10 I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. 11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 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. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.
15 You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone. 16 For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once. 17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account. 18 I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. 19 And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. 20 To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.
I’m going to start today with a confession. We’ll get to the joke, the scripture passage, the inspirational words, the secret of well-being, eventually. But first, some brutally painful truth.
I hate writing sermons. That’s probably not what you want to hear from your pastor, but it’s true. I’ve always hated writing, even though from a young age I knew that I was pretty good at it. I hated writing papers in high school. I hated writing papers in college. If you had told me back then that someday I would have a job where I had to write a 2,000 word paper every single week (usually on a Friday or Saturday night), I would have laughed and said “you’re crazy.”
Don’t get me wrong…I love actually preaching sermons. And I love reading and researching in preparation to write a sermon. It’s just the writing part that I hate. And the only thing I hate more than writing sermons…is writing sermons about money, about giving, stewardship, generosity, annual-pledge-drive-kind-of-sermons.
Knowing how much I hate writing this kind of sermon, I started early this week, sometime last Tuesday. And by started, I mean I sat there staring at a blank screen, thinking of all the things I’d rather be doing than writing a sermon about money and giving. And then I ran out of time, so I started again Wednesday. And then I started again Friday. And again Saturday morning. And again Saturday afternoon.
Why do I hate writing this kind of sermon more than any other? Well, for one thing, I’m not very good at it. This is the third sermon in a row I’ve preaching on giving, our third week into our annual pledge drive, and so far, of the 322 members of our congregation, only four people have turned in commitment cards. If I were being graded on a 100 point scale, my success rate right now would be 1.2%.
If we were putting together our 2019 budget today, based on those 4 commitment cards, we would be able to pay for the air conditioning bill…in the months of June, July and August…that’s about it. And I would need to find a part-time job on the side.
I’m not saying all this to guilt-trip anyone (ok, maybe just a little bit), but mainly to point out that as awkward and painful as it may be for you to have to sit there and listen to this (and believe me, I know that’s not why you came to church today) It’s just as hard, maybe harder, for me to stand up here and say it–to think of, and put together just the right words to say, or at least the very best ones that I can.
I suspect that most pastors feel that way, even if they never say so out loud, or (God forbid!) in a sermon.
I suspect that the Apostle Paul (the author of today’s scripture passage and indeed, the author of more than half of the New Testament) felt this way too. In all of his travels, planting countless churches, visiting and re-visiting them, writing to them when he was away, Paul always asks his congregations to give generously to the work of the church, to proclaiming good news to those who desperately needed to hear it, to providing for the poor and those under the care of the church community.
Why do I suspect that Paul (like me, and like most pastors) didn’t exactly enjoy asking congregations to give? One clue is the overwhelming sense of gratitude he expresses on the rare occasion when one of his churches actually hears and responds to his plea. Paul tells the Philippians in verse 15 of today’s scripture passage that in the early days of his ministry, “no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone.”
This generosity was repeated on several occasions by the Philippians, throughout Paul’s ministry. Many scholars believe that this letter is among the last ones that Paul writes before his death, looking back and reflecting on his work, to this people who shared a special bond with him.
So what do we know about the Philippians? In Paul’s time, Philippi was an important Roman city in the province of Macedonia (present day Greece). Paul sometimes uses the terms Philippians and Macedonians interchangeably to refer to the churches at Philippi. The city of Philippi derived most of its importance from nearby gold mines, which were an important source of income for the Roman Empire. While this also produced great wealth for the city, as is often the case, this didn’t mean that everyone in Philippi was wealthy. The “working class” of Philippi were probably those who worked in the mines. And most likely, these are the Christians to whom Paul is writing.
In another famous letter, to the wealthy Corinthian Church, Paul holds up the Philippians as an example. In 2 Corinthians 8, he writes:
“We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints.”
I find it amazing–and encouraging–that Paul’s journeys, which launched the Christian movement into Europe and subsequently to the rest of the world, were financed not by the wealthiest among his churches, but by people who lived in “extreme poverty,” and that they gave “according to their means.”
Of course, perhaps this should not be so surprising for people of faith. Over and over in the scriptures, God shows preference for small, simple gifts, given earnestly by humble people, according to their means. And then God takes these seeds and multiplies them exponentially into a momentum, a movement, a force for good in the world.
So in this light, I choose to see those four commitment cards given in the past week not as a failure, but as seeds. To those four individuals who, like the Philippians, made the first commitment in good faith, thank you. May we all follow your example.
The title of today’s sermon is “Simple Gifts – The Secret of Well-Being. With a title like that, I feel like I probably need to make another confession. I’m going to tell you what the secret of well-being is, according to the Apostle Paul…but that doesn’t mean that I myself have mastered it, or even come anywhere close.
I know that Pastors are often seen as role-models in the communities they serve, and honestly that scares me to death. I didn’t become a pastor because I have all the right answers or because I lead an exemplary life. It’s the opposite. I became a pastor because I have a lot of questions, a lot of doubts, a lot of flaws and failings. I became a pastor not to say “look at me” but to say “come with me” in the hope that together we can all pursue the healing, the wholeness, the well-being that God (and not the pastor) can provide.
So with that caveat firmly in place, hear the words of Paul, who is far more wise in years and experience than I. Reflecting back on his years of service to God, he tells the Philippians the secret of his happiness, the secret to his own well-being, in verse 11-13 of today’s reading. It is this:
“I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 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.” 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
For those of you who are like me, whose minds are better at grasping profound truths in the form of a story, here’s one that I think makes the same point:
A rich businessman wandering by the shore of a lake one day was disturbed to find a fisherman sitting lazily on the bank, beside his overturned boat.
“Why aren’t you out there fishing?” he asked. “Because I’ve caught enough fish for today,” said the fisherman. “Why don’t you catch more fish than you need?” the rich man asked.
“What would I do with them?”
“You could earn more money,” came the impatient reply, “and buy a better boat so you could go deeper and catch more fish. You could purchase nylon nets, catch even more fish, and make more money. Soon you’d have a fleet of boats and be rich like me.”
The fisherman asked, “Then what would I do?”
“You could sit back and enjoy life,” said the industrialist.
“What do you think I’m doing now?” the fisherman replied as he looked calmly out to sea.
For the past three weeks, we’ve been talking about simple gifts, and cultivating simplicity in our lives, our faith, and our giving. I believe all three of these things are related and interconnected:
When we simplify and declutter our lives putting our priorities in the right order, it makes the pursuit of faith (and the time required for that pursuit) much easier, much more simple.
When we pursue a simple faith grounded in love, letting go of complicated doctrines, theologies, rules and arguments, we become more inclined to lend our support, our time, and our material resources to what God is doing in our community.
And of course, when we give (and give away) what we don’t need, it makes our lives less cluttered, less distracted, more simple.
And the cycle repeats, the wheel turns. Take your pick where exactly you’d like to jump on board, but do jump on board somewhere. Simplify your life…your faith, and your giving will follow. Simplify your faith…your giving, and your life will follow. And if you want to simplify your life and your faith…then simply give. We have commitment cards, we can help you with that!
There’s a song that elegantly describes this cycle in terms of a dance. It’s an old Shaker song, written in 1848 by Joseph Brackett. It’s called, appropriately, “Simple Gifts.” I’d like to close our sermon series with the words to that song:
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shall not be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.