Think About These Things (Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost)

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Especially right now, you don’t need a pastor, and you don’t need a sermon, to remind you about all the bad and horrible stuff going on in the world around us. Indeed, there’s always bad stuff going on, but with terrorist attacks in Israel, war in Ukraine and even more dysfunction than usual in our own government, things seem especially bad and depressing right now.

And because most of us are so digitally connected, and we live in a 24 hour news cycle, it can be hard not to be fixated on, and even consumed by, all of the disturbing things that are happening around us and in our wider world.

But in fact, this has always been an issue people have faced, even without smart phones and social media to constantly remind them about bad stuff.  The bad stuff has always had a way of occupying our minds; dragging down our hearts; and sapping the energy out of us so that we don’t feel like we have the strength to make a difference.

And this is precisely the situation Paul is addressing when he wrote to the early Christians in Philippi in today’s second reading. Those folks didn’t have cell phones or news feeds to constantly remind them of horrors and dangers.  But they didn’t need to. The people to whom Paul wrote often lived in dangerous and difficult times. Each day, they faced:

  • the actual possibility of physical danger for their faith … (while organized persecution of Christians came later, it was often the case that simply being part of this weird little group could single you out for arrest or violence based on rumors of who people thought you were …)
  • personal and social rejection … (whether Jewish or Gentile, many Christians got cut out of their families, their neighbors and sometimes their own Jewish communities because of their faith in Jesus…)
  • all the routine difficulties of living together as a community of faith, because Paul alludes to the fact that Euodia the Council President and Syntyche the Chair of the Finance Committee, were fighting over next year’s budget again… (or something like that!)

Things were bad. And faced with all of this, Paul doesn’t tell them that their problems aren’t significant, or that things could be worse, or that they should just not worry and be happy… (the things we often get told by well-meaning people when we have problems…)

Instead, Paul reminds them that “the Lord is near.” That is, he reminds them that, in Christ Jesus, God wins out over all the evil and chaos in the world, no matter how daunting they may seem at the moment. In Jesus, God has already won the war, even if, at the moment, we may seem to be losing the battle.

And so, Paul says, the key to holding on in the midst of difficult struggles is not to deny the problems, nor to hide out until things appear to get better. Instead, each day, whether the day seems good or bad, Paul reminded those early Christians, and he reminds, not to get consumed by the bad news, but instead to:

  • “Rejoice in the Lord” – that is, to give thanks for God’s love and presence in your life, even and especially on the days when things are really depressing… (that is, Paul is reminding us of the danger of being so dragged down by evil that we can’t see the hope – and part of what others in the world needs right now is our witness of hope …)
  • Think about “whatever is good, whatever is pure, whatever is commendable, if there is ANYTHING worthy of praise…” – part of keeping evil at bay is to focus instead on the good gifts God gives us … (part of enduring evil and danger is not letting the threats so occupy your mind that you that you become blinded to the good stuff and actual opportunities for good that God is still giving you…)
  • “keep on doing” the things we have seen and heard from faithful examples — sometimes, evil seems to win simply because good people are so exhausted by the bad stuff that they have no energy to act. Faith in Jesus’ power of life calls us to keep on doing the things God calls us to do, and being the kind of people God calls us to be, even in the face of danger and threats…

Recent events remind us that we, too, often live in difficult and dangerous times.  But today, Paul reminds us again that even the difficult and dangerous times are ultimately in God’s hands.

As Christians, we make that claim not because we’re optimists, or because we want to make ourselves feel better, but because we’ve seen and experienced God’s power to give and restore life, even in the face of evil and death… (that’s the principal thing we remember about God’s act in Jesus as we celebrate communion each week – it’s not just to “remember” what Jesus did long ago, but to recall and re-experience Jesus’ victory of life over death which Jesus makes us partakers of through his real and living presence… )

And so it is that today, even though the times are bad, we rejoice in the Lord.  Today, even though the world is filled with evil, we remember God’s goodness and Jesus promise of life even in the face of death.  And today, even though the times are difficult, we gather together to involve ourselves in the mission to which God calls us, because we know that God’s plans are the only plans that endure forever.