Keeping an Open Connection

Keeping an Open Connection
Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
February 28, 2016

Philippians 4: 1, 4-9 (CEB)
Therefore, my brothers and sisters whom I love and miss, who are my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord.

4Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! 5Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. 6Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. 7Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.

8From 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. 9Practice these things: whatever you learned, received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.

What are some of the things that cause you worry and anxiety? I’m sure we’ve all been thinking about this over the last few weeks as we have worked to “Find Peace in an Anxious World.” Each of us deals with worry in big and small ways at various points in our lives and for various reasons. There might be times when we are anxious about our health, or maybe our big worry is finances. Sometimes, when the hospital bills begin mounting, we worry about both at the same time. Or maybe we worry about our children. Are they healthy? Are they doing okay in school? Will they be able to care for me as I get older? Then there are the smaller worries that fill our thoughts from day-to-day. When will I have time to get in touch with that friend that reached out to me last week? Will the recently completed project at work be acceptable to my boss or will I need to start all over again? When will I be able to get the house clean again?

We usually say, “Nothing is certain in this life but death and taxes.” I think we could also say fairly, “Nothing is certain in this life but death, and taxes…and worry.” I suspect we’d be lying if any of us said we never worry about anything. But how about this one: have you ever worried about being imprisoned and killed because of your faith? I’d almost be willing to bet this is one matter that has never caused any of us anxiety. We are fortunate that we live in a country where we are free to live out faith and practice our religion without fear of persecution. But this has not always been true, even as it is still not true in every country today.

Almost 2,000 years ago when Paul wrote this letter to the Church in Philippi, it is believed he was imprisoned in Rome. Early on in the letter, he speaks of his upcoming sentence, and he also shares his optimism in the face of death. Where we pick up this morning, Paul is urging the Philippians to always rejoice in the Lord, to be glad in every circumstance. Paul, imprisoned in Rome and facing a sentence of death is enthusiastically encouraging his brothers and sisters in Christ to always be glad and rejoice. And he’s not talking about some simple feeling of happiness within; when Paul says, “Rejoice!” He means get out and celebrate exuberantly, dance with reckless abandon, hug all your friends, neighbors, relatives, and even strangers! Be glad! Can you imagine? Can you imagine be so happy when there is so much to worry about? Clearly, Paul has a handle on something that frees him from anxiety, and today, as we continue “Finding Peace in an Anxious World,” we are going to talk about what that is.

Now, there is the obvious reason for Paul’s near exuberance in this letter written from a Roman prison, and that is simply his faith in the risen Christ. With the promise of life, who needs to fear death? Certainly, our faith should be so strong and sure that we do not worry about anything. But in all truthfulness, even when our faith is strong, we still worry, don’t we? So let’s dig a little deeper into Paul’s instructions to the Philippians because in this case, faith is basically assumed. Paul has been to Philippi, he has shared the Good News, a community of believers in Jesus Christ has built up, and now Paul is checking in after being away from them for some time. We know he is talking to faithful people. And yet he also knows there are problems. There is some strife and disagreement among some of the Christians in Philippi, but Paul knows there is something greater here than a conflict between a few people. The Christians are worried, they are anxious, and so Paul says, “Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks.” Instead of worrying, Paul instructs, Christians should pray.

That sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? Yet most of us know that praying instead of worrying is much easier said than done. So what I want to try and do today is help all of us think of ways we can improve our prayer practices in order to overcome worry and experience greater peace. Let me begin by saying that none of us are perfect, and we are all human. No matter how much we might pray and present our petitions to God with thanksgiving, there will still be times when things worry us. But even if we can just find that right way to connect with God’s peace in anxious times, then we are at least moving in the right direction. So how do we use prayer to find peace?

As we begin to look for an answer to that question, I want to take a little survey to just see where we are now; but first, a few rules. We are going to do this by show of hands. You do not need to be ashamed about anything. God takes us all where we are and strengthens us to do better. And we all have room to grow in one way or another. God never shames us. The second rule is the Judgment-Free Zone. You know those gyms that set aside a special space for people who dread going to the gym for fear of being judged? This is our special space. You are not allowed to judge your brothers and sisters sitting in this room. And let me just say that’s a rule not only for this moment, but for everyday. So, here we go, by show of hands:
1) Who prays only at church?
2) Who prays only before meals?
3) Who prays a few times a week, but not every day?
4) Who prays every single morning?
5) Who prays each and every night? (Who falls asleep while praying at night?)
6) Who prays at least once a day, but not always at the same time every day?
7) Who prays several times each day?
8) Who, every single time you worry, stops and prays?

If you’re like me, you probably just realized a few ways you could improve your prayer life. I mean, I’m pretty good at returning thanks before meals, but I certainly don’t pray before every meal, I very often forget. And though I pray at least once each day, I would probably benefit from a more disciplined prayer practice where I actually set aside time specifically to talk and listen to God, rather than just squeezing in a few minutes wherever I can fit it each day. Prayer is like a lot of things; the more you practice it, the better you will be at it, and the more beneficial it will be in our lives. My youth director once said to us that, “Prayer is like underwear; nobody has to know when you’re praying, just like nobody has to know if you’re wearing underwear.” His point was that we should pray without ceasing, that we should not be afraid to pray as we walked the halls at school, or practiced ball on the field with our teammates. If we develop such habits of prayer, then it certainly is much easier to turn to prayer when life gets chaotic and worry creeps in.

But you know; I’ve learned something about prayer as I’ve matured spiritually, and that is that prayer is as much about listening as it is about talking. I think this is very important in particular when it comes to prayer as a source of peace. Let me explain what I mean. Talk is easy. It’s a lot easier to go to God and tell God everything that is wrong in our lives and then to expect that because we have shared our need with God, God will fix the problem. But if what we want is peace, then we need to be willing to listen to the God of peace. We need to allow God to guide our hearts, minds, and lives. We need to push aside the busy-ness of our lives long enough to rest in God’s presence and discern God’s ways. We might not hear an audible voice, but God speaks to us in many ways, and we can “hear” God if we will close our mouths for a moment and open ourselves up to simply listening. Just the thought of it is peaceful to me, especially at this time in my life with a 1-year old filling my time and my ears. I imagine myself finding a comfy chair, warm mocha in hand, laying my head back, closing my eyes; no noise, no talk, just a simple, “Tell me what I need to know God,” and then waiting. The scene might be a little different for you, but here’s the thing, none of us are very good at this because we worry that if we sit down and don’t “do” anything, then we are wasting time. But we’re not. We need time for prayer everyday. We need to share our hearts with God, and we need to allow God to speak peace into our lives. Time spent in such prayer is not wasted, not at all. And if we want peace in our lives, as Paul instructs, we need to pray.

Think of it like this: what would your marriage be like if you never talked to your spouse? As I asked the kids earlier, what would school be like if the teachers never talked and we never asked questions? What would our family relationships be like if we just waved at each other in passing? We know that relationship without communication is a recipe for disaster. So why would we expect our relationship with God to be any different? We have to keep the lines of communication with God open through regular prayer—at least every day, if not multiple times everyday. If what we want is peace, then we have to share our burdens with God and invite God in Christ Jesus to guide our lives toward peace.

Somehow, in the midst of persecution and impending death, Paul was able to find joy and peace. We are the very fortunate beneficiaries of Paul’s instruction about how to experience the same peace in our lives. We have to make time for prayer. We have to be intentional about regularly connecting with God; sharing our sorrows, celebrating our victories, unloading our burdens, giving thanks for our blessings, and offering our worries. But we also have to take time in prayer to listen, so that God can talk back to us. Communication is a two-way street, just as much as we open our mouths, we also need to open our ears. If we want to experience God’s peace, then we need to allow the God of peace to guide us.

“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.”
May it be so.

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