Have you ever been in the middle of writing a handwritten letter to someone—back in the days when people did that—and realized mid-sentence that you would like to go back and revise, but instead you’re just going to have to make this sentence do some twisting and turning to come out right? Nowadays on computers we can revise before we hit “send” and no one is the wiser. But when you write by hand, unless you want to start crossing things out or adding notes in the margins, you just have to work with the sentence you’ve already started.
It feels as few the first few verses of our reading in Philippians were written that way. Paul starts off by writing, “I rejoice in God greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me.” And then I can almost hear him saying to himself, “Oh, great, now that looks like I think they weren’t concerned about me, which sounds like a guilt trip. And this isn’t all about me anyway, it’s about them.” So he takes several sentences to try and unwind the impression of that first sentence.
I rejoice in God greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through the one who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.
That last sentence sounds to me like what he’s really trying to say: “It was kind of you to share my distress.” He’s actually writing to them from prison, so he is in distress. But the point he’s trying to make is that he’s focused less on needing things from them and more on praising their generosity, because it exemplifies Spirit at work in their own souls, and he rejoices that their church is so attuned to that.
Paul has the ability to experience gratitude in whatever circumstances he finds himself. This chapter in Philippians exudes joy and gratitude. This is the chapter where Paul writes, “Rejoice in God always; again I will say, Rejoice…. God is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:4-6, my italics).
If I hadn’t told you that Paul was in prison when he wrote this, you might not have picked it up from his tone. He’s not bemoaning his fate or badmouthing the people who imprisoned him. He’s not complaining about the food, or lack of it. He’s thinking about the great people in the church at Philippi. He’s giving thanks to God for every last thing.
But I think all the zigzagging in those verses belies how much he does need the generosity of the church at Philippi and how very thankful he is that they did reach out. I imagine that Paul must have had some lonely, challenging times in his prison cell. Preaching the Good News certainly made him plenty of enemies. In addition to being thrown in prison more than once, he was on various occasions run out of town and beaten severely for good measure. There must have been times when he was exhausted, sick, cold, hungry, and abandoned. Perhaps this time of imprisonment has been challenging in these ways. But he has the spiritual discipline of practicing thanksgiving, even in a prison cell, and this discipline keeps him going. He counts his blessings and reaches out to thank the church at Philippi for being one of those blessings.
Thanksgiving is a great time to practice gratitude. But every day is a good day to practice gratitude. Sometimes when we’re grumpy or frustrated or having a tough time, we have to dig a little to find something for which we’re grateful. And I don’t mean in some Pollyanna way that denies the hardships of life. I mean in an authentic way that acknowledges the challenges and the blessings that can come through or alongside or after them.
Thankful for a good night’s sleep, when that happens.
Thankful for a body that functions more or less the way it’s supposed to most of the time. Thankful that, when we do have that fever or injury or diagnosis, we have access to good healthcare.
Thankful for people who love us and whom we love.
Thankful for ways in which people reach out when we’re grieving or struggling.
Thankful for sun warm on our face and rain to build up the aquifers and snowpack.
Thankful for housing that keeps us warm and dry.
Thankful for food to eat every day.
Thankful for gifts to share.
Thankful to be part of a community that calls us to be our best selves.
Thankful for the sorrows in our lives that teach us in depth what it means to be human and increase our empathy for those going through the same things.
We will close this sermon time by naming something for which we are thankful. I invite you to turn to someone near you, preferably someone who didn’t come with you, and share at least one thing for which you are thankful. And those on Zoom can share with each other.
[Time for people to share with each other.]
Did any particular thankfulness stand out in a way you would like to share? [Sharing.]
In this Thanksgiving week, I invite you to make a gratitude or thankfulness list. And then share with at least one person who appears on that list, and, as Paul did with the church at Philippi, tell them how thankful you are for their presence in your life.
No matter what the circumstances, may we always be able to name our gratitude. Like Paul, we can do all things through God, who strengthens us. Thanks be to God. Amen.