Aug 29th, 2021 – The Joy of Contentment with Rev. Kally Elliott.
A Part of the Series:
The Joy of Contentment with Rev. Kally Elliott.
Philippians four, four through seven and ten through 13. Rejoice, in the Lord, always again, I will say, rejoice, Let your gentle bit miss 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. I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need, 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 Christ who strengthens me. At the small Church I pastored in Long Island, there was a group of women who had been meeting together for more years than I’ve been alive. They called their time together Monday school. Over the years a few of them had moved away or died, and in their place new friends joined their circle.
But the core of this group was still gathering. Every single Monday. At noon they bring their sack lunches and set themselves up around a table that looked like it had been donated by someone doing a renovation on their 19 kitchen. One of them would make the coffee, which we all drink out of little Styrofoam cups, and after eating our lunches, we dig into the Bible study. One of my favorite women in this group was Audrey.
I think Audrey was older than the other women, but not by much, just enough to make her somewhat of the matriarch of the group. When I first joined the group, as the other women chatted, Audrey leaned over her lunch and very seriously asked me, do you know what my favorite verse in the Bible is? It’s Philippians 413, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. As the weeks and months and even years waned on, Audrey, who never missed a Monday, would ask me each week, do you know what my favorite verse in the Bible is?
And even though I might try to insert yes, yes, I do.
I do know your favorite verse. You’ve told me every single week without missing a beat. She’d reply, It’s Philippians 413, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. But then there was the Monday when Audrey wasn’t there. I called her and she said she had forgotten we knew something had been off for a while.
Audrey was often gasping for breath but swearing she was fine. She did not need help, but her lack of oxygen was affecting her brain, and she was often forgetting things. A few days later, her husband, Fred, took her to the doctor, and Audrey was diagnosed with a deadly lung disease that would, over the course of the next several months, basically end up suffocating her. But even over those last few months of her life, Audrey would still come to Monday school, dragging her oxygen tank behind her. Fred would drive her over and one of us would help her get into the Church and settled in a chair.
And then, without fail, she would lean over to me and ask, do you know what my favorite verse in the Bible is? As death loomed closer, Audrey began forgetting parts of the verse, pausing to catch her breath and remember a word. And even when she couldn’t go on, I could tell the words were there right on the tip of her tongue. Her mind may not have been able to recall the exact words, but her hearts and souls still knew the verse. The words were there.
They were buried deep inside Audrey, giving her courage and strength. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. The ironic thing is, though the Apostle Paul, who actually wrote these words to the Church at Philippi, did so when he literally couldn’t do anything, sitting in a prison cell with good reason to be anxious about everything he writes, do not worry about anything. I give it all to God. And with prayer and Thanksgiving rejoice in the Lord again I say, rejoice, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
When I worked at the University of Tennessee, I would often attend football games. And if you know anything about Tennessee football, you know that their team color is bright Orange and that game days are a really big deal. Even though they haven’t had a winning team in a few years, football is still life in Knoxville, Tennessee, and if you attend a game, you will undoubtedly see hanging from the stand somewhere in the Stadium, a banner with the words I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
Meaning we can win this football game because Jesus is on our side. But I can pretty much guarantee you that when Paul wrote this verse from his seat in prison, he did not mean that Jesus was going to magically make the Tennessee Volunteers when their football game.
Paul wrote this verse, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Because even though the guards of the Roman Empire threatened his very life, even though he sat in a dank, dark prison, even though, even though it would seem his life could not get any worse, he had not lost hope. He knew in his heart of hearts, deep in his bones, that the very God who knit him together in his mother’s womb, who knew every thought in his mind. This God held him. This God in Jesus Christ made him who he was, and that nothing in all of life or death, or in all of creation, could ever separate him from the love of God.
In Jesus Christ. Paul was content, even in prison, that God in Jesus Christ was alive within him, holding him and giving him strength. I think Audrey knew this too. I bet she knew that even though her lungs had stopped working, even though her life, as she knew it, was fading, God in Jesus Christ was alive within her, holding her and giving her strength. I bet she knew that the very God who had formed her and knit her body together in her mother’s womb, that this God would be with her through her last breath on Earth and right.
They are waiting to welcome her into more life. But I also know that she doubted this too. A few times Audrey asked me what I thought about death and about where you go when you die. I sense that like many of us, she was a bit afraid of death, of course, still, having my feet planted on this Earth, I could not give her any definitive answers, but only witness to the stories of those who have gone before me. Those who were completely contents in this life because they have been through pain worse than death.
They know how bad it can get, and yet they got through it. In another letter, Paul writes to a Church in Rome. He wrote a lot of letters. He writes, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. And hope does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.
Suffering and hope are linked. In his presentation and introduction to Joy, Rob Bell talks about the time he was invited to join the Dalai Lama and Bishop To on stage. So before they were to go on stage, though, Bishop two two and the Dalai Lama and Rob Bell were all invited to breakfast, Bell says as he was standing there waiting to sit down. Bishop two entered from one side of the room and then the Dalai Lama from the other. They met in the middle, and Bell says he stood there just mesmerized, wondering what would happen next.
And instead of shaking hands or using some other dignified method of greeting one another, the Dalai Lama and Bishop To two began tickling each other, tickling each other, Bell said he stood there wondering, what is the protocol in this situation? Do I join in the tickling? Do I group hug? What do I do? So he got his phone out and took a picture.
When they all sat down and began talking, Bell was expecting heavy, serious conversation, and instead the Dalai Lama asks Bishop two, Have you gained weight back and forth? They joked, and they laughed. These two, who have seen the worst that human beings can do to each other, the absolute worst, Rob Bell thought they would come out on stage carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, saying how dark this world is, and lighting a candle to symbolize how we need to bring light to the darkness.
But instead they were all over the place, joking and laughing, Rabel says, they’ve just had this lightness about them. I recently began reading the book Furiously Happy by Jenny Lawson, a memoir sharing Lawson’s determination to be furiously happy, seizing the strangest and most glorious moments of her life even while she stares down clinical depression, severe anxiety, avoidant personality disorder, and much more.
Admittedly, I had to do some serious editing of her colorful language for this sermon. But basically, she writes, I found myself depressed and really angry, so I took it to my blog, writing a post that would change the way I looked at my life from then on. In my post, I wrote, I am done with sadness. I don’t know what’s up with the universe lately, but I have had it. I’m going to be furiously happy out of sheer spike.
I am going to destroy the universe with my irrational joy. In fact, I’m starting a whole movement right now, the Furiously Happy movement. Over the next few years, Lawson says, she pushed herself to say yes to anything remotely ridiculous, jumping in fountains, hunting down UFOs, chasing tornadoes, even renting a couple of Kangaroos for her living room. Her husband put the cabash on the Kangaroos in the house after that, but shortly after that her mantra became decorum is highly overrated and probably causes cancer, she writes. I didn’t mean I wasn’t still depressed or anxious or mentally ill.
I still spent my share of weeks in bed when I simply couldn’t get up. I still hid under my office desk whenever the anxiety got too heavy to battle standing up. The difference was I had a store room of events in the back of my mind, filled with moments of tightrope walking, snorkeling and long forgotten caves and running barefoot in cemeteries with a red ball gown trailing behind me. I could remind myself that as soon as I had the strength to get out of bed, I would again turn my hand to being seriously happy, not just to save my life, but to make my life.
I am furiously happy.
It’s not a cure for mental illness. It’s a weapon designed to counter it. It’s a way to take back some of the joy that’s robbed from you when you are ill. This verse I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Paul’s encouragement to the Philippians not to worry about anything, but to rejoice and give thanks and to pray.
It can all seem glib, like a cheesy, empty platitude, ignoring the sorrow and pain and anguish and heartbreak of life. But but sitting in prison, Paul is not someone who is glib. Paul. Like Bishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama, like author Jenny Lawson, Paul knows hope and contentment. They are earned and they take everything you have, including a lot of weeping and dark nights.
Contentment fully knows how hard and heartbreaking life can be. It’s the reason that he can say I’m enjoying it all right now while I have it. That’s why I am rejoicing, why I am filled with gratitude, why I’m not worried, why I know I can do it, why I know I can make it through. That’s why I’m filled with joy, because I know how painful it can all be. And what a gift.
Right now. This very moment is in my friend’s Church. There are no crosses, just the stage in the front of the vast warehouse type of room. Song lyrics about and sermons sing about victory and Christ and trading my sorrows and paying for joy. The cross is something that is defeated.
I mean, who wants to be reminded of all that negativity and suffering and death on a bright Sunday morning make it light and lively and positive talk about success, not suffering. And yet it is in the suffering of the cross and in the dark of the tomb that we make the amazing assertion that God was there, that on the cross, that’s where Jesus experienced all the suffering and pain, the worst that can happen to any of us. And at the cross, God comes close to your life and to mine at its most human and precarious and vulnerable.
That is what is refreshing about the Christian faith. At the center of our faith is the acknowledgment that suffering and darkness is real, that life is hard, that death is always always knocking at our door, and that the light shone in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.
So Audrey’s favorite Bible verse, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me even unto her last days, tells me that even in those moments of doubt, Audrey knew she was being held. She knew God in Christ, who gave her the strength to get up each morning, the strength to keep living, even when her lungs wanted so badly to give up. And it was God in Christ who gave her the strength to take her last breath and fully enter into God’s loving embrace. I will always remember Audrey leaning over her peanut butter and jelly sandwich towards me, asking, do you know what my favorite Bible verse is?
But there is a part of her story I didn’t tell you before.
After she recite for me her favorite verse, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. She then looked me right in the eye and remind me you too can do all things through Christ who strengthens you as God was and is with Audrey. So God in Christ is also with you, leading you healing you, making you whole, inviting you to trust that even in your pain, especially in your pain, God in Christ is with you, giving you strength. Amen.