say thank you (or not…)

What does gratitude look like?

How should gratitude be expressed in our lives?

For most of us, one of the earliest things we were taught by our parents was to say “Thank you.”

When someone paid you a compliment: “Did you say thank you?”

When someone was giving you a gift: “Remember to say thank you.”

And of course there was always also the right posture in gratitude: “You’ve got to look at her when you say thank you. ”

From those earliest days of learning to say thank you, there have been so many instances when gratitude has made sense to each us – so many times when we have expressed our thankfulness to others.

But as we have grown up – as we have put some distance between our childhood selves and our mature selves – the question of thankfulness has also gotten more complicated. I’m sure we’ll all agree. I’m sure that all of us can think of situations where thankfulness wasn’t at all straightforward.

Think of a time when perhaps you didn’t ask for advice, but you got advice anyway. Your tone of voice probably expressed exactly how you felt about that unsolicited advice: “Yea, thanks.”

Think of the times when you have expressed gratitude when you didn’t really mean it – someone gave something you didn’t really want or need. More than likely, it came through in your tone of voice. “Oh, that’s great. Thanks.”

Of course we have also been in situations in which we really wanted to express gratitude, but then weren’t quite sure how to do it. Should I call and say thank you. Does this warrant a card? Would it be insulting to just send an email.

And then there are those really big events in our lives – or those deeply meaningful relationships. How do you even begin to say thank you in those situations or for those relationships. Anything you say or do end will seem not to match the magnitude of what you’ve received. Maybe it’s better to not even try saying thank you? I don’t know.

It all starts out so simply: “Remember to say thank you.”

But then over time it gets complicated.

Sometimes our words of gratitude have expressed our best self.

Sometimes our words of gratitude have shown our worst possible self.

And then there’s the fact that it’s not always clear how or when to say thank you.

This Thanksgiving Sunday we are continuing to work our way through Paul’s letter to the Philippians. But in order to stay with the theme of this Thanksgiving Sunday, we are going to jump ahead to the fourth chapter. In that chapter, the question of gratitude arises – the question of Paul’s gratitude toward the Philippians. And looking at Paul’s relationship with the church in Philippi, it seems Paul has a lot to be thankful for.

Perhaps we should back up a bit to see why that’s the case. We know that Paul was an itinerant pastor – he travelled from city to city sharing the good news of Jesus. And as he traveled he founded churches along the way. Over time, and the years, Paul also nurtured those congregations – he made return trips to support them. He wrote them letters instructing them in the things of faith, and encouraging them in the way of Jesus.

Now we also remember that Paul dedicated himself to work particularly among the Gentiles. The churches he founded and continued to support – these were Gentile, or non-Jewish churches. At the same time Paul was also deeply rooted in the Judean church – he was committed to the wellbeing of the church in Jerusalem. And so when that Judean church was in need of support – when there was a famine in Jerusalem – Paul spent a lot of time and energy taking up an offering from the Gentile churches, for the church in Jerusalem. It was an expression of their love for one another – and an expression of their unity in the body of Christ.

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, in particular, he talks a lot about this offering for the Church in Jerusalem. And what’s interesting is that in his letter to the Corinthian Church, he uses the Philippian church as an example. Here’s what he says to the Corinthian Christians: “We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God to the churches of Macedonia (that’s the Philippians); for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and there extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means and even beyond their means…” The Philippians seem to know what generosity is – they seem to be living examples of generosity.

Giving even when it was hard.

Giving beyond their means.

Giving out of love for suffering sisters and brothers.

Paul wanted the Corinthians Christians to learn from the Philippians – perhaps we can learn from them also – perhaps we can learn a generosity that overflows out of the love and generosity of Christ – giving even when its hard.

But back to Paul… Because there have been times when Paul has been in need, too. As an itinerant pastor, Paul hasn’t always had enough to get by. Sometimes Paul would work as a tentmaker to make ends meet – but even then he often finds himself in a situation of very real need. And it turns out that the Philippian church has not only been generous with their sisters and brothers in Jerusalem – they have been generous with Paul, too.

In our passage for today, in fact, we discover that the Philippian Christians have sent financial support to Paul on no less than three occasions. The first time was when Paul left Philippi but was still in the region of Macedonia there on the North Western shore of the Agean Sea. While he was still in Macedonia, the Philippians sent gifts to support him.

And then once Paul left the region of Macedonia and travelled further south to Corinth on the Peloponnesian Peninsula – the Philippians sent him financial support there also.

Thirdly and finally, in his letter Paul acknowledges that Epaphroditus has just arrived with a gift from the Philippian church. So on three different occasions, the generosity of the Philippian church overflows – it overflows toward Paul. The Philippians have shown real generosity in their financial contributions…

But here’s where it gets interesting – actually, there are a number of interesting things in this passage – but here’s one of them. In this letter to the Philippians, Paul never says thank you. The word we are looking for is the Greek word eucharistia – Paul, aren’t you going to say thank you to the Philippians – where’s the eucharistia.

Well, the eucharistia is nowhere to be found. Paul never says thank you. How’s that for a passage to read on Thanksgiving Sunday – Paul has received numerous gifts of support from his sisters and brothers in Philippi. Epaphroditus has just delivered another gift. And in writing back to the Philippians, Paul fails the most basic test of childhood: “Remember to say thank you.”

Well, lets add insult to injury this morning. When Epaphroditus shows up with the gift, not only does Paul not say thank you. Paul also responds by saying: “You know I don’t really need this gift.” How’s that for gratitude? You give me a gift – I don’t say thank you. And I tell you I don’t really need it anyway.

But let’s go back to where we were a few minutes ago: gratitude is complicated. Thankfulness is complicated in our own lives and in our own culture – we don’t always understand the etiquette of thankfulness – we don’t always know how to express gratitude. And on top of that, when we read this passage, we have add in a profound cultural gap between our own experiences and those of Paul some two thousand years ago. But when we do take a look at Paul’s cultural context, we begin to understand that Paul actually has a pretty good reason not to say thank you. He has a pretty good reason to say: I don’t really need this gift.

So what is this supposed good reason that Paul has for not saying thank you? Well here it is. In Paul’s cultural context, if Paul says thank you to the Philippians, he will automatically be defining their relationship in a certain way. If Paul says thank you to the Philippians, their relationship will become a patron-client relationship. The Philippians will become the patron, the provider, the supporter – and Paul will become the client. And in that kind of relationship, in that cultural context, a fundamental inequality is implied. If Paul is the client, then Paul becomes obligated to his patron – Paul owes his patron honour – Paul owes his patron respect. Put differently, Paul must defer to them in important ways.

But throughout his ministry, Paul was always careful to avoid entering into any such patron-client relationship. For the sake of his own life and ministry, he wants to be free of any such constraint. And for the sake of others’ perceptions of him he wants to be free of any such constraint. Why? Because Paul wants to be faithful to the way of Christ only. Paul wants to be indebted to Christ only. When he preaches a message, it is because that message is consistent with Christ, not because any patron has insisted on it. When he travels to a particular city, he goes there because he is led by the Spirit – not because any patron has insisted he go there next. He wants to be free in himself – and he wants to be free in the perception of others, so that that the message he brings is not corrupted through patronage.

And we thought gratitude was complicated in our lives and in our culture. Gratitude was an equally, or more complicated reality in Paul’s cultural context.

But again, here’s the thing. Even though Paul doesn’t say thank you – even though Paul tells them he doesn’t really need what they’ve give him – nevertheless Paul expresses gratitude.

Here’s what Paul says in the opening verse of our passage for today: “I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it” Looking at this verse I want to highlight two aspects of Paul’s gratitude – and I suspect there’s something we can learn from Paul.

The first thing we discover in this passage is Paul’s joy – his joy in the Philippians – his joy in their love for him and friendship with him. When Paul says in this verse that they have revived their concern for him – the word revived in the Greek is actually a botanical metaphor. It means to blossom again – the flowers are blooming again. For some time, perhaps, the Philippians may not have sent any expression of friendship to Paul (whether a gift or a letter or an envoy bringing greetings), but now in this moment, with the arrival of Epaphroditus with greetings from them and a gift from them – their love and friendship for Paul has blossomed again. And it brings him great joy.

Paul’s joy, is not in the gift they have sent – Paul’s gratitude is not really for the money Epaphroditus brings – Paul has learned contentment in poverty. His joy is a joy in friendship – in their partnership – in their shared life in Christ. This aspect of gratitude is perhaps as important as that simple childhood lesson we learned – remember to say thank you. But it’s a simple lesson that we often forget. In our gratitude, to take delight and joy, not in the gift (which in our culture especially, we can often do without) – to take delight and joy, not in the gift – but in the love and the friendships that are a part of our lives.

Finally there is this. Paul writes: “I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me.” Paul’s joy is certainly in the Philippians – in their friendship and their love and their compassion for him. But in a real sense, Paul locates the giving and receiving between himself and the Philippians within the context of grace. How could he do otherwise, since he understands that God has given every good gift – since he understands that it is through Christ relationships of love and service become deep and meaningful. Paul locates his gratitude in the context of grace, by acknowledging God is the source of joy, and the source of every good gift. I rejoice in the Lord, greatly, for your love.

We also are invited to set our giving and receiving in the context of grace – to understand that every good and perfect gift comes from God – that the most meaningful relationships are given through the gracious love of Christ.

In a way, setting our lives in the context of grace will free us from a part of the burden of giving and receiving. We could look at this from many sides, but we’ll look at it only from the side of the giver as we conclude this morning.

So often when we give, there is a need to be praised for how creative we were: “What a great idea. What a lovely gift.” Or there is a need to be acknowledge for how thoughtful we were: “Oh you shouldn’t have, that’s so thoughtful.” Setting our giving and receiving in the context of grace reminds us that giving isn’t really about us – it isn’t really about how creative we are, or thoughtful we are. It isn’t about how good a person we are – or how good a person we are trying to be. Giving and receiving, and gratitude, are about how astonishingly generous God has been. It’s about the joy we can take in sharing in God’s plenitude – in the overflowing goodness of our creator and redeemer. It’s about the joy we take in the relationships God has given. Setting our giving and receiving in the context of grace takes the pressure off ourselves, takes us out of the centre of the picture, and sets us free for generosity and love toward others. Rejoicing in God all the way.

So Paul failed the test of childhood – he didn’t say thank you. But Paul understood gratitude, and he lived it joyfully and faithfully in relation to his friends. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s