Monday, October 13, 2008

Who Will Light the Way?

1 Thessalonians 2: 1-13
You know, brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not a failure. We had previously suffered and been insulted in Philippi, as you know, but with the help of our God we dared to tell you the gospel in spite of strong opposition. For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please men or women but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed – God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from men or women, not from you or anyone else.
As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us. Surely you remember brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.
You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into the Kingdom and glory.
And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of mortals, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.
Maybe I should have grown out of it by now, but the reality is that I am still pretty skittish about being alone in the dark. Left behind in a dark basement, on a trail through the woods at night all by myself, or swimming in a lake or pond where I can’t see the bottom I’ll start to worry about what might be there hidden by shadow without a light to show me exactly what’s there.
Just a few years ago I went to see a horror movie called What Lies Beneath. At some point in the movie a half-decomposed arm reaches up to grab a woman on the leg, pulling her down into the water – or that’s pretty much what happened. I don’t remember exactly what happened because I didn’t see it all. As soon as the arm reached up I screamed and covered my eyes. When I opened my eyes again it was to face two 10-year-old girls who couldn’t stop laughing at me.
I have been thinking about this fear of the unknown lately again, and though I didn’t react quite the same way, as Sara and I watched the presidential debates last Tuesday night I began to be afraid of what lies ahead – not in a dark basement, a trail through the woods, or at the bottom of a lake, but what is going to happen to this country in the next few years. We are approaching a new time in history, a time that seems like none I have lived through before, and so I am afraid, as the future is unknown without a light to show me exactly what’s ahead.
The debates opened with a question about the economy, to which each candidate opened with words that weren’t so assuring for me. Barak Obama opened his response with: I think everybody knows now we are in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. And a lot of you I think are worried about your jobs, your pensions, your retirement accounts, your ability to send your child or your grandchild to college.
And then from John McCain: you go to the heart of America’s worries tonight. Americans are angry, they’re upset, and they’re a little fearful. It’s our job to fix the problem.[1]
What I really wanted to hear one of them say would have been: “You are just having a nightmare. Don’t worry, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Everything is fine.”
But judging from the pictures coming out of Wall Street, most of which show a stock broker looking agonized with his face in his hands, this financial crisis is not like an imaginary monster hiding in the basement, woods, or at the bottom of a lake. This is a real problem that we are going to be dealing with for a long time, and I don’t know what to expect as there isn’t someone up ahead showing us that we’ll get through it soon enough.
But we are not the first community to go into uncharted territory. The Thessalonian Christians, by virtue of becoming Christians, turned their back to what they had known, what their parents had taught, they changed the course of their lives away from what was expected and controllable into the unknown.
They walked away from what was normal and predictable, and they left behind friends who would talk behind their back and parents who would wonder where they went wrong. These Christians stepped out into the unknown; walking towards Christ but away from what was predictable.
It’s possible that they didn’t expect this kind of sacrifice, so as they ran into persecution and discrimination from the Roman authorities, they must have played with the idea of heading back home, maybe not back to mothers and fathers who would tell them that everything is going to be alright, but back to the rhythms of life that they recognized, to the pagan religious system that was permissible.
Maybe in response to their waning faith, Paul addresses them like a brother, saying “you know brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not a failure,” that you were led away from a pagan culture for a reason. To make the transition easier, knowing that starting a new life isn’t easy at all, Paul address them as a mother saying, “But we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children.” Then as a father saying, “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting, and urging you to live lives worthy of God,” so that you might continue on despite the temptation to return to the way things were.
In this way Paul and his fellow evangelists step forward to light the way. In the vacancy of their earthly brothers, mothers, and fathers, Paul and his companions tell the Thessalonian Christians, that “this new faith is hard, you will encounter hardship as we have, but you have to keep the faith. You are a part of something more as God is at work in you.”
Words like these that can bring us hope as we step out into uncertainty, as these words can light the way. They are encouraging signs left behind by the faithful who have traveled the same path that we follow now.
They light the way, like my grandfather’s memories, giving me stories to help me believe that I really can live without cable TV, a car, or a daily trip to the grocery store – that the fact that my dogs love to chase after squirrels might not be such a bad thing, as he, like others in our congregation, know a good recipe for squirrel soup should we need to skimp on groceries.
Scripture lights the way, to remind us that even when the chosen people were exiled in Babylon God’s promises did not fade, that even when the Temple was destroyed, Jerusalem seemingly lost, God was making a way where there was no way, leading the Israelites in a new song unlike the one they sang before.
I certainly don’t mean to say that our economic challenges are nothing; just that scripture tells us that where God’s people walk, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not consume it.
I don’t mean that life is without challenges or bumps along the road, that stocks that climb won’t come crashing down, but that generations rise and fall while the word of God endures forever.
I don’t mean that it won’t be seriously uncomfortable when the oil runs dry, but that there is no bottom to the depths of the love of God whose word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.
So we cannot encounter hardship with complete fear, as the memories of those who have walked through hardship – through captivity, slavery, depression, heartache, divorce, war, hardship, poverty, and conflict go on before us to light the way.
We are a part of something bigger that is being done in our midst.
As a church, it can be easy to think that we will never get back to the way it was, and the truth is, maybe we won’t. We look out into an unknown future, wondering who we will be if we aren’t who we were? What does the future hold in a changing county, in a changing word? Scripture tells us that the word of God is at work in us, and that the chapter in the book of life on Good Shepherd is not closed, but being written now as we take encouragement from our past to lead us into our future.
As a people growing older, it can be easy to wonder about the future, what will happen next. The kids are gone, work is done, so what happens now? Have you reached the end of your ability to contribute to society? Are you spent? Hardly. You must hold onto the memories of your life, using those memories to light the way for generation who need you to light the way.
In changing family structures, being single may mean a longing for family made whole again. Wishing you could go back to the way it was because that is what seems normal. But don’t forget what God is doing – that we must keep going towards the joy that lies ahead.
Change is a part of our lives, and as our country changes some wonder if God can love the United States if the Christian majority is lost. Christianity is becoming another faith in an increasingly secular culture. In these times we must return to scripture to remember the Israelites who lived through Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon, the Thessalonian Christians who lived through Rome despite discrimination – to be reminded that we are not a passing fad – that we are the people of god and that the word of God is working through us – living, breathing, bringing something new to a world that is not just running short on oil, but on hope, purpose, joy, and love.
God’s will is being done through us. We are a part of this great thing even now.
Thanks be to God.
[1] USNews and World Report, Hot Docs: AIG Bailout and Spa Visits, Sarah Palin's Assets, and Toxic Trailers, Posted October 8, 2008.