Sermon October 11, 2020
The other day, I was talking to a friend on the telephone. He said, “I will be so glad when 2020 is over”. I think many of us share his feeling. We have faced enormous challenges because of the coronavirus outbreak and all of the things that have been done and not done to deal with the problem. People are out of work, businesses have failed, many have become sick and many have died. We have also been besieged by other problems including our struggle with race relations and racial injustice and significant disagreement in the United States about how to move forward. And now we are in the midst of a contentious election. On top of all of this my friend is dealing with several struggles for his family. I am certain that each of you are dealing with problems in your life beyond those I have mentioned. May God bless us all during this time.
I think the words we hear from Paul’s letter to the Philippians speak directly to us today. Listen again to his words, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice”. Paul wrote this letter during a difficult time for himself. Paul was writing from prison. Eventually, Paul’s imprisonment would lead to his death. Paul was concerned about what was going on for the people in Philippi. Paul believed there was some quarrel between Euodia and Synthyche, two of the leaders of the Christian community, We are not told the specifics of the dispute. Maybe they held some different views, some different positions. I wonder if the dispute was causing a problem for others in the church community and creating division. It was certainly enough of an issue for Paul to hear about it in prison and enough to write about it in a letter to the entire community. Paul encouraged them to find ways to work together in the Lord. Perhaps they might disagree on other things but they might find togetherness in the Lord.
Did you notice that Paul wrote, I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. I believe Paul was recognizing each of them as an individual. I don’t think Paul wanted them to be the same and I don’t think he wants us to be the same either. We don’t have to think exactly alike but rather accept each other, learn from each other and be gentle with each other. I think Jesus wants us to work together for the good of all while accepting the ways we are different. I found this quote, “Instead of turning differences into an ugly exclusionary fight, differences are to be welcomed in a joyful way.” Paul wanted the entire community to help resolve those differences.
Churches are often places where people disagree about things. I have sought to mediate a disagreement between two people who were both part of our church community. it happens in churches just as it happens in other communities. I think all of us are called to accept differences while finding our common following of Jesus.
The words Rejoice in the Lord suggest thanksgiving for God. Beyond thanksgiving, Paul wanted us to be joyful. He referred to joy and rejoicing 14 different times in this letter. It is easy to be joyful when things are going well. We often say that we have been blessed by God when we recover from an illness or when we have financial stability or when our families are brought together. But Paul believed we should be joyful in times of stress and struggle. A theologian suggested that rejoicing when we are suffering might be better stated as “take heart” or “have courage.” We rejoice In the good times and the bad times, the Lord is near.
The current situation has made it difficult to even know each other in community. Church services have only restarted recently and even then, we are limited to how many can attend. Some are remaining at home even now. That is a prudent choice for those at risk. Communal gatherings like coffee hour have stopped as well. We are struggling.
And yet, in this time of struggle the Lord is near. New and creative ideas have brought us together. Services have been live streamed or recorded. New online events have been created. In our church a weekday evening Compline service has become a daily event for about 15 to 20 people. This group has grown together in their faith, in their prayer life and in their caring for one another. Other groups are doing Bible studies. Our book group continues to meet and we are having remote coffee hour. Without the pandemic, we would not have created these experiences. These new options allow us to stay connected with members who are only in Arizona for a part of the year. Our online presence has even identified people who were not connected to the church before now. Let us rejoice in the Lord always.
Another part of our struggle is worry and anxiety. Paul told the people of Philippi to stop worrying. That seems like really good advice during this time as well. Paul wrote, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” His words are similar to what Jesus said in the gospel of Matthew, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.”
Jesus said God takes care of the birds of the air and God will take care of you. I think Jesus wanted us to stop worrying about things that are beyond our control. I think Jesus wanted us to put our trust in God rather than choosing to be anxious.
Worry, anxiety and even fear are easy feelings to fall into these days. Worry and anxiety are natural feelings to have. Worry can help us to create a safe and secure environment. For example, the people in the path of hurricane on the gulf coast were worried and they decided to leave the area and to stay away from danger. I don’t think either Paul or Jesus were trying to get us to stop worrying about everything. As I said there are times when worry is useful.
But there are times when anxiety moves beyond the place where it can help us create a positive outcome. We have a tendency to worry about things that are extremely unlikely to happen. We are anxious about things that we cannot control. The problem with this kind of anxiety is that the worry can rob us of our ability to do anything other than worry. We can be so absorbed by our anxiety that we are unable to interact with other people. What is more important is that our anxiety can keep us from a closer relationship with God. That is why we trust in God, so that we can continue to be in relationship with God and find God’s peace.
I would suggest that you evaluate your feelings in the area of worry and anxiety. If your worry is about something that you can change or helps you to be safer, then I wouldn’t change anything. But if you think your worry is about things that won’t happen or that are out of your control, keeping you from positive interactions and your relationship with God, then you might try to work on it. My best suggestion is that you pray to God for help with your anxiety.
Our individual worries can also create a communal sense of worry. Will people ever come back to church? What might happen to our church after the pandemic is over? I myself have fallen victim to some of that kind of questioning. I think it is better for all of us to do our part and let the rest be taken care of by God. Our part is to be faithful to God in all that we do, to welcome others in our midst, to be gentle with one another as Paul suggested, to love one another and to find a sense of togetherness. We are together when we worship God and our Savior, Jesus. The rest of what happens is up to God.
Let us come back to rejoicing in the Lord. I believe that Paul wanted us to rejoice as a community. Let us rejoice together because even in difficult times wonderful things are happening. Let us rejoice in the new ways we have found to be near God as a community. Let us rejoice in our differences. As we accept our differences we remember that Paul asked us to be gentle with each other. Another Bible translation suggests that we have consideration for others. Rejoicing in the Lord is about being able to pray together, giving thanks and offering our petitions to God. Paul wrote about this in Romans when he said, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” Paul said that we can rejoice because we know that the Lord is near. As a theologian named Doug brats wrote, “The Lord is near in the comfort the Holy Spirit gives. The Lord is near in the loving prayers and presence of other believers. The Lord is also near in the trust God grants us that God is working even through difficult circumstances for good.”
In the nearness of God we receive a peace that only God can give us. My friends, whether you feel blessed and thankful or stressed and struggling, let us all join together and rejoice in the Lord. Amen.
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