“Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, Rejoice!” The apostle Paul is not having the best time of his life. In fact, he is having a most challenging and difficult time. He sits in prison—not sure that he will ever leave alive. He is deeply concerned about what is going on in one of the churches he has founded. Some missionaries have come into the Philippian faith community, undermining Paul’s gospel work with their own opinions. Two of the leaders—both women—are quarreling over something in church work. The community is in danger of conflict and division.
Despite these challenges and difficulties, Paul writes a letter full of teaching, encouragement and love. He calls the Philippians “brothers and sisters” and “my beloved.” He gently chides Euodia and Syntche and encourages them to work out their differences—although as one commentator has noted, we know that this conflict situation has not gotten totally out of hand. How do we know? Because Paul calls them by name (he rarely names people with whom he disagrees) and speaks “warmly of their work for the gospel.”
Clearly the Church in Philippi is not having the best time of its life either. Yet Paul sends a fellow worker with a letter to be read to the Church. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice,” Paul says. And although we do not get this from the English word, Paul’s “rejoice” is in the plural. So if we were in the South, that would be translated as “Rejoice, you all!”
Paul’s encouragement is not just for Eudoia. It is not just for Syntche. It is not just for individuals in the community of faith. It is for the entire faith community. For all of these who profess Jesus Christ as Lord, those who struggle daily to be disciples of Jesus in that city, in that time, in those dark and difficult situation. Yet Paul is not being a Pollyanna. He does not promote denial of real life. He does not dance around his prison cell singing “Clap along with me if you feel like a room without a roof, clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth. . .” No. Paul knows that joy is not always a simple or spontaneous emotion. Joy is an intentional choice to view and live life differently than just by emotions.
Paul wants these Christians to be intentional about their perspective in life. One of his goals “is to help form in the Philippians (and us) the dispositions, habits, and skills needed to understand themselves and their world in Christ.” In other words, can these people stand in the midst of darkness, cultural opposition and internal conflict, yet at the same time be joyful, gentle and peaceful? Can they practice their Christian beliefs—not because of, but in spite of—challenges and worries? Can they see God’s light shining in the depths of their human darkness? Just as critical a question is this one: can we, here today, see God’s light shining in the depths of our human darkness?
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, Rejoice!” As always, all we have to do is read the newspaper or watch television to find examples of human darkness. All over the world, conflict erupts. Politics are polarized in this country. The deadly virus Ebola has robbed the lives of thousands in Africa. As of Friday, several cases had been diagnosed in the United States. On Thursday evening, eight Catholic University students were robbed at gunpoint. Darkness seems to be everywhere we look.
The Episcopal Church is also in a dark, difficult, conflicted place. in the past several weeks, eight professors at General Theological Seminary in New York City—some tenured, some not—issued a letter to the Board of Trustees. In it, they stated that they would not attend worship or teach classes in what they perceived to be a hostile atmosphere between them and the current dean. They have accused him of racist and misogynist statements. Within several days, the dean accepted their resignations—although they had not, in fact, been tendered. The Board of Trustees backed the dean. Then the news of the family fight exploded beyond the walls of that cloister. Articles popped up in the Huffington Post and the New York Times. Then I read an article in the Washington Post, entitled “Episcopalians battle behind walls of NYC seminary.” Really? And we wonder why an increasing number of people seek God in almost any other place than church?
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, Rejoice!” Closer to home, many people in this parish are in situations that are challenging and difficult. For some of you, you work hard, but fear that you might lose your job. Or you are looking for a better job. Some of you are working long, hard hours just to make ends meet. Some of you feel like a human taxi as you struggle to get children to school, soccer, baseball, dance lessons, music lessons, play dates, while still finding time to monitor homework. Others among us have suffered from sexual abuse, physical abuse or emotional abuse at the hands of people in positions of power. Some of you work on your Twelve Steps as you recover from alcohol or drug addictions. There are those who suffer from deep depression, so you know what it is like to exist in a prison, even when that prison is emotional or mental, not physical.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, Rejoice!” How do we do that? How do we rejoice in a world without joy, whether that is a global or personal world? That may seem to be an impossible dream. However, we must always remember that while our dreams may seem impossible, God’s dream is always possible. God’s dream gets lived out in our lives at unexpected times, in unexpected situations, unexpected ways. In my own life, it has been in the darkest of times when I could best see God’s light. Maybe it was because I had none of my own. Many years ago, in the throes of a difficult divorce, severe financial hardship and single parenthood, I had no light of my own. I had to depend on the light, love and support of others. I clung to the discipline of my faith in worship on Sundays, choir practice on Thursday nights, early morning devotions, the necessity of taking care of my young son. I cannot tell you how I made it. When I look back, I shake my head in wonder. I did not always see Jesus in my life then, but Jesus was there: on my right, on my left, behind me, in front of me, beside me, inside me, above me. A constant companion in my darkness. Was I joyful? Not if you mean that emotional sense of joy. Sometimes I felt relief, when someone did a kindness for me. Sometimes I felt encouraged. Sometimes I did feel that peace that passes all human understanding. I had to claim my faith that somehow, some way, God would get me through the darkness to a lighter place. God did.
To be a Christian does not mean that you put on your happy face, gloss over the deep, difficult challenges, keep your chin up and say “Praise the Lord.” To rejoice is not to sing happy songs. To rejoice is to know that God is with us, no matter where we are or in what situation we find ourselves. In the moment, we may not see, hear or feel God. We may suffer scars on our bodies or hearts. Yet someone’s love, kindness and healing gifts may eventually soothe or help heal those scars. To rejoice means we deliberately choose our perspective—and sometimes change it from our dream to God’s dream, because God’s dream is more possible than ours.
You and I are called to walk with each other through the darkness. We gather together as community to pray, to worship, to take God into ourselves in bread and wine. We must work out our quarrels. We must practice some discipline of prayer and Bible study to nurture and strengthen ourselves. We must wonder together where God is in our darkness. If you are standing in the light today, rejoice. If you can sing songs of praise, rejoice. If you have questions about your faith, rejoice. If you struggle with deep, difficult challenges, rejoice. Look around you this day. God is on your left. God is on your right. God is behind you and in front of you. God is in this place. Christ is in you, the hope of glory, even when you don’t see that or hear it or feel it. Just trust it. And if you can’t trust that, trust the people who love and support you.
Rejoice in the Lord. Always, always, always. Again, I say, Rejoice! Amen.
© The Rev. Dr. Sheila N. McJilton
Picture of “Rejoice with Attitude” and “Rejoice stone” accessed through Google images
Picture of Dove taken by McJilton in Columba Hotel garden on Iona, Scotland