about his friends in Philippi that he is willing to sacrifice Timothy’s company and support for the well-being of the Philippian church.

Not all of Paul’s connections have been so loving and supportive. We can read in his other letters the anguish and anger other churches have caused him. But his connection with the church at Philippi sustains him—both in material ways and by their love for him. Even when Paul considers whether he prefers death to life, he chooses life because he believes that his life will be of benefit to the Philippians. The Philippians, too, are suffering hardships and persecutions of some kind. But, their mutual love for each other enables both Paul and his friends to keep going, not simply in resignation, but in joy.

As important as these human relationships are, though, Paul has a relationship that offers even more support and comfort. It’s Paul’s relationship with Christ. Paul can press on toward what is ahead because, he says, “Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

Secondly, Paul trusts in redemption. Suffering will be redeemed; out of it will come something good. At the beginning of the letter, Paul writes “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; and most of the brothers and sisters, having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.”

Even the proclamation of those who are motivated by opposition to Paul is ultimately redeemed by Christ being proclaimed “in every way,” Paul says. He assures the Philippians that their suffering, too, will be redeemed as it becomes evidence of their saving faith. “Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death,” Paul says. Our God is a God of redemption, and Paul is confident of God’s redemptive power poured out in Jesus Christ.

The last “R” Paul has is resilience. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as “adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress…it involves ‘bouncing back’ from these difficult experiences, but it can also involve profound personal growth.” This is what we see in Paul’s letter. He is under tremendous stress, and has lived with stress and hardship for years, and yet he is unbroken by it. He has learned to bounce back from times of need because he knows that he doesn’t have to rely on himself. He has a source of strength much greater than his own. He knows that he can do all things, endure all things, find hope in all things, through his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

In the face of whatever we’re dealing with, we, like Paul, can rally ‘round the R’s. We can rally ‘round our relationships. If COVID has taught us anything, it’s how precious our friends and family are to us, and how precious we are to them. It’s also given us opportunities to forge new relationships.

At the beginning of the pandemic shut-down, the young mother who lives across the street from me called me. She offered to provide any help we might need—pick up groceries, run errands, and so on. At first, I thought her offer was a little curious; I don’t really know her that well. But then I realized that she had thought about how Marc and I were in the at-risk age group, and how we don’t have any family in the area. She made sure that we knew we could count on her help if we needed it. When times are hard, we rally to each other’s sides, and our human relationships give us both practical, material help and emotional and spiritual help.

But as important as our human connections are, it’s in our relationship with Jesus that we find our greatest support. Knowing that he is near us always, being able to share with him all our pain and worry, finding joy in him that doesn’t depend on our circumstances, and resting in the peace of God which passes all understanding, is what will guard our hearts and minds, and keep our spirits strong.

Like Paul, we can rally ‘round our trust in God’s redemptive power. Suffering is not the useless absurdity that our friend Ecclesiastes might have called it.  Hardship is not good; there’s no use denying that. We shouldn’t minimize worry and pain, grief and loneliness by trying to pretty them up. But God can redeem suffering by wringing something useful—maybe even beautiful—from it.

The theologian Marjorie Suchocki says that God uses everything that’s in the world to create the world that God is calling into being.  In the midst of our trials, we may have a hard time imagining how that might be. Even when a crisis has passed, it may be a long time before we see how God has used it. But God does use everything for good for those who love God, and we can trust in God’s redemptive power, poured out in Jesus Christ.

Rallying ‘round our relationships and our trust in redemption enables us to rally ‘round resilience. Like Paul, we can rely on Christ to strengthen us in all things, so that we can bend but not break when we endure trials and hardships. We have the ability to, not just endure, but be content with whatever we have, wherever we are. We will look beyond the present difficulties to the future with hope and confidence, because we know that our future is held in God’s hands. We will bounce back but, in good times and bad, we’ll also allow the power of the Holy Spirit to shape us and help us grow in our knowledge and love of God.

Relationship, redemption, and resilience: these are the R’s we can rally ‘round on this Rally Day. But, in a sense, every day is Rally Day. We have some special challenges to face these days. But none of our lives have been free from hardship in the past, and we can expect that we will have new ones to face in the future. We’ll have setbacks to rally from. We will rally together to support what we hold dear, either online now or face-of-face in the future. And we will continue on the spiritual road rally of our life-long faith journeys. With Paul, we can rally ‘round the R’s: our relationships, our trust in God’s redemptive power, and the resilience that comes from Christ, who strengthens us to do all things. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young