Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | October 11, 2020
Philippians 4: 1-9
A few days ago I filled out my absentee ballot, then took it to City Hall and dropped it off. I feel like I need to get politics out of my head. That’s not so easy when there is so much of it coming at us from so many directions.
Some folks are political junkies and they can’t get enough. Some folks have had enough, but they can’t get away from it. In 2020 there’s no place to go. You can’t run away, you can’t hide – the world is in your face. The masks we wear remind us of that every time we go out the door.
A few nights ago Lindsay and I were looking for something to watch on the TV. We have a couple of streaming services and we were reading the description of potential films or series.
It raises the question, “Is this something I want to spend two to eight hours of my life on?”
Serial killers – nope.
Drug dealers – nope.
Missing children – nope.
Infidelity – nope.
Murder for hire – nope.
Blood and gore – nope.
Misogyny – nope.
And the list goes on.
Right now, we’re looking for some good old-fashioned escapism. If there is a show that we actually start to watch, we apply what we call “The Ten Minute Rule.” If a show has not engaged us within the first ten minutes, chances are it’s not going to. We like a good story – a well written drama or comedy; a character driven story. A well-paced thriller or stirring adventure.
I felt that way in the aftermath of 9/11. I went out and rented some Jerry Lewis films. The Nutty Professor, the Patsy and Cinderfella. Absurdism at its best, or worst depending on your taste. But they were just what I needed at the time.
The problem now is there is no aftermath. We’re still in it. 2020 is not the year in which to ask, “What else could go wrong?” So much has gone wrong that we wonder if it will get right again, or if ever.
Maybe the place to start is to consider that we may not be able to right world, but we can put ourselves to right. We can’t fix other people, but we can work on our own self-repair. What we do for ourselves, we can then bring into the world, for its good and betterment.
The text we read today from Philippians is part of this week’s lectionary and I think it fits our here and now. One thing I appreciate about it is that the writer, Paul has to remind people to get along with each other. Even back when the followers of Jesus were in the beginning stages of Christian community, they were having church fights.
Paul encouraged the combatants to “be of the same mind.” A way of saying, “Try to get along with each other.” Instead of focusing on that which divides you, consider that which you have in common. To think, not how can I change the other person, rather how can I bridge our differences.
“Rejoice, rejoice in the Lord always.”
What kind of advice is that? How can I be happy when the world around me is a mess?
There are times when we feel like we need to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. There is so much wrong that needs to be righted. If not me, then who? How can I be happy when there is so much suffering in the world?
The challenge is to discover our own realm of responsibility. There is God’s realm of responsibility, and ours. Ours individually and ours collectively. When we discover the proper balance between these realms of responsibility, then we are better able to find our own sense of peace, if not joy.
There was a fellow in one church I served, Jim. Jim was a kind and decent person. He had brilliant mind. He carried the weight of the world. It’s always something with our world and Jim felt the pain of it.
Jim suffered a debilitating health issue that left him paralyzed. His mind was intact, but he couldn’t do anything for himself. After some months he died. His wife told me that it was as if those final months were the happiest he had been in a long time. She thought it was that because he couldn’t do anything for himself, he couldn’t do anything for the world. He no longer felt like he had to, and that was freedom.
It was like the advice someone gave to me when I was starting out in ministry – “Don’t feel like you have to save anyone. Just remember that Jesus has already done that.” Sure, there is work to do, but we carry our own load in proportion to what needs to be done.
Some advice is easier said than done – as in, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
Of course we worry. It’s what we do as human beings. What happens when you lose your job and you can’t pay the bills? That’s a huge worry. How do you give something painful or tragic to God with a sense of thanksgiving?
The answer lies in the fact that if ours was a religion of easy answers, it would not be adequate to meet the needs of real life. Life can be a struggle and finding the connection between faith and life can be a challenge. But when we accept the challenge and engage the struggle, then we touch upon the hope of what is possible.
“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Reaching for that possibility involves praying along the lines of, “O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the one from the other.”
Paul said that if you turn your mind to thinking about certain things, then God will give you peace. This reminded me of the idea of what’s called “muscle memory.” Basically, the idea that practice makes perfect. Activities such as riding a bike, using a keyboard, sports, dancing or martial arts, all become automatic with enough practice.
The same holds true with how we train our thinking. When we turn our minds to whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, whatever is of excellence and worthy of praise, then we create our own framework for living.
I like that this is not about specifics. There’s no “Ten Steps to Truth” or the “The Seven Habits of Excellence.” It’s whatever, as in whatever works for you. You might like to take a walk in the woods, or you might like to read a good book, or any number of activities that set you on the path of peace. Think about these things.
In the time that I’ve served as a pastor, I have encountered too many to count programs, initiatives and campaigns that present themselves as the salvation of the church. They arrive with some fanfare, people get on board with them, and then they fizzle out or fade away. We are left thinking that we failed, maybe because we didn’t try hard enough.
The truth of the matter is not in our trying, but in our being. When I look back on the meaningful experiences I have had either within the church or without the church, what has had the greatest effect in my life is connected to the relationships I have experienced. It has been through knowing people who have brought into my life some sense of truth, justice, love, goodness or excellence that my world has been changed.
Some months ago, I was out on the back deck and I heard someone playing around with a harmonica. It was one of the boys who lives across the alley on the other side of the block. There are two of them – Harrison is 7 and Christian is 9. A little while later they were out front with their dad skateboarding on the sidewalk.
I went out to talk to them. And I took my harmonica. It turns out the younger one was the harmonica player. I played a few riffs on mine and said, “If you ever want to learn how to really play it, you come see me.” I went in the house and they went on with their skateboards.
Later on, the doorbell rang. I answered the door and Harrison was standing there. He said, “I want to learn.”
So every now and then he’ll show up at the door and ask, “Can I have a lesson?”
We’ll sit out on the front porch and sometimes his brother comes with his own harmonica. We play some music and I tell him, “If you just keep going like that, you just keep doing that over and over and it will be like a switch turns on for you. Then you’ll be able to play all kinds of music. But you just have to keep practicing.”
After about ten minutes of harmonica, the rest of the “lesson” is talking about life, them telling me about their lives and me telling them about my life. Hopefully in that front porch jam session we’re doing some good in the world.
I want to learn. Hopefully I’ve given you some food for thought. So may the God of peace be with you. Amen.