In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We had one of the harder weeks of the pandemic this week, and that is really saying something at this point. The losses continue to mount and the necessary isolation makes them all so much harder to bear. We are in this together, but it does not always feel like it without the personal togetherness, the handshakes, the hugs, and a hundred other small, kind, gestures that we usually rely on far more than we knew we did. I don’t get to talk to nearly as many of you week by week as I would like to, but I am hearing that a lot of us are feeling this heavy cloud these days. It doesn’t help that the days keep getting shorter, darker, and a bit colder.
What does help are the right words, if they can be found. Words can provide a kind of traction or point of critical purchase on feelings that are too often cloudlike and kind of oppressive otherwise. You’ve probably all had the experience of finally being able to name of feeling that you have had but somehow couldn’t locate. Once you have a name, somehow the feeling acts as if it is seen for the first time and becomes a lot more something that can be worked with. If you are feeling things weighing on you, words can help. It is surprising, though, how often we don’t really have the words ourselves for our own feelings. It is often someone else who gives us the word that names our feeling. It is surprising how often the saving word comes from outside ourselves.
One of the reasons that we read scripture together out loud when we gather together is that its words have a way of seeing and identifying our feelings. Not that that solves everything, but it has this immense capacity to make the unbearable bearable, like we are carried along by the words themselves.
Countless souls have received comfort from today’s cherished Psalm spoken by those “walking through the valley of the shadow of death.” I know that many of you are feeling death’s shadow and it–no doubt–has a deadening and depressing feel to it. We have experienced way too much death in 2020 and we are feeling its oppressive weight. Each of us really needs–in the words of the same Psalm– the Shepherd who “revives my soul and guides me along right pathways for his Name’s sake.” A “revived soul” names another feeling, a feeling we need right now, but it is hard to know how to get it.
Someone who knew how to be walked through the valley of the shadow of death to a revived soul was St. Paul. We read a portion of his incredible letter the church at Philippi just now. What wasn’t said in the reading was that Paul wrote this letter from prison and it wasn’t at all clear that Paul was not going to die there. The Philippian church was upset at the prospect of losing Paul. They were feeling the shadow of death and Paul writes a letter from prison to comfort them. (That backwards, right? Paul’s the one in danger here, but the congregation is looking for assurance, and he gives it to them).
Just after the passage we just read, he writes to them about what they want to know. “Paul how are you holding up in prison with the day-to-day possibility of being executed.” He says (Philippians 4:11-13): “for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” The words of a revived soul living under the shadow of death if I have ever heard them! St. Paul we sure could use you right now in 2020!
In the part of the letter assigned for today, Paul says, apparently to us, “My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved” (Philippians 4:1). “Stand firm,” but how Paul? He continues, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Joy would be great Paul, may I remind you that you are in prison and we’re living under the shadow of your possible impending death? Paul continues, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” I would take not worrying about everything all at the same time Paul. He continues, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” I recognize those words from the prayer book. It’s the final priestly blessing in many of our services. A peace of heart that exceeds our understanding that is so strong that it guards us. Without hearing about that, you wouldn’t even know that that is a feeling to be had. Seems to be what St. Paul had. He probably got it directly from Jesus. We sure could use that now, couldn’t we?
Thoughts and worries just get in the way, don’t they. They rob us of our peace. Seems like they would have when Paul was in prison too. He addresses that too. He says, “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” (Philippians 4:8). The true, the honorable, the just, the pure, the pleasing, the commendable, the excellent, what is worthy of praise isn’t what is bothering me Paul. In fact, they are so much not the problem, that I barely think about those things. Oh, I heard that, you say that those are the things to think about, to fill my heart and mind with what is “true, what is honorable, what is just, what is pure, what is pleasing, what is commendable, what is excellent, what is worthy of praise.” That’s what you did in prison. That might explain some of your confidence where you can say, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
In 2020, especially this week, that is kind of a tall order. It was for St. Paul too sitting in chains in his cell looking for the “true, looking for the honorable, the just, the pure, the pleasing, the commendable, the excellent, and the worthy of praise.” Let’s look for those things even in 2020. Maybe its like that line of Psalm 23 where it says, “You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me” (Psalm 23:5). It makes we wonder how their could be both “an abundant table spread” and “ever-present enemies.” It much like wondering how Paul could have prison with its possibility of death and his peace that passes all understanding.
The scripture gives us words for feelings we have and for feelings we have yet to have. If you are feeling the weight of the shadow of death, hear it named by the scripture, see it and add to it other more powerful words for other feelings that are a real possibility for you even in 2020. Paul says, “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 4:9). There it is.
It’s a long year that isn’t done with us yet. But we will keep on, we will keep on “doing the things that we have learned and received and heard and seen.” We will keep on, as we always have been, being about “the true, the honorable, the just, the pure, the pleasing, the commendable, the excellent, and the worthy of praise.” And those things will revive our souls, as they always have.
St. Paul has the last word. He ends his letter with the following blessing consoling the Philippians: “my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (Philippians 4:19). May it be the same for us as well. Stand firm. Amen.
The Rev. Dr. Paul R. Kolbet