Saturday, October 25, 2014

Peace Be With You

Peace Be With You
Philippians 4:1-9[1]
I’m afraid that the Bible’s teachings about worry don’t really connect with us in a realistic way. Oh, we like the passages that tell us we have nothing to fear. We love the Scriptures that encourage us not to worry, but to entrust our lives into God’s care. I’m just not sure we have much success actually doing that. We worry about our children. We worry about our finances. We worry about our health. We worry about getting older. We worry about what may happen to us in the future. We worry about what others think of us. When we're honest about it, our lives really are out of our hands, and we aren’t very comfortable with that reality. We’d much rather figure out a way to make things work out the way we want. And so we worry.
We worry, even though we know down deep inside that we really cannot “add a single cubit to our lives” by worrying, as Jesus said. We worry, even though we are aware in the quiet places of our souls that our habit of worrying robs us of the peace and joy of living that God offers to us through Jesus Christ. We worry, even though we get the fact that our worrying really does no good whatsoever.[2] It’s just a colossal waste of energy on our part. And yet we worry, because it’s become a habit that we can’t seem to break.
Despite our seeming addiction to worry, there is a very simple remedy. It’s not easy, mind you, but it is simple. St. Paul describes it in our lesson for today: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6). I like the way another translation puts it: “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done” (Phil. 4:6, NLT). On the surface of things, that may sound a bit simplistic. When it’s your child who is seriously ill, it seems a bit weak for someone to say, “Don’t worry, just pray about it.” In fact, in some situations the advice “just pray about it” can seem downright offensive, as if it’s making light of the situation.
But I don’t think that’s where Paul was going with this. You see, I think Paul knew a secret about this that many of us struggle to discover. Think about it: the Apostle Paul didn’t exactly live a storybook life. If you pay careful attention to the details of his letters, you realize that he was constantly going from the frying pan into the fire. He had experienced more than his share of hardship. And yet, he knew his life was not in his own hands. He knew how to turn to God with every concern, every hardship, and every need. He knew how to give God his every worry in prayer.
Believe me, I know how hard this can be. And yet, I also know that it is the only way to find peace and joy in this life. We can choose to torment ourselves with constant worrying. When we do, we find it is a recipe for a burdensome life that is bereft of real joy and peace. Or we can choose to take the Scriptures at their word and turn to God with everything we worry about. And when we’re willing to recognize that God cares even more than we do about the things that worry us, and we learn to turn everything over to God’s incredible love, that’s when we discover “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7). That’s when we begin to open our hearts to the joy God offers us.[3]
Paul adds something that I find interesting to this promise. He says that when we turn our worries and concerns over to God’s loving care, God’s peace “will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” I find that an incredibly practical statement. Isn’t that exactly what we need when it comes to worry? That’s where the battle with worry and anxiety is won or lost--in our hearts and our minds. We need to feel safe in our hearts and we need to be able to think of our lives as secure in God’s hands.[4] That’s how we really experience the peace and joy St. Paul is talking about.
I like the way Gene Peterson renders it in The Message: “Before you know it, a sense of God's wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.” While I like that way of looking at this, it almost makes it sound like it’s a magical process that just “happens” to you. Sometimes we have those special experiences that seem to just “fall from the sky.” But in my experience, for the most part the Christian life is a discipline. We experience that wholeness displacing worry at the center of our lives when we discipline ourselves to “cast all our cares” upon the God who cares for us. We find that peace and joy that Paul is talking about when we replace our habit of worry with a regular practice of entrusting our lives into God’s hands.[5]
Every Sunday we greet one another with the phrase, “The peace of Christ be with you.” I’m afraid it has become just another way of saying, “Hi, how are you.” But that ritual that we perform is more than that. It is a prayer that we share with one another in the midst of all that life brings our way. When we say “Peace be with you,” we are praying that God’s peace will fill the lives of those around us, replacing anxiety with trust, replacing worry with joy. That is my prayer for each of us today: that we may learn more and more to let go our habit of worrying about the cares of life and to entrust our lives and the lives of those we love into the hands of the one who loves us all best.[6] And as we do that, we experience the peace of God that surpasses our ability to understand. We experience the peace of God that guards our hearts and minds in all of the fears and uncertainties and cares that tempt us to give in to worry. We experience the peace of God that frees us to find the joy of new life.

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/12/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church in Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Pema Chodron, Taking the Leap, 17.  She says, “self-absorption, this trying to find zones of safety, creates terrible suffering.  It weakens us, the world becomes terrifying, and our thoughts and emotions become more threatening as well.”
[3] Cf. Huston Smith, “Reasons for Joy,” The Christian Century (Oct 4, 2005), 10. He remarks on the consistent quality of joy among the early Christians despite their circumstances. He says, “These scattered Christians were not numerous. They were not wealthy or powerful, and they were in constant danger of being killed. Yet they had laid hold of an inner peace that found expression in a joy that was uncontainable. Perhaps radiance would be a better word. Radiance is hardly the word used to characterize the average religious life, but no other word fits as well the life of these early Christians. Paul offers a vivid example. Here was a man who had been ridiculed, driven from town to town, shipwrecked, imprisoned, flogged until his back was covered with stripes. Yet here was a life in which joy was the constant refrain.” (emphasis original) Cf. also L. Gregory Bloomquist, “Subverted by Joy: Suffering and Joy in Paul's Letter to the Philippians” Interpretation 61 (July 2007): 280-282, where he argues that Paul and the Philippians discovered a kind of joy that was counterintuitive by the standards of the day: they experienced joy in the midst of and even through their suffering.
[4] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 3.3:82-83, where he discusses in depth the theme of “the gracious preservation of creaturely being by God the Father” as it is found throughout the New Testament.
[5] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now: Living in the Spirit, 27: “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.” He continues by saying that joy “is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and have found in God our refuge and our safety and that nothing, not even death, can take God away from us.”
[6] Cf. Philip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God, 71, where he recounts John Donne’s struggle with his questions about suffering, and that he came to the conclusion that the choice he faced was “to fear God or to fear everything else, to trust God or to trust nothing.”

Saturday, October 11, 2014


Philippians 3:4-14[1]
I’m going to share with you another aspect of myself today. When I was growing up, I was considered the “golden boy.” I didn’t think of myself that way, but apparently a lot of other people did. I was always at the top of my class. I never really excelled at sports, but in pretty much everything else, school, music, scouts, church, I was a rising star. And I continued to rise through college and seminary. After my Ph. D., I had a Fulbright scholarship to study at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, with one of the most famous New Testament scholars in the world. When I started teaching at the age of 31 as one of the youngest professors at the largest seminary in the United States, my Dean remarked that I single-handedly raised the IQ of the faculty. I really doubt that, but that’s what he said.
And yet, for all the appearance of success, I was incredibly unhappy. There were lots of reasons for that, none of which had to do with the goals I had set for myself. They were worthy goals, they were honorable achievements. But they were my achievements. I think it’s common for people who strive to achieve all they can to find that when they reach their goal, it leaves them feeling profoundly empty. And like me, when we experience that shocking emptiness we tend to go into panic mode. We try to “make” things work out the way we expected. We try to “fix” whatever may have gone wrong with the plan, which was that when we succeeded at achieving our goals, we would be happy. But no matter how hard we try, when we place all of our worth into what we achieve in this life, we usually find ourselves emotionally and spiritually bankrupt.
I think Paul was reflecting something of that experience in our lesson for today. It may be hard for us to understand his list of all his achievements, because they belong to a different day and time. But in essence, Paul was saying he came from an elite family, he attended the finest prep school, he knocked the top out of his test scores, made it into an Ivy League school, and graduated at the top of his class. He was a “golden boy” to those who watched him grow up. And among the leadership of the Jewish people, he was known as a rising star.[2]
It’s important for us also to recognize that there was nothing inherently wrong with Paul’s achievements. They were all noble and honorable as well. But they were his achievements. [3] When he met Christ everything changed; in comparison with the amazing gift of new life through faith in Jesus Christ, Paul says that he counted everything he once saw as an advantage as a loss.[4] In fact he uses much stronger language than that. The holy Apostle himself says that in comparison with knowing Christ his previous achievements he now considered as refuse, filth, or as the KJV so bluntly translates it, as dung!
Part of what we have to understand here is that Paul is in the middle of a serious debate about what constitutes true faith. Other Christian preachers in Paul’s day were demanding that Gentile converts first had to convert to Judaism before they could truly embrace the Christian faith. To some, that might have seemed logical. After all, the Scriptures of the Law and the Prophets served as the foundation not only for the teachings of the Apostles, but also of Jesus himself.
And yet, I think Paul knew by personal experience the major pitfall with that kind of approach. As one contemporary preacher puts it: “salvation does not rest with us but with God.”[5] Paul does not disparage the teachings of the Hebrew Bible, neither here nor anywhere else. But I think Paul knew what it was to do one’s best to fulfill all the expectations and yet to find that seeking your life in those self-achievements is ultimately a hollow victory.
The reason he knew this was because he had discovered a whole new way of life centered in faith in Christ. In this new relationship he found the fulfillment he could never find on his own. And it came to him purely as a gift from God, not as something he had reach for or work hard enough to achieve. In comparison with the incalculable gain he found in Christ, Paul could write the word “bankrupt” across his whole previous history of achievements, as worthy as they may have been.[6]
That’s the way life works. When we accept it as a gift, we find the joy and peace we’ve always been looking for. When we go out and try to force life to work out the way we planned, we only make ourselves miserable (and perhaps those around us). To some extent, this Scripture lesson cuts against the grain of what we’re taught. We’re supposed to do our best, to rise as high as we can. And in fact, there’s nothing wrong with seeking to do well. but we have to understand that if we derive our sense of worth in life from what we achieve by our own efforts, we will find ourselves just as bankrupt as St. Paul did.
That especially includes the notion that we somehow “earn” God’s favor by our diligence in the Church.[7] We cannot make our service in the Church into our own “stairway to heaven.” Only God’s gift of life through faith in Jesus Christ can truly satisfy the emptiness and the longing we all experience at times. Only the love of God poured out in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit can heal our spiritual bankruptcy. And the good news is that all we have to do is to let go our pipe dreams and accept that wonderful gift of new life to find the peace and joy we’ve always wanted.[8]

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm  on 10/5/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Richard B. Hays, “Eyes On the Prize,” The Christian Century (Mar 11, 1992): 293.
[3] Cf. Fred Craddock, Philippians, 55: Paul does not disparage his Jewish heritage; in fact, in  many cases he speaks positively about it. But as good as it all was, “the law was not intended to be and is not the means by which one stands acceptable before God.”
[4] Cf. Craddock, Philippians, 58: “Paul does not extol the virtues of his new life in Christ by a deprecating description of his life in Judaism. ... Paul does not say Judaism is worthless, that it is refuse (garbage, excrement), that intrinsically that way of life is of no value. What he is describing is his consuming desire to know Jesus Christ, to be in Jesus Christ, to have that righteousness which is God’s gift to the one who believes; and for the surpassing worth of that, he counts gain as loss.”
[5] Cf. Craddock, Philippians, 55: “Justification by law would annul the grace of God and put the spotlight on human achievement ... . The point is, salvation does not rest with us but with God.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.1:531-32.
[6] Since Krister Stendahl’s article, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West” Harvard Theological Review 56 (1963) 199-215, many scholars have debated whether Paul had a “conversion” at all. As Katherine Grieb points out in “‘The One Who Called You ...’ Vocation and Leadership in the Pauline Literature,” Interpretation 59 (Apr 2005): 157-58, Paul did indeed experience a conversion, if not in the same manner we may have imagined it. She says, “Violently zealous prophets like Moses, Elijah and Phinehas may have been role models for Paul prior to his conversion. ... Everything of which he had been so certain now had to be reconfigured in light of the crucified and risen Messiah. ... Paul's own vocation or call to be an "apostle to the Gentiles" introduced him to a deeper and more challenging way of being Israel among the nations. This way renounced violence and worked to build intentional communities that followed the pattern of the crucified and risen Lord who had commissioned Paul to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul is still very much within the prophetic tradition—but now he is following the model of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah.”
[7] Cf. Morna Hooker, “The Letter to the Philippians,” New Interpreters Bible XI:531: “In spite of Paul's contrast between the righteousness of his own that he has abandoned and the righteousness that comes in Christ, it is all too easy for Christians to cling to what they regard as their own righteousness. We assume that our faithful attendance at church, our Christian conduct and adherence to moral principles, deserve some special consideration from God and constitute some special claim on God.”
[8] Cf. Ellen Babinsky, “Philippians 3:7-15,” Interpretation 49 (Jan 1995): 71: “Paul tells us that we are in Christ in whom, through faith, is our only righteousness, God's righteousness. Indeed, Christ Jesus has already made us his own through his death and resurrection. We can be found in Christ because Christ has bound us to himself. Because Christ has already made us his, we can struggle to live with God.”

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Forgetting Ourselves

Forgetting Ourselves
Philippians 2:1-13[1]
I find it interesting that the people who study social trends in our culture identified the generation that came of age in the 1980’s as the “me generation.” After the oil shortages of the late 70’s ended, the decade of the 80’s was a time of unprecedented prosperity for many in our country. What were once luxuries became necessities. More and more homes had microwave ovens and personal computers. Cars became increasingly more “loaded” with features, which also “loaded” the price tag. For the first time, “Upward Mobility” became clearly visible, as couples with two careers and no children began buying cars and houses that were more expensive than anything their parents ever dreamed of owning. There were a lot of people living “Life in the Fast Lane.”[2]
And yet, I’m not sure calling that age group the “me generation” is fair. Yes, it was an age of excess, but I think to some extent they got a bad rap. It seems to me the truth is that every generation has its own version of self-serving behaviors. We may not acknowledge that our actions are self-serving, even to ourselves. But the sages and prophets throughout the centuries have been able to see through our disguises and have pointed out that being self-serving is fundamental to the nature of what it means to be human. They’ve done so, and they’ve called us to a different way of living, a way defined by setting aside our selfish obsessions and serving others.
I believe that’s a major part of what St. Paul was telling the believers at Philippi in our lesson for today. He used the example of Jesus humbling himself, emptying himself, ultimately giving up his life for us all as the pattern for the kind of “mindset” that defines the Christian life.[3] And on the basis of Christ’s example, he called those who professed to follow him to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 1:12). That may sound strange to those of us who are used to hearing that salvation is a gift from God. But I think what St. Paul had in mind was that our salvation is a process by which we are continually being conformed to the character that Jesus Christ exhibited in his life.
If you’re wondering what that looks like, I think Paul answers that question at the very beginning of the lesson. I like the way Gene Peterson puts it in The Message: “If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care--then do me a favor: ... Don’t push your way to the front; .... Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. ... Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand” (Phil. 2:1-4). When you hear it that way, it sounds like quite a challenge!
So, if the sages and prophets are right in pointing out that we all are fundamentally self-serving, then how do we accomplish this feat of “forgetting ourselves,” or “putting ourselves aside”? It might seem like that kind of conversion, a transformation that runs to the very core of our being, would be impossible for us to achieve. Who of us ever really ever gets past our selfishness? And yet, even in the midst of the challenge Paul proposes, he reminds us that “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). Or as the Contemporary English Version puts it: “God is working in you to make you willing and able to obey him.” In other words, salvation is still something God does in us, even when it comes to “forgetting ourselves” and serving others. It is God’s marvelous and mysterious work of “conforming us to the image of His Son” (Rom. 8:29).[4]
And yet, even though this is God’s work in us, we still have a part in “working out our own salvation.” Some call our part in this ongoing conversion process “becoming what you are in Christ.”[5] Or as another translation puts it, this is a matter of “putting into action God’s saving work in your lives” (Phil. 2:12, New Living Translation).  It is always true that salvation is a gift that comes from God’s grace and mercy. But at the same time it is also true that we have to respond to God’s grace.[6]
Again, if you’re wondering what it means to “put into action God’s saving work in your life,” then I think we have to go back to what St. Paul’s point was in the beginning. He calls us all to “put ourselves aside.” He calls us all to move beyond the selfishness that is our fundamental nature. He calls us all to get past our own self-serving behaviors. And I think the essential clue to how we do that is found in his description of what Christ did. St. Paul says that he “emptied himself” (Phil. 2:7). That might make it as clear as mud for many of you. Just how does one “empty oneself”? In Jesus’ case, he did so by surrendering his rights and claims and giving his life for us all.[7]
I think that the key to all of this is a matter of surrender.[8] At some point in life, if we’re going to get past our inherent selfishness, we have to surrender. We have to surrender what we think we want out of life. We have to surrender the willfulness of thinking we should get our own way. That opens up the door for us to be grateful for life as it is. It makes it possible for us to be thankful for the new life God is working out in us continually. And it seems to me that when we become grateful people, then we can follow Christ’s example in the way we live and interact with those around us. Then we can “put into action God’s saving work in our lives.” Then we can “forget ourselves” and serve others.

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/28/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] For further details, see the Wikipedia article, “Me Generation”; The phrase “Life in the Fast Lane” is the title of a song recorded by The Eagles on the album “Hotel California,” Asylum Records, 1976
[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 2.1:517; 4.1:635.  Cf. also Jürgen Moltman, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 103, where he describes this in terms of “selfless service” that follows the example of Jesus’ sacrifice. See also Morna Hooker, “The Letter to the Philippians,” New Interpreters Bible XI:499, where she points out that this kind of humility was not viewed as a virtue in the Greco-Roman world, but rather as a kind of servility.
[4] Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (DBW 4), 282: “To those who have heard the call to be disciples of Jesus Christ is given the incomprehensibly great promise that they are to become like Christ. They are to bear his image as the brothers and sisters of the firstborn Son of God. To become like Christ--that is what disciples are ultimately destined to become.”
[5] Cf. Morna Hooker, “The Letter to the Philippians,” New Interpreters Bible XI:499
[6] Cf. Hooker, “Letter to the Philippians,” NIB XI:512: in Phil. 2:5-11 Paul outlines “the gracious action of God in Christ, but that gracious action demands a response—what Paul elsewhere describes as ‘the obedience of faith’ (Rom 1:5). The Philippians are to complete what God has done by living it out in their own lives.”
[7] Jesus’ ultimate surrender came in facing his impending death with the prayer “Not my will but thine be done,” and by dying with the prayer, “Into your hands I commend my spirit,” both of which reflect ultimate trust in God. Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 144, where he paraphrases the latter prayer as “it is up to you, God, what becomes of me, and I am willing to have it so.” Cf. also Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians, 122: Jesus’ whole life “was characterized by self-surrender, self-renunciation, and self-sacrifice.” Cf. further Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 360.
[8] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 9, where he observes that our encounter with God moves us “beyond the sphere in which we have some mastery….” Cf. also Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, 8:  “To finally surrender ourselves to healing, we have to have three spaces opened up within us--and all at the same time: our opinionated head, our closed-down heart, and our defensive and defended body.” Cf. further Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could not Be a Christian, 185-86.