Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Looking for the Good -- a sermon on Philippians 3-4

Rev. Teri Peterson

Gourock St. John’s

Looking for the Good

Philippians 3.12-4.9 (CEB except changed “be glad” to “rejoice”)

30 August 2020, Postcards of Faith 11

It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus. So all of us who are spiritually mature should think this way, and if anyone thinks differently, God will reveal it to him or her. Only let’s live in a way that is consistent with whatever level we have reached.

Brothers and sisters, become imitators of me and watch those who live this way—you can use us as models. As I have told you many times and now say with deep sadness, many people live as enemies of the cross. Their lives end with destruction. Their god is their stomach, and they take pride in their disgrace because their thoughts focus on earthly things. Our citizenship is in heaven. We look forward to a saviour that comes from there—the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform our humble bodies so that they are like his glorious body, by the power that also makes him able to subject all things to himself.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord.

Loved ones, I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to come to an agreement in the Lord. Yes, and I’m also asking you, loyal friend, to help these women who have struggled together with me in the ministry of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my coworkers whose names are in the scroll of life.

Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I say, rejoice! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.

From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.

A few months ago I learned a new word that perfectly summed up what I often found myself doing during the height of pandemic lockdown: “doomscrolling.” It seems I was not the only one who was caught in the trap of constantly refreshing and scrolling through news stories and social media feeds trying to find the latest live updates on the statistics, horror stories, scientific advances or lack thereof, and political responses — there were enough people doing it that a new word was invented! Doom-scrolling: when you can’t stop yourself from constantly reading the next update, and the next, and the next, even when it’s only bad news. It’s almost an addiction to the bad news, actually.

Now, let me be clear: it’s important for us to be informed. We need to know what our leaders are doing in our name, we need to know how the science works so that we can make smart choices, and we need to know what’s happening in our communities so we know how to take care of ourselves and others. 

But that’s not what doomscrolling does. It isn’t about being informed, it’s about addictively and automatically consuming every drop of bad news as it rolls past on your screen, without the time or energy put in to critical thinking or reflection. Experts say it can cause an increase in stress hormones, and it’s linked to a decline in mental and physical health during lockdown.

I’ve been thinking a lot about doomscrolling ever since I learned the word that described how I’d spent more hours than I care to admit. But this week’s reading from Philippians threw it into sharp relief, as I heard the words “if anything is excellent, if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise. Practice these things.” 

Basically, Paul writes that we are to do the exact opposite of doomscrolling! He even flat out says not to be anxious but to bring our worries to God alongside our thanksgivings — not just one or the other, but everything we have on our minds and hearts, good and bad — and doing so will help us experience peace that passes all understanding.

Rather than looking for the bad news, Paul says to look for the good news. Rather than focusing on our own self-centred desires, he says to focus on what Christ wants. And rather than looking behind us at what has happened before, he says to look ahead, to pursue the goal of God’s kingdom with all our attention. 

He even tells us this is a hallmark of spiritual maturity — to leave behind the past and reach forward, not just seeking good news but practicing it. 

We all know the adage that practice makes perfect. In this case, Paul says that we haven’t already reached the goal of perfection, and honestly we might not ever reach that in this life, but since Christ has already taken our hand to guide us along the journey, we can continue in confidence that our practice matters. Practice looking for the good. Practice rejoicing in God’s presence always. Practice focusing our thoughts on what is true, holy, just, and lovely. 

And as if that wasn’t hard enough in this world where truth is elusive and justice feels far off and we downplay excellence, he tells us to practice letting our gentleness show in our treatment of all people. 

Gentleness…toward all people.

Even those people.

Even the ones who don’t deserve it.

Even the ones who irritate and provoke us.

Even the people we disagree with.

Even the person whose choices make us cringe.

And the one that I can hardly bring myself to say: even the politicians. Which is not to say we should let them off the hook for anything, but it is to say that the manner in which we hold them to account, and the things we choose to advocate for, are a sign of our own spiritual well-being.

How can our gentleness show in our treatment of all people? In our words and our actions, of course, both in the way we talk to people and the way we talk about them. And also in the ways we contribute to the public discourse on social media or outside the shops or down the pub. And in the choices we make that may affect people we never meet — people who make our clothes, or grow our food, or tidy our streets, or run scientific tests. And in the expectations we have of ourselves and of each other, especially during this time when stress is high.

It will take practice. And I think Paul writes his letter in this order on purpose, telling us first to Rejoice Always, and then to let our gentleness show, and then to pray about everything good and bad, and then to practice focusing on what is excellent, just, pure, and praise-worthy. Because that last instruction, to discipline our mind and heart to look for the good, may well be the most difficult even as it is the thing that makes the rest possible. 

When we practice looking for what is admirable and holy and lovely, we will be more likely to find it. And then we start to see good things in more places. And that changes the way we move through the world. It changes how we interact with people. It changes what we want to pray about. It changes what we value, and what we care about. When we are looking for truth, we are more likely to demand it from our leaders. When we are looking for excellence, we are more likely to create conditions where people can achieve it. When we are looking for what is just, we are more likely to notice conditions that are unjust and want to do something to rectify them. When we are looking for holiness, we are more likely to see God’s face in others as well as ourselves. When we are looking for things that are worthy of praise, we are more likely to express gratitude, wonder, and love.

This is the part of going on a journey where we realise that having traveled this road, we will not be the same when we return home. A pilgrimage like the one we have been on this summer transforms us, because the experiences we have along the way give us new insight into who we are, who God is, and how we and God work together in the world. Part of a pilgrimage is about learning new ways of seeing and being. And that’s what Paul invites us into in this letter — to practice a new way of seeing, because it will change our way of being.

So rather than doomscrolling, and rather than looking back longing for the way things used to be, let’s practice reaching out for the things ahead of us, pursuing God’s goals ahead of our own, by looking for and focusing on what is just, admirable, lovely, excellent, and true. That is when we will at last experience the peace of Christ that exceeds all understanding — for us and for the world.

We’ll start now, by hearing a few stories of good things people have encountered while on their own journeys during this pandemic season. Perhaps they will spark your own reflections on where you have seen God and good news during this time, and how you can practice looking for the good in coming days and weeks.


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