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.”

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