Preached by Michael Cheuk, January 31, 2016
Taken from Philippians 1:3-11
These past few weeks, I have been reminiscing about my years here at University Baptist. I found so many occasions for which I was thankful, memories that made me want to say “thank you” to this church as a whole and to each of you in particular. I’ve been glad to have some opportunities in this past month to speak with individuals and groups to express my thanks in person.
Even though my first impulse is to say “thank you” to UBC – and all of you who put the “you” in “You” BC – I was struck by how Paul opens our passage today, the beginning of his letter to the church in Philippi. In this letter, Paul’s “thank you” was not directed to the church he founded, but to God. Paul wrote: “I thank my God every time I remember you.” Like me, Paul had good reasons to give thanks. The first reason for Paul’s thanksgiving was the joy he felt when he prayed for the Philippian church. In verse four, Paul basically said, “When I pray for you, and this means all of you, I always feel very happy.”
Now at that time, Paul could have easily focused on the challenges he faced. After all, he was separated from this church that had so generously supported him while he was in prison facing an uncertain future. Instead of focusing on the negatives, Paul focused on the positive things that he could genuinely be grateful for. According to Joshua Rosenthal, there is a link between gratefulness and happiness (and joy). Rosenthal writes: “Gratitude is the practice of noticing and appreciating the positives in the world (particularly in your own personal world). Shifting the focus from what you don’t have to what you do have can have a profound influence on your moment-to-moment mood and emotional state. In fact, recent research shows that a daily gratitude practice can lead to increased concentration, enthusiasm, optimism and satisfaction — not to mention improved sleep quality and a greater sense of connection to others.
To foster an atmosphere of gratitude, Rosenthal suggests slowing down and being mindful, declaring your thanks, and practicing generosity. For Paul, prayer was the way to slow down and to pay attention to all the ways that God remained faithful to him. Paul declared his thanks to God every time he prayed. Paul practiced generosity by writing to his beloved church, encouraging them and instructing them to remain united in the midst of some discord and division within that church. Throughout this prayer of thanksgiving, Paul focused on the present and on the positives, and this created a greater sense of connection to God’s abiding presence in his life and to his longstanding relationship to the church in Philippi.
During times of uncertainty, individuals and churches are tempted to dwell on the negatives, on the challenges, on what we don’t have. Today’s passage is a good reminder for all of us to acknowledge and give thanks to God for all the good things that are ours. Later in this letter, Paul wrote: “Rejoice in the Lord always! . . . Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Peace and joy come when we pray with thanksgiving, which was exactly what Paul was doing. What are the good and positive things that God is doing in your life right now?
In addition to the joy that he felt, Paul gave a second reason for his thanksgiving: he was thankful for the Philippians’ partnership in the spreading of the gospel of Christ.
After giving thanks to God in the present, Paul then reflected on the past, remembering the ways that he and this church partnered in spreading the gospel of Christ. Similarly, since its establishment in 1900, University Baptist has partnered with its ministers to spread the good news of Christ. In the last decades, the decades our current members might remember, we give thanks to God for the senior ministers who have led this church. During the tumultuous 60s and 70s, for instance, Dick Meyers led the church to open our doors to welcome all people into full membership at UBC, regardless of race or color. He was also known for his creativity in worship and for his personal winsomeness.
We also give thanks to God for Keith Smith. The 1980s were tumultuous times in our Baptist denomination, and through those challenges, Keith led UBC to clarify that we’re still a Baptist church, but one that welcomes women to all levels of ministry and leadership. He was known for his commitment to loving God with all our minds through his teaching ministry. He also led UBC in several renovation campaigns to “rebuild God’s house” so that we can now enjoy our current building and facilities.
Remembering more recent years, we give thanks to God for Tom Leland. During his tenure, the church welcomed Christians of other denominations into full membership without requiring them to be re-baptized. Tom was known for his commitment to loving God with our hands and feet through needs-based ministries. Tom led us to join other churches to open our renovated building to shelter homeless men for two weeks. PACEM is the name of this ministry, and yesterday, we began our turn to host our homeless guests this winter. Many thanks to Tom and to so many of you who have made this ministry possible over the years.
And now, I give thanks to God for my own partnership with you in spreading the gospel of Christ. I leave to others to identify what my contribution to UBC may have been. However, I do believe that during each season in the life of this church, God has sent a senior minister, music and associate ministers, and talented staff members to be partners with the congregation to meet the challenges of the day. What a good reason to give thanks to God!
After looking back with joyful thanksgiving for God’s past faithfulness, Paul next looked forward toward the future. Paul was thankful because he was sure that the Philippians will persevere in the gospel ministry until the “day of Jesus Christ,” the day of Christ’s return. Paul was confident that God “who began a good work among the Philippians will carry it on to completion.” We are reminded that it is God who also began a good work in UBC, and God will carry it on to completion. God will provide future ministers and staff and lay leaders and members and regular attenders to continue this good work. A brief look at our past has clearly revealed that for decades, UBC strived to be an open and welcoming place. As a result, people of many races, both men and women, and individuals and families of many church and denominational backgrounds, have found a spiritual home in UBC. I believe that God who began a good work at UBC will carry this church to meet present day challenges in order to welcome and provide a spiritual home for even more people.
For decades, UBC has been a spiritual home for me and my family – and it always will be. But after today, my partnership and relationship with you will change. I will no longer be your senior minister, and from here on out, UBC’s faithful and talented ministerial staff and its church members will continue to provide good pastoral care and ministerial duties. Even though my family will remain in town for the foreseeable future, in fairness to the staff and to the church, it is healthier for everyone if my family and I give UBC the space and the time to transition and bond to a new senior minister. While we will not be attending UBC, we will be on the sidelines, cheering you on. As I wrote in the Word a few weeks ago, I see this time as a graduation – when you and I graduate into new futures. After graduation, relationships change a little – classmates see one another less, and students no longer go back to see their teachers every day. But those relationships do not end – and sometimes, people discover a new depth and richness in these friendships. May it be so for us. In all this, I will let the Jerusalem Bible’s translation Paul’s words in verses seven and eight articulate how I feel: “You have a permanent place in my heart, and God knows how much I miss you all, loving you as Christ Jesus loves you.”
As Paul looked into the future, he ended this passage with a call to prayer. As I end this sermon, I will let the words of Paul from the Common English Bible be my final words to you:
“This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight. I pray this so that you will be able to decide what really matters and so you will be sincere and blameless on the day of Christ. I pray that you will then be filled with the fruit of righteousness, which comes from Jesus Christ, in order to give glory and praise to God.”
Today, we give thanks to God that the present, the past, and the future of the church is in God’s good hands. Today, I thank my God for you.