Friday, November 21, 2014

“The Secret” - November 23, 2014

Texts: Psalm 65:1-4, 10-13; Philippians 4:10-20

Earlier this fall, we spent four weeks in Paul’s letter to the Philippians – one Sunday on each chapter.  We looked at a key insight or idea from each chapter.  Just for fun, as a refresher, I’ll mention those themes:

“Let the way you live be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” 

“Have the same attitude as Christ, who set aside his rightful place of power and became a servant.”

“I count all of my achievements and knowledge and pedigree as nothing compared with the surpassing value of knowing Christ.”

We ended with the fourth chapter, “Whatever is just and true and honorable and excellent and praiseworthy, think about these things.”

On this Sunday before Thanksgiving, as our hearts turn toward giving thanks, I want to go back and pick up the last part of that last chapter of Philippians.  Paul has been going on for several pages in this letter – and remember, it was an actual letter that was read in worship one Sunday morning at the church in Philippi – he has gone on for several pages and then finally, at the end, he gets to the occasion for his letter – the reason that he wrote in the first place, or at least the reason that he wrote when he did.  He finally gets around to a thank you note.

Paul addresses a couple of situations in the church, he has words of advice and encouragement, he urges them on toward faithfulness in Christian living, and then finally, at the very end, he gets to the matter at hand.  Out of concern for Paul’s plight in prison, the church had sent Epaphroditus to bring a financial gift to Paul and to help attend to Paul’s needs.  Epaphroditus, you may remember, winds up taking ill, becomes seriously ill, and once he is able to travel, Paul sends him back to Philippi, saying in effect thanks for your help but I really don’t need a sick deacon here on top of my other worries.  So he sends Epaphroditus back home with a big thank you note for the whole church.

Now, it’s not what you would call a good thank you note, but it is a thank you note just the same.  Sometimes you will get a card in the mail, and without even reading anything, you know that it is a thank you note.  Well, a thank you note or an invitation.  If it opens bottom to top bottom instead of side to side and it is a smallish card, it is probably a thank you note. 

“Thank you for the sandwich press.  Of all the wedding gifts we received, it is our favorite because sandwiches are the one thing we know how to fix.  P.S. We will be trying some other things.  Love, Bill and Betty.”  Now, there is a good thank you note.  It is short and to the point, has a bit of humor, and it doesn’t matter if everybody’s note says that their gift was the favorite.  It is a thank you note.  It is supposed to make the recipient feel good.

Compare this with Paul’s thank you.  He tacks it on to a rambling theological treatise, and even when he gets to the thank-you part he hems and haws and equivocates and goes on and on.

It starts out poorly.  “I rejoice in the Lord that finally you have renewed your concern for me.”  What kind of thank you is that?  I am thankful you have finally shown concern for me?  Very bad form.  Then Paul backtracks a bit, maybe realizing he had come on too strong.  “Well, you were concerned for me all along but didn’t have the opportunity to show it.”  It makes you wonder if paper and ink were in short supply, especially in prison, and rather than scribbling out and correcting himself or just starting over, Paul puts to paper something that doesn’t sound so great but then just goes on, trying to make up for it.  Then he continues, “Not that I am complaining; I have learned to be content with whatever I have.”  Remember, this is a thank you note, for goodness sakes.  If your spouse asks if you could write a thank you note for a gift the two of you have received, or if your mom or dad tell you it would be a good idea to send Aunt Maude and Uncle Newt a thank you card, you can’t say, “I’m not sure what to say.”  Because no matter what you say, it will probably be more appropriate and less awkward than Paul’s thank you note.
“I have learned to be content,” Paul says.  “I know what it is to have plenty and I know what it is to have nothing.  I’m not just banging on the bars of my cell asking, ‘Has the mail come yet?’  I know how to get mail, and I know how to get no mail.  I know how to have a lot, I know how to have nothing at all.  I can handle being well-fed and I can handle being hungry.  Either way, in whatever situation, I am OK because I can do all things through the One who strengthens me.  But at any rate, I do appreciate your concern.”   

Finally, the first actual word of thanks, such as it is, but then he goes on, “Not that I seek the gift.”  He just doesn’t know when to quit.  “I don’t care so much about the gift itself but rather your faithfulness in sending the gift.”

A simple “thank you” would have been a lot better, if you ask me.  How about, “Thank you so much for your gift.  I really appreciate it.”  But Paul does reference the special relationship he has with the church in Philippi.  “Out of all the churches, you alone sent aid when I was in Thessalonica.  Time and again, you helped me,” he writes.

Paul did not want anyone to have reason to question his motives.  He apparently got a good bit of criticism as it was, but to make sure no one could accuse him of being in it for the money, he paid his own way.  He was a tent-maker.  He didn’t depend on the generosity of the churches he served.  This church in Philippi was special; it was the only church that he allowed to help out financially in any way. 

Well, any way you cut it, it is a very strange, very weak thank you letter.  Part of the strangeness is that it had to do with money.  If money is hard for us to talk about, as we considered last Sunday, it was just as hard in Biblical times because there were conflicting ideas circulating, even in scripture, about money.  Wealth was a sign of God’s favor.  “The one who delights in the law of God shall proper in all he does.”  Or, it was a sign of corruption and taking advantage of the poor.  Poverty was a sign of God’s disfavor.  Or, it was a sign of faithfulness.  “Blessed are the poor.”  Luke tells about the rich man who dies, and poor Lazarus who dies.  Guess which one winds up in heaven and which one suffers in the flames of hell?

Part of the awkwardness had to do with the kind of gift, and then part of it had to do with Paul.  Paul is a giver and it is hard for him to receive.  A lot of us are that way.  He is not used to receiving, and he’s not good at it.  “Thank you for the gift.  You finally remembered me.  I know you were thinking about me before.  You just didn’t have a chance.  I don’t really want or need anything.  But I’m glad that you wanted to give.  Not that I needed it … it’s just really, really awkward.  But finally, he blurts it out: “I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”

Well, gifts are not easy.  We will be with my family at Thanksgiving, and while there we will do Christmas.  So we are coming up on a Christmas shopping deadline.  The clock is winding down and we have just got started in our shopping.  You try to find the right gift, a great gift, or in the end, at least a serviceable gift.  Of course, some people are harder to shop for than others, and most all of us have been on the receiving end of gifts that were – how shall we say this – underwhelming.

The whole experience of giving and receiving gifts can be very complicated.  With Paul, you almost get the feeling that here is someone who has had a bad experience with gifts.  Some of us can perhaps relate to that.  But at the same time, gifts can be a precious thing, a powerful thing.

In Greek, the word for “gift” and the word for “grace” and the word for “thanks” is all the same word – charis.  We hear echoes of it in numerous words: charisma, charismatic, eucharist.  Gift.  Grace.  Thanks.  The greatest gifts we receive are really not tangible items, not things that you can wrap in a package.  Joy, peace, kindness, understanding, friendship, loyalty, time, compassion, belonging, love.

Tucked into this rather awkward thank-you, Paul includes a very interesting line.  He says, “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.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

“I have learned the secret.”  It is the sense of being initiated into some secret society.  The New English Bible has this, “I have been thoroughly initiated.”  Another translation has it, “I have been initiated into the secret.”

What is it?  What is the secret of being content, of doing well in any situation?  What is the secret of living in plenty or in want?

The secret is gratitude.  Grace.  Gift.  Thanks.  “And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”  That is the secret.  To understand that life is a gift, that it is all a gift, and to live our lives in gratitude.

Paul lived with such gratitude that he really was content whether he had a little or a lot.  If you live a life of gratitude, if you are thankful for all that you have, then you focus on abundance and blessing, not on scarcity and want.

The secret of a relationship with God that truly sets you free is gratitude.  You will never meet a truly grateful person who is at the same time mean, or small, or bitter, or greedy, or selfish, or who takes pleasure in another’s pain.  Gratitude can change your life.

The great preacher Fred Craddock said that if he were on a search committee, looking for a minister for the church, and the committee was looking at a particular person, the question he would want to ask first, even before “Can this person preach?” is, “Is there any evidence that this person is grateful?” 

Our choir sang a marvelous piece this morning from Aaron Copland’s opera The Tender Land.  What I like about it is that the overriding feeling and image that one gets from the piece is sheer gratitude.
The promise of living, with hope and thanksgiving
Is born of our loving our friends and our labor.
The promise of growing, with faith and with knowing
Is born of our sharing our love with our neighbor.
The promise of living, the promise of growing
Is born of our singing in joy and thanksgiving.
And then,
Give thanks there was sunshine, Give thanks there was rain,
Give thanks we have hands to deliver the grain,
O let us be joyful, O let us be grateful,
Come join us in thanking the Lord for His blessing.
When we have learned the secret of gratitude, we can look around us and find more and more reasons to be thankful, and it can transform our lives.  No less a theologian than the actor Jim Carrey was quoted in USA Today: “I challenge anybody in their darkest moment to write what they're grateful for, even stupid little things like green grass or a friendly conversation with somebody on the elevator.  You start to realize how rich you are.”  A conscious choice for gratitude can change our lives.

The Psalms are a particularly rich expression of gratitude, and they are so powerful because like Paul’s testimony, the gratitude is not dependent on present circumstances.  Even amidst expressions of pain and hurt and fear and disappointment, there is still gratitude.  Gratitude is woven into the fabric of life, and when that is true, one can persevere and move forward, even in those dark moments.

For our closing hymn today, we will sing Now Thank We All Our God, a great hymn of praise.  It was written by Martin Rinkert in the year 1636, during the Thirty Years War.  The city of Eilenberg was hit by a severe plague and Rinkert was the only surviving pastor in the city.  At the height of the plague he conducted 50 funerals a day and he buried 4000 people that year, including his wife.  It was during that time that somehow, with a heart of gratitude, he wrote the words “Now Thank We all Our God.”

Gratitude is the secret that truly sets us free.

Psalm 65, which we read this morning, is a wonderful expression of this kind of gratitude that understands it is all gift, all grace, that all of life is reason for praise:
You visit the earth and water it,
   you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
   you provide the people with grain,
   for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
   settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
   and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
   your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
   the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
   the valleys deck themselves with grain,
   they shout and sing together for joy.
Look around you.  There are a million wonders right in front of us, every day, if only we will see them.  There are countless reasons for gratitude, not the least of which is thanksgiving for one another.

Paul may have been lousy at thank you notes, but he really had learned the secret.  The secret to living is really no big secret: it is gratitude.  Amen.  

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