by Rev. Joe Connolly
“Finally, my beloved, my sisters and brothers, your thoughts should be wholly directed to all that is true, all that is honorable, all that deserves respect, all that is honest, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is decent, all that is pleasing, all that is commendable, all that is virtuous, all that is excellent and all that is worthy of praise. Think about these things.” — Philippians 4:8.
I don’t know if you caught this in the news during the past week, but the Pope is at it again. Perhaps the current Pontiff likes to upset applecarts.
This is a quote from Francis: “Tradition is a living reality…. The Word of God cannot be conserved in mothballs as if it were an old blanket to be preserved from parasites…. The Word of God is dynamic, always alive. It progresses and grows because it tends towards a fulfillment that we cannot stop.” (Slight pause.)
That having been said, I want to bring up a term that might sound very academic because it’s in German. It is often applied to studying the Bible. But believe me, this is not academic and it is not the exclusive property of those who study the Bible.
The term is “Sitz im Leben.” Somebody correct my German accent. (The pastor points to a parishioner who has offered a thumbs up.) She says it’s good. O.K.
Roughly translated it means “setting in life.” Sitz im Leben, when referring to the Bible, means ‘what is the situation in the passage you are reading?’ And it simultaneously asks ‘what your current situation?’
‘What is the situation?’ is a complex question. When you read a passage in Scripture you need to ask questions like, ‘what was the economic situation,’ ‘the government structure,’ ‘the cultural practices of the place and time the composition, itself, was written.’ All this goes into Sitz im Leben, the situation. Another question to ask is, if you can discern who wrote a passage, what is the Sitz im Leben of the writer or writers.
Then, if you want to attempt to apply the text being studied to what’s happening today, you need to ask ‘what is the Sitz im Leben today?’ And, if anything, asking what the Sitz im Leben today, is a much harder question to answer than what was the situation in ancient times. Why would it be harder?
That comes back to what the Pope said. “The Word of God is dynamic, always alive. It progresses and grows because it tends towards a fulfillment that we cannot stop.” We congregationalists would say it this way: there is still more light and truth to break forth from God’s Word. (Slight pause.)
We find these words in Philippians: “Finally, my beloved, my sisters and brothers, your thoughts should be wholly directed to all that is true, all that is honorable, all that deserves respect, all that is honest, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is decent, all that is pleasing, all that is commendable, all that is virtuous, all that is excellent and all that is worthy of praise. Think about these things.” (Slight pause.)
So, what is my— my— personal Sitz im Leben, my situation? Let me be real simple about this. I am a Caucasian male in my 60s, who has a higher education.
And let me be clear when it comes to the advantages inherent in my Sitz im Leben. As a Caucasian male, in my 60s with a higher education, opportunities are out there in our society for me today which might not be afforded to someone of a different race or a different gender, no matter how well qualified.
Since there are literally thousands of studies which prove that those prejudices exist, I don’t really think I have to inform you that in modern society there are many disadvantages for women and people of color and advantages for Caucasian men. But let me illustrate that with a picture from a much earlier time where I was on both sides of that coin, at an advantage and at a disadvantage.
At the tender age of 19 I was already working in computer operations. I worked on a big IBM Main Frame computer, something that took up a space the size of the Founders’ Room. It was all Caucasian males on that side of the building.
If you walked across the hall to the Key Punch area, about 50 women were engaged in drudge work, punching data cards on key punch machines. There were a couple of women of color in that room, but not many.
As an aside, those of you who are under, I don’t know, 50 or 55 might need to meet with later and I will try to explain what a key punch machine and punch cards are, or were. My point is back in that time when dinosaurs still roamed the earth called the 1960s and even though I was only 19, just being a Caucasian male gave me access to a job for which none of those women would even be considered and I was paid a lot more than they were.
Now, for me, personally, here’s the other side of that coin. I had dropped out of college. It was the late 1960s. I was neither wealthy nor educated at that point. Therefore, guess who got drafted and went to Vietnam?
Again, since there are literally thousands of studies which prove this happened, I don’t really think have to inform you that in the late 1960s and even today many who go into our armed services lack a higher education and/or are not wealthy. Back in the 1960s that would have been me.
Now I hope, at least from the point of view of an individual, what I’ve said might help you unpack what Sitz im Leben really means. And that swings us around to the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, and the obvious question. On the level of the individual what was the Sitz im Leben of this person commonly called Paul of Tarsus?
Well, Paul was able to both read and write and traveled a lot. It is likely this Apostle knew at least 4 languages— Greek, Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew. Paul was a Rabbi, a teacher.
Which is to say it was not just that Paul had what we would today call an upper education. In this society, as one who could read, write, was well traveled and educated, it needs to be understood Paul was a member of the upper class in that society. Last, Paul was not just a Jew. Paul was a citizen of the Roman Empire.
So, please look at all the inherent advantages in the Sitz im Leben of the Apostle to the Gentiles— and when you hear the term Apostle to the Gentiles what you really need to hear is Apostle to the Romans because that’s who the Gentiles were— look at all the inherent advantages Paul was afforded given the Sitz im Leben I just described. Being a citizen of Rome alone probably kept Paul from being killed numerous times over the course of at least a dozen years.
Given Paul’s Sitz im Leben we now need to look at what Paul writes. As I am sure you know, the Roman Empire was a patriarchal society. Yet Paul insists that the people to whom this letter is sent cooperate with two women who have worked with the Rabbi defending and delivering the Good News, the Gospel.
That having been said, Paul then exhorts everyone that their thoughts should be directed to all that is true, honorable, deserves respect, is honest, is just, is pure, is decent, is pleasing, is commendable, is virtuous, is excellent and worthy of praise. Then Paul adds something. Think about these things. The implication is thinking helps doing.
Now, do me a favor. Please look again at all the inherent advantages Paul has. You see, despite that— despite having those advantages— Paul understands that being a follower of the living Christ means he needs to be one with those who are outcast and not capitalizing on those advantages for personal benefit or even for personal safety. Being a follower of the living Christ means not just standing in solidarity with anyone who might be labeled as ‘the other,’ labeled as different, but means working to change the system in a broken world. (Slight pause.)
And that bring us back to our Sitz im Leben, our situation in life, our world. Just living in America means because of our Sitz im Leben we have some built in advantages. Here’s a simple one: for the most part and for instance, we do not have to worry about contaminated drinking water.
As you heard earlier, this is world food day.  A lot of Americans are not well nourished. But most of us, most of us, have way more food thank folks in other places, other countries. And this is just simply true in vast swatches of our globe, our world.
Having mentioned those tow, these are simple examples, I think it behooves us to ask the obvious question. To where does the Gospel call us?
Does it call us to silently take advantage of our own Sitz im Leben? Or are we called on to defend and deliver the Good News, the Gospel?
As Pope Francis suggests, does defending and delivering the Good News, the Gospel, call us to profess the Word of God as a (quote:) “…dynamic reality, always alive, that progresses and grows because it tends towards a fulfillment that we cannot stop.” If the answer is ‘yes’ then the next question needs to be ‘how?’ (Slight pause.)
I think Paul has that answer. We need to both think about and do all that is true, honorable, deserves respect, is honest, is just, is pure, is decent, is pleasing, is commendable, is virtuous, is excellent and worthy of praise— tall order, that. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “American poet John Greenleaf Whittier was a Quaker and a advocate of the abolition of slavery. He wrote this. ‘And so I find it well to come / For deeper rest to this still room, / For here the habit of the soul / Feels less the outer world’s control; / The strength of mutual purpose pleads / More earnestly our common needs; / And from the silence multiplied / By these still forms on either side, / The world that time and sense have known / Falls off and leaves us God alone.’— God alone. That we need God alone is perhaps what I tried to say today. And what I also think I said is what we really need and who we really are— and, by the way, we are all children of God— what we really need and who we really are is, unfortunately and too often, distracted by who we think we are and what we think we need.”
BENEDICTION: God can open our minds to what is true. God can fill our lives when we participate in the work of God’s realm, participate in seeking justice and peace and love. When we seek what is pleasing to God we are doing God’s will. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and your minds in Christ, Jesus and the unity of the Holy Spirit, this day and forever more. Amen.
 The Church School children prepared Coffee Hour and learned about how food is needed in other places on our planet. Then the Children’s Time focused on that project.