Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice.And the God of peace will be with you.

— Philippians 4: 4-9

September 14, 2014

We are really good at death. It may seem like it is complex but death is actually very simple. We have all the words, the terminology, we need to describe how something dies, why something dies, when something dies. We can lay out the gory details of death in a relationship or in the church or in our bodies. We call it a mystery and we know it is difficult but we could sit around all day long and detail it. It turns out we have a pretty good handle on death.

But death is not the goal. It is not any kind of achievement to say we are good at it. I have shown no wisdom or faithfulness if I am able to list for you all the ways death has its way with us. Anyone can do that because death is easy. Rejoicing is what is hard. When Paul writes to the church at Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice”, he is not singing them an easy ditty. He is demanding a difficult thing. “Rejoice!” he writes. And then he means it so much that he says, “Let me say that once again: Rejoice!” It is easy to say; hard to do.

There are times when rejoicing is the easiest thing to do, when it is the only thing to do. The easiest time of all? Just after you have dodged a bullet. Like the other night when we had that amazing thunderstorm: the lightning was flashing and the thunder booming, the rain was pelting the ground and the wind was fierce. At our house it was so fierce it blew open our back door. Truly! Blew it right open and, before we knew it, there went the dog. You see, he is the lethal combination of a bad listener and a good runner. There we were, standing in the rain and the wind, the children are weeping, and everyone is yelling his name. No dog. Phil heads out in the car to search the streets, there is more weeping. Then, suddenly, about fifteen minutes later, racing around the corner, here comes the dog. He is sopping wet and smiling from ear to ear. Well, what can you do but rejoice?!

Of course the dog is such a minor example in the list we could make. We cannot help but rejoice when the doctor sits us down and says, “It turns out I have good news.” Rejoicing comes easy when we get the job or the promotion or the reprieve. But I still say rejoicing is hard. It was easy when the smiling dog returned. Want to know when it was hard? Four days later when he is covered in mud and jumps on the couch. The same happens with us: we wake up in the hospital ready to kiss everyone from nurses to orderlies because life is beautiful and how could we feel anything but joy. Give it six months though, and most of us could be caught railing our fists at slow traffic or gritting our teeth when that one neighbor catches us in the driveway again.

Our rejoicing fades, even the most earnest and heartfelt cases temper over time. Why? Why can’t we hold onto joy? It is because death is easy. There is nothing simpler than slipping into its grasp again. Life is what is complex and mysterious and unknown. Life is what we do not have a handle on. Gary Gunderson is the Senior Vice-President of Methodist Healthcare in Memphis and he was at a conference a few years ago where he was supposed to speak on the difficulties that face health care in this country. The speaker just before him laid out for the crowd the terrible state of racism around the world. He laid out the generational weight of the problem and filled the room with dread. Gunderson was so struck by the tone that he tossed out his planned speech and decided, as he writes it, “I wasn’t going to talk about death anymore.”[1] It wasn’t that he didn’t believe the speaker’s words or trust his statistics. Gunderson was certain the speaker was right, certain that terrible problems, including racism, exist in our world. The issue was: would he put his mind and heart to what was killing us or would he put his mind and heart to what helps us truly live.

Last week, this week, next week, we are talking about getting our house in order. And getting our spiritual house in order means choosing how we will spend this life. A disciple is one who follows but our lives of discipleship are not simply about following but about follow through. We choose, each and every day—each and every moment—whether our lives are going to be about death or whether they are going to be about life.

In order to be disciples, Jesus tells us to love God and to serve neighbor but this other choice comes even before that. It is not what enables us to love and serve, but it is the only way we can keep on loving and serving. We have to choose not to deal in death but to deal in life. We have to choose to rejoice. In moments of high spirits—the medical miracle, the exciting phone call, the wet and smiling dog—we rejoice in the Lord. But being Jesus’ disciple is not about the rejoicing; discipleship is about the “always”. “Rejoice in the Lord always.” It is not just the following. It is the follow through.

The medical worker Gunderson had his moment and he chose to focus on life, not death. Paul had his own moment and he chose the same. The language he offers around the choice has rung through the generations and sounds here even now: “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.” He might as well have said, “I’m not going to talk about death anymore.” We learn that death is simple. It is life that is complex and rich and active and we need to learn to see it, and talk about it, and think about it, and rejoice in it. Again, I say rejoice. Amen.


(1m) This is not a fight between you and death; fight between life and death and that is more than a fair fight

[1] Gunderson recounts this experience in his book Leading Causes of Life, 2009.