“Finally, Beloved” / Philippians 4:1-9 / 15 October 2017
“Think about these things,” the Apostle tells his friends at Philippi. “Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing. If there’s anything worthy of praise, think about these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” You’re going to dedicate your inner life to something. In the quiet of your mind, in a place no one can go, you’ll have clips from old movies, and you’ll have memories, and songs, and words from books, perhaps even a few lines of poetry, hymns, the voices of long-dead loved ones. These things will roll continuously in your mind like ESPN on the screens at TGI Friday’s. You can pay attention or not, but there’s always something playing in the background of your mind. It’s surprising the things that repeat themselves in our quiet thoughts, the old injuries and joys. It’s astonishing the things that have marked us so profoundly that they now make up the background to all our wakeful thinking, and perhaps our dreams as well. You’re going to dedicate your inner life to something, and that thing will turn around and make you who you are, and you’ll make the world what it will be. And so, what will it be?
Well, what are the most famous movie quotes of all time, and a better question yet: Why are they so famous? Words get stuck in our minds, but most of the ones we remember best aren’t especially insightful. Earlier this year, I read a travel book by an adventurous Englishman named Richard Grant who made a long journey through the Sierra Madre Mountains of Northern Mexico. The Sierra Madre is a wild place, just thirty miles from the border with Arizona. It’s where Geronimo and Pancho Villa hid out, a place controlled now almost entirely by the big Mexican drug cartels. This book made reference to an old black and white movie with Humphrey Bogart, called Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which I then watched. This old film has the thirty-sixth most famous movie quote of all time. (Did you know the American Film Institute keeps an ever-changing list of those things?) The thirty-seventh most famous movie quote of all time is a lot more familiar to me. It’s “I’ll be back,” from The Terminator. But the thirty-sixth is from this old black and white western, Treasure of the Sierra Madre. And it is this: “Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.” A gang of bandits surrounds the heroes in those wild mountains, claiming to be police. Humphrey Bogart asks to see their badges, and the head bandit replies, “Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges.” Later that same week, my wife was watching reruns of the old sitcom, Friends, I even heard Chandler and Joey quoting that very line. And I had to ask myself, why? What’s so special about those words?
This set me off on a quest. What are the most famous movie quotes of all time? And are most of them just as empty and trite as the one about badges? As I said, the American Film Institute keeps a list of them, and it changes from year to year. What lines do you think might be on the list? Okay. Try to guess. Do you have a quote in mind? Topping the list as the most famous movie quote of all time, holding its own since 1939 is a line from Gone with the Wind, and alas I cannot repeat it here. But it begins like this: “Frankly, my dear…” The second most famous movie quote of all time comes from The Godfather: “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” Number three, hailing from the 1954 film On the Waterfront is, “I coulda been a contender.” Then comes, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” The fifth most famous movie quote of all time is from Casablanca, which my professor of Greek in divinity school assured us was the greatest movie of all time: “Here’s looking at you, kid.” Number six hails from my lifetime: “Go ahead. Make my day.”
What lines would you expect on the top 100 list? There’s nothing wise in any of these words, is there? There’s nothing especially moving or inspiring. And they’re not even the words I would have expected to find on the famous list. What about, “ET phone home” or “Shaken, not stirred” or “You can’t handle the truth”? What about “Carpe diem” and “Fly, my pretties, fly”? What do words so uninspired get lodged in our hearts and heads, making up the inner landscape of our collective consciousness, while greater words, better words, finer words of poems, and plays, and yes sermons fly forgotten? And yet, those old movie lines are no sillier than the top 100 quotes that most of us replay in our quiet thoughts, day after day: things people told us, things we told ourselves…
Oh, the places where people get themselves stuck, the moments in time that stretch on forever because we cannot stop dwelling in them, the old, old fears that should have dissipated long ago, the wounds that loved-ones dealt us, the same old stuff over and again, the disappointments we entertain, that settle into bitterness, the words that got lodged in our ears, that we hear years and years after the voice that made them has been forever silenced. We cannot unsee, or unhear, or unlive the things we have known in life. But we can choose which of those things to put on the loop that circulates daily through our minds. We choose which things in life we will dwell upon. Make it good.
The passage we’ve just read from Philippians is just an excerpt from a private letter that Saint Paul wrote to his faraway friends, and it rings with all the hope and passion that only real paper letters can express. Are there words wiser and more poetic than these? “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but make your prayers to God, and the peace of God which passes understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. 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, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
All the way back in the first century, Paul’s aware of the basic technique that today we call “cognitive behavioral therapy.” In churches, back in the 1950s and 60s, it was known as “The Power of Positive Thinking.” It’s often derided as so much fluff by religious people today. And yet, this is not Norman Vincent Peale or Little Orphan Annie speaking. This is the grave old Apostle Paul. He’s not a starry-eyed, frivolous man. He is speaking wisdom here, for we all have an inner life that the world does not see. We all have a hidden life, an interior life, that can be observed in our actions and words. We are all of us the masters of a small domain within our own spirits and minds. Things we think about, things we dwell upon, these things make us who we are, as we collectively set about the task of making the world what it is. We can wreck our lives by dwelling on all that scares us, then together wreck our world—and perhaps that is exactly what’s happening in our times. Or we can participate in healing our lives by dwelling on things of joy; then together heal our world.
I have a friend who always gets depressed in October. Autumn is a time to dwell upon the limits of things. A leaf has its limits, and after its one green season, it makes the world lovely in its parting, painting a common roadside meadow with deep reds, or yellows, or oranges. That beauty is its swan song, and after one bright week it falls back to the earth from which it came. A garden has its limits, and its most abundant yield comes just before it fades into chilly November browns and grays. We, all of us, have our limits. Youth ignores them and age tries to hide them, because deep down we know that those limits are born of the fact that we are finite. Who can bear to look upon his or her own finitude? There’s a line in the movie Little Children where the elderly mother of a mentally stunted, middle-aged man is aware that she’s going to die soon. I haven’t been able to find the line anywhere on the Internet, but I recall the gist. She looks at the son she loves and worries about, the one she must finally leave to the world where he never fit in, and she says, “You’re amazing. All people are amazing because they manage to keep on living even though they know that someday everything they love will be gone.” We’re all vaguely aware that we too march toward the great unknown. And so, we erect barriers to keep us sane. We buy insurance. We think about other things. Our culture tries very hard to convince us that we can live forever, and in ourselves we know that we cannot. And yet, for all of that, for all the great lengths we go to in order to hide from our own limitations, many of us spend our good years, our healthy years, dwelling not on the things of life, but on the things of death! The anxieties, the fears, the losses, all the things that might go wrong, the tensions and the griefs.
In the 20th century, our world discovered the limits of human progress. In Flanders Fields, and Dresden, and Coventry, and My Lai in Vietnam, we learned that eternal progress is not forever the glorious human lot. In our brightest advancements, darkness is still with us. We could land one man on the moon, but deny basic human rights to another man here on earth. In the 20th century, we discovered our limits, our finitude, the presence of death within us, and we—as a world—have been brooding about it ever since, in our cynicism, our sarcasm, our jadedness. We looked into the abyss of our own darkness, and it scared us as well as breaking our collective heart. Now, you’ll notice that all the TV shows have tortured good guys. Superheroes like Batman and Superman now have a troubled dark side. In some ways, we’re sadder-but-wiser. In other ways, we’re just sadder, for death is what we believe in and see. Our jaded hearts now know the limits of human science. And now, when darkness presents itself—ISIS, the new racism, political impasses, North Korea, unbelievable tropical storms, all the effects of climate change—when darkness presents itself, it is all we see. And if there is nothing but darkness, you might as well live for gain and the pleasures of today. We know the limits of science, and human kindness, and of our own government, and our now-faded religious institutions.
Yes, we finally know our limits; that’s to say our finitude, the very presence of death within us. And yet, even through the most troubled times of human history, the prophets have declared it: “Love is stronger than death. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” We know our limits, but do we know the boundless life of God, which is also around us and within? Do we know that Christ’s kingdom is hidden both within us and among us, and that it is the home for which we long? Do we know that that kingdom still comes even amid our most turbulent days, our deepest sorrow, our darkest despair? Do we know that, though civilization itself is in a very bad mood, we can buck its authority, think in different categories? We can choose to dwell instead on the things of life, and by so doing, we will enrich life in ourselves and in our world. This is the true repentance. This is the true conversion: to turn our hearts and our minds not to the brokenness of humanity but to the goodness of God, present in all persons and things—even the broken, perhaps especially the broken.
Two patients showed up at the hospital complaining of the same symptoms. The first one was an optimist. The pain’s not that bad. Aspirin helps. The doctor examined her and asked, “How long have you had these symptoms?” The optimist said, “Oh, only a week.” The second patient was a pessimist, nothing was ever good enough. She could find a personal insult in a fortune cookie. She had enjoyed poor health for decades. The doctor asked her how long she’d suffered from the symptoms, and she replied, “Well, in three weeks it’ll be a month.
You get to choose the things that you tell yourself and others. You get to choose the way you frame your own story. Unless you suffer from some serious trauma or illness, you even get to choose the thoughts that you will entertain. You get to choose the words, the memories, the little clips from your life that you will allow to shape you/ As those things set about their task of re-creating you day by day, you will continue to shape the world around you, with each and every living creature you encounter, every word you utter, every action you undertake. Don’t you know that a future you will never see is being formed in you right now, that God’s life is lived in you? The world is shaped by the movies you watch, the music you listen to, the rumors you hear, the things you tell yourself. Oh, make it good!
“Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing. If there’s anything worthy of praise, think about these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” The gods of war, and of greed, and of boredom, and of fear are only too happy to be with us. They too will be there if we dwell on their darkness. But the God of peace stands by. The God of peace can be discovered even in the darkness. The God of peace is available to you, as near as your thinking. You’re going to dedicate your inner life to something. What will it be? Make it good. Make it good. Amen.