Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring.
To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
~ 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
I’m writing you today because we have just heard a tiny portion of a letter to the ancient church from Paul, one of its pastors. And Paul had a way of both encouraging and challenging his people in his letters… I think he was really on to something there.
And so, I’m writing today to tell you three things, and it’s my hope that it will be both encouraging and challenging.
First, I’m writing to bring you a blessing: Grace and Peace to you from God, and from Jesus.
Have you ever noticed how we sometimes use very churchy words whose meanings are a little confusing?
Take the word Grace. If I asked you, “What is grace?” I’m betting I would get a variety of responses. I’m going to ask you to turn to the people around you and ask one another this question. What is grace?
Thank you for taking part in that conversation! We use the word “Grace” to mean several different things. “Grace” has come to mean a prayer we say before eating, a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the gift of food. That’s one very specific meaning. But “Grace” has a larger meaning—an enormous meaning, and being thankful for food is one tiny part. “Grace” is God’s love for us, not because of anything we have done to earn it, but because God is love and God is loving. John Calvin wrote that every single one of us has, within ourselves, “undoubted evidence of the heavenly grace by which we live, and move, and have our being.”[i]
So the first part of the blessing I bring you is Grace: God loves you. God loves you, not because you earned it, but because God is loving. God loves you, and there’s not a thing you can do about it.
The second part of the blessing is “Peace.” It’s possible that we each have our own unique understanding of peace. The word Jesus probably used when he said “Peace be with you” is “Shalom.” It means peace, and harmony, and the absence of conflict. But more deeply, it means whole, complete. If you have shalom, you feel that nothing is lacking. In fact, it is entirely possible to be in the midst of real conflict—disagreement, argument—and yet, somewhere deep in yourself, understand that you are whole, and “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing(s) shall be well.”[ii]
The second part of the blessing I bring you is Peace: All shall be well.
I write to bring you a blessing.
Second, I write to tell you that I thank God for you.
It would be easy at this point to tell you Church War Stories. Many of you know that I serve our Presbytery’s Committee on Ministry, and it is true: the churches that are the most deeply conflicted and in trouble are the churches that take up most of our time and attention. And my heart breaks just about every week over some new way in which I have seen a rupture in the body of Christ.
But that’s not why I thank God for you. It’s not a “Thank God, we’re not THAT church.” I thank God that you are you. The individuals God created you to be. The individuals whom God saw fit to bring together in this place on Sunday mornings for learning and for worship and for fellowship, and on Monday evenings for study, or to plan meals or fun or the beautification of this sanctuary, or to play Handbells together and then to go across town to Harry’ Tufts. The individuals over whose God’s spirit hovers on Tuesdays when the Deacons meet and pray and talk and decide about giving and sharing the love of God, or when the Session meets to fulfill its responsibilities with prayer and storytelling and a lot of laughter. I give thanks to God for those who gather here on Wednesday morning to for Stepping On class or for the Course in Miracles, and on Wednesday nights to sing and play their hearts out and prepare music for worship. I give thanks for the ones who meet on Thursdays to pray and plan over our finances, or talk about the repairs to the parking lot, or talk about the ways our love poured out can be part of what our Jewish brothers and sisters call the Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world. I give thanks to those of you who are in this church every day, and for those who are not able to come to church any more because of health or distance. I give thanks for the children and youth, all the way from brand new Riley to Ryan, who is almost ready for college. I give thanks for those who we have surrendered into God’s loving care after walking their own paths of faithfulness. I give thanks to God for you, specifically, individually, and collectively, because God has called us to be together, and I regularly pinch myself for the wonder and the joy of it.
I give thanks to God for you.
Third, I am writing to bring you encouragement, to tell you that I see how your faith is growing and your love is increasing. Calvin writes, “This… is the true commendation of believers — their growing daily in faith and love.” He also writes that it would be a good idea for all the faithful to “examine ourselves daily, to see how far we have advanced.” This sounds terrible to me—like a daily pop quiz on the spiritual life, and who likes pop quizzes? It sounds terrible until we remember the grace part, and the love part—that God loves us, and there’s not a thing we can do about it—and then thinking about the ways we are trying to become more loving sounds more like going to the gym, spiritually. And I am going to look at someone who is successfully going to the gym—the actual, physical gym, and I am going to ask her: Heather, when you haven’t been to the gym in a long time, is it easy to start?” (For the reader: I am 99.999999% sure Heather’s answer to this question is “NO!”). Then, I am going to ask: Heather, which is easier, starting to go to the gym after not going for a long time, or going to the gym regularly? (For the reader: I’m betting—more like 80% sure—that Heather will say, “Well, it’s easier when you are in a routine. But it’s never easy.” I’m betting she’ll say that, because that’s what I think. I’ll add a note if Heather’s answer is something completely off my radar.)
I am writing to encourage you to think about your daily walk in faith. I actually think the word “faith” can be a little misleading. It can make us think that being Christians is about specific points of belief, like a list, or a creed we would say. And while that is a part of being a Christian, I think a better comparison is marriage. In the normal course of events, we don’t choose to marry someone because we have made a list of requirements, and they match the list completely, check, check, check. We marry because we have decided to throw our lot in with this person. We marry because, on some deep level, we trust them. We marry because we have decided that, even if they surprise us in some gigantic way, in the way they grow or change, or the self they reveal to us, we are willing to muddle through together, whatever surprise that may be.
Our faith, while it may be connected to points of belief, is really about deciding that we want to throw our lot in with Jesus. Our faith is about deciding that we trust him, that Jesus is the guru we want to lead us into the light, because we think he really is on to something about God and the universe and how we should behave towards one another. Our faith is about trusting that there may be surprises along the way… that our understanding may grow and deepen, and we may have to let go of some things as we learn to cling to others. But we are willing to muddle through. Together.
Jeff Kellam sent the most marvelous quote around to the Thoughtful Christian class members yesterday, and I am completely stealing it for this letter to you. The topic the class is currently addressing is “evolving faith.”
Scholar Phyllis Tickle claims that every five hundred years or so the church holds
a massive rummage sale. These are the times when it becomes necessary to go
through all the theological and ecclesiastical baggage that we have been carrying
with us over the years, and do the hard work of sorting out what we need to let
go of, what we intend to keep, and what we need to make room for. The last big
rummage sale was the Protestant Reformation.
Our own lives of faith are like that, too. Holding on and letting go. So I want to encourage you to think about your walk in faith. I am going to encourage and challenge you to do what the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola, recommended to those under his spiritual care: Do a daily “examen,” a time of thinking about your day. Many people do it at night, the last thing before they go to sleep, but do it whenever it works for you.
Begin by reminding yourself that you are in the presence of God, who loves you (remember?) If you like candles, light a candle. Take some slow, deep breaths, and close your eyes.
Know that God’s Holy Spirit is all around you. When you breathe in, breathe in the Spirit. When you breathe out, let the love of the Spirit fill the room.
The first part of the examen is this: Ask God to bring to your awareness the moment of the day for which you are most grateful.
~ If you could relive one moment, which one would it be?
~ When were you most able to give and receive love today?
~ Ask yourself what was said and done in that moment that made it so good.
Now breathe in the gratitude you felt and receive life again from that moment.
The second part of the examen is this: Ask God to bring to your awareness the moment today for which you are least grateful.
~ When were you least able to give and receive love?
~ Ask yourself what was said and done in that moment that made it so difficult.
~ Relive the feelings without trying to change or fix it in any way.
Now take some deep breaths and let God's love fill you just as you are.[iii]
The third part of the examen is this: Give thanks. Give thanks for God’s presence in your life. Give thanks for those moments for which you are most grateful, and even for those moments for which you are least grateful, because God is able to use those moments to help you to grow in faith, hope and love.
That’s it. It shouldn’t take any longer than 10 or 15 minutes. Most grateful. Least grateful. Thank God. And in that time you will have shared intimately with God the truth of your day, this tiny slice of your life. And God will have refreshed you and given you a taste of the tender mercies that are available to each of us.
I am writing to encourage you. Your faith is growing, and your love is increasing. And I’m writing to challenge you to think and pray about that.
Dear Church, I’ve written this letter today to tell you three things.
I’ve written it to bring you the blessing of God’s unavoidable love and God’s gentle wholeness and shalom. I’ve written to tell you that I thank God for you, all of you, every day, every hour, sometimes every minute. And I’ve written to encourage you to walk in God’s love, to reflect on God’s love, and to revel in God’s love. God loves you, and there isn’t a thing you can do about it.
Love, Your Pastor, Pat.
Thanks be to God. And Amen.
[i] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (I, 5, iii).
[ii] Julian of Norwich, Showings.
[iii] The “Examen” here has been taken from http://upperroom.org/methodx/thelife/prayermethods/