Updated: Nov 3, 2021
Hallelujah! Praise God, O my soul! I will praise the Holy One as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.
Do not put your trust in people who hold power, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob and Rachel, whose hope is in the Most High,
God who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; the One who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry;
and sets the prisoners free.
God opens the eyes of those who cannot see, lifts up those who are bowed down; and loves the righteous. God watches over the strangers; and upholds the orphan and the widow, but brings the way of the wicked to ruin.
God will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Hallelujah!
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.
Beloved friends, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.
What a week it has been since we last gathered here in Meeting for Worship. For all who care about the national election it has been a time of intense uncertainty, with many ups and downs as the votes have continued to be counted and the electoral map adjusted, then readjusted, time and again. Hope rose and fell as one watched the progression of events. The amount of sleep lost over the past several days alone is a sign of the seriousness with which so many of us take this election and the investment we have in its outcome.
The author of Psalm 146, which Nancy read near the beginning of Meeting, speaks to us from across the centuries, urging us to know who and what is worthy of our trust. The psalmist wrote, “Do not put your trust in people who hold power, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” In this season of the election we have heard innumerable claims about and from candidates for various offices who have been seeking our vote. While we need to gain clarity about which candidates we believe are best to give our vote we also need to be careful not to become overly invested in them or in the political process beyond the weight that they or it can bear. Voting is important and the persons who win office matter very much; like others of you I have spent a sizable amount of time this week looking at the electoral map and refreshing it in the hope of change in the direction I am convinced is best. And at the same time as we care deeply about these important matters we need to avoid seeing our candidate or party as the focus of our hope and meaning.
Similar to the composer of Psalm 146, the 20th century theologian Paul Tillich urged people to distinguish between that which is worthy of our ultimate concern – which can bear the weight of our trust, faith, and hope — and those things which, while worthy of care and attention, are not substantial enough to receive our faith and devotion. We need to avoid putting more trust in something than it deserves. And the political process, while deeply important and worthy of our care and effort, is not sufficiently substantial to be the object of our fullest trust.
The psalmist points to God alone as worthy of our full trust. And in the passage from Philippians the apostle Paul writes with passion and intensity of his own journey of discovering that which was worthy of his trust and commitment. In the verses preceding the passage Liz read, Paul had listed his impressive set of qualifications as a leader among the Jewish people. But he then contrasted these with the changes in him that occurred from an encounter with Jesus and becoming a follower of Christ. Paul replaced his valuing of the religious credentials which he had formerly cherished with his faith in Jesus and the goal of becoming like Christ.
In our passage Paul writes about his pursuit of this aim - “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal” (parts of verses 13 and 14.) You can picture someone in a race running as hard as their body will allow, putting forth every possible effort to cross the finish line. Paul urges the people of the church at Philippi to be similarly engaged in pursuit of the goal of becoming like Christ and to support one another in this.
There are three aspects to the case Paul made – pursuing a worthy goal, pushing forward steadfastly, and coming together to support and accompany one another.
In preparation for today I have been pondering these in light of our context of a fraught national campaign season and election that have further clarified many conflicting values and commitments of voters. What goal is worthy of our pursuit? How do we move toward it with steadfastness? In what ways do we accompany and support one another?
(Understanding a goal worthy of our pursuit) Paul’s articulation of his goal was based on his focus on the person of Jesus; as Friends we, too, are called to be followers of Jesus, but we are more focused on the message of Jesus. In his life and ministry Jesus was a teacher, healer, and prophet in the tradition of the Hebrew scriptures calling people into a life of love, peace, and right relationships. Jesus drew people into a new community based on the liberative work of God, described in the Psalm Nancy read – such characteristics as bringing about justice for those who are oppressed, giving food to the hungry, and setting free those who are in prison. Jesus called people to shalom, a way of being and acting which includes and goes beyond peace.
Old Testament scholar and minister Howard Macy wrote eloquently about the meaning of shalom:
At its heart, the biblical idea of shalom has to do with wholeness,
harmony, with balance. It speaks of health and healing, of debts
paid, promises kept and vows fulfilled. When in the Old Testament
shalom refers to political peace, it does not point to the stand-off
of mutual terror, but to reconciliation, to a harmony under God’s rule
in which nations convert their weapons to farm tools, close down
their boot camps, and their people snooze on their patios without fear
(Micah 4:1-4.) Shalom means justice for everyone, honest courts
and rulers, and compassion for the vulnerable people of society.
Shalom even means, in some biblical portions, living at peace with
all of the creatures and the world itself. Ultimately, of course, shalom
includes all people and all of creation being reconciled to God.
Shalom is indeed a goal worthy of our pursuit, regardless of which political party is in power and of the extent to which their policies and actions support or undermine shalom.
The second issue arising from considering this passage is how we move toward the goal with steadfastness. Foundational to the pursuit of shalom is the inner work of spiritual centering. We need to become increasingly available for God’s transforming power to work in and through us. Isaiah 40:31 tells us that
those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.
And 17th century Friend Isaac Pennington advised:
Give over thine own willing, give over thine own running,
give over thine own desiring to know or be anything, and
sink down to the seed which God sows in thy heart and
let that be in thee, and grow in thee, and breathe in thee,
and act in thee, and thou shalt find by sweet experience
that the Lord knows that, and loves and owns that, and
will lead it to the inheritance of life, which is God’s portion.
20th century philosopher, mystic, and political activist Simone Weil encouraged people to engage in focused attention as a spiritual practice:
Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing
as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed
attention is prayer. If we turn our mind toward the good,
it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not
be attracted thereto in spite of itself.
Early Quakers created the Religious Society of Friends to be a body whose relationships and processes bore witness to and formed people for the work of shalom. This has been described as Gospel order, defined by contemporary Friend Lloyd Lee Wilson as
. . . the order established by God that exists in every part of creation, transcending the chaos that seems so often prevalent. It is the right
relationship of every part of creation, however small, to every other
part and to the creator.”
Gospel order includes such Quaker practices as Meeting for Worship, Meeting for Business, and seeking to live according to the guidance of the Friends testimonies of Integrity, Equality, Simplicity, Peace, and Community. These practices are meant to involve us in ways of being and acting which are consistent with the relationships God has set out for people and the rest of creation. Faithful engagement in these anchor points is formative and supports the shalom of God.
We also move beyond our local community to engage in wider cooperative work for structural change toward shalom. One important dimension of this is the Friends Committee on National Legislation, FCNL, our Quaker lobbying and educational organization focused on influencing public policy and laws. FCNL has articulated the basis for its work in the statement, “The World We Seek”:
We seek a world free of war and the threat of war. We seek a society with equity and justice for all. We seek a community where every person's potential may be fulfilled. We seek an earth restored.
Lobbying and education of members of Congress is one set of ways to address these goals; in our communities and daily lives we are encouraged to find other ways as well.
The work of shalom is a lifelong commitment; in the words of John Lewis, one of the youngest of the 1960’s civil rights leaders and then for many years a member of the United States House of Representatives until his death this past July:
Ours is not the struggle of one day, one week, or one year.
Ours is not the struggle of one judicial appointment or
presidential term. Ours is the struggle of a lifetime, or maybe
even many lifetimes, and each one of us in every generation
must do our part.
The third and final dimension from the Philippians passage is accompanying and supporting one another. As a Meeting we gather weekly to reconnect, to be intentionally present to one another and to God. I experience our Meeting for Worship as an oasis in my week, worshiping God with people whom I treasure and whom I know carry me in their hearts as well. It is a time of refueling for the week ahead, of encouragement and support to carry my faith and commitments into daily life.
Part of the advice that Paul gave to the Philippians was to pay attention to those in our midst who are living their faith. There are many examples from our Meeting of people on whom I have fixed my eyes over the years.
One of these is Bernice Wisehart, who provided very practical forms of care, such as bringing food to people recovering from illness (my mom and I still remember with delight the fabulous chicken noodles Bernice brought when I had surgery and Mom came to help out.) Bernice is also the person who chose the beautiful blue counters of the downstairs kitchen at our Meetinghouse and the white tile with a blue border of the Fellowship room floor when she was on the Facilities Committee.
Shirley Wentz and Al Wentz are another pair of Friends who steadfastly give many forms of pastoral care and practical assistance to individuals and to the Meeting as an organization, including their long service as Meeting treasurers.
I think also of Ed White, Ed Powell Keith Esch, and, decades before them, Ed Nusbaum, each of whom cared tenderly for his spouse whose health was declining due to dementia, helping them to stay at home as long as was possible.
And of Bob Hunter, whose dedicated service as a member of the Richmond Human Rights Commission has, since it was disbanded, become a steadfast campaign for it to be reinstated.
And so many others whose service and example are sources of inspiration for my own seeking to be faithful.
A final aspect of support and accompaniment for one another is that of providing encouragement. “Courage, dear heart,” read the words on our bulletin cover. A framed copy of this picture