(a sermon for September 26, 2021, the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, based on 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10)
For me, the seeds of faith were sown early on.
Church certainly had a lot to do with that: I went to Sunday school; was part of the youth group; I played bass guitar and sang in our church’s junior folk choir (led, I’ll have you know, by an expatriate Greenwich Village flower child; and in lieu of choir robes and it being the ‘70’s, we wore these incredibly cool, hand-embroidered muslin tunics as direct evidence of that!). Moreover, I was blessed to be raised in a family where faith was gently and genuinely expressed, in church and out. It was no accident that at most of the family gatherings I recall while growing up, there was music being played, and inevitably that music included, yes, the “old” gospel hymns. Even to this day, I cannot hear “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” without hearing my father playing the piano and my Aunt Louise singing!
Looking back, there were actually many incredible people and defining moments over the years that had a role in shaping and nurturing my faith in God, just as the beauty and wonder of nature and the unending grandeur of creation had a profound impact on my worldview and how I approached life itself. Truly, the warmth of a summer day, the smell of wildflowers growing on a hillside, and as John Denver used to sing (and so did I!), “sunshine on my shoulders” made me happy!
It was in and through all of this (and so much more besides) that God became for me much more than some nameless, faceless entity “out there” in the cosmos, but rather someone very real and very present to me in my life. This was how I began to discover that Jesus Christ was more than simply the lead character in a series of familiar Bible stories, but in fact a teacher, a savior and a friend: my friend! Friends, I remember times out sailing with the power of a warm summer wind billowing out the sails and pushing my little boat down “the pond” with a force I couldn’t see or truly understand, and wondering if this is what it felt like when the Holy Spirit came to the disciples “like a mighty rushing wind,” (Acts 2:2 ESV). And the best part of all was realizing that all of this had everything to do with life, the universe… and me! Little by little, you see, I was becoming utterly convinced that I was loved by a God far greater than I could even begin to comprehend, and that somehow, someway that same God had chosen me – me (!) – for purposes I hadn’t even yet begun to dream!
What an incredible, powerful, life-changing feeling that was… and you know what, folks? Almost every day I wish I had that feeling back!
Now, do not misunderstand: this is not to say I no longer experience the presence and power of God in my life; because I do, all the time! I feel it in the ministry we share in this congregation; there’s a palpable sense of the divine in the times of joy and sorrow that we share together as God’s people. It’s there in miracles, both large and small, that are part and parcel of our daily lives. I know that God is there with me in the midst of it all – there’s never been a doubt in my mind of that, even in the more difficult experiences of my life – it’s just that there was something in the faith experience of those days long ago that was clear, and unalloyed, and not muddled by the challenges and all-too-gray areas of human life.
But then, you know what I’m talking about here, right?
I mean, who among us have not wished at some time or another (perhaps even right now!) that we could just go through our days without so much… else (!) relentlessly pulling at us? Worries about finances, worries about the future in general and retirement in particular, worries about health concerns, worries about the welfare of our children and grandchildren, worries about the utter uncertainty of these very strange days we’re living in: there is, I dare say for most of here, times and situations when life and living can become so overwhelming that we’d give just about anything to be reminded once more of that greatest of affirmations, that we are beloved of God, and that God has chosen us; that God has sought us out for something real, something dynamic, something fit for the kingdom of heaven.
I think that’s why I gravitate so strongly to our text for this morning, the very beginning of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians: which in fact is just such a reminder – to that community of early Christians but also to us 21st century believers – that God has reached out to each one of us through the Holy Spirit and that God has named and claimed each one of us through baptism. And we know this, as Paul has proclaimed it, “because [the] message of the gospel came to [us] not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”
What that means is that God wants our joy to be full, desires that our thirst be quenched at the well of living water, wishes for our hunger to always be satisfied with living bread; and so God seeks to give us that experience of power and presence, that which connects us with the divine in our own lives. For me it was found on those afternoons sailing “on the pond” or playing guitar on a grassy hillside; for you maybe it happened in and through a worship experience – a wedding, a funeral, a Sunday morning that hit you in a way like ever before – or maybe in a relationship with another that opened your eyes and your heart to something bigger than yourself; or could be it was in that inexplicable moment of clarity and peace when everything in your life was at its most chaotic and stressful! But however it unfolded for you, you recognized it as that sure and certain awareness connecting you to the source of joy and life; the assurance that you are both beloved and chosen by God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
And the thing is, friends, we all need to be reminded of that sometimes.
And as it turns out, so did the Thessalonians. In fact, biblical scholars tell us that this particular epistle to the early church in the Greek city of Thessalonica is one of the earliest letters that Paul wrote (if not the very first) was essentially a letter of encouragement. Paul, you see, 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.
That’s what happens to us, and that what happened with the Thessalonians; and that is why Paul goes on from this affirmation of these Christians being chosen of God, to declaring that they are also supposed to be “imitators of Christ.” Actually, what Paul says here is “you became imitators of us and of the Lord,” which as is typical of Paul’s writing, and initially comes off sounding as though he’s saying, “you do what I do, you do what Jesus does,” so you’re great. But that’s not exactly what it means: the original Greek here, in fact, suggests that to be an imitator of Paul or Christ means that you keep the faith in spite of persecution; that rather than rolling up into a ball and hiding from the difficulties and challenges of life, you continue, even amidst the worst of what life has to dish out, to receive with joy what God in the Holy Spirit has given you. What matters is not that bad things happen, or that the stresses of life just keep piling on – because, yes, they do and, yes, they will – but that in and through it all you keep an attitude of joy and faith as you seek to be an imitator of Christ Jesus.
What we all too often fail to understand, you see, is that the defining moments of our faith – the “mountain-top” experiences of our lives, if you will – are not supposed to be the end-all, be-all events of life, but are meant to be the moments which inspire us to be imitators of the one who gave us the experience in the first place. We’re beloved of God in Jesus Christ, and we are chosen of God; but we are chosen so that in whatever follows in the uncertain nature of living we might be empowered to bring the word of the Lord to all those around us, equipped to express by word and in deed the love we have received and which we know for certain is real, so that our joy be made manifest in everything we do.
To put it another way, the trick in dealing with seeming hopelessness in this life is to inspire hope in others; that is, the very hope we’ve been given. And the key to finding hope in a bitter and hurting world is to be imitators of Jesus Christ in those places of sorrow; to be able to say to others just as it’s been said to you – you are the beloved of God and God has chosen you! And it is a ministry that has the same effect of throwing a pebble on the surface of a pond – the ripples those pebbles create grow and grow, in ever-expanding circles until it touches every shore.
In his book, Don’t Cry Past Tuesday, Charles Poole asks the 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, 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.”
“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 like you. They are not going to worship you or confuse you with God. They know that God is not like you. It’s just that… sometimes, you are just so much like God! When you are with people for God, when you greet someone with the embrace of unexpected acceptance and unearned affection; when you listen, listen, listen to them and hold them up and befriend them, then when they see your face,” by golly, “it looks like God.”
What do you think, friends? Can it be said of you that, at least sometimes, you look like God. You are beloved of God, after all, and it is true that God has chosen you as his very own; you know that. But the question is, can you open yourself to the inspiration of God’s spirit to live out that great and glorious claim in a world that way too often piles on the difficulties and spins way out of control? Will you go out of here today to witness to God’s love and acceptance in an ever more exclusive culture? Can you embrace the joy even when there are those around you that would prefer to hang on to the anger? Can you change the world, if only a little bit?
Can you be an imitator of Jesus Christ?
You have no idea how faith will be renewed, and of all the good you’ll do… for others, yes, but even for yourself.
I hope and I pray that we will try; and that as we do that our thanks will be to God.
AMEN and AMEN!
© 2021 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.