Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016 – Thanksgiving Eve Sermon on Philippians 4:4-9

Philippians 4:4–9
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry 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 surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, 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. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

I don’t know about you, but these words that we just heard from the Apostle Paul are the kind of words that seem perfect after a morning walk through the Carleton Arboretum. You return home a little out of breath, your nose is red and dripping from the cold. And then you shed your layers, and find a seat on your four-season porch, where the sun is cutting through the window – just right. As you glance out the window, your neighbor walks by with her well-behaved chocolate lab and she waves to greet you and you wave back with a smile. And then you slowly lift up to your lips your cup of freshly brewed Goodbye Blue Monday coffee and it is this kind of Scripture that is so fitting for such a moment. Ahhhh, rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. The Lord is near.

The only trouble with this scene is that it is not even close to what the Apostle Paul was experiencing when he penned them.

These words of Paul that so easily lift off the page in a moment of great joy and thanksgiving did not originate on a Hallmark card made of papyrus. But rather they are words that come with a context to them.

These words flow out of Paul from the cold-comfort of prison and the very real threat of being put to death by the Roman Empire. And Paul writes these words to the Christians in Philippi, where perhaps persecution and death are on the horizon for them as well.

On top of all of that, it appears that this congregation Paul is writing to is living through some good old church conflict and disagreement. Imagine that?

Just before our reading, Paul write – in this letter that is known for its famous Christ hymn and it’s resoundingly joyous theme – he writes an oddly ordinary, oddly specific and oddly personal message, “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. 2I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.”

Paul brings in two women we don’t know and a seeming dispute we know very little about. Can you imagine a small squabble between you and a friend being written into the Word of God? What we do know is that Paul cares enough about them and their community to name them, and their conflict and to urge their reconciliation.[1]

And then Paul continues on to say, “And I ask you also, my loyal companion (that’s his nickname for the church), help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel.”

Paul urges the others in the community to help these two in conflict. To help them reconcile their conflict. Which is to say, you have a role in this community too! This isn’t their problem – this is our problem.

And then…and then…Paul speaks his words of rejoicing. Which sound a lot different echoing from a prison cell and off the walls of conflict.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry 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 surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

You see, it is into that ordinariness of a community caught up in the everyday struggles of life together that Paul speaks these words. He speaks these words not because of how quotable they are or because rejoicing is just a good thing to do. But he speaks these words because there is goodness to be found in the ordinariness of conflict and need.

The nearness of God. The peace of God. With them – there. Which is the promise of the incarnation, it is the promise of the cross, and the promise of the resurrection. God with us, in the unlikeliest of places.

And that promise – that gift – is worth rejoicing over, even in the midst of prison and the threat of death.

It is Thanksgiving holiday. And just like our first reaction to this text from Philippians, there are a lot of warm cozy images out there out what this holiday should look like for us all. Family arriving with smiles on their faces into homes filled with all the smells of Thanksgiving. Laughter and love and card game after card game. Pictures of a life in which it would be so easy and so natural to say, “Rejoice in the Lord always… The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything.”

But more often than not, in both the culture and in our hearts, Thanksgiving Day is a day that is filled to the brim with expectation that it simply cannot live up to.

A friend recently told me that Thanksgiving Eve is one of the busiest nights of the year for bars and restaurants. And communities of support for people in recovery are always mindful to have a meeting available. There is something about being at home and around family (however you define that word) that demands such emotional and sometimes medicated preparation.

And so we are reminded that this Thanksgiving Day, 2016… it comes with a context. Your context, your story of this past year. Our story of this past year. Which is not to be dismissed or taken lightly.

Maybe tomorrow will be a day filled with joyful celebration with people you love and you’re looking forward to it. Or maybe it will be the marathon of thanksgivings that lurches forward with anxiety as you move from family meal to family meal across the state, intentionally not talking about the presidential election. Or maybe you will spend thanksgiving with strangers at Laura Baker’s free meal in town. Or maybe it will the first Thanksgiving since mom died.

But whatever that context is that we all enter into tomorrow, it is into that ordinariness of love and conflict and fear and loss that we carry with us the story of a God who shows up in the unlikeliest and ordinary places of our lives. The story of a God who promises to show up on Thanksgiving day, knocking at the door of your life with bags and bags of luggage, filled to the brim with love, and wholeness, and forgiveness, and grace.

So yes, in seasons such as this let us give thanks for all that we have received – the blessings before us in this life. But we can’t stop there. Because while many of God’s gifts you can touch and taste and feel and see, those aren’t the first gifts God gives. The first and the greatest gifts of God, as Paul puts it, surpass understanding.

Like the promise of presence when winter comes, and comfort when sorrow rises into your throat.  Or the promise of forgiveness, not of imagined failures, but of sins that still sting. Or the outrageous outpouring of blessing in the promise of resurrection from death that is real and present and daily and concrete and local.[2]

These are the promises of a god who cares about you and your context. A God who calls you beloved and asks you to do the same. A God who calls us to each other. A God who is present in all situations.

And it is from that place that we can give thanks for what we have and how it allows us to give and serve and love and bless. And we can give thanks for what we don’t have and how we must rely on grace and kindness and the sacrifice or generosity of those we know, and others we will never know. For all of it is born out of what we receive from God’s abundance. Blessing upon blessing.  Grace upon grace.”[3]

So yes, rejoice in the Lord, always. Again, I say, rejoice. And may the peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] I am indebted to Eric Barreto for this insight.

[2] I’m indebted to Marc Olson for these words.

[3] Ibid.

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