Meg Peery McLaughlin
Then Sings my Soul: Joyful, Joyful
August 27, 2023
Philippians 4: 4-7
Today is our final installment of our sermon series, Then Sings My Soul.
Your bulletin indicates that our scripture this morning includes verses from both the first and last chapter of the book of Philippians. I got excited and wanted to read more than we have time for. Truth be told, it’s worth reading the whole letter, it’s only 104 verses.
I love how Paul starts —thanking God for the church, saying he holds us in his heart. Then he prays for us—and among other things he prays that we’d have insight to determine what really matters. What really matters.
As we listen for that, a reading from Philippians, chapter 4, verses 4-7.
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 supplication 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.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Anyone ever commanded that of you?
Commanded it of you when your cortisol was,
in fact, flowing in your brain at high velocity?
Don’t you worry your pretty little head.
Even worse, if you ask me, though I too grew up in the South.
When I was struggling with infertility, I can’t tell you the amount of people who looked in my teary eyes and said—Just stop stressing about it and I bet it will happen. Oh, Okay.
Is that what you’d command
these brand new kindergarteners or first year college students?
how about freshly diagnosed patients or a loved one three day sober?
On the surface it seems the Apostle Paul has some dubious advice,
Do Not Be Anxious about Anything, and it keeps going.
Paul’s letter to the church in Phillipi ends with another command. Rejoice.
The verb is in the imperative. Rejoice.
Rejoice in the Lord always and again I will say rejoice.
Literally Make Joy. Make Joy Always.
This is surprising because Paul is writing this letter from a dingy prison,
in a town ruled by folks so concerned with profit and power that preaching anything that would threaten or question that could get you killed.
Paul outwardly wonders if he will get to “go on living in his body”
and yet in his letter, even when speaking about his potential death,
he is effusive.
Paul uses the Greek words for joy and rejoicing 16 times in only 104 verses.
Many scholars call Philippians the Epistle of Joy.
But it’s not a happy circumstance at all.
And still the command overwhelmingly is to make joy. Rejoice.
Which gives us a clue that for people of faith
happiness and joy
are not the same thing.
The late scholar/preacher David Bartlett once wrote that,
The United States was founded
to give people the right to pursue happiness;
the Gospel invites people to receive the gift of joy .
I like the way Bartlett distinguishes the verbs.
Joy’s a gift because it can be ours
no matter the circumstance, happy or unhappy,
because joy is tied to something deeper,
it is tied to the goodness, grace, love and life we know in Jesus Christ.
Paul says Rejoice in the Lord.
Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people for the Lord is near.
The Lord is near. The church has used this scripture in two places in the church year.
Philippians 4 is primarily read during Advent—when we think of the Lord being near, as in, coming soon. We read it when we are counting down the days to God’s love made incarnate on Christmas, and returning to make all things new.
We rejoice that the Lord is near, that whatever it is we are enduring isn’t how it will always be. The time is coming, soon, when all is well and all manner of things will be well.
We also read this text during Pentecost—when we celebrate God’s Spirit alighting on and in all kinds of different people. The Lord is near, as in here, close, at hand. We rejoice because God has chosen and continues to choose to show up. God is near to us now– in the church, on this pew, in your neighbor.
Rejoice in the Lord. Always.
Because the one we call Lord is always one who comes in grace —
and grace holds even when everything else cracks.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in the Book of Joy that he and the Dalai Lama co-wrote, says “Discovering more joy does not, I’m sorry to say,
save us from the inevitability of hardships and heartbreaks.
In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily, too.
Perhaps we are just more alive.
Yet as we discover more joy,
we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters.
We have hardship without becoming hard.
We have heartbreak without being broken.”
Do you know anyone who has struck that balance?
Right before the pandemic hit, not long after we arrived,
Anne and John D Wilson moved to Chapel Hill and joined UPC,
a courageous feat after being members of FPC Morganton for over a half a century.
But since the church is. . . the church, we weren’t really strangers to each other.
Decades ago, when I showed up down the hall at PCM as a first year student,
I met their daughter Katherine Wilson.
She’d started at UNC 2 years prior,
and was an old Montreat friend of my older brother.
I can point out Anne and John D—they sit font side, 3 pillars back, window side.
But can’t introduce you to Katherine, we’ll have to wait for heaven for that.
Katherine died of small cell lung cancer when she was 28 years old.
Ollie Wagner, who many of you may remember,
went to Morganton to help her hometown pastor Donovan Drake with her funeral.
Donovan recently wrote an essay , remembering Katherine, and with her parent’s permission I’d like to share a bit of it with you.
He said during the 1980’s, girls playing soccer in Morganton wasn’t a thought, so Katherine Wilson had a thought. She suited up and played with the boys.
I’m not sure why I am telling you that, except to say that she was full of life.
Katherine moved on to UNC, and a few years later I was called to Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church in Durham, NC. I could still sense the spark of her as I read a clipping in the News Herald about a dorm fire at UNC. The cause of the fire was a halogen lamp that had ignited the pajamas of one Katherine Wilson of Morganton, NC.
I called her mom Anne to make certain that all was well after the fire. All remained well until Katherine entered nursing school and developed a dry cough combined with severe back pain. That’s when our prayers began—and they took different forms. Her father’s prayer looked like shaving his hair clean off to match his girl’s baldness. Her mother’s prayer took the form of this book. (Hold up hymnal). It was blue back then.
The story goes that Anne’s phone was always on the bedside. It rang once at 1am with Katherine telling her mom she couldn’t sleep, so Anne pulled out the hymnal and sang. Hymn after hymn, night after night. “Mom, I think that you’re trying to turn me into a religious fanatic,” but Katherine slept.
I don’t know about Anne, Donovan wrote. There may be moms in this world who need a religious fanatic to sing to them sometimes, too.
It may be why some choose the hope of a hard pew.
I told Anne I’d be singing to her today.
I’d be singing– an ode to joy, actually.
A poem written in 1785
that Beethoven loved so much
that he wrote it as the 4th movement of his 9th symphony.
We know it now as Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.
And I pray you’ll sing it with every bit of joy you can access.
Sing joy even directly into the teary eyes of Anne and John Wilson,
or others who may sit on the pulpit side,
those whose names and stories we don’t know.
For sing we must. It is what really matters.
It is the imperative for us all. The Lord is near.
Rejoice in the Lord, always. Again I say rejoice.