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.—Phil 4:4-9, NRSV
If Paul was living in 2018, his letter to the church at Philippi might have gone something like this: “Finally, beloved, whatever is false, whatever is dishonorable, whatever is unjust, whatever is corrupt, whatever is appalling, whatever is scandalous, If there is any under-handedness and if there is anything that fills you with rage and righteous indignation, think about these things…and you will be depressed, exhausted, angry and pessimistic.”
How does that sound to you? It’s a pretty accurate description of the way many of us feel in America in 2018, No matter what political party we belong to. The 24-hour news cycle of fear and terror is exhausting. People seem to have shorter fuses these days, and it doesn’t take much to set them off. Our ability to get along with those who have different viewpoints from ours is nearly non-existent. I could go on, but the end result is the same: It leaves us feeling depressed, exhausted, angry and pessimistic.
Thankfully, Paul said none of these things or we’d be in serious trouble. Instead, he gives us a list of the qualities we need to cultivate in our lives if we desire to have peace in our hearts in the midst of these troubled times. The goal is shalom, a sense of wholeness and well-being. Trust me, we will never attain this if we follow the list I recited at the beginning of my sermon. Instead Paul tells us to focus on what’s going right in our lives and in our world, instead of what’s going wrong.
What is the unshakable TRUTH that we know, about God and about ourselves, that has stood the test of time? Do we try to live with HONOR and integrity, or do we join the death spiral of hidden agendas and dirty deeds done in the dark? (How’s that for alliteration?)
Are we people with a deep sense of JUSTICE for the poor, the marginalized, and the voiceless, or are we just in it for ourselves? Are our intentions toward others PURE, or are we nice to people in order to get what we want from them? Do we engage in activities that are PLEASING to all five our our senses, or do we do everything because we think we have to?
Do we COMMEND the virtues of those around us, or are we quick to point out their weaknesses and failures? Do we strive for EXCELLENCE in all things, or do we do just enough in order to get by? Do we focus on news stories that are WORTHY OF PRAISE, or do we obsess over every scandalous detail that catches our attention?
We ALWAYS have a choice regarding which of these paths we will travel in life. Most of us vacillate between the two. But Paul tells us that if we can somehow manage to take the higher road, the God of peace will walk with us.
In a sense, this is the meaning of Thanksgiving. It’s an opportunity for us to intentionally cultivate these kinds of qualities in our minds and spirits. It’s a chance to practice gratitude and appreciation for the blessings we have in our lives. It’s an opportunity to feast and enjoy the company of those who are near and dear to our hearts.
Paul tells us to “rejoice always” and “Let our gentleness be known to everyone.” This sounds like a good strategy as we sit down at the Thanksgiving table. Perhaps we can focus on what’s going right in our lives and in the lives of those we love. Perhaps we can be gentle with those who have experienced loss and heartache this year. Perhaps we can even be gentle with those who love to stir the political stew and get a rise out of others!
And in the midst of all these lofty goals, Paul says three magic words: “Do not worry” In fact, he says “Do not worry about ANYTHING,” but, instead, take the time to connect with God; to center ourselves and breathe deeply; to be people of prayer and thanksgiving.
In some ways, this might be the most difficult quality to cultivate in our lives. “Do not worry?” Yeah, right! I’m okay with the excellence and worthy of praise stuff, but Paul is setting a pretty high bar here. I don’t think I can pull it off.”
Let’s be honest, we are worriers. I think it’s some DNA left over from our prehistoric ancestors who had to worry all the time that they might become lunch for a T-Rex or other carnivorous beast. But dinosaurs are extinct now. Unfortunately, the worry gene remains!
I don’t think Paul is asking us to put on rose-colored glasses and convince ourselves that everything is hunky-dory. I think he is asking us to trust that God has our backs, and our front sides, and everything in-between. And if God is for us, who or what can possibly be against us?
We might be able to ignore Paul if he was the only Biblical author to tell us “do not worry.” But Jesus said the same thing in our gospel lesson for today. In fact, he tells us “do not worry” multiple times to make sure we heard what he was saying. “DO NOT WORRY about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” “DO NOT WORRY, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we wear?” “DO NOT WORRY about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring WORRIES of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
I don’t know how you’re feeling this Thanksgiving but I have hit the WORRY button far too many times in the past year. I’ve not done a great job in cultivating Paul’s list of qualities in my life. I’ve ignored Jesus’ advice and worried about the past, present and future! How about you? Are you in the same boat? I figure some of you are, but at least we’re not alone.
The reason why we come here every week, is to be reminded that we do not have to worry because God is faithful to us, even when we are not faithful to ourselves or to others. God is merciful to us, even when we have not shown mercy to others. God is gracious to us, even when we have been hostile to others and seen them as our enemy.
So, let’s breathe a sigh of relief, as we absorb the truth about our faithful, merciful, gracious God. When we do this, we just might be able to achieve the “do not worry” goal. We can let our defenses down and rest a bit because we do not have to be strong all the time. Do you hear me? We do not have to be strong all the time.
The good news of the gospel is that when we are weak, then we are strong. When we let God do the heavy lifting, we create space in our lives to focus on things that are excellent and worthy of praise. When we backslide into the spin-cycle of fear, sadness, anger and despair, this same God works behind the scenes to mend that which is broken and create new life in the dead places of our lives.
This is the God who, in the final chapter of Revelation, promises to “make all things new.” This is why we do not have to worry. Everything, and I mean everything, is in God’s capable hands: the microcosm and the cosmos; the nations and the individuals who live in those nations; people who are just like us, and people who are not like us at all.
Friends in Christ, I am looking forward to my time away the next two weeks. I ask for your prayers that it will be a time for Gary and I to enjoy people and places that are excellent and worth of praise. I hope it will help me to recharge my batteries and deepen my sense of shalom. My hope for all of us this Thanksgiving, is that we can shift our focus to the kinds of things that are on Paul’s list. Our sense of happiness and well-being depend on it! Amen.
Copyright ©2018 by David Eck