1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
This is a dangerous text to preach on during stewardship season, and especially on this day we consecrate our pledges. You see, Paul is defending his ministry by reminding the people that he doesn’t accept any payment from them, but works a regular job for a living. You see my dilemma! Every pastor is deeply aware during their church’s stewardship season that when they are asking people to give money, some of it will be used to pay their salary. But I’m not going to use my time this morning to explain why the church needs paid staff. You all understand how church works.
This passage is dangerous for preachers for another reason, this one found in verse 13. “We also thank God constantly for this: when you accepted God’s word that you heard from us, you welcomed it for what it truly is. Instead of accepting it as a human message, you accepted it as God’s message.” You see my dilemma! This verse would be easy to manipulate by unethical ministers, claiming that their words are God’s word. I certainly hope and pray that my words are inspired by God, and that if they aren’t, your hearing will be inspired by God, but I wouldn’t dare to tell you that every message you hear from me is a message straight from God.
Instead of these potentially dangerous portions of the passage, I want us to consider the rest of that sentence. I’ll read the first part again:
“We also thank God constantly for this: when you accepted God’s word that you heard from us, you welcomed it for what it truly is.
Instead of accepting it as a human message, you accepted it as God’s message, and it continues to work in you who are believers.” This is the key part of the passage: that the message continues to work in us. This, the mark of whether it is God’s message: that it continues to work in us for good.
We know lots of messages that work in us for bad, for ill. Messages we received in childhood from short-tempered parents or school bullies. Messages we received in our youth because of our appearance or lack of athletic ability. Messages we received from bad bosses or well-intentioned friends. Messages we received from commercials claiming that we are nothing without fresh breath and the right shoes. We all have received messages that work in us for bad.
I don’t know that anyone in our society is free from the negative messages, and let’s face it, some of those messages come from the church. Minister and blogger John Pavlovitz recently wrote a piece called “Why Would Anyone Consider Christianity Today?” I’ve edited out the profanity and the partisan comments, but he writes, in part:
“I’ve been a Christian most of my life; raised in the faith since before I could remember, and serving as a local church pastor for the past twenty years….Though it is a fairly tenuous connection these days, I am still tethered to my religious tradition by a combination of present personal conviction, along with the spiritual muscle memory of my past—and right now it honestly feels like more the latter than the former. There is attrition to my joy lately. I find it more and more difficult with each passing day to outwardly claim this faith because of what that declaration now immediately aligns me with in the eyes of the watching world. It now aligns me with transphobic politicians and Muslim-hating celebrity evangelists and perpetually oppressed Christmas warriors. It now aligns me with gun-toting preachers and damnation-wielding social media trolls….It now aligns me with the least-like-Jesus stuff I can imagine. To some people, this is all Christianity is—which as a professed Christian now makes me a [jerk] by association. These people believe they know me. They believe that know my politics and my passions. They believe they know how I feel about gay marriage and immigrants and women’s rights. They don’t realize that I am sickened by this thing professing to be Christianity too….They don’t see that I totally get that this monstrosity claiming to be of Jesus would be unrecognizable to him—that he would be as horrified by it as they are.
I know that I am still a Christian primarily because I have always been a Christian; because I know what I know about Jesus, and I can see when people are stealing his identity and bastardizing his legacy. I know when they’re twisting the Scriptures to subjugate people, when they’re fashioning God in their own bigoted image, when they’re slapping a veneer of religiosity on something with no redemptive value. I’m able to see the frauds and the false prophets because I’ve experienced the real and the beautiful of this faith . . .though they may not have the megaphones and mega-churches.
There are loving, inclusive, beautiful communities filled with people of compassion and generosity and mercy. There are men and women of faith in every corner of this country who are striving to emulate Jesus and who are rightly embarrassed by the hatred perpetuated in his name. We believe in loving our neighbor as ourselves. We believe in welcoming the outsider and the outcast. We believe the table is open to anyone who comes hungry. We believe compassion is our highest aspiration….Be encouraged.”
Be encouraged…because the church is still alive. It is changing, yes, and will continue to change, and we will never go back to the way it used to be, at least not in our lifetimes. But the church of Jesus Christ is still alive because the Spirit is still at work and God is still speaking. This is why I love the church—the church at large, in spite of the ways it does damage and the times it focuses on the wrong message and the times it misses the point entirely. I still believe in the church at large because it has the potential of doing great things. I believe in the church because the message has the potential to keep working in us and in others for good.
God’s message of love.
God’s message of justice for all people.
God’s message of compassion for those in need.
God’s message that we are created in the image of God bearing the likeness of God, created in the image of God in order to recognize that image in one another.
God’s message that we are loved exactly as we are and as we may become, Paul said “the message is still working.” The message is still working in us, transforming us as individuals and as a church. And the message is still working in the world, as we bring it to life.
This is why I still believe in the Christian church. This is why I love this church: because we are part of this, because we proclaim God’s message, because we know we can’t be silent, because nobody wrote on the reformation door “Don’t change anything!”
I said at the beginning that this was a dangerous text because Paul bragged about not being paid. Well, it’s also dangerous because of what it demands: it demands that we allow God’s message to work, to continue to work, even if it makes us uncomfortable, even if it changes the way we do things, even if the wind of the Spirit blows our doors off.
On your pledge card you were asked to list how you show your love to your church. One of the ways is certainly your pledge to the church. If you read my letter this year, you know the challenges facing us, and I ask that you prayerfully look at that card and see if you can increase what you had already decided to give. You also show your love to the church by giving of your time and energy as you are able, and I encourage you to think about how you might do that in new ways.
There is another way you can demonstrate your love for the church: by being willing to embrace change; by recognizing that we can’t survive if we always do things the way we’ve always done them; by accepting that new times bring new priorities and new ways of being. This is one of the greatest ways you can love your church because allowing it to change means it will meet the needs of generations to come.
You already wrote on the reformation door those things that you want to see reformed or transformed in the church at large. Now I’m going to flip that door. On the other side I want you to write what you love about this church. We’ve been talking about it for a month, so I’m sure you have some ideas. But I want you to name them, to write them on the other side of the door—what you love about your church. I want you to do this because these things are not only why we love our church—these are also the reasons we want it to live on; these are the things we want to pass on to future generations.
In just a minute we will sing a song of response, a song of commitment, as you finish filling out your pledge cards. If you want to come write on the door at that time, you’re welcome to do so. Or you can wait until after church. Why do you love your church? How do you love your church? Let us count the ways!