A week after Marci and I were married in 1979, we got into my little Volkswagen Beetle and drove from Ontario to Northern Saskatchewan, where I began a new ministry in a Council of the North diocese. For those of you who don’t know the terminology, the Council of the North is the nine dioceses of the Anglican Church of Canada that are not self-supporting. Their ministry is supported by grants from General Synod – in other words, from more prosperous dioceses to the south. Council of the North dioceses are always short of money, and so the clergy are not paid very well.
We spent twenty years in the Council of the North – Saskatchewan, the Arctic, and northern Alberta. We lived in small rectories or mission houses provided by the church. Travel costs were high, and in the Arctic food costs were very high too, and Marci and I had decided that we wanted to live on one income, so that our kids would benefit from having a parent who stayed at home with them. So we learned how to make ends meet! Marci learned how to be a very frugal shopper, and in the early days we rarely went out for coffee or for meals. I didn’t waste time looking at expensive guitars, because I knew I’d never be able to afford them anyway. We bought clothes at the cheapest places we could find, we stayed with our parents when we were on holiday, and they helped us out with the cost of airline tickets when we wanted to go visit them.
Now, today, the situation is very different. Our kids have grown up and left home, so we only have two mouths to feed, not six. For the last fourteen years or so I’ve been working in the Diocese of Edmonton, which is not a Council of the North diocese. The Diocese of Edmonton pays clergy at a rate that they can afford to buy their own houses, and so Marci and I are the owners of a small townhouse. We can afford to make a habit of drinking gourmet coffee in nice coffee shops, and I’m now the proud owner of a couple of rather expensive musical instruments. I’ve gotten accustomed to this style of living, and so I’ve now become a far better grumbler than I ever was in the Council of the North! And I suspect that I’ve forgotten the skills I learned when I was a much poorer person, and that if I had to go back to that sort of situation again, I’d think myself very hard done by! My observation at this Thanksgiving season is that I’m probably not as good at giving thanks as I ought to be, given how comfortable my circumstances are. And I suspect I’m not alone in that. Many of us know how to be prosperous, but would we still know how to be poor, and to be thankful to God anyway? This question is right at the heart of our reading from Philippians today.
Let me give you a bit of background. The city of Philippi is located in north-eastern Greece, in the province of Macedonia. Paul first brought the Christian message to Philippi in about 50 AD; he preached the gospel there, and a small church was established. Very shortly afterwards Paul moved on to Thessalonica, where he also established a church, and then on down to Athens and Corinth. It seems that the Philippian Christians sent him several financial gifts so that he could do his missionary work full-time rather than supporting himself as a tentmaker, which was his usual custom. So he saw the Philippians as loyal partners in ministry and they had a very special place in his heart.
But now some years had elapsed, and for one reason or another – we don’t know why – those gifts had ceased; it had been some time since Paul had heard from his friends in Philippi. He now found himself in prison, probably in Rome, and it’s clear from the letter to the Philippians that the death penalty was a very real possibility for Paul. While he was in prison he was in very difficult circumstances, because he couldn’t provide for himself, and in the ancient world most prisons did not supply food for the inmates – that was the responsibility of their families. Paul of course had no family in Rome, so he was completely dependent on the Christian community to bring him the bare necessities of life. We can imagine that he had to tighten his belt and make do with a great deal less than he would have liked.
But then one day, completely out of the blue, a messenger arrived from Philippi. His name was Epaphroditus; he brought greetings from the church in Philippi, but he also brought a generous financial gift. We can imagine the relief and the joy that Paul felt; he now had tangible evidence that his friends in Philippi were thinking of him and that they cared about him! And, of course, he now had the resources to buy the food he needed so that he could continue to survive.
It seems that very shortly after Epaphroditus arrived, he got sick. His illness was a serious one, so serious that he almost died. It lasted for some time, long enough for the folks back home in Philippi to hear about it and to send messages of concern. But eventually, to Paul’s relief, Epaphroditus got well again. As soon as he was well enough to travel, Paul sent him back to Philippi, and with him he sent the letter that we know as ‘Philippians’, that we’ve read from this morning. At the end of the letter, in the passage we’ve read this morning, Paul talks about the gift the Philippians had sent for him, and his gratitude to them. This section of the letter contains a couple of things that are very relevant to us today, and not just on Thanksgiving weekend either.
The great theme of this section of the letter is contentment. Look again at what Paul has to say in verses 11-13:
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 him who strengthens me.
“I have learned to be content”. I’m reminded of something else that Paul says, in his first letter to Timothy:
Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these (1 Timothy 6:6-8).
‘Godliness with contentment’ – that’s Paul’s ideal, and he defines contentment for us: ‘if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these’. To us, of course, the necessities of life include a warm place to sleep, not something Paul had to worry about so much in the warm Mediterranean climate, but the lesson is still clear: it’s good to be content with just the basics, and not to spend your time longing for more and more and more.
Paul had experienced both poverty and wealth, and he had learned how to live in both situations. Actually the NRSV translation in our church Bibles is a little weak: ‘I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty’. This gives us the impression that Paul was saying only that he had experience of both situations, but many translations of the Bible go further than that; the New Living Translation has ‘I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything’. It isn’t just acquaintance with want or plenty that Paul is talking about; rather, he’s referring to a skill set that he has learned over the years: ‘I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything’.
Of course, we all know that people who are used to living with little develop skill sets to help them get by. I think of people who lived through rationing in the Second World War. When I was a teenager I was often struck by the fact that my Dad was very frugal with paper. He would rarely throw away a sheet of paper until it had been well used on both sides, and he used to cut the corners off envelopes and use them as bookmarks that he could put over the corners of pages in his books. I’m sure this was due to the experience of growing up during World War Two, when paper was very strictly rationed.
Well, this was a skill set that Paul had learned over the years; he had learned to be content with a simple diet and no luxuries. He had probably also learned not to expect life to send him prosperity, so he wasn’t disappointed when prosperity didn’t come his way. This skill set, you see, involves both practical and psychological habits. It involves learning to live with little, and learning not to grumble about that, but to rejoice in all the gifts that God sends.
Not that Paul is against prosperity; he says that he not only knows how to have a little, but how to have a lot as well. Presumably he’d grown up in comfortable circumstances, and from time to time he had experienced the generosity of others to help him on his way. What would be involved in this skill set? No doubt it would include seeing these prosperous times as a generous gift from God and not in any way something he had a right to expect, and also learning to be generous with what was entrusted to him.
So what’s the secret? How has Paul learned to be content both with little and also with a lot? Surely the answer is that he doesn’t rely on outward circumstances to make him happy. He says in verse 13, ‘I can do all things through him who strengthens me’. In other words, the thing that keeps Paul going is his relationship with God. God is very real to him, he loves spending time in the presence of God, and this is where he finds the strength he needs.
Earlier on in Philippians, in chapter one, Paul says, ‘For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain’ (1:21). This is lovers’ language, isn’t it? We can think of a young couple, perhaps newlyweds, saying, “Well, we don’t have much, but our love for each other is enough”. They’re so happy to be together, and their love for each other is the greatest joy of their lives. In fact, they don’t notice the hardships, because they are full of the wonder of loving each other and being loved. And that’s how Paul feels about his relationship with God. It’s such a wonder to Paul that the God who created the universe loves each of us, and that Jesus Christ has given his life on the cross to save us. Paul is so completely taken up with Christ that he can say, quite simply, ‘For me, living is Christ’.
And this is the secret. Do you want to know how to be content with riches and also with poverty? The answer is simply to give your best attention to something other than material possessions or comfortable circumstances. The answer, if you have not already done so, is to open the door of your heart to Christ and to learn to learn to know him better through prayer, through reading his words in scripture, and through putting his teaching into practice in your daily life. Learn to find your happiness in Christ, and you’ll find that your happiness does not depend on happenings, but on the unchangeable fact that Christ in you is your hope of glory.
But before we leave this passage we must address one other subject in it. Toward the end of the passage Paul tells them again how grateful he is for what they have sent him. He says,
I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus (vv. 18-19).
It seems as if we are being given an unconditional promise here: ‘My God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus’. But if we are honest, we have to frankly confess that this does not literally jive with the experience of many Christians today. Around the world, the vast majority of Christians live in poverty; without a doubt, some of them will have starved to death while we’ve been having our service this morning. No doubt they will have prayed and cried out to God to help them, but God has apparently not granted them their request. So if this is a literal promise from God, it appears to be a promise that God has not kept. How can that be? Are the promises of God not true?
I think we need to understand this verse in the context in which Paul was writing it. He was not making an unconditional promise that God would supply the needs of all Christians. He was writing to a congregation of Christians who apparently had a little extra disposable income, and had collected it and sent it to Paul to supply his needs. He was not writing this letter to a Christian congregation starving to death in a refugee camp.
In fact, we know very well from Paul’s writings what his response would have been if he had been dealing with a congregation of Christians starving to death in a refugee camp. We know this, because several times in his letters he alludes to a collection he was taking for the Christian church in Jerusalem, which was going through a time of real financial hardship. From his actions, we can draw this conclusion: when Paul was dealing with Christians who were in dangerous poverty, he did not tell them ‘Just trust the Lord, and he will provide for you’. No, he wrote to other Christians, who were better off, and encouraged them to give generously to the needy. God would indeed provide for those who were in need: but he would do it through the generosity of their fellow-Christians.
You knew this sermon was going to have a sting in the tail, didn’t you! I think we need to ask ourselves, “Who are we in this letter?” Are we Paul, learning to adapt ourselves to situations of wealth and situations of poverty? Or are we in fact the Philippians, being called by God to give generously out of our abundance so that God can provide for the needs of others who are in poverty? Are we being called to live more simply, so that others might simply live?
So let’s sum up what Paul is saying to us in this passage. There are two simple messages, both of them very relevant to the theme of Thanksgiving.
First, he’s saying, ‘Be content’. Learn the skill sets that you need to live with a little and to live with a lot. And the most important part of those skill sets is not to focus on how much you have or how comfortably you’re living, but to focus more than anything else on Christ who lives in your heart by faith. So give your life to him, strive above everything else to know him better and to do the things he tells us to do. If times are good, see it as a gift from him. If times are tough, ask for help from the one who made it possible for Paul to say, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me”.
So the first lesson is ‘Be content’, and the second is, ‘Be generous’. Yes indeed, the poor around the world are crying out for help, and the message shouts loud and clear from both Old and New Testaments that the God who created the world wants us to learn that generosity is one of the great secrets of a happy life. So if God has blessed us with material wealth – and surely most of us who live in this province of Alberta are rich beyond the wildest dreams of most people on this earth – then we have a responsibility to be good stewards of what we have been given and to use it to bless those who are in need.
Be content, and be generous. May the Lord write these lessons on our hearts and help us to live by them. Amen.