This past week on one of those really warm sunny days I was at home in the afternoon and I opened the front door to let the warm afternoon sun stream in. This attracted both our big grey tabby cat, Honshu, and our spunky little mini dachshund, Mocha. They both circled the patch of warm sunlight on the carpet eyeing each other and the posturing began. It ended as it always does with the cat, who is at least half again as big as the dog and towers over her, planting herself smack dab in the middle of the warm sunlit patch, while the dog had to settle for a corner – a safe distance away -where she was half in the sun and half in the shade.
In the three years they have been sharing our house with each other, there have been poignant moments when they have touched noses peaceably, but those moments have been few and far between and fleeting. What I have concluded is that their ongoing conflict with each other seems to stem from the fact that they are well – a dog and a cat. Now I know that is stating the obvious, but as an adult I have never before lived with a dog and a cat, and I am now really noticing how different these two species are. Our cat, Honshu is a typical cat, as one character on a favorite sitcom put it a cat is “temperamental, unpredictable, complex and hard to read, she makes people work before she lets them in, but if they put the time in and prove they care, she opens herself up to them.” (April on Parks & Rec, Season 6 episode 7)
Our dog on the other hand is like many dogs is loyal, territorial, eager to please, very predictable, and always ready to lick your face.
But I am not giving up on the idea that they can be friends, and often when they are at a stand- off with each other I will plop myself down in the space between them on the floor – a space crackling with tension- and connect them to each other by petting each of them with one out-stretched hand. This tactic has rarely failed to changes the air, eliciting purrs and wags on either side.
Reading our passage from Philippians this week I started to think that we had misnamed these fury friends of ours. Perhaps instead of Honshu and Mocha, we should have named them Euodia and Syntyche. Paul names these two women in the outset of this passage from his letter to the church in Philippi, urging them to find unity in Christ, and further urging the community around them to find ways to bridge the gap between them. They have been co-workers with Paul – a title he reserves for those who have labored long and hard for a faith community – and clearly their conflict troubles Paul.
As it is with cats and dogs, so sometimes it is among us humans. We meet up with people we just don’t seem to be able to get along with. It may stem from a past hurt or conflict, or we may just be very different kinds of people who do not see the world from the same perspective. Now Paul could have laid it on heavy and reprimanded these two women reminding them that their unhappy divisions could have corrosive effect on the church they both labored long and hard to build, but instead he gave this advice to Euodia, Syntyche and the community around them:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
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. 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.
This is one of my favorite passages from scripture and I had never before noticed that it came as advice to faithful people who were struggling to get along with one another. I have always loved these words, but I love them even more now. As I consider people I struggle to understand or work with, these words soften my heart toward them and push me to look with gentleness toward them, noting the good features, rather than just our sticking points – is there anything that true, honorable, just, pure, commendable, excellent? This passage calls me to put my gaze there, because that shift has the power to call down the God of Peace between us, and that can change everything. But that said we often need the help of community to bridge the gap, and it is a wonderful gift when a living breathing servant of God is the instrument of God’s peace between us when we struggle to as Paul puts it, “be of one mind in the Lord”.
This powerful reading – about finding ways to honor the being of another who might seem to be playing a dog to our cat – when read in combination with the other scriptures of the day helps me take the long view of why pursuing understanding and peaceful co-existence is important. In the passage from Isaiah, we find another strong and comforting image that may be very familiar to us because it is often chosen to be read at funeral services – the feast for all people on God’s holy mountain. But this morning we hear it read in the context of what comes before it – The Prophet tells of a time when God was:
a refuge to the poor,
a refuge to the needy in their distress,
a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat.
And a time:
When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm,
the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place,
But God has turned that around and a time for feasting has arrived. But notice it is a time for feasting for all people – not just the ones we would like to see on the guest list.
I will never forget a sermon one of my seminary professors preached to us in a chapel service during my senior year. He talked about the many images that scripture offers us of the realm of God, and how those images give us hope as we work for that realm to come. Then he said that as far as he can tell from the over-arching themes of the Bible, the thing that will likely surprise each of us most when we enter that realm is that we will be spending eternity with lots of people we had imagined would never make it there. And that he said, could be a living hell if we were not practiced in the discipline of making peace.
All of this makes me reflect on the wedding garment spoken of in the arresting parable we heard read from Matthew this morning. My bet is we will be well dressed for the banquet of the next realm and have a great time there, if here and now we can work on a spiritual garment woven of threads of acceptance, forbearance and forgiveness. And my dear co-workers in Christ if we are to prepare such a garment for ourselves we are going to need each other’s help. Let us never forget that. May our gentleness be known to everyone, the Lord is near. Amen+