Sunday, October 22nd: "Grumbling or Gratitude"
First United Presbyterian Church
“Grumbling or Gratitude”
Rev. Amy Morgan
October 22, 2023
Philippians 4:1, 4-9, 11b-13
Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, 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. 9 As for the things that you have learned and received and heard and noticed in me, do them, and the God of peace will be with you.
I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I 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. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.Americans are good at grumbling. We have no problem complaining about anything and everything we don’t like. One artist turned negative reviews of our national parks into hilarious posters that included quotes from the reviews like, “too many mountains,” “trees block the view,” “no cell service and terrible wifi,” and “there are bugs and they will bite you on your face.”
According to a Gallup poll conducted last month, 80% of Americans are dissatisfied with the way things are going in the United States at this time. 58% of Americans are dissatisfied with k-12 education in this country. Only 20% of Americans think the U.S. economy is doing well. All three branches of the federal government have record low approval ratings.
You don’t have to read too far into the Bible to find that we are in good company in our grumbling and complaining. In fact, Israel grumbled so much that biblical scholars speak of the “murmuring” tradition of Israel, a polite way of saying they griped a lot while they were wandering around the desert for 40 years. It wasn’t long after they departed Egypt that they started “murmuring” against Moses and Aaron, asking them why God had dragged them out into the wilderness to die of starvation, wishing they could return to Egypt where they at least got three meals a day and knew where to find water, where they knew how to calculate their worth in bricks.
On the one hand, we could criticize Israel for their lack of trust in God. They had just been very miraculously brought out from Egypt, rescued from slavery and oppression. But if we look at their plight when the murmuring starts up, we have to admit they are not being entirely unreasonable. They are wandering in the desert without dependable sources of food, water, shelter, safety. They have bigger problems than tourists to Joshua Tree National Park who complain that “the only thing to do here is walk around the desert.” They are legitimately suffering and frightened. Their murmuring is coming out of an experience of scarcity and fear.
And the truth is, so is our grumbling. Americans have had a particular knack for reinforcing a scarcity mindset, such that, whatever our actual circumstances may be, our perception is that we don’t have enough, or we someday might not have enough, or someone is going to have more than we do or take what we have. So even though we live in one of the wealthiest nations on the planet, most of us grumble because most of us live with this experience of scarcity that has been woven into our collective psyche.
If anyone had real cause to live in fear and scarcity, it was Paul and the Philippian Christians. They actually had some terrible experiences to complain about. We don’t know exactly what sort of suffering was afflicting the Philippian congregation, but Paul alludes to them having the same struggles he is having. As he writes this letter, Paul is imprisoned, probably for the final time before his execution. They are separated from each other, being oppressed by the Roman government and perhaps even facing challenges from other groups of Christians. They are suffering, not for their own survival, but for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They could abandon this cause anytime they want and return to a cushy life as good Roman citizens. And they certainly could grumble and murmur about how difficult it is to live as a Christian in first-century Rome.
And yet, Paul encourages them, saying: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
Now, Paul does not say this to diminish their suffering or ignore the injustice of it. Paul also encourages them to acknowledge suffering and pain, saying, in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. He’s not telling them to buck up, shoulder down, and turn that frown upside-down.
Rejoicing is different from saying “be happy.” Rejoicing is something that comes out of deep suffering mingled with gratitude. The word translated as “rejoice” in Greek literally means to experience and be grateful for God’s grace. It’s a cognate of the Greek word charis, meaning grace. There is a different word in Greek for happiness, makarios, which means something more akin to blessed or fortunate. Except when Jesus turns this concept upside-down in his Beatitudes, one would not expect people who are suffering and persecuted to be happy. But they can rejoice, they can be grateful. They can experience joy in the grace of God that surpasses whatever circumstances they are in.
Gratitude is woven into the community of Christ-followers so deeply that even in suffering, even in want and grief and longing, gratitude is ever-present.
It is not gratitude for the suffering – for what it will teach us, how it will shape our character, or how it will witness to our faith. It is gratitude that in any and all circumstances, I can do all things through him who strengthens me. God can do things in us that we do not have the strength, the knowledge, the resources, the energy, to do ourselves.
And part of how God accomplishes that is through communities like the Philippians, who weep together and rejoice together, who suffer together and celebrate together.
That is what God is doing here at First on Fourth. This is a community that knows how to rejoice in all circumstances, a community that eschews the culture of grumbling and the tradition of murmuring for the opportunity to rejoice in the Lord always. This is a community that sits beside those who are suffering and even dying, and rejoices in their belovedness, in the grace God has given them to be a light in this world. You all did that for Karen last summer, and for countless others before her. And people in this community know that is what we will do. We will rejoice in every grace, as we walk together through suffering.
Our deacons will organize meals and visits, Steve and Jeannie will bring music as we celebrate Communion with those who can’t attend church, rejoicing in every grace of being together in God’s Spirit. Even when I could not be with you last year, when we suffered being separated for a time, you all rejoiced in welcoming new members, in discovering new gifts and skills for leadership, in making wonderful music and welcoming the community into this sacred space to rejoice with you. We rejoice in the presence of children – in worship and Sunday School and making music and playing in the nursery and in all the wonderful activities of Art Hub last summer. We suffered the loss of a music director we loved, and we rejoiced in the grace of welcoming Mira to this community. Every Wednesday on Morning Prayer, we make the requests of this community known to God, in prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving. Thanks to the initiative of Debby Morehead, our church now has a whole ministry of gratitude, dedicated to giving thanks, even when, like today, we are saying good-bye to a beloved member. We rejoice in the grace of Kathryn Renick’s 21 years with this church, even as we are sad about her departure.
But it isn’t just our community that suffers and rejoices here. People in this community are longing to connect in meaningful ways – through music, shared interests, exercise, and other community-building activities. We rejoice in God’s grace that has gifted us this incredible building to share with our neighbors, inviting them into this space to be made just a little more whole. Our neighbors who are unhoused or experiencing food insecurity, especially teenagers with no permanent and safe place to sleep, are suffering greatly. And we rejoice in God’s grace that enables us to serve at the Community Kitchen, advocate through Together Colorado, and provide for at least some of the needs they are experiencing. And we are beginning a new initiative, the Ministry Collaboratory, that seeks to walk alongside young adults in our community who are longing for connection and meaning, to rejoice with them and give thanks for the grace God has already given them.
It is literally unbelievable that this little church, with about 120 members, most of us in the second half, or even fourth quarter, of life, can do all these things. We don’t have an enormous budget. We don’t have a lot of deep pockets or steady funding streams. But what we do have is Jesus Christ, who strengthens us to do all these things, and so much more. I am in awe of this, every year I serve with you all. And you just keep doing more, giving more, caring more, rejoicing more. It is so amazing.
I want to close with a story from Frederick Buechner, in his book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy, and Fairy Tale. I shared with the bible study class a couple of weeks ago that this is one of my favorite books, and in it, Buechner lifts up this relationship between suffering and rejoicing. He writes, “A YOUNG MINISTER acquaintance of mine said not long ago, ‘There are two kinds of Christians in the world. There are gloomy Christians and there are joyful Christians,’ and there wasn't the shadow of a doubt which kind he preferred with his smile as bright as his clerical collar, full of bounce and zip and the gift of gab, and there is little doubt as to which we all prefer. And why not? Joy is at the end of it, after all. Astonishment and joy are what our faith finally points to, and even Saint Paul, that in a way gloomiest of Christians, said as much though he was hardly less battered than the Jesus he preached by the time he had come through his forty lashes less one, his stonings and shipwrecks and sleepless nights. Yet at the end, licking his wounds in a Roman lock-up, he wrote, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice’ (Philippians 4:4). But it is at the end that he wrote it. Rejoice is the last word and can be spoken only after the first word. The sheltering word can be spoken only after the word that leaves us without a roof over our heads, the answering word only after the word it answers.”
We have come to the end of our stewardship season, a season that remembers all we have been through, the suffering and the rejoicing, the challenges and the grace. A season that anticipates and wonders what more God can do with and through us. A season that invites us to participate in this community of rejoicing, so that we, by God’s grace, might shine like stars in a world desperately in need of light.
To God be all glory forever and ever. Amen.