Left-Handed Living

The saints at the Crafton Heights U.P. Church are continuing to study Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica as we seek to understand how the earliest Christians responded to the news of Jesus’ resurrection.  The text for April 14 was I Thessalonians 2:1-16. One of the key components of our worship was teh Children’s Sermon, which included viewing a rendition of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. You can view that link below.

This is not a news flash to anyone who has known me for more than fifteen minutes, but I love children.  Just about the best part of any day for me is when I have special time with a young person.

One day I was caring for a child and as a part of the day’s activities, I read her The Giving Tree.  At the close of our day together, when I reported to mom all the things we’d done, she scolded me when she heard about my literary selection.  The woman said, “I appreciate your willingness to care for and your love for my daughter, but I would be grateful if, from here on, you would not teach her to sacrifice herself or that it’s ok to bend herself to the whim of every other person who walks past.  If you teach my daughter anything, Dave, I would appreciate it if you would tell her to stand up for herself, to be proud, to change the world on her own terms.  Do not, please, teach her how to be a self-emptying, self-denying passive person.”

Wow.  To say “I didn’t see that coming” would be an understatement.  I was totally caught off guard by that comment – I’d never read that book that way at all.  I had (and have) always seen it as a story of love that gives itself in gentleness and tenderness.  I have seen the tree as Christ-like in her willingness to care for and shelter the beloved, even at cost to herself.

Paul Preaching to the GentilesMural in St. Paul’s Church, Tranquillity, CA (20th c.)

Paul Preaching to the Gentiles   Mural in St. Paul’s Church, Tranquillity, CA (20th c.)

I thought of that story this week as I continued our study of I Thessalonians.  In chapter 2, Paul reminds his friends about the way that they met – how he had come to them after being ridden out of town on a rail by the citizens of Philippi.  In spite of the beating and the jailing that Paul and his companions had received in that northern city, they were given the courage to speak the truth of God to the people of Thessalonica.

Did you notice how Paul rehearsed the story of their relationship?  He begins with a series of disarming statements – he lays out everything that was not happening when he arrived in Thessalonica to preach the Gospel.  He did not tell stories; there were no lies.  He and his colleagues were not there in order to be liked or to win the admiration of the locals, and he did not seek personal financial profit from the deal.  There were no demands from Paul or the others.

After explicitly stating the list of things that never occurred, Paul then goes on to say what did happen.

First, the team worked night and day. When they weren’t preaching or teaching, they were earning their own living so as not to further impoverish the people of Thessalonica.  And whereas in ancient times it was perfectly acceptable for a philosopher to charge his students a fee for the enlightenment he offered, Paul goes to great lengths to say that he and Timothy and Sylvanus gave the truth away to the people they met.  They treated the folks in Thessalonica right, and they gave not only the truth of the Gospel, but themselves.

That’s what they did.  Did you notice how they did it?  This chapter is soaked through with the language of relationships.  Last week I mentioned the frequency with which Paul referred to the Thessalonians as “brothers” (or “brothers and sisters”).  Perhaps you noticed that he used that expression three times in this reading.  But it’s more than that.  In verse 7, he says that he and his colleagues were “gentle”.  If you look at the footnotes in your bible, you’ll see that the oldest versions of the text indicate that the word Paul used was “infants”.  In the original Greek, there’s only one letter differentiating the word for “infant” from the word for “gentle”.

I prefer the older reading, and I prefer it because it fits in with the progression that Paul is establishing.  First, he says that they came to Thessalonica as “babes in the woods” – that is, as helpless, dependent, and inoffensive people.  Next, he says that they were as devoted as a nurse caring for her own children.  In Paul’s day, it was not uncommon for a parent to hire a woman to serve as a wet nurse for an infant.  And while there is, of course, a certain bond that exists between a woman and the child whom she nurses, the connection is far deeper, and far more intimate, between the woman and her own flesh and blood.

Then Paul interrupts himself to call them his brothers and sisters, and indicates that he behaved like a father to them – calling, nurturing, caring, and guiding the Thessalonians.  Later in this chapter, in verse 17, he indicates that when he was compelled to be absent from the Thessalonian Christians, he felt like an orphan.

Do you see the depth of relationship that he is trying to describe here?  Paul says that his connection with the believers in Thessalonica was intimate.  I want to explore this further by noting that all of these relationships are relationships which have some power component – but we need to see that in every case, that power is a power that is yielded, rather than seized.

An infant is powerless before its parents – totally dependent.  And while a nursing mother has power over her child, in this context, the mom is seen as giving up her self – giving her sleep, her calories, her substance – for her child.  The imagery of the father that Paul employs is that of one who urges and encourages and pleads.  This is not some “king of the castle” who comes in and lays down the law.

Martin Luther, one of the great teachers of the church, made a helpful distinction between “right-handed power” and “left-handed power”.  Right-handed power relies on enforcement of rules and imposition of one’s will.  The police officer who stops you from speeding, the fork you use to eat your spaghetti, the mother who drags her toddler by the hand across the busy street – these are all fine examples of the ways that straight-line, direct power is useful in allowing us to get things done in the world.

But right-handed power can never inspire or redeem or create.  At best, it limits injustice or abuse; at worst, it destroys.  When we want to respect, nurture, strengthen, and encourage, we need left-handed power.  When we want to inspire and motivate and love, we need power that gives itself.  Power that is made known in forgiving or in suffering.  Martin Luther King Jr. referenced this kind of power when he said to his tormentors, “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you…”[1]  Dr. King knew, and Martin Luther knew, and Paul knew, that the cross of Jesus Christ is the left hand of God’s power – and Paul wants to make sure that the people of Thessalonica know that he is unwilling to act as a typical religious leader and impose his will on them – he is among them as one who serves, who suffers, who gives, and who shares.[2]

A mural in Berea depicting Paul's preaching.  Note the diverse nature of his audience: a Jew, a Greek scholar, a woman, a slave, a sick man.

A mural in Berea depicting Paul’s preaching. Note the diverse nature of his audience: a Jew, a Greek scholar, a woman, a slave, a sick man.

What did Paul do?  He lived among the people of Thessalonica, working hard to impart the truth of Christ’s reconciling love.  How did he do it? By modeling that love in the midst of relationships based on vulnerability and trust.  And now, WHY did he do it? So that the people who God loved in Thessalonica would know the life-changing love of God in Christ, that they might be strengthened to make better choices in their own lives, and that they might become imitators of that love and grace in the lives of others.

Ask yourself, now: what are the implications of that kind of life, of those kinds of relationship, of that kind of reconciliation, for the 21st century?

Can we not see here that a significant part of what it means to live as a Christ-follower in 2013 is that we are called to be gentle and to be flexible and to be yielding and to be generous?

What would our families, our church, our community, and our city look like if we all adopted this manner of living – if we faced each other in humility and gentleness; if we sought to listen to, encourage, and forgive each other?

I’m pretty sure that there would be less talk radio.  Facebook would look different.  Sales of games like Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed, and Grand Theft Auto would probably drop.  I think that we’d find the world to be a safer, less violent place.

And right now, I know that there are dozens of voices screaming in dozens of heads, “I can’t take this any more!  What a load of naïve, idealistic, simplistic hooey!”

Years ago I was accosted by a neighbor who knew that I was a follower of Jesus.  She came up to me and poked me in the chest and said, “I know you think that you’re a good person because you’re Christian.  You probably know that I think you’re foolish.  Do you know why?  I’ll tell you why.  What’s the main message of the New Testament?”  I stammered out something about loving God and loving our neighbor and she jabbed me again and said, “You are wrong.  The entire New Testament teaches one thing: if you are a good person, if you go around loving your neighbor and forgiving your enemies and giving yourself to others, well, then, don’t be surprised when they crucify you.”

And she is right, of course.  Jesus, Paul, and all of the Christ-followers in the New Testament put themselves, with great regularity, in positions where other people could pound on them with seeming importunity.

Yet they also used the moral authority that their suffering gave to them as a means of inviting and calling others to walk more closely with God.

Listen to me: Pastor Dave is not telling you that if your life is miserable, you are supposed to roll over and take it.

If you are in a relationship where a man is laying his hands on you, God does not want you to let him go on beating you.

If your girlfriend or your daughter is using all your money to buy drugs, God does not want you to go out and get a second job so that there’s more money in the house.

If your son has wrecked three of your cars, God does not want you to feel guilty about giving that boy a bus pass.

Paul, and God through Paul, is inviting us to join him in urging and encouraging and pleading with others so that they will live a life worthy of God, who is calling them into his Kingdom (v. 12, my paraphrase).

I am saying that our calling is to show and live the grace of Jesus Christ, and that can mean that sometimes we place ourselves in positions where we can and will get hurt.  But you need to know that God is not calling you to live in a place where your humanity, your personhood is threatened by someone else, and where you are constantly used or misused as an object by someone else.  To put it another way, God wants you to live in relationships where you are free to give of yourself, not in bondage where other people are chiseling away at who you are.

So if I babysit your kids, I may read them The Giving Tree.  Because I love that story and even more, I love the story behind that story.  I love it the way that Shel Silverstein tells it, the way that Paul told it, the way that Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Nelson Mandela told it.  And I love it the way that I have heard it through my wife, and through my friends who have loved me when I have been at my worst; through so many in this community, and in the church here, and in the church in Malawi.

We have been blessed with an unconditional, generous, reconciling love.  What else can I do but seek to live that way in return?  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] A Christmas Sermon for Peace on Dec 24, 1967

[2] For a more thorough exploration of this, I heartily recommend Robert Capon’s The Parables of the Kingdom, which devotes an entire section to the paradox of power in the life of Christ.

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