Scripture Readings: Philippians 4:1-9, Psalm 100
“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!”
Today we kick off our congregation’s annual stewardship campaign. It’s that time of year when we invite you to reflect again on what God is doing in our midst, and how God calls you to share generously from what God has provided you. We will give you an Estimate of Giving card, and encourage you to state an amount of money you hope to give over the next year. It’s not only an invitation to actively contribute in sustaining this congregation’s work and worship, but also to grow in faith, as you practice actively trusting in God’s abundant provision, and actively trusting in our congregation to use your gift wisely in doing God’s ministry in our community.
Now, it may not be a noteworthy event in any other place. But for us, today is a day of celebration.
“Celebration?” “Rejoicing?” Hmmm. These might not be words you would normally apply. And if what we call a “stewardship campaign” is basically a fund-raising drive to maintain a building and its programs; and if it is yet another plea for money among all the others we are all subject to these days; and if our congregation, like other historic congregations, suffers what so-called experts name “church decline” and a diminished influence on society; and if, whichever side of the political landscape you are on, society seems to be light-years away from our Christianhopes, then it might seem more appropriate to solemnly plead for mercy than to rejoice!
But Paul says “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” The stunning thing is that the apostle Paul says this from a Roman prison cell, not knowing if he’ll be released or executed. And Paul writes these words not to a perfect congregation with burgeoning membership, programs which run themselves, and a robust budget, but to a beleaguered church community enmeshed in conflict, within and without.
Now keep in mind, Paul’s “rejoice” is not a “don’t worry, be happy!” denial of reality. For Paul doesn’t just tell them to rejoice—He says to rejoice in the Lord. No matter what their present circumstances, “The Lord is near.” Paul not only trusts the day of Jesus’ return is close at hand, but even in the present, in prison, Paul senses Christ’s presence with him.One reason he perceives Christ’s nearness is that he has tangibly experienced it in his relationship with the Philippi church.
Not rich in money, they were a congregation rich in hope, peace, love, and joy, and they obeyed God’s call to be financial supporters, to collaborate with him in sharing the gospel. Their gifts made his preaching travels possible and under-girded congregations in other places. Paul rejoices in their generosity, not primarily because of what it means for him, but because of what it means for them. He recognizes their continued and costly support as a sign that Christ is growing the Philippians’ faith.
Further, Paul’s expression of gratitude is one way he practices what he preaches. Instead of despairing in the bleak reality of prison, Paul trains his focus on another reality, the reality of God’s redeeming love, poured out in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; a reality which is already here even as it draws yet nearer; the reality ultimately coming to fullness in Christ’s reign. He sees clearly how the Philippi congregation’s giving participates in the reality of Jesus Christ. And Paul wants the Philippians also to see, and to keep their focus trained upon Christ’s nearness.
I’m intentionally using that word, “train.” For it requires training and practice, in a world of so many distractions, to maintain a focus on Christ’s presence revealed in our midst. From this perspective, “to rejoice in the Lord” is not a spontaneous feeling an individual might feel in response to a happy event, but a discipline and training a congregation undertakes together to maintain a clear focus on the reality of Christ in their midst, no matter what their present circumstances.
Paul gives the Philippians and us a number of ways to enter this training. Today, as we engage as a congregation in a collaborative creative project with one another, I want us to follow these instructions: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
We have invited you to bring—or come today ready to find— pictures, colors, items from nature, or what have you, pieces to contribute to four collages on the themes of hope, peace, joy, and love. Those are big words, but we each experience them in tangible ways in relationships with God, one another and the whole Creation. Each of us has something to contribute the collage God is creating in and through our church community.
That, my friends, is ultimately what our “stewardship campaign” is about! The Spirit of God has gathered each of us together into this community, because we all have something to contribute to one another and to Christ’s mission on earth. And when we share with one another all the particularities of our money, time, and talents, our voices, visions and experiences, God will create something in us which reveals Christ’s nearness in fresh ways.
Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, and pleasing; Whatever is kind and good and beautiful; Whatever gives us hope, peace, joy, and love: Friends, Jesus Christ is right here in our midst, and that is something worth celebrating.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen!