Sermon November 15, 2020

Rejoice in the Lord Always
Phil 4:4-10
November 15 2020

     “Rejoice always!”  Again, I say rejoice.” Sounds like good advice, like something you’d find in the self-help section of Barnes and Noble. Or a theme for a song:  “Let a smile be your umbrella.”  “Don’t worry, be happy.”  
     Rejoice always.  Again, I say rejoice.  How can you do that in this kind of devious, hurtful world?  How can you say that to someone battling cancer?  How can you say that to a resident of a nursing home who can’t get out of bed?  How can you say that to someone who’s just gotten the Covid virus? .
     The Bible is full of talk about rejoicing.  By my count there are over 300 instances where we are  commanded to rejoice.
     And the old warrior who wrote these words wasn’t a fellow who had an easy go of it.  In his letters to his friends he lists the plagues that have fallen upon him, the beatings, the lashes, a ship wreck, the sleepless nights, hunger and thirst.  Yes, this is the man who tells his friends to rejoice.  And he tells them this as he writes from the dark and dank of a Roman prison, body wracked with malaria, awaiting a certain death.
     Well, maybe he has found a secret.    Maybe he knows a few things about living joyfully when life is crappy.  Let’s listen to him again: “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be known to God.”
     Why does he say this?  Because God is going to lift all our troubles, remove all our difficulties, and give us everything we want?
     Some people think that’s what prayer is.  To beg or manipulate God into doing what we want.  Certainly children start out that way. Here’s a child’s prayer: “Dear God.  Please put another holiday between Christmas and Easter.  There’s nothing good in there now.”  Or another prayer by a second grader:   “Dear God, send me a pony.  I never asked for anything before.  You can look it up.”   Or there is Peter’s prayer: “Dear God.  Please send Dennis Clark to a different camp this year.”
     But before children reach adulthood they discover what we all discover.  Prayers aren’t answered in the way we want.  Sometimes, it .seems, prayers aren’t answered at all.  If all my prayers were answered, my daughter’s baby would have been born healthy.  If my prayers were answered, we wouldn’t have gone to war in Iraq or Afghanistan.
     No prayers are not answered, if we mean that through prayer, we get what we want.
     But wise old Paul who had been to hell and back, does not say that.  He doesn’t say, “Let your requests be made known to God and God will answer your requests– pronto.”   No, what he does say is this: “Let your requests be known to God, and the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds.”  
     Why do we bring our request before the throne of grace?  Not because we expect God to promptly take care of these requests.  No, we don’t do that.  We bring our inner most needs, our heaviest burdens before God knowing that when we turn them over to God, however God handles them is going to be all right.
     A few moments later Paul puts it this way: “I have learned to be content, whether hungry or full, whether rich or poor.”  Which is to say, “My happiness, my joy, does not arise from things on the outside, but things on the inside.  
      Not many years ago I visited Pat Cunningham at Thunderbird Hospital.  Pat was battling cancer.  Pat has had a rough go of it lately, and is back on radiation.  He was weaker than when I had seen him a few weeks before.   But what a radiant spirit.  He talked about how eager  he was to get back to church….and I thought about those of us who sorta flip a coin on Sunday morning to decide on whether we will come to church, maybe we will, maybe we want, and here’s a man desperate to come to church to breathe in the oxygen of grace.   He talked about how much his wife means to him, his friends, how much the Lord means to him.  He never stopped smiling while I visited with him.   When the dietician came in to review the hospital menu, not a culinary treat, that’s for sure, he thanked her sincerely.  His joy touched my spirit, and made me joyful, made me thankful that I could get into the car and enjoy another beautiful winter day in Arizona, the sun so sparkling, the sky so blue.  It didn’t even seem so bad driving on Thunderbird back to the 101,  my most hated drive in the West Valley.
     Even when you have cancer, there’s room for gratitude…Another member of my congregation in Litchfield Park was  Irmgard Bueschgen. She too  been ill  with cancer.  I visited her in the hospital on Christmas Eve, and she was very sick that day…so sick she thought she might be in the last hours of her life.  And as sick as she was she said, “There have been many blessings this year, even though I have been very sick.”  And I asked her what her blessings were.  And she said something that nearly knocked me off my chair.  “The main blessing has been getting to know you.”  
     The back ground of her story is this.  She came into my office one day out of the blue.  She told me her name, said she was a member of our church, not a very good member, and that she was dying.  After we talked for an hour, we agreed to meet regularly.  She would bring me coffee from Starbucks and we would  talk.  We planned out her memorial service.  We talked about her childhood in Germany and her favorite hymns and scripture verses.  She sang a hymn to me in German that she wants at her memorial  service.  
     People like Pat Cunningham,  people like Irmgard Bueschgen, have taught me this: that attitude determines altitude, no matter how low your circumstances in life, you can soar into the stratosphere of joy and gratitude.  That no matter what happens, the Lord is with us.