Sermon October 11, 2020

There is no video of this week’s sermon. Video will be available again next week.

Philippians 4:1-9

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
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.

Matthew 22:1-14

Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, “Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.” But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, maltreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, “The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.” Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” For many are called, but few are chosen.’

The Sermon

I think we can agree that 2020 is a rather terrible year: Covid-19 is not under control, an extremely aggressive presidential campaign is underway, there is a struggle with social and racial injustice, wildfires destroyed whole communities in the West, storms are hitting repeatedly the Golf Coast. All this is a lot to deal with as lives have been lost, many had to realize that their plans for the future were completely derailed, the full picture of the long-term impact of this year is not clear yet. And these are just the things experienced in addition to the “regular” troubles people have to face in their lives. It is all stressful and depressing to say the least.
The question is how we are doing within all this adversity, the scare of an illness and natural disasters, and our personal problems. After everything was shut down in March, we put a little newsletter together in which we shared how we are doing and what we are doing. There were a lot of positive responses as people read more books, planted gardens, cleaned their houses and so on. There was a lot of effort to make the best of it and not getting too down. But of course, we know as time went on, there is a sense that it’s been long enough and it would be great if we could just fast-forward to 2021. I am ready to leave this year behind.
The Apostle Paul wrote a letter to the Philippians. He himself was in prison at the time, the two women he talked about, Euodia and Syntyche, were in some kind of conflict, and all of the Philippians were in a tough spot being Christians in a hostile environment. So things were not too great, and yet, Paul found it in himself to write this beautiful letter, although, at first glance, it also sounds a bit like glossing over real problems:
Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. Do not worry about anything.
However, when Paul talked about rejoicing, it was not about putting on a brave face, or pretending to be okay, or being happy when one was clearly not. But Paul tried to talk about the source of joy and peace, which for him had a deeper meaning than feelings that may come and go.
For him, joy and peace were rooted in his relationship with God. This is where he drew strength from, independently from what his actual life circumstances were. So he could be imprisoned, or beaten, or threatened he would still find meaning and purpose in his life. Dire circumstances would not dictate his outlook on life. He could rejoice in the Lord, without necessarily feeling happy. He could talk about the tensions among the Philippians and call them the to rejoice pretty much in the same breath. Paul was content whether he lived or died, whether he was well fed or hungry, whether he was safe or in danger.
Karl Barth, a theologian, once called “joy a continual defiant ‘Nevertheless’.” It’s a reminder that the biblical concept of joy isn’t based on circumstances. In fact, the word joy can be translated as being happy, but also as “take heart” or “have courage.”
I think this gives a clearer understanding what kind of joy Paul talked about. We don’t need to be happy, or doing really well, in order to have courage or take heart. Paul drew his courage from his certainty that God was near.
This is something we can draw from as well. Clearly, things around us are chaotic and sometimes even fall apart. Of course we get depressed and anxious these days. But we are also assured that within the chaos and uncertainty, God is always near. In sickness, financial instability, loneliness, God is near.
God is working with us even through difficult circumstances for good. We can take heart even when happiness seems very far away.
Because we are not alone, we can take heart and have courage, and also show this in our actions. One action Paul called for was gentleness among his divided followers, which is quite telling. Apparently, it is in human nature to have a bit of a short supply in gentleness, but here is Paul’s call for it.
Apparently, in our time and place there is dire need for it just the same. This means, for instance, we don’t have to adopt the angry rhetoric that is so contagious right now, as tempting as it may be. But really, participating in what’s untrue, unholy, unjust, impure, ugly and vicious doesn’t lead anywhere. Paul invites Jesus’ followers to a different way. A way the Spirit uses to promote within us joy, gentleness and peace.
We can be gentle and care for those who are anxious and stressed out, trying to convey some of God’s peace to those in need, by focusing on what the apostle calls “true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy” things. They are not that hard to find if we open our eyes and shift our focus away from chaos and loud headlines. A lot of good is still happening. People try their best to do their jobs well as teachers, social workers, nurses, cashiers, waiters and so on, just as we try to carry on in our own circumstances and do the best we can, helping each other in our uncertainty and anxiety, assuring each other that God is near. Or, to quote an old hymn, we don’t have to worry about what tomorrow holds, because we know Who holds tomorrow.
And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.