More Sundays than not, I choose one of the passages from the Revised Common Lectionary for my sermon text. I also do it a couple of weeks ahead of time to help our part-time office administrator use his time efficiently, so the verses had been chosen a good bit before it came time to prepare the sermon. As I stood last Sunday morning, feeling the brokenness of our world, here’s what I had to say.
Our reading this morning is Philippians 4:4-9.
These words come at the end of Paul’s letter to the Philippian church. The fourth chapter begins with some personal messages and then moves to a series of admonitions. As we read, remember that Paul was writing from prison.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is nearby. Do not be anxious 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, brothers and sisters, 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. As for the things that you have learned and received and heard and noticed in me, do them, and the God of peace will be with you.
These words are some of my favorites from Paul’s letters. Yet, sometimes they hit me in an odd way. I hear them as hyperbolic and overstated—usually when I am frustrated by life, or depressed, or unnerved by what is happening in the world. “Rejoice in the Lord always” How is that possible? It can sound a little too much like Peter Pan: “You just think lovely, wonderful thoughts and they lift you up in the air.”
That’s why it is good to remember he wrote his letter from prison where he was facing the strong possibility of being put to death. Not only that, he had also been beaten, had survived a shipwreck, had fled for his life, not to mention that he had a past as one who had treated others violently—and still he wrote about living with gratitude and hope and joy.
Paul was not an optimist. I don’t think he was humming, “The sun’ll come out tomorrow” while he sat in his cell. He was a realist. He knew life could chew you up and spit you out. He knew the young congregation was living in tough times and was in for some tough days ahead, even without the oppression of the Roman government.
He was not writing a feel-good letter that was the New Testament equivalent of a greeting card, nor should we hear his words in the voice of the parent of an adolescent—you know what I mean: the cautionary tone of “make good decisions” as the kid shuts the door behind them. Paul was writing for his life and for the life of those he loved. He knew, as we do, that life has a centrifugal force that throws us all to the edges of our existence at times, that drowns us with grief and worry. And for those reasons he told the Philippians to rejoice, to trust, and to focus on things that were life-giving and life-sustaining.
In modern parlance we might say his words were a call to spiritual practice—a call to do the inner work it takes to strengthen our hearts and minds and our connections to God and to one another. Joy doesn’t just happen. Being able to see what is true and just and honorable isn’t something we simply stumble upon. It is a choice, a commitment. We do, in fact, have to make good decisions. We have to learn to see those things. We have to choose to do the tough work of trust and compassion and joy.
Paul’s list of things brought to mind one of the poems I keep in a file called “Poems to Remember. It is called “Next Time” by Joyce Stulphen.
I’ll know the names of all of the birds
and flowers, and not only that, I’ll
tell you the name of the piano player
I’m hearing right now on the kitchen
radio, but I won’t be in the kitchen,
I’ll be walking a street in
New York or London, about
to enter a coffee shop where people
are reading or working on their
laptops. They’ll look up and smile.
Next time I won’t waste my heart
on anger; I won’t care about
being right. I’ll be willing to be
wrong about everything and to
concentrate on giving myself away.
Next time, I’ll rush up to people I love,
look into their eyes, and kiss them, quick.
I’ll give everyone a poem I didn’t write,
one specially chosen for that person.
They’ll hold it up and see a new
world. We’ll sing the morning in,
and I will keep in touch with friends,
writing long letters when I wake from
a dream where they appear on the
Orient Express. “Meet me in Istanbul,”
I’ll say, and they will.
What makes the poem poignant is the reality that there is no next time. We only have this time. This life. These days in this place. In this world where so many keep choosing to do damage to one another. We have much around us that fosters fear and anxiety. The world is dangerous. All of us are afraid—maybe not of the same things, but we are all afraid. And that is where the spiritual work begins. What Paul is talking about is what lies beyond fear, what supersedes it, or at least what lives alongside it in our hearts so we can choose to do something other than be anxious and afraid.
Rejoice. Trust in the presence of God. Focus on what is true and just and kind and hopeful and honorable and excellent. Do those things this time. Right now. While the news is blaring and the stock market is struggling and our hearts are hurting and life feels uncertain, think on these things. Remind one another that we are wonderfully created in the image of God and worthy to be loved. Keep telling each other that we are not alone. Remember that love is stronger than death and fear and anything else that may come. Remember that God is with us, whether we feel it or not, and trust—while all of these things are true—that life will still be hard.
In most of his letters, Paul wrote similar words of hope and encouragement to those we have read this morning. Some of my favorites come from Romans. As I read them, I want to read them as I heard them read as I stood at the graveside of a friend’s father at a cemetery in Georgia many years ago. The Southern pastor’s tone of tangible trust in these words left a deep impression on me as he quoted Paul:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will affliction or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? . . . NO. No, in all these things we are more than victorious through Christ who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We spend our lives going in circles, both literally and physically. Our planet both rotates and orbits in the middle of a solar system of other celestial objects doing the same thing. Those of us who inhabit this world go in circles as well—circles of family and friends, circles of thought and behavior. To quote one more musical, we are a part of the circle of life, which often feels like a circle of violence and destruction.
As our thoughts circle the globe, our feelings circle as well. We cannot live unaffected by what is happening in other places. We are more connected than we realize. The prophet Micah said that what God requires of us is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God and with one another, which is another way of saying what Paul said to the Philippians who lived in their own circles of hope and uncertainty.
Let us hold on to the words of the old Southern gentleman, even if the world is overwhelming, even if it feels like the circles of violence are engulfing us. When we focus on the love of God and embrace the love that will not let us go, as followers of the living Christ, we can hold on to what is good and right and true, what is just and kind and welcoming, not in desperation, but in hope. We are not alone. We belong to God.
Can anything separate us from the love of God? NO. Amen.