"Rejoice in the Lord always"-Sermon for Proper 24, Philippians 4:1-9
Not that it makes any other part of the bible more or less meaningful, but Paul’s Letter to the Philippians and, even more particularly, our New Testament lesson from this letter that sits before us this morning is one of my most favorite passages of scripture. And, I think it is right and good to have favorites, at least, when it comes to bible stories or verses. For, knowing the bible by heart is well beyond my capacity…but my favorite passages and verses, over time, have become written on my bones…and they come to me, it seems, when I need them the very most. When feeling overwhelmed, they bring peace. When feeling like I am not enough, they bring encouragement. When feeling confused, they often bring clarity. And, to this end, I hope you might both have your own favorites and return to them often that they might help shape your life in real and perceptible ways…might be reminders of God’s unconditional love and presence in your life…reminding you that you are never alone and that your life matters and makes a difference. In short, I hope they bring you joy and peace.
Now, I first fell in love with Philippians after reading Nikki Gumbal’s book, “A Life Worth Living”. Nikki Gumbal is a priest in the Church of England and the creator of the Alpha Program. And, though there is much in his book worth considering, the title itself has become a sort of mantra in my life. For it is in my pursuit of God, my desire to always fall more and more in love with God, that I have found a life worth living. Further, I think it is the discovery of a life worth living that Paul is directing us toward in this short but, oh so wonderful, letter. And, specifically, the spiritual gold that Paul is mining in this letter can be summed up in a single word…which is joy. And, it is really important to note, that Paul writes this letter, characterized by joy, to the church he planted in the Greek city of Philippi at the end of his life. Specifically, biblical scholars believe Paul writes this letter from prison in Rome…and further…while awaiting his execution. Thus, it is in the experience of suffering, both imprisonment and impending death, that Paul chooses to speak of joy.
So, when Paul says to us today, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” He means…he entirely means…always. Rejoice, which is joy in action…that is…be joyful…when life is full of promise, adventure, new beginnings and triumphs. And, rejoice when life is pretty ordinary…moving along at a predictable, if monotonous, even a bit boring pace. And, rejoice when life is hard, even very hard…when we suffer before our own limitations and mortality and experiences of loss and disappointment…whether our suffering is of our own making or when it is heaped upon our shoulders by a fragile, unjust, and, to often unfair, world full of broken and self-interested people. Thus, in every possible circumstance, Paul exhorts us to, “Rejoice in the lord always; and again I say, Rejoice.”
Friends, happiness and sorrow, are facts of life. Every life, including, each of ours…knows both. In fact, both can be known in more or less the same moment. For instance, while reflecting on the life of a loved one who we have lost or are separated from, we can almost in the same breath feel overwhelming happiness for the memories of the time we spent together that we would not give away even if offered the whole world…while experiencing, in that same breath, the overwhelming grief cause by the loss or separation from that very same person. Though suffering is a theological question that has no easy solutions, I do not believe God causes or desires any of God’s beloved children to suffer. Further, I have come to believe that suffering and love are somehow intimately connected…just as Jesus’ suffering on the cross of Good Friday and Jesus’ glorious resurrection on Easter Sunday are intimately connected. Perhaps it could be said that love is empowered, makes the world go around, and fills our life with purpose and meaning because…because it is so very vulnerable.
And, what I believe to be entirely true, is that the living God is revealed…when joy is discovered within the great paradox of vulnerable love. God is known…when joy is found in the intermingling of love and suffering. God is manifest…when surprised by the joy we find in our lives that flows between happiness and sorrow. CS Lewis, in “Surprised by Joy”, writes, “[Joy is]… always a desire […a desire…] for something longer ago or further away or still 'about to be'.” Which, I believe means joy is a deep longing for God, who exists before, even now, and beyond our present experience. And, we long for that which we believe in…that hope exists in our present experience…that there is a love, who we have come to know in God in Christ, that will never let us go. And, that desire for intimacy with God, for communion with the divine, the desire for that greater life that is yet to be revealed and that we were made for…a desire for something past human pleasure and pain…that desire…that passion…is joy…and it bursts my heart wide open…and I believe it makes life worth living. I have been blessed to witness joy, so many times, in the deep, fragile desire and longing for God’s transcendent love in people, even as, tears flow freely from an unimaginable suffering in that very same moment. And, light shines in the darkness, and the light shall not be overcome.
Paul says to us today, “[B]eloved, 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.” And, what I believe Paul is suggesting, at least, in part is that we have agency around joy. I might even say we choose joy. Philosopher and Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl, in his seminal work…that certainly changed my life…called “Man’s Search for Meaning”…writes, “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”
Friends, I believe joy…that is our desire and longing for God…is innate…meaning it is a hard-wired response at a gut level to God’s love that is always coming to us…always present. But, still, the power remains within each of us to choose to squelch that desire or to lean into it…in each and any given set of circumstances. We can choose joy…choose to embrace our innate desire and longing for God, who does not cause but is with us in our suffering. And, choosing joy, does not magically make suffering go away, but it does lead to hope rather than despair. It does allow us to begin to dream about what can and will be beyond our present circumstances. It does lead to a generous life and not a bitter one.
One of my favorite stories about my grandmother, Carrie Lou, that I was remined of at our Hazelnut Ministry Training two weeks ago was about a time of suffering, though in different ways, for both of us. It was the week before Christmas in 2002, and, as I was her primary care giver, I had to place Carrie Lou in an Memory Care Unit in a nursing facility in Dallas. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. However, Carrie Lou was a widow living alone, and her Alzheimer’s had progressed to a point where it was unsafe for her to live any longer without 24-hour care. And, as I sat next to her on her bed in the nursing home, preparing to leave, I began to weep. Though surrounded by the wonderful care of the professionals who worked there and her fellow residents, it felt like I was leaving her all alone. And, I knew my grandmother, through trying to be brave, was also feeling uncertain and scared…unsettled by leaving her home of several decades and struggling with her diagnosis and new reality. I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t move. I could barely think. And, in a moment of great clarity, my grandmother, noticing my struggle and tears, looked at me and said, “Please don’t cry. Everything will be all right. God brought me to this place. His children in this home need to hear about His love, and it’s a joy to tell them.” And, as she shared these words with me, a fellow resident, entered the open door to my grandmother’s room and walked right up to us, as if she knew us well…though, again, this was my grandmother’s very first day living there. This woman’s Alzheimer’s had progressed to a point where she could no longer speak. As she stood there with a slight smile on her face, my grandmother began to sing to her…a verse of one of her favorite old Baptism hymns. Then, as I recall it, she told me that she loved me and that I could leave. So, I did…with my grandmother smiling and carrying on a joyful, one-sided conversation with her new neighbor.
On the drive back to Austin, though my tears continued, they were co-mingled with a deep desire and longing for the God who my grandmother had loved for a life-time…the joy she was sure to find and that would lead to a life worth living…in her new home. It was nighttime when I left Carrie Lou. And, though there was a sorrow that was traveling home within me, I remember being struck by the brightness of the hopeful stars in the sky, as I drove south on I-35 with no traffic around me. As I look back, I believe I was being surprised by joy…which has, indeed, nurtured a deep desire and longing for God in me…that has made my own life worth living.
“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.” Amen.