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Caring Deeply

Sermon 10/23/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Thessalonians 2:1-12

I want to begin this morning with a biblical factoid:  who can name the oldest surviving document of the Christian faith?

What?  I'll give you a hint, you can find it in the New Testament.  Someone said Mark in the first service, because we know (many people believe) that Mark was the first of the 4 gospels written.  You are absolutely correct.  But it's not the oldest surviving document.  Letters of Paul were written before Mark, probably a decade or two decades before the gospel of Mark.  And the oldest of the letters of Paul is?. . . . . . the text for this morning.  Why would I be asking these questions if it weren't the text for today? J.

Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians.  Most likely (it's all a little bit of speculation), but most likely the oldest surviving document to the Christian faith.  So keep that in mind when you hear the words as I read this text in a little bit, you are hearing the oldest written witness that we have to the Christian faith.

Let me give just a little bit more background on this letter before I read the text.  Paul established the church in Thessalonica, the name of the city, somewhere around 49 or 50, about 20 years after the ministry of Jesus.  He came to Thessalonica from Phillipi, two cities on the Ignatian Way.  If anyone has been to Greece, you've probably visited that -- you can still see portions of that road built by the Roman Empire in the 3rd or 4th century before Jesus, as a way to connect Rome to the eastern world, the eastern part of their empire.  It goes from the west coast of Greece all the way across northern Greece on to Turkey (Istanbul) today.  And they're building a new super-highway (freeway) along that same route, to connect east and west.

And both of these cities were capitals of their respective provinces.  Paul had a tough time in Phillipi.  According to the 16th chapter of Acts, he was 'flogged and thrown into prison for advocating customs contrary to Roman law'.  And his reception in Thessalonica was not much better -- he was accused of 'promoting an alternative King to that of Caesar'.  So only after about three weeks he was forced to flee in the middle of the night.  Travels on down the eastern coast of Greece to Corinth where he becomes concerned for that new, young congregation in Thessalonica, and he sends Timothy to go back to check on the people and see how they're doing.

It is the report that he receives from Timothy, sometime later, with how well they are doing, that then prompts him to write this letter.  Now as I read this text, I invite you to listen for the love expressed by Paul for this new community of Christian folk.  I'm going to read verses 1-12 of chapter 2:  

You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, 2but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. 3For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, 4but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. 5As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; 6nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others,7 though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. 

But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. 8So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us. 9You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. 11As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

Do you hear the love?  Even though the word is not used, I think Paul's sentiment toward the people of Thessalonica is very evident.  After he comes to the defense of his message against charges made, he gives this image 'like a nurse', or perhaps better a 'nursemaid' -- tenderly caring for her own children.  It's very reminiscent of Jesus when he weeps for Jerusalem and he says 'How often have I desired to gather you as a hen gathers her brood under her wings'.  And then in the prophets, Hosea, God says 'I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks, I bent down (or bent over, as a nursemaid) to feed them'.

And so Paul continues this long tradition of using maternal images to describe the love of God that we share with one another.  And then perhaps to balance it out a little bit, sensitive to the men in his audience, he adds to that a paternal image, when he says 'we dealt with each of you like a father with his own children, urging and encouraging you'.  And to this image of this very parental love, in verse 8 he adds:  'so deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves because you have become very dear to us'.

If you were to ask me what is Christian faith about, what is the essence of practicing the Christian faith, I would say it's contained right there in that verse.  "So deep do we care for one another, that we share with each other from our very selves".

I want to stop here for a second and take note of the social class of the community in Thessalonica and from that reflect further on the practice of love in that community.  Paul says 'remember how hard we worked, day and night'.  Why?  'So that we did not have to burden you in any way'.  Even though, as he later says, as an apostle he has that right to expect some return from his labors, to collect the offering for his support.  He does not exercise that right in Thessalonica.  Writing to nearby Phillipi, he says:  'For even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs more than once'.  He accepts it readily from the congregation in Phillipi, but does not ask the congregation in Thessalonica for that same kind of support.  Why not?

Note the emphasis in this letter on labor.  Talks about how hard he works.  He admonishes the people in that community, in chapter 4, to support themselves with their own work.  And in chapter 5, to respect those who labor.  While also telling the idlers to get off their duff, to contribute something to the community.  And then in 2 Corinthians he writes about the churches of Macedonia, of which Thessalonica would be one, that 'during an ordeal of severe affliction, their abundant joy and extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part'.  Talking about the collection that he is gathering for the poor in Jerusalem.  And out of their extreme poverty have generously given to this effort.

And what is evident is that this is a lower, working-class community struggling to survive.  And quite intentionally, therefore, I think Paul begins this letter with thanks for their work of faith, and their labor of love.  For it's precisely in such a working, low-income community where Paul says that in effect 'love is not about a sentimental feeling'.  It's not about a warm, tingling feeling of the heart, or those sentimental words in greeting cards.  Love is caring so deeply for someone that you share your own self.  The greatest gift you have to give, and in this case quite possibly, the only gift you have to give.

Dominic Crossan concludes from this text that to love meant to share.  A love assembly was a share assembly.  A love meal was a shared meal.  And in Thessalonica this sharing came not out of any material abundance, giving out of what they have left over, but rather out of physical scarcity.  And it is precisely such sharing from those who by the world's standards have so little to give that makes love real, that makes it very tangible.  

Karen Minnis, Speaker of the House in the Oregon Legislature, spoke at City Club on Friday.  She shared her own personal story of growing up in poverty where one had to wash their feet every night before they went to bed.  Why?  It was not to keep the sheets clean -- that's what all the Moms in the first service said.  No, doesn't have anything to do with that.  It was because in her household you shared your bed with your brothers and sisters and you slept head-to-toe to maximize the space.  And nobody wants to go to bed next to stinky feet.  So you washed your feet every night before you went to bed.  And she told us about how she'll never forget that day in 7th grade when the Principal of her school said to her "Karen, I'm taking you to buy a new pair of shoes".  And she felt so ashamed on the one hand that her shoes were so poor that even her Principal noticed.  But on the other hand, the extreme joy and excitement over getting a new pair of shoes.  She remembers that pair very explicitly to this day -- Mary Janes.

Dominic Crossan says that this sharing and love, however, from the perspective of Paul, was not about charity -- the free giving of our stuff.  But about divinely distributive justice -- the necessary sharing of God's stuff.

We share with one another as one would share in a human family precisely because we are members of the same family, the family of God.  And it is in this sharing of ourselves that we replicate the sharing of Christ with us.  You know the phrase "love one another" occurs 9 times in the letters of the New Testament.  The great commandment from the text JoAnne read this morning to 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself', is reflected then in that simplification of just "to love one another".

Well what does that mean?  Listen to all of the one 'one another' passages we find in the epistles of the New Testament, where we are told to 'do something for one another'.  In Romans:  'be devoted to one another', 'give preference to one another', 'be of the same mind toward one another', 'let us not judge one another', 'build up one another', 'accept one another', 'admonish one another'.  In Corinthians:  'care for one another'.  In Galatians:  'serve one another', 'bear one another's burdens'.  In Ephesians:  'show forbearance to one another', 'be kind to one another', 'be subject to one another'.  In Colossians:  'lie not to one another', 'forgive one another'.  In Thessalonians:  'comfort one another'.  In Hebrews:  'encourage one another', 'stimulate one another to love and good works'.  In James:  'do not speak against one another', 'do not complain against one another', 'pray for one another'.  In 1 Peter:  'be hospitable to one another', 'greet one another with the kiss of love'.

A very impressive list.  In sum, it says 'to love one another' means to care so deeply for each other that it shows in all that you do.

Now some of you may have noticed that I occasionally, from time to time, like to draw some lesson or reference from a football game.  But only when it's appropriate to the sermon, of course, I'll mention the Ducks J.  Well I'm not going to mention the victory last night, in Arizona.  I won't even mention that.  But what I want to talk about is the injury to quarterback Kellen Clemens.  Our star quarterback, was going to set all the records in Oregon history.  Injured his left foot, very serious sprain, perhaps broken, was likely going to have surgery today.  And he said as he was being taken off the field (to Bobby Bishop) that this was the end of his career.  I mean, your heart broke for Kellen.

And then the second-string quarterback, Dennis Dixon, comes in and he receives a concussion on his third or fourth play and he's knocked out of the game.  And so we're down to our third-string quarterback, Brady Leaf, there's still a whole quarter of the game yet to play, we're on a foreign field, the score is tied, and our offense isn't doing anything.  What are you going to do?

So deeply did that team care for one another that the defense scored the winning touchdown!  Now that is care and love!  It makes a grown man want to cry [Editorial note:  there was a smattering of laughter from the congregation, but knowing Dan as I do, I'm not so sure he was joking here J].

Peter Davids, who teaches biblical studies at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Pennsylvania wrote in Sojourners Magazine a few years ago that "the biblical lifestyle is always, always in the context of community".  Much like a team sport, it's not about the individual, it's not about me and God.  

Therefore to be committed to God requires commitment to the people of God.  One cannot love God without loving God's people.  We don't get to choose which of those commandments to follow.  It wasn't a multiple choice test -- choose either 'love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind', or choose 'to love your neighbor as yourself'.  No, you see, they come together.  One package.  

It is in one's care for others, especially for the poor and the oppressed that one reveals one's knowledge and love of God.  And so concludes Davids:  "the ideal of prosperity, the American dream, is an ideal for the people of God as a whole, not for isolated individuals.  The idea of the individual within the community of faith accumulating wealth while others suffer needlessly is abhorrent to the biblical authors.  The community of faith is to have such care for one another that no one within it will suffer want unless the whole community suffers".

How much do we really care for one another?  There's a simple test.  Find the person with the lowest income and ask what does that person's welfare say about our sharing, our love?  That person's well being, you see, reveals how much we really care.

My favorite moment in that video that we saw after church 3 weeks ago is not when Frank fell off his chair (although that was good for a laugh), my favorite moment was actually Mary Ann's.  When she talks about studying for her classes at LCC with the light hanging from the visor in her pickup where she lived.  And now, to have something so simple as a trailer, a pickup camper, with a table and a light over the table, and heat and a refrigerator and a stove.  And how thankful she was for that gift, for that opportunity.

I always love this sanctuary.  Never cared for those straight sanctuary's, kind of like worshipping in a bus (rectangle).  Here, in our semi-circular fashion we get to see one another.  We get to see the faces of the community.  That's what worship is about, it is a communal experience.  So I want to invite you to do something this morning -- I want you to look across to the other side of the sanctuary.  I want you to look around to the people.  You might not know those people, they're sitting way over there.  Pick someone new, pick other people.  And I want you to look across, over somewhere, to someone else.  Don't look at me J.  Look at someone else, and I want you as you are doing that to repeat after me:

So deeply do we care for you,
That we are determined to share with you,
Not only the gospel of God,
But also our own selves.
Because you have become
Very dear to us.

The gospel of our Lord.  May it be.


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