November 8, 2020
1 Thessalonians 5: 1-11
5 Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters,[a] you do not need to have anything written to you. 2 For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. 3 When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! 4 But you, beloved,[b] are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; 5 for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6 So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7 for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9 For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
At the heart of what it means to be church for Paul; at the heart of Paul’s ecclesiology is the idea of encounter, and you can’t blame Paul because he has come to that understanding of who and what we must be based on what was at the heart of his theology; for at the heart of Paul’s theology is a God who seeks out and encounters—a God who created to encounter, a God who sends Jesus into the fullness of encounter. And you can’t blame Paul because if you don’t know his full story, Paul’s entire world, his entire faith and his entire way of understanding everything was shattered, transformed and rebuilt through an encounter.
Paul was a zealot. That means he took his faith very seriously and knew his faith inside and out. Paul knew the answers; he knew the prescriptions and the commandments; Paul was a zealot, and he wanted you to be one too because he knew how profound it is to live in our faith. On his way to Damascus, Paul was on his way to make sure that everyone else was as deeply committed to his faith as he was. And it would be there on a dusty road—it would be there like he’s writing to the Thessalonians in our passage this morning—almost as if it was surprising in the middle of the night on his way to do what he had done thousands of times before—on the way to something he already knew the answers to—suddenly his whole world and in fact our whole world was turned upside down, inside out and right side up by an encounter. It was there on the road to Damascus that Paul came face-to-face with Christ, who asked a simple question. “What are you doing and why are doing it? What are you so convinced of that is actually persecuting me?”
You might not know this, but Paul was struck blind by that encounter for three whole days—a good number if you think about our faith. Left in the care of someone he did not know for three whole days—but whom God led him to, for three whole days he sat in darkness, until on that third day his eyes were reopened again and suddenly he saw the world not as he had understood it and not with the answers he had been so confident about—but rather through the new eyes, the new lens and the new possibility of Christ. And from then on, everything would change. Paul would rush back to spend time with these churches from Corinth to Thessalonica and from Rome to Colossae. Paul would travel to these places because he knew the importance of an encounter. He would live with them and spend time with them; if you remember just a few weeks ago we spoke about how he gave his very self to them—because our faith is a faith of encounter.
If you consult the Bible, Paul’s letters are arranged in a very intriguing way, and yet a thoroughly unhelpful one. They’re organized first by letters to churches, then second by letters to individuals, and they are arranged in order of how long they are, with the longest ones first. The reason I think that is unhelpful is that this letter to the Thessalonians was likely his earliest letter—or at least among the earliest letters he had written. To read his earliest letters, such as this one or Corinthians, Ephesians or Galatians, what you will notice is this joy that comes through Paul. You can sense his eyes opening, his reality changed; these first four letters are full of promises of barriers falling away. There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer male or female; there is no longer slave or freed; we are all in this together. To read those earlier letters like the one to the Corinthians is to dwell in this idea of love. You can have all the power in the world but if you don’t have love, you are a noisy gong.
Letters like this one to the Thessalonians are all about encouragement; they’re all about lifting each other up and being in this together. I don’t know if Paul changed; I think it’s less likely because when Paul changes in his letters, it is always to a more open welcome—a more generous giving and a stronger emphasis on grace. In fact, by the time we to his letter—the letter to the Romans, the “Marks of Christian Living,” you already know them. And if you don’t, you should. In those Marks of Christian Living, we are called to outdo one another—not to compete against one another but to outdo one another in showing affection, in honoring each other, and in lifting each other up, for we are one body; we are in this together.
At some point I think that Paul’s letter mistakenly got codified as rules and prescriptions—the very zealotry that had changed in the encounter for Paul on that road to Damascus. To this question that we’ve been asking during our stewardship campaign of what it means to be the heart of the church, Paul’s resounding answer time and time again is to be open to encounter. To be open to the fact that as you’re going about your daily work as you imagine the world’s problems have just started or have just been solved, be open to the fact that walking down Main Street in Stockbridge, you may come face-to-face with the risen Christ. I hope you are ready to deal with it. This passage says that you better be. It also means that when you walk down the street, and you encounter someone as you’re walking, that you are entering into an equally sacred relationship and an equally sacred opportunity to offer love and to be loved in return. For encounter is at the heart of church and faith and life and living and salvation, so stay awake and be ready, for you never know.
The Reverend Dr. Otis Moss is simply one of the most powerful preachers and teachers of our time. He is an African American pastor at the United Church of Christ’s largest church, which if you don’t know is Trinity Church in Chicago. He is a prophet; he speaks power; he speaks truth. Recently he told the story of what shaped his faith; it was an encounter long ago between his grandmother and her white neighbor. Dr. Moss would say that his grandmother was a consummate gardener. There wasn’t a piece of her land that was untouched; she liked her hands in the dirt; she liked growing flowers and vegetables and all sorts of things; she enjoyed it thoroughly. Although she had never met his grandmother, her neighbor did not like her. Dr. Moss thinks and I think that her neighbor did not like his grandmother because she was, of course, African American. She noticed how his grandmother loved to work in the dirt, and this neighbor, who had a whole bunch of chickens in big chicken coops would come over every day, bringing manure from the chicken coops and spread it all over his grandmother’s flowers and all over her vegetables. She would cover them in manure, and it was not a gesture of friendliness, I assure you. It was an encounter of a different sort.
So what did Dr. Moss’s grandmother do? Every day she cleaned the manure off the petals of the flowers; she took it off the tomatoes and vegetables, and instead she did what she loves to do. She took it all and carefully worked it through the soil. Every day, manure would appear on her plants to block out the sun and to blight them, and every day she would incorporate it into her soil so that every day the soil grew richer and every day the flowers grew more beautiful and the vegetables larger.
Dr. Moss then relayed that the neighbor became very ill. She became sick and bedridden, and it turns out she wasn’t very well liked by anyone; no one came to visit; she was alone and sick in her own home. So what did Dr. Moss’s grandmother do? She went out and cut the most beautiful bouquet of flowers she could find in her garden, and she went over to that house to present this bouquet to her neighbor, and the woman was stunned. She had no idea what to do. Then she asked his grandmother, “Why are you bringing me these flowers? I have been nothing but mean and hateful to you your whole life,” to which his grandmother responded, “Because you are sick; you are in need; you are alone; you need company and you need beauty.” Overcome by this, the woman responded, “I’ve never seen such beautiful flowers in my whole life. How did you possibly come by them?” There are many answers his grandmother could have given—about how right she was and how wrong the neighbor was, or how she made something good come out of something so bad, but instead what she said was, “You helped make them. You helped contribute to this. It is because of you that these flowers are so beautiful. Enjoy them.”
It’s a story of encounter that opened new beginnings and new possibilities. Like the great prophets and parable-tellers of our Bible, Dr. Moss left us hanging. He didn’t tell us what happened between those women—did they go on to be best friends—did she ever bring back another bouquet? Did the woman get better? Did they find a new way forward? We don’t know. But what we do know is that because of the nature of that encounter, there was the possibility for a new relationship.
I don’t know how you have felt for these last four years. I can still remember the sermon I gave after the election four years ago. I don’t know if you’ve felt this country has been on the absolute right track or whether you’ve felt it’s been painful and hard every day. I don’t know if today you’re rejoicing in the good news of hope that is around the corner or if instead you experience fear and the loss of what you had grown to cherish. But I do know this: Paul asks us to go forth into this nation, into our communities and into our families in the same way that Dr. Moss’s grandmother went to her neighbor—whether you agree or not, whether you fought or not, whether you think you were wronged or not—that instead we need to be open to one another and open to encounter one another. We need to remember all of the teachings that Paul lays out—to let love be genuine—to hold fast to truth—to outdo one another in showing affection—and to gently nourage—is that even a word? Why not? Right! I think nourage is a combination of nurture and encourage others.
So go forth and gently nourage one another, please. But the point is this: In his encounter with faith, Paul the zealot suddenly became Paul the encourager—Paul the cheerleader—Paul the nurturer. It was not that he believed faith was any less important, in fact, he believed it was more important, but what he saw in his faith was the opportunity for expanding encounter—the chance to genuinely listen and the chance to genuinely learn and grow, because, friends, we do not know when Christ will come, as Paul writes in his passage—when all will be resolved and the world will be good. Yet, what we do know is not to go to church in these times but to be church—to offer peace wherever we go and to offer love to our neighbor. Friends, I hope you are finding joy in this new day because every day is a source of joy. And I hope that you use that joy and that strength and that energy to go forth and do what Paul commands in this passage—to nurture and encourage, to give and to live; that is why we have asked you to consider your financial support to this church, because when we consecrate the pledges, which we are about to do in a few moments, what we will do is commit ourselves to being that kind of church—and not one that is satisfied or smug or done—but a church that is a force for good and listening and encouragement in the world. It is to put who we are on the line and to bring flowers out into the world, recognizing that they have grown and been fertilized by each other.
Paul would say that we have all sinned and fallen short and that the world is broken, but Paul would say that Christ has already come! The Kingdom has already drawn near and it will become ever more the Kingdom of God with every breath we take. Friends, that is our holy calling—along with these beautiful new members and this new day that is dawning on this nation, and with everything that lies before us.