Sunday sermon from November 3, 2013
Text: 2 Thessalonians 1:1-12 Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa
Good morning again. It is, in fact, good to be here. Many of you know that I was gone last Sunday as part of a week of continuing education, most of which was spent on retreat with a group other new Presbyterian pastors from around the mid-Atlantic, part of a denominational program called the Company of New Pastors. For a good chunk of this week I sat in conversation with a fairly intimate group of friends and colleagues and talked about the challenges and opportunities and hopes and joys of ministry, and the more I listened, and the more I talked, the more joyful and thankful I became for having been called here into the life of this particular congregation. I am so very thankful to be here, and it occurred to me that you all ought to know that, and if you hadn't heard it recently, that you all ought to be reminded. I am thankful for the chance to go away and be in study and be in contemplation and be in fellowship with the company of my peers, but I am even more thankful for the chance to return home, here.
And lest you think that it's not a pastor's job to butter up his or her congregation like that, I present to you Paul's second letter to the church in Thessalonica, the source of our texts for this morning and for the next few weeks. Like with most of Paul's letters, this letter is written to a church that Paul himself founded and a church that Paul himself knew. But unlike many of Paul's more famous letters, unlike his rebuke of the infighting amongst the church at Corinth or unlike the vitriol he directs towards the leaders of the Galatians congregations, the letters to the Thessalonian church are just overflowing with love and tenderness. These churches are his children, of course, but some days it feels like one of them's in juvie and one of them's a dropout and one of them's moved away and won't return his calls and then here's lovely, sweet, doting, tender, Thessalonica. "We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing." Sweet Thessalonica, the apple of her father's eye.
But easy, loving words don't make for an easy, loving season at the First Presbyterian Church of Thessalonica. Of course reading Paul's letters is often a bit like listening only to one side of a phone call, and it does require a bit of imaginative filling in of the blanks when we hear the next verse, when Paul writes that he "boast[s] of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring." It's hard to know exactly what the persecutions and afflictions are, but we can make some educated guesses. It's not easy to be a Christian in the first century in the eastern half of the Mediterranean. It meant proclaiming a Jewish Messiah who had rejected or reinterpreted most of the Jewish law. It meant proclaiming the Lordship of a simple carpenter even above and beyond the reach of Roman imperial power. These are not comfortable proclamations, and they were not always met with comfortable responses. Members of the Thessalonian church were likely ostracized, mocked, imprisoned, even killed for their beliefs, despite, according to Paul's boast, despite having done everything right: their faith is growing, they love one another, I mean, what else can you ask for in a congregation, and yet the results speak for themselves. Persecution. Affliction. One imagines them looking at their brothers and sisters and thinking Come On! In Corinth they can't even break bread together without coming to blows and we're the ones getting persecuted? Or look at the Galatians! They can't get the first thing right and their church is growing like wildfire. Say what you will about the theology, at least they get results! Of course we can't actually hear the other side of the conversation, but if we could, I think it would sound something like this. Paul. Dad. You know we're doing everything right, or at least the best we can. You said it yourself. But it keeps coming out wrong. What now?
It could be the cry of so many churches that we know and love. God, you know we're doing everything right - or, at least, we're doing the best we can. We're faithful. We love one another. But it keeps coming out wrong. It's the cry of so many churches: I mean, the pews are getting a bit less crowded. The numbers are getting a little too tight for comfort. None of us are getting any younger, and it feels like the world has passed us by. Depending on who you ask, Christendom is dead or the church is dying or the whole thing's been done for a while and we just don't know it yet. And yet we did the best we could. It is me, or is that cold comfort? We did the best we could. We were faithful. We loved one another. Is it me, or is that really the most galling part, really. I mean, how wonderful would it be if in fact we had a obvious list of big church sins, an obvious list of things we had done wrong that had turned history against us or turned people against us or turned God against us. How wonderful would it be if we instead were the First Church of Corinth or Galatia Presbyterian and, sure, we'd've had some problems in the past, but nothing we can't work on, nothing we can't get better at, nothing we can't get our minds around. When we talk about fixing the church these days it almost sounds like we all go to the First Church of Corinth or Galatia Presbyterian, where the problems are obvious, the solutions practical, and the results guaranteed. Here's what we're reading at the First Church of Corinth: How to Build Youth Ministry that Lasts. How to Grow a High-Impact Church. How to be a Disciple Who Makes Disciples. All of them real books doing very well on Amazon. And of course we want to build lasting youth ministry and high-impact discipleship. But what if being church is more complicated than a how-to manual? What if being church is more difficult than a flowchart and an instructional video? What if instead of sitting in the pews of Galatia Pres, where they have obvious problems with cheap solutions and guaranteed results we are sitting here this morning in the First Presbyterian Church of Thessalonica, where we've done the best we could, faithfully, with love, and still, it keeps coming up short? What now?
For many years of my life this season of the year has been apple pie season. Now, I do love to eat good apple pie, but that's not the point of apple pie season. The point is that this is the season of the year when, for about a decade now, I have tried again and again and again to bake an apple pie like the apple pie in my dreams. I began somewhere in the "American Fruit Desserts" section of The Joy of Cooking. I taught myself to make a crust: first, in the traditional way, cutting cold butter into the dough by hand, and then, later, using frozen butter and the food processor to much the same effect. But over ten years I've rolled, chilled, cut, shaped, formed, repaired, rejected, rehabilitated, and thrown out more pie dough than the casual kitchen chef has any business having produced in the first place. I've come home with apples of almost every variety. Some days I cook them first. Some days I put them in raw. Some days I left them sit in the sugar and the lemon just to soften up a bit. Some days I mix them with just the butter and the sugar, some days with the allspice, or the cinnamon, or the ginger. I've set the oven rack on the bottom. I've set the oven rack on the top. I've preheated at 350, 425, 500, and most of the temperatures in-between. I've coated, sprayed, and brushed that crust with every combination of oil, sugar, butter, egg, and spice you can name. And I would love to tell you. You have no idea how much I would love to tell you that in ten years of systematic exploration of the question of how to make the apple pie of my dreams, that I have narrowed it down to a science. That after all of this there is some preferred method for getting to that vision that I hold somewhere in-between my heart and my stomach. But the truth is that I haven't got a clue how to make that pie, because every time I do it, because every time I do it even the same way, every time it comes out totally different.
The apples set, or, more often, they don't. The juice runs, or it doesn't. The crust is flaky, or it's not. The apples bake through, or they don't. It looks like a pie, or it doesn't. And they're all good. (I mean, most of them are good.) Some of them are very good. But there's no consistency. Just because I made a good pie last week doesn't mean a thing about the week to come. It's like there's no correlation between all the stuff that I do before that pie goes in the oven and what actually comes out. It's like, you put a bit of ginger in - no big deal - and so the crust explodes. Or you put a little egg white on top and the apples don't set. These are things that should have no scientific relationship to one another but the results speak for themselves, except that in this case what the results are saying is totally unintelligible. At this point I am willing to believe that, after I put a pie in the oven and shut the door, that the magic goblins who live in my walls open up the back of the oven and swap my pie with a random selection from their inventory of unhappy, imperfect pies just to play tricks on me. And the most spiteful consequence of it is not that we are spending our autumns eating imperfect pies. The most spiteful consequence is that I have done this thing over and over, faithfully, and with love, and I am losing my confidence in the promise of results.
Or maybe that's a good thing. Maybe the promise of results just gets us in trouble. Maybe the gift of spending a sunday at the First Presbyterian Church of Thessalonica is that we get to realize with some humility that we are not the only chefs in the kitchen. It's the loving reminder Paul gives even to his most favorite child, here at the end of our text: we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith. To fulfill by God's power every work of faith. Which is to say, as Paul says, that we are called to live by faith, but that faith alone is no guarantee of results. According to Paul's vision, in which the history of human lives and the history of the church are always more about God's work than ours, more about God's actions than ours, the only guarantee of results in this world is the power of God itself. The Thessalonians are asking "how do we build the church of our dreams and expectations?," and Paul has to remind them that they're asking the wrong question. There are no how-to guides for Christian discipleship, because we're not called as servants of the results. We're not called to be customers of a market-savvy, metrics-driven, results-based package of Christian witness in which we might so easily forget who it is that actually gets anything done around here. We're not called to ask how we should build a high-impact church or how we should build youth ministry that lasts without first asking what the free-roaming, free-ranging, free-thinking power of God is doing in this place. No, friends, we are called as servants of the living God, and so we serve faithfully. We serve with love. We roll out the dough the best we can. We fill it with the best fruit we can find. We crimp the edges with as delicate a touch as we can muster. We lay it in the oven with gentle care. We do it over and over and over, because persistence is the thing, and it is only the power of God that will fulfill our every good resolve and work of faith.
Next Sunday here in this congregation is out stewardship dedication Sunday. In just a minute Janice Augustine will say a bit more about how this season works and what you should expect. But before she comes up here, I want to lay a bit of a foundation. It is tempting to look at a church budget, or to think about giving to a church, as an act of getting results. In fact this is why everybody loves a special offering: the church needs new carpet, so we take up a collection, or the church needs new signage, so we take up a collection, and there, lo and behold, we have new carpet, or we have new signage, and it was as easy as that. Nobody likes to give money without seeing the results. But this life of Christian stewardship isn't really about results. Not really. Sure, of course, we all have in our heads, myself included, a vision of the church of our dreams, and we'd love nothing more than to open our checkbook in the promise of the realization of that dream. We'd love nothing more than to walk up to the counter and ask the salesman, "How much for that amazing, vibrant church in the window?" and walk out proud owners of the church of our dreams. But we don't own this church. We don't even own the vision. God is in this mix, taking our best ingredients, taking our worst ingredients, taking whatever we give and transforming and reforming and reshaping and rebuilding and fulfilling our every work of faith into something larger than we can imagine. If that sound scary, it should, because we don't always know what we're going to get. But if that sounds hopeful, it should, because we are in the hands of the living God, the hands of one who has been faithful unto us, the hands of one who has loved us, from the foundations of the earth.
A friend of mine was preaching regularly as a seminary intern at a small church. And every one of his preaching Sundays he would show up and say to the pastor there, "Well, I'm not sure about this one," or "I'm not sure this one's going to work" or "I think the last one was better" or "Next month I'll make sure it's a good one, but apparently not today." But the pastor would just ask, "Who's to say whether it's good? Is it faithful?" Is it faithful? She knew, as Paul knew, that all we can do is roll the crust the best we can. All we can do is set the fruit the best we can. All we can do is be faithful. So this week, as you think on your stewardship of this congregation and God's vision in this place, as you think of all the years that have gone before and all the dreams we have yet before us, as you think on what it means for you to offer of yourselves and your resources to the realization of that dream, as you work your way towards a number and write it on that card, you may wonder whether it is enough. You may wonder whether it will work, or whether it will suffice, or whether you can do more next year or whether last year was better or whether it really will be good enough. But remember this: we know too little of what God will do with our gifts to lead our lives based on the results. The question of Christian life is never "is it good enough?" or "will it work?" The question is only this: is it faithful?
Is it faithful?
Is it faithful?