By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Philippians 4:4-9
Before I begin my scripture and message this morning, I want to let folks know that Trinity will be creating its own Advent resource this year and we are looking for members and constituents to contribute to it. If you have a favorite Christmas memory to share or would like to share a hope or prayer for this season, reach out to me or the church office.
Hear now this scripture from Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
Philippians 4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and earnest request with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
What is the current condition of your heart and your mind? Many of us don’t have much peace of mind right now. We feel anxious about the rising rates of COVID in our nation and here in Tippecanoe County. We feel anxiety about this election and what lies ahead in coming days. And many of us aren’t doing much better with our heart conditions. For those of us isolating or quarantining, we are getting lonely. Anxiety and depression continue to be on the rise. There’s something very different about seeing a face in person as opposed to on a screen. I’m pretty sure it has a different effect on our brains. And, as this stretches on, I actually find myself, from time to time, imagining people’s hugs and the way they felt. I try to hold them in my memory in much the same way that we try to maintain memories of the sound of a long-deceased loved one’s voice or laugh. And one day we have that sudden realization that we’re no longer sure if that’s really what their laugh sounded like or if we have constructed a false memory. These are hard times and difficult days.
Yet we find ourselves in the month of November, the season of Thanksgiving and hearing the words of the apostle Paul “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Easy for Paul to say, we might think; but not really. Paul wrote this letter from prison. He is living under dreadful conditions. Prison is never much fun; but it was especially bad in the ancient world where, unless someone was looking in on you, you were pretty much toast. So, the Christians in Philippi send a member of their congregation, Epaphroditus, to assist Paul. But Epaphroditus becomes ill; so sick in fact he nearly dies… obviously an additional emotional burden and heartache for Paul. So it wouldn’t seem as if Paul has much to celebrate. Yet still, the words are there: “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Clearly, the justification for rejoicing has nothing to do with fortunate circumstances or good luck. It seems to have little to do with one’s current circumstances. So what is rejoicing related to?
Well, these couple of verses give us some hints. First of all, Paul reminds the Philippians that “the Lord is near.” God is present with us and that should always be grounds for rejoicing. If you are anything like me, some days over these past few months, I haven’t felt God’s nearness so much as I have felt weariness and discouragement. But what I feel is not an accurate measure of reality. On those days, I need to remind myself that, whether I feel it or not, the Lord is still near. I may not feel particularly near to God; but God is always drawing near to me.
I have felt a lot of anxiety over the past few months… and even more over the past week. But I’m preaching as much to myself as I am to you when I say that, when anxiety comes knocking, we need to answer it with prayer. When anxiety comes knocking, answer it with prayer. I have, historically, been a pretty good sleeper; but not since this pandemic started. Throughout this pandemic, I often awaken around 3 or 4 a.m. and have trouble falling back to sleep. And when that happens, I pray. I pray until I fall back to sleep. Now, we need to remember that prayer isn’t about giving God his marching orders, as if we know better than God. But prayer is about offering ourselves and those we love – or those we can’t stand – into the loving arms of God; entrusting ourselves and others to God’s everlasting grace and mercy. Furthermore, I’m not saying that prayer guarantees you won’t worry or feel anxious tomorrow. But it will help you make it through the night… and the next day and the next night. Pray until you feel a sense of God’s peace… which means you may find yourself praying constantly some days. But don’t worry; that’s a good thing.
Furthermore, as you prayer, Paul advises, give thanks. He writes, “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
These are difficult times and we are living under difficult circumstances. But we still have so much for which to be thankful. A couple weeks back, Trinity folks should have received a mailing about our fall stewardship that included a letter from our Finance chair, Eric Danz. I hope you read that letter. I want to share just a portion of it. Eric wrote:
I recently had to take off work to have enough time to take both of our vehicles to get serviced. We needed to get two oil changes, a transmission flush, and a set of new tires. As you can probably imagine, my whole day was spent in and out of three different automotive shops, and I found myself going down a path of negativity. Not only was I forced to take a vacation day, but I had to use it for something as mundane as servicing vehicles. On hour number four of waiting, in my third automotive shop, it finally clicked. My perspective changed, and I realized that I was looking at the situation from a privileged viewpoint. I wasn't forced to take a day off; I am blessed enough to have a flexible job where I can take a random weekday off. I am fortunate enough to have two cars to service. I am fortunate enough to afford new tires. When you take the time to stop and reevaluate what you have or where you are in life, you have the chance to see all the blessings you have in life.
That’s something that we will be doing together throughout this month of November. Our fall stewardship slogan is “Returning Thanks.” We want to give thanks to God for our many blessings. We’ll be celebrating and giving thanks for folks who offer their time and their talents to keep Trinity engaged in meaningful ministry. This week, we’re highlighting Morris DuBose and Trinity Fusion. Also, members will be sharing and celebrating with you the blessing it is to contribute to Trinity and its ministries. On Trinity’s website, you’ll find those celebrations each week as YouTube video segments. I hope you’ll take time to view them because celebration is a corporate spiritual practice. Right now, we can’t hold face-to-face parties and celebrations. But we can do this together. Each week we can watch and listen to our brothers and sisters in Christ celebrate and we can celebrate with them. Together, we can return thanks.
Friends: I imagine the ride is still going to be bumpy over the next few weeks with numerous demonstrations, protests and even violence in our streets. And, COVID numbers are continuing to climb in our county. But, since the time of Jesus’ public ministry, his disciples have faced many times of difficulty and stress and we will get through this season as well if we follow good guidance like the advice Paul offers the Philippians.
I would like to close this message with an invitation, an invitation to engage in spiritual practices that will help us get through this difficult time; spiritual practices that will help us live out the teaching of Paul in this passage.
Breath prayer is a way of praying that helps us tune in to the presence of God throughout our day. As the title makes clear, it is a very short prayer that can be said within a breath. I would invite you, throughout this month of November, to carry this breath prayer with you throughout the day; a breath prayer based on this scripture from Philippians: “Be gentle. The Lord is near.” Silently, as you breathe in, you can say, “be gentle” and, as you breathe out, you can silently say, “the Lord is near.” Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.” Right now, we all need some gentleness. The world, our nation, has become a pretty brutal place. The world doesn’t need more vitriol poured out. It needs gentleness. We can maintain and share a spirit of gentleness with a wounded world if we will only remind ourselves that “the Lord is near.” So, I invite you, first of all, throughout the day, to frequently repeat this breath prayer: “Be gentle. The Lord is near.”
Then, at some point later in the day – perhaps when you get home from work, perhaps after dinner, perhaps just before bed – offer up your supplications to God; earnest prayers; those things that you are really concerned about. Don’t sugarcoat anything. Let God know how you feel; let it out. Then, close your prayer time by giving thanks. What are some of the simple joys of your day? Maybe you started the day with a really good cup of coffee. Maybe you’ve been working from home and you have a view of a tree with beautiful fall colors. Maybe someone called or sent a text just to ask how you were doing. Identify reasons to rejoice at the end of the day. And then, when you awaken the next morning, rinse and repeat. Journey through your day carrying that breath prayer, “Be gentle. The Lord is near.” And end your day with earnest prayer and thanksgiving. You might even want to find a prayer partner; someone you connect with once a week and share with one another your joys and your concerns.
These are difficult days and it’s just crazy to pretend they’re not. But we’ll get through this if we can stay engaged with some simple spiritual practices that sustain and strengthen us.
I invite you to close your eyes as I share the words of Paul once again:
Philippians 4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and urgent request with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Before I lead us in prayer this morning, I would encourage you to share with God one thing that is weighing very heavy on your heart. Take a moment to let God know all that you feel around that concern. Pour your heart out to God.
And now, name before God one blessing over the past couple days that allows you to rejoice and give thanks.
Remember at sermon’s beginning, I asked about your state of heart and mind. We can influence our hearts and minds and the hearts and minds of those around us by maintaining some of these very simple spiritual practices. Carry with you through the day your simple breath prayer: “Be gentle. The Lord is near.” Conclude your day by taking time for earnest prayer and thanksgiving.
Let’s pray now…
Loving God, we pray for our nation. We pray for safety. We pray for patience. We pray for respect. We pray for clarity. We pray for peace. Make us people of gentleness in an anxious time. We pray for those suffering from COVID and for their families and for healthcare workers on the front lines. We pray for teachers, facing upheaval once again as many schools transition to fully online instruction amidst soaring COVID cases. We pray for families struggling financially in the midst of this pandemic. We pray for our church as we are physically parted once again. And we pray together the prayer Jesus taught us…
Remember, as I mentioned earlier in my sermon, to check out the two video segments on Trinity’s website. This week they are provided by Allegra Smith and Savannah Jewell. And I hope you are in prayer even now about your contribution to Trinity in 2021. If you need an Estimate of Giving card, those are available on the church website. On the homepage, click on the “About” tab and click on “Finance” on the drop down menu and it’ll take you to the page with the giving card. Although we are no longer meeting in person, Trinity continues to be in ministry. We continue to serve those in need within our community through our Caring Ministry and community ministries we support like Jubilee Christmas. Your giving changes people’s lives.
As I close, hear these additional words from the apostle Paul translated in The Message:
Friends: I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things that are true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse… Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.
And I say to you, throughout this week: Remember to be gentle for the Lord is near.
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