GRACE TO YOU AND PEACE FROM GOD OUR FATHER AND THE LORD AND SAVIOR JESUS CHRIST. AMEN.
Some years ago a report came over the wire services about a man who had committed suicide at his place of employment. What made the report unusual was the note the man left to his boss. It read: “I have worked for you for more than thirty years, and in all those years, you never once told me anything I did good. You only told me what I did wrong.”
Norman Vincent Peale recalls the words of an American engineer who visited a coal mine in Wales where production was low. While he was underground, there was a small rock-fall in one of the tunnels. The foreman had timbers brought and directed some quick and efficient repairs. When the American complimented him for this effort, the old miner looked at him silently for a long while. Finally he said, “Sir, I have been working in this mine for thirty years, and those are the first words of praise I’ve ever heard.” No wonder production in the mine was low!
Victor Hugo said, “People live by affirmation even more than they live by bread.” We need affirmation, we need encouragement, and we need kindness. Henry James, the great American author, once wrote that “three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”
Encouragement and kindness and love are so important. Take a look at what St. Paul says of the church in Philippi—his language is full of affection for the people of this congregation: “I thank my God every time I remember you constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for you…you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me…This is my prayer that your love may overflow more and more.” Paul is really writing a love letter to encourage and support these people of God and it is clear that he holds them dear.
Pastor John has a painting in his office of Edison Park Lutheran Church in Chicago. He has the original but now the congregation is offering reprints to members for note cards. It is a beautiful painting. We worshiped there two weeks ago—in this place where I served as assistant pastor more thirty years ago. It was fun to be there—Margit joined the choir and still knew most of the people singing. I thought everyone had gotten so old and of course thirty years have aged me too but I still remembered the familiar faces.
A couple of people even waved to me as they came back from communion. One woman whom I had forgotten, I must admit that, came up and told me that I had married her and husband twenty-seven years ago. I recognized names in the bulletin of people who were children then but now are middle-aged and the names of grandchildren who hadn’t been born when we were there.
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For thirty years, I have read their newsletter, Reminder, and thanked God for the people of Edison Park. We have found lovely, affirming, encouraging people wherever we have been. At St. John’s Lutheran Church in Baroda, Michigan and congregations where I served in an interim capacity—Christ the Mediator in Chicago, First Lutheran in Audubon, Minnesota; Our Savior’s in Warren, Minnesota. And then there was St. Mark’s Lutheran in Fargo. It was a hard place to leave. When I get their newsletter each month I am reminded of how much I miss some of those people.
We were there at St. Mark’stwelve years and by the time we left—and it was really why we left—people in the community were calling me “Mark,” the name of the congregation, instead of “Jim,” my own name. They gave me a framed picture of that church which I brought to my next congregation. The glass broke in the frame when we moved here to Oregon and I didn’t replace it. It was time to move on.
I am sure most of you send Christmas cards. What a chore! We still haven’t started writing and sending them although we’ve had the boxes sitting on the shelf for weeks now. But I know that without sending and receiving cards I would not take time to remember people who have meant so much to me through the years. It is also poignant to pass through the cards of those friends who are no longer with us—Pastor Gordon Nasby, I was his assistant; he was my mentor. I’m sure if he heard me preach now, he would say, “A chip off the old block.” Pastor Talbert and Ella Ronning —our next door neighbors; they were China missionaries and taught us how to use chop sticks. So many dear friends that we write to once a year and remember fondly and recall those we will see again someday in heaven.
St. Paul is not just being sentimental in his letter to the Philippians for he is reminding them and us that we are safe in God’s hands. He is encouraging believers as they walk often difficult paths. Paul remembers fondly their love and support for him. When he was in prison and others deserted him, they did not. Paul is sure that they will grow in faith and love and be found blameless in the day of Jesus Christ. Paul writes, “I am confident of this, that the One who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
It is God’s promise to be with us and make us what he intended us to be. Theology talks about God’s work in sanctifying us as conforming us to the image of His Son. As we grow in faith and hope and love, we become more like Jesus. As we love and encourage each other, as St. Paul was doing to the Philippian Christians, we too are strengthened in our life’s journey until we are found blameless in the day of Jesus Christ. God will bring us to completion—in the Greek, the word is also translated perfection which really means we will be just what God intended us to be.
There is a Hasidic Jewish story about Zusia, a young rabbi. He was in his first congregation and was discouraged with how things were going. When he preached, people would look out the window or doze off. The young people thought he was too old-fashioned. The older people considered him too liberal. He didn’t seem to be making an impact on the community. He knew he wasn’t much of a scholar.
Discouraged Zusia went to visit an older rabbi. “Rabbi,” he said, “I just don’t know what to do. I am not a leader. I am not a scholar. I can’t seem to get through to my congregation. What can I do?”
The older rabbi looked at him and said, ” Zusia, when you get to heaven, God is not going to say to you, ‘Why weren’t you Moses?’ But God is going to say, ‘Why weren’t you Zusia ‘? So why don’t you stop trying to be Moses and start being the Zusia God created you to be?”
Our purpose in life is to be the people God created us to be and what is that? We are called to be people who love Jesus and love each other, who are willing to reach out to those in need and help, to give the encouraging word. It has been said, that we need seven supportive comments to outweigh one negative. We need encouragement.
One of my favorite Bible passages comes from Hebrews that talks about the saints of God encouraging us in our life’s race:
“Therefore since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith… Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, pursue peace with everyone…and see that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble…let mutual love continue.”
We live our lives in the love and forgiveness of God, we claim his promise to be with us, making us into the people we were created to be and we ask that we might be encouragers of one another, kind to one another, tenderhearted, loving one another as God in Christ has loved us. We ask that we like the Philippian Christians may be found blameless in the day of Jesus Christ.
May God bless and strengthen and encourage you. May Christ surround you with hope and peace and love. Amen.
Copyright 2007, James D. Kegel. Used by permission.