I regard this sermon as one of the most important I have
Preached here at New Philadelphia.
Philippians 4:1 Therefore, my brethren, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. 2 I entreat Eu-odia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. 3 And I ask you also, true yokefellow, help these women, for they have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. 6 Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
One of my favorite Biblical texts is found in verse 6 of the passage before us:
“Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God.”
Let’s break that down:
We are to have no anxiety about anything. There is nothing in this world that should shake the faith of a Christian; because our lives are not rooted in this world, but in the love of God. No wonder the apostle wrote:
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We are to have no anxiety about anything, and we are to pray about everything. Nothing in our lives is so big that God cannot handle it; and nothing is so small that God does not care about it. A child can take anything, great or small, to a loving parent, and a child of God can take anything, great or small, to the Heavenly Father. God notes the fall of a sparrow (Mat. 10:29), and God numbers the hairs on our heads (Mat. 10:30). God watches over us in all things. The Psalmist says that God goes before us, and God comes after us, and God lays his hand of blessing upon us! We are surrounded by his care (Psalm 139:5).
A good friend once told me that, for people of faith, it is as if, “…God loves each of us as if we were the only object of his concern, and yet God loves all of us equally.” Therefore, when we pray we do not pray for ourselves alone. We also make “supplication” for those whose needs are even greater than our own. Dr. J.C. McPheeters used to say that “Prayer changes things, and the first change that is wrought by prayer is wrought in the life of the one who prays.” Dr. McPheeters urged his parishioners at Glyde Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco to “put feet on their prayers.” If you are praying for the welfare of someone, go to them; if you are concerned for the financial health of a ministry, like this church, or Sunnyside Ministry, contribute to that ministry.
It was Samuel Taylor Coleridge who wrote:
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
We are to have no anxiety about anything, and we are to pray about everything, and when we pray, for ourselves, and for others, we are to make sure that our prayers and supplications always include a double order of “thanksgiving.”
Paul says in so many words that, “We ought never to pray about anything without first heaping up thanks for what we already have.”
This can be hard. Sometimes we pray with tears rolling down our faces. Yet even then we pray with thanksgiving. For instance, Joy Davidson told C.S. Lewis that the grief we feel after the death of someone we love is an extension of the joy we shared with that person in life. Christians grieve, but not like those who are without God and without hope in the world. (Ephesians 2:14) Our tears of grief are not just bitter, but bittersweet. (Psalm 56:8) For we know that a great getting’ up morning is coming, after which there is no night. (1Thessalonians 4:13-18)
I have in my possession a book of sermons by the Scots Presbyterian Preacher the late James S. Stewart. It is entitled, “A Faith to Proclaim,” and I purchased it my first semester in seminary. Before I acquired it, it belonged to a young man who was a student at the seminary the year before. He died. Not long after enrolling in the seminary, he was diagnosed with a terrible cancer. Surgery was out of the question. He took round after round of chemotherapy. Though he was weak beyond words, he had continued his studies. In the book that I purchased, next to a passage on the resurrection of Jesus, and what it means for all of us, he had written, “I must share my joy.” Over the years, each time I am tempted to despair—for the small trials I have faced, I am reminded of his words in the face of death, “I must share my joy.”
Sometimes we pray between bursts of laughter. This is easy when you have won the lottery, like the young man who was a principal in a wedding I did some years ago. I do not play the lottery, because I am convinced that its existence speaks of the diminishing of the American Dream. Never-the-less, this young man was still walking on air. Of course, that is possible, even in the midst of difficulty. I once came upon a friend who had just closed his business, declared bankruptcy, and was sitting with patience through an auction at which his merchandise was sold at twenty-cents on the dollar. He was greeting his friends, and laughing, and smiling, and laughing. I asked him why he was so cheerful.
He said, “God is good! My burden has been lifted. I am down; but I am not out. I am also completely free, unshackled for the first time in years!” He found something to give thanks for, even in a difficult circumstance.
Let me say it again. “We ought never to pray for anything without also heaping up thanks for what we already have.” We give thanks in any and all circumstances because we are convinced that “In everything God works for Good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
Today, many people are concerned for the future of New Philadelphia Church.
Our glories days were less than a decade ago. Our really great years are scarcely in the past. Since the heights of our last Golden Age, like many churches, we have sent dozens of kids off to college. We have buried many of our friends. We have lost other friends to other cities and to other churches. This year our financial outgo has exceeded our income by $70,000.00. And shortfall that has nothing to do with the renovations we have made inside and outside. All that has been done with funds given for the purpose for which they were put.
With all this going on, what are we to do?
Well, for one thing we can continue to focus on the positive, not the negative. We are still doing a lot that is good and right and true. And give thanks for it. Our worship in two services still exceeds the highest mark we ever set in one, and if we were to fall back into one, though it would have advantages, we would certainly exceed what church growth experts call “our comfortable capacity.” (3/4 Full—which actually looks full!)
We cannot dwell on the negative! I remember once when I was a very young pastor, sitting in a circle of pastors, listening as they complained about their churches. I was equally discouraged about my place in the church I was serving at the time, and I half-heartedly entered in. I wanted to be one with the others, but it did not feel right to criticize my church. Finally, I just listened. The talk went from bad to worst. Not long after that conversation, I discovered a delightful little book about the church by Dietrich Bonhoeffer entitled, “Life Together.” In it, Bonhoeffer says, “No pastor should ever criticize his (or her) church. Our life together is all of grace. The fellowship of the church is the gift of God, and not to be taken for granted.”
Yes! That’s it!
“But,” some will say, “if we can’t criticize the church when we see her faults, then what? “
In his book, “The Reconstruction of the Church,” The late E. Stanley Jones says that, “Pastors and other church leaders are to hold a crown over the heads of the church until we all grow-up into it.” This is an extension of self-fulfilling prophecy. As a child, we become what our parents tell us we are. If they tell us we are bright, and attractive, and the world is our oyster, we grow up bright, and attractive, from the inside out, and the world is our oyster. If they tell us we are dull, and unattractive, and our life is going to be hard, we grow up dull, and unattractive, from the inside out, and our life usually turns out to be hard. Parents ought to hold a crown over the heads of our children, and pastors and other church leaders, and members, too, ought always to hold a crown over the heads of our church until we all grown into the crown.
Of course, that secret of the crown works both ways, too. I have been grateful that in each of the churches I have served, there have been at least some few people who held a crown over my head, and urged me to grow into it. When I came here I thought of myself as a good small church pastor, but I was in over my head. The first year was difficult. At the end of the year, the chairman of the Trustees came to me and told me I would be receiving a nice raise for the next year.
“What for?” I asked.
“Not for anything you have done,” he said, “but for the promise we see in you.”
That was one of the most critical conversations of my ministry. When I was taking Education at Carolina. They told us that girls respond best to praise, and boys respond best to criticism. I never heard such a crock! Nothing inspires and encourages an individual, or a group like a little praise for something done well. In Galatians 4:18 Paul says that, for a good purpose, “It is always good to be made much of.” Likewise, nothing hurts so much as criticism when it is offered unjustly, or when it is offered in the wrong spirit.
Does that mean we can never ever be realistic, and offer constructive criticism?
No! Charles Haddon Surgeon the 19th Century Baptist known as “the prince of preachers,” said that he would rather have one good critic, than 1,000 doting admirers.
How do you define a good critic? Many have said that a good critic was one who always offers 3 parts praise to 1 part criticism. That is just one more way of giving thanks for what we have, before we ask for what we don’t have. We give thanks for the gifts that the person brings to us, and then we suggest ways that the person might serve us better.
I think Paul practiced this principle. In fact, he took it one step further. Not only did he hold a crown over the heads of his people—and this is vindicated by the text of the epistle, but he believed his people, particularly the church at Philippi to be both his joy and his crown. Do you see the image? He stands on tip-toe to hold the crown over the heads of the church, and the church grows-up into the crown, becoming the crown above the apostle’s head.
Here again our text: “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. “
Now Let us return to this matter of anxiety. Some would say that we as a church have reason for it. We have lost an associate. We have lost an intern. We have lost members, and we have lost money. That said, there is no cause for panic. We have done what Joseph once advised Pharaoh to do. (Genesis 41) During years of plenty, we put something away, anticipating that, sooner or later, we would have years of want. As a result, after paying all our bills to-date, we still have c. $300,000 in designated funds. And that money can only be used to improve our physical surroundings. Thus we can use a small part of it to accomplish a few of the goals we have set for ourselves, like working with our Women’s Fellowship to renovate of our church parlor for multiple uses, and improving our use of technology. Likewise we have c. $300,000 in undesignated funds that we can use to cover short-fall, so that, if we choose, we can call Associate Pastor.
Let me sharpen that choice for you.
At present we are facing a real choice. If we don’t replace John and Aaron, we can shave a significant chunk out of our budget, c. $100,000.00. Then, hopefully, we would not have to dip into our reserves. I am o.k. if we decide to do that. I have a great team in Clyde and Christy; I know you will do your part, each of you. We can get by. But is getting by enough? Is it the right thing to do? Would it be better to invest some of our surplus in the right associate pastor, against the hope that yet once more, we can flourish?
I don’t have the answer; but I know enough not to be anxious.
Bishop Spaugh once told the story of a photo contest. Entrants were asked to submit a picture that best represented the word “peace.” Peace is certainly the opposite of war, it is also the opposite of anxiety. Well the winning picture was not a picture of sheep grazing peacefully in a field, it was a picture of a bird sitting in its nest, protecting its young, and the nest was built upon a limb that stretched out over a ragging river, in front of a thunderous water fall. That bird had peace. The kind of peace that “passes all understanding.”
In the midst of our present turmoil, I have peace, for two reasons.
First, I have peace because I know “the Lord is at hand,” and he is already at work, with us, in this circumstance to bring about some good. I have seen his careful workmanship in replacing the last five staff positions. I have seen it in the way he brought Joel M. Long to us as a short-term interim. Joel is allowing me—and he will enable our boards, to see this church and the way it works with fresh eyes. With the help of the Holy Spirit, he can help us strengthen what we have.
Second, I have peace because I know this church and its history. Our life together has not been one smooth road, always reaching from peak to peak. It has been a story of peaks, and valleys, and higher peaks, sometimes taking three steps forward and one step back, but always ever onward and upward. I believe that God is not finished with us yet.
Because I know this is one more chapter in the life of a church that I believe in, I am willing to work as hard as necessary to bring us into a new, more exciting chapter. But that is not the real question. It is not about me. The real question is how much you are willing to give of your time, talent and treasure to help New Philadelphia achieve new heights. It is my hope that we are not summer soldiers, and sunshine patriots in the army of the Lord, but those who are willing to face the bad with the good, so that good, and God can continue to lead us in triumph, a servant people lifted by service.
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.