This is the fourth and final Sunday on which we can hear and delight in sections of St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Last week was surely my own favorite, since we heard his magnificent invitation to honor all that is good and true and beautiful, noble and honest, and to think upon such things — without any stipulation of this or that language or culture, the Christian but not the pagan, etc. All things are from God, so rejoice in whatever is good and beautiful.
If I were Paul, I might have stopped on that exalted plane, the mysticism of God in all things. But on this 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 11), we have still more verses from Philippians 4, reaching the end of the letter, and I cannot ignore these. Here Paul comes back down to earth, as he thanks his readers for their financial support for his ministry and, we may presume, their charity during the imprisonment we first heard about in Philippians 1. He appreciates greatly how they stood with him when others did not:
"As you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need… I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. (Philippians 4.15-18)
And now, although there had been a gap in their assistance due to unnamed obstacles, they have come through again:
"I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. (4.10)
Why does it matter? Not, he insists, because he could not have otherwise managed to stay alive and carry on the mission:
"I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (4.11-13)
Paul says this not merely to pat himself on the back, but to avoid reducing his thanksgiving to the de facto financial support that has come through: yes, we needed the money, but it is the love and thoughtfulness behind the gift that matter more. These have built a mutual bond, wherein members of the community far and near support one another as best they can, in the mundane and ordinary course of life. Ordinary Philippians have made do with less, in order to help him. Their generosity was like prayer, as holy as any ritual offering:
"They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. (4.14)
Paul promises them an abundance in return, God caring for them in all their needs — surely not by an influx of Roman gold and silver, but far more, by the unsurpassable love of God in Christ:
"My God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen. (4.19-20)
We don’t know who these Philippians were, Paul does not name them. But they persevered, they gave what they could, they helped Paul by sticking by him, and so God blesses them in return: the great circle of loving kindness. At the letter's end, Paul acknowledges this wider community of sisters and brothers near and far. Indeed, we learn that Paul is not actually all alone. There is a community around him as he writes, and that community is now bonded to the community in distant Philippi:
"Greet all God’s people in Christ Jesus. The brothers and sisters who are with me send greetings. All God’s people here send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen. (4.21-22)
What is the bond? Not direct familiarity or location or even shared memories, but only a persistent intention to care for one another, day by day. Give what you can, give in order to keep things running, give even when no one notices. Quiet kindness matters, even if Paul will still be martyred, even if Rome will still decline and fall, even if new powers will arise and new empires form to oppress still more people worldwide. But no matter: a loving community cares for its members in need, as the work of Christ’s good news continues uninterrupted even in dangerous times.
This modest and (extra)ordinary loving kindness catches my attention, precisely because it is so ordinary and undramatic. And countercultural. Do what you can; that is enough. Do not let heroic ideals ruin what you actually do.
There is so much wrong in 2020 — a sad list no one need enumerate — that simple, quiet, steadfast, patient generosity may be seen as timid, pushed aside as if not bold and loud enough to capture the headlines. But we need to think in the opposite way. Particularly when we are all far apart, love all the more, for love crosses every barrier, every gap, the miles in between. We know very well that in every ordinary way we need to keep working; jobs needs to be done, bills paid, as the everyday work of good people and good Christians continues. We try to give, as we can, of our money — or of our time, or by simple love for neighbor, or through prayers in the night. Think of activities woven into the life of our parish: visits to nursing homes; outreach to prisoners; the Children of Chernobyl project; religious education, even online; lectors, cantors, and musicians showing up to record a Mass on Friday for our zoomed Sundays. And on and on! No headlines, just gracing the world, one small deed at a time.
A hundred years from now people will look back on 2020, and may wonder, “How did they survive that awful year?” But they will also ask, “How is it that so many small and quiet acts of generosity still took place again and again, resistant to that year’s calamities? How did they find the courage and hope to do good things when the world was falling apart?” The problem of evil is one thing; the miracle of good is even greater. Paul knew this, and he thanked God for this everyday mystery.
As I come to a close, I cannot help but note the providential good timing: Pope Francis’ wonderful new encyclical letter, Fratelli Tutti (All My Brothers — and of course My Sisters) was released just last Sunday, the feast of St. Francis. It is all about “our learning to be sisters and brothers, cultivating social friendship” - loving kindess lived as a way of life. Right in the first paragraph Pope Francis catches a challenge crucial to our times:
"Of the counsels St. Francis offered, I would like to select the one in which he calls for a love that transcends the barriers of geography and distance, and declares blessed all those who love their brother or sister “as much when they are far away from him as when there are nearby.” In his simple and direct way, Saint Francis expressed the essence of a fraternal openness that allows us to acknowledge, appreciate and love each person, regardless of physical proximity, regardless of where he or she was born or lives. (n. 1, part)
Francis does not quote Philippians in Fratelli Tutti, but he does offer sentiments on kindness and decency perfectly suited to Philippians 4, so I will let the Pope have the last words:
"Saint Paul describes kindness as a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22). He uses the Greek word chrestótes, which describes an attitude that is gentle, pleasant and supportive, not rude or coarse. Individuals who possess this quality help make other people’s lives more bearable, especially by sharing the weight of their problems, needs and fears. This way of treating others can take different forms: an act of kindness, a concern not to offend by word or deed, a readiness to alleviate their burdens. It involves “speaking words of comfort, strength, consolation and encouragement” and not “words that demean, sadden, anger or show scorn”.
"Kindness frees us from the cruelty that at times infects human relationships, from the anxiety that prevents us from thinking of others, from the frantic flurry of activity that forgets that others also have a right to be happy. Often nowadays we find neither the time nor the energy to stop and be kind to others, to say “excuse me”, “pardon me”, “thank you”. Yet every now and then, miraculously, a kind person appears and is willing to set everything else aside in order to show interest, to give the gift of a smile, to speak a word of encouragement, to listen amid general indifference.
"If we make a daily effort to do exactly this, we can create a healthy social atmosphere in which misunderstandings can be overcome and conflict forestalled. Kindness ought to be cultivated; it is no superficial bourgeois virtue. Precisely because it entails esteem and respect for others, once kindness becomes a culture within society it transforms lifestyles, relationships and the ways ideas are discussed and compared. Kindness facilitates the quest for consensus; it opens new paths where hostility and conflict would burn all bridges. (nn. 223-224)
(You can find an earlier version of this homily ‘live’ at the Our Lady of Sorrows website, in the recorded Mass for this weekend. And, by the way, I kept using the term "loving kindness" in the preceding paragraphs. It is actually a famous Buddhist term too, and you can read more here, the meditations of the Venerable Nanamoli, a famous Buddhist monk, on the theme.)