by Rev. Chris Jorgensen
June 7, 2020
Proverbs 17:17 (CEV) & 1 Thessalonians 5:11,14-22,25-27
The second reading we just heard is from a letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to a church he had planted in a place called Thessalonica. This letter is my favorite of all of Paul’s letters in the bible. See, I don’t know how many of you have read Paul’s letters, but I’m not gonna lie – he can be kind of a jerk. He is sometimes very mean to his followers and to his opponents. In fact, in Galatians chapter 5, he suggests that perhaps the people he considers false prophets should go castrate themselves. That seems a little harsh, Paul. In that same Letter to the Galatians, Paul calls his own followers fools (chapter 3), but here in the Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul is much more pastoral.
That’s because Paul knows the Thessalonians are heartbroken and struggling. In the fourth chapter of this letter, Paul addresses the source of their heartbreak. 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 soon. And he told them that those living in the light – the believers – would live in glory with Christ…without ever dying.
And so the Thessalonians are waiting, and people start dying. 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. Yet they had to watch their loved ones die, and their community was suffering persecution.
They were living this kind of already-but-not-yet existence. They lived with hope. They believed. They knew that in the end God would triumph. They knew that good would overcome evil, that love would overcome hate, that life would overcome death. They believed it. They knew it in their hearts. And…they really thought they were going to see what the kingdom of heaven come down to earth looked like IN THEIR LIFETIMES. Yet here their loved ones were dying right in front of them. They were losing faith.
It is hard not to lose faith these days – even if you believe in God’s ultimate triumph of good over evil, or love over hate, of life over death. We are living in a particularly difficult moment in history. We are seeing people we love get ill and die because of the coronavirus. We are seeing the poisonous fruit of racism and inequality of all kinds. We are struggling with hurt and fear and anxiety – much of which as a white, middle class person, I have the privilege to turn away from when I want or need to. I can choose to just take break from it, but the double burden of coronavirus and racism is a relentless reality for people of color every day.
In a time like this, we need faithful friends. It reminds me of the quote from Proverbs we just heard:
A friend is always a friend,
and relatives are born
to share our troubles. (Proverbs 17:17)
This proverb reminds us that faithful friends are friends who become like family (like relatives), and that a faithful friend, a faithful family member, is one who doesn’t turn away in times of trouble…but shows up and offers to share that trouble, to help shoulder our burdens, so that we might overcome our struggles together.
In the community at Thessalonica that Paul is writing to, there is a new sense of who is a friend and who is family. The Thessalonians are part of the family of Christ. Now, the family of Christ is a kind of ever-expanding family. When we become part of the family of Christ, we are called to share the burdens of all people in God’s family…and ultimately that means everyone. Anyone who breathes is filled with the breath of God. We are constantly called to expand our definition of family.
This letter shows us how to be that family of Christ, how to be that faithful family. First, Paul tells them to encourage one another and build one another up. Then he tells them to hold one another accountable. Being a faithful follower of Christ and being a faithful friend requires both parts: sitting with each other in our pain – and encouraging one another to work through and get beyond our pain – in order to be part of what God is doing in the world. Deeply encouraging one another is not about coddling. It’s not about making excuses for each other. Courageous love, faithful friendship, has this willingness to hold someone accountable and be held accountable woven into it.
I know being held accountable sounds like no fun, but I’m going to tell you why I think it’s so important. Because that accountability piece, that piece where we reflect and ask ourselves hard question of whether we are living into our deepest values…it is what connects us to God’s mission in the world.
The Thessalonians were grieving, they were worried, but ultimately they were rooted in hope. They were rooted in the already-but-not-yet-ness of their situation. They saw that God had not yet come in fullness. They were not yet living in a time when justice and peace were fully realized. But every time they chose to live out of their faith, they were part of God bringing justice and peace to fullness…every time they chose to live in concert with God’s dream for the world.
These days, I am hearing lots of people ask the question: what can I do? And I hear your faithfulness in that question. I hear that you want to be part of God’s dream of a world without racism and a world where we make decisions to protect others and especially the most vulnerable from the spread of the coronavirus. We long to be part of that world precisely because of God’s call for us to love God and neighbor. I hear you, and I see you.
And I am so proud of all of you. I am so proud of the way you are supporting one another and challenging one another to live out your faith. In our virtual Lunch with Pastor Chris this week, one of you named how you are growing. With her permission, I want to share this. One Mom in our congregation said – about her adult daughter: “I am grateful for [my daughter], who is brave and honest with me when I’m speaking from a position of white privilege. She teaches me so much.”
This. This is what a faithful friend looks like. And yes, in this case, that person is biological family. But as that family of Christ, we can all be that faithful friend to one another.
We need one another. I am blessed with an abundance of these folks in my life, but ALL we need, I think, is one. One faithful friend: to be devoted to one another, to love and comfort one another, and to hold each other accountable regarding whether we are living our life in the hope of Christ – with the goal of bringing God’s kingdom to this earth.
Now, this is the church, and we could program the crap out of this. Spreadsheets and sign ups and all that. But I think this is a personal responsibility moment. I challenge you to find one person. Find just one person in the church or in your life – maybe your friend who joined us this week is that person – just one person. Find one person in the church or in your life that you want to journey alongside. Commit to one phone call or Facetime or Zoom call a week.
Watch over one another in love. Ask each other: How is it with your soul? Where have you seen God this week? When have you been encouraged? When have you felt despair? … and then ask the even harder question, the accountability question…The old school Methodist question for that is: Is the love of God shed in your heart? In other words, how well have your actions this week reflected the love of God that is inside you? Does the inside match the outside? How satisfied are you with how you are doing as a follower of Jesus?
Now, if you don’t have someone in mind, and you are open to getting to know someone new (also a good thing!), If you are looking for a faithful friend, if you want a partner in this journey, you could also put it in the comments right now. Just write, “I would like a faithful friend.” And then y’all can reach out to one another. But if you write that, assume it’s also your responsibility to reach out to somebody. Don’t just sit there and wait. It’s your job.
So, yes, I’m giving you a job. I’m asking you to support one another and hold each other accountable in love. But like Paul, I’m not giving this job because I’m disappointed in you. I’m giving this job because I see your pain and your struggle, and I love you. I can’t go out and make coronavirus not so or racism not so. These are both things that exist, but they are also things we can resist – and we need each other to ensure that we are participating in the healing of the world.
We will only find true comfort when we live in the already-but-not-yet, as if everything we do matters and that everything we do is part of one project: bringing about God’s kingdom of love and justice and peace on earth as it is in heaven.
May it be so.