Mayflower Congregational Community United Church of Christ
Minneapolis, MN, 13 December 2009
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 minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7)
Hmmm. On first hearing, I resent those words. “Rejoice always…Don’t worry about anything…just pray?” What kind of Hallmark greeting card spirituality is that?
Has St. Paul not been reading the headlines? 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Health care reform watered down. Charities in Texas requiring proof of citizenship of children before the children are given presents.
What about the sorrows and tragedies many of us are experiencing? The illness or death of loved ones? Job losses? Broken relationships? Addictions? Depression? In my work as a hospice chaplain during the last two weeks, I have encountered the suicide of one patient, the death of five others, and the intense emotional and physical suffering of a dozen more. Where is the rejoicing to be done in all of THAT?
Come to find out, when Paul wrote these words in a letter to the Jesus-followers in Philippi, he was in a mess of trouble himself. Granted, he WAS in a gated community but it wasn’t the Club Med-kind. It was the prison-kind, where Paul was likely awaiting execution for the charge of sedition against the Roman Empire.
Paul and his ragtag band of Jesus hooligans had been crisscrossing the Empire doing their darnedest to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. They did this by proclaiming the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and Jesus’ reckless, liberating love for every human being – regardless of social status, religious affiliation, race, or nationality.
This story-telling was causing problems. People in far-flung parts of Caesar’s realm were becoming enthused by the proclamation of an Upside-down kingdom. A kingdom where the lost are found, the sick healed, the dead raised, and the prisoners set free. The leaders of the empire were getting nervous; this Jesus business was beginning to look like the stuff of insurrection.
It’s not that these Christ fanatics were killing soldiers or kidnapping imperial officials. Perhaps what they were doing was even more subversive. Christians were calling people to a higher allegiance than to Caesar.
In imperial Rome, as long as you declared that Caesar was Lord and gave your primary loyalty to him, no problem. You could practice your religion and pray to whatever god you liked – just as long you remembered who was first in line.
These people on the Jesus Way, however, were bucking the system with their ridiculous claim that some crucified Jewish peasant from the backwater of Palestine was more powerful than Caesar. One of their propaganda slogans, “Jesus is Lord,” directly mocked the reigning ideology of the empire. With songs about Jesus on their lips, the Christians were running around healing sick people, rescuing abandoned babies from the city walls, feeding orphans and widows, forming communities of radical hospitality, and getting people to think about their lives and destinies in new ways.
Perhaps most infuriatingly, the Jesus people did NOT appear to be taking their own persecution very seriously! Locked up in hellish prisons and torture chambers, they had been known to break out singing, dancing, laughing, and praising their Jewish God as if they were not afraid of the empire’s ability to shut them up for good.
The national security types in Rome crunched the numbers and sent a memo upstairs to the Palace elite: These Christ- people were posing a clear and present danger to the state. And in Nero’s imperial Rome, insurrections of any kind – could not, would not be tolerated. _
So here we have Paul, one of the leaders of the Jesus Way, first placed under house arrest and then confined to prison. Aware that death by beheading could come to him at any moment, he writes letters to other Jesus followers around the empire as a kind of last will-and-testament to them.
What is advice does Paul give in his letter to the Philippians? To scheme? To run? To hide? To give up? To fight? Against all conventional wisdom, here is what Paul tells his peeps on the Jesus Way: Laugh! Play! Dance! Sing! Don’t worry! Be gentle! Be merciful! Give thanks! Be at peace! REJOICE!!!
Let’s admit it. – from a so-called “realist” point of view, Paul appears to be out of his mind. Nero is getting ready to smash these nettlesome Jesus people. The hammer would come down. The Jesus movement would be exterminated. And the Thousand-year Reich of Caesar would leave all of that sentimental silliness about gentleness, joy, mercy, peace, and love in the dustbin of history. Right? Right?
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong because Paul knew what Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, John Woolman, Nelson Mandela, St. Teresa of Avila, and Desmond Tutu knew. What Thich Nhat Hanh, Oscar Romero, John Paul II, Martin Luther King, Jr. Victor Frankl, and Fannie Lou Hammer knew. What St. Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Caesar Chavez, St. Catherine of Siena, Rosa Parks, and Daniel Berrigan knew. What Clarence Jordan, Maximillian Kolbe, and Anne Frank all knew. NAMELY that while the empires of this world (and there are many such empires) might be able to kill the body, they can NEVER annihilate a soul fueled by the fires of joy.
When the young theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer came from Germany in 1930 to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York, he frequently worshipped at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the historic African-American church in Harlem. Deeply worried about the evils of Nazism beginning to dominate his homeland, Bonhoeffer became transfixed by the spirit of freedom and joy, which characterized the soulful Jesus followers at Abyssinian Baptist
Bonhoeffer soon learned that the joy of those black Christians budded forth from the depths of great suffering: slavery, injustice, racism, oppression. What Bonhoeffer discovered is that for the Spirit-filled congregants of Abyssinian Baptist, joy was not dependent on the ups and downs of external circumstances. Joy is a quality of being, rooted in the conviction that we are chosen, accepted, and loved by God – no matter what the conditions imposed from the outside.
In the worship, prayers, singing, and stories of the men and women he encountered at Abyssinian Baptist, Dietrich Bonhoeffer experienced a way of following Jesus that had a joyful, even mystical sensitivity to God’s presence in all things without falling into the trap of ignoring the suffering of the world.
Paul says that we can rejoice, be free from our worries, and experience peace because “God is near.” Elsewhere Scripture refers to God as one in whom we “live and move and have our being.” St. Augustine poetically referred to God as being “closer to us than we are to ourselves.” Bonhoeffer realized that while he believed these things in his head, at Abyssinian he was with a community of Christians who LIVED this God-presence as their very means of survival. After Harlem, Christianity became a “full-body” experience for Bonhoeffer; his theology and ministry were profoundly changed
Those Christians in Harlem knew from lived experience that the Jesus Way didn’t mean denying the power of evil or allowing themselves to become victims. They knew, however, what Paul in his prison cell knew: achieving freedom and joy on the Jesus Way is an “inside job.” Freedom is knowing who we are – beloved sons and daughters of God – and Whose we are – a loving, liberating, Presence in whom we live and move and have our being. Joy is living in a posture of trust that the One who made us in love is always working in the world to bring the peace that passes all understanding.
This peace, by the way, looks very different from the peace that the empires of the world proclaim.
We have our own versions of empire and “peace” today, don’t we? For many years, I lived in the empire of active addiction where my primary allegiance was to doing whatever I had to do to drug myself into self-centered oblivion. My “peace,” my “pax David,” was about looking good, pretending that I had everything under control, manipulating people into liking me, and presenting a “good boy” façade to the rest of the world. When my empire finally fell under the weight of its own delusion, I was forced to face vast wreckage of ruined relationships, shattered trust, emotional devastation, moral bankruptcy, and broken hearts.
We all have empires that hold us prisoner, even as we all have our own distorted ideas about “peace.” The peace about which Paul writes is the peace, which shatters the so-called peace of empire. The peace that our tiny Christmas baby Jesus comes to proclaim is the peace that brings down the mighty from their thrones. It is the peace that scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts, fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty.
This peace, the peace of Christ, brings light from darkness; hope from despair; healing from brokenness; reconciliation from division; and life from the pit of death. It is the peace not just of Good Friday but of Easter Sunday, not only a bloody cross but an empty tomb, not merely an absence of strife but a community of radical hospitality, scandalous mercy, and liberating justice.
A few years after his voluntary return to Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer became actively involved in resisting the Nazis. In his most famous work of theology, he wrote,
Where will the call to discipleship lead those who follow it? What decisions and painful separations will it entail? We must take this question to him who alone knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows where the path will lead. But we know that it will be a part full of mercy beyond measure. Discipleship is joy” (Discipleship).
On April 9, 1945 in Flossenburg concentration camp, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was stripped naked and brutally executed by being hung with thin wire for his role in resisting the Nazi government.
His last reported words are these: “This is the end. For me, the beginning of life.”
The camp doctor who witnessed the execution wrote this,
“I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer … kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
That language about being “submissive to the will of God” might seem antiquated to us today. Perhaps we could say that both in his living and dying, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was fully surrendered to the God he saw most beautifully revealed in the joy of those gathered Christians back in Harlem 15 years earlier.
To use words from our reading this morning, even while climbing his way to the gallows, this Jesus follower, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, knew what it meant to rejoice at the nearness of God. Bonhoeffer experienced in the soul of his being a peace that passes all human understanding.
Ok, St. Paul. I take it back. I don’t resent your recommendations. They don’t disgust me anymore; they just terrify me. Terrify me in a good way. The empires around us and within us continue their efforts to lure us into slavery with their siren calls of success, power, efficiency, escape, pleasure, and control.
But this Way of Jesus, this Jesus Insurrection, is showing us a way to freedom beyond slavery, recovery beyond addiction, life beyond death. The empire can rattle its saber all it wants. Ours is a freedom and a joy rooted in who we are and WHOSE we are.
The heart of Jesus’ message is this: We are loved. In life and unto death and beyond death, we belong to God who made us, forgives us, and desires us to share in God’s light and joy forever. As our Lover, God takes our deepest woes, our most anguished cries, our most shameful failures and uses them to bring us into God’s heart, which is Love Itself.
And finally, this path to true joy is one that we never, ever have to walk alone. Perhaps echoing convictions he had heard sung so long ago in those mournful but joy-filled spirituals in Harlem, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned this prayer from his cell while awaiting execution:
O God, early in the morning I cry to you.
Help me to pray
And to concentrate my thoughts on you:
I cannot do this alone.
In me there is darkness,
But with you there is light;
I am lonely, but you do not leave me;
I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help;
I am restless, but with you there is peace.
In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;
I do not understand your ways,
But you know the way for me…
Restore me to liberty,
And enable me to live now
That I may answer before you and before me.
Lord, whatever this day may bring,
Your name be praised.
May it be so for the rest of us, this day, and in the days to come. Rejoice in God, always, my friends on the Jesus Way. And again I say rejoice.