Date: November 15, 2015
Title: “Hang On Tight!”
Preaching: The Rev. Donna M.L. Pritchard
Scripture: Philippians 4:4-9
During the month of November we are doing a sermon series called “Thankfull”, aimed at helping us consider what it means to live as grateful people, and what it means to recognize the many blessings in our lives. A few of you have already responded to our request to let us know where you are moved to gratitude, by sending us a picture or two. Some are sending selfies, like the one Jeremy took this morning, while others are sending pictures beyond themselves, showing the things, the people, the places and the events for which they are grateful.
I, for one, might send in a picture of the Oregon Coast. I am very grateful for its beauty and its grandeur, which never fail to bring me a sense of God’s majesty and power. Or I could show you pictures of my children – Sarah and Kate – beautiful women of integrity and joy in their own right. I could even send you a picture of my dog Maggie (although after last night when she just would not settle down long enough for either of us to sleep, I’m not sure “gratitude” is the first word that comes to my mind!). Certainly, my gratitude extends to this church and the ways we can not only worship together but also serve God through the people of God’s creation.
Of course, I could go on and on, just as you probably could too, once you start listing your reasons to be thankful. But don’t worry, I won’t go on indefinitely, I won’t subject you to an endless loop of blessings, because the apostle Paul puts it better than I ever could, in his letter to the first century Christians in Philippi: Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I say, rejoice!
Reading the Scripture for today I thought of an old “Peanuts” cartoon in my collection, one I had clipped out years ago and saved because it made me smile. In this particular strip, Lucy asks Charlie Brown, “Did you ever know anyone who was really happy?” And before Charlie Brown can even answer, his dog Snoopy comes dancing onto the scene, head flung back, ears streaming in the wind, and a silly grin on his little dog face. In the last frame, Lucy asks again, “Did you ever know anyone who was really happy… and still in their right mind?”
We might want to ask that question of Paul this morning, based on the Scripture we read from Philippians. In it, Paul is writing from prison. He has lost everything, including his freedom. He is isolated from his closest friends, the Christians in Philippi. And he has no idea whether is about to live or die; he has no clue what his future will hold. By anyone’s standards – for anyone in their right mind – Paul should be at the very least distressed, if not downright despondent. By anyone’s standards – for anyone in their right mind – we should be full of lamentations and mourning, not dancing, today. Considering the news of the week, and the violent, hate-filled state of the world today, you might think we would be given up to despair. And yet, the entire letter to the Philippians is full of joy.
How can this be? Jim Harnish suggests:
It seems that one of Paul’s favorite words is the Greek word “hilarotes”, from which we get the word “hilarity”… which literally means “laughter from the heart.” So when Paul talks about joy, he does not mean the trivial, shallow, or mean-spirited stuff we often call humor today. He means bone-deep, exuberant laughter, which comes up out of the depths of a person’s soul. He means joy which flows from the center of our being, from the depth of our hearts.
Listen to the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases a few verses into our text:
Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray.
Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, of 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.
Someone else once said that gratitude – giving thanks – is the “jazz factor” of faith, because gratitude is love improvising its answer to love. Now I’ve known people (you probably have too), who have gotten caught up in the rhythm of such jazz. I think of my friend, whose house burned to the ground, leaving her with nothing but the clothes on her back and a profound gratitude for the gift of life. This gratitude improvised a generosity and an expansiveness in her life that she had never known before.
Likewise, I remember watching a Bolivian Methodist congregation improvise the most joyous worship I had ever experienced, all in a church with only two walls and a roof to shelter them from driving rain. And then there are all those I have known who have improvised life in the face of death, choosing the find the blessings where everyone else might find only pain.
When I am at my best I, too, can improvise gratitude. When I am at my best, I can find plenty of reasons to rejoice, and I don’t give in to worry, and I am quick to pray. When I am at my best, I understand how wonderful it is to let Christ displace worry at the center of my life. But the thing is – I’m not always at my best. Are you?
Sometimes it is difficult to improvise gratitude when we are anesthetized by routine, or when we are overwhelmed by busy-ness. It is hard to be grateful when we are anxious about expectations and demands, both internal and external, or when we are consumed by grief, both local and global. That is when our solidarity with the Philippians, and our need for Paul’s advice, becomes most apparent. Rejoice, he says, be anxious in nothing, be prayerful in everything, be thankful in anything, and then the peace of God will come…
The progression is plain to see. The peace, the sense of God’s wholeness – that only comes when we are able to rejoice. It only happens when we let go and give thanks. It is only possible when we learn to improvise gratitude. Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast has teamed up with photographer Louise Schwartzberg to give us their jazz factor of faith. In this absolutely beautiful video, Brother David says:
You think this is just another day in your life. It is not just another day, it is the one day that is given to you. It is a gift. It’s the only gift you have right now. And the only appropriate response to this gift is gratitude. If you do nothing else but cultivate that response of gratitude, if you learn to respond to this day as if it is the first day and the very last day… then this day will have been very well spent.
The truth is this day is a gift, and the only appropriate response we can make to this gift is gratitude, whether we can see God’s presence with us, or whether we cannot. Gratitude is the only appropriate response we can make, whether we are free floating in the calm waters of a lazy life, or holding on tight in the midst of cascading rapids. Today is a gift best improvised with gratitude, especially if we hang on tight to God. Today is a gift…thanks be to God! Amen.