Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

Sermon: Philippians 4:4-9

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Philippians 4:4-9

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 surpasses 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.

“Think on These Things”
First Presbyterian Church, Cartersville, GA
October 4, 2015

     

Paul wrote these words from the depths of a Roman prison. To be exact, he dictated these words from the depths of a Roman prison. Until we watched the DVD that goes along with this week’s Bible Study, I hadn’t realized how wrong my conceptualization of a Roman Prison was. I imagined, in my mind’s eye something akin to what we have today. I should know better – I took a class that spent three weeks discussing the history of prisons and prison layouts when I was in college for my Criminal Justice major. So, I should know that the designs I was picturing –of cells or rooms with inmates separated into groupings of 2 or 3 or 4 in a cell was not what prison in Rome in Paul’s day would be like. There would have been no daylight, no creature comforts. I’ve watched one too many adaptations of the story of Anne Boleyn -the Queen of England who was executed after a stay in the tower – and so I expect that of course Paul would have had someone with him to offer assistance and comfort in his time of imprisonment. In all my imagining, there was some source of daylight, some way to mark the passage of time. And yet, when I watched the Hamilton DVD, I saw how wrong I was.

When Paul was taken to the Mamertine prison in Rome, he was taken to what looked like a manhole. This small round hole was the way prisoners were lowered into the room below – the basement that was dark, damp, and where people died. Paul had no light, so he dictated his words to those above. I may have chosen my words differently, but as he was composing this letter the words that came out of his mouth out of the depths, out of the dark were these, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice.”

Wait – what? The words we hear from the horrors of a Roman prison are to rejoice? Why? How could Paul even get into that mindset? Not only does he say it once, he says it again. Rejoice. When we read forward, we see that Paul offers us a good reason to rejoice – the Lord is near.

As we read and reread the scope of Biblical history, we see over and over again the promises of God not to leave us alone. Time after time, the people of the world acted in ways that should separate us from God. We killed, plundered, enslaved, stole, lied, cheated, excluded, warred, and flat out turned our backs on God. We have had times when we as individuals and as the people of the world have been plunged into darkness – much like the darkness Paul experienced in his prison cell. And God never left. God stayed with us. God was and is faithful. God went so far as to come in the form of an infant born in a manger to be with us. And we still didn’t get it. So, after he died, was raised, and ascended, God sent the Holy Spirit. Paul wrote in Romans that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and Paul was right. His knowledge of our collective story is what gave him the confidence to proclaim that the Lord is near, and so we can rejoice.

Today is a day for rejoicing. It is one of my favorite days of the Christian year. Well, after Easter and Christmas and Pentecost. Today is World Communion Sunday. One reason I love this day is it is a chance to step outside of my context, and outside of what I know. As I prepared liturgy for the 11:00 service using words from traditional across the globe, and found the prayers and communion for today, I was reminded that we here in Cartersville are a tiny fraction of those around the world who will celebrate communion today. In my first congregation, there was a man named Bill Walling who wrote a gorgeous piece for us to use in the bulletin on World Communion Sunday. Sadly, I no longer have his exact words, but I remember his description of following the sun across the globe as Christians gathered at table. In it, he described the day beginning with the first sunrise in New Zealand. When it was 11:00 Sunday morning there, we were sitting down to supper and watch football here. As we were going to bed last night, congregations in the Middle East were gathering at table. As we move through the night, following the clock, those in Europe and parts of Africa gathered at the table as some of us woke up. As we finish the reception this afternoon, churches on the West Coast will eat the bread and drink the cup. This day reminds me that we are all in this thing we call Christianity together. On this day, we make a point to remember, and celebrate that coming together. We celebrate different liturgies and traditions, we eat different breads, we speak different languages. Yet, all who proclaim to follow Christ do the same thing today as the earth moves around the sun– we tell our story, we eat, we drink, we remember our salvation in Jesus Christ and look forward to the day he comes again. We rejoice in our unity and focus on what brings us together rather than on what separates and divides us. For me, this is a day to think on the good things we can do when we come together to worship and celebrate our lives in Christ.

Today is a day I want to encourage us to think on good things, and to embrace Paul’s words to us. To remember our call to remain faithful to the God who is ever-faithful to us. After serving for 6 years, today is my last Sunday as one of your pastors. As I’ve thought about what to say to you this week, this passage kept coming back to mind.
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 surpasses 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.

We may not feel like rejoicing today – we may not feel like the Lord is near. But, I know this- the Lord is near. God was at work in this congregation over 100 years before I was born, and God will continue to be at work here long after we are gone. My prayer for us today is that we can know the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.
I’ve been reflecting on our time together, and thinking on the things that are true, honorable, just, pleasing, commendable, and excellent. I leave here surrounded with love and prayers, and with the knowledge that you all will be OK. In our time together you have welcomed me into your homes and hospital rooms as your lives changed with life and death and all that happens in between. You allowed me to bring you reminders that God is with you and offer prayers in your hardest days. I think about the winter when we had a funeral almost every week from Thanksgiving to Epiphany, and the ways we came together in faith as a congregation to love and serve one another in that time. I have been at the baptisms of your children and poured the water as the body of Christ promised to love, nurture, and care for them. And, as I have said many times before, those promises don’t expire just because children grow up. You entrusted me, each week, to sit with them on the steps and tell them about Jesus. It has been my privilege and my calling to bear witness as this congregation cared for one another, for the community and the world.

Today we are rejoicing as we celebrate all we have done in faith. We are rejoicing as we remember that we serve an average of 90 people a hot meal every week, without fail. We save lives with our blood and have rebuilt homes. We are rejoicing as we watch Sunday School classes provide learning possibilities for everyone who wants to participate. We are rejoicing as we worship, and as we pray for one another. We rejoice in the care we offer one another, formally and informally. I still remember the stream of you who came to my doorstep after I broke my ankle on the mission trip, and the care with which you treated me in my recovery. Paul says “if there is excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise…” and there is so much of that here at FPC. We offer praise for the meals we have served to older adults in Fellowship Hall and the trips we have taken all over the state. Remember the rule – “as long as we bring back the same number of people we left with, they don’t have to actually be the same people, so don’t be late getting back to the bus.” We have practiced extending grace to one another – sometimes better than others – and we have mourned over losses as we have celebrated our successes.

I know many of you feel uncertain, many of you are worried, many of you ask “what now”? I encourage you to think on the good things, and follow the call to stay faithful. Focus on the good that is here and continue that. Concentrate on calling your next pastor and the places where God is calling you to next. Think on our outreach ministries, our music ministries, our education and so many other parts of the common life here that are pleasing to God. Continue those things. Let go of the others.

And, when all else fails, continue to pray, and continue to come to the table. Come to Jesus. Taste the grains, taste the grapes and see that the Lord is good. Look into the eyes of those around you and recognize that this is where we come to find Christ when we are our most broken, our most sad, our most – whatever we are on any given day. For, you see, our story as Christians is not one of endings, but of new life coming from the darkness. That is the story we live out, each and every day. As the light moved around the globe today, Christians came to the table and told that story. They reminded each other over and over again that the death of Christ was not the end. In that death we find resurrection. So my friends, as we part ways for a time, I encourage you to live out these words of Paul:
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 surpasses 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.
Amen.

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