Good morning! I know I am not who you expected this morning. But the fact that I’m here instead of Mike seems to embody the unpredictability of our days. I did not predict this moment either but the Gregg family has important life to focus on. While they give their attention where it is needed, I am grateful that we can worship together.
We’ve heard the words of Paul from Philippians 4 and before I share my thoughts, will you pray with me:
Gracious God, in this midst of unpredictable days, we take a moment to breathe. We inhale deeply the assurance of your presence. We cannot keep you to ourselves, so we exhale your presence into the world. Together we take one more breath and let it go with our prayer for the Holy Spirit to break in. Break into your word and make it fresh. Break into our hearts with willingness to receive. Break into our lives that we may be transformed by your abiding presence. Knowing you are hearing better than we can speak, we lift this prayer to you. Amen.
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say rejoice! These words were smacking me in the face as I considered a message for today. Especially thinking about the theme of mental health awareness for this month of October. How does rejoicing bring comfort in this current time of divisiveness and anxiety, of loneliness from endless isolation. Even without a diagnosis of mental illness, our mental health seems to be at risk. The command to rejoice in the Lord always only mocked me with how happy I “should” feel.
I read and re-read this scripture while calls and texts came my way yesterday – a friend’s brother with stage 4 cancer, only months after the deaths of their mother and sister. Concern for a depressed, isolated parent. Another with mental illness that steals away any sense of rationality. Grief over the killing of a Black man in Wolf, TX. And I suddenly remembered a message from my daughter some time ago after a similar rush of tragic news. Her text read, “ life is just too much. I don’t want to disrespect what you do Mom, being a pastor and all, but Why? It’s not fair!” Why indeed, I wondered. I sent these words in response. I. Don’t. Know.
I was sorting through all this, as I considered Paul’s words. This section of scripture can appear to be full of platitudes. Words we use as shallow comfort and encouragement when we don’t know what else to say. Then I considered where Paul was as he wrote this letter to his beloved Philippian community. He was in prison. He was uncertain about his future. He was isolated and longed to be in the company of his friends. This rejoicing he speaks about is not a cliché to be handed out lightly. It comes from his experience of that piece of God (p-i-e-c-e of God) within him. We know we are not promised to be free of suffering. Yet somehow when suffering comes, we are still surprised. Like Paul shackled in a prison cell, there is no easy way out. But there is a better way through. And that is what I believe Paul is sharing with his friends.
It is ironic that Paul wrote to a community of people that he could not see, and I can’t see you today. There is no interaction to be had. I can only share the pieces of God that I’ve experienced. Here’s my letter to you…Dear friends,
These are uncertain times. And in uncertain times, tensions surface, sometimes even despair. I remember some many years ago sitting on the edge of the bed saying goodnight to a young boy. He was quite sad over his circumstances. He cried over uncertainties of going back and forth between mom’s house and dad’s. He worried whether he would ever feel better. I could not promise a change in circumstances. So I softly said, “it sounds like you feel hopeless.” A tear of acknowledgment escaped the corner of his eye. I bit my lip and asked, “may I hold your hope for you until you are ready to take it back?” He shook his head yes and we sat together in silence.
Friends, we can’t fix each other but like Paul wrote, there are Euodia’s and Syntyche’s that are struggling. Help them. Hold their hope if they need you to. Be the presence they need so they may hold onto that piece of God.
I know you may be prone to worry. And I have found only one way through it. Let your requests be made known to God. Let. We have to let go before we can rejoice in God’s peace.
I had a plan for my ministry. I knew where I would go and what I intended to do. That plan carried the good news of God’s love. What could go wrong?! But unpredictably the rug got pulled out from under me. My hands were tied. What was I to do now?
After weeks of stewing in my frustration, I sat next to my husband listening to a message about opening our hands and letting go. I angrily scribbled a note to him that read, “I’ve let go of everything. What else is there to let go?” Within seconds he wrote the words, “your anger.” Now honestly, friends, I don’t know what made me more angry. That it was true or that he was right! I spent the next few weeks walking around with open hands in the prayer, “help me want to want to let go.” Before long, I wanted to let go and in retrospect I recognized God’s presence through the whole time – in my faithful planning, in my husband’s words, my friend who held my tears, in God’s patience as I poured out my disappointment, and in the unexpected places of rejoicing that became available to me.
This is what we learn from the Psalms. That the tears of lament water the soil from which hope grows. Psalm 13 begins, how long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? And after a pouring out, Psalm 13 concludes, But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. Let go, and safeguard that piece of God.
Finally, We do not have to look far to know there is real trouble in this world. We are constantly at war with others and with ourselves. There is a way through. After acknowledging the chaos in prayer and supplication, Paul encourages us in whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, pure, pleasing commendable. If there is any excellence, anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Think about these things that safeguard that piece of God, when you sit at a traffic light and have a moment to breathe. Think about these things when you feel the kindness of a stranger’s smile. Think about these things when you notice the first crimson leaf of fall. Think about these things in moments of generosity, in acts of justice, and when you turn on the faucet and remember your baptism and know you are beloved. Every one of these thoughts, every one of these actions is that piece of God loving in and through us.
In closing, I’d like to share with you words from another Jewish letter-writer, Etty Hillesum. Over a brief two year period she wrote letters and diaries that describe her awakening to God; and, the persecution of the Jewish people in Amsterdam during the German occupation. In the Westerbork transit station, where life was uncertain at best, she wrote:
“There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there too…And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters. To safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves.”
Ourselves. Together. Brothers and sisters, we are a community. We can’t do this life alone. There is no easy way out but there is a better way through. Help one another. Hold each other’s hope. Water the soil of hope with your lament. Think about these things and do these things.
And together, as you safeguard that little piece of God, the God of peace will be with you.