"Rejoice Always"

Proper 23.A.20
Philippians 4:1-9
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

This time of COVID-19 has been rife with challenge. There are so many things we’ve lost, from visits with grandparents and grandchildren, to celebrations ranging from weddings to the annual family BBQ. And yet, I suspect another way of looking at this unusual time in our lives is to see this as an opportunity for us to refine our values. What have you discovered is most meaningful to you? I don’t know about you, but “community” is one of the things I miss most. I plan, when we return to some vestige of normal, to not take it for granted.

In St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we quickly come to understand that the community of faith in Philippi is experiencing a time of difficulty. We don’t know the precise nature of the dispute between Euodia and Syntyche, but it must involve the whole of the community because Paul is writing to the entire church. What intrigues me is this. After telling these women to “be of the same mind in the Lord”, Paul goes on to advise them (and everyone else) to “Rejoice, for the Lord is near.” He says: “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.” Paul’s answer in times of challenge is to rejoice, to be gentle with one another and know that the peace of God will be with us. These were good words then, and they are a fine piece of advice for our present moment as well. Rejoice, for the Lord is near.

These words are good news, because we (like St. Paul), know that life is not always easy. So, how do we “rejoice” when the going is far from simple?

Every church I have had the privilege of serving in has been blessed with inspirational parishioners. Well over 20 years ago, I served as vicar of Emmanuel Church in Rapidan, Virginia. The church building was a beautiful gothic wooden structure, painted white and situated on the banks of the Rapidan River. I arrived after the second 500 year flood they had experienced within 6 years. Now, rebuilding once is hard. Rebuilding twice in six years—is devastating. There’s no getting around it. They did it. They even chose to make some changes along the way. With a grant from the National Endowment to the Arts, frescoes were painted above the sanctuary. They were beautiful, and symbolic. Those who had lived through this tragic time were depicted. One morning I brought one of our oldest parishioners, Claude, back to church so that he could see the frescoes. The two of us walked into the church and as the golden light of morning filtered through the stained glass windows Claude looked at the frescoes. I pointed out which one was intended to depict him, and he remained silent for a moment, and then said: “Now I will be in this church that I love, forever.”

Here at St. Paul’s, we are also blessed with inspirational parishioners. I’d like to tell you about one of them this morning. Ira Cleveland. He, also, was a man who endured tragedy. Dr. Arthur Worthington, in his History of St. Paul’s tells us that in 1837, Mr. Cleveland married Francis Whitney. Tragically, both his wife and infant daughter died the following year. Having lost his family, Ira was broken-hearted, and it was then that he turned to the church, and became involved at St. Paul’s. Mr. Cleveland never married again. He had no more children. Instead, he made this church his family and his home. When the first church of St. Paul’s was moved from Franklin Square and later demolished, Ira served on the building committee of the new wooden church, consecrated in 1846. Dr. Worthington quotes an article that describes the building: “The church was a beautiful edifice, of medieval architecture. The frame was raised on July 4, 1845. It was built with great care and possessed great architectural beauty. It was ninety feet long, and the tower, which was a copy of St. Magdalen’s College, Oxford, England was about 100 feet high, presenting an elegant and imposing appearance from every point of approach. The ceiling was filled with heavy tracing in bold paneling and richly grained in dark old English oak.” Clearly, it was thoughtfully and lovingly made.

Eleven years later, on the morning of December 7th, 1856, the church burned. The Rev. Samuel Babcock, along with Ira Cleveland and others rebuilt. This time in stone. Ira didn’t give up. He didn’t lose faith. His generosity continued. A lawyer and later, the head of an Insurance firm, he devoted much of his charity to this community of faith. To my knowledge, no photograph or painting of Ira Cleveland exists; but the truth is, we can see him all around us. In the lectern which he purchased in memory of Emmeline Babcock, in the chancel, whose pews he purchased and the extension for which he paid; in the bells of our parish that ring each week—yet another gift; as well as extensive donations for the building of this present structure. Goodness, he even purchased a rectory which he lived in, along with the rector’s family. All around us are reflections of a man who found his home—not in this building so much as in this community of faith. This church building which we call home—think of it as a portrait of all of the men, women and children, who have made it what it is today. In good times and in challenging circumstances.

Rejoice Always. For many folks, “joy” or “happiness” rests solely upon circumstances. “I am happy when I am surrounded by friends, when I have a desirable future before me, when I have a rewarding job, and so on.” Yet, if this were the case, the words of St. Paul in today’s epistle wouldn’t make much sense—because if we were to rejoice “always” it would mean that our circumstances must always be happy. The only way his command to “rejoice always” makes sense is if Paul found a source of happiness that would never fail. In truth, he did, and that happiness was found in his relationship with Christ. Yet, remember, it is also St. Pau who tells us that we are members of a church, and as such, we are part of Christ’s body—and therefore, for us it’s in the body, in fellowship with other Christians that rejoicing finds its fullest expression. Church buildings, (don’t get me wrong) they are important. Yet, they’re important primarily for one reason—they are gathering places for the people of God.

At this present time we are faced with an unprecedented event in our national and world history as we cope with the pandemic. I am confident there will come a time when we will stream through these doors. And what a day of rejoicing that will be. Yet, I tell you this—today also is a day of rejoicing for even though the times in which we are living are hard, we have come to understand that whether we are scattered amongst the lawn of the rectory or through the ethernet, wherever we might be, we remain the church of St. Paul’s. We are the body of Christ, members all and inheritors of the promises of God. We have ample reason on this day to rejoice. I close with the words of our namesake saint: “The Lord 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.” In his name. Amen.