[Essentially a rehash of my second sermon for preaching lab, found here. But listen to this one first. It’s better, I promise.]
Grace Lutheran Church
13 December 2015 + Advent 3C
I hate to break it to you, but you realize that we’re now less than two weeks away from Christmas, right? If we’re being generous and count today, that’s only 12 shopping days left before the big day. It feels like it was just yesterday that many of us were stuffing turkeys and baking pies for Thanksgiving. But if local retailers’ shelves are any indication, that holiday happened in July. And if you haven’t caught up for Christmas yet, good luck, because I’m sure they’re already displaying their Valentine’s Day merchandise.
So once again, not to stress you out or anything, but did I mention there’s only 12 days left for all the gift shopping, cookie baking, tree trimming, light hanging, hall decking, card writing, gift wrapping…
But you know, don’t worry.
If you’re anything like me, then you probably take issue with what overly optimistic Paul has to say in this passage from Philippians. Rejoice always. Don’t worry. Pray continually. And by the time he rolls around to his conclusion, “The peace of God which surpasses all understanding,” his maxims and platitudes have reached their pinnacle of gag-worthiness.
I learned the lesson about vapid platitudes and overly optimistic maxims the hard way during a summer of Clinical Pastoral Education, when I worked as chaplain intern in a hospital. During one patient visit, I was listening to a woman, Amy, talk about loss upon loss in her life: her son’s unemployment, her own tenuous employment and lack of sick pay during multiple hospitalizations, the uncertainty of whether or not the bank would foreclose on her house and leave her homeless for the second time. So at one point when I said, “Well, you’re here now, and it sounds to me like you’re a survivor,” she basically told me to shut up. I imagine if Paul were in the room telling her to rejoice in the Lord always and not to worry about anything, she might have said something similar.
There was an article floating around Facebook about a month ago titled “Your Mental Health Is More Important Than Your Grades,” which, as a stressed-out seminary student who jumps at every opportunity to procrastinate, immediately appealed to me. The author reports that about 62% of students suffer from “perpetual, toxic anxiety.” It’s like she’s been spying on me or something, I thought.
But what’s even more unsettling: This anxiety can have damaging effects on our sense of well-being and our ability to function, resulting in fear, doubt, and depression. In response, the author conducted a study focusing on what her students were doing to actively combat stress. Among her conclusions: you don’t have to be a perfectionist, and you’re not alone. In other words, stress isn’t worth it if it costs you your mental health and your life in community.
The Philippians appear to have been no strangers to stress, either. There’s evidence throughout Paul’s letter that the church at Philippi experienced both external persecution and internal conflict. But Paul offers them encouragement. “Rejoice,” he says, and “let your graciousness be known to everyone.” Don’t get hung up on the little things, Paul says. Be gracious. Be forgiving. Or as one popular coffee table book implores: don’t sweat the small stuff.
Paul also refers to the graciousness of Christ in another letter to the Corinthians. As one commentary puts it, graciousness evokes a sense of generosity toward others, and Paul uses it here as a model of living for the Philippian community. Be like this because Christ was.
In this passage, Paul is basically telling the Philippians the same thing as the author of the stress study tells us: Your unity and graciousness to others are more important than getting it right all the time. Paul is concerned for their unity, and against the background of conflict and anxiety, his words remind the Philippians that they’re in this together. As one biblical scholar writes, “Jesus has redeemed us from petty squabbles and derisive chatter to provide a particular kind of witness to the world. That witness is found in the way we treat one another.”
So: rejoice in the Lord always, let your graciousness be made known to everyone, do not worry… and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Paul ends with a promise of God’s peace, but it’s not just another vapid platitude. The word Paul uses for guard can also be used in the sense of confinement in prison. I don’t think his word choice is just a coincidence. Paul knew what confinement was like, since at the time of his writing to the Philippians he himself was locked up in Rome, pending capital charges. So if Paul could be reassured of the peace of God in his situation, the Philippians could believe it in theirs. Paul wasn’t offering empty words; he was offering his lived experience.
After Amy, my patient from CPE, finished telling her story, I offered to pray with her. Reluctantly she agreed. I can’t say I remember what I prayed for, but I’ll always remember the way she ended our visit. “Thank you,” she said, “that actually helped.” And with a hint of a smile, she continued, “Now go help someone else.”
We rejoice not because circumstances are always ideal or easy, but because in the end God’s peace endures even in those dark places—be it a hospital room, or the stress of the rapidly approaching holiday, or even the depression that accompanies the ever-shortening days until the winter solstice. Advent is the season we anticipate the inbreaking of God’s new reality in Jesus, culminating in the angels’ proclamation: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth.”
Hymn of the Day: “Awake! Awake, and Greet the New Morn”
(Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #242)