A Thriving Spiritual Community

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Annisquam
Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

Annisquam Village Church Logo

Annisquam
Village Church

820 Washington St.
Gloucester, MA

A Thriving Spiritual Community

Sermon: Peace in the Midst
Sermon: Peace in the Midst
October 11, 2020

Video of Service

A day does not go by that I do not hear someone say, “I am just so worried about….”

It might be the election, or climate change, or the results of a COVID test, or the health of a loved one… these days, the list goes on and on.

We are living in an anxious, a deeply anxious, age.

Last night David and I watched a movie on Netflix, “The Social Dilemma.” The thesis of this movie is that Google, Facebook and other social media platforms are designed to addict us in ways that have had the consequence of further inciting and dividing us. Since the advent of so-called smart phones in 2010, the makers of the film, as well as many others, have pointed to the alarming escalation of mental health issues and suicide for our young people. Social media is a primary contributor to our increasing anxiety and disunity. What’s happening in our country and our 24/7 access to it on a variety of media doesn’t help either. One night last week, I turned the tv on as one of the newscasters seemed to be having a meltdown before my eyes. As I watched and listened to him, I felt like I would have a meltdown, too.

Can you relate?

In today’s reading from the Letter of Paul to the Philippians, he reveals another way. From a dark prison cellar, where he is being held to await capital punishment at the hands of a corrupt and brutal regime, Paul – who has every good reason to be frightened for himself and his community, shows us a way to live consciously and intentionally, anchored in relationship with God, actively living Gospel values and practices.

Paul discovered something many of us right now need to discover – the joy and peace that comes from rooting our lives in the teaching and example of Jesus. While many of us and many people we know are letting what’s happening in our political life get to us, today’s scripture strongly reminds us that it does not have to be this way. Through the presence of the peace of Christ, we need not give our hearts and minds over to anxiety, hopelessness and despair. There is another way.

We are to stand firm in the Lord.

Paul begins by referencing a disagreement among two women in the community. (As some commentators note, there can be no denying that there were women leaders in the early church.) Paul pleads for unity. He recognizes that living a faithful life is threatened when there is disunity. Paul is reminding Syntyche and Euodia that though they have differences, it is more important to remember that they are part of the same community and are called to focus on their shared goals. Their differences should not hinder them from working together for the common good.

We, on the other hand, seem to have even lost the notion that there is a common good. Too many voices in our national discourse are only concerned with the good of their own group. This is antithetical to the message of Jesus, to the message of Paul, to the message of all of the sages of the world’s great religious traditions. To stand firm in the Lord is a reminder – to use the words of Romans 12 – that in so far as it is possible, we are to live peaceably and in unity with all; to search for and work towards the common good even with people with whom we disagree.

We can not control what’s happening in our national political discourse. We can not control the consequences of climate destruction or racial reckoning. We can not control the results of medical tests or interventions. So much is out of our hands.

But, Paul reminds us that we can control what we focus on and what we do. We can live in a way that is not merely reactive to the latest outrage in the news or heartbreak in our personal lives. Rather than allowing our emotional reactions to unconsciously direct our thoughts and feelings, there is another way. And when we approach our challenges through this other way, even though we can not control the outcome, we find that we can still make a difference for ourselves and for those people and things we care about. This other way is so simple, so accessible — and so easy to forget.

What can we do? Paul tells us, we can anchor our lives in prayer and reflection, we can live lives of service in community. And Paul shows us, if we do this, no matter what is going on around us, we can experience peace and joy.

Paul was not writing about a sense of peace that denied or discounted the painful realities of life, but instead he embodies a peace that exists in the midst of them. It is a sense of peace built not on being able to control what’s going on around us, but centered on the One who is beside us and within us, who gives peace even in our times of distress, Christ.

In a time of chaos, it is prayer that allows us to not be swept up by the howling winds around us, those voices that try to intimidate using fear, hatred, and lies. In times of sadness, it is prayer that enables us to bear the unbearable. In times of anxiety, it is in prayer that we hear these words echo, “Be not afraid.” Whenever we are in any state of mind that threatens to paralyze us we can remember the words of Paul: “do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. Then, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

So, we have to ask ourselves – are our prayer lives meeting this moment? Are we giving ourselves the opportunity for the peace that surpasses understanding to GUARD our hearts and minds?? Or have we let our guard down? How disciplined are our prayer lives? Are we remembering to turn to God in prayer at those crucial moments when we know that we are likely to be upset? Like, before we visit a family member who pushes our buttons, or before we walk through the doctor’s door to receive results of a test, or before we turn on the news or a presidential debate? Is your prayer life up to this moment?

As Christians, prayer, time to simply be with God, is the foundation upon which everything else follows. It is when we turn over to God all of our anxious worries and are thankful for God’s enduring presence with us no matter what our situation, that God’s peace flows within us.

Upon this foundation of prayer, of allowing ourselves to be in the presence of God, we can discover those things that are worthy of our time and attention, of our focus. In this culture, that is no easy task. These days, almost any time we tune into the news we hear and see a culture that focuses on what is false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, and shameful. And in this tsunami of negativity, it is easy to believe that having hope and acting hopefully is unrealistic or impossible.

Paul’s admonition to focus on the true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, and praise-worthy doesn’t just happen. Not amidst a barrage of all that is not that. To do this, we must pause and reflect. To be anchored in the good, we have to slow down enough to look at our lives and at our world through the lens of grace. I don’t think this is the lens CNN, the Times, the Globe, Fox, Facebook, Twitter or any other news source is using. But, it’s one we can use. And in spiritual community we are more apt to be able to do this.

Three times in this passage, Paul uses words in Greek that convey a sense of partnership and togetherness. From his perspective, Christian living is not a solo enterprise. It’s not something one does by themselves. It is not a matter of individual belief or individual action. Rather, when Paul speaks of rejoicing or gentleness in verses 4-5, he is using a plural expression—of doing these things together. Paul’s message is not merely about a personal state of being, but of a peace and joy that arises when we reflect on and share our lives in community. When Paul says, keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, so that the God of peace will be with you, he is talking about sharing in a life of prayer and service within and for the benefit of the community.

We need each other to help us see the reality of grace, especially in difficult times. This is why our Midweek Prayer, shared reflection during worship, and other communal times of prayer, reflection, and service are so important. Our faith is built up when we slow down enough to come together and witness to the reality of grace in our lives. Perhaps one of the benefits of this pandemic is that in the early months of the quarantine, many who were living hectic lives were forced to slow down; more families began sitting together at the dinner table more often to talk about their lives; more people began coming to church to pray, to reflect, and to serve.

Facing the terror of Nazi Germany, a young Etty Hillesum, a Jewish woman who was well-versed in the Christian mystics, has much to teach us about finding peace and joy in the midst of adversity. Hear some of her words:
“We have to fight them daily, like fleas, those many small worries about the morrow, for they sap our energies.”
“Sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths, or the turning inwards in prayer for five short minutes.”

“Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. And the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.”
So I ask, are you setting aside time beyond Sunday mornings to reflect on the good? On grace? Are you spending more time thinking about the things that drag your spirit down or on things that build it up? Are you giving yourself the benefit of slowing down to reflect on the presence of grace in your life and in the lives of others in a way that is meeting this moment?

Yes, these are anxious days. And our God is waiting for us – as close as the next breath – within all that is worthy to think about – so that we, who are so beloved of God can stand firm – in joy and in peace – no matter what today is like, no matter what the future brings.

Amen.