October 18, 2020


Passage: Philippians 4:1–8

This epistle reading pops up in the common lectionary about this time every three years or so. It seems apt and relevant for what we're going through.

From Paul's letter to the church at Philoppi

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

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.

Finally, beloved, 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 these things.

Georgia Garvey, Editor-in-Chief of The Pioneer Press, which publishes all the small-town newspapers in the North Shore suburbs, wrote a compelling column a couple of weeks ago.

She said, “The universe is expanding. Every second of the day, the Milky Way stretches farther and farther apart, the room between stars and black holes swelling, our galaxy moving away from its neighbors....Space is spreading, like dough rising in the oven,” or an inflating balloon.

Life on earth is mimicking the universe. We are pulling apart from each other, for more reasons than I can speak or count. Ms. Garvey says, “You watch protesters pushed to the ground, children tear-gassed, police officers shot, Bibles used as props, and you wonder: how much more can our society take? How much further apart can we get before the whole thing is ripped to shreds, torn beyond repair?[1]

I was so looking forward to the year 2020. 2020 suggests good vision. In print, 2020 is so shapely and symmetrical in its redundancy. 2020: you stutter; you repeat yourself. What happened? Everything.

We need each other so much right now. We’ve got to stop aping the galaxies, pulling apart from each other. Symptoms of depression and anxiety are four times more prevalent this year than last. So I thought I would preach a skill-building sermon so that we can be better friends and neighbors to each other.

Maybe you’ve heard of PFA: Psychological First Aid. At times like this, we need to be as adept at repairing emotional injuries as we are when a child skins her knee or a chef burns his hand. Since we’re in church, I want to talk about SFA: Spiritual First Aid.

That passage from Philippians I read a moment ago is one of the most moving in all of Paul’s Epistles. Paul’s kind words to his most valued friends seem so apt to a time like this. “Be firm,” he tells his friends. To translate, “Be a rock.” Be strong, steadfast, immovable. “Screw your courage to the sticking place,” says Lady MacBeth. Pandemics are not for sissies.

Be Walter Payton. At a Bears football game years ago, one announcer pointed out that Walter Payton rushed for 9½ miles in his NFL career. The second announcer replied, “And that’s even more impressive when you consider that someone knocked him down every 4.4 yards.”[2] Right now, the universe is conspiring to knock you down in ingenious ways every 4.4 yards. Get up, dust yourself off, and do it again.

Or if you can’t BE a Rock, FIND a Rock. Pandemics are not for sissies, but there is no shame in seeking refuge upon or behind your nearest Rock. I hope you are married to a Rock. I hope your Father is a Rock. I hope your friend is a Rock.

BE a Rock or FIND a Rock. Better yet, take turns being Rocks one to another. Some of us are undone by fear of getting sick. Some of us are just flattened by the social isolation of a pandemic. Others of us almost gave up when we watched Derek Chauvin kneel on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Others of us just dread November 3. Others are sick at heart for our grandchildren who will live in a hotter world and our hope withers when it becomes clear that US Supreme Court will turn out to be an unlikely defender of the planet. We’re vulnerable in different ways and for different reasons, so we take turns being Rocks.

“Stand firm” says St. Paul. “Rejoice!” says St. Paul. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, Rejoice!” I know, pretty lame advice just now, right? But he’s still right. In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck describes Ma Joad. He says, “Her hazel eyes seemed to have experienced all possible tragedy and to have mounted pain and suffering like steps into a high calm and superhuman understanding...It was her habit to build up laughter out of inadequate materials.”[3] If you are someone who can build up laughter out of inadequate materials, you will be very popular indeed.

Paul even tells us how to amplify our joy. He says that our joy rests on the fundament of Thanksgiving. “Don’t worry about anything,” he says, “Don’t worry about anything, but by prayer and supplication—WITH THANKSGIVING—let your requests be made known to God.”

Wise counselors advise us to keep a Gratitude Journal. Write down the thousand benedictions that shower us despite the dark, desperate difficulties that assail us. Many of you are doing that with the Gratitude reflections you’re posting daily to our website. I am grateful for all you Gratitude Journalers.

Adore the multiple, proximate virtues of your lover or your child or your friend. Notice the canopy of burnished gold looming above the village streets just now. It’s like living in the aisles of Fort Knox. Look up to the splendor of the harvest moon. “When we were strangers, I watched you from afar. When we were lovers, I loved you with all my heart. Because I’m still in love with you, on this harvest moon.”[4]

“Stand firm,” says St. Paul. “Rejoice!” says St. Paul.  “Let your gentleness be made known to everyone,” says St. Paul. Walk gently on the earth. Minimize your footprint, especially now. Reduce your consumption—of alcohol, food, and the terrible news all over the media just now. Stop doom-scrolling on your phone. Turn off CNN once in a while, for God’s sake. It’s making you crazy. Don’t medicate your anxieties. Sit with them. Watch out for the COVID-19 and by that I mean the 19 pounds some of us have gained since March.

Be gentle. Be patient. Not all of us are as strong as you are. Seek out one person—just one—with that look of disquiet in her eyes. And don’t just DO something. STAND there. Listen. You’re not there to solve her problems; you’re there to assure her that she is not alone.

If you can’t be Walter Payton, be a crocodile. Crocodiles are amazing animals. They bite down with a force of 5,000 pounds per square inch. That compares to 335 for a rottweiler, 400 for a great white shark, and 800 for a hyena.

Crocodiles are incredible at closing their mouths. They are terrible at opening them. You can tame a crocodile with a strip of duct tape or a bicycle innertube. They’re helpless. Be a crocodile. Be better at closing your mouth than at opening it.

In one of my churches I put my friend Linda in charge of a huge project with many moving parts that would require an army of volunteers and multiple meetings. I put Linda in charge because she was not only patient and kind but also efficient and precise. She made Marie Kondo look disorganized and unfocused.

And this committee started meeting, and the meetings would just sprawl out to infinity. They would last two hours. It was because Linda was in charge and she would not stop the conversation. Everyone—and I mean everyone—was respected and heard and listened to, and then when they repeated themselves three times in different words, they were heard again.

I diagnosed the problem. You’ve heard of ADD, right? Attention Deficit Disorder?  Linda had ASD. Attention Surplus Disorder.

She never got bored with anybody. Attention Surplus Disorder isn’t always so great at committee meetings, but we could sure use some just now, right? Someone who will attend to us until we feel included and respected and mended?

You don’t have to be an expert to receive and relieve someone’s suffering. Someone asked a New York City hospice chaplain if he ever gets overwhelmed in the face of so much death. After all, he spends his days taking the Metro from one deathbed to the next across the five boroughs. All his stories end unhappily.

He says, “I’m not overwhelmed if I remember what my job is. We are there to be there. That is the point. It is my job to stay when there is no answer.”[5] That’s good advice for all of us at this time in our lives.

Stand firm. Rejoice. Give thanks. Be gentle. Cosmic and historical forces try to drive us further and further away from each other.  But we’re still here, and we still have each other, as sketchy and flawed as many of us are much of the time.

“So while we have it, it's best we love it, care for it, fix it when it's broken, and heal it when it's sick. This is true for marriage...and old cars...and children with bad report cards, and dogs with faulty hips, and aging parents. We keep them because they are worth it, because we are worth it.”[6]


[1] Georgia Garvey, “Society Is Being Pulled Apart, but We Can Still Choose to Be Kind,” Pioneer Press, September 28, 2020.

[2] Shared by Herb Miller in “What You See Is What You Get?” an unpublished lecture, May 11, 1988.

[3] John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (New York: Viking, 1939), p. 100.

[4] Neil Young, “Harvest Moon.”

[5]Paul Vitello, “Hospice Chaplains Take up Bedside Counseling,” The New York Times, October 29, 2008.

[6]Author Unknown.