Encourage Like Paul!

“Encourage Like Paul!” – August 2, 2020

Phil 1-3 thank God words

Philippians 1:3-11 (1:3-6)

Do you remember a time when someone encouraged you? I mean, when you were feeling downhearted or down in the dumps, and a friend or relative gave you a real, sincere word of encouragement? I am afraid to say that my words of encouragement often do not measure up when compared to this encouraging letter Paul wrote to his Philippian friends. Paul really meant what he said in this letter to Philippi – every word!

We are starting a sermon series on the letter to the church in Philippi this week. This letter is one of the most heartwarming and personal letters written in the New Testament. Philippians is one of my favorite Bible books, too.

Just to remind us all, the apostle Paul traveled around for years. As an itinerant preacher and missionary, he was often on the move. Although, Paul did settle down from time to time, and stay in particular towns for a number of months. Like, right here, in Philippi.

`           I know today we might be encouraged by a family member over the telephone, or by a co-worker in a Zoom meeting, or by a friend through email or Instagram. But in the apostle Paul’s day, there were only two choices: either face to face, in a personal encounter, or in written form. Paul was far away from his friends and former parishioners, so he used a letter.  

Paul’s affection and care for his Philippian friends went much deeper than a nodding acquaintance, such as we might see in casual, continued encounters like in line at a grocery store, walking in the neighborhood, or in a polite exchange at the office.

Let’s look at exactly what Paul said here. This was a thank-you letter for a financial gift sent by the Philippian church. Since Paul was in prison, he was doubly thankful for the gift! I suspect it provided for his food, clothing and other needs while he was locked up. Let me remind people that if a prisoner’s friends or relatives did not supply these necessities, the prisoner was sadly out of luck. The prison did not supply anything. At least, not for free.

So, you and I might think this was a sad time and puzzling situation for Paul to have positive words to say about anything – much less to send such a positive, uplifting letter to his faraway friends in thanks for their financial gift.

Paul is fairly bubbling over with gratitude and thankfulness as he begins this letter. I wanted us to especially notice the 3rd verse. Paul thanks God every time he remembers his friends in Philippi. Do you have friends you can say that about? Do you or I have even one or two friends who are so special to us that we remember them to God with such warmth and excitement? What a marvelous thing to say about a friend. A good friend. Even, a best friend.

Verse 4 tells us that Paul always – always prays with joy when he prays for these special friends from Philippi. This is the first of many times Paul uses to word “joy” in this letter. He uses either the noun “joy” or the verb “rejoice” fourteen times! When I first took the course Bible Study Methods decades ago in bible college, we were told that if a passage or a book of the Bible repeated something, there was a really good reason for it. I believe, and commentators and Bible scholars agree, the apostle Paul means joy to be an overarching theme in this letter.

And, verse 5 tells what fills Paul with such joy: the Philippians not only were supporting Paul in prayer, but they also supported him in the partnership of the Gospel. They shared the Good News of Christ, too! That really filled the apostle Paul with joy.

How do you feel when you are especially encouraged and affirmed? What if that someone who encourages you is someone very special? Someone who means a whole lot to you? Doesn’t that make that encouragement and appreciation even more meaningful?

Let’s imagine. Close your eyes, if that helps you imagine. You and I are among this group of believers in Philippi, and we have just received this letter from our Pastor Paul in prison. Let’s listen again to these three verses: “I thank my God for you every time I think of you; and every time I pray for you all, I pray with joy because of the way in which you have helped me in the work of the gospel from the very first day until now.”

Paul is thankful for the money his friends sent. But, I hear these words saying how incredibly thankful and grateful Paul is for the caring and love of these people, friends from far away. Have you ever been encouraged and affirmed, with these amazing words?

I am reminded of when I taught piano lessons, some years ago, before I started seminary and several years into it. I taught for about ten years. I remember one student in particular. Her parents were going through a nasty divorce that lasted for many months. I taught this girl for a whole year. Her mother wanted her to continue with lessons until the end of the school year, as a stabilizing factor, because she saw how encouraging I was to her daughter in each lesson. And, I really tried to be a caring encourager for a troubled time in this girl’s life.

We all have had teachers, coaches or mentors in our past. Who has taught you about the Christian faith? Who has mentored you along the way, and encouraged you to become a more faithful believer? Do you have an apostle Paul in your life? Or, perhaps an encouraging and faithful Barnabas, one of Paul’s companions? Or, maybe an excited and eager John Mark, another companion of Paul? [1]

Whatever kind of teacher, coach or mentor in faith you have had, praise God for this beloved person. Thank the Lord for the impact this dear one has made on your life, and on mine. And, perhaps you can be that person who has a lasting impact on someone else. Please God, may it be today!

[1] http://www.word-sunday.com/Files/c/2Advent-c/SR-2Advent-c.html

“A Letter from a Mentor,” Larry Broding’s Word-Sunday.Com: A Catholic Resource for This Sunday’s Gospel. Adult Study, Children’s Story, Family Activity, Support Materials.


(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!


Extravagant Love

“Extravagant Love”

John 12-3 Marys_Anointing_of_Jesus_

March 13, 2016 – John 12:3

How do we express our love towards each other? What way is the best way? Do different people express love in different ways?

A Christian counselor and popular author, Dr. Gary Chapman, has a best-selling book and series of videos and in-depth studies on how to express love in the way that your loved one understands the best. Each individual has a slightly different view on how to best communicate love to another person. These different ways fall into several basic categories, such as: through physical touch, acts of service, words of kindness and affirmation, spending quality time with one another, or through gifts.

As we consider our Gospel reading from John 12 today, verse 1 paints a backdrop for our action. Jesus pays a kind visit to His good friends at Bethany, a town quite near to Jerusalem. The time is six days before the Passover. And, Jesus stayed at the house of His friend Lazarus, whom He had just raised from the dead.

Martha, Lazarus’s sister, puts on a special dinner. You had better believe that all three siblings were extremely grateful to Jesus for what He had recently done!

In today’s reading, we have three actors in this scene in Bethany. First, Jesus, the guest of honor at the festive occasion. Second, Mary, the sister of Martha, the one giving the special dinner. And third, Judas, one of Jesus’s disciples.

Both Martha and Mary express their love to Jesus. Martha, through the special dinner she hosts. Remember what John writes in his Gospel? “Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with Him.” But, Mary? Mary goes over and above anything loving and thankful Martha could have done in the kitchen and with the food. The reading today tells exactly what Mary did: “Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet.”

Before we consider the extravagant love Mary showed to Jesus, let’s talk about the perfume Mary had. The Gospel calls it “pure nard, an expensive perfume.” This perfume is not just expensive, say, $100, maybe $200, for a tiny little bottle. No. This perfume is astronomically expensive. Unbelievably costly.

Nard comes from the high pasture lands of the Himalayas. It was extremely difficult to manufacture, and traveled a long way over the Silk Road across central Asia to Palestine. At that time, nard cost up to as much as a laborer would earn in a year. I suspect Mary intended this gift as a token of her extravagant love for Jesus. We know Jesus had given real expressions of His love to her and her family, in the raising of Lazarus.

Can you believe, spending a whole year’s wages on a small bottle of perfume? As I said, astronomically expensive. Do you begin to understand why I called Mary’s expression a gift of extravagant love?

Jesus knows exactly what Mary is doing. He sits there calmly, receives the extravagant gift of extravagant love. I suspect He talked softly with Mary while she was anointing His feet, too. John’s Gospel says “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”

Just a short number of days before, the house of Martha and Mary was filled with the stench of death. Deep grief, weeping, and wailing. Lazarus had died. Yet, Jesus had raised their beloved brother back to life, and now the house was filled with the scent of pure nard. An unbelievably expensive aroma, a scent of richness and beauty.

Enter the third actor in this scene, the disciple Judas. Judas shames Mary for such expense. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” It’s true. That expensive perfume could have fed countless mouths, could have funded several missionaries, could have clothed many needy families.

Ah, but the reader sees which one practices poor stewardship. The one who talked out of both sides of his mouth; the one who secretly was a thief; the one who used to steal from the community fund which was held by Judas in common for all the disciples. So, not only was Judas making off with the group’s money, but he held up “the poor.” He used them as an outright shaming device! Imagine, shaming a loving woman for doing what she felt needed to be done: to love Jesus, extravagantly.

Let me tell you a story.

“Several years ago, the Seattle Art Museum hosted photographer Annie Leibovitz’s “Women” exhibit. … One black & white photo had an almost magnetic power to draw in the passersby. It was a serene photo of an aging African-American woman – her head slightly tilted, her soft eyes and smile welcoming. She was Oseola McCarty, an 87-year-old washerwoman from Mississippi who gave the bulk ($150,000) of her life-savings to ensure that African-American students would have the college education that she couldn’t.”

“Leaving school in the sixth grade to take care of her ailing aunt, Ms. McCarty spent the next 75 years washing other people’s clothes and saving every dime she earned. Towards the end of her life she commented, ‘You can’t do nothing nowadays without an education. I don’t regret one penny I gave. I just wish I had more to give.’ She couldn’t understand others’ amazement at her ability to save so much from her meager earnings or her willingness to give it all away. “It wasn’t hard,” she said simply, ‘I didn’t buy things I didn’t need… The Lord helped me . . . It’s an honor to be blessed like that.’”

“Many have questioned the “hows” and “whys” behind Ms. McCarty’s extravagance towards complete strangers. The fact of the matter is: she saw her ability to engage in such extravagance as complete blessing – an outpouring of gratitude for the life of “enough” that God had given her. Her extravagance mirrors Mary’s extravagant gift of anointing (in this week’s Gospel reading) as well as gifts of grace from an extravagant God.” [1]

Finally, Jesus steps up to Mary’s defense. ““Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of My burial.” He stops short of outright shaming Judas, but it’s like Jesus put His arm around Mary, faced Judas, and said, “Hey! Stop picking on my friend Mary! Leave her alone!”

We know that Jesus knew very well what He intended to do, in just a short time. Yes, He was attending a celebratory dinner, celebrating His good friend Lazarus being alive. But—His face was set toward Jerusalem. Palm Sunday was not far away. Moreover, Jesus realized what extravagant love Mary was showing towards Him.

I think Mary understood the warnings Jesus had been giving, about very soon entering Jerusalem. About the path He must travel—to the cross. Passover was coming! The Gospel tells us, only a week away. She is not only showing her extravagant love, but preparing Jesus for whatever it is that He will face—very soon.

            Those who love Christ truly love Him so much better than this world as to be willing to lay out the best they have for Him.

Do we love Jesus that much? Are we willing to lay down a year’s salary? Are we willing to do as much as Ms. Oseola McCarty? Are you and I willing to show such extravagant love? Jesus showed extravagant love to us. In the Passion Week. On the cross. Truly, extravagant love.

Let us pray.  Lord, help me to show a portion of such amazing, extravagant love to You, and to many others. Amen.


[1] Radical Gratitude, lectionary-based stewardship, Northwest United Methodist Foundation. http://www.nwumf.org/images/radical_gratitude/year_c/radical_gratitude_mar1907.pdf

I would also like to express my appreciation for Matthew Henry’s excellent Commentary on the Whole Bible, Volume V (Matthew through John). http://www.ccel.org/ccel/henry/mhc5.John.xiii.html From Matthew Henry’s Commentary. (I received a great deal of assistance with this sermon from this commentary.)


Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers– where I am doing a Lenten journey.  #PursuePEACE – And my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind -Thanks!