A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
On the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time, October 23, 2011
“When I Give, I Give Myself”
1 Thessalonians 2: 1-13
The letter from which I have just read is the earliest writing we have in the New Testament. Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica was written sometime around the year 50 C.E., a mere 18 years after the death of Jesus. It reflects an earlier period of time when Paul had lived and worked in the Thessalonian community, bearing the news of Jesus Christ to them. But Paul is now in jail, arrested in Jerusalem for causing a disturbance, and writes to his friends in Thessalonica to inquire after their health, their community, and their lives.
This letter is often described as a defense of Paul’s ministry, and it is that for good reason. It stands as a witness to what he and some of the Thessalonians had done together and shared together. Paul had spent time among them, apparently living with a guy named Jason, whose name may indicate that he was a Greek convert to Paul’s brand of Judaism. Jason offered hospitality, a place to stay, a companion for meals, a colleague is talking to others about Jesu, a generous friend. For his part, Paul pitched in, got a job, earned his keep, contributed to the needs of the community. Apparently he made a good impression.
For others, Paul was dangerous. The last time Paul’s friends in Thessalonica had seen him, he was being run out of town by what Luke would later call a mob, but which was likely a coalition of conservative synagogue leaders and a group called the Politarchs, basically the aristocratic town council who were appointed by Rome to keep order in Thessalonica. The reason? Their accusation? Paul was declaring that there was another Emperor besides Caesar. Jesus was Lord, not Caesar. Jesus was to be obeyed, not Caesar. And Jesus had something Caesar never could. Jesus could be loved. No one missed the implication, or the danger in such a message. Paul gained some fervent, hopeful, followers for God. He made many enemies.
For preaching God’s Empire, or the Kingdom of God, as an alternative to the Empire of Rome, Paul would never see his friends again. This liberating way of life that Jesus offered could also be theirs through what Paul called conversion but others called treason. And so he writes them from a jail cell, from another city, so that through their correspondence they could continue to care for one another, and in a sense, be together.
In his absence, the community continued to grow. New members were added, new questions were asked. The fact that Paul was now in jail may have seemed a vindication for the town leaders who had run him out of town, and caused trouble for Paul’s friends. So Paul asks them, “What did you see when we were among you? We may now be in jail, but judge for yourself, was it of God?”
How would we know? How could we tell?
Three things caught my eye about this passage. First, the two paragraphs of our reading are written in parallel form: both declare that what Paul delivered was God’s word, not crafted to please, but crafted to teach us a new way of life, the way of God. In the first paragraph Paul describes his sincere intentions, in the second, he describes the communities generous reception of his message.
The second thing that caught my eye is that Paul compares himself to a parent: in the first case describing himself as a mother nursing her children, and in the second as a father encouraging his kids. Paul, the nursing mother. You should not forget that image. “So deeply do I care for you . . .” he says. Notice that both of Paul’s parents are caregivers. There’s no nonsense about “women as nurturers and men as authority figures.” Like loving parents, Paul wants to draw out and build up the life which God has given as a gift, the life, which Paul says, is “already at work in you.” Paul is humbled when his intentions and attentions are well received, and he is quite aware that the love of a parent for a child is a gift which really comes from God and points to God.
But the third image I want to linger on is the tenderness and affection of the letter. “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our very selves, because you have become very dear to us.”
Paul claims that, as they already know, he had shown God’s presence to them when he and his colleagues were among them. You are witnesses, he says. But more than that, Paul saw God’s presence in them, in their hospitality, their readiness to seek God’s word in all the words they shared, and no doubt in the sufferings the community endured on Paul’s behalf. Joined in suffering, Paul in jail and the community in Thessalonica, they speak now to one another not as parent and child but as siblings, brothers and sisters in Christ.
At this point, Paul might say, the gospel message is more than preaching words; the gospel is about sharing our selves and our lives. We might say, it is practicing God’s presence in our lives and recognizing God’s presence in one another. This is what salvation, life in Christ, this is what church looks like. You and I, sharing our lives.
At this point I want to reveal my sincere intention, my purpose in this sermon, which I hope may bear something of God’s word for each of us. Next Sunday Reformation Sunday, the Sunday we acknowledge ourselves to be a part of the long history of Reformed Christian thought. But it is also, this year, the Sunday closest to the celebration of All Saints Day on November 1st. I want to draw and arc between our worship this morning and our worship together next Sunday. I would like us to spend this week getting ready.
Next week we will celebrate the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, bearing witness for us to what God’s presence in our midst looks like. Those who have fought, struggled, loved, and rejoiced to see God’s presence and experience God’s presence. We will, in our service, remember those who have died, who loss still shapes our lives. And we will remember those who taught us, nursed us and encouraged us in our faith. I want, when we come to worship next week, to have each of us bring with us the saints of our lives, those who have shown us how to live and love and struggle. Bring their memories, and their names. Bring a week’s worth of reflection and gratitude and grief, so that our prayers are full.
But I do not want to forget the living in our memory of the dead. Today, each day, in the many walks of our lives, we encounter those who bear God’s presence to us. Friends and neighbors and some who share our pews, show us the presence of God. Who do you see God’s presence in? I want us to bring them too.
Some of you know I am fond of the spiritual exercises written by St. Ignatious of Loyola. After the Protestant Reformation, Ignatius sought to reform the Catholic church through prayer. He thought that if each Catholic could honestly pray, in such a way that the world within oneself and the world around oneself could both be brought fully into God’s presence, the church would discover the inner life of God expressed in the Creation, and life would become an act of gratitude. His method of prayer was a daily examination of conscience, with elaborate exercises, but which can be summarized as a daily answer to the questions: What were you most grateful for today? What were you least grateful for today? And where did you see God’s presence today? Given time, Ignatius believed that those who prayed this way would begin to enter each day looking for signs of God, and that with even more practice, we could see God’s presence in the unexpected places, the times when gratitude wanes and disappointment prevails.
Basically, I would like us next week to bring with us to worship a week’s worth of thinking and reflecting on where we encounter God’s presence and who helps us encounter God’s presence in the world, so that in our worship and prayers we link the community of living with the dead in our celebration of All-Saints.
It seems an appropriate response to Paul’s tender letter and testimony. But it also seems the right next step, as we continue the conversation our Stewardship Team has initiated. As we prepare to bring our financial pledges to be consecrated on commitment Sunday in two weeks, it is fitting to remind ourselves that it is our whole lives we are called to share, not abstractly, but with one another. As Walt Whitman, the great poet of American democracy, said, “When I give, I give myself.”