- Grace and Gratitude
- Philippians 1:2-7a
- Bill Couch May 22, 2016
Grace and Gratitude
It is hard to believe that this is my last message as your pastor. Nine months ago when I announced my retirement date, it seemed like a long way off. The time has flown by. Last Sunday was a wonderful day of celebration. Margaret and I are grateful for all the kind words spoken and written to us. We are especially grateful to the Transition Celebration team who planned such a wonderful experience for us.
As I thought about a theme for this last message I thought of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He wrote this letter while he was under house arrest in Rome. It was written about six years before he was beheaded by order of Emperor Nero. Ironically, it is one of Paul’s most joy-filled letters. His joy does not depend upon his circumstances. His joy overflows from the presence of Jesus Christ living in his heart regardless of where he is or what is happening to him. Paul wrote in a letter to the Thessalonians about ten years earlier these words: “give thanks in all circumstances.” (I Thessalonians 5:18) He appropriately begins his letter to the Philippians with gratitude.
2 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. 7 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart.
“Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Dale Husen, our Communications Director, interviewed me for a series of articles in our church newsletter. One of her questions was: “What is your most favorite sermon topic?” Without hesitation I said, “Grace.” Grace is about experiencing what God has done for us. Grace is not about what we do for God. We do not earn God’s approval. His forgiveness and love is a gift of unmerited favor. Several of you mentioned that for the first time in your life, you came to experience God’s grace through the ministry of this church. I’m one of those who has experienced God’s grace through the ministry of this church. I need a lot of grace. I thank God for his grace that was extended through you to me and my family for 37 ½ years. My prayer each Sunday is that you will come to know and experience more of God’s grace in your life. I love to preach about God’s grace because it puts our eyes on Jesus and all that he did for us through his life, death and resurrection.
After focusing on God’s grace, Paul expresses his gratitude to the Philippians. “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” I thank God for your partnership with me in growing this church. Last week I had the opportunity to soak in the History Wall that Tim and Clarissa Hayes designed. I was overwhelmed as I looked at all that God had done through this church in 37 years. Seeing it all captured in one place triggered a flood of memories and so much gratitude. One person cannot build a church like this. The church is not a building; the church is people. As we have partnered together under the Lordship of Christ, the impact of this church has rippled throughout this community and literally around the world.
Our partnership began on a cold, snowy Sunday morning, February 18, 1979. I’m grateful to the other Methodist churches that partnered with us by loaning us chairs, a lectern and even offering plates. Everything we had that first Sunday was borrowed. We owned nothing. Friends from FUMC in Plainview where I had been associate pastor for four years partnered with us. I asked them to pray for that first Sunday. They woke up and saw all the snow on the ground and were afraid I would not have anyone show up. Twenty of them drove down from Plainview through the snow. They and I were surprised when 134 people showed up for the first worship service! I had only borrowed seventy-five chairs. “Oh, ye of little faith!”
I am grateful for your prayer support of me, my family and this church. I have no idea how many spiritual battles have been won as you stood in the gap for us. Some of you have told me that you were awakened in the middle of the night to pray for me and my family. For all the prayers I will be forever grateful. Please continue to keep us in your prayers!
I am grateful for your generosity. The per capita giving of this church is far above average enabling us to be a blessing to thousands of people each month.
I am grateful for the leaders who have guided our churches’ ministries. I am grateful for the multitude of servants who are willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish our mission. You have a servant’s heart and go about your ministries often behind the scenes and with little or no recognition. Thank you for serving the Lord.
I am grateful for our staff and their spouses who faithfully serve together creating an environment where all of us can grow spiritually.
I am grateful to my family, who shared the blessings and challenges of this journey through their childhood—and survived!
I am especially grateful for the partnership of my wife, Margaret, in this ministry and in life. She is my best friend, supporter and confidant. She has taught me to dream bigger dreams. She has expanded my horizons in ways I never imagined possible. And she makes me laugh. Thank you for you for being my partner.
Paul says to the Philippians: “I have you in my heart.” Margaret and I will always have you in our hearts. Paul not only held the Philippians in his heart; he held the Corinthians, the Thessalonians, the Ephesians, the Colossians, the Galatians and the Romans. Paul had room in his heart for all of them. I’m afraid that sometimes we think love is limited—that we can only love a limited number of people. When we reach that limit, if we add someone to our list of those we love then we have to let someone else go. How sad. The Love of God is infinite and if his love is in our hearts we can love without limits. I hope that you will hold a place for us in your hearts as you make room for Lyndol and his family in your hearts. You don’t have to let go of us to love him. You just make room for more. You are not being disloyal to me if you love him. You are not being disloyal to him if you continue to love me. Let love abound. There is more than enough love for all of us.
Paul also said to the Philippians: “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Notice that it is Jesus who completes the work in us. The Holy Spirit provides us with the power to become all that God created us to be. We cannot do it by ourselves. Often we attempt to grab hold of the controls of our lives. We develop a plan of what we want to become and what we want to do. And then we get a plan to make it happen.
Today is Senior Sunday. You can see from the booklet that our Seniors have a plan. The world teaches us the importance of having goals and plans. And those are important—up to a point. I can remember my plan at graduation from high school. I was going to attend and graduate from Austin College in Sherman, get married, go to seminary, become a United Methodist minister serving in my hometown of Dallas, and have the national average of 2.5 children. Some of those plans have occurred, but not everything went according to my plan. Along the way some disruptions and surprises took place. In spite of attending 3 different universities, I managed to graduate in four years. Along the way I started ministering in West Texas and never returned to Dallas. I was blessed with twice as many kids as were in my plan. And I experienced a divorce which was not a part of the original plan. When something happened that was not according to my plan I experienced frustration, disappointment, and heartache. This was not the way I wanted things to go. My plans had been derailed.
Looking back on my life, I think I put too much focus on working my plan. When things did not go as planned, I felt cheated. What I’m beginning to realize is that our responsibility is to discover God’s plan rather than working our own plan. I believe we need to prayerfully develop a trajectory for our lives. A trajectory is a general direction that is open to new options. It allows us to embrace the unexpected things that happen in life and see if God may be using those things to take us in a different direction. Let me say clearly, God does not cause all the disruptions. There are tragic things that happen as a result of living in a fallen world. We may experience a debilitating accident or major health crisis. We might experience a divorce or death of a loved one. God does not send those things just to interrupt our path. Instead He uses those things to open us to new possibilities that we might never have considered. When we experience a disruption we need to listen and seek his will.
I recently read about a young man who decided in high school he wanted to be a diplomat. He was good at mediating conflict among his peers. He was involved in the Model U.N. He read the international section of the news daily. He became fluent in Spanish. He planned to major in international relations in college and spend his junior year abroad. These experiences should propel him toward a career in diplomacy. He had a plan and he was working his plan.
He went to college and then off to Spain. After a month he fell ill with a severe respiratory virus that landed him in the hospital. His plans had been disrupted. It was his first experience of hospitalization, and it planted a seed. He became curious about how and why doctors and hospitals did what they did. When he was dismissed from the hospital, he could dismiss the curiosity and focus on catching up on the studies he had missed. He could resume his plan. Or he could pay attention to this disruption. Is his curiosity about medicine awakening something in him that he was unaware of? Is it a mild curiosity that he should dismiss or is it something stronger that he should investigate? What if he took this as an opportunity to listen to God? “God I’m on this trajectory for my life, but maybe I’ve missed what you want me to do. Guide me as I consider and explore this curiosity that has been awakened in me.”
Disruptions in our trajectory are an opportunity to reevaluate the direction of our lives and listen to the Holy Spirit who is the one responsible for completing what God has begun in us. It is his guidance that helps us discover why God created us. When we get so intensely focused on our own little plans we may miss God’s bigger plan for our lives. Prayerfully explore the options that open up for your life because of a disruption. God may use it to help you discover his plan for your life. I am grateful for the disruptions that happened in my life because they have brought me to the place where I am today.
Retirement is a disruption. I never really thought what it was going to be like after being pastor of LakeRidge United Methodist Church. I still don’t know what God has next for us. In the midst of this disruption I want to listen to the plans God has for us. I know he is not finished with us yet.
In the words of Western novelist Louis L’Amour: “There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.”
God is not finished with me. He is not finished with you. He is not finished with LRUMC. We are all just beginning. He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion. Trust him. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen