Sermon Title “Whatever” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! It is nice to see so many of you here for worship — we know members have been traveling and many of you were right here for a lot of the afternoon and evening working at the Fish Fry. Once again, when I was planning this service a month or so ago, I was considering lectionary texts, and not the fact that it is only about 15 hours since the end of the Fish Fry, and I neglected to build this service around one of the great gospel texts about fish or fishing. Those are great images of discipleship and evangelism, but not where the service happens to be going this morning.
Fortunately we have a wonderful text from Philippians chapter 4: I would guess that something from the text which Mike read for us is familiar to nearly all of you. The opening in verse 4: Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice! Is even set to a catchy little tune which rings in my head whenever I read or hear that verse read. Some of you probably remember the bubbly calypso-inspired hit by Bobbie McFarrin, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” which could almost have been inspired by verse 5 and 4: Do not worry about anything: rejoice in the Lord always!” or maybe Hakuna Matata, from Disney’s the Lion King, which is Swahili for no worries, or no trouble. As great as all those songs may be, it’s a little difficult to reconcile them with our current reality. Even if your individual reality is all good — plenty of money, good health, great job, no family concerns — and if that is the case for you, God bless you; you are the exception. But even if that is all good, we’re living in a world with some serious problems: a war in Ukraine, a new war in Israel, a rise in catastrophic weather events, global warming, Purdue’s football season — you name it. If you go looking for things to worry about, you don’t have to look very far.
Let me be clear, I think it is part of the task of Christians, who are citizens of the world, to pay attention to, pray for, contribute toward, and in some cases work directly in being involved in the work of peace and justice wherever and however we have opportunities to do that. I am not advocating denying evil and pain or simply turning our backs on injustice if it doesn’t impact us directly; but just how are we supposed to rejoice all the time and keep praying with thanksgiving when things are a mess? And especially, how are we going to receive that peace which passes understanding? Because I think we could all use a little more of that.
Some of the best-known and most-quoted writing of Paul are in the rest of Philippians 4, including Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” which I know is a favorite verse of a least one of you. But I believe verses 8 and 9 are the clearest prescription of how we can receive the peace of Christ. But before we review those verses, I want to remind us again of the broader context of this letter. Paul is writing to the church at Philippi to thank them for their support of his ministry. Paul has the last decades of his life preaching and traveling and planting churches. Paul is currently in some kind of Roman custody — prison, or some 1st century version of it — and Paul is increasingly aware that his death, by martyrdom, is imminent. When I put all that together, especially the piece about Paul anticipating his death, it casts this epistle in a different light: not so much the sunny glow of Don’t worry, be happy, but the more somber shades of a valedictory address, something along the lines of “Here’s what I want you to know before I go”.
Paul’s situation might not have been cause for a lot of optimism. But Paul isn’t writing about himself, he’s writing about life in Jesus Christ. He is speaking to a larger reality than his own circumstances, and an outcome which goes beyond his life or death. Paul is describing the legacy of a Christian life and a Christian community.
Almost all of us have lived with teenagers. Our siblings, ourselves, our children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren. Adolescence happens to nearly everyone, and most of us get through it. A mark of a adolescents is a dismissive and sometimes passive-aggressive response to adult — especially parental — concerns. This can be summarized in a single word. Have you taken out the trash? Whatever. Your room has to be picked up before you go out on Friday night. Whatever. This is often accompanied by an eye-roll, and the sense of it is: maybe this is important to you, but I don’t care, and I’m going to be deliberately ambiguous about whether or not I’m going to follow through. Whatever.
Philippians 4:8 is littered with the word “whatever” — it occurs 6 times in that verse — and the sense is the opposite of adolescent insouciance. Paul is talking about whatever it takes; anything possible. Whatever it takes to find truth, honor, justice, purity, pleasantness and commendation — that is what we should be looking for: Whatever is excellent and worthy of praise. Whatever it takes to find those things, and keep doing those things, that is the key to finding the God of peace. That is the reality we need to be attuned to where God exists beyond the trouble and the sorrow and the mess of what we see in our immediate vicinity. This may seem like a difficult, or even impossible task. I’ll grant you that it takes work, but it gets easier with practice. It’s a skill which pastors need to cultivate for any number of reasons: because it’s a biblical imperative, because we are proclaimers of good news, because we have to minister to all kinds of people, and because its hard to do this job without the peace of Christ. But let me give you one more specific case.
One of the privileges of pastoral ministry is to officiate funeral and memorial services. Part of that task is to meet with family members to talk about their deceased loved one. I see my role in that process to listen and portray the deceased in ways that are recognizable and truthful, not necessarily equal-handed in every respect. I have never done a service for a person who was perfect, but I try to find whatever excellence I can: whatever is honorable and pleasant and praiseworthy. I do whatever it takes to find commendable things to say, because those are things we need to have held up and remembered. Those are the things we should be thinking about when we need comfort or encouragement. We need to remember the ways people demonstrated what they learned and heard and received in Christ, or even the ways that people who did not claim to believe in Christ were still able to inspire us with truth or excellence.
And here is a truth which you may have figured out even before you heard this sermon: other people don’t have to be dead before we recognize what is honorable and excellent and praiseworthy about them. It’s a good exercise anytime — even with teenagers. I’m grateful for those of you who were encouraging after my sermon last week. I believe that what Paul is holding up for us to search out whenever and wherever we can find it is not human accomplishment, it those places where God’s excellence and purity and truth and justice shines through the distorted and often dirty glass of our imperfect lives. We should be seeking God and God’s goodness, whatever it takes. And often what it takes is looking beyond frustrations and shortcomings and doing whatever it takes to see God’s light in the people we walk alongside. And the situations we are in. It also means being honest about what is grimy or distorted about ourselves or our own vision. The first step in changing what we see is to change what we’re looking for: we should be looking for whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable. We do not control God’s goodness, but we do get to choose whether we look for it or not.
I have, and I know many of you have, been praying for peace in our world and especially for the conflict in Israel and Gaza. I confess that I am not optimistic about human commitment to or efforts toward diplomacy, compromise, or mediation. It’s tough to work toward justice when there are so many reasons for revenge. Although it suppresses my understanding — by a long shot — I believe in the peace of God, and I believe it can begin with me, wherever I am and in small ways. Whatever intentions we hold for peace, they will have to begin with us, and our willingness to do whatever it takes to affirm that God is at work in each glimpse we see of whatever is commendable and worthy of praise.I pray that we will have the vision to see ourselves and others as Christ sees us. Keep doing the things you have learned and received and heard in Christ. Rejoice in the Lord and the peace which passes our understanding will be with you. Amen.