Friday, October 14, 2011

Our Whole Lives

Sermon preached October 9, 2011

Text: Philippians 4:1-9

Play The Hold Steady, “Our Whole Lives” for two minutes or so. Our Whole Lives

Do you enjoy discovering new music? I do. But don’t you hate it when someone foists their favorite music on you? Thanks for your patience.
This is an interesting song. The singer is attending mass on a Saturday night, but will then be attending a party. The chorus goes: Were good guys but we can’t be good every night. Were good guys but we can’t be good our whole lives. Somehow the singer wants to reconcile having a good time with also going to heaven on the day he dies.
It is sad to me that in the popular imagination we have put a wall up between having a good time and being a good person. We have made being a Christian a matter of doing just enough of the right things and then living the rest of our lives. A sort of shallow goodness has often become confused with Christian faith.
That’s not the vision I see for the Christian life in the New Testament. As people of God who follow Jesus we understand that to follow Jesus is to open our whole lives to God’s Spirit. We trust that as we do that we will know rich, full, joyous, abundant life. We know that opening ourselves up to God’s Spirit allows us to appreciate life’s good gifts even more – gifts even of music and dancing. As Christians seeking to have the whole of our lives shaped by God in Jesus, we may turn away from some people’s ideas of a good time, but some people’s ideas of a good time can turn out pretty bad, too.
One place in the New Testament I get this idea of Christian faith as about our whole lives is Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. Paul is wrapping up his letter in the verses we read today. He is encouraging these people of God who follow Jesus Christ to stand firm in the way, to stay on track. And what does that involve – our whole lives – our voices, our hearts, our minds, our actions.
Our voices. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. In everything by prayer. Let your gentleness be known to all. There is this wonderful line in the movie The King’s Speech where the king and his speech therapist are getting into a bit of a row, and the king finally shouts, “because I have a voice.” That was just the point the therapist was pushing. You have a voice. We do a lot with our voices. This afternoon some of you will be using your voices to give Leslie Frazer coaching advice – even though he cannot hear you as you talk to your television set. With our voice we cheer. With our voices we share something of who we are. What we do with our voices matters. As God’s people who follow Jesus there are some better uses for our voices than others.
Rejoice. We speak words of praise, sing songs of praise not because God needs these from us, though I believe God takes delight in our rejoicing. We rejoice because we recognize the goodness of life, even in it difficult moments. We rejoice because we know the goodness of God which comes to us again and again, even when we feel that perhaps we don’t deserve it. God’s love is not a matter of deserving. We rejoice and are grateful for the good gifts of life, and our gratitude helps us enjoy those good gifts even more.
Pray. Not all prayer needs to be vocal. Silent prayer is powerful and important. Yet sometimes if we are to share the depth of our joy or sorrow with God, only our voice will do. Shouts of joy, cries of anguish are both prayers that God hears, and wants to hear.
Gentle words. Words of encouragement. I am deeply impressed by the fragility of spoken words. They are momentary. They are but breath. Yet for their fragility they are extraordinarily powerful. Hurtful words sting deeply. One of the helpful lies we learn growing up is that “sticks and stones may break our bones but names will never hurt me.” I understand where it comes from, but it is not very true. Words can wound. Word can also heal and build. This past Wednesday there was a workshop on stewardship here at our church. Among those attending we a number of people from one of the churches in the district where I had been the superintendent. I knew a few of those people and as one of the people I knew introduced me to another person from that church, he complimented me on my work as superintendent, and told the other person what a good preacher I was. It felt great. We let our gentleness be known in encouraging and healing words.
Our whole lives includes our hearts. I am not using heart here literally, though a beating heart is an important part of our lives. I am using heart metaphorically, that capacity for feeling, sensing, intuiting the world. It is not opposed to thinking, and works well with thinking, but it is distinct from thinking. The psychologist Carl Jung once wrote this: What the heart hears are the great things that span our whole lives, the experiences which we do nothing to arrange but which we ourselves suffer (Gail Godwin, Heart). Our heart is our capacity to bring all our life together into a whole in ways that feel right. Our hearts, when they are functioning well, help us be open to the whole of our lives. Some of the wisest words I have ever read about the heart are these by Elizabeth Lesser: Happiness is a heart so soft and so expansive that it can hold all of the emotions in a cradle of openness…. An open heart feels everything – including anger, grief, and pain – and absorbs it into a larger and wiser experience of reality…. We may think that by closing the heart we’ll protect ourselves from feeling the pain of the world, but instead, we isolate ourselves even more from joy…. The opposite of happiness is a fearful, closed heart. Happiness is ours when we go through our anger, fear, and pain, all the way to our sadness, and then slowly let sadness develop into tenderness. (The New American Spirituality, 180)
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus…. And the God of peace will be with you. As God’s people who follow Jesus we are invited to let our hearts be centered in and permeated by God’s peace. We are invited to let our hearts grow gentle – soft and expansive. We cultivate peace in an anxious world. Paul writes “do not worry about anything.” I wonder, “is he serious?” Look at the world around us. Think about some of the situations in your own family. Not worry?! Is that what the peace of God means, not worrying? If so, it seems a chimera, a pipe dream. I think instead that the peace that is to guard our hearts is full openness to the world, a realistic acknowledgement that things are sometimes difficult, that we worry sometimes, but that we don’t have to live with worry as our defining characteristic. Peace is not the absence of anxiety, it is finding a deeper center in the heart than our anxiousness.
Our whole lives include our minds. Thinking, thoughtfulness, have not always been seen as faith virtues, but I think they are just that. We want a thoughtful faith, and Paul encourages just such a faith. “Think about these things.” Paul is also aware that the mind, while a wonderful gift, can also stray off in all kinds of directions, and there are some things that are more worth thinking about than others. 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.
Again, I don’t think Paul is being naïve here. He is not simply being a theological Bing Crosby – accentuate the positive. I think he understands that just as we have choices with our heart – whether or not to let ourselves be consumed by our anxiety or find a deeper peace, so we have choices with our minds. We don’t ignore the difficult, the ugly, the hurtful, the violent parts of our world. We know they are there. It is easy to get caught up in all that is wrong. But we miss too much if we stay there. God is at work in the world, and we see that work when we pay attention to the true, the honorable, the just, the pure, the beautiful, the commendable, the excellent, the praiseworthy. The novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch once wrote, “we are fed or damaged spiritually by what we attend to.” Paul knew that too, and encourages us to use our minds well and attend to the true, good and beautiful.
If we are to take into account the whole of our lives, we cannot ignore our actions. “Keep on doing the things…” Christian life has always been about our whole lives, inner and outer – a transformed heart, a thoughtful mind leading to appropriate actions - - - actions shaping heart and mind - - - all this being given voice in our words. We miss something of the wonder and beauty of our relationship to God if we ignore any part of the whole of our lives. Actions are a part of that – actions that are gentle, that can evoke praise, that tend toward justice and excellence.
As a parent, I hope Julie and I have taught our children well. As a parent, I hope I can learn from my children, too. Recently my children have been teaching me about actions appropriate to Christian faith. Our daughter Beth is back from Haiti and is now headed for Sweden as part of her medical education – Sweden, then India and Uganda. In Haiti, people who are going to have surgery that may require blood need to have family members or friends donate blood on their behalf before they can have the surgery. While in Haiti, there was a patient who needed surgery, who had been waiting some time for it, but had no one to donate blood for him. Our daughter, the chief surgeon and another person on their team went and donated blood so this man did not have to wait any longer.
Our daughter Sarah and her roommate at St. Kate’s competed in a contest this fall, a roommates contest. There were some feats of skill (golf ball stacking, etc.) and some questions about how well you knew your roommate. The grand prize was a Kindle reader. Well, Sarah and her roommate won. But Sarah already has a Nook reader, and knowing how much her brother enjoys reading too, and knowing that he is going through a tough time, she gave her newly won Kindle to him. Keep on doing these things.
Feminist theologian Rosemary Ruether in her spiritual memoir wrote, “To be more and more fully alive, aware and committed, this is surely the meaning of a journey in faith” (Disputed Questions, 13). Our spiritual journey as God’s people who follow Jesus is a journey toward being more and more fully alive, aware and committed. It is a journey that involves our whole lives – voice, heart, mind, action.
And if you think this is some standard for saints only, think again. Paul begins this chapter with an encouragement to two women, Euodia and Syntyche to come to some agreement. He encouraged the community to help them find it. It is to a community of people in some conflict, human as can be, that Paul writes his remaining words about life lived in the Spirit of Jesus – a life with voices that sing and pray and speak words of encouragement and gentleness, a life of the heart centered in peace, a life of the mind attending to the good, true and beautiful, a life lived in love.
As people of God who follow Jesus we know that this is about our whole lives. We’re good guys who strive to be good our whole lives. Amen.

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