I have been spending time lately reading other people’s mail. Don’t worry; I am not a hacker. Far from it; I have a hard enough time logging onto my own online accounts, much less somebody else’s.
No, I haven’t been hacking and I haven’t been snooping. I have been doing some historical research, specifically about our church. With our 150th anniversary coming up, I have been looking back into historical records. I have not just been reading histories that were written before but trying to look at primary source materials - annual reports and business meeting minutes and photographs and old church bulletins. Did you know that we have kept a bulletin for every Sunday since 1947? Except that back in the 40’s, they really shut things down for the summer – they apparently did not even print a worship bulletin in the summer months.
I also saw a church directory from 1916. It had advertising. The local Buick dealer had an ad saying that the new Buicks were here, ranging from $650 to $950 dollars.
Such things are helpful and can give you a feel for the times, but you often have to read between the lines a little. Minutes of business meetings generally just stick to the facts – what action was taken, this person transferred their church membership, and so forth. Financial reports can tell a story, but it’s just numbers that you see on the page. Some of the annual reports give more details and context for what is going on – but not always.
But if you can find a letter, a personal letter, you often get a more nuanced and detailed view of what is really going on. You get emotions and convictions and hopes and dreams. In the last few weeks I have reading about our church in the years after World War I and basically up to just after the end of World War II. Statistical information was helpful, but as far as getting a real feel for things, reading letters helped in a way that numbers on a page could not. It is hard to capture things like love and compassion and disappointment and hope on a spreadsheet.
In our New Testament, we have a variety of information about some of the earliest Christian churches – in places like Corinth and Thessalonica and Ephesus and Philippi and Rome. I am thankful that the information we have does not come in the form of annual statistical reports or financial statements. Instead, we have a number of letters, many of which were written by the Apostle Paul. They were written to actual people, to actual churches, in specific contexts. There is a certain amount of reading between the lines that we have to do – I mean, it has been 2000 years, after all, and because both Paul and the church he was writing knew the situation, everything is not necessarily spelled out. But despite that, we can read these letters and get a real feel for what Paul and what the church were going through.
Now, letter writing has become a lost art. Has anybody written a personal letter recently? Maybe a note with a Christmas card, maybe a thank you note, but we don’t send letters like we once did. For one thing, we can make phone calls. When I was a kid, you limited the number of long distance calls and you didn’t talk very long, because it was expensive. Some of you can remember not even having a phone. But today, we can not only call anybody anywhere, anytime, but we can text and email and send facebook messages, or Instagram or Snapchat.
Which makes me wonder: if Paul were around today, how would he communicate with these churches? With a blog post? Would he skype with them? Or have a YouTube channel? Or maybe just use Twitter?
All of this raises the question of the purpose of Paul’s letters. Of course, there is a different focus given the different contexts and issues that various churches faced, but in general, Paul was communicating with churches he knew well, often churches he had established or at least had visited and worked with. He was writing people with whom he had relationships. He was building the bonds of fellowship and encouraging and teaching the churches. He also wrote to answer questions and respond to conflict and problems in the churches. In the First Century, if you couldn’t be there, a letter was the next best thing.
Sending a letter allowed for the congregation to hear Paul’s words as it was read in a worship service of gathered believers. It might even be read by a messenger that Paul sent the letter with. This means of communicating also allowed the letter to be re-read and to be passed on to others, even to other churches. And eventually, down through the centuries, to us.
In these opening verses of Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi, we learn a lot about why he is writing. But what really grabs our attention is the joy and thankfulness that is just exuding from his letter. “I thank my God every time I think of you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for you, because of your sharing in the gospel…”
There are some people that when we think of them, it just brings a smile to our face. There are some people that when we think of them, we instantly feel gratitude and thankfulness. We do not always share this. We have a certain level of Midwestern reserve. We want to be nice, of course, but we don’t want to go overboard. Actually, a letter sometimes allows us to express things that might be a little harder in person. Paul writes, “I thank my God every time I think of you.” Wow. It is nice to be on the receiving end of something like that. Paul is expressing gratitude, but he is also modeling gratitude.
Diana Butler Bass has written a book that came out this spring titled Grateful. She notes that gratitude is always social. We are thankful for something or to someone and often, with others. Even if we are alone, we might be thankful for the sunset or grateful for an old friend that we have remembered – or grateful to God. Gratitude makes us aware of connections and helps to build connections.
Well, here’s the thing: Paul is in prison. We’re not 100% sure where he is. He was imprisoned at least 3 times. This could have been in Ephesus early in his ministry, or Caesarea, or in Rome, late in his ministry. We’re not 100% certain on where he is writing from. But Paul is familiar with prison. As far as the Empire was concerned, Paul was a repeat offender. But when you think of prison, don’t think of our modern American-style prisons.
When it was time to eat, you did not head down to the prison cafeteria. There was no prison cafeteria. If you wanted to eat, if you wanted to live, you were going to need some help. You were going to need some friends. People on the outside had to provide your food. If you wanted to survive, you needed help.
There were other believers who were there for Paul. The church in Philippi had sent a gift for Paul. This was not simply a “thinking of you gift;” this was a way of keeping him alive. But it wasn’t just the money or whatever material things that they had sent – it was the love, the relationship, the connection behind it that meant so much to Paul. Paul says, “I give thanks for your sharing in the gospel.” It really was a team effort. Paul could only get by with a little help from his friends.
Now the thing about gratitude, the kind of amazing thing about it, is that it can become such a part of who you are that is isn’t really dependent on the circumstances that you find yourself in.
I have seen this time and again. A person is in the hospital, facing a difficult diagnosis. And they are thankful for the great care they are receiving. They are thankful for the good food. They are thankful for their doctor. They are grateful that we have a good hospital here and that they didn’t have to travel far to get care. They appreciate friends who come to see them. They have this amazing joy and thankfulness, even when they aren’t really feeling very well and the outlook for their health is uncertain.
What does Paul say later on in Philippians, in chapter 4? “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.” Paul has come to a point where he embodies thankfulness. Whether this is his first go-round in prison or it is later in his ministry, he has suffered enough and been through enough that he has learned the key to living in a difficult time. And in fact, he writes later in the letter to the Philippians, “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. 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.” The secret is gratitude.
And so as he begins this letter, he alludes to his present situation – to his incarceration. He says, “I want you to know that being in jail has actually been a wonderful opportunity to share the gospel – with the guards and everybody else here, and it has made an impression. And not only that, when others see me enduring my imprisonment - and not just enduring it but taking it as a great opportunity and living joyfully and faithfully through it – it has made them bolder in their witness for Christ.
This is not simply taking lemons and making lemonade. It is being grateful and finding reasons for giving thanks in every situation. Paul really could see the plus side of being in prison.
Now, while there is this joyful tone throughout the letter, Paul does acknowledge and deal with problems in the church. There was some division in the church that he addresses in later chapters. But here at the outset, he speaks of those who proclaim Christ out of false motives. Not false teachers, but leaders who seem to be in it for themselves. They were apparently down Paul because he had been arrested and were taking the opportunity to try and fill a leadership vacuum. Their motivation was selfish ambition. And Paul says, “So what? Whether there are ulterior motives or not, Christ is being proclaimed, and that’s a good thing, so I can give thanks.”
Giving thanks is always social, it is always relational, as we have said, and it can also be very communal. This weekend, families came together to celebrate at graduation as students received their degrees. They celebrated years of growth and education and a significant achievement. It was a time of joy and gratitude for a wider community.
In 2016, the Chicago Cubs had a magical season. And even a Cardinal fan like me could appreciate breaking 108 years of futility, 108 years of losing, and winning the World Series. The final game was played in Cleveland, but outside of Wrigley Field, people were dancing and hugging and singing and celebrating. Fireworks lit up the sky both in the city and in the suburbs and car horns were heard late into the night. Speaking for many, one young fan said, “It was the greatest night of my life.”
Two days later, the team joined the fans in the streets with a huge parade and celebration, with as many as 5 million people lining the streets. One local television station reported that it was the 7th largest gathering in human history. The Chicago Tribune was a little more restrained, saying that the numbers may have been exaggerated a bit by runaway enthusiasm.
What was interesting is that over time, the emotions that people felt really did not subside. But they did change. The euphoria and mass ecstasy gave way to a deep gratitude. The Washington Post reported:
The Cubs’ players and staff have grown accustomed to a strange phenomenon. Everywhere they go people come up to them with stories – of a late father, a grandfather, a mother, a grandmother, a brother or sister who was the biggest Cubs’ fan of them all. The World Series would have meant so much to them. Almost uniformly, the interactions end with two words: thank you.Cubs manager Joe Madden said that for the most part, they don’t want an autograph or picture. They just want to shake your hand and say thank you. (story shared by Diana Butler Bass in Grateful, p. 115.)
The secret, says Paul, is to be thankful, to be grateful, whether you have just won or whether you are in the middle of a 108 year losing streak. Whether you are on top of the world, or whether you are in a prison cell. Paul is not just mouthing the words. Writing from prison, his joy and gratitude mean something. And gratitude shared in the community can really change things.
Paul writes, “I thank God every time I remember you.” There are those people that when we think of them, it brings a smile to our face. This week, I want to give you a little homework assignment. A mission, if you choose to accept it. It is simply this: to express our gratitude more freely. This week, as you interact with people, express gratitude. And in your own way, in your own words, reach out to somebody this week and say, “I thank God every time I think of you.” Try it and see what happens.
And I guess I should try this myself, so let me say this. I was talking with someone this week that I had not talked to in several years. They said, “Wow, you’ve been at the church in Ames a long time.” I said well, I think it’s a good fit and Ames is a great place and the church is filled with good people and it really is a great church. I was bragging about you, but for some reason it is harder to say those kinds of things directly. So let me just say thank you to everyone here, thank you for all that you do, thank you for your caring spirit and for offering grace and for taking your calling seriously but not taking yourselves too seriously. Thank you for putting up with my attempted humor and for making this a church where I can be myself. I am thankful to God for every one of you.
Now, it doesn’t necessarily come naturally for me to speak like that. My default mode is that Midwestern reserve, but Paul has set a good model for us, and I am working on it. Amen.