1 Thessalonians 2:5-8
last Sunday a reflection on
Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians [Note: last Sunday's
sermon is linked above, and contains several pictures from Dan's
sabbatical to Greece and Rome].
Continuing now -- I'm
not going to read every single verse, even though it's a short letter,
over these 4 Sundays in this little mini-series, so I encourage you to
read it on you own. Reading the Bible at home is OK, a good thing
to do once in awhile J.
That might add to your own understanding and reflection, you might come
up with some different ideas, that's OK too.
So reading then, from
chapter 2, verses five through eight:
As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; 6 nor 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. 8 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.
I lift up these particular verses this
morning because I think they contain a key principle that is fundamental
to Paul's message and to the entire gospel. That principle we
might call the nature of Christian love, is articulated very well here
in verse 8: "So deeply do we care for you that we are determined
to share with you no only the gospel. . . .but also our own selves".
Paul says later, in chapter 4, that
there's no need for anyone to write to the Thessalonica community about
loving their brothers and sisters because they "have been taught by God"
to love one another.
So how is it that this community has
been taught by God?
I think we see a possibility of an
answer to that question in the way that Paul uses this very evocative
image that describes how he, Silvanus, and Timothy (his co-authors of
this letter) worked among that community when he says: "we were as
gentle as a nurse tenderly caring for her own children".
The Contemporary English Version
translates that particular verse, I think better, and says: "We
were like a mother nursing her own baby".
It's a very powerful image. Of
course it's one that Jesus himself uses -- you remember in his lament
over Jerusalem when he says: "How I have desired to gather your
children like a hen gathering her brood under her wings".
And the prophet Hosea, describing the
feelings of God for her people, when she says: "I was like those
who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed
them". And I use "her" there quite intentionally, not to be cute,
because the image is a very feminine one -- that image of a mother
bending over to nurse her baby.
And indeed, later on in that same
passage, God says: "My compassion grows warm and tender".
And the Hebrew word for 'compassion' has as its root the word for
"womb". You can't say 'God has a womb', so we say 'compassion'.
But think about it -- what grows warm and tender? The womb of God.
James Weldon Johnson I think got it
precisely right in his Creation Poem, in that climactic moment of the
poem, when God creates the first human being and he tells us that God
kneels down by the banks of the river and takes a lump of clay, and
then, the almighty God, who lit the sun and set is blazing in the sky,
who flung the stars to the far corner of the night, who rounded the
earth in the middle of his hand, this great God, is like a mammy bending
over her baby, breathes into that lump of clay, the breath of life.
What a powerful image that is, of the
mother nursing her child.
Ultimately, the love that we are called
to share is derived from the love that we receive from birth, in which
we are nurtured. And when we share such love with one another, we
share the love of God. And so Paul uses this image of a mother
with her children, her infants, to describe the depth of his love and
care for that community in Thessalonica.
And so it is, then, through that kind
of example, that the community learns to love God. It extends
beyond the family. Love like that, hopefully that we experience
within our families, goes beyond those boundaries of family.
Last Sunday I cited the example of the
woman who described her experience of coming into a church for the first
time as being "conquered by its love". And from my own experience
of seeing people who come and go in the church, I'd say that there is a
difference between those who join a church because they like what they
hear (make the connection of mind), and those who like what they feel
(make the connection of the heart).
Ideally, of course, we would do both in
the church. But when our connection is more from the heart, rather
than from the mind, it is a deeper, stronger, connection. And we
are much more apt to make a life-long commitment that's not going to
change when you hear the preacher say something you disagree with.
I know, it so seldom happens here, right? Or, somebody does
something that offends you, like the experience I had in calling on a
member in Fresno. She had dropped out of the church, and I learned
from her that another woman of the church had committed the unpardonable
sin of telling her that she filled the communion cups too full
Talk about your shallow faith (something about that).
And so when you have that deep,
heart-to-heart connection, like a mother to her children, then you work
through those kinds of challenges. Because your love for each
other is greater than any kind of difference or disagreement.
That's the kind of love we are called to model and to share with one
another. It's the kid of love I think people are looking for when
they come into church -- they want to know if we are going to be like
that which Paul describes. Loving one another as a mother, a
father, loves their children.
That kind of love begins with a deeper
understanding of Christian hospitality. We tend to think of
hospitality as something we do to make the church more inviting, more
welcoming. And that's a good thing. I learned from one of
our new couples in church that they had a little test (they've been
church shopping), they said they'd go back to that church where they
were greeted by 10% of those who were present in worship. And,
turning around and shaking hands when the pastor tells you to doesn't
count! Think about that -- do we do that, do we meet that
standard? Well, as it turned out we did, and they've come back and
become a regular part. That's a good thing.
When I was in Greece, I stopped in a
church outside of Philippi. Came a little bit late, obviously I
was a visitor -- I don't dress like them, don't speak the language,
couldn't follow the liturgy, very fascinating worship experience
(orthodox church). Fellowship time afterward, coffee and goodies,
people milling around. I waited. . . I waited. . . I waited.
Not one person spoke to me that entire time.
Earlier this year, I was in Bethlehem,
when I took a tour of Israel, and I visited 3 families, on my own, in
their homes. Each one of those families welcomed me in as if I was
a long-lost relative. People I didn't know (we had a common
connection). Served me wonderful food, drink, just made me feel at
home. And each of those families are Muslim. You see,
there's nothing uniquely Christian about hospitality.
Hospitality in that Middle-Eastern
tradition is about offering space to a guest, who is often a stranger.
Be it a space at the table, a space in the home, a space in the inn, and
when the inn is full, even the barn out back.
The great spiritual director Henri
Nouwen says "The hospitality we are called to create is that kind that
offers space where change can occur. Space for God to work in the
life of the other person".
Diana Butler-Bass says "For Christians,
hospitality holds special significance. Christians welcome
strangers as we ourselves have been welcomed into God through the love
of Jesus Christ".
And such hospitality -- welcoming
strangers -- is transformative for the giver and the receiver alike,
because it creates that kind of sacred space where God can be at work.
In that book by Diana Butler-Bass that
our prayer triads used this summer, "Christianity for the Rest of Us",
she tells the story of Epiphany Episcopal Church in Washington D.C., and
how their ministry of hospitality changed them. The church is not
a whole lot bigger than ours, just a few blocks from the White House,
has 2 services (farther apart than ours are), and so in-between the
services one morning they had a breakfast for church leaders.
Typical for church people, they prepared too much food. They
didn't want to waste it, and there were several homeless people in their
early service, so what are you going to do? They welcomed them in
and said "Would you come in and share with us, we don't want to waste
any of this food?". They did.
Lo and behold, those homeless folks
came back the next Sunday, with friends J.
Well, now what are you going to do? They scrambled, found some
food in the kitchen, quickly put together another breakfast. And a
ministry was born.
They came back, with more friends.
That church has about 200 people in their 8:00 a.m. service on Sunday
mornings, mostly people off the street. And then they serve them
breakfast. Not on paper plates, but with china and fine
silverware. And members of the church all dressed up who serve
them. It's become a very powerful experience.
They decided, well, in this early
service most of our folk now are homeless, it's not appropriate for us
to ask us for something, for an offering. So they thought they'd
just go without an offering. But those members -- they call them
members who don't have a street address -- said 'Wait a second, we're
members the same as everybody else, we don't want to be treated
differently'. So they took an offering.
One of their life-long members, Daniel,
recalled how he felt the first time he served as a Deacon in the
service. He told Diana Butler-Bass: "As the plate passed
down the rows, I watched poor people turn their pockets inside out and
throw loose change and crumpled dollars in the offering. I almost
cried. I learned more about giving that morning than in a thousand
You see, that's the power of
hospitality. When we welcome others, regardless of who they are,
what they look like, what language they speak. . . . . . and I have to
stop here and go 'off-script':
A number of years ago, 12 years ago, I
was preaching on the Sermon on the Mount -- "Blessed are the poor".
And just as I got to that part, this homeless gentleman who had come
into our service in the middle of our prayer, and made a lot of noise,
and sat in the front row, decided he heard the gospel. One of
those sermon illustrations stronger than a thousand sermons, he stood up
and said: "I want Jesus". And I said: "Now?!" J.
What a time, you know, to be moved by the spirit in the middle of a
sermon, for heaven sakes J.
So we accepted him into the fellowship of the church, right there in the
middle of that sermon, and afterward people greeted him and welcomed
him. I think he came maybe 1 more Sunday after that, bless him
wherever he may be.
Well, this morning, I never thought
that would be outdone, just as I started my sermon, 3 people came
walking in the door, it appeared that they had forgotten that Halloween
was over, not quite sure what they were wearing, or weren't wearing
I noticed at one point when I glanced over there a woman with a vest,
open, with nothing underneath. Another woman with chaps on, not
sure what she had underneath, I just saw more than I wanted to see as
she was walking away J.
And I noticed as I was preaching, everybody is looking over there.
And I get to this line in the sermon, that says: "that's the power
of hospitality, we welcome others regardless of who they are, what they
look like, what language they speak or how they dress". And I
thought, my God, what am I saying?! J.
And people accuse me of paying them to test me, and it was quite a test,
you know. What an incredible, powerful illustration about the
ministry of hospitality.
To do that, to welcome people
regardless, that's what creates the sacred space where the power of
God's transforming love can be at work.
I was struck in that book by Diana
Butler-Bass of the story she tells of Phinney Ridge Lutheran Church in
Seattle, that had a tent city on their front lawn. In part to the
response of the needs of the homeless and to be a welcoming church as
they felt welcomed, and also to be a public witness in much the same way
as we have our Trailer Ministry in our parking lot, to provide housing
to those that are homeless. But what struck me in reading that
again was that she tells the story twice in her book. She tells
the story in her chapter on spiritual practice of hospitality, and in
her chapter on the spiritual practice of justice.
And I got to thinking (it's a shame she
doesn't have the 2 chapters back-to-back) in many ways acts of
hospitality are acts of justice, and vice-versa. Think again about
the story Jesus tells about the judgment day in Matthew 25: 'I was
hungry and you fed me. I was naked, and you clothed me. I
was in prison, and you visited me'. Are those acts of
hospitality, or are they acts of justice? Or both?
John Dominic-Crossan says to claim that
God has already begun to transform this earth into a place of divine
justice and peace, as he says Paul does later on in this letter to the
Thessalonians (as we'll see later) and also in his second letter to the
Corinthians, to do that, demands that you can show something of that
transformative activity here and now. To which Paul would have
replied, unabashedly, to see God's transformation in process 'Come and
see how we live'.
Can we say that? To see God's
transformation in process, come and see how we live as a Christian
community. And I think that's what made Paul's preaching so
powerful. Speaking to the Gentiles, that he could say to them:
'You want to see how God is at work in our world, transforming our
world?' Not how God is at work through Caesar (believed to be the
son of God), but how God is at work through Jesus Christ. If you
want to see how that transformation is taking place here and now, 'Come
and see how we live'.
Christian hospitality is about creating
that kind of community, that sacred space where all are welcome, and
where, therefore, God can be at work. To make change -- not change
we can believe in, but change we can see God in.
Creating such community where all are
welcome, where divisions are broken down, where it does not matter if
you are rich or poor, conservative or liberal, Mexican or North
American, Asian or African, socialist or capitalist, gay or straight,
and dare we even say on the eve of this election all about dividing the
nation into red or blue states, that it does not matter if you are a
Republican or Democrat. All are one in Christ Jesus here, and
Creating such welcoming community is
all about making the love of God visible, the justice of God tangible,
and to create that space where the transformation of God is possible.
Jesus calls that the "Kingdom of God".
Paul calls it the "family of God".
We call it "church".