4 Rejoice[c] in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.[d] 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry 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.
8 Finally, beloved,[e] 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[f] these things. 9 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. (Philippians 4:4-9)
This week is week 7 of our 8-week Summer Road Trip sermon series based on the book, America’s Holy Ground: 61Faithful Reflections on our National Parks by Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer. So far, we have traveled through Yellowstone National Park, Olympic National Park, Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Grand Teton National Park, Sequoia National Park, and Mount Rainier National Park. If you have missed one and want to catch up, the sermon videos are all posted on our church facebook page. We also post a written copy on our church website each week in case you would prefer to read the sermon rather than watch the video.
This week, we are traveling to Joshua Tree National Park together! Barkhauer and Lyons describe Joshua Tree like this:
“Joshua Tree encompasses two different deserts, which may seem a bit odd. Deserts are deserts, right? But when you look more closely, you see the difference. The Mojave Desert, the western half of the park, is largely above three thousand feet in elevation, making it a bit cooler. In this sandy, rocky space thrives the Joshua tree, christened by Mormons seeking a new homeland and remembering a kindred homeland-seeking ancestor in Joshua. The Mormons envisioned Joshua reaching skyward, imploring God for guidance just like the spindly plant. Unique to the Mojave and found mostly in California, Nevada, and Arizona, Joshua trees are different from the trees you’ll find in your local park. Because they’re not covered in leaves, the unusual limb structures are mesmerizing…Instead of adding a ring each year, Joshua tree trunks are fibrous, which makes it hard to tell exactly how old the trees are. However, trees can live for hundreds of years, and a few have survived a thousand…As durable as they are, climate change threatens their long-term survival. A 2001 study suggests that their range will be reduced 90 percent by the end of the century, and perhaps by entirely wiped out…Can the Joshua tree adapt to that change so quickly? Nobody knows.”
They go on to explain that “As you travel east through the park, you also go downhill and descend into the Colorado Desert…the Colorado is dryer and hotter—on average eleven degrees hotter—than the Mojave. That habitat has created a different ecosystem, with different plants that can tolerate the even more hostile climate…the animals living in the park have adapted to survive by burrowing out of reach of the sun, by changing their biology to use water more efficiently, or by being primarily nocturnal…Joshua Tree National Park is a living monument to adaptation and figuring out how to deal with a challenging, seemingly unavoidable situation.”
When I read that last line, I knew what I had to preach about today. We, too, are in the midst of adapting and trying to figure out how to deal with a challenging, unavoidable situation. Aren’t we? It is hard to believe that 5 months have passed since my call weekend back in March. It was that weekend that things first started shutting down because of the Coronavirus, it was the first weekend (at least for me) where it started to feel like this pandemic was going to have real and lasting consequences for our lives.
We have been moving forward, day by day, trying to keep some semblance of our normal lives going. But the truth is, we are all hurting. We miss our family and friends and the rituals that normally get us through each year. Some of us are hurting financially because our work has shut been down or we’ve been laid off. Some of us are worried about our children or grandchildren who are headed back to school or the teachers and staff who are trying to navigate educating children and also keeping everyone safe. The pressure to keep moving forward like everything is okay, everything is normal, can be overwhelming. When things are hard, when are hearts are hurting, when we feel at the end of a rope, how do adapt? How do we find peace?
In our scripture for this morning, Paul has some suggestions. He is writing to the church in Philippi, and he instructs them to “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.”
Okay. It is easy to read– or hear –this a little cynically. Rejoice always? Do not worry about anything? The first time I read through this scripture I wanted to say, “That’s easy for you to say Paul, but we are in the middle of a pandemic. I’m not rejoicing about much, and I’m scared about a whole lot.”
And then I took a deep breath. And I read it again, and I remembered that this probably was not an easy thing for Paul to write. See, he was writing this letter to a church of early Christians who were being persecuted for their beliefs. And he was writing this letter from prison. The letter to the Philippians makes it clear that Paul does not know whether he will make it out of his imprisonment, or if he will be executed.
Still, he instructs the church to rejoice in the Lord and not to worry. He says this is all possible because God is near, and because God is near we can experience “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.” Because God is near, through prayer we can leave some of our worry with God. We can let some of it go.
This does not mean that our hardships or pain goes away. But it does mean that we are not alone. The God of Peace is with us, no matter what we are going through or how we are feeling. This is the good news that Paul is sharing in his letter, and it is the good news that we find throughout the Bible.
I think it’s important that Paul calls this the peace which surpasses—peace which is beyond—our understanding. We cannot always understand how God is with us, what that presence feels like. It’s okay to have doubts and questions and to wrestle with that. But if we are able to give some of what we are carrying to God in prayer, if we are able to just release some of it… maybe we can find some stillness in the midst of chaos. Maybe we can find peace that is beyond what we can understand.
Writer Eckhart Tolle describes this peace which is beyond all understanding as trust and faith—trusting that we are not alone. Trusting that we have a higher power that is with us. Trusting that we have people who love us and want what’s best for us. Having faith that no matter how hard things get, or how hard it is for us to understand, that we are connected to something greater than we are.
Tolle believes that peace is different than happiness, and that peace can be found even in the darkest of times when we learn how to trust that we are not alone. In his article “Why You Aren’t at Peace Right Now,” he writes: “Happiness is actually quite superficial, whereas peace is deeper. Peace is immune to the polarities of life: the highs and lows, the hots and colds, the so-called goods and so-called bads. This is why peace is so crucial. Nobody goes through life without encountering all these experiences, inspiring or upsetting. When someone close to you dies or you have a health problem or you lose your possessions, you probably can’t feel happy. Nobody could. But do you need to feel in absolute despair? Do you need to feel devastated? If you are at peace and connected with that deeper level in you, those kind of emotional extremes don’t occur. You’ll have a calm that is not affected by whatever happens in the world, because you have an acceptance and understanding of whatever happens in the world.”
So, if you are struggling this morning, this sermon is for you. I want you to know that you are surrounded by people who love you and who you can lean on for support. I want you to know that as your pastor, I am available to you if you ever want to talk or if you need some support.
If you are hurting this morning, I want you to know that your feelings are valid. You are not alone in your grief, depression, anxiety, stress, sadness, or anger. You are not alone in your fear. You are not alone.
I want you to know that the God of peace is with you, even when you don’t feel at peace….maybe even especially when you don’t feel at peace. During our service of lament a few weeks ago, I shared with you that my friend who is a chaplain told me once that it is okay to yell and scream and cry at God, because God can take it. God is strong enough to hold whatever we need to let go of. As it says in the Psalms, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in times of trouble.” And if God is strong enough to hold onto some of it for us, then why are we holding onto it so tightly?
May we learn to bring our trouble to Immanuel, God with Us. May the God of Peace bring us a peace that is beyond all human understanding. And may we learn how to share that peace with others. Amen.