(a sermon for October 28, 2018, the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost; last in a series, based on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10)
I hope that if there’s one thing that has become readily apparent about your pastor as we’ve gone through this sermon series is that he really loves our time of worship together!
Honestly, friends; I can tell you that of all the many facets of my work here at East Church as your pastor, it is by far this time we spend together in worship that I enjoy the most and which holds the deepest spiritual meaning for me. I love the flow and the feel of our worship in this place; the fact that whether the accompaniment happens to be organ or guitar nonetheless every Sunday as we sing our praises unto the Lord we do so with conviction and joy. I never cease to be spiritually moved not only by the moments we spend together in prayer, but also by what you bring to that experience in the joys and concerns that are shared as we ready ourselves for that time. Needless to say, I never stop being surprised by whatever it is that one of our kids might say during our children’s ministry (!); and I never cease to be amazed by how something I say from this pulpit might just resonate with you in ways that I could not have predicted (understand, friends, there are days when what you get out of a sermon is not necessarily what I intended to impart! But that’s the Holy Spirit for you, and I stand here humbled and grateful for that).
I’ll admit it; as a person and “parson” who’s a little too much of a perfectionist at times, I greatly value the times when everything in our worship beautifully comes together as one seamless whole (almost as if we actually intended it to be that way!); but I also have to confess that over the years I’ve learned there is much glory in not knowing exactly what’s going to happen between the Call to Worship and the Benediction (I’m remembering a wonderful quote attributed to an elderly Baptist preacher at a church down in Atlanta, who every Sunday used to start his worship services with the following prayer: “Dear God,” he prayed, “may something happen in our service this morning that’s not printed in our church bulletins!”). But whether it’s all properly planned out or if it ends up happening by the Spirit’s intervention, there’s palpable joy that comes in knowing that somehow, some way, the right thing happens to touch a heart at the perfect moment. And to that, let me just say that as your pastor, I am fortified by your love expressed in smiles, handshakes and hugs; truly, there is rarely a Sunday noontime when I don’t go home newly reminded of Christ’s presence in my life; and I can’t thank you or God enough for that.
So having said all that, friends, please understand me when I tell you now that as far as this pastor is concerned the very best part of our worship together is… when it’s over! And no, that’s not because I’m in any real hurry to have our time together end, get home, change my clothes and take the rest of the day off (although I’ll admit that this week a nap may be in order, but I digress!). No, it’s because everything I’ve been saying here today – indeed, everything we’ve been reflecting on all through this sermon series – comes down to that incredible movement of worshiping God: from our praise and thanksgiving in song and prayer, to hearing and reflecting upon the Word of God by the reading for scripture and its proclamation, to finally responding to that Word with lives dedicated to faithful service as disciples of Jesus Christ! And while in many ways that happens in the context of our worship, our true response to God really begins the moment you and I walk out the doors of this sanctuary!
You see, friends, ultimately the best part of our worship comes after the Benediction: when what we’ve received and shared in here is brought to a hurting world out there, the divine love by which we’ve been blessed being shared with others in need of a blessing; in the process deepening our own relationship with God, a relationship that cannot help but gird and inform every part of our lives. When our time of worship comes to a close and the benediction is done, you see, that’s when the Christian life truly begins!
Not that this is the easiest thing for any of us to remember, much less live unto, especially in these times. I’ll be the first to admit that oftentimes it’s very hard to maintain the “attitude of worship” with the act of worship is done!
I remember at different times over the years how the congregations I served would send our youth to church camp for a week during the summer (in the Maine Conference of the UCC, it was always Pilgrim Lodge, but here in New Hampshire it’s the Horton Center), and for some of these kids it was to say the least a spiritual awakening! The songs, the prayers and the outdoor worship; for some of them it was quite literally a life changing experience as they truly came to a faith in Jesus Christ for the first time! And when the week was done, they’d come home feeling filled to overflowing with the love of the Lord in their young lives; but sooner or later, as life returned to normal, something would happen. Maybe there was a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend; an argument ensuing with a brother or sister; or maybe Mom or Dad simply asked them to pick up their socks at exactly the wrong time! Whatever the reason, suddenly and inevitably that bubble of hope/peace/joy/love would inevitably burst; and while the warmth of their new-found faith was not exactly lost forever, it certainly got misplaced for a bit!
And the thing is, whenever a parent would tell me a story like that, I got it; because the truth is that it happens to all of us from time to time! It’s most decidedly not easy to live out of our faith in a way that is clear and unalloyed, when all the while the waters of life-as-we-know-it has become muddled by pervasive challenges and lingering uncertainties! How wonderful it would be to not have to reconcile the joy of our faith to the harsh realities of violence and hatred and all the issues that seem determined to divide us; how great it would be today to simply go home with our hearts renewed and fortified for every good thing that awaits us outside these doors! Unfortunately, there’s a world outside these doors that would seem to do all it can to work against that, in the process seeing to burst our own bubble of hope/peace/joy/love!
So the question is, what do we do about that? How do move from the joy of worship to love and faith “after the benediction?”
I think our reading from 1 Thessalonians can help us with that. A little background: we’re told that this particular epistle represents one of the earlier letters that Paul wrote, and was essentially a letter of encouragement. Paul had been instrumental in bringing the Thessalonians to Christ, and in many ways they were the very model of just about everything this new community of believers was meant to be. In fact, these people had this incredible reputation for a strong and steadfast faith; biblical commentator Sarah Dylan Breuer writes that the Thessalonians’ faith “was known such that there was no need to speak about it, because the lived it out with consistency and integrity. In other words,” Breuer goes on to say, “they didn’t shout about having turned from idols; they LIVED in a way that proclaimed God’s lordship… in their lives.”
But now, you see, this new church was facing all manner of political and social turmoil, not to mention all the persecution that goes along with it. The Thessalonians had felt this incredible awakening in their faith, and the surge of the Holy Spirit in their lives; and they were convicted in that faith. But with suffering taking the place of rejoicing on a daily basis, it was now becoming a struggle to hold on to what had inspired them in the first place.
Now, I’ll grant you that it’s hard for us to identify with the idea of persecution, at least in the manner that faced the early church; but we do know what it’s like to have the burdens of our lives be so great that the joy of our faith takes a backseat to everything else; the transformative experience of worship little more than a distant memory amidst the struggles and challenges of daily life.
We know all too well how that can happen, and Paul knew that as well; and so in beginning this letter of encouragement to the Thessalonians, he offers up a reminder both to them and to us, that whatever the situations of our lives and living God has reached out to each one of us that he has chosen; and that “our message of the gospel came to [us] not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.” In other words, “after the benediction” God wants that experience of his presence and power to continue unabated. As we step out into the world our joy is to be full, our thirst is to be quenched at the well of living water, and our hunger is to be satisfied with living bread; we are ever and always meant to be connected with the divine in every aspect of our daily lives.
And make no mistake; there’s not only strength that comes from that, there’s also great power. Actually, what Paul says here is that as a result of that Godly presence in your life, “you became imitators of us and of the Lord.” Now, I know that sometimes as we read through Paul’s words, he sometimes comes off sounding as if he’s simply saying, “Okay, you just do what I do and do what Jesus says,” and you’ll be free of any and all persecution and relating difficulties. But that’s not exactly what Paul means here; the original Greek of this epistle in fact suggests that to be an imitator of Paul or Christ means that you’re going to keep the faith in spite of persecution! It means that rather than rolling up into a ball and hiding from the difficulties and challenges of life, you continue to receive with joy what God in the Holy Spirit has given you for the way. What matters is not that bad things happen, or that the stresses of life just keep piling on, but that in the midst of it all “after the benediction” you keep an attitude of joy and faith; and that you seek to be and continue to be in these difficult times an imitator of Jesus Christ.
Beloved, we are indeed “made to worship;” but even more so we are made to respond to our worship with lives of faithful service. It’s about being witnesses to the love we’ve known as our own; about being able to say to others just as it’s been said to us, that we are the beloved and chosen ones of God and God; about letting the presence and power of God in our own lives affect a change in the hearts of others while changing the world – or at least a small piece of it – at the same time!
In his book, Don’t Cry Past Tuesday, Charles Poole asks an interesting question, “Do you look like God?” And as odd as that might sound, he goes on to explain. “They just got back from the funeral home,” Poole writes, “picking out the casket and setting the time for the service. You had cleaned their house and cut the grass before all the out-of-town family started coming in. And for a minute there… you looked just like God.”
And then, “they had just gotten her home from the surgery and got her into bed, when they heard the doorbell. You were standing there at the screen door with a casserole, biscuits and a pie. And when they got to the door and saw you, for a minute there, juggling your Tupperware and your Pyrex dishes on the front step… you looked just like God.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” Poole goes on to say. “They know God does not look [exactly] like you. They are not going to worship you or confuse you [in any way] with God… it’s just that sometimes, you just seem so much like God!”
That’s the stuff that happens after the benediction; that’s how you and I end up being “imitators of… the Lord.” That’s how we thrive as Christians and as the church of Jesus Christ; and who knows what great things can happen if we embrace the wonder of our faith as we head out these doors today. Truly, may it be said that even as our worship ended today, our faith and action as God’s people had just begun!
And always, may our thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c, 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry