Always and Ever Thankful

Rev. Sarah Buteux                                                                      
November 24, 2013
Philippians 4:1-13


The unthankful heart discovers no mercies; but the thankful heart will find, in every hour, some heavenly blessings. ― Henry Ward Beecher

Looking around this morning it is clear that we have much to celebrate today. To have that many children come forward and pass along flowers to this many members who have called this church their home for 50 years or more... that’s a gift…a gift of grace… a gift from the future to the past and the past to the future…a gift from God.

We have a cornucopia below me, full to overflowing with fruit, representing your pledges to the work of this church for the coming year.

As a congregation, thanks to the hard work and generosity of many, we are well on our way to having a vision for the future, a vision full of promise for the days to come.

And, as if all that weren’t enough, we have the holiday season upon us set to begin in T minus 3 days. We’re talking turkeys, trees, pageants and presents. We’ve got Hanukah starting Wednesday, Thanksgiving Thursday, and Macy’s opening for holiday shoppers – for the first time in history – not Friday but Thursday night! Yes, that’s right, Thursday at 8:00 p.m., because shutting down for a full 24 hours would be downright irresponsible given that Advent begins next week.

All of which is to say that we haven’t even started, and I’m already feeling behind as we enter yet another festive holiday season. Paul says not to be anxious but I already am, not because I’m being persecuted for my faith like the Philippians or wondering how to piece my life back together like so many in the Philippines, but because it’s almost Christmas in America, and Christmas in America stresses me out. I’m pathetic, I know – not just rushing the season, but rushing the stress – pathetic in the extreme. But, I also know, I’m not alone.

I mean sure holidays are particularly hard for pastors for obvious reasons as we crank things up to 11 here around the church, but they are also hard for less obvious reasons, or maybe I should say for less obvious people; for those who are grieving or dying, poor or struggling, separated, isolated, dislocated, or alone.

As the world gears up, seemingly earlier and earlier, for this - the most wonderful time of the year – more and more my heart hangs back in solidarity with those for whom the next 6 weeks will be not just hard, but actually harder; harder precisely because the holidays are also supposed to be happy days and their days are anything but.

I’m always conscious of the fact that the happier happy people seem to get, the sadder sad people actually become, which is why I actually appreciate Paul’s words to the Philippians as much as I do.

It might seem on the surface that these words and images Paul is sharing with his friends in Philippi are really no different from the words and images the world is already churning out:

- images of happy families gathered around beautifully set tables amidst perfectly decorated rooms

- images that promise peace and good cheer if we shop at Target or Best Buy for the coolest new gadget that will make our teenager love us or the latest table setting that will suitably impress our in-laws (good luck with that).

-articles and adds that promise a stress free holiday if you follow their advice, shop from this list, “let us do the baking,” or click here.

“Don’t worry, be happy!” they all seem to say, for Christmas is coming and all this can be yours if you’d just be so kind as to “charge it please, and thank you very much.” (There’s a reason we never revisit these same families in January when they get the credit card bill, but I digress.)

My point is that those words you heard from Paul this morning - his exhortations to rejoice always, worry never, and give thanks in all things - may sound as saccharine as a holiday special brought to you by Coca Cola.

He may sound more like Pollyanna than the Paul we all know and some of us even love, the one who refers to himself as “an ambassador in chains for the gospel,”[1] until you realize that Paul actually was in chains for the gospel - literal chains -when he composed these words.

Paul did not write this letter from some balcony over the Aegean sea with a perfectly trimmed turkey and a loving family in the background. He’s not some life coach with a healthy 401K saying, “Hey, look at me! I’ve made it - unlocked the secrets to success and happiness and you can too for just $19.95 if you buy my DVD and keep thinking happy thoughts for Jesus.”

No, no, not at all. Paul was in rough shape when this letter arrived on a doorstep in Philippi and the friends to whom he was writing were in pretty rough shape too. Paul knew full well what it was to be hungry, not just for food but for companionship, not just for happiness but for freedom.

These words are so precious - these words about gentleness and hope and prayer actually mean something - because these are the words of a man who still believes in spite of his pain. These are the words of a man imprisoned for his faith, who is holding firm in spite of his circumstance.

Paul is a man bent by suffering, but –

and that but is very important, in fact some people have said that the whole gospel can be summed up in that very word, but…

Paul is a man bent but not broken.
Paul’s body is held captive, but his spirit remains free.
Languishing in that prison he is lonely but not alone,
a man stripped of everything but wanting for nothing,
a prisoner beyond help but not without hope.

Things may not be going well for Paul, but Paul is still able to rejoice in the Lord always because Paul’s joy, the joy that fuels him and sustains him, is not born of what is happening to him or for him or around him but is born from that which lies within him.

Do you understand?

His joy, his peace, his purpose is in Christ, and no one - no one! - can take that from him.

Amen? Amen.

And that right there is the secret, the secret he alludes to in verse 12, not just for how to survive the holidays or your next imprisonment on the Roman Peninsula, but for how we can thrive every day, no matter what our circumstance.

They say happiness is getting what you want, but joy, true joy comes from wanting what you already have and I want you to know my brothers and sisters, I want you to know right now that whether you realize it or not you have Jesus, not just in your heart but on your side and in your soul. “The Lord is near,” says Paul, and nothing - nothing! - can change that.

All we can change, my dear ones, is our awareness, our trust, and our faith that this is so.

***

This past week I was visiting someone in the hospital who is very ill; very, very ill, so ill that when I walked in to see him and said, “hello,” he kept his eyes closed the better to conserve his energy. But we’ve come to know each other well enough over these last few months that I knew it was okay for me to take his hands in mine and talk a little.

“How are you today?” I asked, knowing full well that this man is about as sick as a man can be.

And he said, “good, so good.”

I gave his hand a squeeze and he continued. “I just want to make people happy. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m still here. If I can just make one person smile everyday, then I’ve done my job.”

And moved by his words, I said, “Open your eyes,” which he did, and I gave him the biggest smile I could.

“Good work my friend,” I said. You’ve already done your job for today, “and you’ve done it so well.” And then he closed his eyes and a gentle smile spread over his whole face before I placed my hands upon his head and blessed him.

There’s no reason, no reason at all, my friend should be so full of joy, and yet he is. There will be no turkey for him this year and I honestly don’t even know if he will make it to Christmas.

There is no reason my friend should be so full of joy, but he is.

He is full of joy, full of peace, and full of purpose; a joy the world cannot give, a peace and a purpose not even his suffering can take away.

And my prayer for you this morning, regardless of your circumstance - be you well fed or hungry, full of plenty or deep in want - is that this joy and this peace and this purpose would be yours as well.

Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.

Amen and amen.

[1] Ephesians 6:20