Pentecost 19A – October 15, 2017

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say Rejoice! Was Paul nuts? Or was he the forerunner of the late night talk show hosts who after reviewing the new horrors of the day – another hurricane brewing, tropical islands wiped out, Puerto Rico in ruins, fires still spreading in California….John and I visited those vineyards where we tasted good wine and ate rich food and now they are nothing but ashes and dust, homes becoming their owner’s crematoriums…the lives lost, add to this the very real threat of nuclear war, global warming, a nation divided, people living in fear, 59 dead and more than 500 injured in Las Vegas, leaders who fail to lead because they have been brought by the highest bidders and to bring it all home, a murder in our Children’s Plaza, a place in the very heart of our town that the Kiwanis created for play and joy…. Is that what Paul’s being, a comedian telling jokes, serving as the court jester, getting us to laugh so that maybe we will be able to fall asleep and not be haunted by nightmares?
Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say Rejoice! I don’t know about you, but it’s the always part I struggle with the most. I can rejoice in the Lord, singing the hymns, passing the peace, being part of this congregation where joys are multiplied and burdens shared, praising God for beautiful sunsets and stunning autumn days, but not always! There are times in the valley of the shadow of death, when frankly I am not sure that the Lord is with me and my next step is taken more out of habit than hope. And while there is something sacred about holy habits by which God carries us through the shadows, it’s a far cry from rejoicing, always…
So how does Paul dare to write this? He’s in prison, awaiting trial and has no idea if or when he will be released. Scholars debate if the jail is in Ephesus, Caesarea or Rome. Know if it is Rome his imprisonment will lead to his death. Beyond Paul’s circumstance, the people he writes to – his beloved congregation in Philippi –are experiencing intimidation and persecution themselves. They are under stress and Paul knows this. That’s why he sent them this letter asking one of their one leaders, Epaphroditus whom they had sent him to help him in his time of trial, to return to them and deliver it. Paul knows both his and their situations are precarious. And yet, in four short chapters, he uses the words joy or rejoice sixteen times. Was he delusional?
Or was it the power of a hymn? Hymns are poetry set to music. That combination implants them so deeply in our minds that they often unexpectedly rise up providing comfort in times of crisis and challenge. Years ago, Randy Heiser who served as a Navy Seal during the Vietnam War told me about the power of a hymn. It was his team’s job to helicopter into North Vietnam to recuse pilots whose planes were shot down. On one mission, just as he jumped into the jungle, a missile struck the helicopter and wiped out the rest of his team. Left behind, he found the pilot and together they walked to safety. Randy said with every step, in his mind, he sang, “He leadeth me, he leadeth me, by his own hand he leadeth me…his faithful follower I would be, for by his hand he leadeth me.”
The hymn that’s in Paul’s mind, the one he gives to the Philippians and to us, invites us into the mind of Christ Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” Do you hear what he’s singing – that God in Christ becomes one of us, enters our world even unto death on a cross? God is with us and the whole broken and lost world, with us in the horrors and nightmares, always with us, Paul and the Philippians.
Then another verse, “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Do you hear this? How the cross of Christ opens into exaltation, into new life, into resurrection? The hymn tells us to “take a knee,” to not stand proud and tall, but humbly confess and trust that Jesus Christ is Lord. So with Paul and the Philippians we can rejoice always because “there is no place in the universe, no created being, beyond the reach of the redeeming act of the servant Christ.”
Except maybe the church kitchen… We don’t know what issue the two women, Euodia and Syntyche were fussing about, but we do know that it caused enough strife that Paul who values both women asks the whole community to help them work it out. Last month when I visited one of our elders, she and I talked about all the meals she helped to prepare in our kitchen. She loved doing that ministry and misses it. But then she told me about the time she and two other women were settling tables for a church banquet. It was a special occasion and everyone wanted everything to be perfect. One woman had placed the spoon, knife, fork and napkin on the table only to have another come to correct the placement. An argument ensued over the proper way to set the table and ended when the corrector slammed the silverware on the table and said, “This is how we do it!” When I asked our elder what she did, she replied, “I just went to the other side of the room and did my job.” It can be difficult to be of the same mind in the Lord when there are things to be done and different ways to do them. This is especially so when a community is under stress. It is easy to forget that how we do ministry is as important as what we do in ministry and indeed there’s no separation between the two.
So, what does Paul do? He tells them to rejoice in the Lord always. And when one or the other protests that they are right and the other is wrong, he says it again, Rejoice! It is not about who is right and who is wrong, but about what God has done and is doing in Christ Jesus. Be gentle with one another. Joy and gentleness is grounded in the church’s faith – then and now. Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, Lord of the Church, Lord of St. John’s, of you and me, of this whole blessed community, freeing us from anxiety, freeing us to love and be loved.
When I was a child at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Dr. Russell Gaenzle, a great prince of the pulpit, always ended his sermons with “And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” I who often did not understand much of what he said, although my parents were riveted to every word, found such comfort in this blessing – that God’s peace was keeping my heart and mind through Christ Jesus.
Trusting that God’s peace is with us, then Paul provides a list of virtues to aspire to and to guide us through anything that comes our way including natural disasters and ones of our own making. He says focus on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing and commendable. Don’t ignore the horrors, but respond to them in such a way that we do not lose our souls. Because if we do, nothing gets better. Then he tells us to keep on keeping on for the peace of God which passes all understanding will be with us – now and forever. Amen.
1-Fred B. Craddock, Philippians, Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985, 42.

St John’s Lutheran Church Phoenixville