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Rejoice (Sermon December 13, 2015)

Philippians 4:4–7 (NRSV)

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

Rejoice in the Lord always. How often do we actually consider what this simple phrase means? Rejoice. This is a common word in the Greek language that has both religious and profane meanings. It simply means to be in a joyful state of mind, or to be merry. Last week I mentioned that the people of Philippi devoted to the cult of Bacchus. The cult of Bacchus was a fairly popular and why would it not be since it was a religious activity that focused on the excitement of a party. It was a religion that focused on the profane idea of joy, merry and rejoicing.

I have often said that studying scripture can be one of the most entertaining things to do. Yes it is filled with inspiring knowledge but sometimes it is humorous as well. Paul is telling the people to be merry. Rejoice, have a party enjoy life. Not only does he tell them to live in the state of joyfulness but he then says again I will say Rejoice! There is just one difference between the forms of rejoicing, one is focused on lustful desires being worked up into a state of ecstasy where the other being raptured in the Lord. Both are emotional, both are joyful, both are focused on delight, but one is focused on self where the other is focused on things outside of one’s self.

It should bring us great joy to live our lives in Christ, yet often rejoice is not part of our daily vocabulary. It is difficult to keep become the embodiment of joy. It might even seem impossible. Which is why I find this passage quite humorous. While I was in college I was part of the Student Government association, while I was involved with this group I was on the appropriations committee, meaning I had the privilege to listen to every group in the college ask for money. I enjoyed hearing about all the various activities and services these groups were providing. There was this one group that came to ask for assistance that really attracted my attention. I actually joined the group and got involved with the work that they were doing on the campus. The groups name was Bacchus and their entire purpose for existing was to keep the students from driving while intoxicated. The college I attended had a reputation of being the largest party school for its size. The key word is for its size. There was no public transportation, no taxi services, no alternative for an intoxicated individual to choose if they got a bit too engaged in their rejoicing. This meant that there was also a large amount of accidents in this community, because in a small town the attitude was that the only thing to do is to get drunk and drive home. The group Bacchus, was a group of people that provided rides so that the students would not drive. Too much joyfulness in the profane sense of the word has consequences. Everyone is aware of the consequences of too much merry making in a profane sense, accidents while driving, headaches the next morning, stomach contents being purged, and impaired judgement to name a few. Paul is telling them that we should enjoy our lives in the Lord, but we should be prepared for what is to come.

Rejoice always and again I say rejoice. Even though there are struggles in life, Paul still tells them it is worth it. The world continues to engage in their festivals of profanity even though they have consequences, we should too. But there should be something different about our life than theirs. What are the consequences of a life lived rejoicing in the Lord? That is the real question of faith.

If someone is looking at our lives and our lifestyles from the outside do they see something different? Do they see something that is more desirable than what they are currently engaged in? Think about that for a moment. Does our faith show?

Paul tell them to rejoice in the lord. To live a life of joy, to be merry in the lord, celebrate life! He goes on to say, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” The term be known is one of relationship. The only way to for any aspect of our lives to be known, it must be shared. There is an intimacy or friendship required for others to know us. There is a vulnerability required to be known. This is extremely difficult, because when we are known we take the risk of rejection. This is the consequence of rejoicing in the Lord.

Paul understands this, he lived his life for God and as a result he risked everything he had even his life. On numerous occasions people sought to kill him, and yet he would say things like rejoice and to live is Christ. He invested his life into those around him, he became known, and often people hated him for what he stood for. They hated him because what he stood for was opposed to their lives and it threatened what other might think of them. He was a reflector of light and they preferred to stay in the darkness. And Paul says that it is all joy that he can join in Christ’s life and somehow participate in the greatness of his king.

Paul says, “Let your gentleness be known.” He could have said your righteousness or your holiness, but he chose to say let your gentleness be known. This is something that struck me this week. I studied the word we translate rejoice and found it ironic but what really grabbed my attention was gentleness. This word is one of equality, fairness, kind, meekness, and sensibility. Gentleness is looking out for others instead of one’s self, even if the others do not agree with your position. The gentleness that Paul speaks of is difficult to live. To treat others, even those opposed to your ideas, with kindness and fairness giving them respect as an individual while they may be your enemy is not easy.

This is the life that Jesus lived so Paul is urging us to live the love of Christ with others. One commentator said this about the life that Jesus lived, “The weak are always anxiously trying to defend their power and dignity. He who has heavenly authority can display saving, forgiving and redeeming clemency even to His personal enemies.” Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth and yet He forgave, He healed, He taught and encouraged. He did not demand allegiance instead He simple asks us to follow Him. Jesus was meek and gentle, and Paul says that that very same life is what God is calling us to take part of. If the weak are anxiously trying to defend their power and dignity, what is strength? Strength is living as Jesus lived. Strength is showing a better life and lifestyle. Strength is living a life of forgiveness, of charity, of fairness and treating others with equality no matter what those around us say.

Lucretia Mott once said, “If our principles are right, why should we be cowards?” Lucretia was a Friends minister who was also a leader in the anti-slavery and the women’s rights movements. Along with her cousin, Levi Coffin, they lived their testimony of equality everywhere they went. They refused to wear or consume products that were produced through slavery. Levi would not even sell goods that were produced by forced labor. They stood firm in an era of history that rejected everything they stood for. This is the very life that Paul is urging us to take hold of. Rejoice in the Lord always and let our gentleness be known.

The weak anxiously defend power and the strong stand with Christ. This is why it is so difficult to rejoice in the Lord. There is a constant battle being waged against us, at every turn people are trying to turn us away from what we know is right. And at times we get distracted, at times we begin to look at what the world see as strength and success and twist that into our lives, and we suddenly lose the joy we once had. Was it easy for Mott and Coffin to stand against slavery? Coffin’s business initially suffered because of his stance. His life was threatened because his house was used as an Underground Railroad station, he was even removed from his Meeting because of it. Yet he continued to stand for Christ.

I am not just wanting to give a history lesson, I want us to consider what is being said by Paul and through the lives of the saints of old and compare it to our lives today. Do we rejoice in the Lord? Are we allowing our gentleness to be known to others? I look at the news reports throughout the week and I am nearly brought to tears because of them. News reports of people being driven by fear instead of grace, people promoting injustice instead of equality. And I ask myself, “where is Christ in this?”

Where is Christ? He is near. He is with those that allow gentleness to rule their lives. He is with the people that will not let fear rule them and can see through to the humanity of those around us. You see when we allow the world to take hold in our lives we are saying that Christ is not enough. When we allow hate to rule or lives we are saying God is not enough. When we demand special treatment for others instead of demanding equal treatment of all we are saying that the ways of Christ are insufficient. Is our God powerful enough to overcome?

Fear is a strong opponent, it saps our joy it causes us to question the truth that we know. That is why Jesus taught us how to live with Him through His holy rhythm of life. He made it His custom to worship, He withdrew often to the isolated places to pray, and He ministered to the needs of those around Him. Paul tells us that Christ is near. He urges us to not worry and to take everything to God in prayer, and to let the peace of God direct our paths.

I was asked what the point of prayer is this week. The point is to positon our will to the will of God. To direct our attention away from the things we are worrying about so that we can clearly approach them from a different perspective. I do not know if that is a good answer but it is the one I gave. The thing about prayer is not a one sided conversation if we seek God’s will then we must actually listen for his will to be revealed to us, and then trust that his ways are just. We must listen to the heart of what is being spoken in scripture as well as the words.

Paul says rejoice always, enjoy life at every moment, but to enjoy life to the fullest it requires something from us. We must trust that God will direct our paths. We must live in gentleness instead of selfishness. We have to change our perspective away from the world so that a better life can be known for all those that are lost in the darkness. Jesus said to the rich young ruler that if he wanted eternal life he would have to sell everything and give it to the poor and follow Him. He told His disciples that if you wanted to save your life you must lose it. What He means is turn from the ideas of the world and center on Him.

So what will allow us to rejoice in the lord always? Friends it is living the love of Christ with others that will allow us to be filled with the Joy of Christ. It is when we invest our lives into the lives of others allowing ourselves to be known and create a place where others can be known by us that we have the joy of the lord. It is when we take on that lifestyle of Christ that we can rejoice always even when the world says we should cower in fear. As we enter this time of open worship let us consider if we rejoice in the lord or if we are allowing the world to sap us of the joy he intends for us. Consider that gentleness would look like in our community and in our homes today as we also consider what it was like in those ancient times. And let us rejoice in Him laying down our worries and desires at His feet as we take on the peace of Christ.

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Pray (Sermon September 27, 2015)

James 5:13–20 (NRSV)peace-love-large

The Prayer of Faith

(Cp 1 Kings 18:41–46)

13 Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14 Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. 17 Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. 18 Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

19 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, 20 you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

There are many things that can be said about the letter that James wrote to the church. But the most important thing is that James wrote this letter to encourage everyone to build their community. By building their community James insists that we have a responsibility to everyone around us. The community is vital. To James it is more important than anything else, and the community in which he speaks is the Kingdom of God.

We often get this idea that the kingdom of God is some abstract concept to dwells in the future beyond the veil of life, but in the ancient world the kingdom of God was something more tangible. Some believed that the kingdom would be a literal nation or empire, but that is not the kingdom of God in which Jesus spoke of. When Jesus was being questioned by the authorities, he said that his kingdom is not of this world. That is a very important statement, because it is loaded with meaning. Not of this world is alien, or foreign to our understanding. That does not necessarily mean that it is not in the world but that the concept is not to be understood in worldly terms. The gospel, the good news that Jesus spoke about is that the kingdom of God is here. It is all around and in us. Because the kingdom is lives influenced and guided by the very spirit of God. The kingdom, the community, lives lived together directed by the Spirit of God is the most important thing to James. But there is a very important aspect about community, kingdoms, and the church that we must not forget. Each of those concepts require people, none are individual.

James begins this last portion of his letter asking a question, “Are any among you suffering?” To rephrase this question we could say it as this, “Is an individual within the group struggling?” This idea of suffering is very broad, it covers financial struggles, marital struggles, being bullied, enduring persecution and pretty much any other type of problem. Are we aware of the suffering of those around us?

That is the key, are we aware of the struggles of those around us? Are we living life in such a way that we are building relationships with people intimate enough that we can see beyond the masks that so many try to hide behind? This awareness of others is extremely difficult to nurture, because it requires that everyone involved becomes vulnerable to those around them.

We do not want to admit that we struggle because often we see that as weakness. We ourselves do not want to be seen as week so we will hide. The problem with this is sometimes we need help. When I was in school and training for various sports, part of the training involved weight lifting. I know that it does not look like I lifted weights at all but looks can be deceiving. One of the most important things I learned from this is that it is important to lift with others, because if you are struggling you might need a hand to help get you out from under a burden. This idea of suffering or struggles that James is talking about is similar to a person unable to get the weight off of their chest in the weight room. Are we aware? The second most important thing I learned from lifting weights is that you do not just ask anyone to spot for you. You ask someone that you trust, someone that knows how to read your movements and can recognize when you cannot bear the weight alone. You want someone that will encourage you to press on, as you push through the pain. There is a level of trust and vulnerability required.

What happens if we remain unaware? People get stuck under the weight and they stop trying. This is why James says that they should pray. Prayer is like the weight room of spirituality. When we pray we lift the burdens off of our chest, and lay them onto the standard that is sure to hold them. But there is a plurality to James’ message, he does not say he or she, but they. We should pray in isolated places, but there is also a time where we should pray corporately. When people pray together it is like having a spotter who will help you bear the burden.

Next James asks, “Are any cheerful?” and he answers,” They should sing songs of praise.” We should share the burdens and celebrate the blessings and victories together. Those around us need to know that there is hope beyond their struggles. These songs of praise from the cheerful are like the encouraging words that inspire us to push harder through the pain of a situation. They are a light in the darkness.

“Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.” Again there is a plurality of people. Call the elders. Have them pray, and anoint with oil. I want us to stop there for a moment. All too often we stop with prayer and we forget the second part of this statement, the anointing part. In the ancient world the anointing of people with oil in this sense is to administer medicine. We pray and we also act. We do not just stop with prayer but we take it a step beyond and we use what knowledge and means we have to help them heal. James then encourages us to confess our sins to one another, to pray for one another, so that you (again in the plural sense) may be healed.

There is a great deal of talk about prayer in this passage. Because prayer is where we must begin. Prayer is the foundation of the Christian life. It is the foundation of the sacred rhythm Jesus taught and showed to his disciples. I have encouraged many of us to pray. I have encouraged and taught classes to deepen our life of prayer. I have done this because prayer is where everything starts. Prayer is where we connect to the divine. Prayer is the vessel through which the life giving power of the Holy Spirit flow. Prayer is at the heart of a disciplined life. Without prayer we are not true disciples.

It is through prayer where we become aware of others, and our senses are heightened to the struggles of those around us. And it is in prayer that we are often called to step up and provide assistance.  Prayer is conversation and prayer is action. Prayer is listening and waiting to hear how best to respond.

James then tells us of Elijah a man just as us. Elijah was a man of prayer. He prayed fervently that it would not rain. I want us to think about this. Elijah prayed for drought. Elijah prayed for ruin. Why? Because the people were confused. The people were living a life apart from God, they believed that it was through their religious activities to the gods and goddesses that was providing the rain and bounty from the earth. As long as the rains fell they would continue to attribute the grace of God to their sinful actions. So Elijah prayed for disaster. He was aware of the community, he was aware of how their minds worked and where their hearts were. Israel had to suffer so they would come to the point where they were open to hear God’s voice.

Friends we live in a world that is suffering. We live among people who are sick. We live in a community that is struggling. But are we aware of what is really going on around us? We all agree that we live in a world that has turned its back on God, but I ask is that issue only with the world? The church is struggling, it is suffering, and it is sick. There are sins within the church that we must confess and pray about before we will ever be able to recognize God’s blessing. We have chased after things of this world and neglected the kingdom of God. Have we stopped listening? Have we started acting out of our own ambitions? Have we forgotten who we are?

Jesus came to this world not to condemn it but to bring life. He spent his time encouraging people the rest of society wrote off as being not worth the effort. Simple fishermen, traitors, prostitutes, terrorists, the dishonest, the sick, the unclean. He spent his time encouraging them to follow him, and as they followed he taught and showed them how to live a godly life. I ask with a trembling heart, are we following Jesus? Are praying with the suffering? Are we celebrating with the victorious, are we healing the sick and repenting of sins? Scriptures assures us that if we confess, God is faithful and just to forgive sin and cleanse from all unrighteousness. Are we willing to listen to God through prayer and walk with him?

2014 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,600 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 27 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Jared A. Warner

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