I don't usually write a manuscript for my sermons. However, when Betty died yesterday; I decided to jettison my JBap sermon in favor of preaching on the Philippians passage. I began writing this post this morning before church, to help me get my thoughts in order; I finished it on Sunday night. I have no idea how much this represents what I actually said, because once my sermons are preached, they are over. However, several friends have asked what I said this morning. It went something like this....
Friends, this isn't the sermon I was planning to preach this morning. I had prepared what I think was a pretty good sermon on John the Baptist. It talked about the ways in which Luke's version of this story differ quite markedly from Matthew and Mark's versions, and what that might mean for us.
And then, Betty Marquis died yesterday morning. Her daughter-in-law Lisa called to tell me the news; I hung up the phone, and these words, from Philippians 4 came into my head unbidden: May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of God's son Jesus Christ. We use these words often in this Church. We use them as the blessing every Wednesday in the chapel at the 10AM service, and I've been using them as the Advent blessing here in the church on Sundays.
As I thought about this passage, and our grief, I realized that today, we needed the comfort of these words. I don't want to presume to speak for anyone else, but I know that today, I feel a combination of relief and sadness, joy and grief. Relief because Betty is finally free of the body which gave her such pain and grief in recent weeks and months, and sadness because I miss her. Joy because Betty has gone to be with God, and grief because she's no longer here with us. Perhaps you are feeling some of the same things.
They say that preachers often preach the sermon that they most need to hear. I know that this is the sermon that I need to hear this morning. I hope it's also the sermon that you need to hear. I found these words from Philippians comforting; I hope that they will be the same for you.
Paul wrote this letter to a church that he founded. He had a deep relationship with the people there, and loved them deeply. He wrote to them from prison. His primary reason for writing was to offer thanksgiving for a monetary gift they have sent to him. His secondary reason is to express his love for them and to encourage them in their faith. It's a short letter, and very beautiful. You could read it in one sitting, probably in 15-20 minutes. And I encourage you to do that.
The Christians in the church at Philippi faced some of the same issues facing the early church all over that region. There was some disagreement among church members. There were those outside the church who were trying to draw believers away from God. Christians faced persecution. Paul wrote to encourage the Philippians in all of those situations.
Today, as we gather together to worship God and join together in fellowship, these words that Paul wrote to the church in Philippi have particular meaning for us. Here the words that Paul speaks to the church at Philippi. Rejoice. Be gentle. The Lord is near. Pray. Rest in the peace of God.
Paul's words of exhortation serve as encouragement to us, as well. If you want a brief description of the life of faith, this one would serve.
Certainly, those words describe Betty and her life. She was a model for us of living out a life characterized by joy, gentleness, prayer, and faithfulness. She never doubted the nearness of her Lord. We who knew Betty and loved her are lucky. We had, in Betty, a living example of what living out this life of faith looks like.
That joy thing - it's complicated. Today, we lit the pink Advent candle. That candle stands for joy. There's some irony in that for us, I think. Today, we might not be feeling particularly joyful. Life as we know it has both sorrow and joy. Last night, when Betty's family gathered to begin planning the funeral, we laughed and we cried. I learned things about Betty that I'd never known. Did y'all know she was a speed demon?? That's how life is: God is with us in our sorrow and our joy. It's not up to us to fabricate that joy for ourselves.
In the coming days and weeks, as we continue to gather and tell stories about Betty, we will give thanks for her life and witness among us; we can honor Betty's memory by following her examples.