- Rev. Sandra Larson
June 30, 2019
The Apostle Paul was the leader for early Christians and kept in close touch with Christian communities he’d founded throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Ched Myers and other scholars credit Paul with being one of the greatest community organizers of all time. Paul started Christian communities from the Middle east to southern Europe in a time when Christianity was as yet a total unknown. Paul nurtured these fledgling churches with affirmations, mediated disputes and gave advice. In those days, advice from a trusted leader was valued and followed.
Paul faced many challenges in his dangerous 1st-c travels. He was frequently harassed and arrested. In the midst of his harrowing adversities, Paul continued to watch over the Christian communities he had started across the area, no matter where he was. He wrote from prison to the Christians in Philippi: as we read this morning, Paul summarized: “Finally, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Paul told the newbie Christians in Philippi: Look out for the evil-workers. Stand firm in the Lord. He also challenged sources of personal pride: Whatever gain I had as a powerful Pharisee, I count as loss for the sake of Christ because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. What great wisdom for every Christian: Whatever is honorable, just, pure, lovely or excellent—focus on these things. Look out for evil-workers. No matter what I knew or accomplished in my life, there is greater value in knowing Jesus Christ.
Paul focused on faith as the source of hope and source of all that is good. Even from his prison cell, Paul wrote encouragement: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Rejoice is not a word we use much at all today, except in hymns written in the 1800’s. Re-joice comes from the root word JOY. Reclaim joy. Re-joy-ify. When we face tough challenges with health, money, addiction or family issues, JOY is hard to come by. We might find glimpses of happiness in the midst of difficulty. Yet real, deep soul-filling joy is elusive unless we fully trust in God’s love, power and grace. I see that kind of trust in some of the members of this congregation who have faced great trials, and many who face tough challenges today. Trust is God’s grace sustains those who navigate difficulties with grace and courage.
Paul was liberal with his advice giving. I know it is hard to listen to advice. It is especially exasperating if a person tells you, Be happy! When things are getting you down. Maybe even worse is Paul saying, Rejoice. Our knee jerk reaction is to think, Rejoice with what I’m facing?—yeah right! My pastor friend who had to retire at an early age due to chronic fatigue syndrome would always get more discouraged and upset when she attended a worship service that focused on upbeat praise music or a theme of rejoicing. She could not feel the joy and being with people who celebrated joy made her feel worse. Happiness band-aides for deep pain often make the pain feel worse. We know the smiley face band-aides will not ease our suffering. Faith offers a substantial healing and comfort. Even for my very depressed friend and for all who feel defeated, Paul went on to give profound advice that has rescued me more than once from discouragement and loss of hope. From his own prison cell, Paul exhorted his fellow Christians: “Let all people know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” I am convinced that lasting joy is essentially rooted in faith. I am convinced that hope is essentially rooted in faith in God’s unbounded love. And peace of mind—all of us can use amore of that. In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
At times, I had been so discouraged, that I could not even pray any prayer with meaningful words. Yet I trusted prayer, so I prayed what I could pray. I PRAYED: 1,2,3,4,5 and on and on, just reciting numbers. And somehow, reciting plain old numbers was God-focused. And thru God’s Holy Spirit, God’s grace touched me in response to praying nothing but numbers. God filled me with greater peace of mind and hope.
I know that some members are feeling discouraged that Union does not have a new pastor already installed. I meet with the Session, Mission Study and Yoking Task Forces—and I want to tell you that I feel hopeful and even excited about possibilities for new ministry here at Union. I trust that God will provide and I see hints of promising options for a new era of ministry built on the strong foundation of this congregation. Whatever is going on in your own life, trust in God’s grace will get you through—with unexpected blessings.
All of us need support and encouragement. The Apostle Paul often said that he was grateful for the friendships, prayer and support from the Christian churches that he founded. The Sojourners conference that George and I attended a couple weeks ago was alive with people sharing their faith stories, mutual affirmations and enthusiasm. The final worship service concluded with a tangible blessing: Each of us wrote a brief blessing message n a strip of cloth and then each of us drew a random blessing cloth. The blessing I drew was simple. It said, “abundant Joy.”
Of all the blessing that the participant who wrote if could think of, he/she chose to give the blessing of “abundant joy.”
I smile with deep-seated gratitude for the abundant joy with which I am blessed.
The support and encouragement Christians get from one another sustains lasting joy. It’s hard to imagine being joyful all by myself—even with God by my side. I could sustain that joy in isolation for a while, but eventually, my own doubts would grow if I did not have others with whom to share my positive or negative thoughts.
Joy comes even in the midst of adversity. My pastor friend with chronic fatigue syndrome still trusted God’s grace. She spent her limited energy carving wood Christmas ornaments and toys. Joy is based on trust in God. Joy is enriched by the joy of giving. Sue Stern had constant horrific stomach pain and so much scar tissue that further surgery would no longer help. Her husband had advanced Alzheimer’s, and still Sue focused on expressing appreciation to hospital staff and brightening their day. Sue gave me a precious tiny tray I use every time for home communions.
Sue’s faith made her strong, and even brought her joy. A recent Princeton Seminary graduate is deaf. I “heard” him preach about a year ago. Nobody had to know sign language to know the passion and joy he was sharing with the congregation. His message of hope in God’s love is felt by everyone who experiences his teaching.
Trusting in God’s abundant love, may each of us find abundant joy.
And may our joy touch everyone we meet.