Sunday, September 24, 2017
1 Thessalonians 2:1-13
© Stacey Steck
Were you able to do it? Did you keep the Messianic secret? For those who weren’t able to be here last Sunday, I swore the church to silence about Invite-A-Friend Sunday in the same way that Jesus swore to secrecy those he healed not to share that good news with anyone. And of course they couldn’t help themselves and spread the news like wildfire. I admit I am hoping for the same result here. But more importantly last Sunday, I invited you to reflect on the question, “How is God opening you and how are you responding to God saying, “Be opened”? because that is the question which unlocks so much of our spiritual life, our relationship with Jesus Christ and with each other. “How is God opening you and how are you responding to God saying, “Be opened”?
Our passage from First Thessalonians is part of the Apostle Paul’s story of being opened by God and being open to God. In this letter he is recalling how he came to be associated with the believers in the Greek city of Thessalonica, and in this morning’s passage, he is making a case for how and why he is different than the Philosophers of his day who used some heavy-handed and egotistical tactics to try to gain followers. You have probably heard about the most prominent groups, like the Cynic and the Stoics, but there were also a hundred and one religions vying for attention in addition to the philosophies. There was a lot of noise to cut through, a lot of people with dubious agendas and moneymaking schemes. And so when Paul reminds them that, “we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext of greed,” he is making reference to the others around him who did bring their message by trying to butter people up, or to shake them down. He reminds them too that he was no burden on them, that he worked as hard as anyone else and didn’t live off anyone else’s labors, like more unscrupulous people might. And he reminds them that he truly cared for them, not just to get the job done, like a nursemaid might do for her employer, but like a nursemaid caring for her own children.
People have wondered since the beginning why Paul felt the need to do this, to remind the Thessalonians of his modus operandi. Some say Paul is defending himself against charges that he really is just like every other run of the mill philosopher, that some outside the church were accusing him of being just another conman out for their money. Others say he is simply using the Philosophers as a foil, as straw men, for reminding the Thessalonians of the way they came to faith, to make sure they know how his God is different than other so-called gods or philosophies. Whatever the reason may be, it is a good thing he did, and that it was preserved, since it gives us some clues about how we might approach the task of sharing our good news.
You don’t have to read too many different commentaries to find some commonalities among those who have analyzed Paul’s words. You find them saying how in this chapter, Paul is providing the three Ms of evangelism, of invitation: the means, the method, and the motive. He speaks pretty clearly of each, that his means were by urging and encouraging and pleading, not quite begging but clearing showing that this was something to be taken seriously, life and death stuff, not just some suggestions for how to live a stress-free life, but how this Jesus guy was worth following even if proclaiming him meant being of the receiving end of some shameful mistreatment. He appeals to them by reminding them of what he went through on his first visit there, how they tried to run him out of town and poor old Jason got the worst of it. You can find that story in Acts 17. Paul’s life lead to his choice of his means, honorable ones from his own experience rather than questionable ones used to manipulate. There was no bait and switch, that old trick in retailing in which customers are “baited” with advertised products or services at a low price, but when customers visit the store, they discover that the advertised goods are not available, or the customers are pressured by sales people to consider similar, but higher priced items. Paul probably told them the exact opposite. Listen, if you hang out with me, you might end up a little bruised. But it’s worth it. What are your means when you invite others? An honest expression of your own experience at Thyatira or with a bait and switch? Now, I must admit that I have used our Covered Dish meals as a manipulative ploy but it’s not really a bait and switch, right? I mean, I’ve tasted your cooking and I can testify. I know you won’t let me down next Sunday. But really, I tell people about your cooking because it offers a way to talk about the fellowship we share together as a church and how meaningful it is in a world starved for genuine relationships.
The second M is the method. Paul’s methods must have been refreshing to the Thessalonians, as he and his companions simply shared themselves in all the holiness God had given them. Listen again to what he says: “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the Gospel of God but also our own selves. You are witness, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers.” In the hardscrabble world of Paul’s day, such a way of being with other people must have really made an impression. It must have been clear that Paul and his companions weren’t in it for themselves, that they saw nothing to gain beyond glory for God. They became friends with the Thessalonians. The word isn’t used here but doesn’t that sound like a good definition of a friend? Now, you and I have something of an advantage over Paul and Silas in that we are already friends of the people we might invite. We don’t have to start from scratch in getting them to know and trust us, at least if we’ve been behaving with the same methods Paul employed. I hope in all your friendships that you care deeply and act honorably. And that will make the difference when you invite someone, for they will know that you are asking not because there is some benefit for you, some finders fee, so to speak, but because there is a benefit for them.
The final M is for motive, the reason Paul does what he does. He states it pretty clearly when he says, “Just as we have been entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.” They are making their appeal, and sharing themselves, and acting honorably not to be liked, not to be popular, but because they are responding to the trust God has placed in them. They don’t care how unpopular they may be in the world’s eyes, as long as they are acceptable in God’s eyes. How does our passage this morning conclude? “We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.” They spoke so that God’s word could be heard, rather than their own words. Paul doesn’t give thanks for his success at preaching the gospel, but for their success at hearing it correctly. I hope these are our motives as well, and I hope you are inviting people not because I told you not to, or simply because we still have a few empty seats left around here these days, or because you want to be the person who brings the most invitees next Sunday. You’ll have to search your own hearts for your own reasons, and Paul motives are good ones to guide that search. It’s not like we’ll turn away anyone you invite even if your motives are mixed. But it will be a little less likely that they will hear as clearly God’s words as our words.
I mentioned earlier that Paul was up against Cynics and Stoics and other religions, and that helped define his approach. That’s not our case, however. We don’t have Cynics and Stoics. We have skeptics and post-moderns. We don’t have a bunch of other religions to compete with so much as we have indifference to contend with. And so, while I think those three Ms of Paul’s time are still completely valid, let me briefly suggest three more Ms that might also serve us well in our own time. These are Mystery, Madness, and Mirth. By mystery, I mean recognizing that each of us encounters God in Christ in a unique way, and that there really is no “one size fits all” faith. This means that we need to give up our desire to have all the answers and instead lead people to encounter Christ on their own terms, at their own pace – not necessarily how we did, or how some formula suggests it should happen, but trusting that God is doing the leading and that it will come to fruition in God’s mysterious timing. Our job is just to get that process underway.
With all due respect to those suffering from mental illness, I think we need to show a little madness in our evangelism. I use the word madness to mean our passion for doing what God has called each of us to do, taking the life of faith seriously enough to risk ridicule. I am talking about the kind of madness the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, noted about us Christians: “Look at whom they worship. Look at this God whom they worship. How foolish and imbecilic to follow one who died, and then to claim that that death is victory! There is foolishness and there is foolishness. There is madness and there is madness, but to call death victory is the ultimate madness of all. This is a pathetic deity and he is followed by a pathetic people.” There is a certain group of people who look at our madness and see only what Nietzsche saw, but there are many others who long to become involved in our madness if only we would invite them. They long to have someone to stand alongside in battling injustice, or fighting poverty, or loving the unlovable, marks of madness we Christians bear. Yes, Mr. Nietzsche, there is madness and there is madness.
And let us not forget the power of mirth, the ability to take faith seriously without taking ourselves too seriously. There is power in laughter and sharing a meal and being silly together. There is power in joy. The great Roman Catholic theologian de Chardin once said, “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.” And I think it is a contagious sign, one that draws people to it, and then to the God who is behind it, the wonderfully creative, graceful God who calls us into the kingdom of mirth and glory.
Means, method, and motive. Mystery, madness, and mirth. These are more, of course, than ways of inviting people to church on a particular Sunday. They are ways of opening ourselves to God and living in the love of Jesus Christ that give witness to the power of God to do what we cannot do ourselves. You see, without God, our ends begin to justify our means, our methods become our madness, our motives become mysterious, and our mirth remains buried within us. None of those ways of being reflect our Creator’s love for us, or those we want to invite. “As you know,” Paul writes, “As you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.” Go forth in that courage of God to live and invite and share your good news. Amen.
Sunday, September 17, 2017
© Stacey Steck
As you leave here today, do not, under any circumstances, no way, no how, not ever, in a million years, under pain of death or threat of torture, never, and I mean never ever, tell anyone — not man, woman, child, dog, or stone — what has happened here today. Did I make myself clear? No matter what you experience today, no matter how miraculous, no matter how moving, you must tell no one about it. And on top of that, you can’t speak about it to anyone. And no pantomime either, no Pictionary, no charades, nada. It’s like it didn’t happen, got it? Good.
Now that I have simultaneously bound you to silence and instilled in you a burning desire to tell everyone you know about this secret you are supposed to keep, we can have a look at these two little stories in Mark, one about a woman whose words are so powerful that she causes Jesus, the Son of God, to back down and change his mind, and the other about a man who has no words at all, yet becomes a babbling brook and does what none of you are going to do when he tells everybody what happened. In these stories, Jesus is taking a little tour through some Gentile lands, trying to find some down time in his ever busy schedule. He is not as successful as he would like to be and finds himself on the losing end of a verbal sparring match with a persistent woman in search of relief for her demon-possessed child. After admitting that she has a good point, and healing her daughter, Jesus finds himself faced with someone who does not have the same ability to convince the Son of Man of the worthiness of his cause, a man who cannot hear and who has a speech impediment. Jesus has mercy on him, takes him aside, does some razzle dazzle, and, as it says, “immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” All the people are amazed and disobey Jesus’ command to remain silent, as I’m sure none of you will do, and Jesus’ fame grows.
Before we continue with this story, let me just say a few words about this command of silence. The passages in Mark in which Jesus tells people not to repeat what they have observed are often referred to as the so-called Messianic Secret. Jesus seems to be asking people to keep his Messiahhood from becoming too well known. Dedicated Biblical scholars over the centuries, not being able to find out exactly what either the Evangelist or Jesus had in mind, have advanced any number of theories about what this secret-keeping is all about. For those of you who would like to know the intricacies of these theories, I can refer you to any number of books or articles on the subject, but the shorthand for this morning’s episode of the Messianic secret is that it beautifully sets up the ever increasing crowds which play a role in upcoming stories in Mark, especially the very next one in which four thousand people are fed with the meager provisions of seven loaves and a few fish. If you don’t tell them, they will come. Keep that in mind.
For this morning, I would like to make a few observations about the second story, the one in which the deaf stutterer is restored to the full use of his linguistic faculties and encounters Jesus is a life changing way. Here is a man almost completely cut off from the world around him, and literally unable to hear the news about Jesus and the healing he can bring. Remember now that this is before more enlightened social policy, before the Americans with Disabilities Act, before Helen Keller, before recognition that a malady like deafness is not punishment for sin. There was no sign language, there were no special schools, nothing but silence and frustrating attempts to speak with a crooked tongue. This man has, however, something rather rare in those days for social outcasts such as himself. He has friends, people who did not ostracize him for his disability, but who cared enough for him that when they themselves heard something about this man Jesus, they summoned their courage and did the only thing they could do for their friend, that which he could not do for himself: they used their ears and their voices and responded for him, bringing him to Jesus and, as it says, “begging him to lay his hand on him.” These friends, these unnamed heroes, through their care for their friend, introduce him to Jesus and his life is never the same.
I think there could be a lesson for us in there somewhere, a lesson which should not be overlooked in light of our upcoming “Invite a Friend” Sunday on October 1. Like the deaf man’s friends, you have heard about this Jesus guy, you have experienced what he can do in your life and in the lives of people you know and admire. And just as the deaf man was physically unable to hear the word of God and physically unable to speak, and therefore beg Jesus the way the Syrophoenecian woman did, so too are all those who are physically unable to hear the Word of God because they are not in church on Sunday morning, or any other time of the week, and unable to ask God for help because they lack the vocabulary of faith that we have so wonderfully received. Two weeks from today, you have a wonderful opportunity to do precisely what the deaf man’s friends did: bring their friend that God might open his ears and his life to the message of God’s amazing grace. Start making your list.
The goal for Invite-a-Friend Sunday is to have two hundred people worship God together in this place. The closest we’ve come in the last two years was on Homecoming when we had 185. Now if we were to reach that goal, do you know what that would mean? First, it would mean that you disobeyed your pastor’s orders to not tell anyone about what God is doing in this place. But I guess I could live with that. But more importantly, it means that you will have done your part. You won’t have left it up to somebody else, because none of us have a spare hundred friends to invite, all of whom will show up. Those four thousand people who showed up in the very next story in Mark didn’t come because one person couldn’t keep the secret, but because none of the people who witnessed what Jesus did for that deaf man could keep it, and thank God they didn’t. If this place is full it means that you will have overcome your fear and trembling about outing yourself as a Christian. It will mean that you will have to put yourself on the line for what you believe in. It will mean that you will have to exhibit some of the holy boldness and audacity that the deaf man’s friends had when they brought him to Jesus because they loved him. It means you will have to take by the hand people who will be wary of a new place and a new experience, and gently guide them to a place where they can be touched by God and have their lives opened by God. You will be offering a gift waiting to be opened by people you know and love.
The last thing I want to say about this story relates to the idea of being opened to God. When Jesus looks up to heaven, sighs, and says “Ephphatha,” “Be opened,” you cannot help but get the sense that he means more than the man’s ear canals, that he is speaking about the man’s perception of God, and what God has done for him, and what God has in store for him, now that he will be able to hear. What has opened before this stuttering deaf man is the very kingdom of God, the very point Mark is trying to make by telling this story. “They were astounded,” it says, “beyond measure,” and the people who witnessed what had happened to the man recognized that Jesus was bringing what they knew God would bring, liberation to the captives, sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, a transformation of the world. This is why, no matter how much he ordered it, the people could not keep to themselves the stories of what they had seen take place.
So here’s the dirty little secret about Invite-a-Friend Sunday. It’s not about church growth. It’s not about numbers. It’s not even all about helping other people to be opened to the experience of God. You see, mostly it’s about helping those of us who are already here to be opened to the experience of God. Inviting people to church is one of those conversations that doesn’t come as naturally as many others, but not for lack of opportunity. Mostly, we keep that secret about Jesus to ourselves because we think that to tell it runs the risk of rejection, or conflict, or an awkward moment we’d rather not have with people we have to see every day at work or school. But those are risks we must take if we want to be more and more open to the God who has opened our ears and loosened out tongues. If inviting people to church came as naturally to us as it seems to have to those who saw the miracle that day, we’d be full every week, because who can’t use more good news? So it takes being opened to God to open our mouths to invite.
And so I want to challenge you with a question I’d like you to consider over the next few weeks or even months, and that question is this: How is God opening you and how are you responding to God saying, “Be opened”? How is God opening you and how are you responding to God saying, “Be opened”? What doors is God opening in your family, in your job, in your prayer life? How is your heart being opened to greater compassion and justice? How have you responded when God has said to you “Be opened”? Have you allowed yourself to be opened and to experience the very kingdom of God? These are the questions of faith, ones that need to be asked not just once, but all the time.
As we approach Invite-a-Friend Sunday on World Communion Sunday on October 1, may we all keep that Messianic secret as poorly as those who were “astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’ ” Amen.