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.
I have to confess that both of my children fall into the category of “worry warts.”
Not that they suffer from crippling anxiety. They don’t.
Not that they don’t function well in the world. They do.
But both of my kids worry.
I can’t count the number of times a day or week I say to one or both of them, “Don’t worry. Everything will be fine.” Some of the time, they believe me. Most of the time, I’m right and things do work out just fine.
Of course, like most questionable personality traits, when it comes to “worry-wartedness,” it takes one to know one.
I was also a high-strung child. My grandfather had me pegged at a pretty early age when he said “Susan is fine with the big stuff, but give that kid a hang nail, and she falls apart.”
Guilty as charged. It takes one to know one. I am a worry wart. I fret. I brood. I overthink. Not that I suffer from crippling anxiety. Not that I’m not able to function well in the world. But I worry. I’m not proud of it. But there it is.
And if you are also a worry wart, you may first hear this text from Paul’s letter to his beloved congregation in Philippi the same way I do.
It sounds like my mother’s voice talking to me. It sounds like my voice talking to my children. “”Don’t worry. Everything will be fine.
And the snarky voice that resides inside my anxious brain says, “Yeah Paul. Easy for you to say.
Because out here in the real world, I’m sorry to say, there’s a lot to worry about.Let me clue you in, Paul.
Out here in the real world, there are raging floods and out of control fires from sea to shining sea.
There are nuclear bombs being juggled around like bowling balls.
There are shootings at music festivals.
There are people addicted to opioids.
There are wars and rumors of wars.
There is racism and sexism and Nazi’s and hate.
There is depression and loneliness and suicide and grief.
There are identity thieves and hackers and terrorism.
Yeah Paul. Nothing to worry about.”
At first glance, Paul may seem a little Polly-annish and out of touch with reality. Don’t worry about anything? Really? That’s like telling someone with a cold not to sneeze. Or telling a guy with only one leg to walk faster. Or telling a kid with poison ivy to stop scratching. In an age of anxiety, Paul’s words sound woefully out of step.
Maybe you hear these words from Paul differently. To you, Paul’s words may be exactly what you need to hear this morning.
To you, Paul’s words might feel like a cozy quilt to keep out the coldness of an anxious world. A protective shield against to protect against pain. A strong defense against life’s disappointments. It’s no wonder that these are words we use often in church, in worship. They are words we need to hear because they are God’s truth for us. They are words Paul is sending to his church in Philippi and they are God’s words for the church today.
The verse, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Jesus Christ,” is often used in benedictions.
These words of Paul, telling us not to worry about a thing, but to pray about everything, are a big part of the reason we come to church. We come for cozy comfort and to find freedom from worry, if only for brief time on Sunday morning.
We come to worship in this holy place to escape thoughts of wars and bombs and depression and turn our minds instead to things that are pure and pleasing and commendable.
We come to worship to turn off the worry wort part of our brain, and strain our ears to hear some good news.
In my experience, though, I have often wondered how well these words stick after we leave this place of worship.
How long until the worries sucker punch us? How long does it take until the fear sets in?
How long will it be until our minds wander from what is pure and pleasing and commendable back to what is irksome and anxiety-provoking?
I don’t know you. You don’t know me. I don’t know your worries. You don’t know mine.But I do know this.
I know that Paul isn’t writing this letter from a warm study with a cat on his lap and a cup of tea next to him like I am.
I know that Paul isn’t writing this letter from the cozy comfort of a church pew surrounded by friends and family.
Paul isn’t writing from a “good place” in his life, but from one of the worst. Paul isn’t writing from a perfect place set apart from the real world, but in the realest of worlds.
Paul is in prison, under threat of capital punishment at the hands of a brutal regime. He has no way of knowing if this letter he’s composing for the Philippians will be his last.
Paul is writing about a peace which passes understanding while living in an empire that is constantly at war.
It could not have been easy for Paul to write, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, Rejoice.”
It could not have been easy for Paul to write, “Do not worry about anything.”
It could not have been easy for Paul to trust in the peace of God.
It could not have been easy for Paul to be gentle while imprisoned in the very heart of violence.
And yet these words of Paul are more powerful because they were not borne of comfort or smugness, as if Paul has everything all figured out. These words of Paul are powerful for us because they are not born of a Pollyannish faith, but exist in the realer-than-real dark side of human experience. The words of Paul are powerful not because they ignore the struggles of human existence, but because they acknowledge all of that — our fears and worries and divisions and conflicts.
Paul knows our hearts, all too well. He knows our struggles with our dark sides. Because Paul struggles with all of it, too. Remember, this is the guy who admits, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do. But what I hate, I do.”
Paul is the poster boy for struggling with faith. Paul knows it is scary and hard to look in the face of our anxieties and fears, and not want to curl up in a corner or distract ourselves by indulging in inter-church squabbles like Euodia and Syntyche. Or just walk away.
But Paul won’t let us off the hook.
Paul’s words will not allow us to retreat to a cozy corner and pretend the very real sufferings of our brothers and sisters are not real or not our problem or beyond our ability to solve. Paul says all of those problems are real and true. We’re not imagining things or overstating the issues facing us. The world is a hard place, as hard as the prison cell in which Paul is scribbling these words to his beloved congregation in Philippi.
Yup, it’s all true, Paul says.
But, rejoice anyway.
Be gentle anyway.
Do not worry, anyway.
Not because Paul says so, but because the Lord is near.
Paul knew the Lord was near to him. So near he could feel the breath of Jesus on his neck as he sat in a cold, dark Roman prison, so close, Paul could smell the sweetness of Jesus’ skin, so close, Paul could sink into the strength of Jesus’ arms.
The only thing more real to Paul than his prison cell is Jesus Christ. Paul could rest in trusting space of God’s peace, where his heart and his mind was guarded in Jesus Christ.
And Jesus had something to say about worry as well. Right? Right In Matthew and also in Luke: “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? (Matthew 6.25-27).
I for one have to admit that worrying has never added anything positive to my life. Worry has raised my blood pressure and stolen more nights of sleep than I care to count. Worry has put wrinkles in my face and drained away hours of my life that could have been spent for much better purposes. Like Paul, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do. But what I hate, I do.” And yet, each day, I embrace the discipline of rejoicing anyway.
A couple of years ago, Rev. Dave Carver of Crafton Heights United Presbyterian Church, called me on the phone, out of the blue, and asked me if I was interested in going to South Sudan. You may know Dave because he is the moderator of the International Partnership for Pittsburgh Presbytery. For years, Pittsburgh churches have been in relationship with our brothers and sisters in Malawi, and within the past few years, have created a tripartite relationship between churches in Pittsburgh, Malawi and now, South Sudan.
Truth be told, I wasn’t really that interested in going to South Sudan. I thought I’d go to Malawi at some point. But South Sudan? But Dave Carver is a persuasive guy. And I trusted him. As I thought and prayed about it, it became clear to me there was something God wanted me to learn.
I went to South Sudan, with some fear and trepidation. Actually, a lot of fear and trepidation. You don’t hear much about it on the news, but South Sudan is a place of deep suffering. Although it achieved its independence from its northern neighbor Sudan in 2011, the war has continued and has turned inward into a civil war between tribes. Brother against brother. Christian versus Christian. A whole generation in South Sudan has grown up knowing very little other than constant war and death. While visiting a place with no infrastructure, no water, no paved roads, no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no medical care, little access to education, and absolutely no creature comforts to speak of, I met the most joyful Christians I’ve ever encountered.
The South Sudanese Presbyterians worshiped with gladness and energy and abandon, singing about and rejoicing in the Lord in ways that put popsicle Presbyterians to shame. Even as they described the deep losses of living in a war zone, even though their tears of grief, our brothers and sisters professed an absolute and unshakable confidence that not only had God heard their prayers, but that the Lord was near to them. The Christians in South Sudan kept doing all the things they had learned and received and heard from God’s holy word, and worked together in communities of faith to love and support one another and seek peace.
It took me a long, long time to figure out how they were able to do that. How were they able to hold on to such a vibrant faith?Then it came to me. I realized the difference between me and Paul. And between the American church and the South Sudanese church. My brothers and sisters in South Sudanese church do not worry about what they cannot control because they are smarter than I am, smart enough to know they are not in control. They know exactly who is in control. They work for peace and stick together and worship with joyful abandon and love the Lord their God as if their lives depend upon it.
Because, of course, their lives do depend upon it.
Their lives depend upon their forbearance with one another, just as their lives depend upon the God who called them into the Body of Christ. And the same is true for you and for me.
Worrying is a lonely business. It isolates us and alienates us. And Paul reaches out from his place of struggles to his struggling church in Philippi, reminding them they are all in this together.
And the antidote to worry is not just prayer, but praying together in community. Me praying for you when you do not have the strength to do it yourself. You praying for me when I’m struggling to believe the world isn’t really falling apart, or struggling to remember that the good news of the Gospel is that love will win, because God is stronger than any bleak, bad news.
The antidote to worry is working together in community for the mutual benefit of all and seeing how God is working in the lives of everyone, through the most unlikely people and most unlikely places.
The antidote to worry is to constantly practice the discipline of looking for God’s reality underneath all of that which troubles our hearts and our souls.
It’s like the advice of my favorite gentle Presbyterian minister, Rev. Fred Rogers. He said when he was a little boy, when something terrible happened – a natural disaster like a flood or fire, or a human disaster like a war or an accident or a shooting – his mother didn’t tell him what he was seeing wasn’t true or wasn’t scary. She didn’t tell him to close his eyes or pretend it wasn’t happening. What she said was – look for the helpers. Look for the helpers – the first responders who show up to save people. The ways in which neighbors reach out to neighbors. The people who keep showing up, the Red Cross, the doctors and nurses, the folks who take in stray animals, the guys who hand out the water bottles, the ones who bind up the broken-hearted and bring good news to the devastated. Even in our most desperate moments, the Lord is near. We can see it and believe it and trust it.
That’s Paul. That’s his story. He does not tell us bad things will not happen. He does not sugar coat the truth of his experience. He tells us – look for the helpers. Look for Jesus’ people. That’s us. You and me.
The Lord is near.
In our hands reaching out for those who are broken.
In our eyes seeking out the lost and the lonely.
In our hearts filled with love for the stranger.
In our gentleness as we seek to be a covenant community bound together by our baptism.
The Lord is near to us as we do the work of the Gospel.
Thanks be to God. Amen.