A PASTOR’S GRATITUDE

Carl Wilton

Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church

January 21, 2018; Non-lectionary sermon

Psalm 136:1-12, 23-26; Philippians 1:1-11

 

“I thank my God every time I remember you…

because of your sharing in the gospel

from the first day until now.”

Philippians 1:3,5

 

If you unfold a road map of Scotland and look at the rugged west country, you’ll find something on the map that looks a bit odd. There, in the midst of the rugged Highland country west of Loch Lomond, you’ll see the words “Rest and Be Thankful.”

That’s not advice from the map-maker, encouraging you to take a break from driving. It’s an actual place name: a famous mountain pass, noted for its breathtaking view.

The place got its name centuries ago, when British soldiers were building the road up and over that high pass. In the year 1750, when they were done with their work, they erected a simple stone monument. On it they carved those four words: “Rest and be thankful.”

No doubt, it expressed what they were feeling. Those military engineers had no dump trucks, no steam shovels, no dynamite for blasting huge boulders. The road over the Rest and Be Thankful pass they fairly tore from the earth by pick and shovel. After that arduous labor, “Rest and be thankful” expressed their thoughts perfectly.

The name stuck. It’s what the Scots have called that scenic overlook ever since.

*****

          It’s what the Apostle Paul’s feeling as well, as he writes his letter to the Philippians. “I thank my God every time I remember you” is what he says.

The biblical scholars have figured out that the first part of this letter — like a great many of Paul’s epistles — follows a well-worn template for letter-writing belonging to the ancient Greek and Roman world. Aristotle and other teachers of rhetoric advised would-be letter-writers to start by buttering up their audience. Specifically, at this point in the exordium, or introduction, to the letter, they advise the writer to express a wish for the good health of the recipient. “I hope this letter finds you well” is the somewhat stilted modern equivalent.

But Paul doesn’t say that. In the precise place in the letter-template where the good-health wish is supposed to occur, he says something different. He takes the typical pagan greeting and retools it for his Christian audience: “I thank my God every time I remember you.”

Paul’s not in a good place as he writes this letter. He’s in prison: awaiting trial for his work proclaiming the gospel. But you’d hardly know it from his tone. “It has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ,” he gushes, in verse 13. Talk about transforming lemons into lemonade! Paul’s able to see the hand of the Lord at work even in his own distressing circumstances. He just doesn’t let it get to him. And so, like the ancient Scottish road-builders — dog-tired and exhausted from their labors, but supremely happy at the vista they’re taking in — Paul is able to rest and be thankful.

But what’s he thankful for? He’s thankful because of the Philippians’ “sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” That word “sharing,” in the Greek, is a very famous New Testament word. It’s the word koinonia — a word often translated “fellowship.” But here, the emphasis is not simply on being together, enjoying one another’s company. That bond of community grows out of the common ministry in which they are all engaged.

Paul knows it’s never been all about him. Sure, he was the most important evangelist of his generation, maybe of all time. As any Sunday-school kid will tell you, having traced the colored lines of his missionary journeys criss-crossing the Mediterranean, Paul was the one person — with the exception of Jesus himself — who made the church what it is today. It’s impossible to imagine Christianity without him.

But he also knew he didn’t do it all alone. There’s that koinonia thing he refers to here: the mutual sharing of the work. In his prayers Paul gives thanks that, “from the first day until now,” he’s had so many willing partners in spreading the good news. It’s a pastor’s gratitude he’s expressing.

*****

          His thoughts have special resonance for me, in these final days of my pastorate here at Point Pleasant. Twenty-seven years is a long time — longer than Claire and I ever imagined we’d be living here, if truth be told — but the years have been rich, and the relationships even richer.

I think back to the time we arrived here, in the fall of 1990. I was in my mid-30s. I’d worked nearly six years as director of admissions and assistant dean for our Presbyterian seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, and before that as associate pastor at the Presbyterian Church of Toms River. Even so, compared to the Rev. Ken Chittick, who’d been here 31 years and had just retired, I must have seemed like a kid.

Some eyebrows were raised when, just a few months after I’d been installed, the church steeple was struck by lightning! It was a torrential downpour: not only buckets of rain, but hailstones pounding on the car roof. Ben and I were riding in the car, on our way home from some errand or other, and Claire and Ania — who was then a very small girl — were at home in the Manse. Claire recalled that the air got a funny feel to it, and the hair on her arms stood up with the static electricity, when there was a tremendous boom. That had to be close, she said to herself — still not believing that the steeple had been hit.

A few moments later, someone was pounding on the door. It was a woman who’d been driving up Bay Avenue and had seen the lightning bolt hit. She saw it hit the ornamental ironwork on the top of the steeple and come shooting out again, just below the overhang of the steeple roof.

Claire called 911 and the fire department was here in just a few moments. Ben and I arrived to see the fire truck outside the church, its lights flashing. We showed the firefighters the trapdoor in the ceiling — right back there near the bell rope — and a couple of them climbed the ladder all the way to the belfry. They said the wood was smoldering up there, that we narrowly missed having the church burn down. That was a close call!

Not long after that, we had our first capital campaign, raising money for a new roof and a host of other things that had to be done. It had been many, many years since the church had embarked on a major fundraising effort like that. We raised something like $300,000 over three years as I recall — over and above our regular giving.

It would not be our last. We’ve had four major capital campaigns over my pastoral tenure — and our present Big Cover Up appeal, to replace that very same roof we constructed with the money from the first campaign — is now the fifth. I won’t be here to see it through to its conclusion, but I know you all can do it. You’ve done it before, when the need arose. If you can see this sort of project as a spiritual matter, not just a question of bricks and mortar (or, rather, shingles and plywood), but of advancing Christ’s mission, I know you’ll meet the goal and then some!

There are many Bible commentators, by the way, who think Paul’s phrase “sharing in the gospel” here has to do with the sharing of financial resources. Later on, in chapter 4 of Philippians, he says, “You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you alone.” The word “shared,” here, is the same one he uses in today’s text: koinonia.

It says in the Book of Acts that the early followers of Jesus “held all things in common” — another way of saying that they were exceptionally generous with their financial wealth. Generosity is one of the marks of a faithful Christian

I think, too, of all the effort and dreaming that went into the startup of our Point Beach Prep preschool. For many years the church had operated a preschool in the Education Annex. Everyone knew it as Mrs. Antrim’s Nursery School, after Florence Antrim, the longtime director. The school closed down, though, long before I came as pastor. One of the chief obstacles, I’m told, was the lack of a playground.

Well, one day a For Sale sign went up on the vacant lot behind the Education Annex, which was owned by a neighbor. No sooner did the sign go up, than a developer had made a bid to buy the property. He wanted to put up a very large house. The house he thought he needed to build was so large it required a whole raft of zoning variances. We went to the Board of Adjustment hearing and told them that we, as a church, were interested in buying the property.

Well, said the Board of Adjustment, we’ll make a deal with you. We don’t like the idea of awarding all those variances, so if you can come up with the money to buy the lot for the same amount the developer his offering, and can use it in a lower-intensity way, we’ll turn down his application so you can buy it.

Well, we didn’t have the money: but we did have a congregation that wasn’t afraid to “share” the burden of the gospel in much the same way the Philippian Christians did. Using our Endowment and Emergency Fund for collateral, we took out a bank loan, bought the land, constructed a state of the art playground, and opened up Point Beach Prep. It took a few years for the school to catch on, but it now has, big-time, Just this morning the Session voted to approve an afternoon session, because the morning classes all have waiting lists.

Of course the story of our time here at Point Pleasant would not be complete without some mention of Superstorm Sandy. Anyone who was here five years ago knows what an ordeal that was, for everyone who lived on this part of the Jersey Shore. The devastation in our local communities was unlike anything any of us had seen in our lifetimes — and we’re still not fully recovered.

When you, as a congregation, learned of a tried-and-true way Presbyterians have been involved in disaster relief — the hosting of volunteers — you took the extraordinary step of giving up a significant amount of space in the Education Annex for the benefit of others beyond our walls. Our own church programming — Sunday School, youth groups, Troop 6 and Pack 6 — had to cut back on their use of that space. Most of their leaders knew how pressing was the need, and how imperative it was that we step up to help, so they did it cheerfully. We actually put local mission outreach first, beyond the needs of our own members.

Of course the Volunteer Village could never have succeeded without countless volunteer hours given by so many of you. We gave up our space, we gave up our time and the results have been impressive. When you get your copy of the 2017 Annual Report, you’ll read these words of Peter Farwell’s, the capstone statistics of the Volunteer Village:

“Since we started hosting volunteers in December 2012, over 110 volunteer groups have come to Point Pleasant bringing 1,600 volunteers.  Those volunteers have worked approximately 50,500 hours on 250 homes.  Think of all the families whose lives have been transformed by the efforts of these volunteers, families who have gotten home and whose lives have been made more whole.  And then think of the gifts our congregation has provided by creating a home-away-from- home for these volunteers while they were sharing their gifts and talents.  This truly is a reflection of God’s love working through Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church!”

I couldn’t have said it better. I think that’s exactly the sort of thing Paul means when we speaks of “sharing in the gospel.”

*****

          The Volunteer Village ministry has reached its natural conclusion. There are no more groups booked. A big decision is now before the leaders of our church: what comes next?

The New Beginnings process, now before us, is a way to bring all the mental power, creativity and vibrant faith of this impressive congregation together, to discern what the Lord is calling Point Pleasant Presbyterian to do next. The Lord’s calling me in another direction, as you know, but I’ll be very interested to hear — from my new location — how that comes out. I hope a very large number of you will sign up for those four weeks of small-group meetings: they’re exactly the sort of visioning process this church needs to follow our Lord into the next new thing (whatever that may be).  New Beginnings is a tried-and-true method of calling out of a large and diverse group of church members a common sense of mission. Once you know what that mission is, you’ll know what sort of person you need to be your next pastor. It’s that simple — and that important.

I’ll have more to say on that subject next week, in my final sermon as your pastor. Today, though, I just want you to know how proud I am of you, and how thankful I am that you have been willing to have me as your pastor for the past 27 years. It’s been an honor and a privilege and a joy, in so many more ways than I could ever put into words.

Maybe I just ought to let the Apostle Paul speak for me. As he says in today’s passage:

“This is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”

Amen and amen. Let us now sing of our thanksgiving in our next hymn.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.