“Rejoicing When the Sky is Falling”
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, October 10, 2021
Reading: Philippians 4:2-9
“The sky is falling. The sky is falling.” I’ve heard that a number of times recently, haven’t you? There is oftentimes a hysteria, a paranoia, a belief that there is a catastrophe waiting. People sit on the edge of their seats, believing that the sky is falling. It’s a phrase rooted in historic language. The brothers Grimm coined the phrase originally, I think. It appears in Henry Penny, but I think most of you probably remember it from the movie about Chicken Little, who believed that the sky was falling. Chicken Little, if you recall, had an acorn drop on the top of his head and believed then that the sky was falling. He tells all the other fowl and creatures that that the falling of the sky was imminent and paranoia set in, and they were all easily duped by a wily fox who lured them into his lair and ate them. All because of their hysteria that the sky was falling.
You know, it is not just an ordinary thing, or something in literature, it is something that has been very much part of the experience of humanity in deep and dangerous times. During World War II there was actually a movie about Chicken Little and the sky falling. It was a warning to people not to get caught up in the vicissitudes of paranoia and hysteria, not to feel that the sky was falling around them to the extent that they could be easily lured by those who are engaged in war. The fox in the movie represented Adolf Hitler, who was waiting to pounce on those who were caught up in the hysteria, and because of this, easily lured into a lair of despondency and evil. When you believe that the sky is falling, you can allow terrible things to happen, and you can lose all reason.
This is something that became very apparent in an essay that I read in The Guardian newspaper a few months ago. If you don’t think that there are people who believe that the sky is falling, then trust me, there are, and it is powerful. This was an article written by Damian Carrington entitled: The Climate Apocalypse: Fears Stopping People Having Children. People worried about the climate crisis are deciding not to have children, because of fears that their offspring would have to struggle through a climate apocalypse, according to the first academic study of the issue. The researchers surveyed six hundred people aged twenty-seven to forty-five, who were already factoring climate concerns into their reproductive choices, and found 96 percent were extremely concerned about the wellbeing of their potential future children. That’s understandable, but one twenty-seven-year-old woman said, “I feel like I can't in good conscience bring a child into this world and force them to try to survive what may be apocalyptic conditions.” The sky is falling.
Similarly with the outbreak of COVID-19, its variant mutations, and the ongoing issue of the health and welfare of our society, I’ve heard people say, “Why would you want, in a world such as this, with such viruses present, to have children? Why would you want to bother with your academic work?” It’s frozen people. Hysteria does this. Don’t misunderstand me; as the article in The Guardian says, there are issues that we have to confront and that we have to face in our world. There are major challenges before us as human beings. But the problem is, when you get caught up in the paranoia that the sky is falling, you are paralysed. You don’t do anything, assuming that things are going to continue as they are, or maybe even get worse.
I think it’s easy to get seduced, to get entrapped into this belief that there’s no hope. I believe it’s easy to get caught up into inactivity, and most especially, to lose our faith in God. I say this profoundly to you this morning, that our passage today from the book of Philippians, is a call for us to re-engage with Scripture, re-engage with our faith, even when there are those around who say, “The sky is falling.” It’s a reboot, a refresh, and one that is so full of hope.
The book of Philippians, and Paul writing in it, was at a time of immense social change, and for the Christian community, immense problems. The church in Philippi was caught up in an argument between two women, Euodia and Syntyche, and there was conflict going on internally within the church. People were taking sides, and he says, “These are both good people, they have helped in the mission of the church, they’ve helped Clement, they have been a positive force.” But there was a debate going on, and we’re not sure exactly what it was. It might have been about becoming a Jew before you become a Christian. Or it might be around other things related to the relationship between Christians and society. Paul was concerned because a beloved church in Philippi was divided. He also knew – and you find this in Philippians 1: 27 – about the persecution that some of the new Christians were facing because of their faith. Persecution that in Paul’s case, resulted in imprisonment, and was where he wrote this letter.
So, if you were in Philippi at the time of Paul’s letter you could say, “the sky is falling.” But Paul does not dwell on that. Rather, he responds with doxology and praise, with thanksgiving, and he does so in some of the boldest statements of faith. He starts off by saying, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” He says it twice – classic Jewish emphasis. Say something and say it again if you mean it. “Rejoice in the Lord always.” The Apostle Paul knew that the letter he was writing to the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord, would go further. The letters of Paul, as we know, travelled extensively throughout the Christian community in Asia Minor, in Africa, and in Europe. He was writing to other Christians who were also facing problems and challenges, with this fledgling faith and this new community. So, when he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always,” he’s applying it not only to the Philippians, but to Scripture and beyond, and what he’s getting at is that regardless of the situation or issues that you face, take a moment to rejoice in the power and presence of God.
When the fox, Adolf Hitler, was growing in his power in the early 1930s, when he was creating mass hysteria and paranoia, claiming that the sky was falling, and trapping people, there was a famous Swiss theologian called Karl Barth, who had a phrase in an essay he wrote. With all the turmoil and nations wanting to take over nations, the conflict, and the hatred of Jews, and all that Hitler was doing, he said, “Do theology as if nothing has happened.” He was criticized because it was believed that what he was saying, was to behave with passivity, in other words, don’t do anything; don’t opposed Hitler. On the contrary, the essay suggested that in time of great struggle, you do theology, you do an examination of the Word of God. You focus on the source of your strength and of your being. Don’t get caught up in the sky is falling, the sky is falling, but rather rejoice in the Word of God.
Paul makes another comment to suggest why we rejoice like this. He says, “The Lord is near.” The Lord hasn’t abandoned his creation, or those that he loves. In the power of the Spirit, the Lord is there with the Philippians, the Lord is there with us now. “The Lord is near” also implies something (and this you find in all of Paul’s writings) beyond just the now. the Lord is now; beyond what we see, the Lord is near. The Lord is to return, the Lord is to come again. The Lord is the Lord of the future, as well as the present, and the problem is, when you say, “the sky is falling,” you have given up on the future.
This last week was Desmond Tutu’s 90th birthday and there were many accolades by many of his friends and confidantes. My Facebook was swamped with things of Desmond Tutu. Even being wheeled into a church service in South Africa. Desmond Tutu had a wonderful line, and it’s one you can just see him smiling as he’s saying. He said: “But God can only smile, because only God can know what is coming next.” Isn’t that beautiful? He wrote this during the darkest times of apartheid, when it seemed that the sky was falling. God can smile because God knows what is coming next.
Paul also says, “Not only do we rejoice because God is near, we also pray with thanksgiving.” With thanksgiving. Thanksgiving in the Greek is a “eucharistia” from where we get Eucharist, and holy communion. Last week we celebrated holy communion in order that we could give thanksgiving for what God has done in the person of Jesus Christ. So, it was prayer with thanksgiving, but thanksgiving that had a substance, a content to it. There’s no point being thankful and praying to nobody. You can be thankful for something, but you can't pray with thanksgiving to nobody. There has to be an object, a subject to our prayers.
Paul, in his ministry made prayer a cornerstone, especially when the sky was falling, and it seemed that all was doomed. That’s when Paul really got going, when he made his prayers of supplication and intercession with thanksgiving, because he believed that the prayers were already answered.
This last week, driving along in the car, I was listening to a chat radio station, and I don’t know why, I'd gone to it by accident, I guess. I must admit, my attention was caught. It was about Thanksgiving, and how to celebrate Thanksgiving. It really came down to how much basting you do of a turkey and stuff like that, which, you know, I wasn’t taking notes while I was driving, but it was interesting. Then there was a comment made, and I had to pull over, I was so upset. The host said, “Oh, and anyway, Thanksgiving is not a religious or a faith-based celebration. It has nothing to do with that.” I was internally, in my heart, apoplectic and I thought to myself, “is he right?”
You can make all the historical arguments for Thanksgiving, and in the United States the Pilgrims, and then how the earliest Christians settlers, particularly the Methodist put a high premium on Thanksgiving, coming to church, and bringing your cornucopia, your gifts, and that’s how it really began. That was the foundation. Maybe he’s right in the sense that, for some people today, it has no religious foundation. But you cannot say that is not the reason why we have it. There is a subject and an object to our thanksgiving; there is one to whom we are thankful and, in this country, on this Sunday, every single Canadian, regardless of their stripe, should be on their knees in thanksgiving.
When I hear, for example, that a staff member’s relative is struggling for their life in the Philippines, because they’ve contracted COVID-19, and they have to buy their own oxygen machine. They had a limited supply of vaccines, they have no steroids available for them, they have nothing to help them breathe. It is just pure oxygen and being in intensive care, with only 60 percent lung capacity. I say to myself, here we are in Canada, and for all the struggles and problems that we have, how fortunate we are to have what we have. When I talked to a friend of mine in Africa, who has been there his whole life, and says that there are people lining up to get vaccines, only to be turned away, because the supply is gone, then having to return home to areas where there is no sanitization, no social distancing, no masks available, and basically have their lives on the line.
I say to myself, in Canada we should be thankful. When there are people and nations in the world that go hungry, that cannot produce enough food to meet their needs, that there are regimes that stop them from getting the food that they should get, and I look at the abundance that we have, then I realise – even with the poorest in our society and I don’t want to diminish those – we need to be thankful. Gracious me, we should be on our knees this Thanksgiving. If you're watching at home, if you're around the table tonight or tomorrow with your family, have a prayer of thanksgiving and supplication and intercession. Make sure it is the cornerstone of what you're doing. We have been blessed.
What I love about the Apostle Paul is that he doesn’t stop with niceties, he says, “You must live thankfully.” You’ve got to let the rubber hit the road. It’s all very well saying, “the sky is not falling, we rejoice in the Lord, and we have hope, but now you need to change as a result of your prayers.” He goes on to say: “Finally, brothers and sisters,” – notice the gentle language he uses – “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things. Whatever you have learned and received or heard from me or seen in me, put it into practice, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Paul is brilliant. These are the Greek virtues – he’s appealing to a Greek world. These are Jewish foundations of the Torah – he’s appealing to his Jewish audience. He is saying, “Do these things.” He says to them earlier on in our passage today, “Do things in gentleness,” or as Tyndale put it, “Do things in softness, do things in kindness.” That’s the kind of compassion and just and right and pure and honourable and lovely world that we need to have. If we’re truly thankful, we’re rooted in truly thankful living.
An academic colleague in the United Kingdom sent out a true story to her friends back in May or June. It so took her by heart, that she had to share it. Two university students, both young men, one who came from an affluent family, had all the benefits of a paid education, excelled and got into this very prestigious university with high honours. The other one, who was a poorer student from a single parent family in the East End of London, got into this great institution on pure academic merit alone. But the two of them were bright. These two bright lads went to different colleges but studied the same program: Politics, Philosophy and Economics: Hard stuff. They both grew up in homes where the Christian faith was important. The affluent one in a community that had a cathedral, and he’d sung in the choir. The other in a Pentecostal and a Methodist home and worshipped in a local chapel in the East End of London.
The two of them end up at this prestigious university. The affluent one, who had so many benefits in his life, was excelling. He was heading to a first-class degree. The other one was stumbling, despite being brilliant. His mother was ill, he had siblings, he had to leave campus every weekend and return to his home while the other one was able to go to the library and study all weekend, take extra tutorials, and spend more time talking academically with others. The poorer one never had the option of having a weekend to think at the library. They met up at a coffee time at a Methodist church. They had gone to this service because they felt it was important. It was open during the pandemic, a little window of opportunity, and over coffeetime they talked, shared their stories, and discussed their course work.
As a result of that the student who had grown up in an affluent environment, offered the other three things: He said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do for you; I will go every single weekend to the library, and I will take copious notes of what I discover, and make copies for you, so you will have not missed out on the research. I will make sure that when I have an extra tutorial, I arrange for you to come along with me, and we set it at a time that’s convenient with you. And, I will promise that if there is a weekend when we’re about to sit an exam the next week, I will go to your home for you.” The two of them became great friends.
This was shared with me because it was an example, said the woman professor, of “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable. If anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about doing these things, and the peace of God will be with you.” Amen.