A Sermon about How Immanuel Has Nothing (and everything) to Do with Jesus

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Lord of Love Lutheran Church
18 December 2016 + Fourth Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 7.10-16; Matthew 1.18-25



Our first gospel text of Advent brought us a cheery end-of-the-world wake-up call, filled with images of rapture and thieves and catastrophic floods. Then we met the homely locust-eating, camel hair-wearing, name-calling John the Baptist and his brash message of repentance in the wilderness — only to find him in a prison cell just a week later, doubting the certainty of his own message about the coming Messiah.

And so here we are today: angels, Joseph, Mary, Immanuel. Finally! Something that sounds familiar and straightforward and, well, Christmasy.

Ah, but not so fast. A careful reading of our gospel text should sound quite familiar…because we just read it…twice. Did you catch it? The angel in Matthew quotes Isaiah. And that quote has nothing to do with Jesus. (Yep, that warm, fuzzy feeling of familiarity and straightforwardness was too good to be true.)

The Lord spoke to Ahaz… Who’s Ahaz? Ahaz was king of Judah in Isaiah’s time. So: The Lord spoke to Ahaz… Wait, Judah? Yes, the southern part of the formerly unified nation of Israel, which broke into two after Solomon’s death. You know, it’s probably easier just to explain this all at once.

In Isaiah’s time, the split kingdoms of Judah and Israel were essentially at war. Israel’s king was scheming with the king of an allied nation to overthrown Ahaz and replace him with someone they liked and that would support them. Understandably this makes Ahaz uneasy, so God sends Isaiah to tell him God’s got his back.

But Ahaz doesn’t believe it. So Isaiah comes back with God’s second offer: Pick a sign, any sign, and God will do it to prove that everything will be fine. Still, Ahaz refuses, so God breaks down and picks one for him: The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.

A child. A sign of hope. It’s as good as a fairytale, a happily-ever-after ending. By the time the child is old enough to eat solid foods, the text says, the two kings whom Ahaz fears will be no more and Jerusalem will be safe.

But the sign of hope has a twist, just one verse after we stopped reading: God will bring upon Judah the king of Assyria — a vague suggestion of bad news intermingled with the good. While one threat of invasion would soon vanish, another was not far behind.

How then can this child be a sign of hope, if his coming means good news and bad?

A friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook this past week. It’s an artist’s depiction of Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old Syrian boy made famous earlier this year by a journalist’s simple photograph. It’s not hard to find online, but it is hard to look at: Sitting in the back of an ambulance, after being rescued from a damaged building by medical workers, his face and clothes caked in soot and blood, staring out with a look of horror and grief.

In a way, that image came to represent the humanitarian crisis around Syria’s long civil war, which has left half a million people dead and displaced countless others. It seems a far cry from a sign of hope.

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“Omran, Angels Are Here” by Judith Mehr

The image my friend posted, however, depicts Omran, seated in his ambulance chair, but surrounded by three angels. Which reminds me of another famous image: an icon of the Trinity, with each of the three persons represented by an angel. In the icon, they’re seated around a table. In the other image, they’re seated, in similar posture, around Omran, comforting him. When you look at the two images side-by-side, it’s clear that the artist of the latter had the former in mind — conceiving of those angels as God’s very presence with Omran in the midst of the devastation he had witnessed.

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“The Trinity” (icon) by Andrei Rublev (15th century)

I think this is where we might see some semblance of clarity in an otherwise ambiguous sign of a child that leaves us both hopeful and uncertain. The young woman is with child…and shall name him Immanuel. God-with-us. It’s what God was trying to say to Ahaz all along — not necessarily that everything would work in his favor, but that no matter what happens, God would stick with him and his people.

That’s the sure promise that gives us hope: God (is) with us. Immanuel. Isaiah’s prophecy reminds us of the enduring truth of God’s faithfulness to God’s people, and that promise calls us to trust in God even when the situation seems hopeless, or the details are uncertain, or God’s presence seems really hard to find.

In the Jewish tradition of the seder meal every Passover, this point is made abundantly clear in the Dayenu, a prayer that is sung immediately following the retelling of the Exodus story. “Dayenu” translates as something like “it would have been enough,” as the prayer begins:

If God had taken us out from Egypt, without delivering judgments against the Egyptian people, dayenu, it would have been enough.

If God had delivered judgments against the Egyptian people, without vanquishing their gods, dayenu, it would have been enough.

The litany goes on, tracing the Exodus story of liberation, and building example upon example of God’s faithfulness to act on behalf of God’s people. As one book of the seder liturgy summarizes, “With how many layers of goodness has God blessed us?” Or to put it another way: How many examples of God’s abiding presence has God shown us? Enough, and more.

The promise of Immanuel is not a one-time occurrence confined to the Christmas story or a political crisis in ancient Judah, although it certainly does manifest itself in specific times and places. It was the sign given to Ahaz in the midst of his fear, and it was the same sign that resurfaced in Joseph’s dream and angelic reassurance in the midst of a personal crisis that threatened his relationship and even the very life of his soon-to-be wife.

Immanuel is a profound, eternal truth of God’s promise to meet us where we are and to be with us, always.

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A Blue Christmas Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

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Lutheran Campus Ministry / Creighton University
11 December 2016 + Third Sunday of Advent
Matthew 11.2-11; Isaiah 35.1-10



He had been so sure, so confident, so certain.

He proclaimed a bold message of repentance and the dawning of the messianic age: Repent! For the reign of heaven has come near! One who is more powerful than is coming! Here is the Lamb of God!

He baptized the crowds in droves. He was sought out by all and attracted an impressive following.

He was prophetic, firmly rooted in the social justice tradition of Israel’s prophets before him. He took risks and called out the hypocrisy of the religious elite.

And what did it get him? Prison. Next stop: execution. Desperate for some vindication that he hadn’t gotten it all wrong, he sends his disciples to Jesus: Are you… the one… who is to come? Or… are we to… wait… for another? You can hear the undertones of regret, the disappointment, the dashed hope, the confusion.

A Blue Christmas, indeed.

On a day when many churches will light a pink candle, representing joy, on the Advent wreath, and when outside our churches we’ve been inundated for weeks with nonstop reminders of a joyous Noël, such a scene from Matthew’s gospel seems out of step.

Maybe, though, it’s the Christmas season that’s out of step. After all, it’s still Advent, a season marked by waiting, by yearning, by hopeful expectation, by a promise yet to be fulfilled.

I suspect that many of us might identify more with the dismayed and disenchanted John the Baptist in a prison cell than the manufactured cheerfulness of a Hallmark holiday movie.

This time of year on a college campus, the anxiety and stress of final exams and papers is palpable — only matched in intensity for some with the thought of going home for the holidays, when “family” conjures up images of discord, conflict, and estrangement. Or if you’re anything like I was: a freshman at the end of your first semester wondering if your degree program is right for you, or a senior at the opposite end of the spectrum wondering what life will bring after a suddenly much-less-distant graduation.

Still for others, it’s the death or illness of a loved one, or strained or broken relationships, that color the holiday blue.

In a way, John the Baptist—revered as a saint on our liturgical calendar—gives us permission to observe a Blue Christmas. His despair and his questioning remind us that doubt is not the opposite of faith but is itself a very real part of the life of faith. John offers us an example of faith that makes room for doubt, for grief, for questioning, for not having it all together—and says that’s okay!

Christian Wiman, a poet and author who grew up in the Christianity of West Texas, was diagnosed with a rare, incurable form of blood cancer in his late 30s. In the wake of his diagnosis, he wrote candidly about his struggle with faith: “Faith is not some hard, unchanging thing you cling to through the vicissitudes of life. Those who try to make into this are destined to become brittle, shatterable creatures.” [1]

In other words: There’s no point in pretending. There’s no point in pretending everything is okay when it’s not. And there’s certainly no point in questioning one’s own faith, or self-worth, because of it.

Blue Christmas, dear people, is oftentimes more faithful to the season than the opposite.

It’s no accident the color of Advent is blue, the color of the night sky just before dawn. As Diana Butler Bass writes, “Blue holds the promise that the sun will rise, and that even after the bleakest, coldest, longest night, the light will break forth, as the new day arrives. Blue may be the color of sadness, but blue is also the color of hope.” [2]

That’s not meant to be some grand answer for we who find ourselves “blue,” but it is meant to be hope — and hope is much better than a definitive answer. Hope is the product of memory and imagination.

Hope is the central message of Isaiah’s vision. With imagery of wilderness and desert, journey and liberation, this is meant to be deliberately evocative of the exodus,  the way out of slavery in Egypt and into freedom, pointing an exiled people to their collective memory of God’s past faithfulness to give hope for the future.

That hope is rooted in memory, but it also begs to be recast, reimagined, for a new reality. Even as Israel was once delivered from slavery, here they imagine a new future free from exile. And even as Jesus has already come in history, we still sing for Emmanuel to “come, o come” because we still live with real pain and real problems.

Jesus’s answer to John’s pleading questions is intentionally open-ended: What do you hear? What do you see? The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear. Images evocative of Isaiah, of God’s action in the past, of a yearning for God’s continued action. Hope, rooted in memory, fueled by imagination.

Still, in the mire and in the muck, it’s easy to imagine one type of Messiah, as John might have, a victorious conquerer who would make everything right again. But what we get is something much more profound, as Christian Wiman again reminds us:

If Christianity is going to mean anything at all for us now, then the humanity of God cannot be a half measure. He can’t float over the chaos of pain and particles in which we’re mired, and we can’t think of him gliding among our ancestors like some shiny, sinless superhero…

No, God is given over to matter, the ultimate Uncertainty Principle… what a relief to befriend contingency, to meet God right here in the havoc of chance, to feel enduring love like a stroke of pure luck. [3]

The Messiah for whom we wait, the promised one for whom we yearn, the long-expected one for whom we hope, is Emmanuel, God-with-us, indeed one of us, struggles and all, who holds us and reminds us that through it all, we are not alone.


[1] Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 17.

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/11/25/forget-red-and-green-make-it-a-blue-holiday-instead/?utm_term=.ca7ed04709a2

[3] Wiman, 17.

Church Interrupted! A Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

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Augustana Lutheran Church
27 November 2016 + First Sunday of Advent
Matthew 24.36-44; Romans 13.11-14



Doomsday.
The end is near.
The rapture is coming.

Don’t worry. I haven’t gone rogue or joined an end-of-the-world ultra-fundamentalist cult. But you have to admit there is a certain fascination many people have with some version or another of what they think “the second coming” will look like. And they’ve dreamed up some pretty bizarre scenarios.

In 1806, for example, a domesticated hen in Leeds, England, began laying eggs on which was written “Christ is coming”… until it was discovered that the hen’s owner had been inscribing the eggs and, um, reinserting them into the bird.

More recently, American radio evangelist Harold Camping calculated that the end would come on May 21, 2011, and when that date came and went, revised it to October 21. Oh, and all this after four previous miscalculated dates seventeen years earlier. If at first you don’t succeed…

Of course, none of these predictions has ever come true, but at least for me, there is still a certain fear there. What if they’re right this time?

The thing about fear is…

Oh, I just hate that noise! If my phone alarm spoke New Testament, it might sound something like, “It is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”

Now what was I saying? Oh yeah, the thing about fear is that it almost always comes as an interruption.

My phone alarm is an interruption every morning — albeit an interruption that I can control with a tap of the snooze button, exactly two times, for exactly nine minutes each, for just a touch of extra sleep before waking up for good shortly after the coffee maker’s own timer has gone off and brewed just enough coffee for my first cup. (Don’t think I don’t have this timed out perfectly.)

Unlike my alarm, however, fear is an interruption that can rarely, if ever, be controlled. It’s what makes end-times predictions so scary for many, a fascination that Hollywood has capitalized on with apocalyptic blockbusters.

Our gospel text for this First Sunday of Advent could nearly be one of them. An earth-destroying flood that sweeps everyone away. A sudden rapture. A violent home invasion. And did Jesus say something about an unknown day and hour?!

Not exactly “Joy to the World”… If this isn’t a text that conjures up fear for its listeners, I don’t know what is.

But another thing about fear is that it is also a wake-up call.

Two years ago this past Thursday, I was standing outside of Chicago Police headquarters with at least a couple hundred others. Together, we were waiting to hear the grand jury announcement that would decide whether or not Officer Darren Wilson would be indicted in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, earlier that summer.

As soon as the announcement was made, the crowd began marching, peacefully but defiantly, from the south side precinct all the way to Chicago’s Loop downtown.

It was a call to action, spurred by a fear about what it means to be a person of color in this country that the supermajority of us in this room will never experience.

Ferguson inarguably become a watershed moment in the modern civil rights movement. Unfortunately, moments like it have only become more the norm than the exception, as hate crimes against marginalized and oppressed communities seem to have surged in recent years.

Ferguson was a wake-up call, but every hate crime against a person of color, or someone who is transgender, or a queer person, or someone who happens to be Muslim, needs to be a wake-up call.

In the midst of a national election that has left many in those communities feeling shocked, angry, and scared, we the church have the opportunity, not to cower under the grip of crippling fear, but to face that fear and do those things that the church has always done when it’s at its best.

In a gospel text of frightful images, Jesus calls his disciples to an attitude of wakefulness and watchfulness, but these things are not idle behaviors.

In Advent, yes, we wait and we watch for the coming of the Messiah — and we know that’s going to happen, and indeed has already happened. But we are also urged to be about the work of the reign of God that that Messiah has ushered in. What would it look like if we upped our game in living out what it says on the back of our Augustana t-shirts: “grace, justice, and faith in action”?

Paul reminds us what that means in Romans. “Besides this…” our reading begins. This: “Love one another,” he writes just verses earlier. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

And: “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public,” writes Cornel West.

We don’t have to do it all — no one expects that of us, least of all God. Indeed we cannot do it all. But there is a certain ethic at stake in these apocalyptic texts that urges us to action.

The point is not to be preoccupied with the future — not rushing to Christmas during Advent, not making bizarre claims about the second coming so we know when exactly we need to be on our best behavior when Jesus shows up. The point is to be concerned with the present moment. There are real fears in the world, held by real people, that demand real action.

Yet I believe beyond believing that life can spring from death… words we will sing shortly in our hymn of the day.

Life can and life does and life did and life will always spring from death. Wait for it, watch for it, and work for it.

A Reflection-Sermon for Christ the King

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As mentioned in my previous post, this year my internship congregation did a special liturgy for Christ the King Sunday, in which we traced the liturgical year, season by season, in a pattern of reading-reflection-hymn. What follows is my short reflection on the gospel pericope for Christ the King, Luke 23.33-43. I am also including my reflections on Advent, Epiphany, Lent, and Ordinary Time. Full liturgy is available upon request (vicarjosh (at) gmail (dot) com).


Augustana Lutheran Church
20 November 2016 + Christ the King
Luke 23.33-43

transgenders

image courtesy of River Needham’s blog

There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”

It’s puzzling, at first glance, that we read a gospel lesson on Christ the King Sunday that has our so-called “king” hanging on a cross, dying. It’s certainly not the image of a king I would choose to use if I were trying to make some grand claim about Jesus.

But I think that’s exactly the point: Luke’s gospel is full of subversions and reversals. This is another one: Christ the King is so unlike any earthly monarch we can imagine. Recall way back at the beginning of our journey through the church year this morning to my reflection on Epiphany. The psalm on that day speaks of a king who will judge with righteousness and justice, defend the cause of the poor, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.

Our gospel text today adds another element to Christ’s kingly qualities: solidarity with those who suffer. As Karoline Lewis writes, salvation for the second criminal here means:

…that there was someone who saw his suffering, who was willing to stand in that suffering with him, who spoke up against his suffering in the form of empire, evil, and totalitarianism. That someone was Jesus. The criminal died knowing that someone was with him in his suffering. [1]

Every Sunday we proclaim Christ crucified, but especially so on Christ the King. That proclamation calls us into a brave new way of being church. To quote from Lewis again, it means, among other things, that we are compelled “to look to the left and the right and notice who is getting hanged on a tree and say stop.” [2]

I’m sorry to say that there are too many people being hanged on trees in our world today. In the first century, crucifixion was a tool used to silence those voices that the Roman Empire didn’t want to hear or deemed as threats. Today, on November 20th, many people around the world will gather for the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance to name and remember those beloved children of God who have been murdered as a result of transphobia.

It is the church’s responsibility to call out these and other acts of evil: Transphobia. Racism. Homophobia. Sexism. Islamophobia. Xenophobia. We have a starting point in Luke’s story of the crucifixion — a story that underscores the wideness of God’s abundant love and mercy for all whom God has created, a love that is so deep that it manifests itself in a God who suffers right alongside the most vulnerable and whispers to them, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=4754
[2] Ibid.


ADVENT

The season of Advent is a powerful counter-cultural pushback against the hurried rush to Christmas. While all around us we have seen Santas and candy canes and holiday greenery for weeks, the church defiantly declares “not yet!”.

Advent isn’t about any of these things, or even the birth of Jesus, “but about the church’s continual prayer that God will come to us, bringing life to a dying world.” [3] In fact, it’s not until the Fourth (and final) Sunday of Advent each year that we hear a gospel text about the birth of Jesus. Prior to that, we’re introduced to John the Baptist, whose cry on Jordan’s bank “calls us into hope and urges us into justice.” [4]

Everything about Advent urges us to wait, to slow down, to return to ourselves and to God. On our wreath, we light one candle at a time. In our prayers of the day, we pray for Christ to “stir up” divine power and come, even as we pray for God to “stir up” our hearts in renewal towards the divine will for justice. Even the blue of the pastor’s vestments and the paraments in our sanctuary is not unlike the deep blue of night just before the coming of the dawn.

So in Advent: We wait. We watch. We pray. We look expectantly for the coming of Emmanuel, God-with-us.

[3] Gail Ramshaw and Mons Teig, Keeping Time: The Church’s Years (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2009), 73.
[4] Ibid., 74.


EPIPHANY

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me… gold, frankincense, and myrrh?! If Advent is the pushback against Christmas coming too soon, then the peculiar feast day of Epiphany protests how quickly we rush to move on after December 25th. Indeed, Epiphany marks the conclusion of the twelve days of Christmas, and the gospel read on this day still proclaims the coming of Christ into the world, as we retell the familiar story of the magi visiting a newborn king.

The psalm appointed for Epiphany also tells us exactly the kind of king we can expect in Jesus. This king, in stark contrast to earthly monarchs, will judge with righteousness and justice, defend the cause of the poor, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. Following the example of such a king, we too are called to recommit ourselves to the work of justice.


LENT

“What are you giving up for Lent this year?” It’s a question many of us who grew up in the church have probably asked and answered ad nauseam over the years. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Lent has nothing to do with giving up our favorite things, like ice cream or coffee. If that were the case, I’d be a very cranky vicar.

In fact, the giving up of material pleasures appears to be more an aberration in the history of Christian liturgical practices, a “blip” in the grand scheme of things. As early as the fourth century, Lent was observed as a forty-day period of preparation for new converts to Christianity who wished to be baptized at Easter. Only in the medieval era, when adult baptisms declined, did the focus move to fasting as an act of penance to make up for one’s personal sinfulness.

Fortunately, in recent years, the earlier, ancient practice of the church has resurfaced. Easter is again a popular time for baptisms, with Lent as its counterpart both in preparation for baptism but also an annual renewal of baptism for all Christians. Still, classic expressions of Lenten discipline—giving alms to the poor, praying, and fasting—are common and even encouraged. But the goal here is to stress that these things “are not necessary for gaining God’s approval… [but] are behaviors that we choose to adopt to remind ourselves of the renewal of life that baptism calls forth.” [5]

Keeping a holy Lent therefore suggests that our fasting be a hunger for justice, our alms a making of peace, and our prayer the song of grateful hearts.

[5] Ibid., 85.


ORDINARY TIME

Ordinary Time is anything but ordinary. Liturgical scholars are quick to remind us that the naming of these “green Sundays” after Epiphany and after Pentecost as “ordinary” refers not to their quality but simply to the fact that they are ordered, or numbered. No matter what we call these Sundays, though, it’s important to remember that every Sunday, regardless of season, proclaims Christ. In other words, every Sunday is a little Easter.

The green of these “ordinary” days, many of which fall during the spring and summer months, also calls us to delight in the beauty of God’s creation. Hear now these words from John O’Donohue:

Nearer to the earth’s heart,
Deeper within its silence:
Animals know this world
In a way we never will.

We who are ever
Distanced and distracted
By the parade of bright
Windows thought opens:
Their seamless presence
Is not fractured thus.

Stranded between time
Gone and time emerging,
We manage seldom
To be where we are:
Whereas they are always
Looking out from
The here and now.

May we learn to return
And rest in the beauty
Of animal being,
Learn to lean low,
Leave our locked minds,
And with freed senses
Feel the earth
Breathing with us.

May we enter
Into lightness of spirit,
And slip frequently into
The feel of the wild.

Let the clear silence
Of our animal being
Cleanse our hearts
Of corrosive words.

May we learn to walk
Upon the earth
With all their confidence
And clear-eyed stillness
So that our minds
Might be baptized
In the name of the wind
And light and the rain. [6]

[6] John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 73-74.

Sermon Remix for Gaudete (Rejoice!) Sunday

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[Essentially a rehash of my second sermon for preaching lab, found here. But listen to this one first. It’s better, I promise.]


Grace Lutheran Church
13 December 2015 + Advent 3C
Philippians 4.4-7



I hate to break it to you, but you realize that we’re now less than two weeks away from Christmas, right? If we’re being generous and count today, that’s only 12 shopping days left before the big day. It feels like it was just yesterday that many of us were stuffing turkeys and baking pies for Thanksgiving. But if local retailers’ shelves are any indication, that holiday happened in July. And if you haven’t caught up for Christmas yet, good luck, because I’m sure they’re already displaying their Valentine’s Day merchandise.

christmas-accidents_104521k

So once again, not to stress you out or anything, but did I mention there’s only 12 days left for all the gift shopping, cookie baking, tree trimming, light hanging, hall decking, card writing, gift wrapping…

But you know, don’t worry.

If you’re anything like me, then you probably take issue with what overly optimistic Paul has to say in this passage from Philippians. Rejoice always. Don’t worry. Pray continually. And by the time he rolls around to his conclusion, “The peace of God which surpasses all understanding,” his maxims and platitudes have reached their pinnacle of gag-worthiness.

3b5e24b0282e0cd039bfeaeeeb75185eI learned the lesson about vapid platitudes and overly optimistic maxims the hard way during a summer of Clinical Pastoral Education, when I worked as chaplain intern in a hospital. During one patient visit, I was listening to a woman, Amy, talk about loss upon loss in her life: her son’s unemployment, her own tenuous employment and lack of sick pay during multiple hospitalizations, the uncertainty of whether or not the bank would foreclose on her house and leave her homeless for the second time. So at one point when I said, “Well, you’re here now, and it sounds to me like you’re a survivor,” she basically told me to shut up. I imagine if Paul were in the room telling her to rejoice in the Lord always and not to worry about anything, she might have said something similar.


There was an article floating around Facebook about a month ago titled “Your Mental Health Is More Important Than Your Grades,” which, as a stressed-out seminary student who jumps at every opportunity to procrastinate, immediately appealed to me. The author reports that about 62% of students suffer from “perpetual, toxic anxiety.” It’s like she’s been spying on me or something, I thought.

But what’s even more unsettling: This anxiety can have damaging effects on our sense of well-being and our ability to function, resulting in fear, doubt, and depression. In response, the author conducted a study focusing on what her students were doing to actively combat stress. Among her conclusions: you don’t have to be a perfectionist, and you’re not alone. In other words, stress isn’t worth it if it costs you your mental health and your life in community.

The Philippians appear to have been no strangers to stress, either. There’s evidence throughout Paul’s letter that the church at Philippi experienced both external persecution and internal conflict. But Paul offers them encouragement. “Rejoice,” he says, and “let your graciousness be known to everyone.” Don’t get hung up on the little things, Paul says. Be gracious. Be forgiving. Or as one popular coffee table book implores: don’t sweat the small stuff.

Paul also refers to the graciousness of Christ in another letter to the Corinthians. As one commentary puts it, graciousness evokes a sense of generosity toward others, and Paul uses it here as a model of living for the Philippian community. Be like this because Christ was.

charliebrownchristmasIn this passage, Paul is basically telling the Philippians the same thing as the author of the stress study tells us: Your unity and graciousness to others are more important than getting it right all the time. Paul is concerned for their unity, and against the background of conflict and anxiety, his words remind the Philippians that they’re in this together. As one biblical scholar writes, “Jesus has redeemed us from petty squabbles and derisive chatter to provide a particular kind of witness to the world. That witness is found in the way we treat one another.”


So: rejoice in the Lord always, let your graciousness be made known to everyone, do not worry… and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Paul ends with a promise of God’s peace, but it’s not just another vapid platitude. The word Paul uses for guard can also be used in the sense of confinement in prison. I don’t think his word choice is just a coincidence. Paul knew what confinement was like, since at the time of his writing to the Philippians he himself was locked up in Rome, pending capital charges. So if Paul could be reassured of the peace of God in his situation, the Philippians could believe it in theirs. Paul wasn’t offering empty words; he was offering his lived experience.

After Amy, my patient from CPE, finished telling her story, I offered to pray with her. Reluctantly she agreed. I can’t say I remember what I prayed for, but I’ll always remember the way she ended our visit. “Thank you,” she said, “that actually helped.” And with a hint of a smile, she continued, “Now go help someone else.”

We rejoice not because circumstances are always ideal or easy, but because in the end God’s peace endures even in those dark places—be it a hospital room, or the stress of the rapidly approaching holiday, or even the depression that accompanies the ever-shortening days until the winter solstice. Advent is the season we anticipate the inbreaking of God’s new reality in Jesus, culminating in the angels’ proclamation: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth.”


Hymn of the Day: “Awake! Awake, and Greet the New Morn”
(Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #242)

A Sermon About Rejoicing and Not Worrying (Really?!)

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Sermon for ML 403 Preaching Lab
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
3 November 2015
Philippians 4.4-7 (Advent 3C)


[Click here to listen along!]


I hate to break it to you, but you realize that we’re now just a mere five weeks and three days away from the end of the semester, right? That’s only 38 days to research and write those final papers and give those final presentations. And I know most of us in this room are doing MIC (Ministry in Context), so let’s not forget about preaching or leading adult forum or teaching confirmation at our congregations. And Thanksgiving’s just around the corner, with Christmas lurking not all that far behind: the gift shopping, the cookie baking, the extra worship services, the stress of awkward family gatherings. But you know, don’t worry.

If you’re anything like me, then you probably take issue with what overly optimistic Paul has to say in this passage from Philippians. Rejoice always. Don’t worry. Pray continually. And by the time he rolls around to his conclusion, “The peace of God which surpasses all understanding,” his maxims and platitudes have reached their pinnacle of gag-worthiness.

I learned the lesson about vapid platitudes and overly optimistic maxims the hard way during a summer of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education). During one patient visit, I was listening to a woman, Amy, talk about loss upon loss in her life: her son’s unemployment, her own tenuous employment and lack of sick pay during multiple hospitalizations, the uncertainty of whether or not the bank would foreclose on her house and leave her homeless for the second time. So at one point when I said, “Well, you’re here now, and it sounds to me like you’re a survivor,” she basically told me to shut up. I imagine if Paul were in the room telling her to rejoice in the Lord always and not to worry about anything, she might have said something similar.


There’s been an article floating around Facebook this week titled “Your Mental Health Is More Important Than Your Grades.” The author reports that about 62% of students suffer from “perpetual, toxic anxiety.” Stress, she says, is “a force to be reckoned with.” It can have damaging effects on our sense of well-being and our ability to function, resulting in fear, doubt, and depression. In response, the author conducted a study focusing on what her students were doing to actively combat stress. Among her conclusions: you don’t have to be a perfectionist, and you’re not alone. In other words, stress isn’t worth it if it costs you your mental health and your life in community.[1]

The Philippians appear to have been no strangers to stress, either. There’s evidence throughout Paul’s letter that the church at Philippi experienced both external persecution and internal conflict. But Paul offers them encouragement. “Rejoice,” he says, and “let your graciousness be known to everyone.” The Greek word for graciousnessepieikes—means, essentially, not insisting on the letter of the law and instead being gracious and forgiving. It’s also the word Paul uses to refer to the graciousness of Christ in another letter to the Corinthians. As one commentary puts it, epieikes evokes a sense of generosity toward others, and Paul uses it here as a model of living for the Philippian community. Be like this because Christ was.

In this passage, Paul is basically telling the Philippians the same thing as the author of the stress study tells us: Your unity and graciousness to others are more important than getting it right all the time. Paul is concerned for their unity, and against the background of conflict and anxiety, his words remind the Philippians that they’re in this together. As one biblical scholar puts it, “Jesus has redeemed us from petty squabbles and derisive chatter to provide a particular kind of witness to the world. That witness is found in the way we treat one another.”[2]


So: rejoice in the Lord always, let your graciousness be made known to everyone, do not worry… and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Paul ends with a promise of God’s peace, but it’s not just another vapid platitude. The word Paul uses for guard can also be used in the sense of confinement in prison. I don’t think his word choice is just a coincidence. Paul knew what confinement was like, since at the time of his writing to the Philippians he himself was locked up in Rome, pending capital charges. So if Paul could be reassured of the peace of God in his situation, the Philippians could believe it in theirs. Paul wasn’t offering empty words; he was offering his lived experience.

We can rejoice in the Lord always and not allow ourselves to become confined by stress or conflict. We can rejoice not because circumstances are always ideal or easy, but because in the end God’s peace endures even in those dark places—be it the stress of the rapidly approaching end of the semester or the depression that accompanies the ever-shortening days until the winter solstice. Advent is the season we anticipate the inbreaking of God’s new reality in Jesus, culminating in the angels’ proclamation: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth.”


[1] Kristen Lee Costa, “Your Mental Health Is More Important Than Your Grades,” https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/reset-247/201510/your-mental-health-is-more-important-your-grades.

[2] Jacob Myers, “Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1505.