In reading that passage from Philippians I feel like I have just been through the grand finale of the 4th of July fireworks. Does anyone know what I mean? I feels like Paul was writing this whole letter, and throughout the letter he sent up a few big and beautiful theological and faithful rockets. We all oohed and ahhed over their beauty. We picked favorites of the new ones and wished we could see them again.
Then in the grand finale they all came rushing back at us, all at once. The bright purple sparkly one, the circles that faded from red to green to purple. The shimmery white ones that fills the sky with a thousand falling stars all at once. The favorites from the night all come back at us in quick succession or even all at the same time as we just lie back on our blankets and try to absorb it all.
In reading these final exhortations from Paul’s beautiful letter to the Philippians it feels like a bombardment of virtue, a grand finale, I’d say, and it’s beautiful to listen to. Beautiful to listen to, but frankly it’s sort of hard to say with a straight face right now.
Rejoice in the Lord? Is Paul kidding? Does he know what is going on around us? Think about things that honorable and commendable? He obviously didn’t look at the same newspaper I have this week. I’m not seeing a whole that is worthy of praise on the front page of my papers or in the reports on my TV lately. Fraud is the news of the day. Alleged misconduct. Investments tanking while executives are at spas. War continues. World hunger intensifies. Warming threatens. Attack ad after attack add after attack ad. Ads attacking that the other candidate has more attack ads.
There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to rejoice about, or pure things on which to focus our thoughts and energy.
And its not just the secular world around. The church isn’t always much better. Worldwide within the family of Christ there is passionate arguing. I like to think it comes out of a place great faith and discernment, but when I am honest about my own gut reactions, my own participation in the in-fighting, I can tell that’s not always the case. Just like in the secular world, in the world of Christianity, of denominations and sects, of a wide spectrum of theology, of seemingly contradictory beliefs about Jesus, his call, his mandate, his love, his grace, his teachings, in the world of we who call ourselves disciples, even here:
instead of gentleness, I see attacks;
instead of peace, I see turmoil;
instead of purity, I see corruption;
instead of justice, I see greed;
and above it all, I see the one thing that Paul urges us to avoid - - WORRY.
We sure are worried these days, aren’t we? It seems to be a natural response. Appealing to genetics or evolution or anything outside of ourselves we might even try to say we’re wired to do it. How would a species survive if parents didn’t worry about their well-being enough to worry about their children? If nations didn’t worry about leaders, if churches didn’t worry about theology, if congregations didn’t worry about membership, we try to justify it, these things might cease to exist we say.
There are a million and one things about which we worry: Are my parents getting the care they need?
Is my retirement fund secure?
Will my kids be able to pay for college?
Will my family stay healthy?
Will she come through surgery OK?
Will my scores be high enough?
Will his faith be strong enough?
Is the denomination going to divide?
Will I be accepted?
Is the stock market going to recovery?
Is the war going to end?
Gentleness, praise, and honor. These things we may not be so sure about, but worrying - - that’s something at which we excel, something that even seems necessary for motivation. How would we survive if worry didn’t drive us to action?
If anyone had something to worry about, it was Paul. We have heard some snippets of this letter to the Philippians over the last few weeks, but I haven’t focused on the letter itself, where it comes from and who it’s going to. Paul wrote this letter to the church he launched in Philippi, a city on the northeast coastline of modern Greece.
At the time of his writing, Paul is sitting in jail, having been thrown there by the Roman authorities essentially for treason. In their eyes, Paul has been running around the Roman Empire advocating for another king, claiming that there is a lord other than the emperor, other than Caesar. He’s been imprisoned for proclaiming that Jesus is Lord, Jesus is in charge, Jesus is the ultimate ruler of this world, not the one who rules from Rome. For these statements that threaten loyalty to Rome, Paul has been thrown into jail by one of the most brutal, authoritarian, and controlling powers the world has yet seen.
The Roman prison system was MORE than a little different than ours. Captors were simply that. They felt no responsibility for the safety, comfort, or health of their inmates. In fact, Roman prisoners weren’t even fed by their captors, but depended on their own supporters, family, or friends to bring them food to eat and water to drink. That’s one thing when you’re incarcerated close to home, but presents an entirely different set of challenges when you’re a thousand miles from home.
And that’s exactly where Paul find himself. Stuck in prison, far from home and most of his family and friends, Paul is in prison with a limited network of support. If anyone has ANY reason to be worried, you could say Paul has at least one or two. But here he is telling US not to worry about ANYTHING. It just doesn’t seem possible.
Recently I was talking to an old friend of mine about the church she found when she moved to California a couple of years ago. Her church, like many churches, is worried about the future. The congregation and its leaders worry about things as noble as proclaiming the good news to those who seem to need it the most, those disconnected from the church. The pastors preach their concern on Sunday morning. The committees take up the worry in their ministries, trying to combat it with things that will welcome their neighbors and reach out to the community.
A night not too long ago the church held a Fall Festival to kick off the new ministry year. My friend took her children, four of them ages five and under, but her husband wasn’t feeling well, so he didn’t go. She gracefully shuffled her children to the hall, found a table and seats for all of them, tried to keep the older ones sitting nicely while she carried four plates of food back, all while balancing an 8 month old on one hip. She reported to me that not once in her evening did someone, anyone, not a fellow member of the church, but even more disappointingly not one of the pastors preaching hospitality and welcome, simply lend a hand.
She wasn’t looking for money. She didn’t need a noteworthy sacrifice. Just a little help and then, maybe, she told me, she wouldn’t have gotten up and left so early. She told me, “I thought the point was that we are called to carry on.”
Even in the hard times, even when the church is being labeled irrelevant, even when there seem to be fewer and fewer people looking to us for the answers, we’re supposed to carry on and minister. In doing that we will WANT to share what we receive with the world. Worrying about the future, about membership numbers, about finances, won’t get the good news out, but, God willing, our love for one another can.
Paul, the one with EVERY reason to worry, if anyone has ANY reason to worry, tells us not to waste our time with it. Worrying helps us look no farther than our own belly-buttons, while the gospel of Jesus Christ, the scope of his mind and his vision, extends so much further than that. God promises through Isaiah that the banquet set by the Lord will be for ALL people. Israel has been in exile, a shroud of death, despair, worry cast over them for generations, but God promises to wipe away all their tears and the tears of the world. There’s no need to worry, and when we’re released from our worry there’s a feast for the nations to enjoy.
Paul, the one with EVERY reason worry, if anyone has ANY reason to worry, reminds us over and over in this letter why we need not worry:
“The one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
“I know that through your prayers and the help of Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.”
“I press on to make the goal my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
“Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory.”
There’s no need to waste our time worrying because the one who can solve all of this has already promised to do the job - - in fact, he’s already begun the work! Our worrying is not a part of the solution, but only blurs our vision, makes us blind to task of living the gospel, the GOOD news, in this present moment. As Paul sees it, the only way out of this cycle of worrying is believing our way out. The only way to climb out of the downward spiral of stress and panic over the things we see in our world, our family of faith, our lives, is believing that there is better way, and even if we can’t believe, we need to act like it anyway!
In high school, while I had always been a classically trained bass player, I was invited to join the jazz band. Completely unfamiliar with the music, but intrigued by the challenge, I accepted. The first few weeks were fun, a small ensemble, a fun rhythmic, moving line, this bass player’s dream come true. I started to learn the music and the tradition, and began to fall in love.
One day, though, Mr. Sanders handed out a new piece of music. My hand immediately shot in the air. “Uh, Mr. Sanders! Something’s wrong here! My notes are missing!” New to the world of jazz charts, and unfamiliar with the music the next level up, I had no idea what to do with this strange collection letters, chord markings, and a slashes for notes. I went into a panic. I felt incompetent, unqualified, totally in over my head. I worried that I would get the beat wrong, the notes wrong, the chords wrong. I worried that I’d let the rest of the band down. I worried that my cover would be blown and everyone would see I really didn’t have a clue about what I was doing.
Mr. Sanders simply said, “You know the basics. Just play what you know, and it will be right.”
“Keep on doing the things that you have learned.” That was Paul, not my band instructor. 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. The focus isn’t on solving all the crises in the world around us; the focus is on doing what we can, ministering our way out of worry, giving and thanking our way out of scarcity, trusting our way out of uncertainty.
Keep on playing the scales, reading the chords, moving to the beat, rejoicing in Christ, following the commandments, loving our enemies, rejoicing in Christ, praying with thanksgiving, seeking the mind of Christ, rejoicing in Christ, trusting in God who is near. Did I say rejoicing in Christ, yet? Just checking. Paul says it a few times, too.
Not one of us has added a day to our life by worrying. Not one of us here has paid a mortgage, cured an illness, made peace, ended hunger, aced a test, or saved the entire tradition of faith in Christ by worrying. So we can spend our time staring at our belly-buttons worried about what is to come, or we can accept that not one thing will be solved this way, and instead stay focused on the mind of Christ – whatever is honor able, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, any excellence, anything worth of praise. These are the things we can do.
God didn’t worry about what it might do to the divine reputation to enter into the human story as a human being. God didn’t worry about whether it was believable or palatable. Jesus didn’t worry about the challenges he might face or the humiliation he might endure or the pain he might suffer, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And in his humility, in his obedience, in doing what he knew to do, God also highly exalted him.
The worries of this world have already been challenged, and the answer is here. Our hope is in Christ Jesus who wipes away tears from all faces, and comforts the nations. Keep on doing the things that we have learned and the God of peace will be here.