“Getting to Goodness”
4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8Finally, 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. 9Keep 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. 10 I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. 11Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
(Philippians 4:4-13, NRSV)
On Monday morning our nine-year-old woke up not feeling well and I found myself working from the home office for the day. I turned on Aaron’s favorite movie, tucked him in with a mountain of blankets on the sofa and headed off to the kitchen in search of any morsel of writing inspiration. I poured myself a second cup of coffee and changed into a pair of comfy jeans. I grabbed my laptop and a fresh writing pad. I was enthusiastic about the possible directions for this Sunday’s sermon. After all, it was a rather familiar text and hopeful in nature. I had already begun floating ideas around in my mind over the weekend and I was ready to put pen to paper.
With the bright morning sunlight beaming in from our kitchen window, I began to read Paul’s familiar words. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I 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 unto 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.”
I read Paul’s sentiments through several times and began jotting down possible themes and threads for a sermon. I would read one of Paul’s remarks and think to myself, “Now that’ll preach!” The brainstorming portion of my sermon preparation was hitting its stride and it felt good. I was in flow and I had direction! I had momentum! I had focus! Until, I noticed something out of the ordinary occurring on my Facebook feed. Suddenly, there was an infiltration of new posts and updates that captured my attention. I began reading updates vague in nature that said things like, #God Help Us, or “Lord Hear our Prayer”, or “Had decided last night to take a media and news fast, but now is not the time” or things like “Prayers for the victims and families.”
With a sinking sensation in my stomach and with a click of my mouse, I was escorted to the front page of online sources with breaking news. The headlines professed stories like “50 Plus Dead and Dozens with Serious Injuries” and “A Burst of Fire, A Pause, then Nonstop Carnage.” For the next half hour, I read the devastating reports of the tragic mass shooting that occurred in Las Vegas last Sunday night. I read and I wept. I read and I felt suddenly devoid of any inspiration or momentum. I felt powerless and sad. And I felt angry. I felt the pressing need to clean or organize something – anything! When I feel out of control, I reach for the cleaner.
For the next little while, I emptied the dishwasher and scrubbed the kitchen cabinets. I mopped the floor and organized the pantry. Nothing seemed to make sense in the world. When I feel that life is spiraling out control, I find the sudden need to control what is left under my domain in my very small corner of the world. A clean house. (And that’s about it.) Everything else in life is a total gamble so it seems, or at least it feels this way when we experience yet another national tragedy.
After a whirlwind cleaning frenzy, I decided to sit back down with the Apostle Paul. Although this time, the lens with which I read the text was tainted a bit. It was distorted by grief and altered by anger. Reading the text in the aftermath of the morning’s news, Paul’s words read with a sense mockery. His words feeling audacious overly zealous. “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Really, Paul? Do not worry about anything? Anything. Have you seen what is happening in our world? Have you seen the natural disasters that have left thousands dead and others in peril? Have you seen the news stories of mass violence and gun shootings – just in the last five years alone? Have you seen our disrespectful treatment of the earth? Have you been to the funerals of children and people who could have lived had they only had life’s most basic necessities? And I’ve not even begun to mention the issues of stress and anxiety that lurk in our individual lives. Do not worry? I wish we could be worry-free. That would be the life. We need peace, Paul. We need God’s peace and we need it now.
I did eventually regain my center and I made up with Paul. Paul means well. His intent is to encourage and champion. These notions from the apostle were written as he lay on the cold floor of a Roman prison. Even with death a real possibility, Paul writes these words to the church. However, in light of current reality maybe you empathize with me. Sometimes the words simply fall flat. Sometimes we search long and hard for the writers’ original meaning and we come up empty-handed. Sometimes we feel void and discouraged. We long for God’s message to us in 2017. Perhaps there is a message of hope to be found within today’s text, even in the midst of our doubt.
Paul writes, “Let your gentleness be evident to everyone.” We have forgotten how to simply be kind to one another. Ordinary, daily kindness changes the world. There is a quote that I read recently that says, “In a world where you can be anything, be kind.” Kindness shown to one person has the ability to set a chain of reaction ending with the most unlikely situations. Might we be kind as we speak to the customer service representative about a payment mix up. For it’s likely we are speaking to a single mom working two jobs worrying about her sick child. And the issue of which we are referring to is not directly her fault. It usually isn’t. She is there to help. Be kind. Be gentle. Let us be kind and gentle when we find ourselves in conversation with someone of a different political persuasion. Instead of conjuring up in our minds our zinger response to the other as they speak, might we just simply listen? Be gentle with each other. We are all coming from a place of heartache and pain in our lives. Be kind. It matters.
Paul writes, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God.” Let’s face it folks, worry and anxiety are a part of the fabric of our lives. But we can work with God and one another to find ways to deal positively with stress. Many of the new programs and initiatives through our new Center for Wellbeing give us tools to help cope with negative thoughts and emotions. Through our mindfulness classes, we are learning to set intention not only for our lives, but for each moment. Through yoga and meditation, we are learning how the body holds and releases stress in the muscles and joints. We are learning how to find our center and ultimately God’s peace. Through gathering here with our faith community, we are learning to present our requests to God and able to find small fragments of peace all along the way.
The Apostle Paul exclaims, “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.” On days like last Sunday, we need people to point out to us places in life that are still just and true. We need a faith family to remind us when we come to this place, that goodness happens in the world and that God’s Spirit is still moving and active. We need on occasion someone to hold the light for us when we cannot see past the darkness. We cannot get to goodness and notions worthy of praise without each other.
Paul continues, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” We live in the culture of “not enough.” Ironically, we live in one of the most affluent places in the country. Most of us have more today than we could possibly ever need in one lifetime. Yet, we live in the space of scarcity every single day. Author, therapist and speaker Dr. Brene Brown speaks to this truth as she writes, “For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of. ...Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to that reverie of lack. ...This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life.”
Paul is calling us to the notion that we are enough. We have enough. Our children are enough. How might our lives begin to change and grow should we allow ourselves to exist in the space and belief of “I have and I am enough.”
Heading to the office to finish writing this sermon, a song came on the radio that caused me to pull over and listen. The lyrics seemed to say all the things that I wished to try and convey in today’s message. The lyrics seem to say all the things Paul is so desperately trying to say to a modern world in 2017. I wrote down the name of the song and Googled it when I reached my office. In my research, I discovered that the song was initially produced for the purposes of rallying support for “Newtown Kindness”, a nonprofit organization dedicated to encourage acts of kindness. The organization was started in honor and memory of the young lives lost at Sandy Hook and to propel kindness into a hostile world.
The lyrics say this: “To be humble, to be kind, it is the giving of the peace in your mind; to a stranger, to a friend, to give in such a way that has no end. We are love, we are one, we are how we treat each other when the day is done. To be bold, to be brave; it is the thinking that the heart can still be saved; and the darkness can come quick; the Danger’s in the anger and the hanging on to it. We are love, we are one, we are how we treat each other when the day is done. We are how we treat each other and nothing more. Tell me what it is that you see, a world that’s filled with endless possibilities. Heroes don’t look like they used to, they look like you do. We are love, we are one, we are how we treat each other when the day is done. We are how we treat each other and nothing more.”
Church family, go now. Be gentle. Be kind. Know that you are enough. AMEN.
God of justice, peace and righteousness, come into our midst this morning. Breathe your breath, your Spirit of prophecy,
your energy, your enlivening, your imagination on us.
Wake us up, open our eyes, unplug our ears that we might hear that we might see that we might grieve that we might dream that we might follow the ways of your extraordinary kingdom
We pray for the needs in our own community as well as for the needs in our world.
We pray for the condition of our world this morning. We pray that where there is violence, we would find a peaceful solution. We pray that where there is hunger and thirst, we would find resources to quench and to satisfy. We pray for those separated from families and loved ones for various reasons. Bless them and comfort them, that they might sense the love and care of their families at this time.
We come before you this morning with both private and corporate hurts in need of your redeeming power; some hurts known only by you.
Prepare our minds and spirits this morning. Open our hearts to hear your voice and to respond to your call. We ask all these things through Christ, who gives us life. Amen.
~ adapted from a prayer by Johnny Baker, and posted on Third Space. http://third-space.org.uk/
 “Nothing More” by The Alternate Routes