This week we get to experience one of the great cognitive dissonances of American life. On Thursday we gather together to celebrate and give thanks for all that God has provided, and then we chuck it all out the window and are plunged in to the feeding frenzy of Black Friday. How strange is it that we can plunge from thanksgiving to discontent in less than a day? What would change about our Christmas season if we kept our mind focused on being thankful for what God has already done and don’t get caught up in the hype of the latest and greatest? How can we alleviate the worry that comes from allowing our expectations to be dictated by our culture? To help answer some of these questions I want to tell you the story of a guy named Saul, he was a citizen of the greatest empire of his time, not only that, but he was from a good family, was one of God’s chosen people, and got the best education. He was a real up and comer who was apprenticed to one of the leaders of his people and had his political enemies literally on the run! But it all fell apart on him when he ran into Jesus. Saul was blinded, cared for and healed by his political enemies, then driven into a vagabond life after changing his name. He travelled from place to place, spreading the gospel, but often had to do odd jobs like tent making to cover his expenses. Paul was in and out of jail, had his life threatened and was repeatedly assaulted, eventually having to appeal to the highest court for protection against his own people. Paul went from riches to rags, the greatest fear of our culture, and wrote these words of encouragement to the church in Philippi.
6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 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. 9Keep 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.
10 I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. 11Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:6-13)
If there was anyone who could have had worries back then, the Philippian church could top our list. Philippi was one of the most honored cities in the Roman Empire and had very close ties to Rome. The cult of emperor worship held deep sway and the fledgling Christian church had issues of conflicting allegiance that made it hard to survive in the city. It seemed like the key to peace and security for this fledgling church was to pay lip service to Caesar and keep their religion private. Paul warns them that the key to peace and security was not to accommodate the culture of idolatry, but to thank God and pray. This would lead to a sense of peace, that was not understandable (by them or us), but was puzzlingly visible. God’s peace protects us from many things. What would it look like if we had a sense of God’s peace on Black Friday? There is a false religion at work in our society that drives our culture. This religion is of course consumerism and its god is “the Market”. The tenets of this religion are that who we are is defined by what we have, that we deserve to have the latest and greatest and that if we don’t have the latest and greatest we are less valuable. If you listen carefully you will hear various people using the same language to describe the market that we use to describe God. Consumerism is a religion and system based on lies, covetousness, and greed. The consumer culture tells us that we are shaped by our purchases, and we have fallen for that lie. Just walk into any Christian bookstore and tell me otherwise. Friends, Christian stuff does not necessarily make for a Christian life. If we have to have a fish stamped on everything we own to prove we are Christians I have some questions about whether we are living a Christian themed American life rather than a Christian life in America. Paul tells us not to worry about the things our culture tells us we need to live “the good life”, but to trust God to give us the life that is best for us to live. During Open Worship we reflected on Query 13 from the NWYM Faith and Practice. “Is your life marked by simplicity? Are you free from the burden of unnecessary possessions? Do you avoid waste? Do you refuse to let the prevailing culture and media dictate your needs and values?” (http://nwfriends.org/what-friends-believe/the-queries/#Living) This query helps us to ask ourselves how we are doing with living lives marked by simplicity, and gets to the essence of what Quakers mean when they say the word simplicity. Often when we hear the word simplicity it evokes images of lists of what we can and cannot do or have. Quaker simplicity is not at all about things, it is about focus. It is about filtering out anything that distracts us from purposes God has called us to. The testimony of simplicity is a call to be content with what God gives to accomplish the calls that have been placed in us.
The average American is exposed to between five and seven thousand ads every day, and each one of those ads is designed to generate discontent, to tell you that you are not complete if you don’t have or use their product. In six months there will be a cooler, newer igadget better than all the rest, a stronger mutual fund that outperforms them all, a new distraction, shinier and more enthralling than the last. There will be no end to this idolatrous cycle. These ads also encourage us to compare ourselves to others who are billed as more attractive, healthier, happier, and wealthier than ourselves. Is it really surprising that we live in a discontent society? I would like to invite you to a little thought experiment to assist with the process of dealing with the deluge. Got your thinking caps on? This is what I want you to do: Don’t think at all about giraffes.
Paul also knew that the quickest way to get someone to focus on something was to tell them not to while waving it around in their faces. “Do”s are much more effective than “Don’t”s in helping people change their thinking. Paul is not telling us to ignore what is going on around us, but to give our attention to what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent or worthy of praise. Paul also knew that no culture is totally sunk in depravity. The Torah teaches that we are made in the image and likeness of the everlasting God and gives examples of God’s words coming from sources external to God’s people. There are two extremes at work in our culture: naïve optimism and cynical pessimism one side looks at the society around them and only sees what is negative this of course distorts their understanding and soon their gatherings resemble fortresses built to protect them from anything on the “evil” outside. The other side sees things getting better all the time and sees humanity as on a path to becoming better. Evil things are anomalies that crop up occasionally and are nothing to worry about. As much as it would be easier for us if either of those distortions were true, the reality is that life is much messier than that, and the truth is found only in sifting through the lies that exist beside it, and what is honorable can be found under the same roof as the deepest shame. In asking us to think about what is true and noble, etc. Paul is not asking us to deny the unpleasant reality of evil in the world; he is just asking us not to give it the power that comes from paying attention to it. This is the purpose of the Quaker testimony of simplicity: To deny the power of anything that distracts our focus from God.
It is not going to be easy to go against the flow of our culture. When I worked in a stock brokerage firm in Philadelphia, I saw many people who were very wealthy and it wasn’t enough for them. They constantly tried to find ways to increase their holdings and could never be content with what they had. This discontent was displayed most obviously whenever a problem arose and they felt like they were falling behind. I also have a friend back east that grew up in poverty. This person decided that the solution to all of their problems was to make more money. They didn’t have enough, but thought that more money and things would fix their brokenness. This seemed to work out well as they climbed the economic ladder; cutting ties to anyone they thought would “bring them down”. Eventually they climbed out of poverty, but they were still discontent because what they finally had still wasn’t enough. Fear of slipping back drove them to disconnect even more and focus entirely on acquisition. This eventually led to marital troubles when their spouse felt called to a helping profession. In both of these cases the problem wasn’t in the things or money itself, but was in the people’s focus on things or money. If we want the God of peace to be with us we will need to put in some sweat equity in retraining our minds and bodies to keep our focus on track. We will need to practice, fail a few times, lose our focus a time or two…hundred, get back up and try again. We must keep on doing what we have learned helps us refocus our attention on Jesus so that we can hold to our faith regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in.
Speaking of circumstances, Paul appreciated the fact that the Philippians were concerned about how he was faring in his imprisonment. In Roman prisons they didn’t provide food or anything you might need, you were dependent on friends and family to bring you food and clothing. So the Philippians were rightly concerned that Paul may not have been getting what he needed to sustain himself. In our text for today Paul gives thanks to God that they have the concern, but that the secret to being content is not to focus on your circumstances. The secret to being content was to focus on the real presence of Jesus in our lives. No matter what we come up against, no matter what heights or depths, wealth or poverty our circumstances travel through, when we see Jesus as the source of our strength in all situations there is nothing we cannot do. God has given us all that we need to live a Christian life. This Thursday: be thankful, and this Friday: be content. It might be hard, but we can do all things through him who gives us strength.