Opening to life, come what may


A sermon preached on October 9, 2011 based upon Philippians 4:1-9

The Apostle Paul wrote the words we just heard to the church he had begun in Philippi nearly 10 years earlier.  He writes from a prison cell in Rome.  He is at the end of his life; he would die a year or two after composing these words.

He writes out of gratitude for the support he has received from the congregation he founded.   He writes to encourage harmony in the congregation:  apparently two hard working women in the congregation, Euodia and Syntyche, are quarrelling, disrupting the peace of the congregation.

The passage we heard includes these remarkable words:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

I find myself reacting two ways to these words.  On the one hand, they are surely inspiring and comforting, expressing the ideal of how life should be — could be — lived.

But I have another reaction as well, and that is of recognizing how far from the ideal expressed here is my day in and day out experience of life:  Rejoice in the Lord always??   No, that is not something I know.  There are moments of joy, yes, but I don’t know life as a perpetual state of joy.  Do not worry about anything?  No, I worry about plenty of things, and I suspect you do too.

I recognize myself more with Euodia and Syntyche, those two quarrelling women in the Philippian congregation, who can’t let go of their grudes to end the dispute dividing the church.

(It seems important I say this because oftentimes churches can be a lot like the story of the Emperor’s New clothes before the little boy cries out, “The Emperor has no clothes!,” where nobody admits that the their struggles, because they assume they are the only one, which in turn, makes for a rather intolerant,  inhumane environment in churches.)

I am also challenged by the Apostle’s use of language that suggests that we have control over whether we rejoice perpetually and never worry.  Elsewhere Paul is emphatic that we are saved not by our own efforts — that our salvation is a gift of grace and not something we can accomplish.   In the end, the life we are aiming for can’t be achieved by our efforts alone, but nonetheless, our efforts are necessary.

A very quick overview of the history of the Reformation theology of conversion:   When Martin Luther came along in the 16th century, the Roman Catholic Church had dominated by the notion that our salvation was something we accomplished by our own efforts, which opened the door to all kinds of corruptions.   As a monk, Martin Luther was caught up in this notion, and found himself despairing over his perpetual failure to work himself into a clean conscience.   He found relief in his rediscovery of the core truths of the Gospel as they are articulated by the Apostle Paul —  that we are saved not by our works, but wholly by the grace of God revealed to us in the free gift of Jesus Christ.

This insight set off the whole Protestant Reformation.   Luther saw that entry into the Christian life was based wholly upon the realization that it was God, not me, who put things right between us, and that I can live because of the mercy and grace of God offered to me in Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther wasn’t too hopeful about human beings capacity to cease to be anything other than sinners in this life, but he was pretty impressed by God’s mercy, and his insight leveled the playing field.   With this understanding, we’re all essentially in the same place.  The notorious murderer and your average smug and resentful overworked slob both fall infinitely short of the glory of God.  We’re all in the muck together, relying on the grace of God to declare us clean.

When John Wesley came along two hundred years later, he held onto Martin Luther’s basic insight gleaned from Paul, but he also brought some optimism in regard to what was in store for us as we moved through the Christian life.

He believed it was possible that the grace of God could work in our hearts in such a way that over time we can become more truly loving, joyful, anxiety free — the very state described by Paul in this morning’s scripture lesson.

He believed it was possible to be perfected in this life – in terms of love – becoming like Christ – but he never claimed to have reached this state himself, and was reluctant to claim it for others as well.  He insisted that this also was the work of God’s grace.

He believed that for the vast majority of us — and I think this is fascinating — that “full sanctification”, as this state is called, came about only in moment of death.   That in gazing into God’s eternal, unconditional love in the moment of death, we finally let go of all the stuff that gets in the way of fully loving and embracing life.  As we said before, Paul was nearing his own death when he wrote the words describing this state.

This makes sense to me.

I think that if I were to have a doctor tell me that I had only a short while to live, the concerns of my daily life would dramatically shift.  Mostly, I would stop hurrying, outwardly, but also inwardly.  I would be more present to each moment, whatever it contained, knowing that my moments were truly numbered, and therefore precious.

Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, died this week after a seven year fight with pancreatic cancer.  He was the Thomas Edison of our age, our most creative and daring innovator and entrepreneur of our age.   You may have heard parts of the commencement speech he delivered at Stanford six years ago, a year after having being diagnoses with pancreatic cancer.  He spoke almost glowingly of how knowing he was going to die was a gift. I want to read a portion of his speech:

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart…

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

One of the wisest writers I know is Rachel Naomi Remen, a medical doctor who survived life threatening illnesses of her own, and has devoted the majority of her life to counseling people who find them selves dealing with life-threatening illnesses.

Friday our men’s group read a piece by her in which she recalled how when she was young her parents enjoyed passing the time doing jig saw puzzles.   The father would hide the box so they couldn’t see the outcome, and the family would work for weeks on putting the puzzle together.

Rachel recalls how, when she was very little, she didn’t really understand what putting the puzzle together was all about.  She would look at the tiny puzzle pieces.  Some were bright and cheerful.  Others were dark, and looked like little spiders.   She took the dark pieces and began to hide them under the sofa.   As you can imagine, when her parents reached the end of the puzzle, and were missing several pieces they were dismayed.  At which point Rachel revealed her hiding place.  She was amazed to watch as her parents placed these disturbing pieces into the large tapestry of the jig-saw puzzle, and a beautiful scene would emerge.

Of course, the challenge of Paul’s words is that we don’t know how to rejoice when the piece of the puzzle of life that we are presently experiencing is one that is dark and jagged.   We don’t know how not to worry with such pieces of the puzzle.

But she describes over time, in her own life, and in the lives of her patients, witnessing a quality of life emerge that is similar to the one Paul conjures up with his words, and I want to finish by reading an extended passage where Rachel describes this:

“Over the years I have seen the power of taking an unconditional relationship to life.  I am surprised to have found a sort of willingness to show up for whatever life may offer and meet with it rather than wishing to edit and change the inevitable.  Many of my patients also seem to have found their way to this viewpoint on life.

When people begin to take such an attitude they seem to become intensely alive, intensely present.  Their losses and suffering have not caused them to reject life, have not cast them into a place of resentment, victimization, or bitterness.  As a friend with HIV/AIDS puts it, “I have let go of my preferences and am living with an intense awareness of the miracle of the moment.”  Or in the words of another patient, “When you are walking on thin ice, you might as well dance.”

From such people I have learned a new definition of the word ‘joy.’  I had thought joy to be rather synonymous with happiness, but it seems now to be far less vulnerable than happiness.  Joy seems to be a part of an unconditional wish to live, not holding back because life may not meet our preferences and expectations.  Joy seems to be a function of the willingness to accept the whole, and to show up to meet with whatever is there.  It has a kind of invincibility that attachment to any particular outcome would deny us.

I am reminded here by the verse from Paul in today’s lesson:   “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Peace is always possible when I can begin to surrender my attachment to a particular outcome.  With such a stance towards life, I cannot lose.  I am in a certain sense, invincible.  My heart is guarded by God’s peace.

Rachel continues:

“Rather than the warrior who fights toward a specific outcome and therefore is haunted by the specter of failure and disappointment, it is the lover drunk with the opportunity to love despite the possibility of loss, the player for whom playing has become more important than winning or losing.

The willingness to win or lose moves us out of an adversarial relationship to life and into a powerful kind of openness.  From such a position, we can make a greater commitment to life.  Not only pleasant life, or comfortable life, or our idea of life, but all life.  Joy seems more closely related to aliveness than to happiness.”

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