Preached at Urban Abbey
April 23, 2017
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.
Our scripture today is a letter from Paul to the Thessalonians. And let me tell you: Paul LOVES the Thessalonians. When you read through this whole letter – and you should because it’s only five chapters – you get a clear sense of Paul’s affection for the small community he established in Thessalonica, this ancient city on the Aegean Sea. Early in this letter, Paul writes about his time with the Thessalonians: “We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. 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.”
Here Paul is thinking of himself as a nursing mother to this infant church. He is pledging commitment to sharing both the good news of Christ and his very self with them. He LOVES them.
Now I’m not sure entirely why these Thessalonians receive so much more verbal affection from Paul than many of the other communities he writes to. Maybe it’s because this is the first existing letter we have from Paul in the scripture – the earliest one -- and maybe he’s all idealistic and hopeful and hasn’t been beat down in his ministry yet. And maybe it’s because the Thessalonians do sort of sound like the teacher’s pet of all of Paul’s churches.
He has received word from Timothy who went back to visit them that they have been firm in their faith and love despite persecutions. And Paul proclaims “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?”
So Paul loves these plucky little Thessalonians, which makes me think that it probably grieved his heart to hear from Timothy that they were experiencing sorrow and disappointment. In the fourth chapter of this letter, Paul addresses their worry. You see, some among the Thessalonians have died, and the community is saddened by it. Of course, grief is normal when people die, but it is especially a problem because Paul had told them that Jesus was going to come back to fulfill all things, to solidify the triumph of good over evil, within their lifetimes.
And so the Thessalonians are waiting, and people start dying around them. I imagine they were heartbroken. They believed that the resurrection was proof that God’s total triumph of good over evil, of life over death had begun, and they believed in the promise that Jesus was coming back any day now to finish the job. And yet they had to watch their loved ones die, and their community was suffering persecution.
We in this community have also just celebrated Easter. We have just celebrated the proof and the promise of resurrection; the proof and promise of God’s ability to take whatever evil the world can muster and transform it into good, whatever death the world throws at us and breathe life into it.
But yet life keeps throwing so much evil and death at us.
We are the heirs to the Thessalonians. We are their heirs writ large. If months after hearing the gospel, the Thessalonians are disappointed that Jesus has not returned, how much more disappointed are we that 2000 years later Christ has still not returned to restore all things to paradise!
How much more disappointed are we when churches are bombed in Egypt. When children are assaulted, when world leaders are all bravado and bluster and within reach of nuclear weapons, when millions of people live in poverty, when racism still limits the opportunities and health and very lives of people of color, when health care is a commodity rather than a right, when there is discrimination against gay people and violence against trans people. When we continue to lose the people we love to death and broken relationships. It is beyond reasonable to be disappointed and grieving.
And what does Paul have to say about this to the Thessalonians? In the midst of their grief and disappointment, and out of his deep love for them, he says “Rejoice always…give thanks in all circumstances.” Rejoice? Give thanks in all circumstances? Why would Paul possibly say this? If we read it in context, we realize that this is not some trite “well, this is your cross to bear” or “God has a plan” response.
It’s because Paul believes. And though Paul concedes in chapter 5 of this letter that no one exactly knows the day or the time, he believes that in fact Christ will come again in fullness. And the triumph of good over evil, of love over hate, of life over death will be total.
Paul believes that the resurrection of Christ is both proof and a promise of God's ability to overcome every last shard of brokenness in our world.
And I believe that, too.
Because even amidst the brokenness of the world, I have seen proof of resurrection and glimpses of the coming kin-dom of God.
I have seen proof of Good overcoming Evil in the long view of history. I can see the long arc of progress: the end of slavery, women respected as persons not property, diseases treated and cured that used to mean sure death. Nearly one billion people were taken out of extreme poverty in just twenty years from 1990 to 2010. But do not get me wrong. This arc has not been without severe and serious setbacks. We are perhaps in the midst of one of those setbacks right now.
But I can tell you that I believe that no narcissistic world leader, or populace acting out of a last gasp of white supremacy, or church scapegoating queer folks is anything more than a blip in God’s cosmic movement toward good and love and justice.
Because even as the global narrative seems dire, the kin-dom is here and coming in a million tiny ways. We can hear it in the story that our guest preacher Gee told on Good Friday – of her work starting schools for girls in rural Afghanistan. We saw it this past Thursday in the photographs displayed here at the Abbey, and the hundreds of people who showed up to learn about the people with abilities in those photos.
I tell you, I saw it at the immigration vigil in February – not just in those hundreds of supporters lining Dodge Street, but more than anything in the thousand-watt smile of a hijab-wearing mother as she drove by in a mini-van. The kin-dom is here and coming when 170 queer clergy come out in a letter in open defiance of an oppressive church.
So I say to you: rejoice always. Give thanks in all circumstances.
Because the sufferings of our time are real. And because in God’s cosmic narrative, they are temporary. And because as we live and breathe and love each other, we are participating with God in the restoration of the world.
Thanks be to God.