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