June 29, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
TRY TO BE NICE
I remember a cartoon. It showed a middle-aged man who looked terrible. Hair disheveled. Stubble on his face. He was frowning. And he was wearing a T-shirt that said, “Please don’t tell me to have a nice day.” I also remember what W.C. Fields said. “I start off each day with a smile and get it over with.”
Clichés can get tedious. And that friendly greeting, “Have a nice day!” can be one of them. So I was surprised when I learned that Paul uses a cliché over and over again in his letter to the Philippians. It was kind of the “Have a nice day!” of his day. What he keeps saying is “Rejoice!” Back then, this word was often used at the end of a letter. Not that you meant it necessarily, it was just tacked on as a social convention. “Rejoice!” “Take care!” “Keep smiling!” “Have a nice day!”
Paul is in prison when he writes his letter. It’s likely the house arrest in Rome that is alluded to at the end of the Book of Acts. He is awaiting trial. We can be pretty sure he was found guilty and was put to death. And we can be pretty sure he knew that that was the likely outcome. And the Philippians to whom he was writing knew, too. So they had sent him something. It was a gift. It was to show their love and concern. They sent it with a man named Epaphroditus.
So Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a thank you letter. “Thanks for the gift. Thanks for your concern.” And since Paul is really a preacher at heart, he keeps writing. The first chapter is personal and chummy. It’s his greeting. By chapter two he has hit his stride. He’s preaching now. In Philippians 2 we find one of the great passages of the Bible.
Have this mind among you which you saw in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
That’s a great passage of scripture, but that’s not the passage of scripture we’re looking at this morning. We’re skipping ahead to chapter 4 where Paul again says, “Rejoice!” “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Then he gives his own experience as a testimony that it is possible to rejoice in any and all circumstances. He says, “You think you have bad days? I have a bad day every day. I’m locked up. I’m not going to get out of here. I’m going to die. But I can still rejoice. And if I can, so can you!” Here are his actual words:
I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me.
So rejoice. No matter what happens. No matter if things don’t go your way. It doesn’t matter. “Rejoice; again I say, Rejoice.”
Paul has done something sneaky here. And something brilliant. He has taken a cliché and turned it into a command.
But there’s something even more important going on here. He is also telling us that our convictions can be stronger than our feelings. That is huge. Especially for us. Because we live in an age where feelings are given way too much power. It’s been called “the tyranny of feeling.” Not that feelings shouldn’t matter. Healthy people are in touch with their feelings and express their feelings. But feelings should never control us. We often hear advice like, “Go with your feelings”. Not good advice, Paul would say.
Pop psychology can get us in trouble. It’s good to be in touch with our feelings and express our feelings but it’s not good to let our feelings rule our lives. If I let my feelings rule my life, I would still be in bed this morning. The life God has for us to live takes the backbone and the will power to go beyond our feelings and to aim for something higher in life than just whatever feels good.
Jean-Dominique Bauby was a well-known French journalist. At the age of 43 he suffered a massive stroke. He just woke up one morning and couldn’t move. He was totally paralyzed. He was given a computer that he could operate by blinking his eyes. With that computer he wrote a book.
There was a review of this book. The reviewer wrote that having heard the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby he had called back the invitations to his pity party. He recalled what a friend had said to him once. It had really bothered him at the time. He was having a bad day. He was feeling depressed. He was moaning and complaining to this friend. And the friend had said, “Who cares?” He was shocked. He couldn’t believe his ears. That was not very nice. Friends don’t talk to friends that way. But those words woke him up. It was just what he needed. His problems were pretty small in the big scheme of things. A lot of people had things a whole lot worse. When his friend said, “Who cares?” it helped him put things into perspective.
We sing in church,
We share each other’s woes,
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.
That’s true. That’s exactly what we ought to do. The church ought to be a fellowship of caring. We ought to care for one another. And God cares for us. The Bible is clear about that. God knows each one of us, God knows what we are going through, and God cares. God wants to wipe the tears from our eyes.
But at some point both our friends and our God have had enough of this and have to say what we need to hear. That it’s time for us to stop feeling and start acting. It’s time to stop focusing on “me” and start thinking about somebody else.
There’s an old rabbinic story. It says that the difference between heaven and hell is not the size of the portions you get to eat. You get the same amount of food in both places. The difference is that in hell people never have enough to feed themselves and in heaven people somehow always have plenty for themselves and also plenty to share with others.
Hell is being unable to get outside of yourself. It’s being trapped in yourself. Heaven is being freed from self so you can reach out and touch other people. And that’s what being a Christian is all about. In Christ, we are set free from the prison of self. We are set free from the prison of guilt and regret over the past. We are set free from the prison of fear and despair over the future. In Christ, there is power available that makes this possible. “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). Paul tells us that as Christians we need to move as quickly as possible from an old, self-defeating, unproductive way of living into a new life, a rich and joyful life that God is offering us through Christ who strengthens us.
There will still be sorrow. No one gets through life without sorrow. When sorrow enters our lives, we need to take time to be sorrowful. But not to wallow in our sorrow. Not to set up a tent and live there. Because the day will come that is ripe with possibilities for new joy. God wants us to seize that day.
There will be anger in our lives. Sometimes that anger is justified. It’s not a bad thing to be angry. But there will come a day when there can be reconciliation. God wants us to seize that day.
There will be hurt feelings in our lives. But there will come a day when we can say that it no longer matters. God wants us to seize that day.
A man wrote about a painful divorce. One day his wife just left him. He never really understood why. She said she still loved him but she just didn’t want to live with him anymore. It was painful, even more painful because it was all so confusing. He grieved over his loss. Then one day he met a woman who had been through much the same thing. Her husband had walked out on her. Only in her case, it had been 14 years ago. But it was still fresh. She lived as if it had happened last week.
Here’s what this man wrote: “When I was young, I had this terrible habit of picking scabs to test the pain and see what the scar looked like. The result was always the same. There was pain, there was bleeding, and the healing would have to start all over again.” He said, “There are people like that who are determined to keep old wounds open. They don’t want to heal.”
There is a time for sorrow. There is a time for guilt. There is a time for anger. There is even a time for self-pity. But there is also a time for something else. Because you have heard the Gospel. You hear it every Sunday when you come to church. And so you know, God has forgiven you. God has put the past behind you. God wants you to live your life to the fullest potential. God doesn’t want you to waste away this beautiful gift he has given you. The days are going by, they are dwindling down. One day you are going to wake up and discover there are precious few days left.
There comes a time when you have to let go of the past and rejoice in the life God has given you. “Again I say, Rejoice!”
And have a nice day. Because a nice day is available to you. If you want one. I picture Paul sitting in that prison cell. Things weren’t exactly great in his life. But I picture him having a nice day. Because the goodness of God is stronger than the circumstances of adversity. Paul could write about that because Paul had lived that. And you can live that, too. If you believe God is in charge, you will find a way to rejoice.
And while you’re at it, be nice to somebody. I know that’s a small thing, but it’s also a big thing. You might even want to tell somebody to have a nice day. Most people won’t hit you if you tell them that. Tell someone who waits on you that they are doing a wonderful job. Give them a bigger tip. Better yet, tell them you think they are wonderful. Tell them you think they are beautiful. Treat them like the royalty that in God’s eyes they are.
You may not feel like it. That could be because you are still on your way out of the prison of yourself. It may take awhile. In the meantime, practice. Maybe stand in front of a mirror and say to the person you see in the mirror, “You are wonderful. You are beautiful.” See how good it feels. Then start saying it to other people. Be nice before you feel like being nice and it won’t take long before you feel like being nice.
“Rejoice!” That’s what he says. “Again I say, Rejoice!” It’s no longer a cliché. For Christians it’s a command.
Dear God, how easily we get so wrapped up in ourselves and our problems and our desires and our feelings. What a small, confining world in which we choose to live! Set us free, dear God. By your liberating Holy Spirit, release us from ourselves. Open us to this vast, wondrous world in which you have placed us. May we rejoice, may we spread joy, may we serve. In Jesus’ name, Amen.