Rejoice Always

Let’s just begin by noting that the title of this sermon is ridiculous. “Rejoice Always.” Right. Like that’s even possible. Or desirable. Perhaps you are wondering what I was thinking to come up with such a title. Perhaps I was wondering the same thing as I sat down to write this sermon. We all know that life is not always in “rejoice” mode. After an autumn of wildfires that are still continuing to wreak havoc, mass shootings at a Jewish synagogue and a college bar and elsewhere, the divisiveness of election campaigns, and all the other events both personal and communal that have changed and shaped us in recent weeks, it is easy just to look at what is broken and sad. So now is an especially good moment to stop and count our blessings, to remember what is still working. To give thanks.


Rejoice always doesn’t sound realistic. The actual quote is “Rejoice in God always.” Paul writes this in Philippians 4, and we will hear it again as the benediction. Here is the whole quote:

Rejoice in God always; again I will say, Rejoice.

Let your gentleness be known to everyone.

God 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.  (Philippians 4:4-7)


What adds punch to this quote is knowing that Paul wrote it from prison. He wasn’t just spouting empty words from a place of abundance, where everything was going right. He was locked up, probably in not great living conditions, and suffering persecution because of his ministry. He reminds me of the Jewish girl Anne Frank, whose family hid from the Nazis in Amsterdam and who wrote, in the midst of suffering and oppression that threatened their very lives, “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” []


Thanksgiving and gratitude are spiritual practices. Keep looking for silver linings. If we focus on everything that is going wrong, then we fail to see what is going right. So practice gratitude. This week of Thanksgiving is an excellent opportunity.


This is not to say we should be Pollyanna-ish all the time—oh, everything is always wonderful, even though my dog just got killed by a car and my spouse and I can’t have the children we so desperately want and I just got laid off and my best friend just got a terminal diagnosis. Certainly there are times for grieving, for offering direct prayers to God saying, “What is going on? Help!” We saw that in our readings from Job recently. Everything Job could lose, he does lose: children, herds, servants, wealth, health. He tears his clothing and sits in dust and ashes while his closest friends try to convince him that his misfortune is all his fault. But he doesn’t lose God.


So it’s not about pretending, when we talk about rejoicing always. It is about making choices that help us not only to keep on keeping on but to thrive, even in adversity. In a news report recently about people burned out of their homes in Paradise, California, the reporter noted that many people had set up temporary camp at a WalMart parking lot in Chico. Many others were showing up to offer food, clothing, tents, sleeping bags, and more. The reporter noted that the people who had lost everything were remarkably calm and grateful. They have a hard road ahead, and they know it. They may still be in shock, and they probably know that, too. But for this moment, they are grateful to have survived and to receive the generous donations that they so need at this challenging time.


When we focus on gratitude, when we see what is going right in our lives, perhaps we also see our role and our power for good. We see the power of people coming together in community to work for better lives. Maybe that takes the form of a caravan of emigrants helping each other on a long journey, and all the people reaching out to offer them food, water, shoes, medical attention, and rides.


Or think of the character George Bailey in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, which some of us will likely view over the coming holidays. There are parts of his life that aren’t so wonderful—that are really hard—times when he feels as though everything is against him, everything is going wrong, and he’s never going to get that chance to travel, go to college, make something of himself. When he gets stuck in that woe-is-me mindset, he sinks into despair and wants to do away with himself. He thinks the world would be better off if he had never been born. Only after he sees the positive things he has contributed to his community, and the way the community stands ready to see him through a tight spot, can he recognize that the life he is living, tough times and all, really has been a wonderful gift.


In our reading today we hear a prayer of thanksgiving and victory from Hannah. As you may recall, she is one of Elkanah’s two wives. The other wife has been delivering babies on a regular basis. But not Hannah. So when the family makes its annual pilgrimage to the temple at Shiloh to make offerings to God, Hannah slips in by herself and offers silent prayers to God straight from her heart. This is not how things are supposed to be done, and the priest thinks she’s drunk, because he sees her lips moving but no sound coming out. (Prayer in those days was generally out loud.) But God does answer her heart-felt prayer and gives her the son she so desires—plus a bunch of children after that. So here we see Hannah giving thanks for this blessing in a prayer. (By the way, this prayer forms the model for Mary’s Magnificat, which we will explore in Advent.)


Have you ever met or heard of people who have come through terrible challenges, great loss, huge injustice, and yet are gracious, loving people? Perhaps you are one of these people. Something to note about these people is that they don’t get stuck in the places of suffering and despair. They forgive; they heal; they keep loving. They continue to give thanks for the things that are going right: for people who show up with water in the desert, with clothes for those burned out of their homes, with medical care for the sick. Oh, that’s right, that’s who we are called to be: people who care for those in need. People who show up. People who stay engaged with God through thick and thin and come out the other side singing hallelujahs.


Anne Frank also wrote, “Human greatness does not lie in wealth or power, but in character and goodness. People are just people, and all people have faults and shortcomings, but all of us are born with a basic goodness.” [Ibid.] There is someone who knew how to give thanks in all circumstances. Perhaps she strikes you as incredibly naïve, given the extreme oppression of the Jews in World War II and the severe measures her family had to take just to try and survive the Nazis. And yet her words continue to hold enormous power, exactly because she wrote them in the face of these challenges. She met hate with love. That in itself is a victory.


Paul says, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Take everything to God in prayer. And what will happen? “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” You may be buffeted by difficulties, by they will not win.


Rejoice in God always. Not because life is always easy or kind. But because life is a gift from God our Creator, who does not abandon us. Ever. Rejoice in God always. Stay open to the goodness and blessings, even in the hardest times, and you will always be connected to our good God. Amen.




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