November 19, 2017 – 24th Sunday after Pentecost
Philippians 4.4-13 and Psalm 78.1-8
It has been particularly painful to keep up with the news recently. Gun violence or sexual assault seems to lead every news source. It’s in the national news and right here in Louisville. Evangelical Christians in Alabama are in the news for standing up for a Senate candidate accused by multiple women of making sexual advances when they were under the age of consent.
The House and Senate have their eye on tax cuts designed for the wealthy and big corporations that will be used as the justification for slashing assistance to the most vulnerable in our community while tax increases will come to the working poor and middle-class.
Meanwhile the letters to the editor in the Courier-Journal seem to get meaner and more brittle as we talk and yell past one another because we’re all convinced that we’re right and all the evidence supports our view of the world.
And some of you are headed to family gatherings this week where you know you can’t talk honestly about what matters most to you; you surely can’t mention your own experience of sexual harassment or assault; there’s no room for your political views; and when you look around the table you wonder how in the world you could be related to these people.
And some of you may be alone or without much to eat.
You might not be faulted for thinking there’s not that much to give thanks for.
Paul might be someone we would not expect to be giving thanks. He wrote his letter to the Philippians from prison, not from some chaise lounge on the Mediterranean Sea. Despite being imprisoned for preaching the gospel, Paul is not despondent. He writes to his friends in Philippi to assure them in joyful terms that his imprisonment has served to advance the gospel. The Good News of Jesus has been shared among the prison guards and among those in the Roman headquarters. Paul also knows that his imprisonment has generated new courage among Christians in the area and that they are now speaking the word of God fearlessly.[i]
In the midst of his own uncertain situation—waiting in prison to be sentenced—and in the midst of the Philippians’ own sufferings, Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Holy God always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
Paul calls the church to rejoicing and giving thanks even in tumultuous, strife-filled, uncertain, scary times because God is near.
Now for Paul, he probably meant the return of Christ was near—which is less of our situation today. However, we can hear Paul’s words today as a reminder that the presence of Christ is with us—we are not far away from God.
And so, Paul tells us not to worry about anything.
I had a pastor when I was growing up who used to say, facetiously, “why pray when you can worry?”
Paul says, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
And what happens next? “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
There is an odd paradox here, Paul uses a military term to explain the presence of God’s peace: God’s peace “will stand sentry watch like a soldier, over your hearts and minds, protecting you from all that is without and all that is within that would endanger you.”[ii]
Because the presence of God is near and “the peace of God stands guard, the church can rejoice….Because God’s peace is on duty, they do not have to be anxiously scanning the horizon for new threats.”[iii]
Instead of scanning the horizon for new threats, Paul directs us to fix our attention on what is honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise.
We hear in Paul echoes of Psalm 78 with its instruction to talk about the good things God has done. The wonders God has performed for God’s people. The stories of God’s providence that have been passed from one generation to another. The psalmist commends parents to talk about these things with their children that our children will in turn tell them to their children and they will set their hope in God.
Paul talks about what is honorable, excellent, worthy of praise because all of that is of God. “Keep on doing the things you have learned and received” he says. Which is another way of saying what the psalm says—telling us to pass this tradition to the next generation and the next. We share where we have found life and hope, strength and courage, beauty and wisdom to the young people and children who follow us.
Remember that what we read in Philippians is a letter Paul wrote to a particular church in Philippi. He writes out of his own circumstance of being in prison. He is not writing a treatise about the Christian life or an all-inclusive systematic theology. Confined in prison, he has learned to be content with whatever he has. He knows what it is to have plenty and he knows what it is to have little.
The prophets call us to work for justice, to undo systems where those who have plenty get more and those who have little get even less. Paul calls us to give thanks, to rejoice in all the circumstances of our lives—not because our circumstances are always just or right but because God is near and in all circumstances, God’s peace will guard our hearts and minds.
Which brings me back to thanksgiving and giving thanks. Thanksgiving, with a capital “T,” is a one-day event. But giving thanks, thanksgiving with a small “t” is a practice of the Christian life. It is what we do every day.
1 Chronicles says, “O give thanks to the Holy God, call on God’s name, make known God’s deeds among the peoples.” (16.8)
Psalm 136: “O give thanks to the Holy God, for God is good, for God’s steadfast love endures forever.” (136.1)
Psalm 95: “Let us come into God’s presence with thanksgiving.” (95.2)
“The Bible recognizes that times will come when giving thanks is hard, because times are hard.”[iv] The prophet Habakkuk writes:
Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Holy One;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Holy God, is my strength. (3.17-19)
And Paul bears witness to giving thanks to God even in difficult circumstances. Because God’s steadfast love and grace endures forever.
My mom and I were talking yesterday about how unsettled so many things feel in our country right now. She mentioned a similar feeling in 1968 and the great suffering during the Great Depression in the 1920s and 30s. In the history of our country, there are times of greater suffering and violence and times of greater justice and well-being.
When Paul says focus your mind on what is commendable, just, and pure, I am reminded of the experience of the more I focus on God’s grace and steadfast love, the more likely I am to notice God’s goodness. And the reverse is true too. When I focus on what is negative, I am more likely to see what is negative.
Again, that is not to say we will ignore injustice or blame the victim or deny there is real suffering in the world. It is simply to remember that Paul’s words stand alongside those of the prophets and are also part of the practice of Christian faith.
Giving thanks to God is a practice of remembering we are not alone, we did not get here on our own, and what we have is not ours alone, nor is it ours forever.
When we live in those realities, it alters the seasons of trial and trouble that come to us all.
The Psalmist and Paul counsel us that to remember God’s good gifts in the past, and to be reminded of God’s continuing loving presence, is to find courage and hope to live in times of trouble.
Paul teaches us “by his own example as well as by his exhortations, that the act of thanking God in the midst of adversity has the effect of reminding us of our deeper resources, puts us in touch with the One who has befriended us in the past and who…will be our present help in trouble.”[v] Not just in the week of Thanksgiving, but every day.
So may our hearts and minds be drawn each day toward thanksgiving—giving thanks and rejoicing always. Sustained by the presence of Christ and guarded by God’s peace, no matter the circumstances, may we live lives of thanksgiving.
I invite you in a moment of stillness, to become aware of something or someone you are thankful for and in your own heart and mind, to give thanks to God.
(At the end of the stillness): I heard a quote on a podcast recently that was something like “In a world with muted hope, music is the light and faith is the word.”[vi] So let us sing our faith together. (“How Can I Keep From Singing” in Glory to God, #821)
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[i] Fred Craddock, Philippians, Atlanta: John Knox, 1985, p25.
[ii] Jon Walton, “Do Not Be Anxious About Anything” sermon preached December 17, 2000.
[iii] Craddock, p72.
[iv] William C. Poe, “Thanks for What?” in Presbyterian Outlook, vol. 177, no. 39, November 13, 1995.
[v] Eugene Bay, “ From Transformation to Thanksgiving and Back Again” sermon preached November 23, 1997.
[vi] Code Switch, November 15, 2017.