Monday, January 11, 2016

January 10, 2016 Philippians: Have I Told You Lately?

Several years ago, on a Sunday when I had an opportunity to visit in another church, I attended a service where the minister had been using song titles from the Beatles as the basis for his messages.  I thought it seemed like a good idea, and so for some time I have been thinking about a sermon series using song titles.  I still haven’t decided whether or not to do so, mostly because I’m having a hard time coming up with a sermon to match the titles of the songs I listen to.  I have yet to figure out how to build a message on Smoke On the Water, Wild Thing, or Born To Be Wild.  But I am borrowing a song title today, from a Van Morrison song, later covered by Rod Stewart – Have I Told You Lately?  It’s a great song, with a great message that echoes one of the sentiments of Paul in his letter to the Philippians.

You will remember that the book of Philippians is the last of Paul’s writings, penned as Paul is under arrest in Rome, facing his execution, so it was natural for him to begin thinking about the people in his life who have been important to him.  As Paul had founded many churches and worked with countless individuals, I imagine it was quite a long list of people who meant a great deal to him.  It was to his brothers and sisters in the Philippian church that Paul turned to in his final days, cementing a bond that had undoubtedly grown deeper in the latter stage of his life.

After a brief greeting in verses one and two, Paul’s thoughts quickly turn to those in Philippi who meant so much to him, writing that I thank my God every time I remember you.  One of the dynamics that comes into play as one stares into the face of their own mortality is to speak to others about important matters, and Paul does this throughout his letter.

I want to use the title of the song – Have I Told You Lately? – as a way of highlighting some of the themes of Paul’s final words, but first, let’s read the Scripture passage – Philippians 1:3-11, 18b-21 –

I thank my God every time I remember you.
In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy
because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now,
being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight,
10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,
11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.
18 And I will continue to rejoice,
19 for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.
20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.
21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
1.  Have I told you lately that you are important to me?
Paul used a very ancient, outmoded technology – letter writing.  I am saddened that letter writing is a mode of communication that has largely passed into history.  I know it is far more convenient to send texts and emails and to post on Facebook, but I don’t think it’s the same.  When I receive a hand-written letter I am touched that someone took the time to sit down and actually compose their thoughts and write those words.

For many years I was very negligent about writing letters, but in more recent years I have tried to do better.  I do use email and other forms of electronic communication, but as often as possible, I take out a piece of paper and a pen and write out a letter or note by hand.

I also keep all the letters I receive and have folders going back quite a few years.  I even keep the negative letters I receive, although I almost never read them and probably should just throw them away.  But I do read many of the letters on numerous occasions.  Those days when I feel that nothing is going well and those days when discouragement wraps around me like a blanket are times when I’ll take out one of the folders and start reading through them.  And I’ve told you, I believe, that I always keep a few letters in the back of my Bible, rotating them every so often.  I have six in the back of my Bible now and three of the six letter-writers are gone, so I can’t bring myself to remove them and file them away.  I don’t have much of a portfolio of stocks and bonds, and that’s okay.  Those letters are my portfolio and their value has greatly increased with the passage of time.

To express our thanks to God for the people who are important to us, and to express our gratitude to those individuals is one of the most holy acts that we can practice, I believe, because it reminds us of what binds us together.  Did you know that the word religion has its roots in the Latin word ligere, which means to bind?  Anything we practice that helps to strengthen and affirm that bond is a great act of faith, and it reminds us of our need for one another.  God created us as social, not solitary creatures.  We Americans are so quick to pride ourselves on being self-made people.  We’ve pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps and made something of ourselves.  Actually, that is rarely, if ever true.  We all get to where we are in life through the help of others, and expressing gratitude for that help and care is a great act of faith.

In Luke 17:1-19 we find the story of the ten lepers –  
11 Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee.
12 As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance
13 and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”
14 When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
15 One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice.
16 He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.
17 Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?
18 Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?”
19 Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”

Jesus healed all ten, but only one returned to thank him.  Imagine that!  Lepers, in the time of Jesus, had a dual death sentence that hung over them.  Banned from society, they were cut off from their friends and families, so they received a social death sentence.   They also had a very real death sentence that hung over them, with a slow, difficult descent into death.  By healing them, Jesus removed both the death sentences, but amazingly, only one returned to thank him!  Listen to what Jesus said, in response – Were there not ten cleansed?  But the nine –where are they?  Were none found who turned back to give glory to God?  There is a sound of sadness in the voice of Jesus, a tone of disbelief that only one of the lepers would take the time to express gratitude for such a great miracle.

Be the one.  Be the one that expresses gratitude.  The other nine may go their own way and withhold gratitude, but be the one.  Be the one from whom gratitude always flows.  Be the one to express gratitude for the people who bless your life.  Be the one to express gratitude to God for what he has done for you.  Be the one.

2.  Have I told you lately that I pray for you?
I hope that we never use the phrase I’ll pray for you lightly, as just a toss off phrase without any real meaning or practice.  It’s a big thing to say I’ll pray for you.  

In 1:9-11 Paul writes and this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. 

My prayer, he says.  My prayer.  Those are beautiful words, for Paul to tell his friends that they were in his prayers.  Paul had a lot of things for which he could pray.  He could pray to be released from captivity.  He could pray for his life to be spared.  I sure would be if I were in his place.  But Paul was praying for others, not himself.  Isn’t that amazing!

Don’t you like to know that someone, at sometime, somewhere, is praying for you?  We have a small group that gathers here at the church on Thursday mornings to pray through a list of names.  I am grateful for the times I am able to sit with them and to listen to them pray.  Did you know they pray for you, by name?  Maybe there are moment when you sense the power that come from those prayers.  It’s a beautiful experience to hear someone pray for another person.  I’m grateful to know that people pray for me.  I want you to know that I sense those prayers, and I appreciate those prayers.  Those prayers are what keep me going many days, so please keep offering them!

3.  Have I told you lately that I’m not angry, bitter, or frightened?
David Brooks, writing last week in the New York Times, spoke about the sense of fear and anxiety that permeates our world at our historical moment, writing that – These diverse acts of small terror have combined to create a general state of anxiety.

Fear is an emotion directed at a specific threat, but anxiety is an unfocused corrosive uneasiness. In the age of small terror this anxiety induces a sense that the basic systems of authority are not working, that those in charge are not keeping people safe.

There seems to me to be a very strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction, anxiety, and fear in our society that creates a sense of discontent that runs very deep.  And, to be honest, there are many good reasons to be fearful and anxious because of what is happening in our world.  But acknowledging that great difficulties and problems and violence exist as a reason for feeling fearful is one thing; allowing that fear and anxiety to control you is something different entirely.  There are many people, in the realm of politics in particular, who often push that button of fear, because they believe they can use it for their gain, but listen to what Paul writes in chapter 1, verses 27 and 28 –

27 Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel
28 without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you.

Don’t be angry, don’t be bitter, and don’t be frightened.  It’s not hard to be bitter about life.  After a certain age – and for some people it’s far too early – there are things that can certainly cause bitterness.  But that’s a hard way to live.  It will eat away at your soul and come to no good end.

What is really interesting about the book of Philippians are the things that are not there, one of which is, the condemnation of the Romans.  Paul is under arrest, and he knows his end is coming, and yet he doesn’t turn his letter into a rant against the Roman Empire or the emperor.  Isn’t that interesting?  I’d sure have a few things to say!  Wouldn’t you?  But Paul doesn’t.  He is a man at peace.  He is a man who is not angry.  He is a man who is not bitter.  He is a man who is not frightened.  He is a man who is not at the mercy of his circumstances, but is one who is in control of his heart and mind.

Philippians is a beautiful letter, full of beautiful sentiments that I hope we can emulate in our own lives.  I imagine that when the church first heard the letter many people asked, could I get a copy of that letter?  Surely they wanted to read over it time and time again in order to be strengthened and encouraged in their faith.

That’s why I keep the letters I receive.  One of the ones in the back cover of my Bible dates back to 2008.  It is very brief, but contains a powerful message.  It says simply, Dear Dave and Tanya, I love you and pray for you.  It was not too many months after receiving that letter that I officiated at that person’s funeral.  I am grateful to have their letter, and it continues to provide me strength and encouragement.

Have I told you lately?  Paul did not hesitate to tell others what was important to him, and may we ever follow his example.

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