Today we begin our Stewardship Season. My hopes for the next four weeks are two-fold. On the one hand, I hope that each of us, as individuals, will prayerfully consider the stewardship of our time, talent, and treasure. On the other hand, it is my aim that all of us spend a little time thinking about our stewardship as a church. We need to know where we are, so that we can know where we are going.
Our assigned lesson is Philippians 4:1-13. As we look at it, consider that the Philippians’s church was one of Paul’s absolute favorites. We tend to forget that the apostle’s experience of church was not unlike our own. He loved all the churches, but he loved some churches more, and some churches less. Let me illustrate. About a decade ago I was a guest in a hunting camp in eastern North Carolina. Another pastor was also a guest. When he found out who I was he came to me and said,
“I hear you are a preacher. What kind of church do you serve?”
I told him I was a Moravian, and I served a wonderful church, this church.
He said, “I suppose that is alright, but I serve a New Testament church?”
I said, “Really, a New Testament church, what kind? Is it a good church, like the one that Paul served at Philippi? Or is it one of those problem churches, like Paul served at Corinth, where things were so bad that one member was living with his father’s wife?”
He looked at me as if he were suddenly far away, with his church, and said, “I never thought of it like that.”
Paul did. Paul was a lot like us. He loved all the churches, but he loved some churches more, and some churches less, and when it came to his favorite churches, the church at Philippi was near the top. In his letter to that church, and especially in chapter four, Paul is trying to encourage the congregation to new heights. He uses a number of powerful concepts, and, in English, the words that express these concepts all begin with “p.” I would mention three.
1. The first powerful “p-word” that Paul uses in Philippians four is praise. Paul tells the church at Philippi that he loves them and longs to be with them, and then he praises them, calling them, his joy and his crown. We know from the first chapter of Philippians that the church is Paul’s joy because they had been his “partners in the gospel” from the very first day that he came into contact with them. There had been some difficulties. Some of the leaders had disagreed with one another, but the good far out weighed the bad. The church at Philippi is Paul’s crown because together they had produced a lot of fruit.
Several times in his letters Paul imagines what it will be like to stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ. The Master will say,“Paul, you have been in my service. What proof of your life and ministry can you offer?” In 1st Thessalonians 2, and here, in Philippians 4, St. Paul says the only proof he has to offer is the churches he has served, and what they had accomplished for Christ together.
Like Paul, I am a pastor. If I were writing a letter to New Philadelphia Moravian Church, I might be inspired to call New Philadelphia, my joy and my crown.
This church is certainly my joy, and I hope it is yours. Several weeks ago, I took a Sunday off to visit another church in our community that is not unlike our own. It has a great reputation. That morning, I attended not one church service but two , a contemporary service and a traditional service. I found about what I expected to find, good music, good preaching, and some outstanding people I assume to be volunteers. I was pleased to see four people working the audio-visuals. I got some good ideas just by attending. However, though I admit to having been secretly jealous of this church in the past, I am jealous no longer. I went away thinking that if I were a young pastor with a choice of serving that church or this church, I would want to cast my lot here. I think I would feel the same way if I were a first time lay visitor, but that does not mean that everyone would feel the same, for every visitor has a different set of expectations and needs.
Likewise, I consider this church my crown. I believe that we have done some great things together for Christ. Some of those things are hard to measure. It is difficult to measure the good we have done in the lives of individuals. Though Paul would occasionally mention individuals that were his “children in the gospel,” he never attempts to put a number on his spiritual work. It is impossible to do that, because it is easier count the apples on the tree, than it is to count the trees in an apple. You might reach only one person with your witness to Christ, but that person may multiply themselves many times over.
So how do we measure what we have done together? We can look at our time, talent, and treasure.
Treasure is easy. I do not know of a single instance over the last thirty years that we have failed to meet our obligations to ourselves, our suppliers, or the Province. You may not know this, but whereas a Church like First Presbyterian contributes about fifty-thousand dollars to its denomination. Because our denomination is so much smaller, we send almost two-hundred-thousand dollars to our’s. Likewise, we we have built two buildings that, in the money of yesterday, cost almost four million dollars; and we paid the last one off in half the allotted time. Finally, following the example of Joesph, when he was Pharaoh’s steward, in the fat years, we have put something away in case lean years follow.
What about talent—or Spiritual gifts, if you prefer? We have invested that, too. It takes a lot of talent to put on a worship service each Sunday. It takes musicians, ushers, greeters, audio-video volunteers, hospitality host and hostesses, and, last but not least, somebody to drive the golf cart! Likewise, in a time when people have been saying that Sunday School is old fashioned and outdated, we have maintained a very-good one. We have staffed it with teachers and filled it with learners. (Admittedly, for some time, we have needed for some pupils to become teachers.) Many of our members have invested their talents in working inside the church, as Elders, and Trustees, and in the Men’s, Women’s and Youth fellowships, at the Open Door Lunch. You work outside the church too. You serve important organizations like Laurel Ridge Moravian Camp, Sunny Side Ministry, City with Dwellings, Samaritan Ministries, Crisis Control, Contact, and the like. Many of you have also been active in foreign missions through agencies like the Moravian Mission Society, and the Armando Rusindo Foundation. I am particularly proud of the way that our youth have served in places as far-flung as Alaska, Jamaica, and Cuba. I agree that they could do as much closer to home; but the cross-cultural experience stays with them for a lifetime.
And what about our time? Let’s look at the time people spend in worship. Since the late 1980’s our average weekly worship attendance has rarely dipped below 350. That put’s us in the upper 10% of all churches in America. For more than twenty of the last thirty years, we have worshiped more than 400 people per week; and for more than a dozen of those twenty years, we have worshiped more than 500 people per week.
Today things are different. Last year we averaged 413 people in two worship services. This year, I expect that final number to be between 370 and 380. It will be down for a number of reasons. It will be down because we have sent a few individuals and families to other cities where their work has called them. It will be down because we have sent another batch of our young adults off to college, and when we send our children to college, parents follow, at least for a time. And who would not want to attend Parent’s Weekends, and football games and the like? From top to bottom, as a church, we have grown older. Over the years, we have seen many family members and friends move from the rolls of the church at work to the rolls of the church triumphant. Likewise, a number of members who were fit enough to attend services last year, are no longer fit enough to do so. We can’t forget them! In the last several weeks I have visited with no fewer than half a dozen individuals and couples who fall into this category. Though it pains me to mention it, I would be less than honest if I did not admit that we have lost some members to other churches because they could not find what they were looking for here. In every case–but one, I have to endeavored to learn their reason for leaving, and I think I can give an account of that, even when their reason for leaving is me. At the very least, I can say with confidence, that we have not lost these folks to unbelief. Finally, there are those who belong, and have good intentions, but for one reason or another, no longer come to Sunday school or worship. These are they who concern me most, because we love them and miss them. People attract people. People do not come to church for preachers, people come to church for people. So, as a part of my stewardship efforts, in the months ahead, I will be attempting to convince them of how much we need them.
So, we are not as strong as we have been; but, when all is said and done, I would still call New Philadelphia our joy and our crown. I were a young minister with a choice, somebody like Joe Moore, I would rather serve here than almost anywhere else. I do not say this lightly. I think the church has entered an age of leanness. It will be harder than ever before to reach people for Christ, and harder still to engage them in a local church. The good news for us is, that it has always been harder for Moravians to get new members. Very few Moravians move into Winston-Salem, and when they do, they have a choice of more than a dozen churches. Because it has always been harder for us, we are better suited to this new age of leanness than many churches of many denominations. I believe we can continue to do it.
Am I praising you unjustly? I think not. In Galatians 4:18 St. Paul says, “For a good purpose it is always good to be made much of…” And E. Stanley Jones, the Methodist missionary and evangelist, said that the first duty of a pastor is “to hold a crown over the heads of the church until the church grow into it.” I still believe that from the bottom of my heart. Peter Berger affirms it in his book, “Invitation to Sociology,” saying “the one who is given respect comes to respect him or herself.” I suppose I would add only that if people do not grow into the crown, it is a pastor’s duty to help them groan into the crown. I am not so good at that; but, at least, I am well aware that there are many good churches, and few great ones; and that just being good is often the enemy of being great.
2. The second powerful “p-word” that Paul advances in Philippians four is prescription.
In Philippians 4, Paul’s prescription is two fold.
First, he twice tells the church at Philippi to rejoice, saying, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Thirty-five times in his letters Paul uses the word “rejoice.” He uses it 8 times in Philippians alone. In various epistles he tells the members of the churches to “rejoice in God,” to “rejoice in hope,” to “rejoice in all that is right,” and to “rejoice with those who rejoice.” In Romans 5 he says that:
“…we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God, more than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, because, as we know suffering produces endurance, and endurance character, and character still more hope, and hope does not disappoint us , because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.
Paul was a joyful Christian, and he hoped to pass on that attitude, because he knows that our attitude determines our altitude. We have to name it before we can claim it. We have to confess it before we possess it. We have to believe it before we can receive it. I am a rapper, so don’t you be a napper!
The second part of the prescription is equally dynamic. Paul says:
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.
There is absolutely no concern we cannot bring before God. Only after we have made our request known, do we receive the peace of God, which passes all understanding. When can’t explain God’s peace, but when he achieve it, we believe it, and when we see it in others, recognize it. My friend Ron had it. About 15 years ago he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He had a lot of people praying for him. When he went into hospital, they cut into this kidney, but they could not find the cancer. They sewed him up and sent him home. Nine years later, he called me to say the cancer was back. This time it encased his kidney and grew-up over his vena cava. One of his doctors was afraid to operate. Another agreed to do it, but told Ron his chances of survival were risky at best. The surgery was put off for two months. Early on the morning before the surgery I sat with him for thirty minutes before his family arrived. He told me the last two months were the best of his life. He told me if, after the surgery, he woke up and saw his wife, he would be alright. And if, after the surgery, he woke up saw his LORD, he would be alright, too. He spoke as calmly as I am speaking to you now. He had God’s peace, the peace that passes understanding. He did not just affirm it in his head, he knew it in his heart.
Now what of our justified anxiety over the church? Let me make a confession to you. Though I am absolutely sure that the church of Jesus Christ will survive, and thrive, I don’t begin to know what it will look like next year, or the year after that, or the year after that. I don’t know; but I am sure that God does. And I believe that God wants to guide his church to the future that he has prepared for it. I am confident that God will make his will known. He may make his will known through me, or through you, or through someone we have not yet met. There are always three options when it comes to discovering the will of God: My way, your way, and God’s way. It is our task to discover God’s way. We can only do that together; and we can only do that after we have committed ourselves to God and to one another. That is why, in 1st Thessalonians 2:8, Saint Paul says to the church at Thessalonica, which was no less dear to him than the church at Philippi, that they had become very dear to him, so much so, that he was ready to share with them not only the gospel of God, but also himself.
3. The final powerful “p” of that Paul shares in Philippians 4 is the “p” of his personal example.
This personal example, like Paul’s prescription is two-fold.
First, in verse 8, he tells the members of the church to think about whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely and gracious. He says, “If there is any excellence, and if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.” Paul is not suggesting that we spend our time pining over the window displays at Jarrod’s, or Macy’s, or or over the Cabela’s catalog. Paul is not urging us to think on physical things, but to think on those moral qualities that transform us. Remember we don’t use ideas, ideas use us.
Second, Paul tells the members of the church to mark his personal example. In verse 9 he writes, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you.” I once read this text with a group of ministers. I don’t remember everyone who was present, but Br. Bishop Wayne Burkette was there, and Dr. C. Daniel Crews, and several others. Each of us responded in the same way. We sat before this text in silence, thinking of how hard it must be for a pastor to be so confident of his or her own conduct so as to advance themselves as an example to the church. Now, admittedly, Paul was bolder and more confident than most pastors. In Philippians 3, Paul is bold to say, that before he came face to face with Christ, there was a time when he considered himself , as to righteous under the law, “blameless.” In 1st Corinthians 15, he boasts that he has worked harder than any of the other apostles. In 2nd Corinthians 11, Paul boast that he has suffered more than those that many regard as superlative apostles; and, in Colossians 1, he is so brazen that he says, “In my body, I complete what is lacking in Christ’s suffering, for the sake of his body, the church.” Of course, Paul can point out his weaknesses, too. In 2nd Corinthians 10, he says that he is better at writing letters than at preaching, and that his bodily presence is weak.
So, then, ignoring my weaknesses for the time being, are there any qualities in Worth Green that I would advise you to imitate? A few, perhaps. Let me mention three.
First, I take refuge in God’s grace. I live by Ephesians 2:8 where-in we read, “By grace (we) are saved, through faith, and not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest lest anyone should boast.” My late daddy used to stop people on the street and say to all who would listen, “I know God loves you. He must, because he loves a rascal like me.” If I could take one thing from my dad, it would be his willingness to speak this truth to strangers.
Second, though I like to think I can be hard on myself, I am not so very good at judging others. I frequently take refuge in the saying of Jesus, “Judge not, lest you be judged, for the judgment you give will be the judgment you get.” This can be good or bad. I once led a young attorney in a profession of faith. He told me my best quality was my non-judgmental attitude. “It enabled me to talk to you,” he said. Maybe. Maybe not. My friend, the late Tom Cartee, once told me that, in the world of business, and, perhaps, in the world of the spirit, our greatest asset is also our greatest liability. Ouch! Maybe, in being non-judgmental, I am too willing to accept the good, denying people the opportunity to reach for the great. Remember: The good is the enemy of the great. My mother said it, “Good, better, best, never let it rest; until the good is better, and the better is best.”
Third, I may retire someday, but I won’t quit. That is what I promised the Joint Board when I accepted the call here. I won’t quit because I believe it is only when we have reached the end of our own resources, that we enter “God Room, “ which is the place where only God has room enough to work. I believe that God is able to do for us, “far more abundantly than all we can ask, think, or imagine,” but God can do it only after we have jumped in with both feet, and made a real commitment of our own time, talent and treasure. The church does not need people who touch a toe in the water, and try to decide if it is too hot, or too cold, or just right. The church needs people who jump in with both feet, knowing they may be treading water for a long, long time, before God comes to their aid. The church needs people who will love it for more than it is worth, so that it can become more than it is. I pray God that I might be one of those people; and that each of you might be one of those people, too.
Worth Green, Th.M. D.Min.