I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you
will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. – Philippians 1:6
Martin Smith, a former Superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, tells the story of the day the monastery’s Finance Committee voted to give $100,000 to a church’s capital campaign (about 20 years ago). Martin couldn’t sleep that night, so he went down to the kitchen to get a cup of warm milk and… discovered the other three members of the Finance Committee! Martin says, “That’s how we knew we had given enough.” When we give so much that it kept us up at night, “That’s how we knew we’ve given enough.”
“Martin’s maxim” is a good rule of thumb for charitable giving, and I want to talk about giving this morning. But I want to talk about, not financial giving, but the kind of giving that our parish just did in making our merger possible.
Often, after making a major commitment, we are filled with a sense of awe and wonder at the magnitude of what we’ve just done: “OMG, what have I done!?” We might say this after getting married, after buying a house, after making a large donation… or after merging parishes. Even when we have arrived at our decision with careful thought and planning (as we have), and with prayer and discernment (as we have), our awe and wonder is likely to be colored by second-guessing: “Should I have made this commitment? Did we make the right choice?”
For those of us who have committed and given much to make this merger happen, St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians – from which we have just heard – is for us.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is Paul’s response to a community that had just given a major gift. Paul had been collecting money from the churches he had founded to give to the poor of Jerusalem. While we don’t know the amount of the Philippians’ gift, scholars assume it was substantial because Paul wrote an entire epistle as a “thank you.”
Like anybody who has just made a major commitment, the community in Philippi was probably experiencing a little bit of “OMG, what have we done? Did we make the right choice?” As I read Paul’s epistle, I am struck by how Paul encourages and reassures this community. Paul does three things:
Paul 1) reminds them that the work they’re doing is God’s, not theirs; he 2) uses “I” language to talk about how he’s feeling; and he 3) gives them something they can do.
As we read in this morning’s lesson, “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” The new church Paul founded at Philippi, and the large gift they gave for the poor of Jerusalem, is God’s work. Paul didn’t start this new church – God did! The Philippians didn’t initiate their large gift – God did! The Philippians merely responded to God, “who began a good work among them.” Throughout his letter, Paul drives home the point that the Philippians are merely responding to God’s work: “This is God’s doing,” he says later. “It is God who is at work in you.”
Second, Paul uses “I” language to talk about how he’s feeling. It sounds so 21st century to say that Paul uses “I” language, but look how much Paul does it! Just in the few verses from this morning’s lesson, Paul uses “I” language twice to tell how he’s feeling. He is thankful: “I thank God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you” (1:3-4). And he is filled with yearning: “For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Jesus Christ” (1:8).
Lastly, Paul gives them something they can do. When we’re having a “OMG, what have we done” moment, it’s helpful to have something to do. Here are just a few things that Paul gives the Philippians to do:
- “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” (1:27)
- “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (2:4)
- “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (4:6)
As our new parish goes forward from our merger, I suspect that we will all have “OMG, what have we done” moments when we consider the magnitude of what we’ve just done. When we have these moments, and if doubt and second-guessing creep in, maybe we can recall Paul’s encouragement to the Philippians: 1) the work of this merger is God’s and not our own. 2) We can use “I” language to talk about how we’re feeling, like: “I am excited!” or “I am having a really difficult time.” 3) And we can do something. Not merely the multitude of tasks that are part of every congregation, but things like Paul encouraged the Philippians to do: to live our lives in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, to look to the interests of others, not to worry, but to pray, to rejoice, to give thanks.
What our new parish has done – or, rather, what God is doing among us – is an extraordinary thing. I hope that what we’ve done will sometimes keep us up at night. And I hope that our sleeplessness is a sign to us of God’s amazing power at work right here, right now, among us! And I know that He who began a good work among us – as we are faithful – will bring it to completion.