In the Office: Putting a Sermon to the Test

Yesterday, my sermon was rooted in Philippians 4:4-9 and it focused on the issue of how we can deal with worry so that gratitude can become more deeply rooted in our lives. Of course, upon leaving worship I learned — as did many others — that there had been another mass shooting in our country, this one in a church. I must confess; I’ve got almost no idea at all what to do with that. On the one hand, my heart breaks, and I find myself crying out to God to give us wisdom and reconciliation and to send His Spirit to cure us of our waywardness. On the other hand, I’m so numb at the thought of yet another mass casualty event that it becomes challenging to feel or do anything at all.

texas1At the very least, however, these events forced me to ask: Do the words that I offered my congregation yesterday “hold up” at all in the face of such horrific events? And so, here are some reflections on the main points in my message — given here in reverse order from the way in which they were presented. Using the aforementioned text as my guide, I suggested that in order to defeat worry we need to:

  • Practice What We Know (verse 9: Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice): Today and in the days ahead, there undoubtedly will be ongoing debates about why tragedies like this keep occurring and what we can do to stop them. But in the midst of our theories and our conjectures, I would hope that there are some clear steps on which we can all agree: We offer care and support to those who have experienced loss. We take time to express love to the people in our lives, because we never know when we might experience loss. And we take the other steps that are suggested by this passage, which include…
  • texas2Think with Discipline (Verse 8: Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things): As I told my congregation yesterday, one of the challenges that we face these days has to do with “mental discipline.” We are accustomed to immersing ourselves in so much media that we don’t always take the time to be discerning about the messages that we’re consuming. And so, in the wake of these events, I’d suggest that “thinking with discipline” might include taking a break from the “talking heads” who want to interpret this tragedy through the lens their political agendas and focus our attention instead on the personal stories involved. Who are the people whose lives have been lost? What is their death doing to their families? What is this tragedy doing to the community, which is  being called upon not only to deal with an unspeakable pain — but to do so in the glare of the media spotlight? And how do the stories of these friends in Texas intersect with our story? What fears and worries arise when we think of what has happened to them…and what could happen to us? This, I suspect, will lead us to the next point, which was…
  • Pray about Everything (Verse 6: Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God): Of all the actions that were suggested in my message yesterday, this is probably the most obvious response. We need to pray: for the families of the dead and injured…for that church and community…for our leaders to be guided by truth and compassion and justice rather than partisan talking points…for our own thoughts and actions to be guided not by fear and anger and vengeance but by repentance and hope and the desire to be the kind of people through whom reconciliation comes. Of course, as I told my congregation yesterday, it’s important to bring everything to God in prayer: not just our “noble” thoughts about families being comforted and a community being healed — but also our more “ignoble” thoughts about how “screwed up” those people are who see this situation differently than we do and about how “ticked off” we are at the powers that seem to keep standing in the way of finding more long-term solutions. And that brings us to the first point of my sermon (and the final point of this reflection)…
  • Rejoice in the Lord (Verse 4: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!): Admittedly, even writing these words feels like a betrayal of all those people whose hearts have been broken by this latest tragedy. But as I reminded my congregation yesterday, this is not a call to “slap on a happy face” and pretend that nothing’s wrong. Paul wrote these words when he himself was in prison, facing possible execution. And he wrote to a church community that was dealing with difficult struggles both without and within. There is nothing about this tragedy in Texas that calls for “rejoicing” — just as there’s nothing to rejoice about in our nation’s seeming addiction to violence and our seeming inability to do anything about it. But we can rejoice in the Lord. We can rejoice that He cares about those hurting families far more than we can comprehend. We can rejoice that He makes hope and healing available — and that those who walk with Christ can become instruments of that hope and healing. We can rejoice that even when our world seems to be covered in darkness — “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

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In the passage from Philippians on which my sermon was based, Paul makes the promise that when we do these things: “the peace of God,which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (verse 7). May that be true for all the hurting families in Sutherland Springs, Texas; and may it be true for us — as we practice the way of – and think about – and pray to – and rejoice in the only One who can give us peace.

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