I don’t know about you, but I am tired of the challenging texts from the Gospel of Matthew. So, I thought I would instead tackle the Philippians text from the Apostle Paul. After all, what could be challenging about being Paul?!
This letter to the Philippians is my favorite book in the Bible. It is written by Paul to his beloved congregation in Philippi, a pastor’s letter to a group of friends and colleagues. Sounds good so far, right? Except, by now, Pastor Paul is in prison, in Rome, where he will die, in a few months, in a year or two. We don’t quite know, but he apparently died in Rome, executed by the Roman authorities.
How, I wonder, can he be so cheerful? Rejoice, he says. How can he be rejoicing when he is about to die because he loves Jesus? But he says, Rejoice, again and again. He says, don’t worry about anything. Just trust God.
I want to say, “Pastor Paul, do you know what you are talking about? Of course we are worried about lot of things. There’s a lot going on in our lives, in our church, in our community, in our nation, in the world. Aren’t you paying attention? Between the bills and the hurricanes and the possibility of another war, there is a lot to be worried about.”
But Pastor Paul, if he were writing today to St John Lutheran Church, would have no concern about our fears, our worries. Instead, he would be telling us to pay attention to how we treat others. He would say, “Find a way to agree with each other, because it’s what Jesus wants. Remember all that you have done together in ministry, in Jesus’ name. Focus on the good things, whatever is true, honorable, just, and pleasing to God. Focus on those things in your relationships with each other and you will know God’s peace.”
Many times, we have experiences or events in our lives that begin with grief and distress that later become cause for rejoicing. That’s the way God works.
… Norris and Susan and I were in Orlando for Synod Assembly this past week. We heard lots of stories of congregations and ministries, from the speakers and at tables over meals. These stories are about rejoicing despite crummy situations. Here are some of them.
There is a lot of bad press about the youth of today. They do this or that, they don’t do this or that. But we were all rejoicing one afternoon when thirteen young got themselves excused from school to attend the Assembly. They all took a turn saying what being at the Assembly meant to them. Their answers were all different, but all said how much they were learning, and how they felt valued by being invited to fully participate in the Assembly. Of course, the youth also rejoiced in being fed chips and soft drinks every evening.
… When we – the Florida Bahamas Synod – were gathered last year in Assembly, we learned of the mass shooting at the Pulse Night Club. At this Assembly, three chaplains spoke about that night. Gathered with family members at a nearby hotel, the chaplains waited with them for news. What had happened? Whose child was alive? Whose child was injured? Whose sibling was lying dead on the floor?
You may remember the event. The Pulse was a popular club. Many who went there often were gay or lesbian or transgender. Some were single women who felt safe there; no one would try to assault them there.
As they waited, some other pastors and chaplains arrived at the hotel. They came carrying large Bibles and an attitude about the young people who frequented the Pulse. The Lutheran pastors made it clear that they were there to minister to all the families, without judgment. The people in the room were hurting. Many families were just in that moment learning that their children were homosexual. They didn’t need to hear that their children were sinners who would never see the face of God. They needed to hear that God loved them and their children, and that Jesus wept with them and cared about their pain.
I wept as I heard the chaplains tell the story. And I rejoiced that they – and we Lutherans through them – were there that horrible night bring Jesus to hurting families.
… We elected a new Bishop at this assembly, and it is cause for rejoicing. There are many reasons for Latino and Latina people to be fearful. They are often arrested simply because their skin is brown, or because they live in Miami.
Pedro Suarez is from Venezuela, and many parts of the US. He is a trained mission developer and redeveloper. At first, I simply wanted to hear a different voice, a different perspective on ministry in Florida than that told by white male pastors. So, I voted for him.
As we got to know him, I realized I was supporting him not because of his different heritage but because I believed he is the best candidate of the group. The others were all good, but Pedro stood out as the right person for the Synod at this time. When I was standing in line to congratulate him, I heard people say, “We have changed the church in Florida today.” I and many others are rejoicing in this election.
… There is much to fear in our world these days. There is much that is not right, not just, not honorable, not pleasing to God. We could dwell on the bad news, in the world, or in our personal lives.
Or we can rejoice in what is good, what is honorable and pleasing to God. I hope you will pay attention this week and find some things worthy of rejoicing.
Please pray with me. God of hope, lead us to see the world through your eyes. Help us recognize those who are hurting, and offer to ease their pain in some way. Help us also to notice those reasons for rejoicing and take time to celebrate. Amen