Scripture lesson: Philippians 4:1-9
It can be easy to focus on the negative – especially since the media is full of it, but beyond that, in our congregation, we’ve had some significant challenges and losses over the last couple of weeks. As we start talking about our budget for the next year, and deciding how to budget faithfully, we are painfully aware of just how little money have. As we look ahead to the New Year and the number of people we need to serve on the board, we wonder where this help might come from. As we look into the ministry profile and and the possibility of sharing ministry time with a nearby pastoral charge, we are anxious about the changes that might be coming.
Anxious is a key word in all this. It’s a normal reaction to the massive amounts of change, challenge, and upheaval we’re going through as a congregation. On the one hand, anxiety can clue us into those things that are important to us, and help us to focus our energies. On the other hand, psychology also teaches us that anxiety can take us into a collective knee-jerk reaction that by-passes clear thought, and undermines helpful possibilities. Anxiety is sometimes useful to make sure that we keep what is important, it can also hinder us from living in the present and moving forward in hope.
With all this, we hear Paul’s words: Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice. Rejoicing calls us to take a step back from the anxiety. It asks us to ground ourselves in Christ, remembering that there is always hope, new life, and resurrection. It doesn’t ask us to deny reality or the severity of things. It doesn’t ask us to only focus on the positive, but it reminds us to broaden our perspective before reacting.
Paul wasn’t just being a Pollyanna in saying this. Paul was writing from prison – not your typical place to rejoice. Often a place that wasn’t particularly sanitary or concerned for the prisoners needs – it would more likely be a place of despair than one of joy. And yet, Paul’s faith grounded him to the point where he was able to authentically write the advice to this congregation – the first faith community he founded on what is currently European soil, it was a community he held dear to his heart, and of whom he was proud. He encouraged them to keep on in the ways they were succeeding: not to worry, but continuing to practice gratitude and joy. A quick read might have us questioning what was going on between Euodia and Syntyche, but it was custom at the time to encourage people to keep doing what they’ve already been doing, and that’s likely what Paul was doing: encouraging the congregation in Philippi to continue listening to each other, working to be in right relationship with one another, living in joy, giving thanks to God, and having hope in Christ.
It all sounds lovely – but just like any group of people in any time and any space, there were bound to be disagreements, conflicts, times when someone did something unthinkingly and hurt someone else, times when someone dropped the ball and someone else felt unloved, times when things were changing and times the group was growing or diminishing, or leadership was changing and there was anxiety. These are normal for all groups to deal with, and while it doesn’t excuse the hurt that was done: we apologize, we make amends, we change our ways, we work on healing – which sometimes takes a while, and continue on in a measure of grace. Giving thanks and living in joy and in hope helps us to do that.
After all, thanksgiving and joy are spiritual disciplines more than feelings. They are ways of grounding ourselves in Christ, and refocusing on a situation. It’s easier to say than to practice regularly, especially when things are going sideways, that’s why it is a discipline. If we get into the habit of doing it daily or weekly when things are going well, it is easier to do when things go sideways, and get complicated.
In giving thanks and living in joy we take a look around us and notice all the things that are going well, and the abundance that exists in our lives. It is the foundation of good stewardship.
Stewardship is something I’d like us to focus on for the next few weeks. Now – before you close your ears and say something along the lines of “we’re giving all we can, we can’t give any more money, so don’t ask us!” Let me remind you, that stewardship isn’t just about giving money. It’s about so much more.
Like I mentioned, the foundation of stewardship is in joy and thanksgiving. Not even giving thanks with the goal of giving back, or the idea of being a joyful giver, but celebrating, and giving thanks for what we have. It’s about taking a look around, and naming the gifts, the abilities, the volunteers, the people, the staff, the building, the educational resources, the theological resources, the music resources, the musical instruments, the technology, and so on, that enable us to do the work we do as the church. When these resources and people change, the ministry we offer changes as well.
So let’s take a moment and practice gratitude, because this is something we all need to do together:
What are we thankful for?
Who are we thankful for?
In the last couple weeks, amidst the challenges we’ve faced, I’ve also heard people give thanks for the ministry we do as a church. Now I’m paraphrasing, but I’ve heard people say “I’m so glad the church is here, so I have someplace to go with this.” “I’m thankful there is someone who is checking in on us, because we have no one else.” Whether we realize it or not, the ministry we offer is actually life changing. And so we rejoice.
We rejoice that there are children and youth here who are learning about God’s love, and how to show that love in their everyday lives.
We rejoice that we have women’s groups and men’s groups who fundraise, check in with one another, and care for each other.
We rejoice that we have an excellent pastoral care ministry, that endeavours to keep contact with those who are unable to participate in our community, but who are still a part of it.
We rejoice that we have a competent Ministry and Personnel committee who works hard to make sure the staff are supported and working in the way they should be.
We are blessed with talented people, structurally safe space, we try to create an emotionally safer space, we try to create space where grace abounds, and so, in Paul’s words, we rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, we choose to rejoice. We give thanks for those people and things we have, and endeavour to care for the things, and more importantly, for each other.
In the midst of challenges, let us ground ourselves in Christ, who assures us that through changes and challenges, there is always hope, new life, and resurrection, and let us rejoice and give thanks, every day. May it be so.