Wednesday, October 29, 2008

To whom much is given

I've been doing an exegesis on Matthew 25:14-30, the Parable of the Talents. I never knew that one talent equaled 15 years worth of a working man's salary.[1] I suppose, one talent today might be... Well...okay, let's say the proverbial Joe the plumber... No. Second thought, let's say Janet the waitress makes $35,000 per year. A talent, would be $525,000.

In the parable of the talents, the master leaves three amounts to three slaves, 5, 2, and 1. So to move up to 2008, that's $2,625,000.00, $1,050,000.00, and $525,000.00.

Can you see the disciples' chins dropping? Yeah. That's a lot of money. And the master is leaving it with his slaves! You can see how this can only be a parable. Why would he do it? Where's the security? The man doesn't even leave instructions on how to take care of the money. Ridiculous.

The man comes back and the slave with 5 had made another 5. ($5,250,000.00) The one with 2 made another 2. (2,100,000.00) And the one with only the measly $525,000.00 made nothing. Now, you'd think that the man would be so overwhelmed with the jump from $4.2 million to $7.35 million that he wouldn't care about the other $525,000.00, even if it got lost. The man has made $3,150,000.00! What's a little $525,000.00?

But it's not about the money is it? No. I can't be about the money, because we're dealing in such large sums that ironically, the money seems silly. Maybe that's Jesus' point.

Maybe the point is that when Jesus handed over the keys to the Kingdom ("Whatever you pray in my name I will do…" "Ask and it shall be given to you…") maybe he was handing over a couple billion talents. Ever think about that?

Did you ever stop to consider the genuine wealth of being a person on whom God has lavished his affection and blessing?

What are you going to do with it? Just sit on it?



[1] Long, Thomas G. Matthew. Page 281.


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Proper 25A. 26 October 2008.

          I love this time of the year, don't you?  It's a bittersweet time.  One day it's just a nice Summer day, the next day you're reaching back into the closet for a long-sleeved shirt.  Without any fanfare at all, without any real thought of movement and change, the sweaters and jackets are back on the pegs in the hallway.  It seems like it would be nice to light those candles on the mantle.  So pretty to see the light of the flames against the wall and the shadows spread out on the floor. 

 

          I guess I'm a sappy sort of guy, but I find myself getting kind of whispy.  I go over to the shelf and start pulling down some old poetry books.  I want meaningful words richly poured over my life.  I want my emotions to mellow and deepen like the leaves on the trees.

 

          I put this in the newsletter, but the words from James Whitcomb Riley bounce around in me this time of year: 
 

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock,

And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin' turkey-cock,

And the clackin' of the guineys, and the cluckin' of the hens,

And the rooster's hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;

O, it's then the time a feller is a-feelin' at his best,

With the risin' sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,

As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock…

 

Then your apples all is gethered, and the ones a feller keeps

Is poured around the celler-floor in red and yeller heaps;

And your cider-makin' 's over, and your wimmern-folks is through

With their mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and saussage, too! ...

I don't know how to tell it--but ef sich a thing could be

As the Angels wantin' boardin', and they'd call around on me—

I'd want to 'commodate 'em--all the whole-indurin' flock—

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock!

 

          I heard those words in the third grade.  Mrs. Rupert's class.  We had a different poem every week.  We didn't have to memorize it, but if we did we got extra credit.  I never learned this one, but when I go out in the morning, and look at the white-laced grass, I can't help but say under my breath just a few lines.

 

          Peter has a beautiful book of poetry.  It's for children much older than he is now, but it has some of the great poems written out beside sumptuous illustrations.  I couldn't help reading parts of it to him one night before bed.  It wasn't fair to him, of course, he couldn't understand it.  He just toyed with his little car, while I read:

          In the other gardens / And all up the vale, / From the autumn bonfires / See the smoke trail! / Pleasant summer over/ And all the summer flowers, / The red fire blazes, / The grey smoke towers. / Sing a song of seasons! / Something bright in all! / Flowers in the summer, / Fires in the fall![1]

 

          Whose woods these are I think I know. / His house is in the village though; / He will not see me stopping here / To watch his woods fill up with snow. / My little horse must think it queer / To stop without a farmhouse near / Between the woods and frozen lake / The darkest evening of the year.[2]

 

          One of my favourite pieces of fall poetry is read today in churches everywhere, including here, Psalm 90:

 

          Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another.  Before the mountains were brought forth, or the land and the earth were born, from age to age you are God. You turn us back to the dust and say, "Go back, O child of earth."  For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past and like a watch in the night. You sweep us away like a dream; we fade away suddenly like the grass. In the morning it is green and flourishes; in the evening it is dried up and withered.  For we consume away in your displeasure, we are afraid because of your wrathful indignation.  Our iniquities you have set before you, and our secret sins in the light of your countenance.  When you are angry, all our days are gone; we bring our years to an end like a sigh.  The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty; yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone…So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts to wisdom."

 

 

          It's a grown-up Psalm, isn't it?  No soaring tunes of praise.  No majestic Temple hymns.  These are the words of a man who is looking back with a mixture of nostalgia and regret.  The man is not King David.  It's Moses.  He is looking into the Promised Land from Mt. Pisgah, not able to get there himself, facing death.[3]

 

          I did a graveside service recently.  I got there early.  Karin will tell you, I almost always get to places early when I can.  I was there so early that there were family members who had yet to arrive.  I was talking with the hospice chaplain, who it turns out was a friend from seminary.  We were looking out at the various tomb stones. 

 

          My eyes landed on a stone that had the names of three people on it.  There was the family name in big letters, and underneath, three names in separate spaces, the dates of their birth for all three, and the date of death for only one.  It was easy to tell from the names and dates that the one who died was the son of the other two. 

 

          It surprised me however that the son's name wasn't in the middle, where you might think it would go.  The son's place was off beside the father's.  There's a story there that you and I will probably never know.  How did the son die?  Why is he buried next to his father, instead of his mother, or instead of between them, or instead off in his own spot?  Is there any significance to that at all, or if you knew the circumstances, would that memorial make perfect sense?

 

          We talked about that for a little while, but even more fascinating to me is the way we indicate time on those stones.  The date of birth.  The date of death.  And a dash between them. Whether you lived for one day or a hundred years that dash is all you get. 

 

          Everything happens in that dash.   "Like the grass in the morning, it is green and flourishes; in the evening it is dried up and withered…All our days are gone; we bring our years to an end like a sigh.  The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty; yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone."

 

          I am drawn to these words.  They comfort me, and I don't know why.  St. Benedict wrote, "Day by day, remind yourself that you are going to die.  Hour by hour remember that God's gaze is upon you, wherever you may be."[4]  Why did he write that? 

 

          These things are so stark, so morbid, but something in them breathes deeply in my soul.  I don't know why.  I really don't.  I thought at first it was the candor of it, or maybe it's the odd sort of pleasure in pathos.  No.  It's not that.

 

          And granted, reading this as a young man is not the same as reading it in full maturity.  "For the sword outwears its sheath, / And the soul wears out the breast, / And the heart must pause for breath, / And love itself have rest."[5]
 

          I love this stuff.  I love the ability of Moses, and all these poets to pull us out of the banal rhythms of sleeping, waking, working, buying, eating, and watching TV.  I like the fact that the careless summer mornings melt into bleak, pensive afternoons—cups of coffee, the smell of a wood fire or pipe tobacco, seeing old friends at high school and college reunions.  How long have we known them?  Has it been that long?  My how the years roll on.  It seems like only yesterday…

 

          "Teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom.  Satisfy us with your loving-kindness in the morning; so shall we rejoice and be glad all the days our life.  May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us; prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork."

 

          God help us not to run from this thing to that.  Help us not to be so focused on "things temporal," that we lose the "things eternal."[6]  Help us not to be a people who "hoard and sleep and feed," who stride powerfully, but mindlessly though youth, not caring and not considering the presence of God until our days come to an end.[7]  (Pause.)

  

          Do you know what worries me the most?  I worry that my generation, and the generation to follow, will become deaf to the poets and the prophets.  I worry that the ever-quickening movement of our culture will keep them from forming a depth of root that will nourish them in the noonday sun.  That life will be—to my generation and the generation to come—nothing but dash between two dates on a gravestone.  And in that dash is nothing but a selfish grasp for the illusions of wealth and fame.

 

          I worry about that.  I worry about whether or not there will be genuine Christians to break bread with my son and daughter when they're older, who will remember the poetry of the Psalms and prophets.  Who will remember not just the story of our faith, but the depth of life that story can give them.

 

          I know I shouldn't worry about that.  It's the work of the Holy Spirit to anoint and inspire, and to carry the Gospel forward.  I know that.  But still I pray, with Moses, "Be gracious to your servants.  Show your servants your works and your splendor to their children." 

 

          Please, Lord, show your splendor to my children.



[1] Robert Lewis Stevenson.  "In the other gardens"

[2] Robert Frost. "Stopping by woods on a snowy evening"

[3] Hayes, John H. from Preaching Through the Christian Year A. Page 487.

[4] The Rule of St. Benedict 4:47-49 paraphrased.

[5] Lord Byron, from "So we'll go no more a roving"

[6] The Book of Common Prayer, 1979.  Collect for Proper 12.  Pg. 231.

[7] Tennyson.  "Ulysses."


Thursday, October 23, 2008

Mystery

One of my favourite things to say in a sermon is, "I don't know."  If you look through my sermons (recent ones are posted on this website) in almost all of them I say/write the sentence "I don't know."  It's very freeing to say those words, and I think very powerful to say them, when true, in a sermon.  There is so much more that we don't know about God than what we do. When the preacher acknowledges a limit to his/her understanding, the spirituality of the congregation can become limitless.
 
We believe in God who reveals himself in Jesus Christ.  That revelation continues to be mediated by Holy Scripture and the work of the Holy Spirit.  Christianity has come down through the centuries, not because "the book" endured, but because Jesus, by the work of the Holy Spirit, continues to reveal himself.
 
All our worship is predicated on this notion, yet would Jesus (would God?) be pleased with our worship?  Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist make sense to us. The Holy Scriptures, read and proclaimed, make sense.  Yet at a certain point worship must move beyond mere intellectual assent and into the heart.  Many Christians fail to make that leap, but it's the difference between saying I do, and being married.  Or to become much more earthy, worship, at its fullest expression becomes as mysteriously ecstatic as love-making.  God reveals God's self, and we reveal ourselves, and by mutual self-giving and self-receiving, we become unified with the divine life of the Holy and Blessed Trinity.  We join hands with the Son and thereby join the perichoresis of God--a dance of mutual ecstasy.
 
This truth, like all mysteries, unfolds before us metaphorically and actually.  Is our culture's obsession with sexuality merely a craving for the ecstasy of God?  Perhaps so.
 
Worship, in any form, will always be less than full.  We await the consumation of the Kingdom of God, when we are able to join the perichoresis of God entirely.  I personally can't wait.  I consider each day a day closer to that better day when we will see Christ and be brought into the perfect and permanent union with the divine life of the Holy Trinity.  May Jesus come today.  And if he can't come today, certainly tomorrow.  And if tomorrow is too soon, please God, the day after that. 
 
The Spirit and the Bride say come.  Even so, come Lord Jesus. 
 
 

Monday, October 20, 2008

Colin Powell

Gen. Colin Powell (a devout Episcopalian in the Diocese of Virginia) said something on Meet the Press that I would like to celebrate.
 
"I'm...troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the party say. And it is permitted to be said such things as, "Well, you know that Mr. Obama is a Muslim." Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim; he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president?
 
Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, "He's a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists." This is not the way we should be doing it in America. I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine. It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son's grave. And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. And it gave his awards -- Purple Heart, Bronze Star -- showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death. He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn't have a Christian cross; it didn't have the Star of David; it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith. And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey. He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life. Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourself in this way."  (Meet the Press, October 19, 2008.)
 
Preach it, General. 

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Proper 24A. 19 October 2008.

 

          I am preaching today on a text I have never liked.  When I was first ordained…well, let's just say that I don't think you would have liked me when I was first ordained.  I preached all right.  I did a led a decent service.  But I was so worried about being a standard-bearer that I felt I had to be happy about everything in the Bible. 

 

          I don't know what flipped the switch.  It might have been St. Anselm whispering in my ear, "We believe that we may come to understand."[1]  Maybe it was listening to parishioners say, "I know that I should believe, but I just can't right now."

 

          If I am to be totally honest with you about today's text, then I have to tell you I've never liked it.  Never.  Even when I was a boy in high school, even when I was an argumentative Philosophy major in college.  I used to wake up early in college and read the Gospels.  I added them all together and divided them into thirty segments so that I could read all four Gospels in one month.  I used to skip Matthew's genealogy in chapter one, and sometimes, this lesson.

 

          Matthew 22:15-22.  "The Pharisees went and plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said. So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away."

 

          It is an interesting scene.  It gives us a glimpse into the uneasy relationship between Jesus, the Pharisees, and a lesser known group called: The Herodians.  As their name suggests, the Herodians were Jews who derived much of their power from alliances with the Roman occupation.  They were a priestly class of Jews, but they were not entirely appreciated by the Pharisees for their capitulation to Roman ways. 

 

          So here's the scene.  You've got Pharisees who are pro-Israel, anti-Rome, and you've got Herodians who are mostly sympathetic to Israel, but really in the pocket of the Roman government.  Now, when you see that set-up, you see that there is no way Jesus can win this.  If he says it's lawful to pay taxes to the Roman government, then he can be written off for bowing to the pressure of the brutal Roman regime.  And if he says it's unlawful, he can get arrested.  So, it's a Catch 22: darned if you do, darned if you don't.

 

          Jesus asks to see the coin for the tax, which is an interesting moment.  Jesus doesn't carry the coins, they do.  Jesus exposes their hypocrisy.  He then cleverly says, "Well, the man's picture is on this, you probably ought to give it back to him.  But while you're at it, why don't you give to God what belongs to God?" 

 

          Jesus threads the needle.  He evades their malicious intentions, while still answering in accordance with his own radical obedience to God.  It's a brilliant answer to an incredibly dangerous confrontation.  So why don't I like this text very much?  I don't fully know.  But when I saw that this text was coming up in the lectionary, I rolled my eyes at it again.  I considered slipping over to preach on Thessalonians, "We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers."  It's a nice reading.  Plenty of uplifting stuff there.

 

          I considered the Old Testament lesson.  God passing before Moses and showing his glory.  Lots of interesting imagery—plenty of things to talk about.  Our human condition, God's glory, our inability to comprehend the magnificence of God, the face of the Almighty.  Good sermons are waiting to be preached on those texts.

 

          But I couldn't run this time, because I couldn't explain why it was that the text bothered me.  I have walked into a new restaurant and something just didn't seem right.  Has that ever happened to you?  Something's not right.  And you order some food, and look around.  The food comes, you eat, you pay, you leave, and you never go back.  Something about that place is unsettling.
 

          I took a walk shortly after I started working on this text and I decided that I would fight with this text on my walk.  And after the walk, when I got home, I'd know why I didn't like it, and what I was supposed to say.  So off I went, and I was thinking, thinking, thinking...  The only thing I had when I got home was that I really don't like "Conflict Jesus." 

 

          I like Shepherd Jesus.  I like Teacher Jesus.  I like Healer Jesus, Prophet Jesus, Mount of Olives Jesus, Sea of Galilee Jesus, Baby in the Manger Jesus, Cross Jesus, Resurrection Jesus, Ascension Jesus.  But I don't know how to love Conflict Jesus.  He seems too much like the kid in school who you kind of like until Math class and he knows all the answers a split second before you do.  It's hard to like him.  He's nice enough to you, but he seems a little…I don't know.

 

          Part of the trouble is that Conflict Jesus is also Challenging Jesus.  "Give to God what belongs to God," is not that far removed from "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his Cross and follow me."  You see that?  It's the impossible standard, the bar set so high that it's impossible to get there.

 

          A man came to the Salvation Army when I ran the shelter in Harrisonburg.  He was an alcoholic.  He went to church one Sunday and he wanted to talk about it.  He said, "I think I'm finally going to stay sober.  I feel like, for the first time, I'm going to make it."  I said, "That's great."  He said, "And I want to give some money to the church I went to this morning, but I don't know how much to give.  Do you have any advice?"

 

          I said, "Well, you know that you'll need some money to get out of here.  Why don't you just give the church what you used to spend on booze."  He said, "I can't do that."  I asked why.  He said, "That would be everything I've got."

 

          "Give to God what belongs to God."  How is that not "everything I've got?"  And you can hear the bad stewardship message there, can't you?  You can hear the preacher saying, "Give to God what belongs to God…you can't give God enough…but you gotta start somewhere!"  Terrible message.  Misses the point altogether…and yet…what is the point?

 

          I had gotten myself back in that hole again.  So I took another walk.  I know it's not about stewardship, but I've heard so many bad stewardship sermons that I can't seem to read this text without feeling like it's trying to shake me down.  That dollar bill that you were going to spend on a candy bar…that should go in the plate.  It belongs to God. 

 

          Those are nice shoes you've got on, nice new shirt you're wearing.  Couldn't that money have gone into the plate, and gone to helping that struggling church you love?  "Give to God what belongs to God."  Why can't you give that money to the starving people in the world?  Why do you get new clothes and the people in Sudan don't.  See?  I've got those tapes playing in my head.  They're good tapes—they've made me the Christian I am today—but some of them have Conflict Jesus on them. 

  

          So I took my walk.  Back to the office.  What is this text about?  Nothing.  Half way through the walk I realized that my brain couldn't focus on the text anymore.  I had nothing.  So I did some reading, talked with people on the telephone.  Had a cup of coffee over at Walton/Smoot.  Half broke my leg on the sidewalk they were fixing.  Nothing.  I was in a sorry state.  No sermon.  Not even the dream of a sermon for today.

 

          Then came my day off.  The day I am supposed to put aside my sermons, take off my collar, and just be Karin's husband and Peter's and Maggie's daddy.  Karin had to do something, so it was just me and the kids.  I put Maggie in the Baby Bjorn, this contraption that lets you wear the baby on your chest, and we all went outside to play.

 

          We walked down to the end of the street, and I was thinking of nothing in particular, when I came to two seemingly unrelated thoughts.  I realized that my pockets were empty—no house key.  Not a problem.  The back door was unlocked.  Number Two: I hadn't said my prayers. 

 

          The first thought was I've got nothing right now but my two children and the clothes on my back.  No keys, no wallet; it's just us without a thing in the world.  And I needed to say my prayers. 

 

          I try to have Morning Prayer each morning.  But whether I can get to that or not, I have a standard group of prayers I pray every morning that come right from my heart.  I ask God that I might be a better Christian, a better husband, a better father, a better son, and a better priest. 

          And I ask the Saints and Angels and all the faithful departed to pray that—like them—I might bring honor to God.  And that God would anoint and bless whatever he gives me to do.

 

          So I prayed my prayers, and then I asked God (out loud), "God, I don't know what to do with this text.  How in the world we can give everything?"  And that's when my mind went back to my empty pockets.  I didn't have anything.  I just had my children, which really belong to God, not me, and my clothes, which will one day wear out. 

 

          All I had out there were three things:  Who I have been, Who I am, and Who I am becoming.  And that's all I've got.  That's all any of us has.   Who we have been.  Who we are.  And Who we are becoming. 

 

          Whether you're on the front 9 or the back 9, you've got a past, a present, and a future.  God knows us in all three places.  And God wants all three.  Did you know that?  He wants your past, your present, and your future.   Why?  Don't be silly.  You know why.  Because he loves you. 

 

          You can afford to give him everything, because you don't really have much.  All you've got is your: past, present, and future.  And you can give him all of those things, just as easily as praying everything morning that he'll take you, and use you for his glory.  All of you.  Everything.

 

          It won't take long to pray those prayers.  You don't have to labor over them.  It's not like these are big prayers.  They're just the only ones that really matter.  



[1] Anselm of Canterbury.  Proslogion: fides quaerens intellectum  /  credo ut intellegam

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Meaning

What is truly meaningful?  It's a good question.  It's the implicit question of every thoughtful person.  I remember the first couple times I kissed my wife when we were dating.  THAT was meaningful.  Still is. 
 
I've been noticing in recent months something quite obvious.  Meaningful things come close together.  When someone dies, the family comes together.  When someone is born, the family comes together.  When any community experiences trauma or joy, there is some sort of coming together. 
 
And there are levels of coming together.  Some relationships are handshakes, some hugs, some kisses, (you see where I'm headed with this.)  We send flowers, treats, gifts, all expressions of caress--intimacy of some kind. 
 
And yet, despite the fact that we naturally gravitate to each other, we can't live like that very healthily.  I can't stay at home with my family and feel productive at my work, and when I do stay at home I can't always be interacting with my family.  There must be some distance there to make coming together meaningful.
 
Sometimes I wish church met for Matins and Evensong every day, but you couldn't start that if your life depended on it. People don't want to come to church all the time (like I do.)  People don't want to live close to their families anymore--in fact, a recuring theme of the holiday season is stress about having to go home to see the family.  
 
If meaningful things bring people together, then what is happening when we are apart?  That's not meaningless, but it's less meaningful, right?  I'm really probing here.  I don't have an answer to this. 
 
Is it that we just can't bear to live in the intensity of relationship that we know could be there? 
 
Of course.
 
But why?
 
Are we afraid we'll lose our identities..be unable to differentiate ourselves..become, ironically, less meaningful? 

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Proper 23A. 12 October 2008.

 

I have decided not to preach on the Gospel lesson today.  I thought I might take a little break from the conflict section of Matthew, and spend some time in Paul's letter to the Philippians.  The reading for today is an old favourite of mine.  It is a soothing passage, and it is intended by Paul to be a soothing passage. 

 

          "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will 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 to God.  And the peace of God which passes 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."

 

          Many a night, when I was a teenager, just before bed, I would flip over to this section of Philippians.  It offered such non-anxious faith during my most anxious years. Yet despite my love for this passage, I don't think I've ever preached on it.  I wonder if I've treated this text like a piece of art: afraid to explain it, lest the explanation take away some of its power. 

 

          If you were to read only this text, you would imagine Paul writing to the Church in Philippi from a perch on the highest mountain, having walked among the flowers of spring, having had a glass of wine—feeling that all's right with the world.

         

          But no.  Paul is writing from prison, which makes his words seem ironic.  How can he rejoice while he is in chains?  In fact, the rejoice theme is repeated in several places.  He writes: "That Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives, or true;… in that I rejoice."[1]  "I am glad and rejoice with all of you, and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me."[2] 

 

          Speaking of Epaphroditus who after an illness will be visiting the Church in Philippi, "I am more eager to send him, therefore, in order that you may rejoice at seeing him again."[3]  In chapter three, he begins by saying, "Rejoice in the Lord."[4]  Later on, "I rejoice in the Lord greatly..."[5]  And then at the last chapter, the part we read today, "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say rejoice."[6]

 

          And yet, there is also a strange counterpoint to all this rejoice language.  As you read through the letter there is an overtone of worry, which leads you wonder what state of mind Paul was in when he was writing this letter.  How can he say "rejoice in the Lord" sitting in prison, much less to the Philippians, "Do not worry about anything"?

 

          It is a constant theme in the Bible: "Fear not."  In the story of Abraham, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield and your great reward."[7] The Angel comes to Zechariah and says, "Fear not."[8]  The Angel comes to Mary and says, "Fear not."[9]  Paul writes to the Philippians, "Fear not."  John the Divine writes of Jesus standing before him about to reveal the secrets of the end of time, and what does Jesus say? "Fear not."[10]  

 

          The Bible is filled with this kind of talk, and it sounds nice on a Sunday morning, but it can come across that Christianity is out of touch with the real world. 

 

          If you would like something to worry about you don't have to go very far.  The whole country has been running a low grade fever for a long time—lately it seems to have spiked.  The economy is on everyone's minds.  And if it isn't that it's something else: fear of developing a disease, fear of terrorists, fear of what we don't know. 

 

          You turn on the TV news and you see these interviews with experts, and the whole tone of the conversation is "how can we get a handle on this one?"  "How can we protect ourselves from this new threat?"  And the idea is that we should be able to get control. 

 

          So often it feels as if we're driving down the road—as a country—at 100 miles an hour, but have no idea where we are going, or if we even want to get there.  Do you ever feel that way?  We want change, and yet we don't want change.  Some things should change, some things should not change.  What should change?  No, that shouldn't change, that's fine.  No I think that should change.  Well, I disagree.  Well, you just don't understand the threat.  Well, you just don't understand the way the world works.  Moving, moving, moving.  Faster, faster, faster.  But where are we going?  No one seems to know.  And very few people seem to care.

 

          I think it's in the DNA of our country.  We feed on certain cycles of movement.  Technology breakthroughs are a given now. Medical advances are met with delight, but are expected to come up as regularly as the next season.  And since every cycle of new information and new ideas brings with it a fresh infusion of that feeling of mastery, we think that eventually the uncertainty will go away completely and we'll be at peace. 

 

          And see, then, we'll able to agree with Paul, and rejoice in the Lord always.  But now, we need to get control.  Right now, Paul is "out of touch." But I don't think Paul is out of touch.  Every generation has had to deal with uncertainty.  The only difference is that we deal with more of it, faster.  But the uncertainties of life have not changed.  Illness, food shortage, prices of necessities.  There has always been worry over these things, but I think Paul understands something fundamental about God that many of us—including myself—have yet to fully grasp.  I'm speaking of a mystery called: the Resurrection.

 

          You see, you can look at the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus and think, "Well, how sad," and then, "How happy," but that's only the surface of Easter.  The point of the Resurrection is "Fear not." 

 

          The road of life is threatening—there are worries, there are fears—but live anyway.  You might face terrible things—opposition, accidents, illness—but even if the very worst should happen, God will always raise us from the dead.  God will always redeem that which has been cast down. 

 

          The Resurrection happened at a particular time in a particular place, but it is not limited to a particular time and place.  The Resurrection is the one real answer to the anxiety that surrounds us.  Yes, things may get bad.  Things may get very, very bad.  But because of the Resurrection, the devout Christian believes that the worst things are never the last things.  God has always brought new life from death.  It's who he is, and it's what he does.

 

  

          When Paul writes "Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is just, pure, pleasing, commendable, worthy of praise, think about these things…" we might want to think he is being Pollyanna.  He's not.  He's saying, Keep your eyes on Jesus, on the Resurrection, don't let the worry overcome you.  Don't let today's headline write tomorrow's history.  Keep your eyes on the one who can raise you from the dead.  The story isn't over until God says it's over.  So keep the faith, keep seeking to please your Father in heaven, and serving others "and the God of peace will be with you."  (Pause.)

 

          When I was a little boy, I used to watch my dad put on a tie before heading downstairs to go to his office.  It was the one difference.  We both wore shirts, and pants, and shoes, but the tie was special, and when you're a little boy, you want to be like dad.

 

          So one day, I asked Dad if I could wear a tie to school.  Now, you remember the ties of the 1970s and 80s—great big, wide ties.  Dad would put one of them around my neck, and tie a Windsor knot, always with a very handsome little dimple right in the middle.  I'd have to stuff the other end into my shirt to keep it from hanging down in the front.  And off to second grade I would go—a grown up, at last. 

 

          I couldn't wait to see the reaction.  I would get more respect from the other boys, surely.  The teachers would think I was just as dapper as the Principal.  The girls would want to be around me.  There was no way that this could fail. 

 

          What was, of course, more important than anything was that I'd be more like my dad.  I wanted to please him by being more like him.  So I went to school with my tie on, and I would like to tell you that my wildest fantasies came true. 

 

          I'd like to tell you that the girl on whom I had a tragic and tortured crush threw herself into my arms and begged me to be her steady boyfriend.  I'd like to tell you that the other boys sat at my feet and asked me to explain the ways of the world and the mysteries of the Ancients.  And that, with the well delivered wink at the lunch lady an extra portion of tater tots where gladly rendered.  But no.

 

          I dragged myself home.  I felt right on the verge of tears the entire walk home.  Yes, I walked to school.  It was three tenths of a mile and I walked it barefoot in three feet of snow, uphill both ways.  You kids these days, you don't know how bad we had it back then.

 

          I could feel the heat on my face, as if any moment, I would burst into tears.  Dad asked me, "How did it go?"  I answered, "Not good."  We didn't really talk much about it, but he was clearly pleased with me that I had worn the tie, and that made a big difference.  It made every difference.

 

          Occasionally, I wore a tie to school.  I always got teased for it.  They never let up on me.  But knowing that I was trying to be more like my Father, and that he was pleased with me, raised me back to life.  Do you see that? 

 

          You could almost face anything: being made fun of, getting beat up, having little girls sneer at you.  You could face any of it, any day of the week…when you know that your Father loves you, and can bring you back to life at the end of the day.

 

          Do you know what I'm really talking about?  I'm talking about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.



[1] Ephesians 1:18

[2] Ephesians 2:17,18

[3] Ephesians 2:28

[4] Ephesians 3:1

[5] Ephesians 4:10

[6] Ephesians 4:4

[7] Genesis 15:1

[8] Luke 1:13

[9] Luke 1:30

[10] Apocalypse 1:17,18