The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley
We are living in anxious times. A week ago, this past Saturday, the militant group Hamas, that controls the Gaza Strip, launched a series of rocket strikes that hit major cities across Israel, and sent waves of combatants across the border into southern Israel where they slaughtered civilians including women, children and the elderly and seized hostages. Israel’s response has been swift, retaliating against people living in Gaza, razing city blocks and killing scores of civilians in an effort, to turn the places where Hamas operates into (in the words of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) “cities of ruin.” Hamas, meanwhile threatens to execute hostages live on social media and Israel has given citizens of Gaza a mere 24 hours to evacuate, even as bombing continues. It’s a humanitarian crisis. As of yesterday, 27 Americans have been confirmed dead in Israel.
It’s a conflict that is both heart-rending and overwhelming to contemplate. It’s difficult to know when and how a war such as this will end—how involved our own nation will become, and how anything might be better for both Palestinians and the Israeli people when the conflict comes to a close. If there is anything to agree upon between Israel and Palestine, it is that these are dark and disastrous times.
In situations such as this—what does our faith have to say to us? In St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he writes: “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 concludes) Finally, beloved, 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. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
At first glance it would be easy to push these words away thinking they have little relevance to our present circumstances. In fact, the thought “Do not worry about anything” might even earn St. Paul more than a few scoffs. With this in mind, some historical background is important as we contemplate these words from one of our earliest saints. Eugene Peterson calls this “Paul’s happiest letter.” But there’s irony beneath this claim; for the fact is that Paul is writing to the community of Philippi from prison—of his four epistles written from prison, this is his last. He’s sitting in a cell, facing the penalty of death for preaching the gospel and he knows that, for him, there is not going to be what most of us would consider a positive outcome for his predicament. Yet Paul is not defeated, nor is he bitter, and he’s certainly not mournful. In this letter he reminds the people of Philippi that there is hope in the darkness and there is joy to be found in following Jesus. Paul, here, is not concerned about the possibility that folks might read his letters from prison and assume that he has somehow failed in his calling. He’s confident that in following Jesus, there is nothing—absolutely nothing—not the loss of freedom, hunger, fear, prison, pain or even death that has the capacity to shatter his hope in Christ.
Timothy George related an incident which sheds light on this this subject. He writes: “When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School, I learned preaching from Dr. Gardner Taylor, a pastor in New York City. I remember him telling us a story from when he was preaching in Louisiana during the Great Depression. Electricity was just coming into that part of the country, and he was out in a rural church that had just one tiny light bulb hanging down from the ceiling to light up the entire sanctuary. He was preaching away, and in the middle of his sermon, all of a sudden, the electricity went out. The building went pitch dark, and Dr. Taylor…he didn’t know what to say, being new to the preaching profession. He stumbled around until one of the elderly deacons sitting in the back of the church cried out, “Preach on, preacher! We can still see Jesus in the dark!”
We can still see Jesus in the dark. Sometimes it’s in the dark when we see Jesus best. When we have lost confidence in all that seemed to promise hope and stability in our world—this is the time that many people turn to look for something else. As Christians we look and see Jesus, a light in the darkness, heralding a path forward. Make no mistake, he’s there.
Lives of peace and joy, Paul tells us, aren’t dependent on what’s happening around us, so much as within us. And in this, I believe, is a clear response to the times in which we are living—a response which itself brings about the external peace we all so desperately long to see. We are to lay aside the pursuit of everything save whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable. Worry, for Paul, is futile effort—it helps nothing. Instead, we are to lead lives that reflect Christ—and then, and perhaps only then, we will find ourselves with a treasure,—a peace and a joy that cannot be dimmed either by a prison cell, nor by the anxiety of this present age in which we live.
St. John Chrysostom, writing in the turmoil of his own time, during the fourth century says: “It is comforting to know that the Lord is at hand…. Here is a medicine to relieve grief and every bad circumstance and every pain. What is it? To pray and to give thanks in everything. God does not wish that a prayer be merely a petition, but (also) a thanksgiving for what we have received…. How can one make petitions for the future without a thankful acknowledgement of past things?”
These words echo those of St. Paul who offered his advice to a people, like himself, facing persecution and the fear of death. They are a directive for how to respond to the crises of every age: “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” Look for Jesus even in the midst of the pain and turmoil of this present time. For, we can still see him in the dark. In His name. Amen.