Monday, November 19, 2007

Think About These Things: A Sermon on Philippians 4:4-9

I clicked over to Songbird's blog, and realized that, not only do we have the same sermon title, we use the same device of scripture as a refrain! I like hers better.

I had a hard time with this sermon. Petra saved my bacon by reminding me about "Pieces of April," and she didn't even know what my sermon was about (except, generally, Thanksgiving).

Those readers of this blog who always catch the sermons I post will realize the first paragraph is very similar to a paragraph the last Sunday in June.

“Think About These Things”
Philippians 4:1-9
November 18, 2007

Have I mentioned that my family and I are avid filmgoers? Some of the members of the Pastor Nominating Committee have already heard about this. And they might agree that calling us “avid filmgoers” is putting it too mildly. We are film nuts. We read about them, we wait for them to come out, we watch them, and after we see them we debate their finer qualities and defects and even argue about them. We plan themed film festivals, and right now we are planning what to watch on Thanksgiving, in between stuffing the bird and stirring the gravy. As luck would have it, some of my very favorite films take place at Thanksgiving: the sweetly sentimental “Miracle on 34th Street”; the slightly outrageous “Hannah and Her Sisters”: and even the bleak study of isolation that is “The Ice Storm.” These would all be on my short list for viewing. But my all-time favorite Thanksgiving film has to be “Pieces of April.”

April is a twentysomething, pink-haired hipster, living for the past year in a funky East Village apartment with her boyfriend Tyrone. April is estranged from her family, who live somewhere in far-off suburbia. Things are particularly strained between April and her mother, who is undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer, and who’s feeling some urgency about mending the relationship. To mark her first year of independence, and, in part, to prove that she can do it, April decides to invite her family for Thanksgiving dinner, which she will cook. What follows is often hilarious, at times shocking, and always thought-provoking. One of the best scenes in the film takes place in an apartment in April’s building, the home of a recently arrived Chinese family. April struggles to explain the origins of Thanksgiving to her neighbors, for whom it is an unfamiliar celebration.

April starts, “Once there were people here called Indians, Native Americans, whatever. Then a big boat came called the Mayflower, it landed on a big rock, carrying people just like me. And the first year on their own was hard. It was really, really hard.” At this moment we see April’s face take on a look that tells us, she has just realized something, made a connection. She has had a moment of clarity. She stops, and starts her story again.

I wonder if you’ve ever experienced it: a moment of clarity, in which suddenly, everything fell into place—your priorities, or your plans, or even your problems. I think I have experienced this a few times in my life. I can’t help reading this morning’s passage—actually, the entire letter to the Philippians—as one of those decisive moments, a moment of clarity, for Paul, the author. Writing from prison in Rome, under the watch of the Praetorian Guard, Paul is most likely awaiting his death. He has words for an anxious community, a community he founded, a community that is facing the prospect of life without its leader. With beautiful simplicity and clarity, Paul tells them how to deal with their anxiety. He tells them to focus on joy and thanksgiving.

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. ~ Philippians 4:8

I can just imagine Paul’s community receiving this letter. They are hurting. They are scared. They are facing a newfound independence for which they may or may not be ready. And they, like we, are in a society that doesn’t place much stock in the gentle values Paul raises up. They, like we, are in a society focused on other things. Ours is a culture that encourages us to be restless and dissatisfied with what we have, how we look, who we are. Even a day such as Thanksgiving, whose reason for existing would seem to be prayer of gratitude, is subject to a kind of consumerism-inspired angst. I imagine we all have images of the ideal Thanksgiving celebration in our heads, whether they’re informed by the famous Norman Rockwell painting, or by pictures in magazines, or by the movies, or by our own wonderful or painful memories. All these images, swirling around, can lead us right down a path of forgetfulness. All these pressures to be, to have, to do, can lead us away from what truly matters.

Paul offers a radical alternative. The act of giving thanks for who we are and what we have right now is radical. It is countercultural. Paul tells us that, to contemplate our current condition with eyes sharpened by gratitude, is to open the door that leads to peace.

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.

What a wonderful Thanksgiving exercise: to contemplate everything and everyone in our lives, or in the world around us, that resonates with these words. What a wonderful daily or nightly prayer practice for every Christian to undertake. Let’s do this with respect to our lives right here at Our Church. Let’s do it right now. Let’s embark on the radical and countercultural course of giving thanks. Let me name just a few things that I have experienced in the 11 weeks since I stepped into this pulpit as your designated pastor, things that ring true for me as I contemplate Paul’s sage advice.

Every Sunday that I have been here, someone has volunteered to act as liturgist, sharing the leadership for our time of worship; and a choir has shown up, with their voices and hearts tuned for singing; and volunteers have staffed our nursery so that families can experience worship without anxiety about their children. Greeters have welcomed our visitors and made them feel at home, and ushers have taken up the collection and presented it with dignity and solemnity. Most Sundays, a team of incredible bakers and cooks have provided us with a tempting coffee hour, offering their hospitality to us as we meet and mingle following the service. And every once in a while, we get to experience what one of our elders has called "candy": our bell choir! All this, the entire beautiful and well-oiled machine that goes into our Sunday morning liturgy, is the work of the people, the work of Christ’s church.

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just…if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

From my first days in the office, I have noticed the church’s generous use of its physical plant to welcome in various members of our community. I have heard the voices of children singing in their classes at the Pre-School as I typed up the bulletin. I have met with the dedicated staff of the Local Religious Counseling Center as they shared coffee after their worship and staff meeting, one of just a handful of places in Our County where the uninsured and the underinsured can turn for mental health services. I’ve seen the folks from TOPS, striving to live healthier lives. I’ve seen the big crowds brought in by the AARP for their monthly meetings. Opening our doors to the community is a ministry, and it is evangelism: these activities are all a part of the vital work of Christ’s church.

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.

I soon met members of our congregation who were bravely battling grave challenges to their health. I also met members of our congregation who are generally well, though homebound. As I would visit each person, whether in home or in hospital, I would inevitably meet members of this congregation, sons and daughters of this congregation, on their way in or out from a visit themselves, carrying flowers, carrying cards, carrying a casserole or plate of cookies. This caring ministry of visitation, which is claimed and undertaken by the members of this church, is a vital part of the work of Christ’s church.

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable…if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

We would hardly be able to consider ourselves a Presbyterian Church if we didn’t have boards and committees. Every week the library or the fellowship hall echoes with the voices of individuals, deacons, elders, congregation members, doing the work of the church—the unglamorous stuff, the number-crunching, the getting of bids for sealing the parking lot, the planning for a visit by an Ethiopian peacemaker, the details of Rally Day for our Sunday school. The behind the scenes attention to the basics, the administrative and other details of our lives together, are part of our ministry: they are a vital part of the work of Christ’s church.

Whatever… is just… whatever is commendable… if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

There is so much more. So much that is true, honorable, just, that is pure, pleasing and commendable. So many actions, small and large, that speak of kindness and good-heartedness, things most excellent and worthy of praise. Things that happened before my arrival, like the stunning generosity and hard work that went into flood relief, both locally and on the Gulf Coast. Things that happened because someone’s mind was powerfully focused, because many people’s hearts came together in a great moment of clarity.

And let me tell you about the love of this congregation. I’ve witnessed small children going from shy to gregarious under its influence, I’ve seen teenagers stifle their natural inclination to hide out under their MP3 players and give their time and talent for the church and for those who hunger. I’ve seen adults in midlife fitting in bringing meals to neighbors while juggling full schedules of work and family commitments, and I’ve seen members in their 70’s and 80’s taking the active roles usually expected of those in their 30’s and 40’s. I have seen many hearts beating as one, coming together in a great moment of clarity. This is the ministry, the vital work of Christ’s church.

Toward the end of “Pieces of April,” April is still struggling to explain Thanksgiving. On her second attempt she starts to tell of the real plight of Native Americans, only to stop once again, because that’s not what she wants to say either. At last, this is what she tells her neighbors, “Once there was this one day where everybody seemed to know they needed each other, this one day when they knew for certain that they couldn’t do it alone.”

A moment of clarity: we need each other. We can’t do it alone. When we contemplate the ministry of God’s church in this time and place, we recognize the truth of these simple words. Together we are able to do in ministry what none of us can do alone. Together we can do in service what none of us can do alone. Together, we can share in love what none of us can manage alone. And what is more true, more honorable or just; what is more pure, or pleasing or commendable than this?

Think about these things… and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.

1 comment:

Wyldth1ng said...

I always enjoy reading your writing. (Might be why I come by som often.)