By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Philippians 1:3-11
Philippians 1:3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 7 It is right for me to have this mindset toward all of you, because I hold you in my heart, for all of you are shareholders in God's grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight 10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, 11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
This week, we look, once again, at Philippians, the apostle Paul’s letter to a Christian community with whom he had a special, intimate relationship. Last week, we looked at the conclusion of the letter. This week, we’ll look at the beginning. This is a letter custom made for the month of November because it is chock full of expressions of thanksgiving and gratitude; although that is not what we’d expect because Paul is writing it from prison. His circumstances are deplorable; and yet he is filled with joy and gratitude. So how can someone find themselves in such deplorable conditions and still be filled with thanksgiving?
It’s a question germane to our current conditions, right? This is the season for giving thanks and, as Christians, we want to be thankful. We know we have much to be thankful for. But when we look at the state of our nation and our world, when we consider that most of us will not be able to experience the holidays with family and friends this year as we have in the past, when we realize that our treasured tradition of gathering in our beautiful, historic sanctuary for carols, candlelight and communion on Christmas Eve is dubious at best … Well, it can be hard to muster that spirit of thanksgiving.
This morning’s section of Paul’s letter is known as the thanksgiving. Letter writing is a lost art, I think. Today we are an email, texting, tweeting culture. But letters were important in the ancient world. They had a very specific format. It was not unusual for letters to be written to a group of people, which Paul frequently does when he writes to his congregations. These letters would have been read aloud to the community. So they received, or experienced, this letter together, not by reading it individually on their own. They had a “shared hearing.”
When I was 7 I received a letter from my brother, Dan, 13 years my senior. As you can imagine, we didn’t do much together when I was little because of our age spread. Often my older siblings expressed annoyance with me… and, truth be told, I could be pretty annoying. But, around age 20, my brother joined the army. While Dan did exceptionally well with his classes, the physical training was tough for him. My brother had some significant issues with his feet and, in fact, spent a portion of basic training flat on his back in bed in the infirmary. It was from his infirmary bed, if I recall correctly, that I received a letter from him that I still have in a box of memorabilia back at the condo. In his letter, Dan expressed the fondness for me he, no doubt always felt, but so rarely articulated. He referred to me affectionately as “little sis.” It was a letter that reinforced our familial bonds. As a child, I didn’t think about how the letter functioned. I’m not even sure Dan thought about it in those terms. I only knew that I treasured it (and still do) because it caused me to feel cherished and beloved, not like a spoiled, annoying little sister.
Paul’s thanksgiving in this letter to the Christians in Philippi overflows with affection and gratitude. This congregation is the only congregation from whom Paul was willing to accept financial support. They shared a special bond and a sense of ministry partnership. They were in it together… all of it: the good, the bad and the ugly.
This week I’m continuing this November sermon series on Returning Thanks. Throughout this month, via the church website, Trinity members will share why they financially support Trinity AND we will celebrate folks who have supported our ministries with their time and talents. Together, we are “returning thanks” through our time, our talents, and our treasure.
Over my years as a pastor, I have sometimes heard church folks speak about church giving as a duty or an obligation; and certainly when we join the church we do promise to uphold it with our gifts; the gifts of our time, our talents and our treasure. We do take on that obligation. But Paul’s thanksgiving in this letter to the Philippians shows that financially contributing to the ministry of the church is so much more than a duty or obligation. It is a joy; a source of thanksgiving and blessing! And in this thanksgiving, Paul expresses gratitude, primarily, for two things in which he and the Philippians share.
First, Paul is thankful that they share affection for one another. Paul feels the love from this congregation. He holds them in his heart. In fact, when he remembers them, when he thinks of them, it stirs him to offer thanksgiving to God. Friends, one of the things we can be thankful for this season is the relationships we share with one another within this church. I realize that some of you might not be aware that Trinity has a team of people called Friendly Visitors. They look in on our members; they connect with members in care facilities or homebound or even just isolating during this COVID time. This past week Pastor Suzanne met with them via Zoom and here’s what she emailed to me afterwards. She wrote: “I am simply awed by the dedication and care of this group of folks.” I know I’ve mentioned many times in the past that, when folks in our congregation are going through a tough time and I call to check in on them, almost always they will remark to me about someone in our congregation helping them. We are a caring and diverse congregation. Now I realize that, for some of you, this is the only church you’ve ever know and you might assume all churches are like ours. But as a preacher’s kid, pastor of 26 years, and mentor for those entering ministry, I can assure you, our congregation is more of an exception than a norm. We embrace a wide range of folks. We have members with Ph.D.s and members who are barely literate. We have members with 6 figure incomes and members on public assistance or disability. We have people in white collar managerial positions and people who work on the factory floor. We have people all across the gender and sexual orientation map. And yet, we embrace one another, view one another as siblings in Christ, and delight in the varying gifts each of us offers. I often hear people say that they don’t like to give to church operating budgets. They just can’t get excited about supporting infrastructure. But here’s something worth considering. What if we viewed our contributions to Trinity’s operating budget as a commitment to cultivate diverse Christian community. In a world increasingly polarized where people are being indoctrinated to view those who are different as evil and threatening, can we even put a price tag on a community that encourages us to see the image of God in all God’s people; that teaches us to discover and dialogue, rather than defend and fear? Frankly, I consider that well worth my investment. When you give to Trinity’s operating budget you are giving to maintain a cohesive community of compassion and grace and hospitality in an increasingly divided world. Trinity is an oasis of mutual respect and honor in an increasingly disrespectful world. We have learned to love amidst our differences. Paul can give thanks to God even from behind prison bars because of the genuine affection found within this Philippian congregation. And we can return thanks to God even in the midst of a pandemic and economic and political uncertainty because of the genuineness of our love for one another.
Secondly, Paul is thankful because the Philippians share with Paul in the gospel and in God’s grace. The word used here for “share” is a Greek word Paul often uses when he references financial contributions to ministry. But notice that Paul doesn’t say they are sharing in God’s mission or God’s work or supporting the church’s programs. Rather, this is a promulgating of the good news and of God’s grace. Paul does not call what he and Philippians are partnering to do mission, ministry, or programs. Those are terms we tend to use, right? The church has a mission. The church has various ministries and programs. And we do. But at the core, all of that is an expression of God’s grace. I’m hoping that some of you recall what I often pray as we prepare to take up our morning offering in worship… although it’s now been eight months since we’ve passed the offering plates. I often pray that God will transform our giving into tangible expressions of God’s grace; tangible expressions of God’s grace in the lives of those in need. So, when we fund events like the Back to School Bash or ongoing programs like Fusion, what we are ultimately funding are tangible expressions of God’s grace poured out over our community. All that we do boils down to that: tangible expressions of God’s grace poured out over our community. As followers of Jesus, we have experienced the grace of God: to know that we are loved and valued; that God would stop short of nothing – not even death – to be in relationship with us. Everyone should know what that degree of love feels like. That is grace. And that is what we are stewarding and setting loose on the world when we contribute to Trinity.
As I close this morning, I want to especially encourage you to continue to engage with Trinity during this difficult time. I know that, for many of us, we are screen weary and Zoom weary. But making the effort to connect to the Sunday morning 9:30 a.m. Zoom prayer time always blesses those of us who participate. It strengthens our connection to God and one another and gives us a reason for thanksgiving. And reading Trinity’s weekly Eblast that comes out on Thursday afternoon continues to offer us ways, even during this pandemic, to pour out God’s grace over others… also a reason for thanksgiving. Our sense of gratitude and joy will grow when we maintain those strong connections to Christ and to one another.
Friends: our church leadership hopes that at the end of November you will turn in your 2021 Estimate of Giving card which has been mailed to you and is also available on the church website. But returning thanks is about a lot more than that pledge card. Ultimately, thanksgiving is a relational thing. We give thanks for who we are together in relationship with one another AND we give thanks that God has invited us to pour out his grace over our community.
Meister Eckhart, a 13th century Christian theologian, mystic and doctor of the church is known for this, one of his most famous sayings: “If the only prayer you ever say in your life is ‘thank you’ that would be sufficient.” Friends: let us engage in thanksgiving through who we are, how we live, and how we give. Amen.
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