Sunday, October 09, 2011

Pentecost 17A/Thanksgiving

I have a confession to make: I find preaching on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians really hard. It’s not that there no content to work with. Like all of Paul’s letters, this letter is overflowing with wisdom. And it’s not as if I have trouble understanding what Paul is trying to say, although, I do gain more insight his message every time I read it.

It’s just that Paul seems to be writing with a perpetual smile on his face. He seems abnormally happy. Which is particularly jarring given his circumstances. He’s sitting in jail knowing that, at any time, the cell door could open, and he’d be taken away to die an excruciating death.

But he sounds almost giddy in this letter. Which I find unsettling. I don’t know if I’d be in such a good mood where I in his position. I don’t know from where I’d summon the strength to get through the day, much less write a hope-filled letter to a struggling church that I just founded.

Of course, we can say that God has given him the strength. We can say that the Spirit of Jesus and the power of his resurrection was vibrantly within Paul, giving him courage to face an unspeakable horror. We can say that the mighty presence of God so filled his heart that he couldn’t help but burst out in joyful song. “Rejoice in the Lord, always! Again I say rejoice!”

And that would be true. But it would also be too easy. It would be only half the story.

I say that would be too easy because I often hear easy affirmations of faith in difficult circumstances. I sometimes hear people jump to quickly into the artificial God talk after something terrible has happened. I often hear pious slogans dismissing peoples’ real pain.

“She’s in a better place....” a husband says after his wife’s quick battle with cancer has ended.

“God doesn’t give us anymore than we can handle” she says at the bedside of a child whose been in a car accident.

“All things work together for good, for those who love Jesus,” is said after the last attempt to salvage the marriage fails.

You may have heard some of your own. You may have even said some of these. I know I have. These types of sayings often mask a fear. A fear that, if we don’t acknowledge God right away when something bad happens, then we’re not being good Christians. A fear that we’re losing faith. A fear that we’ve stopped believing in God in the presence of real, terrifying, pain.

A fear that, for all our talk about God being active in and among us, for all our prayers and proclamations about Jesus being raised from the dead, for all our pious declarations of the Holy Spirit’s power in our lives, we worry that, at the end, it’s all just vacant words. And so we hide behind empty God talk, hoping that we can convince ourselves into feeling better.

But then there’s the rest of the story. The part of the story that says, that after the empty, pious, slogans have stopped; that after the quick spiritual sayings have been put away; that after the book of easy answers has been closed; and you sit in the stark silent jail cell of your very real, very human pain, you remember the whole story.

You remember the story that tells you that you are not alone. You remember the story that tells you that God’s light is brighter than any darkness. You remember the story that tells you that life is stronger than death and that God has a hold on you with a grip that will pull you into eternity. You remember that you have a saviour who died and rose again so that the world - indeed the whole cosmos - might be saved.

And you don’t just remember the story. You feel it. It’s in your bones. It’s in every cell. It’s part of you. And you realize that your pain does not make you any less of a Christian. You realize that your doubts do not make you any less of a believer. You realize that your grief, your regrets, your broken relationships do not make you any less of a follower of Jesus.

In fact, it is your brokenness that gives you power. The husband who buried his wife knows how to talk to another person who just said good-bye to their spouse. The mom who knows what it’s like to sit at the bedside of a child in a coma can sit with other parents sitting by similar beds. The one whose marriage collapsed knows what to say, and what NOT to say to their friend who just found herself alone.

It’s then that you realize that YOU are part of God’s story, and that God cannot and will not tell that story without YOU, and you begin to understand what Paul was REALLY talking about.

That’s when you start to get a sense of how Paul could sing a song of rejoicing while sitting in a jail cell awaiting execution. You begin to see Paul with new eyes. And you begin to see yourself with renewed vision.

And you realize that you CAN rejoice, you CAN praise God. Not an empty or easy, sunny or smiling praise to an already blue sky. But a praise that emerges from the darkness, a praise that unlocks your jail cell, a praise that rises from the dirt and filth of your life, a praise that might bring as many tears as it does laughter.

It’s a praise of defiance. It’s praise of defiance against the powers of darkness that seek to overwhelm you and keep you trapped in your misery.

It’s a praise of defiance against pain and grief, it’s a praise defiance against all those things in your life that are trying to keep you down.

It’s a praise a defiance against all those things that are keeping you from becoming who God wants you to be.

It’s a praise of defiance that tells you pain, “You will not define me.” It’s a praise of defiance that tells your grief, “You will not take over my life.”

It’s a praise of defiance that tells the dirt and filth that surrounds you, “I am turning my gaze away from you. I will focus on whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is commendable. If there is any excellence, and if there is anything worthy of praise, I will think on these things. I will keep doing the things that I have learned and received and heard and seen, and the peace of God will be with me.”

I think we caught a glimpse of that defiance this morning. You have turned your gaze. Many of you have brought an item to church that represents something for which you are thankful. And all of these items represent something hopeful, something life-giving. These items came from your lives. Many of them were an answer to hopelessness.

They are the keys that may have let you out of your own personal jail cell. They acknowledge the fact that thanksgiving isn’t trite little ritual we engage in once a year, but something that comes from deep within us, that we carry with us everyday.

That’s why we can join Paul in his song, Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say rejoice!

May this be so among us. Amen.

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