Asbury First United
Text: Philippians 4:4-9
The wily members of Tau Kappa Epsilon together had enrolled, that autumn, in a course titled New Testament Introduction, 2pm. They had signed up on the bungled information and misplaced laziness conveyed by someone who said it was an easy A. It was not. In fact, it turned out to be a blistering forced march through ancient history, psychology, sociology and philosophy. Thousands of pages! Which they did not read. Three term papers! Which they hardly completed. Pitched battle midterm! Which they failed. And the class itself, 2pm, affectionately known in the hallowed TKE halls as ‘Death in the Afternoon’.
Thanksgiving approached, and with it the specter of responsibility, the cavernous approaching maw of a final exam worthy of the Grand Inquisitor. The brothers, in fear and trembling, had stopped going to class. Some had written short notes home, before the holiday, indicating that, amazing as it might seem, they perhaps could predict, sorry to say, one failing grade to come.
As it happened, however, the fraternity that year was blessed with an optimistic president, who saw every problem as an opportunity and every terror as a challenge. Thus, the night before the moment of doom, he gathered his sorry brethren in the chapter room. They sang their school song, read from the holy book, recalled other days, and then heard a stirring presidential peroration: “Men. We have not yet begun to fight. We are not defeated yet. An exam is not about what you do not know, it is about what you do know. Remember: you can if you think you can. We are going to pass this course if we simply remember that. Now. I happen to know that this teacher for 29 years has given the same final exam question: “Trace the Three Missionary Journeys of the Apostle Paul”. And I am prepared, as your President, between now, 9pm and tomorrow morning at 5am, to teach you the answer to this question.” Leadership is so crucial. Up went the maps of Greece and Asia Minor! Out came the coffee and cigars! Dusted off were the unread Bibles and textbooks! As one man, the fraternity bent to their challenge, the three missionary journeys of the great Apostle. As dawn broke on D Day, the blinds were drawn back, and the coffee put away, and all the gentlemen of Tau Kappa Epsilon knew in excruciating detail the path of Paul, in Arabia, in Macedonia, to Rome, and on to Spain. Bloodied but unbowed, bluebooks in hand, they marched forward to meet their fate, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do.
Imagine their surprise, prepared as they were. Imagine their shock, set as they were. Imagine their pain, hopeful as they were. Out came the examination, and its singular question….
Analyze and Criticize our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount…
One by one, beginning in good biblical fashion with the eldest, to a man they presented themselves to their professor, whose spine and mettle they had sorely under measured, and confessed their sin. “I was not prepared”, I will see you in the winter. “I did not study”, I will repeat in the winter. “The wheels of justice grind slow but exceedingly fine”, I will enroll again. All so confessed, save one lone freshman, who sat at the back of the room and remembered his leader, his president saying, “An exam is not about what you do not know, but about what you do know. You can if you think you can.” To the amazement of his watching brothers, and the bemusement of his professor, this young, pale freshman tore into the first bluebook, and then into another, and then into a third. At three hours and thirty minutes, soaked in sweat and covered with ink, the young lad stretched, rose, smiled, deposited his document, and left, to rejoin his astonished fraternity. And what did he write?
We may imagine his initial page encased behind glass in the fraternity trophy room, beside paddles, and photos, and sorority articles. He wrote:
"Esteemed Professor, It ill behooves such a lowly person as I to take upon myself the moral weight of such a supreme question as the one you so elegantly and concisely pose. It would not comport with my low station in study and life, to presume to respond to this majestic question. Such an answer would lack all proportion, and all humility. After all, I am a lowly freshman, a mere pledge in my fraternity. How could I possibly analyze, let alone criticize, the most wonderful words ever spoken by a human tongue, divine words from the Son of God? I am not worthy to gather up the crumbs from under the table of this heavenly teaching. Your example and your precept regarding humility, dear teacher, your very life and vocation have taught me otherwise. I cannot, should not, must not, may not, will not presume to analyze or criticize Jesus. Instead, esteemed Professor, by your leave, travel with me in your imagination, as I dutifully retrace THE THREE MISSIONARY JOURNEYS OF THE APOSTLE PAUL…"
Paul concludes his writing, and we may suppose his earthly existence, on a high note of joy, a wing and a prayer and a song of thanksgiving. We meet him here, captured by the cross and also by the Roman guard, living and to the end with thanksgiving. How did he do this? How did this dyspeptic, polemical, cantankerous, argumentative man find the grace to write, “In all things, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, lift your needs to God”? It took him three journeys. And not the ones to the east and to the north and to the west, not the ones to Arabia and Macedonia and Ephesus. In the Spirit of the crucified Christ, Paul learned about living with thanksgiving.
First, he made a spiritual journey from law to liberty. He learned to savor the taste of freedom. He became the archangel of religious freedom. It was Paul who said, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, there is no male and female”. A taste of freedom. It was Paul who said, “For freedom Christ has set us free, stand fast therefore and do not be enslaved again.” A taste of freedom. It was Paul who wrote, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” A taste of freedom. It was Paul who said, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ”. On a spiritual journey from the valley of law to the hillside of freedom, Paul learned about living with thanksgiving. In all things, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, lift your needs to God.
Second, he made a spiritual journey from success to faith. Oh, he had an eager interest in fulfilling, and that successfully, his vision and mission. To spread the good news throughout the known world. Still, he could see and trust that in the course of his labor, there would be failure, mistake, risk, hurt and loss. None of which would invalidate the great good news of which he was mysteriously made a steward. He could be afflicted without being crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed. He could take a punch. On a spiritual journey from the colony of success to the homeland of faith, Paul learned about living with thanksgiving. In all things, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, lift your needs to God.
Third, he made a spiritual journey from independence to community. For such a singular person, this may have been the toughest trail of all. Yet we see emerge in his letters an ascending sensitivity and sensibility about the miracle of fellowship, what he calls the partnership of the gospel. He can rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. And, most astoundingly, be patient with them all. He can observe varieties of gifts, but one God. And varieties of activities but one Lord. And varieties of workings, but the one Spirit. He can admonish the Romans, whom he has not yet visited, to let love be genuine, to hate what is evil, to hold fast what is good, to love one another with mutual affection….On a spiritual journey from the island of independence to the mainland of community, Paul learned about living with thanksgiving. In all things, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, lift your needs to God.
Perhaps, in these brief moments of worship, as we lift our hearts to the living God and as we rest in God’s presence and love, we might consider whether we are living with thanksgiving? There is much that is wrong. War, hunger, terror, poverty, immorality, illness, strife. There is much that is right, too. Life, love, hearth, home, country, church, grace, God. We have known dislocation and disappointment, but we also have known grace and freedom. On the journey from what is wrong to what is right, are we living with thanksgiving? Are we praying, as our storehouse leader does for every client, ‘God sees, knows, loves you and so do I’? Are we gratefully gathering others to church, as one busy young mother did in September, phoning a college student to bring her to church? Are we willing to accept risk and service, as one young person, thrust by change into a new leadership role did, without an audible gulp? Are we giving generously, as one young parent did when after church on stewardship Sunday she amended her pledge upward? (Someone today could probably write a check for $100,000 to further the work of the church). Are we breathing, and listening and smiling through every day? Are we living with thanksgiving? And if not, what will take to get us there?
We have a new stage in our education wing. It is beautiful. One September Sunday, following church, an adult passed by the room to see a half-dozen young women using the stage, developing a play, dancing to imaginary music, enjoying the moment, the space, the church, life—living with thanksgiving.
May the prayer of Howard Thurman be ours, too:
"In Your presence, O God, we make our Sacrament of Thanksgiving. We begin with the simple things of our days: Fresh air to breathe, Cool water to drink, The taste of food, The protection of houses and clothes, The comforts of home.
For all these we make an act of Thanksgiving this day! We bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that we have known: Our mothers’ arms, The strength of our fathers, The playmates of our childhood, The wonderful stories brought to us from the lives of many who talked of days gone by when fairies and giants and diverse kinds of magic held sway; The tears we have shed, the tears we have seen; The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the eye with its reminder that life is good.
For all these we make an act of Thanksgiving this day."
In all things, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, lift your needs to God.