Rev. Danielle K Bartz October 15, 2023
Philippians 4:1-9 “Surpasses All Understanding”
“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts.” Those are amongst my favorite words in the scriptures. I lean heavily on the peace of God when my heart and spirit is troubled by a broken and hurting world. And I find a great deal of comfort in knowing that the peace that God offers is beyond my ability to understand. It helps me to remember that there is a force for good in this world that is more than I can imagine or grasp. For me the peace of God is one of those mysteries of the divine that reassure me, rather than aggravate me. But I also know, and completely understand, for many the reassuring words of Paul ring hollow or perhaps even sound naïve. In a world as broken and hurting as this, claiming that the peace of God is real and yet also beyond our ability to understand, many feel that these words offer no comfort, rather just further proof that the religions of this world are so out of touch that they have become irrelevant. How can one claim that a mystery is comforting when what the world needs is something much more tangible? When so many innocents are in the path of war, when human caused climate change continues unabated because of corporate greed, when hunger and poverty and disease overwhelm, when chaos and disruption become the political norm, and when humanity seems on the very brink of collapse, how dare we claim that the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and yours.
I have been thinking a lot about this over the past week as images of war, and stories of unimaginable atrocities have filled our screens and newspapers. I felt weighed down, frightened, and anxious. I have sought out words of comfort from the wise people of our time, but I have struggled to find any that can settle me. And I know I am not alone in this. And yet, there is something…something in the mystery of God’s peace, which I know to be true and yet cannot understand, that continues to pull at me like gravity. It continues to offer me a grounding, something solid to stand on as the world buffets me.
It helps me to remember that Paul, the author of the words of our scripture from this morning, was not writing about the peace of God from a place of luxury or privilege. These words are not written from a place so removed from the troubles of the world that an intangible peace is all that is needed. No. Paul wrote these words while sitting in a prison in Rome, his fate uncertain. He wrote about the peace of God while waiting to find out if he will be executed for sharing the Good News of Christ. He wrote these words to a community of Jesus followers in Philippi, whose very act of reading them together in a worshipping community was illegal and quite literally life-threatening. Their reality’s, Paul’s and the Philippian’s, were such that praying for God’s peace was not abstract. The prayers were very real. A reminder of God’s peace was not shared in vain. What gave Paul the fortitude to offer this blessing? What gave the Philippians the courage to hold onto them? What gives us the peace we need today?
Here’s the thing. I find that I am most able to remember and believe in the peace of God, in the goodness of God, in the presence of God when I am most weighed down by the hurt of this world. Why? Because it is in those times when the power of God’s love shines the most brightly. Which seems contrary, I know. I read an op-ed in the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago that was written by a woman who describes herself as atheist – as not believing in God. She is unable to reconcile her need for tangible evidence with the mystery of God. Now, the premise of her article was about her contention that what America needs more of is atheists, because atheists question what is happening in the world and don’t rely on God to fix what needs to be fixed. Atheists, she wrote, are doers. And the world needs more doers. And I completely agree. We all need to do the work the world needs to find healing, not just wish for it. Now, I disagree with the author that those who believe in God are not doers. In fact it has been my experience that religious institutions and those who are a part of them are often the ones doing the most good in their corner of the world. The op-ed was full of generalizations that I found offensive, as most generalizations are. But, what I was most struck by was her list of reasons why she is atheist. It was a list of the realities of this world – climate change, war, poverty, and children dying senselessly. Obviously God cannot exist, she says, because those things happen.
And it is this contention that God could only be real if everything in our world was perfect that I find so puzzling. I don’t understand the need to relegate God to overseer, gazing upon some bland utopia, with no need to get involved and push creation to be more than we can imagine. Because, even when the images of war and terror overwhelm me, I cannot help but be amazed by the enduring nature of humanity, striving to do good in the midst of such evil. I cannot understand the fortitude it takes to offer aid and comfort when bombs are raining down. I cannot understand the resilience of those who continue to call for and work for peace when it feels like peace is unattainable. I cannot understand the hope people express by planting gardens in soil that governments claim to be disputed. I cannot understand how children can laugh and sing and play in shelters. Because, the peace of God surpasses my understanding. I can see it to be true, I can see the peace of God carrying the people who need it the most, but I cannot understand it. I can see the peace of God in your faces this morning, coming together to pray and praise. But I cannot understand it. I can feel the peace of God giving my voice strength. But I cannot understand it.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts. Those words are not naïve or hollow. Those words are not excuses for apathy. Those words, that truth, is a source of such power for good that there is no evil in this world that can overcome it. It is beyond us, but it is within us.
The same day I read the article that claims the world needs more atheists, I watched an old television show as I was winding down for the night. The show, from the early 90s, is called Northern Exposure. It is silly, fun, slightly weird, and very sweet show about a small town in Alaska. The town and its people are viewed, primarily, through the perspective of a New York doctor, who came to the town to pay off his medical school debt. In one episode, the doctor learns that his beloved uncle has died. In his Jewish tradition, the doctor wants to offer a kaddish for his uncle, the Jewish prayer of grieving. In order to do so, a minion is needed – 10 Jewish men praying the kaddish together. Much is made in the television show that the doctor is the only Jew around, but the town comes together to find 9 other Jews so that their doctor can mourn and pray in a way that would bring him comfort. In the end, the townspeople do it, they find enough people for a minion. But the doctor realizes he doesn’t want to pray with those strangers. He realizes that the need for a minion to pray the kaddish is about community, about not grieving alone. And despite his efforts to remain an outsider in that small Alaskan town, he cannot help but admit that it is his neighbors who are his community. In the final scene of the episode, the doctor has gathered in the town church with his neighbors, he dons his pray shawl and yarmulke and begins to pray the kaddish in Hebrews. While doing so, he asks those gathered with him to pray with him in whatever way feels right to them. We see some with their heads bowed, others standing up with their eyes open. We see some with their hands folded and others with their arms and hands up. Many are quietly praying words in their own languages and some are just still, holding hands with the person sitting next to them. It was such a beautiful scene I cried.
I know, of course, that it was a fictional show, but there was such a truth there that I have experienced personally that I knew it to be a reflection of something real. The peace that existed there was beyond the confines of religious tradition. The peace existed deep within the community. I have experienced that and I suspect you have as well. The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding is known in those calling for equity and justice. The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding is known in the possibilities of this world which we have glimpsed time and again. The peace of God which surpasses all understanding, is not a denial of this world or an absence of anxiety and fear. The peace of God which surpasses all understanding moves through that fear and helps us to see beyond it.
As I searched for words that would comfort me this last week, I realized I was looking for something I could understand, a peace small enough for me to grasp. And it was not enough. The peace I needed, the peace we all need, is so much more than we can wrap our heads around. But, when I choose to settle my feet on the solid foundation of God’s peace, I find that I can endure not only for today but also for tomorrow. My prayer for you my Beloved Community is that you can find the same grounding in that peace of God which we cannot understand and yet know to be true. Amen.
God of peace, your presence is known in our lives when we laugh and when we cry, when we feel brave and when we are frightened, when we are certain and when we doubt. For this enduring presence in our lives we give you great thanks and it is in that spirit of gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
God, our hearts are troubled by the hurt and fear of this world. We long for calm and quiet, for justice and equity, for an end to war. We wonder what we can do and fear that it will never be enough. But we also draw comfort from the reality that your peace moves through all of creation and by coming together as community, each of our small efforts will cascade into something extraordinary.
But for this moment, God, we turn over to you our prayers – those we have spoken aloud and those that are too deep for words. We open our hearts and spirits now to you in this silence, trusting that you hear and respond…
Good and loving God, your peace is beyond our ability to grasp and yet we know it to be true. So, we pray all of this in the name of our teacher and guide, Jesus Christ, who set us on a path towards wholeness steeped in grace. And we pray in the way he taught…Our Father…