When I hear the Apostle Paul’s voice saying, “Give thanks in all circumstances” or “I thank my God every time I remember you” I always think to myself, “Can anyone really be that grateful? Is that hyperbole or did Paul really mean it?”
When I was in Jr. High my family moved to Southern California when my father became the pastor of the San Diego Church of the Brethren. That year the Pacific Southwest District of the Church of the Brethren held a spring district conference for worship and study. It was at a time when the Charismatic Movement was in vogue. I attended the conference with my parents. The speaker at one of the worship services used the text from 1 Thessalonians, “Give thanks in all circumstances.”
The preacher said, “It says in all circumstance and Paul really did mean in all circumstances.” Then he told a story about a friend of his who was in a very serious car accident. The crash blew out his front window and sent him flying out of the windshield and onto the pavement. He said that his friend was a devote Christian and so as he was flying out of the car he called out, “Thank you, God.” And the preacher said, “It was miraculous. He survived that car accident with only minor injuries.”
Even at that age my inner skeptic was strong. I remember thinking, “Wow. Thank God in all circumstances and you too will be safe from all harm. If you are only grateful enough you can live forever”…..gratitude as a means of escaping bodily injury. It think literalist preachers are responsible for how long it took me to hear a deeper message pouring out of the pages of scripture.
For years after that I didn’t trust anything that came from the Apostle Paul’s pen but as I have aged I have learned to love Paul. Mostly what I admire about Paul is that when he could, he liked to write love letters. His letter to the Thessalonians and his letter to the Philippians were just that. They were letters filled with his love. Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians that says in its early few lines, “I thank God every time I remember you” while he was in prison. Scholars aren’t sure where he is serving time because Paul was in prison three different times. He could have written this letter early in his ministry when he was imprisoned at Ephesus. Or it could have been late in his ministry when he was in Rome. You see, Paul was a repeat offender, according to the Empire. Three times in prison. Three strikes.
In order for Paul to withstand his imprisonments he would have had to have friends or family. Prisoners, in Paul’s time, depended on friends and loved ones to supply their food. The Empire wasn’t going to take on their care. If Paul was going to eat he had to have a community that cared about him.
Paul wrote the church at Philippi a thank you note because they gave a damn that he was in prison. They cared so much that they sent a member of their church to attend to Paul while he was in prison. They sent a man named Epaphroditus, whose name is derived from the name Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love. Epaphroditus was sent with gifts for Paul, probably food, and he was sent as a gift to Paul. He was sent to care for Paul’s needs and continue the mission work that Paul couldn’t do while he was imprisoned. So hard did Epaphroditus work that Paul reports to the Philippians that he became ill and almost died. Fortunately, he recovered and Paul sent him back to Philippi with this love letter….this thank you note….that tells them that he thanks God every time he remembers them. Every time.
I get why he wrote that note now but I still want to know if he ever thought, “Thank you, God for the Philippi church…..well all except Deacon Dalton, that guy who questioned the vision I had of Christ on the road….oh yeah, and Mrs. Snodgrass who so irritatingly has to talk to me about my thorn in the flesh.” Okay, I admit that while my love for Paul has grown my inner snarkiness is something I still have to combat.
Being with all of you helps. You see, while I was recovering from knee surgery I decided to finally tackle something I had been avoiding for two years. I got out the three grocery sacks of sympathy cards that poured in when my husband died. I know I opened all of them at the time but I was in shock and I confess that time is an absolute blur. But I saved them. Every time I entered my office at home those sacks stared back accusingly at me. They were sent to comfort me….to let me know that people cared about me….and every time I saw them I was filled with dread. So I gave myself a pep talk, carried one sack into my bedroom, strapped myself into my knee bending machine, turned it on and began what I was sure would be an excruciating experience of taking me back to that time of loss and trauma.
I did spend some time crying while that blasted machine bent my knee for me but mostly it was because I was filled with gratitude. People wrote me their experiences of Bryan. I was overcome with the realization that people were grieving the loss of Bryan with me and that was deeply comforting, to know that I was part of a larger community that loved him.
It took me days to make it through all three grocery sacks. Somewhere along the line I wondered, “At what point do I get resentful about having too many sympathy cards?” The answer is never. When I finished off the last sack I felt completely saturated with love. Most of these cards were from all of you and some of you sent me multiple sympathy cards.
Several years ago my sister got herself a kitten. She already had a Great Dane. She called me when she got home from work the first day she had left the kitten and the dog home alone for the day. When she got home from work that night she found the kitten absolutely soggy. The Great Dane, in an act of comfort and parental feelings, had spent the whole day licking the kitten….loving it and caring for it. My sister said her cat was so wet with dog saliva she felt like she would have to wring out the cat’s fur. That is how I felt as I made my way through your cards of love. I was dripping wet with your loving saliva and I felt overwhelmed with gratitude….and a little sticky.
Psychological researchers have begun to study gratitude. They define it as the positive emotion that one feels towards the giver of a gift. This is especially true if the gift was underserved or given without a reciprocal expectation.
Diana Butler Bass writes that gratitude is always social. We are thankful for someone or for something outside of ourselves. We are grateful for someone’s friendship, God’s beautiful sunset, or three sacks of sympathy cards from people who give a damn that your life was devastated in an instant.
Paul was grateful for the caring and love of the church at Philippi when he needed it most. And so Paul expressed his gratitude and in doing so he also modeled gratitude. What researchers have learned is that gratitude expressed deepens the relationship between the giver and the receiver. Gratitude produces community.
Plus, the gift of community has the potential to increase our gratitude. Then the more gratitude becomes part of you, the less dependent your gratitude is on your circumstances. I am guessing you know someone who was grateful in spite of difficult circumstances. As I pastor, I witness gratitude like this all the time. I visit someone in the hospital who has just learned that they have a terminal disease and instead of weeping or gnashing their teeth they tell me how deeply grateful they are for the care they are receiving from the nursing staff or their family or the church. Or they tell me that they are grateful that the hospital is close to their home so their family doesn’t have to travel too far. Or they tell me they are grateful they lived long enough to see their granddaughter graduate from college. Or I talk to someone who is losing their eyesight and instead of complaining about this huge loss they tell me all the reasons they have to be grateful. In those moments I feel like I am back in Jr. High at that Spring District Conference imaging a car crash in which the man flying out of the windshield is yelling, “Thank you God!” And all my skepticism is gone because the person I am visiting…. the person who is beloved to me…is 100% sincere about their gratitude. It isn’t a means to live forever. It is the raw emotion of a person for whom gratitude is a way of life.
Paul teaches us that the secret is be grateful in all circumstance…even if you are in prison….even if the person who was caring for your needs had to go home to recover his health…even if your future is uncertain. Paul isn’t just mouthing the words. He is truly grateful for the whole church at Philippi….even Deacon Dalton and Mrs. Snodgrass. His gratitude has deepened his relationship with this community and gratitude shared in community changes everything.
Brothers and sisters, how grateful I am for you. I thank God every time I remember you. You will probably have ample reminders this week to ponder your gratitude list. I hope you do. I also encourage you to continue that practice once this week is over. But don’t just make your list. Experience your gratitude. Then express your thanksgiving. Write a thank you note for an undeserved gift of love. It might be to someone you are sitting with in this sanctuary this morning. You might even feel like saying, “I thank God every time I remember you.”