Thank God for You All
By Richard Niell Donovan
Paul shared a special friendship with the Christians at Philippi. That friendship started in a strange way, which is described in the 16th chapter of Acts. Paul and his companions had been on a missionary journey. They had an itinerary—they knew where they were going. Bithynia was the next place on the list. They travelled so much that they must have been like American vacationers. “If this is Tuesday, this must be Bithynia.” But when they tried to enter Bithynia, Acts says, “but the Spirit didn’t allow them” (Acts 16:7).
Then, during the night, Paul saw a vision of a man from Macedonia begging him, “Come over into Macedonia and help us” (Acts 16:9). Paul and his companions caught the next ship to Macedonia, and proceeded to Philippi, its leading city.
Lots of interesting things happened to Paul and his companions in Philippi. They baptized Lydia—a seller of purple—a prosperous businesswoman. They healed a slave-girl from her demon-possession. The girl’s owners, who had exploited her condition, were furious, and stirred up a mob against them. They hauled Paul and Silas before the magistrates, who beat them severely and threw them into jail.
The caning of Michael Fay in Singapore got lots of press a few weeks ago. That incident gave Americans a new appreciation for what it means to be caned. That will give you an idea what happened to Paul and Silas. Acts says that they were “beaten with rods” (Acts 16:22). Being beaten with rods in a first-century Roman jail was no picnic. They were probably beaten within an inch of their lives.
Then they were thrown in jail and fastened in stocks. Can you imagine being fastened in stocks after a beating like that! They couldn’t even move around to try to get into a comfortable position.
A jailer was assigned to keep watch over them.
Then Acts says, “But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God….” (Acts 16:25). Can you imagine that? I don’t think it is possible for twentieth-century Americans even to imagine the courage and fortitude of first-century Christians. Severely flogged, beaten within an inch of their lives, thrown in jail, fastened in stocks, Paul and Silas were singing hymns.
And then it happened. A violent earthquake shook the prison, opening the doors and loosing the chains. Anyone who was living here when the big one hit in 1989 can identify with that. The jailer woke up, assumed that some of the prisoners had escaped, understood that he would be executed if they had escaped, and started to commit suicide. Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself, for we are all here!” (Acts 16:28). Before the night was over, Paul had baptized the jailer and his family.
At daybreak, the magistrates released Paul and Silas, but ordered them out of town. They visited Lydia and the little fledgling church, and then left. The church grew and kept in touch with Paul.
Paul prided himself on being self-supporting and did not usually accept support from churches—but he accepted help from Philippi. This little church not only sent money, but sent Epaphroditus to be Paul’s personal servant. The Philippians were the brightest spot of Paul’s ministry. He loved them, and they loved him.
Paul starts his letters to other churches by reminding them of his authority; he is an apostle of Jesus Christ. But the Philippians are his dear friends. With them, he has no need to wield authority. Here he describes himself as a servant of Jesus Christ. Then he says,
“I thank my God whenever I remember you,
always in every request of mine on behalf of you all
making my requests with joy,
for your partnership in furtherance of the Good News
from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:3-5).
“I thank my God whenever I remember you.” When I was considering this first sermon at this church, that verse came to my mind. “I thank my God whenever I remember you.” It described how Paul felt about the Philippians, and it describes how I feel about you.
I thank God for many things about this church:
• First of all, I thank God that someone had the vision a century ago to start this church. Those were pioneer days in California; people were struggling to survive. Nevertheless, State Evangelist E.B. Ware started conducting worship services and Sunday school at Chatauqua Hall—just a few short blocks down the street. Thirty-six charter members agreed to build a church building, and borrowed $500 to start construction. $500 doesn’t sound like much today, but a century ago those charter members were mortgaging their future to establish a Christian future in this young community.
• I thank God that those people had a vision. They did not build this building for their children only. They built this building for our children as well.
• I thank God for the stewardship of thirty-eight ministers and thousands of laypersons through the century. We know some of their names, but many have faded into the obscurity that awaits most of us after death. But they live on through the people whom they brought to Christ—and their children—and their grandchildren—and their great grand-children.
• I thank God for all the small sacrifices that people have made to help establish a Christian presence here. I thank God that Mr. Patrick built our first pulpit. I thank God that Mrs. Patrick donated her marble-top table to serve as a communion table. You couldn’t just go to the store and buy a marble-top table in those days. That table was an object of joy to Mrs. Patrick. It was precious in her sight. She enjoyed the way that it looked in her parlor. She enjoyed having guests in her home who could rest their tea cups on that beautiful table. But when the church needed a communion table, she didn’t hesitate. She couldn’t offer a lesser table. She couldn’t ask her husband to build a new table from local lumber. She wanted the church to have a table that was worthy to serve as a resting place on Sunday mornings for the body and blood of our Lord, and her marble-top table was the only table that was even half-worthy. And so she said, “I want the church to have my table for communion.”
• I thank God for the countless acts of devotion like that of Mrs. Patrick over the last century—the countless sacrifices, large and small, that made it possible for this congregation to endure in good times and bad times. This congregation, like the famous Monterey pine, has stood the test of time through many stormy days—its roots firmly planted in the faith and hope and love of its people.
• I thank God that, only a few years after this building was built, the people sacrificed to erect the fellowship hall. Can you imagine how different this church would have been without the fellowship hall. When I visited in May, Bo described this as the eatingest church he had ever seen. As nearly as I can tell, you can hardly make it through the week without some kind of church dinner. That kind of fellowship has built a sense of community that few churches ever experience. You know each other and you love each other. That wouldn’t have happened if early members had not sacrificed to build the fellowship hall.
• I thank God that these same people at the same time built the parsonage. Can you imagine starting construction on the fellowship hall and the parsonage simultaneously? Can you imagine the commitment that that required? Thank God for that commitment! If they had not built the parsonage, I could never have been your pastor. As much as my family and I love this community, we could never have afforded to live here. Thank God for men and women who said, “We need a church building, and we need a fellowship hall, and we need a parsonage”—and who sacrificed to make those buildings possible.
• During the 60s, people did all kinds of unfortunate things. During that decade, many churches sold their parsonages and spent the money. Pacific Grove is one of only five churches in the region that resisted that temptation. Reatha tells me that some people wanted to do sell the parsonage, and she is proud that you resisted. I thank God for Reatha and the others who resisted the temptation of an easy year or two that would have mortgaged the future of this church.
• Also during the 60s, people wanted to tear this building down and erect an A-frame. I thank God to the people who resisted that faddishness and restored this building to its current beauty.
• In like manner, I thank God for the men and women who built the educational building in 1960. We can have a Sunday school, because people sacrificed to make that possible.
• I thank God for the hundreds of people who have been baptized here. I thank God for the thousands of people who have met Christ here. I thank God for the countless people who have learned their faith here and have then moved on to other places to spread their faith.
• I thank God for Mr. Chase, Mrs. Cope, Mrs. Nichols, and others who remembered this church in their wills. They were generous in life, and they were generous in death. If they had not taken a few moments to look ahead, you would not have been able to make the recent repairs to this building. Without their stewardship, termites would have destroyed this building and the ministry of this church. I thank God for these people’s devotion.
But I am not just thankful for the sacrifices of men and women of another era—men and women long since dead—men and women whose names I do not know. I thank God for the men and women and children who are here now—the men and women and children who make this church what it is today.
• I thank God for the faithful pillars of this church who have invested decades of their lives to its care:
• The Gates
• The Getz’s
• The Weaklends
• I thank God for others whom I might not know or might have forgotten. A preacher should never name names lest he forget someone. But the church is people, and I decided to name some names today, because we should all be grateful for these men and women and others like them who have devoted decades of loving service to Christ in this congregation. Forgive me my omissions, I pray.
• I thank God for the many new faces that I see here today—people who were not here when I left this area four years ago. I thank God to see them in positions of leadership. I thank God for their commitment and service. Many churches of this size have not incorporated any new blood their leadership for a decade. That is certainly not true at Pacific Grove.
• I thank God for board members who meet—and elders who “eld”—and deacons who “deke”—and trustees who trust. I thank God for teachers who teach—and choir members who sing—and nursery attendants who attend—and cooks who cook—and all the people who make this church work.
• I thank God for all the support that you gave me and my family during my recent illness. Your cards, phone calls and prayers meant more than I can ever tell you.
Paul said to the little congregation in Philippi, “I thank my God wheneverI remember you.” I say of this little congregation, “I thank God whenever I remember you.”
Paul went on to say to the Philippians:
“This I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more
in knowledge and all discernment;
so that you may approve the things that are excellent;
that you may be sincere and without offense to the day of Christ;
being filled with the fruits of righteousness,
which are through Jesus Christ,
to the glory and praise of God” (1:9-11).
And that is my prayer for you as well.
Copyright 2012 Richard Niell Donovan