By Dr. Randy L. Hyde
I recall a conversation about fifteen years ago with a colleague friend of mine. I was struggling in my current church situation with some deeply-rooted conflict issues that existed long before I got there, and we were discussing the options I might have. It was obvious to both of us that what I really needed was a change of scenery.
I commented on the fact that every church I had pastored had been relatively young. I had begun on the fourth anniversary of my first congregation, and believe it or not, I was that church’s third pastor! My second church wasn’t that young, but we celebrated the congregation’s fortieth anniversary while I was still in the pulpit there. At the time of this phone conversation, my current congregation was less than twenty years old. It was obvious: to that point, I had served only young churches. What I needed — or so I thought — was an old, established church, one that had been around the block a few times, had some maturity about it, knew the ropes and was wise in its understanding.
Please remember that at the time of this conversation I was hurting. When that happens, one’s sensitivity levels can get out of control. That may explain why, in talking with my friend I said, “Well, I’ll tell you one thing: the next church I go to, the charter members will be long dead and gone.” I heard a pause at the end of the line, then my friend said wisely, “Pard, there are charter members in every church, regardless of how long the church has been in existence.”
You know something, he was right. In every congregation, young or old, there are those who feel real and strong ownership of the church, who have been around for awhile, established their place in “their” pew, who behave as if they are charter members. Some use their longstanding membership to do good, as is generally the case here in our church. Others? Well, not so good. But regardless, there is the natural tendency to want to major on the good old days. Everything was better “back when. “Why can’t we do it the way it used to be done? And by the way, what ever happened to B.Y.P.U.?”
This church has had its golden era, hasn’t it? A number of you remember those halcyon days when this place was busting at the seams, these pews were filled, and most of the time everybody was wondering what was going to be built next. Dr. Hicks, God bless his soul — the “benevolent dictator” as you called him — rode herd on all those young families that lived in the houses in this neighborhood. If you want to know why we don’t have a lot of parking around here, it’s probably because many of the members walked to church back then. Ample parking space wasn’t needed.
During that generation, this congregation developed a personality that was unique and somewhat different from the other Baptist churches around. We sure weren’t typical… not then, not now. I would encourage some of you younger folk to corner one of the charter mem… er, people who were around back then, and ask them about it. You’ll not only learn a great deal about this church and where it came from, but you’ll be mightily entertained in the process.
The chances are quite good that you will hear more than a few stories about Harold Hicks. This was a man who wouldn’t allow food or coffee in the church office, or probably anywhere outside fellowship hall. He frequently made sure the thermostat was set so as to save as much money as possible, which meant the place was generally too warm or too cold to suit most folk… like Letha Wheeler, his secretary, who would change the thermostat setting to her liking every time the pastor went to visit in the hospital. Dr. Hicks wanted things kept tidy and run smoothly, and as cheaply as possible. I can’t imagine what he would say about donuts in the parlor and thermostats set at 72 degrees!
You might be told the story of the time that Dr. Hicks got tired of how cluttered the costume room had gotten. As I know the story – and if the details aren’t exactly the way some of you remember it, don’t interrupt me; factual history isn’t all that important here – the costume room was located upstairs on the second or third floor over the alley in the back. Out of his frustration over its cluttered condition, Dr. Hicks started throwing stuff out the window onto the ground below, with the full intention of having it thrown away immediately. He was tired of the mess.
Janie Howell, God bless her soul, and Rosie Dunham, who doesn’t need to be blessed, were on the church staff. As quick as Dr. Hicks could throw the costumes and other paraphernalia on the ground, Janie and Rosie scooped it all up, and unbeknownst to Dr. Hicks, took it right back into the building where they put it in another room where he couldn’t find it.
If you asked one of the charter… er, veterans around here, you might just hear that story. And, needless to say, they’ll tell you some others as well.
But still, it wasn’t all fun and games, was it? Building this church was hard work, and I’m not just talking about the buildings. In fact, when talking about building a church, buildings are generally the least of it. To go along with the laughter and good memories, there’s a lot of sweat equity in this place. And that’s always been the case, anywhere God’s people have come together and made a church.
I do believe that if the Apostle Paul were standing here today, he would tell you that is as it should be. Following Jesus is hard work. Doing the work of ministry calls for exertion. Having the mind of Christ, as the professional athletes would tell you, requires giving it 110 percent. And chances are, to illustrate his point, Paul would tell you about the church in Philippi.
By all accounts, based on the letters written by Paul that are in existence, he enjoyed the Philippian church more than any other congregation he pastored or served. His affection for the good folk in Philippi is obvious, and it is just as apparent that they felt the same way toward him. They even took up an offering for him after he had left them to continue his travels elsewhere.
Sometimes you have to wonder why they felt so warmly toward Paul. After all, he was not exactly the warm and gushy type. And there’s no evidence that he treated them any differently from any of the other churches he started or served, that he made it any easier on them than he did with his other congregations. In fact, this passage we read this morning reveals that Paul made some real hard demands on the Philippians.
It begs the question… is that any way to grow a church?
These days, it seems, to grow a church you’ve got to be more salesman than preacher. In fact, I visited recently in a church that’s growing by leaps and bounds. The pastor preached a pretty good sermon… until he turned it into a commercial for the building program. If Paul had depended on his livelihood in sharing the gospel as a salesman does, he would surely have been bankrupt in no time.
You’ve gotten the phone calls, I’ll bet. For just a few bucks you can stay in Branson or Orlando, or some other exotic place. Two nights and three days practically free. Bring as many family members as you want… grandma and grandpa, Cousin Charley and Uncle Fred, if you’d like. As many folk has you can fit into a space with two bedrooms, two baths. They’ll give you a wonderful view to boot. All you have to do is listen to a forty-five minute sales talk. They might even throw in a free clock or video recorder, if you’re real nice.
Ever done that? Boy, they’re good, aren’t they? All the time they’re reaching into your wallet they make it sound like it won’t hurt a bit. Why, it’s the greatest deal since the Dutch bought Manhattan. But it’s only good until midnight. After that, the opportunity will be gone. To take advantage of such a sweet deal, you have to sign up right now.
Come to think of it, I’ve heard a few preachers who operate like that, and I bet you have too.
Not Paul. If he’s giving the Philippians a sales pitch, he’s going about it all wrong. First of all, if you want people to join your church, you have to tell them what’s in it for them. You have to offer them more than the church up the street or over across the way. You’ve got to present them a pretty package that they can’t find anywhere else. It doesn’t hurt if your coffee is better than theirs, either.
And once they’ve joined, once they’re in… well, have you ever been approached this way? “Hey, Joe, can I talk to you for a minute. Yeah, you see, I’m on the Nominating Committee and we were wondering if you’d be willing to take a three-year stint on the XYZ Committee. You don’t know what that group does? Well, to be honest with you — now, don’t tell anybody I told you this — truth be told, it doesn’t do much of anything. In fact, they hardly ever meet. There won’t be much work, if any, involved. Piece of cake.”
Have you ever had someone say something like that to you? We think we can get people to agree to fill in the prescribed slots by promising them they won’t have to do anything.
Do you think that’s the way Paul went about things? Rhetorical question, isn’t it? He knew being church is hard work, and he never minced words about it. Listen to his sales pitch, what he tells the folk in the church at Philippi…
“Be of the same mind.” You think that’s easy? He doesn’t mean they have to agree with one another all the time. It means that no matter what decisions the congregation chooses to make, they will all support it because they know that what binds them together as a church family is not their willingness to be in agreement; it is their desire to serve Christ together with one mind and one heart. Paul is telling them that they are to be selfless in their service, humble in their spirit, and willing to do whatever it takes to see that Christ is exalted in all they do. Do you know how hard that is? Do you? Well let me tell you, it gets harder.
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit,” Paul says, “but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” And then, to illustrate his point, he talks about how Jesus had obediently done that very thing, even to the point of dying on the cross. And he says that if any would follow after Jesus, they must be willing to do the very same thing. I get tired just thinking about it.
“Look to the interests of others,” he tells them, “and not to your own.” This is the way one commentator puts it… “Paul regards as inappropriate to the body of Christ the selfish eye, the pompous mind, the ear hungry for compliments, and the mouth that spoke none, the heart that had little room for others, and the hand that served only the self.”1
You know what this guy is saying? He’s telling us that, according to the way Paul puts it together, following Jesus is hard work. To be of faithful service to Christ, you’ve got to put in some sweat equity.
Paul wasn’t much of a salesman, was he? When you’re in sales, you’re supposed to promise an easy time of it, a smooth ride, a straight road. For goodness’ sake, if you want people to buy your sales pitch, you don’t tell them how hard it’s going to be.
Last time I stood in this pulpit a couple of weeks ago, I made a case – with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, I hope you realized – that Paul must not have been a very good Baptist. If I had been really serious about that, this portion of his epistle to the Christians in Philippi would only serve to reinforce the idea. Paul wasn’t much of a salesman, nor was he a very good Baptist!
How do you figure that? Well, just as Paul is about to make his closing argument, he says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” He makes it sound like redemption comes by means of a treadmill or a three-times-a-week Pilates session. “Work out your own salvation…” Talk about sweat!
But, of course, that isn’t his point. He means that following Jesus calls for the very best in us, even when we don’t feel like giving it our best. It demands that we have at heart the best interests of those with whom we share these pews, even when our initial urges call upon us to give in to our own selfish desires. It requires that we often do what we do not want to do. It takes hard work, and we don’t like to think in those terms. We prefer to think of our faith in terms of grace, and grace is something that’s given to us freely, freely. It is not something we do, not what we earn.
“Paul, thank you very much, but if it’s the same to you we don’t want to work out our salvation. We want redemption to come to us… freely, easily, simply. Let Jesus make all the sacrifices.”
If that is the way you want your faith to come to you, you won’t be surprised, will you, if I try to change your mind? If I’m going to be successful in doing that, how do I go about it? Well, first of all, I’m going to try and get some help. And I think I’ve found it, and it’s at the very beginning of this portion of Paul’s letter we read this morning.
Paul says, “If there is any encouragement in Christ…” I’m not sure where they get this idea, but the Revised English Bible translates that conditional phrase this way: “If then our common life in Christ yields anything to stir the heart…” Ooh, that’s good enough that I think I’ll repeat it. “If then our common life in Christ yields anything to stir the heart…”
When was the last time your heart was stirred? Did it happen in church? If so, don’t let it go. Don’t let it slide by without taking full advantage of it. Grab hold of that experience and go with it. Very often, a true experience with Christ begins when your emotional heart strings have been tugged, and you wonder what is happening to you. Chances are, it’s the power of God’s Spirit moving in you, stirring your heart to follow the One who has shown us how to live. Now, that will sell!
So I leave you with this… Next time you pray, do it earnestly from the heart. Next time you attend Bible study, give it all you’ve got. Next time you worship, ask God to stir your heart in a way that’s never happened before. Next committee meeting, fellowship supper, class social, mission project… put your whole heart and soul into it. Get the heart pumping, your feet moving, and the holy juices flowing.
Sweat equity. It’s the only way to build a church. It’s the only way to follow Jesus.
Lord, get us moving in your direction. Stir our hearts that they may be filled with your purpose, guide what we do that it might be solely to serve you. In Jesus’ name we ask it, Amen.
1Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 617.
Copyright 2005 Dr. Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.