Thursday, November 22, 2007

thanksgiving (philippians 4)

In the fourth chapter of Philippians, Paul is coming to grips with the circumstances of his life.

I have learned to be content with whatever I have (12)

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (13)

My God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus (19)

Here Paul is helpful: faith can be a source of strength to those who encounter the ups and downs of life. Fred Craddock, the wonderful interpreter of scripture, comments on the whether or not nature of the gospel: whether he is present with them or not, whether he is alive or dead, whether he is hungry or filled, experiencing scarcity or abundance, imprisoned or free to do the work of an apostle. A key lesson for us in this passage is that Paul is not defined by the circumstances of his life. I am reminded of an ancient Chinese story about a man who owned a horse. One day the horse ran away. The man’s friend said, “so sorry about your horse”. The man said, bad news, good news, who knows? A few days later the horse came back with a herd of wild horses. The man’s friends said “wonderful”! The man said, good news, bad news, who knows? The next day one of the wild horses threw the man’s son and broke both legs of the son. “How awful”, said the friends. Bad news, good news, who knows? Later all of the village young men were called into war, but the son with the broken legs was excused. Good news, bad news. Who knows?

I hear echoes of Paul in this story. He refuses to be defined by the circumstances of his life. In fact, he has a kind of indifference, a holy indifference, as he writes to the Philippians:

In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well fed and going hungry, of having plenty and being in need (12).

Paul knows who he is, and he refused to be defined, or overcome, by externals. Fred Craddock comments again:

“Paul is able to live in abundance, but it is not necessary that he have it. He is able to live in hunger and want, but it is not necessary that he be poor. He is defined neither by wealth nor poverty, but by a contentment that transcends both, and by a power in Christ which enables him to live in any circumstance”.

I am convinced that this is the word of the Lord for us this morning. Too often we are defined, overcome, overwhelmed, demoralized, impressed, shaped by external circumstances. Equally important, perhaps more important is what is going on within us. What happens around us is not as important as what happens within us. Paul is in prison, as he writes the letter to the Philippians, and yet he refuses to see himself as a victim, but as a person who is empowered by God in any circumstance. It is easy to allow the world to define us, to set the agenda for us. How do we get beyond this? We work on our own spiritual lives, we look within, we claim a radical faith in the God who is trustworthy, who will provide all the resources we need to live each day.

Working on our own spiritual lives: this is essential if we are going to mature in a faithful way of living. There is a wonderful story told by a rabbi: “When I started I wanted to save the whole world. I lived a little longer, and thought, maybe I will just save my nation. Then I lived a little longer and thought, maybe I will just save my city. Then I lived a little longer and thought, maybe I’ll just save my family. When I became an old man, and had lived a long while, I realized, maybe I’ll just save myself! And then it dawned on me: if I had tried to save myself first, then maybe I could save my family, and my city, and my nation, and my world!

We work on our own spiritual lives. If we want other people to serve, we serve. If we want other people to be more generous, we become more generous. If we want other people to increase their financial pledge, we increase our financial pledge. If we want other people to be more faithful, we become more faithful. Because Paul is working on his relationship with God, he is able to change himself, and his community, and ultimately his world. It begins with us, within us. We do not allow the world to define us. Do not be conformed to the world, Paul writes in Romans 12, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.

What does all of this mean for us, today? As individuals, we recognize that our self-worth is not defined by the externals, our houses, toys, degrees, perks, jobs, achievements. Someone has said that “we buy things we do not need with money we do not have to impress people we do not know”! What is the source of our self-worth? Our self-worth is rooted in the grace of God. And once we know this, we can live less anxious, more contented lives. Paul reminds us:

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (6-7).

The scripture can also help us in the raising of children. Our children are not shaped solely by their environments: they can also learn these principles. I have a good friend who is a physician in Greensboro. One of his daughters went to a school that had one of the worst reputations in town. Years later I would often see her seated on the edge of the court at Cameron Indoor Stadium---she was a sports photographer for the student newspaper, while she was an undergraduate at Duke. But when she was a child, I would often hear folks complaining about this middle school, its students, its neighborhood, even questioning her parents. They clearly had the means to send their children to any school. And yet they chose to remain there, and she flourished. The dad, Chris, brought it up in conversation one day, He said, simply, “you know, maybe she’s there to help the other children”. It’ s not the external circumstances in which we place our children. It is the faith that we give to them: that is what really matters.

And of course the scripture has implications for the church. I want us to learn the secret that Paul has learned, to be content. God calls us to live in peace. God invites us to rejoice. God will supply all of our needs. Today is stewardship Sunday, although this has been our focus in a variety of ways all year long. Stewardship is not an add-on to the Christian faith, Stewardship Sunday is not a speed bump in the Church calendar. Stewardship is biblical, it is at the core of a faithful way of living.

A few years ago Alan Greenspan, retired Chairman of the Federal Reserve, was asked shortly after coming to the position if he was nervous. He replied, “If I’m not nervous, I shouldn’t be here.” I do confess that I am probably more nervous on this Sunday than any other Sunday of the year. And that is because my own strength and resources, our strength and resources, are not sufficient.

What do we do? We depend on the grace of God to complete what we cannot do in ourselves. We trust God to provide for our needs. In a wonderful kind of way, coming to this day, each year, drives me back to the basics: trusting that God will provide, not being defined by external circumstances, remembering that my self-worth is rooted in grace.

Friday I opened the Observer (November 16) and came to the entertainment section--a Christmas movie was already playing. "Perfect for the holidays", the ad proclaimed. And I realized, Thanksgiving and Christmas have been fused into one long stretch, a couple of months, two or three billing cycles, the holidays-generic, an all you can eat buffet of marketing and consuming, giving and receiving. turkey and dressing, ipods and xboxes and so it goes.

And then I realized the complexity of trying to communicate a different message, the gospel, which is also about giving and receiving. I realized that you and I hear so many messages, see so many visual images, that what is needed is not a story that tugs at our emotions, we are almost resistant to that.

What is needed is a return to the source: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, my God will supply all of your needs. And as a preacher I have to trust that if I speak the gospel as clearly as I can, and get out of the way, it has its own power, and it will accomplish the purpose that God intends.

Despite the newspaper ad, it really isn’t Christmas yet, but we do observe Thanksgiving this week, and I want to share an experience. Pam and I were just starting out in the ministry, living in East Bend, I was serving four churches, she was a campus minister at Salem College. One of the churches was having their annual bazaar, at about this time of year. You have not lived until you have enjoyed a huge bowl of chicken stew on a cool fall evening in Yadkin County.

Anyway, one part of the festivities was their own version of the Newlywed Game, and since we were early on in all of that we were asked to be contestants. We are usually game for most anything, so we said, “sure”, but, to be honest, we really had no choice! Well, if you remember that game, the spouses are asked questions, and are to answer them in the way they think their partner will answer. So the men were outside, in the sound proof room, and the wives were given the questions. “What, will your husband say, is his favorite holiday?” I should admit that we were well into the evening, and the Carters were not doing well in the Newlywed Game. The question was asked, “What, will your husband say, is his favorite holiday?” A smile came across my wife’s face and she thought, “he’s a preacher, he will have to say “Easter”. “Easter”, she said, confidently.

We returned from the sound proof booth, and soon it was our turn. They asked me the question: “What is your favorite holiday?” And immediately, my grandmother’s turkey and dressing came to mind, and I said, “Thanksgiving”. At this point Pam buried her head into her hands and said, “You’e a preacher, and your favorite holiday is Thanksgiving!”.

But, like many of us in marriages, I lovingly stand my ground, and I still do. Paul is writing to the Philippians, expressing thanksgiving. In I Thessalonians 5, words that echo our scripture for today, Paul writes again:

Rejoice always, Pray without ceasing

Give thanks in all circumstances

For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (16-18)

A last word: I want to thank you for your support of this church in so many ways, this church that means so much to so many of us. I want to thank you for your sacrifices. And I want to thank God for your faith, and for our partnership in the gospel. It is all a gift. It is all God’s amazing grace.

So: trust that God will provide. Do not being defined by your external circumstances. Remember that your self-worth is rooted in grace. In all circumstances, give thanks. Amen.

Source: Fred Craddock, Philippians.

1 Comments:

Blogger The Tennis Hacker said...

Let us give thanks.

8:24 AM  

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