A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, Farmville Baptist Church, Farmville, Va., on October 9, 2011.
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
There was a man who was born into a good religious family. At an early age, he displayed great intelligence and a deep faith. His family, at a great cost, sent him to study under a world famous teacher at the best theological school of the day. After graduation, his career was on the fast-track up, and he was making a name for himself. But one day, inexplicably, he notified his parents that he had joined a new religious cult. His parents couldn’t believe it, and they disowned him. His former friends and colleagues now called him a traitor and rejected him. And as he constantly went about traveling to distant lands, he was exposed to danger everywhere, and often in hunger and in thirst. Several times, he was beaten, stoned, flogged, and jailed for his zeal in spreading the ideas of this new faith.
This man’s name was Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus, and now, he is under house arrest in Rome, waiting for his trial before the Emperor Nero, who would determine whether he would live or die. He had lost everything that was once of value to him—the privileges of his upbringing, his impeccable credentials, and his accomplishments. Now, he’s even separated from his friends and supporters, and his future is in doubt. By all rights, Paul would be justified for being a little down in the dumps. But as Paul sits down to write a letter to his friends at the church in Philippi, he finishes his epistle by telling them: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”
How can one be joyful in such a situation? How can one be joyful when one has lost and suffered so much? There is a “Peanuts” cartoon in which Lucy asks Charlie Brown, “Did you ever know anyone who was really happy . . .” And before she can finish the question, Snoopy comes dancing into the next frame – feet pitter-pattering, ears flopping, with a smile spread wide across his face – and he dances his merry way in front of Lucy and Charlie Brown while they watch in amazement. In the last frame, Lucy finishes her question, “Did you ever know anyone who was really happy . . . and was still in their right mind?”
Lucy the psychiatrist has a point. We don’t expect people who are joyful, who are really happy in all circumstances, to be in their right mind. Somehow, most of us are conditioned to believe that it is NOT normal and right to be joyful all the time. That’s because, in our own lives, we think about the bad things and we focus on the negatives even when things are going relatively well. Many of you can probably remember the times when you were having a great day, or getting good feedback from your boss and co-workers about your job performance, or making pretty good grades at school . . . and then someone comes along and points out a mistake you’ve made, or says something critical about you. Suddenly, no matter how good your day has been, you’re in a funk. You’re no longer thinking about how well things are going. All you can think about is that one negative comment, and it starts to lead you on a downward spiral.
Many of us have scripts that we play in the back of our minds in reaction to life’s situations. Many of those scripts are negative and they tell us: “You’re no good. You’re worthless. You’ll never succeed. People are out to get you.” I find that dynamic to be true in some of the clients that I coach. Oftentimes, they dwell on the negatives, either in their past or in their present. They focus on how far away they still are from their goals. Sometimes, they obsess about the times they’ve fallen short. In those cases, I try to bring into their minds just how far they’ve progressed, to celebrate their successes, to highlight the true, the noble, the lovely, the admirable, the excellent and the praiseworthy in their lives, and I ask them to think about those things. I’ve found that what we think can lead to how we feel and act.
Someone once said: When the Methodist minister falls down the stairs, she picks herself up and thinks, “That was an experience, how do I learn from it?” When the Catholic priest falls down the stairs, he shakes his head and thinks, “I must have done something really bad to deserve that.” When the Presbyterian minister falls down the stairs, she stays down for a moment and thinks, “That was predestined, I’m glad it’s over.” When the Baptist minister falls down the stairs, he frantically looks around and thinks, “Which one of the deacons pushed me?”
What we think can lead to how we feel and act.
One key to joyous living is to focus on the positives. That’s why Paul encouraged the church in Philippi to think about whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, anything that is excellent or praiseworthy. As we prepare for our church’s anniversary, that’s what we’ve been trying to do, as we look back on our history and especially as we reflect on our present. In our video interviews, Eloise Tucker, a 90-year-old, mentioned how praiseworthy it is to have college students in our midst. Nancy Vick and Doris Weaver identified our prayer ministry as true and right about our church. Several brought up how lovely and excellent our Christmas Eve worship services are. And John Slade commented on how admirably diverse and talented this church is. While we have to be careful about prideful self-congratulation, it is appropriate to recognize the positive things that are happening instead of focusing on the negatives regarding whatever we are anxious about.
Whenever we are not able to manage our own anxiety, it robs us of joy and peace. Anxiety is a manifestation of our insecurities, a product of believing the negative scripts that play in our minds, a result of our wanting to control things over which we have no power. The best way to manage our anxiety is to turn it over to God. That’s why Paul exhorts, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Whenever you’re anxious, pray: “God, I have anxiety over this. Help me to remember that I’m secure in your love. Replace my negative scripts so that I can hear your positive words, “You are my beloved child, with whom I’m well pleased.” Thank you for being in control of this situation so that I don’t have to.”
Pause and breathe in deeply the presence of the Holy Spirit. When I’ve done that, I’ve experience the peace of God in a way that I don’t fully understand. But in some mysterious way, I feel closer to the heart of Christ, and I like to believe that I’m thinking more like the mind of Christ. Therefore, I don’t take myself so seriously anymore, and I’m able to laugh at myself more often.
Can anyone be really happy and still be in their right mind? Yes, I believe they can, if they have the mind of Christ. The same Christ, who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant. The same Christ who prayed “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The same Christ who led Paul to affirm, “whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.” Joy and peace in the present begins with the presence of the living Christ within us that transforms us into the image of Christ. To a disciple who was forever complaining about others the Master said, “If it is peace you want, seek to change yourself, not other people. It is easier to protect your feet with slippers than to carpet the whole of the earth.”
What is robbing you of joy and peace today? As we come to the communion table this morning, may we receive the presence of Christ, so that we might be strengthened to put into practice all that we’ve learned from Christ and experience a joy and divine peace that transcends all understanding. Amen.
 Anthony de Mello, One Minute Wisdom, p. 41.