October 19, 2014 (Homecoming) I Thessalonians 5:12-24
W.M.P.C. Willow Spring Dr. Duane Hix
Many Christians think St. Paul was a hard-nosed, driven man, lashing out at critics, pushing himself relentlessly over thousands of miles. He would enter a town, stir up a controversy over Jesus, make a few enemies, and then head on down the road. We don’t like his harsh comments about women, his strict moral code, and his occasional insistence that Christians should separate themselves from offenders. But that is an unfair caricature at best. If we read a letter like I Thessalonians, we see mixed into the hard statements a softer side to Paul. These last verses from that letter which I read today do offer clear advice and warnings, but they also reveal his deep love of the people he called to the church.
Paul had founded that congregation in this large Macedonian city on his second missionary journey. He only got to stay there about three weeks before he was threatened by the Jewish authorities and had to run for his life, but in that short period he had developed a fondness for the 30 to 40 people there that had formed a small house church. He worried about them so much over the next months that he sent his young colleague Timothy back to Thessalonica to see how the church was faring. Timothy had brought back to Paul good news, that the church was withstanding local persecution and was growing, though there were still some inadequacies in their faith. So Paul writes them this letter, expressing his fondness, encouraging them, and giving them, in the verses we read, a set of what we might call “final instructions” on how to keep the church strong and faithful.
I expect most of you know by now that I am leaving White Memorial in less than a month to minister elsewhere, so I am hoping you will allow me to follow Paul’s example and offer my own “final instructions” to you on this Homecoming Sunday. It is an unusual Homecoming sermon, I grant you that. I am not going to glorify our heritage or tell humorous stories. But I want to do what Paul did: express my fondness for you, give thanks for your talents, and offer guidelines that will strengthen the church for the years ahead.
Where to begin? I’ll start where Paul starts in today’s verses. He encourages the church to respect its leaders. Sometimes when a congregation is between pastors a leadership vacuum develops. People who abhor a vacuum rush in to take charge; they try to reinstitute programs that had been dropped or push through an idea that had been neglected. I hope in my absence you will respect and trust the elders on session to continue leading the church. It is an important time to remember that the session is the primary decision-making body of the church, whether a pastor is in place or not. Trust them and trust the system. If you have an idea, convey it to the proper elder and ask the session to consider it. Accept that in the months ahead things may move slowly, both within the church itself and in the presbytery, which will send advisors from the Committee on Ministry to help you. Paul says to the Thessalonians: “Be patient with everyone.” I echo his advice. Things may not function smoothly for a while, but do not rush the process. Trust your leaders and be patient with the Presbyterian way.
There is a flip side to what I have said, and Paul appears to recognize it when he says that the church should warn the idle, encourage the timid, and help the weak. He means that people may be lazily squandering their talents or afraid to step forward to help. This is a time when everyone’s help is needed. If some of you here today have not been regular in attendance or have not supported the church financially, please know that this is a good time to step forward. The congregation needs you, in attendance, in participation, and in finances. The choir will need singers for the Christmas cantata. The mission team will need workers for the Stagecoach Manor dinner and senior luncheon. The Christian Ed committee will need a teacher for a youth class and helpers for the Joy Gift program. And if you think that you all can relax and drop the level of financial giving since there is no pastor to pay for a while, don’t believe it. We have new furnaces to replace before the winter, a savings account to replenish, and better mission giving, since we have dropped way below our once-declared goal of giving 10% of the church’s income to missions. Every one of us has been equipped by God with talents, gifts that can build up the church. If we exercise those talents, offer our gifts to God, the church will hold steady through the turbulence and new leaders may emerge for the future.
The months ahead will be a good time for everyone to cultivate lasting attitudes of faithfulness. In verses 16-18 Paul suggests three such attitudes in rapid-fire fashion: “Be joyful always. Pray continually. Give thanks in all circumstances.” One of the lessons that I have learned over nearly 35 years of ministry (and it has taken me every bit of that time) is that faithful churches are more about attitude than activities, more about the quality of relationships than the number of programs. Maybe I should have been less worried here about trying to keep our committees meeting regularly and coming up with lots of new ideas, and more ready to go to your homes and talk seriously about your faith, about the family problems you face and the presence of God in your lives. Maybe I should have confronted people personally about how they have time in their busy schedules for weekend trips and football tailgating and golf but not enough for regular worship. If I had concentrated more on changing attitudes instead of adding programs, we might not have had our attendance dwindle as it has in the last couple of years. I don’t know whether it would have made any difference, but I do know that if we all concentrate on adopting these three faithful attitudes Paul suggests, it will make us not only better individual Christians but also a stronger church. Be joyful. Pray continually. Give thanks. Do that in the months ahead. See what difference it makes in your lives and in the church. Cultivate attitudes of faithfulness.
Paul seems to be concerned in verses 19 and 20 that the people’s enthusiasm will die down and they will fall into listless routines: “Don’t put out the Spirit’s fire” is how he says it. When people feel unsure, uncertain of their footing, they have a tendency to simply rest in what is comfortable and normal, turn back to old traditions. Some of that is natural; it isn’t all bad, but I hope that doesn’t happen here, because it usually ends up with people feeling that change is the enemy; they stop listening to the Spirit of God who may be nudging them toward a new direction.
The session and I have been discussing this in recent meetings. We have been trying to discern what God wants for our church in the future, whether the American culture is so different than it was 30 years ago that no church can continue to operate the way it used to and be effective. We started considering a strategy of going to where people are rather than expecting them to come to us. Maybe the best evangelism and outreach strategy will be to start a Bible study in a bar or restaurant rather than publicizing programs here at the church. I’m afraid that little white country churches just don’t connect with many young adults today, so maybe we need to equip our members to do their ministry away from church rather than in this building. Can we “reverse the arrow” as it were, and point the church’s ministry outside these walls rather than trying to point other people into our front doors? If that is where the Spirit of God is leading, don’t let go of that vision just because the pastor is leaving. That vision is bigger than one person. If this kind of change is from God, don’t put out the Spirit’s fire.
Paul closes his final instructions with a kind of prayer for the people of the Thessalonian church. He asks God to sanctify them, in other words, to continue leading them toward holiness and keeping them free from sin. I want you to know that I will continue to pray for you, that just because I am leaving in a couple of weeks I will not just drop you from my heart. Now, I may not read all your Facebook posts with the pictures of cats and recipes for coconut cake. But I will thank God for what you have given me while in ministry here and I will be interested in your future, both as individuals and as a congregation. I will pray for God to raise up a good pastor for you, and some help in the interim period. There are many young, enthusiastic, well-trained clergy in the area who can help you articulate a new vision and implement it. But more to the point, many of you right here in this service have the faith and the skills to keep the church faithful and relevant. I will pray for you to offer those skills to God. And don’t forget that the church does not ultimately depend on what we do, but on what God does for us. Paul emphasizes that in verse 24 when he says: “The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.” In other words, it is not just our own faith that counts. It is much more the faithfulness of God on which the church depends.
If I had been truly wise and well prepared, I would have continued today’s scripture passage through verse 25, because there Paul asks for prayers for himself. Just as I will pray for you, may I ask you also to pray for me? My ministry will continue for at least a few more years in a parish somewhere, and I will not surrender my calling even when I formally retire. I want to have time to write and continue to serve God in whatever way the Spirit calls me. For this I will need your prayers. Please keep me close to your heart. Your support has been important during my years as your pastor. It will be important also during my years when I am simply your friend.