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Season of Pentecost week 18, Common Lectionary year A

Action Figures and Building Blocks
(1 Thessalonians 1:2-10)

Audio version

by Rev. Elisabeth R. Jones

For many the days of letter writing are long gone.
Email, twitter, facebook and text messaging have become the
written media of choice for many, but with this transition we have witnessed the demise of the etiquette of the letter which began with a greeting, followed by a sentence or two of “How are you, I hope this letter finds you well.”
“My dearest Sarah” is replaced now with “Hi”
and I confess that too often these days, in my emails I skip the greeting entirely in my rush to get to the point.

So I’m trying not to feel a bit shamed then by this extensive greeting from Paul to the brand-new baby church in Thessalonika.

“To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, Grace and peace to you….” followed by seven more verses of greetings the equivalent of “I hope this letter finds you well.”

So let me begin this sermon again, “To the communinity of faith of Cedar Park United Church, the ones who seek to keep the message and teachings and example of Jesus relevant and real in the complex context of the West Island of Montreal, grace and peace to you.”

That’s quite the greeting, and it’s one I mean, every syllable of. I should use it more often.

You know, I want to cut myself a bit of slack though. This week has been a full one…. not a whole lot of time to sit down and write, not like Paul when he wrote his letter to Thessalonika.
He was cooling his heels in a prison cell in Athens.
Twenty-three hours per day of uninterrupted time to think, to read, to pray, to write.
No wonder he fills a whole page with a greeting….  he has all the time in the world! 1
Now, I imagine that when the congregation of Thessalonika received this letter, and it was read out loud to them at one of their fellowship and worship gathering, they were wondering  “If the greeting is this long, how long is the rest of the letter going to be?
The cynical among them may have been muttering under their breath, “What’s he buttering us up for? All this warm fuzzy is bound to be leading up to a big “HOWEVER…..”
So they’re listening…. waiting for the penny to drop, the point to be made.
“Yeah, yeah, you like us, you miss us, you give thanks for us (that’s what ministers are supposed to do…)
you pray for us (that too, glad you do), now what are you writing to us for….”

Well the rest of the letter carries on, and on, in this vein… gratitude trips over joy, enthusiasm is grounded in sincere affection… verse after verse…
Now, to be sure, four of five chapters later he does have a couple of theological points to make, but we get to his  final greeting..
“My beloved sisters and brothers, pray for me, as I pray for you.
Keep one another close in fellowship and faith and love,
and the grace of Jesus Christ be with you abundantly.”

What  was  the point? Of the greeting, of the letter.

We are going to have to go back to the greeting again,
read it more slowly, treat it not as the rarely read foreword or preface that we skip when reading a novel, but as the point, the content, of the letter.

“We give thanks to God for you…..
we pray for you…. constantly remembering
your work of faith,
your labour of love
and your persistence in hope, no matter what.

Did you notice them?
No, I didn’t the many times I’ve read this letter, until now,
with this slow reading, and now I trip up on them, like three building blocks left on the playroom floor.
Faith, Love, Hope.

These are the BIG THREE!!
Well, they are by the time we reach the Corinthian letters Paul writes, but this little letter to the baby-church in out of the way Thessalonika, here’s where we see Paul bring them together for the first time.
Faith, Love, Hope.

Here in this letter though they are not ‘abstractions’ or concepts, they have verbs attached to them making them more like “action figures” works of faith, your labour of love, your persistent hope.

I  imagine Paul, cooped up in prison, niggled by rats,  gnawed at by hunger, deprived of fresh air or sunlight,
easy prey to negativity, to despair, scribbling in the dust all the ‘To Dos’ left undone in his grand vision of a building communities to change the world with the power of the Gospel.
I imagine him praying one of the psalms of his childhood, the ones that  say “When I was in the pit, I remembered your works, O God, and I was thankful.”

Then, like  a sunburst his memory recalls the Macedonian town, the motley collection of ordinary folk, men, women, children, young, old, slave, free, Roman, Jew, Greek,
and their works of faith, their labours of love, and their persistent hope.
They had listened to his message of Jesus,
God’s love made flesh,
God’s hope in human form.
And they had listened.
And they had taken his words and swooped them up, put bright red capes on them and burst onto the world with them, like action figures do, healing the broken, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, facing ridicule and worse, while busy building the justice of Jesus in the world with their own flesh and bones.

And his imprisoned heart was set free into gratitude,
and into this feat of letter writing.
This Thessalonian community taught Paul what the Gospel looks like when it captivates the human community with its gifts  of faith, love and hope.
He saw the same building blocks and action figures time and again in Philippi, Colossae, Ephesus, and Corinth – anchoring and animating every new community of disciples that he formed, and every church that has been planted and grown by the power of the Spirit and in the name of Jesus ever since.

I hope by now, you have heard the holy feedback (!)
of yourselves in these words of greeting and thanks giving
from Paul the prisoner, through my mouth, to your ears and hearts.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,  the church of Cedar Park, grace and peace to you too.
Although I am in no prison, I give thanks for you, remembering before God in my prayers, with great joy, with awe, with deep thankfulness
your work of faith,
your labour of love,
your persistent hope.

As it was then, it is now, here in this place.
I have been here among you as minister now for two months and one week.
And I am daily astounded by the myriad works of faith in action, the unsung labours of love, and persistent in hope you display in so many ways to declare in action that who you are and what you do to keep Jesus’ message, his life, his death-defying legacy relevant and real in this complex world, really matters.

I find Paul’s words reshaped on my own lips when I think of you:
I, too, thank God, because what I witness here is not ordinary work; this is human heart and mind and will and soul, and faith and love and hope transformed by the power of God’s Spirit to make this world better than it would have been without us.

If I were to begin to name some of the ways in which I
have seen your work done in faith, your labours of love,
and your persistence in hope in action, I would, like Paul, try your patience, and cause your lunch hour plans to be for nought!

And so instead, I’m asking each one of you, whether you were raised in this church from the cradle, whether you’re weeks  or months new among us (like me), or somewhere in between.
Take this next moment, to think of a labour of love done here, a work of faith in action, an example of someone’s dedicated persistence in hope.
One is enough, but perhaps your list will be longer…………..
(Now, this is close as we come in the UCC to an altar call)
Now, if you’re willing, call out that work of faith, labour of love, persistence of hope, aloud, and let us let this building ring with the testimony to God’s work among us, building us up into a church that makes a difference……
(hopefully there’s a lot of noise!)
To  you, the saints of Cedar Park, I give God thanks for you!
I am blessed to minister among you.

1 For more on Paul’s likely methods of writing, see Ernest Richards Paul and First Century Letter Writing IVP 2004.

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