Call to Worship/Psalm 65 (NRSV)
Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion; and to you shall vows be performed, O you who answer prayer! To you all flesh shall come.
When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us, you forgive our transgressions.
Happy are those whom you choose and bring near to live in your courts.
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, your holy temple.
By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation; you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.
By your strength you established the mountains; you are girded with might.
You silence the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples.
Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs; you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.
You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.
God of all things, shaping galaxies and crafting spinning planets, we come to offer our praise. As the season turns, you splash your vibrant colors across the canvas of your creation. Crimson, and yellow, and orange hues erupt all around us in autumn glory. We come to acknowledge you as the source of all life and blessing and to give you thanks for every perfect gift. We come to hear your Word and to celebrate the redeeming love you offer us through your Son, Jesus Christ. Send your Spirit upon us to empower our praise and prayers. Enable us to feel the deep connection that we have with one another as part of this community of faith. Open our hearts and hands to our neighbors, especially to those who are vulnerable and afraid. Through this time of worship, inspire us to service and grant us the vision to see your image in the faces of all whom you have created. In the name of the One who calls us to care and who challenges us to love, your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.
Scripture Lesson/Philippians 4:1-9 (NRSV)
1Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. 2I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. 4Rejoice 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. 8Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
I am always amazed at what folks can do. In my line of work, I run across many talented persons who can do anything from solving a complex calculus equation to rebuilding a car alternator. I’ve come across folks who can develop and read a profit/loss spreadsheet like some sort of Wall Street commando, and others who can craft fine furniture in their garage. I am in awe of what folks have learned to do and what they are able to accomplish. It is sobering to think there are folks here today who built or at least in some way contributed to the construction of their own home when I barely know which end of a hammer to hold. It is interesting that my dad was so good at complex research chemistry but was one of the all-time worst plumbers.
For me, to just darken the doorstep of a Home Depot or a Lowe’s is a lesson in humility. I see people of all shapes and sizes purchasing tools or supplies or whatever that is needed to attend to a particular project which causes me to begin to question my lack of mechanical aptitude. Growing up, when something broke in our home, we would find ourselves impatient, sometimes angry, always anxious and frustrated until we called someone with the abilities and training to come and alleviate the stress by attending to the issue at hand.
The slogans that Home Depot and Lowe’s employ in their advertising seek to inspire confidence in people that they can do it themselves. For example, Lowe’s has had several slogans in the past twenty years. “Improving Home Improvement” gave way, in 2003, to “Let’s Build Something Together,” which gave way in 2012 to “Never Stop Improving.” Home Depot, Lowe’s chief competitor in the home improvement market, has had a few slogans of its own over the years. One was “You can do it, we can help.” In 2012 that slogan was replaced by “Let’s do this!”
In some ways I used to regard Philippians 4:6 (“Do not worry about anything”) as a sort of home Improvement slogan. I would read it and try to psyche myself up. “Let’s do this! No anxiety! Who needs worry anyway? It just takes up time and energy that I don’t have. I am a competent adult. I just need to breathe deeper, summon more faith, and I can achieve this anxiety-free life Paul talks about. Let’s do this!”
But it’s not that simple. Anxiety is quicksand. Anxiety is like that spiderweb you run into when walking in the yard or the woods. You attempt to get off of your face and, while part of you thinks you’ve successfully rid yourself of it, for the rest of the day you have this odd feeling that it’s still clinging to your cheek. In one of his numerous short essays on topics related to faith, theologian Frederick Buechner ponders the question—Is anxiety a disease or an addiction? Deciding that it is something of both, Buechner observes that anxiety takes hold of us “partly, because you can’t help it, and partly because for some dark reason you choose not to help it, you torment yourself with detailed visions of the worst that can possibly happen.” Our imagination runs wild conjuring worst case scenarios that ratchet up our anxiety until we are caught up in a spiral from which there is seemingly no return.
Sometimes we simply can’t “do it.” We get into something so over our heads that we have to call somebody. It reminds me of the old joke about why Moses led the people in the wilderness for forty years. The punchline: because he wouldn’t stop and ask for directions. Humility, another of Paul’s favorite topics, is about recognizing one’s limitations and acknowledging that there are many things in life upon which we have to depend on the gifts and graces of others in order to survive. Perhaps the motto “Call somebody!” needs to replace “Let’s do this!” especially when it comes to the freedom from anxiety Paul is talking about in Philippians 4. I need to call somebody. I can’t pull off not worrying about anything by myself. I would like to “Never stop improving!” in my quest for an anxiety-free mind, but as of today “I haven’t got this.” I need help. I need to call somebody.
And Paul tells us whom to call, because immediately after telling us not to worry about anything, he tells us how this can happen. It is not a human achievement at all. It is a gift from God that we access through constant prayer. I might be able to psyche myself up in some other areas of life. But I am completely dependent upon God to bring peace to my soul. I wish Paul had reversed the order of this verse and written it like this instead: “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God and you will receive the gift of not worrying about anything.”
And with all due respect to Paul, maybe he could have gone on to explain things a little more fully. Maybe something like: “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding is guarding your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus right now. Whether you feel this at an emotional level or not, this is the truth. So, get in the habit of constant prayer, and you will come more and more into contact with this gift of peace. Do not beat yourself up that you have anxious thoughts. This is our common human tendency. Do not suppose, like the Stoics, that you can banish anxiety through self-mastery and be indifferent to the ups and downs of life. Only the Peace of God in Jesus Christ can master your anxieties.”
Some years ago, there was a man was in a bed in Cardiac ICU in a big city hospital. He had just undergone radical and experimental surgery designed to save his life. As he lay in ICU, he was in crisis. There were serious post-surgical complications. Later he reported about that night when he lay awake, fearing that his life was about to end, and reflecting on what it had and had not been, reflecting on all the things he had gotten any way he could and all the things he had lost, all the pain he had suffered and all the pain he had unfairly inflicted upon others. He said he lay there asking himself, amid all his accomplishments and acquisitions, what had been the one thing in his life he had always sought but could never find. “The answer,” he said, “was easy. The one thing I had never been able to locate was Peace.”
The next morning a chaplain visited his room, making rounds from patient to patient. He only stayed a few moments, chatting in almost perfunctory fashion. Prior to leaving he said, “Let me read a brief passage from the Bible to you, and then we will say a prayer.” The chaplain proceeded to open his Bible and almost randomly read the words from Christ: “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give unto you. Not as the world gives, do I give it to you.” The man said, “The words struck me like a spiritual hammer. That chaplain did not know me. He did not know my story. He did not know what I had wrestled with all night long. But there was no way his visit could have been a mere coincidence. Without even knowing that he did so, he showed me how to find what I had needed and could not locate all my life. I suddenly got it—that if I could find Jesus, if I could really get to know him, I would find peace. And that,” he said, “turned out to be the case for me.”
New Testament scholar Stephen F. Fowl, in his insightful commentary on Philippians, points out that Paul’s brief teaching about not being anxious probably comes from Jesus’ own teachings in Matthew 6:25-34 and Luke 12:22. Jesus is primarily concerned with the disciples’ concerns over material goods. He wants them to hear: “Live without anxiety because God cares for you.” In Philippians 4, Paul’s call to be free from anxiety seems more directed toward anxiety resulting from living in a world hostile to Christianity. The peace of God that comes through prayer counters anxiety because it “guards believers’ thoughts and hearts in Christ.” The notion of guarding would have resonated with the Philippians. There was a Roman garrison there. Their job was to guard the citizens of Philippi and the interests of the Roman Empire. But their brand of peace, the Pax Romana, can never be a true peace because it is not founded in the God of peace.
Says Fowl, “The peace of God surpasses the unbelieving mind, which is full of anxiety because it cannot think higher than itself.” He goes on to quote Thomas Aquinas’ comment on the peace of God. “As the peace of God exists in heaven, it surpasses all the knowledge of the angels. As it exists on earth it surpasses all the knowledge of those who lack grace.”
According to Paul, freedom from anxiety comes only through prayerful, grateful acknowledgement of one’s dependence on God. The Philippians can be free from anxiety because the Lord is near. They can call on God in prayer and with thanksgiving. This is the peace of God Paul proposes as an alternative to anxiety. The Philippians are not called to imitate the peace of Christ, but to accept the gift of that peace being offered to them by the Grace of God, accessed through the habit of prayer.
Paul does not deny that sometimes the worst things will happen finally to all of us, as indeed he must have had a strong suspicion they were soon to happen to him. He does not try to minimize them. He does not try to explain them away as God’s will or God’s judgment or God’s method of testing our spiritual fiber. He simply tells the Philippians that in spite of them—even in the thick of them—they are to keep in constant touch with the One who unimaginably transcends the worst things as he also unimaginably transcends the best.
“In everything,” Paul says, they are to keep on praying. Come Hell or high water, they are to keep on asking, keep on thanking, above all keep on making themselves known. God does not promise them that as a result they will be delivered from the worst things any more than Jesus himself was delivered from them. What God promises them instead is that “the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
“Let’s do this!” is not a good motto if we take it as a call to banish our anxieties by sheer will power.
“Let’s do this!” is a good motto if we think of it as God through Christ speaking to us in the midst of our anxieties.
When we tire of the endless struggle to master our anxiety by summoning our own inner resolve, let’s acknowledge that we’ve come to the end of our human abilities and need to call for help.
Let’s call Somebody!
Prayers of the People
Let us pray for the church and for the world. Grant, Almighty God, that all who confess your name may be united in your truth, live together in your love and reveal your glory in the world.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Guide the people of this land and of all the nations in the ways of justice and peace, that we may honor one another and serve the common good.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Give us all a reverence for the earth as your own creation, that we may use its resources responsibly in the service of others and to your honor and glory.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Bless all whose lives are closely linked with ours, and grant that we may see Christ in them and love one another as he loves us.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Comfort and heal all who suffer in body, mind, or spirit. Give them courage and hope in their troubles, and bring them the joy of your salvation.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.
Almighty and eternal God, ruler of all things in heaven and earth, mercifully accept the prayers of your people and strengthen us to do your will through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who taught us to pray together with one voice, saying:
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
Go now, rejoicing always in the Lord.
Stand firm in Jesus Christ and be of one mind in him.
Always act with justice;
let your gentleness be known to everyone,
and yield up your worries on the altar of prayer.
And may God give you peace that passes all understanding;
May Christ Jesus guard your hearts and minds;
And may the Holy Spirit plant within you
all that is honorable, just and pure.
Go in peace to love and serve the Lord. Amen.