“Being the Peace” 6/16/19 by Rev. Amy Clark Feldman

1 Samuel 25:6

Thus you shall salute him: “Peace be to you, and peace be to your house (and peace be to all that you have).”

Philippians 4:4-14

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your 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.

Finally, 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. Keep 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 rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.

As I mentioned in our Blessing and Commissioning, this time next Sunday most of us travelers will be sitting in a van; somewhere in Appalachia on the way Chavies KY where we’ll be serving; (very likely near the hills of Radford VA where I was born and spent the first years of my life). 

As (our reader) shared, the Appalachia Service Project has chosen this 1 Samuel verse about PEACE as its guiding scripture for the year.  And in our preparations they’ve had us think deeply about PEACE — What it is to be at PEACE; to bring this Peace of God that passes all understanding with us; as we work together and with teams from very different churches around the country; churches, I’m sure with different theologies and cultures; and as we cross the divides that separate suburban Massachusetts from rural Kentucky, and enter the homes of the families we will be serving and working with.  “Peace be to your house; peace be to all that you have.”  Our members who are currently on their trip in Selma with Pastor Stacy are asking similar questions about Peace.  We live in a time when it’s hard for many of us, especially our youth to feel that deep inner peace Paul describes here – there is so much anxiety in the air.   And we live in a time of division in our country – which, by definition, isn’t Peaceful. 

And so, whether we are traveling or not, this question of PEACE, is a good and important one, and I’m grateful for Paul’s wisdom today.  Let us pray

PRAYER. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you O God our rock and our redeemer AMEN

Paul’s letter Philippians gives a recipe of sorts – specific wisdom for this question of the deep Peace of God.  Paul here, seems to have achieved, embody, what we all might desire for ourselves, our children, our families.  In some places he calls it peace; in another, he calls it contentment.  It’s an amazing thing – hard to imagine– to in ALL circumstances – in plenty or in need; when we are well-fed or hungry – to feel content.  I have a great holy envy for what Paul describes here. 

It’s Father’s Day, and so I’ll mention that I had a conversation with my father this week about the difference between the words and experiences of Happiness, which is one thing; Joy, which is something different; and Contentment; which Paul talks about here.  Baked into the fabric of our country is this idea of the pursuit of happiness – we desire that our children be Happy – and yet I wonder if the kind of contentment Paul talks about here might be a better goal; so that in moments of great happiness, and also in the inevitable moments of struggle, we might know Peace – a peace that allows us to, as Paul says, REJOICE – find a deep abiding JOY – that is more enduring than happiness can sometimes be.  

Paul is a man here who dwells in a place beyond worry, anxiety, striving — and he shares that this kind of contentment, necessary for peace, is available for each of us.   

There are two parts of this rich passage that I’ve especially been coming back to again and again this month – as get ready for these trips, of course, but also as we head into this new season of summer.  So many of us facing transitions – which can feel bittersweet – and also, loss; and it is challenging to just live as humans in this crazy world of ours… 

The first piece of advice that I’ve been finding truly helpful this month, is Paul’s instruction to the Philippians here to name, focus on, and follow what’s Good.  We could almost call this a theology of “Keeping on the Sunny Side.”   Whatever is true, Paul says,  “honorable, just, pure, pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there are things you see or experience around you that excellent – worthy of praise, think about these things.”   He issues this as a sort of challenge and a choice – recognizing, I think, that it’s not always our nature to do so. 

Let us be clear – As Bart shared with us – Paul is writing this from a jail cell.  There is nothing naïve or Pollyannaish about these words.  Roman prisons were notoriously horrific places.  Paul is awaiting word about whether or not he’ll be executed.  And yet throughout this letter he himself lifts up the good – he shares news that one of their own is healing; he shares his hopes for their community; his joy in following his call; in following the Way of Jesus and doing the work God has called him to do.  He’s is writing to the people of Philippi, a Roman enclave where life was hard and dangerous for Christians. Yet even in this situation, he tells them to follow him in finding reasons to rejoice.  To pray, as he says, with Thanksgiving. 

            I grew up hearing the song I mention above “Keep on the Sunny Side.”  My grandmother sang it, and it’s been on my mind as we head down to Appalachia next week.  Some of you may remember the words:  

“There’s a dark and a troubled side of life; A bright and a sunny side too.  When you meet with the darkness and strife, the sunny side you also may view.  (Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side, keep on the sunny side of life. It will help you every day, it will brighten all your ways, as you keep on the sunny side of life..)”   I always sort of rolled my eyes at this song – particularly as a teenager;  but like with this message from Paul, I’ve come to appreciate that there is nothing Pollyannaish about it.  It was written and embraced by people who knew suffering.  It was written by a woman named Ada Bleckhorn at the turn of the last century.  She was the caregiver for her nephew who was wheelchair-bound. When they’d would go for walks together, he always asked her to wheel him on the sunny side of the street…  It was then taken up by the Carter Family, in Appalachia shortly after the great depression.  When Paul says he knows what it is to have little; that he has learned the secret of being well-fed or hungry….  This is a secret, Ada and her nephew; and people of Appalachia during the great depression also would have known.

            Paul’s is not an invitation to ignore the realities; to negate the truth and challenge of depression or anxiety; or to fall in to complacency.  But he does challenge the Philippians and us, to the best of our ability, even when things feel really dark, to choose to seek, focus on, and be grateful for the Good.  

I suppose this advice would be true and Good whether we were people of faith or not — research, time and time again points out the physical and mental health benefits of picking up daily – or even weekly practices of gratitude.  It’s a practice we may want to recommit to picking up this summer…     

For us as people of Faith, gratitude may have even a deeper meaning – because it’s linked to abiding knowledge that God is Good;  God’s creation is inherently Good, and that even in the darkest places, in the most trying times, God is working for our Good

And this is the second ingredient of Paul’s recipe for Peace that especially stood out to me this week – Which is his deep trust, and his Call for us to trust in God in all things.  That he and we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us”  That no matter what happens, good or Bad, God is near. 

I was recently reminded in a sermon from St Paul’s church that “The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor tells a story about a huge sea turtle she ran across once.”  The story goes, “that having laid her eggs on the beach at night, the turtle became disoriented because of all the electric lights nearby. Instead of heading back out to sea, her disorientation had taken her further inland, into the dunes. By the time morning came, the turtle was lost in the dunes, exhausted and baking in the morning sun. Rev. Brown Taylor found a park ranger and he brought his jeep with him. He flipped her on her massive shell and strapped tire chains around her front legs, and hooked the chains to a trailer hitch on his jeep. Over the dunes back to the ocean’s edge, he unhooked her and turned her right side up. After some time the waves gently welcomed her back home and slowly she was saved. And then Brown Taylor says this, “It’s sometimes hard to tell whether you are being killed or saved by the hands that turn your life upside down.” [1]

Paul knows, and has a deep and abiding trust, that he is being saved, even as his physical safety is turned upside down.  His words assure us that when we find ourselves lost and suffering – that God doesn’t cause that suffering but God is always near; and that even when we can’t see the Good (it’s hard for me to imagine this poor turtle even being able to notice the sunny side – the sun is what’s causing her problem).  That even when we can’t see and name the good, and things are upside down, God is holding us, working to set us on the right course – saving us, even from ourselves.   

In the last month, this congregation has said Goodbye to two dear members who embodied this ability to see the good – In Tess’ smiles; and Dick’s generosity, we saw what it is to keep focused on the ‘sunny side’ and to live with gratitude and trust, even in struggle; or facing the reality of death.    

            They embodied what this church does – we remind one another, and share with one another what we see of God’s Goodness.  We pray with Thanksgiving; we help one another to trust in God.  We create here, a place of trust, faith, Love, PEACE that allows us to go wherever life brings us – to Selma or Kentucky; through trouble or strife; or into the bright and sunny days of summer – with an eye on the good and with the hope of contentment.   The song ends this way —

“Let us greet with a song of hope each day,

Tho’ the moments be cloudy or fair;

Let us trust in our Savior always,

Who keepeth everyone in His care.” 

May this be our prayer – this summer and always …  

Let us stand now, and sing a song of hope this day –

“If we but trust in God to guide us…”

[1] http://www.stpauls-church.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/2017-10-15-A-Cause-for-RejoicingPhilippians-4-RCI.pdf