Livestreamed service

2 Corinthians 4:7-12
Philippians 4:1, 4-13

        You know what they say: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

        I know what it is to live on an urban street strewn with broken glass, and I know what it’s like to have a hiking trail out my back door. I have been awakened repeatedly by fire-engine sirens signaling a neighbor’s latest overdose, and I have been lulled to sleep by the late-night hooting of a  barred owl. I have been met at my front door by a neighbor asking if I know how to tell if someone is dead, and I’ve encountered a black bear on my front porch.

        As for circumstances, I know what it’s like to skip a meal for lack of money, and I know the pleasure of setting a welcoming table. I’ve known the shelter of friends, the passionate embrace of a partner—and felt a lonely shame in spending another holiday alone. I know what it is to feel born to do the task at hand, and what it is to lose a job I love.

        I’ve slogged through depression and glided through other days on a carpet of joy. I have been healthy unto immortality, and I’ve gotten the phone call bearing news of a dreaded diagnosis. I have felt utterly abandoned by God, and I’ve been brought to my knees by an overwhelming sense of God’s presence.

        Unlike the apostle Paul, I don’t think for a minute that I can do all things, but I am learning to trust the One who can.

        Sanctuary, the pandemic, and a thousand other less momentous situations and occurrences remind me regularly that I really have no idea what comes next, and I am trying to be okay with that.

        I am discovering that gratitude paves the way for contentment, which opens the door to peace. And that is not a bad place to be at all.

        I wrote most of those words a few years ago for a UCC StillSpeaking Daily Devotional. At the time they felt like a gift from God, and they still do. And so I think of them fairly often—especially when I am feeling discontented, fearful, or anxious—and they have become one of the many reflections, prayers, poems, psalms, and other resources I turn to when I am in need of spiritual grounding and perspective.

        And so today, in part one of my two-part pre-sabbatical blessing and fare-thee-well, I offer them to you: The notion that, as Paul says in his letter to the Philippians, we, too, can learn the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.

        I understand the “secret” to be the practice of gratitude, which paves the way for the spiritual and emotional state of contentment, which then opens to door to the immeasurable blessing of peace.

        I have no illusions about this; I think the learning of this secret and the achievement of this peace constitute the pilgrimage of a lifetime. This is a journey of countless twists and turns, detours and dead-ends. It is a journey that is sure to humble, and it is a lesson with many layers. Among the things I need to practice being grateful for, for example, are the times when I am not feeling the least bit content. Among the states for which I need to seek contentment is my discontent.

        And at the foundation of it all is both faith and intention.

        The faith that, as Paul says, we can do all things through Christ, who strengthens us.

        I remember thinking this very clearly on a Friday afternoon in October of 2007. I was driving a rental car from the Hartford airport to Amherst—to meet with the pastoral search committee of First Church Amherst that evening, and then to preach my so-called “neutral pulpit” sermon at Edwards Church that Sunday. I was driving along, having worked and prayed so hard to get to that moment and feeling hopeful about what was to come, when I was rear-ended by a red pick-up truck pulling a trailer.

        As I waited on the side of the road for the police to arrive, wondering if we would be able to pry open the smashed-in trunk of the rental car to get my luggage out, I tried to tell myself that Christ’s strength is made manifest in my weakness, and that Christ’s strength and God’s grace would get me through.

        I don’t think I need to tell you how all that turned out.

        So I think faith—which is to say, trust in a love and a power much greater than our own—is key to learning the secret.
As is intention.

        By “intention” I mean some combination of mindfulness, prayer, preparation, and reflection. I mean taking the time to take stock, to listen for God’s still-speaking voice, and to look for the blessings. I mean considering what fills our hearts and what drains us, what keeps us awake at night and what gives us peace and joy, and wondering where God is in all of it. I mean trying to live with an open heart, so that the life of Jesus might be revealed in us—in the big and small moments of our lives, in the ways we treat others, in the dreams we have and the choices we make, and even in our bodies.

        And maybe, just maybe, as Paul says, trying to rejoice in the Lord always.

        Do not worry about anything, he says, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let our 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.

        Did I mention that Paul wrote this letter while he was in prison?

        Did I mention that the Paul who admonished the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord always is the same guy who wrote to the Corinthians about being oppressed and perplex, persecuted and knocked down?

        That’s why I can trust that Paul’s “rejoice in the Lord always” is not a scriptural version of toxic positivity. It’s not pretending to be fine when the prognosis tells us the only way to potential healing is filled with pain. It’s not pretending to believe when our hearts are filled with doubt. It’s not repressing our anger and hurt when we’ve been wronged.

        And, in my case at least, it’s not pretending to have fully learned the secret when I fail every day to fully live it out.

        I want to be clear that choosing gratitude and contentment is absolutely not settling for less than God wants for us and for others, less than who and what God calls us to be and do—especially when it comes to matters of justice and peace. Paul’s call to contentment and peace is not permission to be passive or uninvolved in the face of injustice.

        On the contrary: His “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” is a call to trust that we can do more than we think we can—by God’s grace, Spirit power, and Christ’s enlivening presence.

It is an invitation to consider that whatever state we are in is temporary, but that God is with us always. It is an invitation to acceptance and trust, as well as freedom and empowerment.

        May we all live with the intention of learning this great secret of the spiritual life, and may we so joyfully share it with others that it is no longer a secret at all.