Mind Your P’s and Q’s

On May 26, 2013, we finished our exploration of the first letter of Paul to the believers in Thessalonica.  Our scripture readings were Matthew 7:9-12 and I Thessalonians 5:12-28.  

It was just after Easter when I said that we were going to spend some time taking a look at the oldest part of our New Testament: Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica.  We have spent two months walking through this little note that was penned in the middle of the first century, and we have seen some great spiritual truths:

–       our faith in the risen Savior enables us to stand firm in times of trouble or persecution

–       God’s call to us is rooted in unconditional, reconciling love

–       It is vitally important for each of us to have true friends to invest in as we share this journey of life

–       Every one of us exists in the community of body, mind, and spirit, and we are called to live this life centered in gratitude

–       Jesus has promised to come back, and because we know that, we can know that the world has a purpose and history is moving towards a goal.

Today, we consider the “so what” part of the letter.  If all of these great things are true, what does that matter to us?  What should we do?  Here at the end of the letter, Paul makes his “ask” – he gets to the part of the message where he says, “OK, look.  Here’s how to live out what I’m telling you…”  And he begins with something intensely practical:

12 Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. 13 Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.

Paul has spoken glowingly about the call of the community to live in fellowship with each other – about how the presence and call of Jesus brings us into new relationships with each other as brother and sister.  Recognizing that, he says, there is something important about valuing and appreciating the role that good leadership plays in the body of Christ.  It is important to recognize that at the time of this writing, there were no such things as official church officers – just men and women who were striving to be faithful to God by sharing the gifts they’d been given.  Here, Paul invites the larger community to simply appreciate the sacrifices that are made daily and quietly.

And we can do that, can’t we?  We can thank the people who serve this community by counting the money and writing the checks, who practice the music and who plan the activities that make us better able to function as a congregation.

Next, Paul brings out one more time his concern that the church pay attention to the people who are on the edges of this newly-forming community:

14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15 Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.

Don’t you love that?  Look at the people that Paul includes amongst the marginalized: the cranky, the faint-hearted, and the weak.  He knows that there are people in the community who have been lazy and complaining – it’s the church, after all!  We know that we can all be like that at times!  And the Apostle says, “do your best to help them see where they’ve fallen short and help them re-engage in ways that are positive.”

There’s a word that I’d like to highlight here.  It’s translated as “everyone”.  After imploring his friends to be especially diligent about caring for the people on the margins, Paul says to be patient with everyone…to do good, not just to each other, but to everyone.  The word for everyone, παντας, is a common word that reminds us that the intentions of God extend to all that we meet, not merely those whom we like.  These verses remind us of the portion of Matthew that contain what we call “the Golden Rule” – to treat others the way that we’d like to be treated. This kind of instruction points us towards the world with a posture of humility and grace.

“But Paul”, we might say, “How does that look?  What does it mean to say ‘be patient’ or ‘do good’?”

Now, if my mother was writing this letter to the church in Thessalonica, she might be tempted to tell them that this looks like “minding your p’s and q’s.”  I say that because among the mystifying comments I heard growing up was an exhortation, usually with a finger wagging, to “Listen here, young man, and listen well: you had better mind your p’s and q’s.”

What does that even mean?  And why would anyone say it to a seven year old?  Later in life, I learned that some folks say that expression came from 18th-century London, where bartenders wanted to make sure that they charged people the appropriate amount for the pints or quarts of beer they consumed.  Others suggest that it has more to do with 17th-century print-setters, who sometimes reversed the p’s and the q’s when they were setting up a line of type.  All I know is that my mother might as well have been speaking Greek to my elementary-school self by telling me to “mind my P’s and Q’s.”

But I thought of that when I looked at this passage from Thessalonians, because verses 16-22 contain a string of imperatives. Just like the word for “all” or “everyone”, παντας, each of these commands contain, and usually start with, the “P” sound.  Listen:

16 Rejoice always (παντοτε),

17 pray continually (προσευχεσθε),

18 give thanks in all (παντι) circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

19 Do not quench the Spirit (πνευμα).

20 Do not treat prophecies (προφητειας) with contempt

21 but test them all (παντα); hold on to what is good,

22 reject every kind (παντος) of evil.

I think that Paul is trying to help his community of friends remember and hold onto the fact that our lofty ideas about faith and resurrection and hope and joy are more than simply ideas – that when they are taken seriously they lead to a deep appreciation for and commitment to specific behavior that will promote the health and healing of the entire Body.   These are simple practices in which we can engage that will lead us to health: rejoice! Pray! Give thanks! Look for the Spirit! Pay attention! Turn from evil!

The point is that there are behaviors that faith drives us towards: our beliefs have to have “legs” to them: either they make us more Christ-like, more humble, more Spirit-filled every day, no matter who we’re with OR they are meaningless.  If are not able to point to ways that we treat others better because our theology teaches us to do so, then our theology isn’t worth much.

The “so what” of 1 Thessalonians is that we are called to follow Jesus not just in mind or in heart, but in action.  Here in his first letter, Paul is very concerned that we have the proper theology.  Great.  But he wants to make equally sure that our lives reflect that truth on a very mundane level.  Life in Thessalonica ought to be better, Paul says, because there is a church there.  It ought to be better not only for the church, but for everyone else, too.

Paul then closes his letter with what will become his traditional style: he offers a prayer for the recipients, encourages them to greet each other and to reflect on his comments together, and gives them a blessing.

23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.

25 Brothers and sisters, pray for us. 26 Greet all God’s people with a holy kiss. 27 I charge you before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers and sisters.

28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.

I want to underscore what is said in verse 27, wherein he charges the church to make sure that his letter is read in public. We live in a time and place where each one of us has the opportunity to think that communication is a private and personal affair.  If I want to say something, I have the option to “tweet” it to my mass of followers, or post it online; I also have the option to send you a private message or a text.  To be sure, there are times when conversations need to be personal and privileged; however, when it comes to important matters of faith and practice, we need to work these things out together.  As we talk with each other about the things that matter, the best ways to practice the faith in this particular context and this particular time will emerge.  Paul says to the church in Thessalonica, “Don’t simply tell people that I wrote…tell them what I said.  Let them sort things out.  Let them seek God’s wisdom for their lives.”

That’s the “so what” to the Thessalonians.  What’s the “so what” to Crafton Heights? What would it mean if we were to mind our own P’s and Q’s?

Well, we’ve had a start: we’ve read this stuff out loud, and at least one of us has had something to say about it.

There’s a prayer page in your bulletin.  It’s got the names of some cranky, some faint-hearted, and some weak on it.  How will we relate to them in the days to come?

What about the people with whom we are tempted to disagree?  Will we treat them with kindness, respect, and patience?

How will we treat the children or the elderly amongst us?  As we seek to “treat others the way that we would wish to be treated”, can we take a look around at who is not here this morning?  Can we regard our neighbors as worthy of our care?

If we can spend some time centered in these questions, beloved, then we can say that we have not only heard, but listened to the Word of the Lord.  And that, my friends, would not only make Paul proud, it should make our fellowship healthier and our neighborhood better.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Here He Comes

Here in Crafton Heights, we’re spending the weeks after Easter reading through Paul’s letter to the little church in Thessalonica.  Our hope is that this, the first record of a community’s lived response to the resurrection, will help us grow in our ability to respond faithfully.  Our scriptures were I Thesssalonians 4:13-5:11 and Acts 1:1-11.

So, have you sent your cards out yet?  Gotten the shopping all done?  I know, there’s so much to plan for, so much to do.  And Thursday is just around the corner!

The Ascension of Christ, Benvenuto Tisi (Italian, 1481-1559)

The Ascension of Christ, Benvenuto Tisi (Italian, 1481-1559)

Thursday.  May 9.  You know what I’m talking about, don’t you?  It’s Ascension Day.  It comes every year, 40 days after Easter.  I can’t believe…you…you…you didn’t forget my card, did you?

OK, I’m making light of the fact that of all of the days in the Christian Year, Ascension isn’t the one that springs to mind as the one with the biggest party.  But it is an important day nevertheless.

On May 9, we will commemorate the fact that Jesus rose into heaven 40 days after he rose from the dead.  You heard that part of the story described in the reading from Acts.  More than whatever historical significance it may have, however, is the theological importance of this day.

On Ascension Day, we remember that the God who came to us at Christmas is the God who returned to heaven after the resurrection.  Or it might be more accurate to say that on Christmas, we celebrate the fact that God, in Christ, became human. And on Ascension Day, we are reminded that Jesus of Nazareth, the man who embodied the fullness of the Divine, re-entered eternity and the heavenly realms.

If you were with the disciples, watching Jesus being taken up into heaven, I have a hunch that at least two questions might spring to your mind.  A broad, general question, might be, “What next?”  A more specific enquiry might be, “What about us?  We’ve left everything, we’re here to build this kingdom…and what should we do now?”

The disciple’s experience was essentially this: Jesus came and called them.  He talked to them about the Kingdom, and right away, they said, “You’re gonna overthrow the Romans?  Awesome!  I’m in!  You can count on me, Lord.”

And Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world.”

The disciples replied, “OK, we can work with that.  It’s bigger and better, right?”

Jesus’ answer was essentially, “You have no idea.  You cannot imagine how big it is.”

They watch him die.  They meet him after his resurrection.  They see him rise to heaven, where the message is, “I’ll be right back.”

“Great!”, they say.  “We’ll be here.”

OK, here’s a little tip: let’s say that we arrange to meet down at Hanlon’s for lunch.  If I get a text from you saying, “I’ll be there…” and you show up, say, ten minutes late – we have no problem at all.  If you get there thirty minutes later, well, I’m gonna be a little torqued, to be honest.  And if you don’t show up for two thousand years?  Yeah, we’re going to have issues.

The Ascension, the Jesus MAFA Project (Biblical art from the people of Africa’s Sahel region).  More information at http://www.jesusmafa.com/?lang=en

The Ascension, the Jesus MAFA Project (Biblical art from the people of Africa’s Sahel region). More information at http://www.jesusmafa.com/?lang=en

But that’s what’s been happening to the first generation of Christians. They believed in Jesus.  More than that, they were totally sold out to him.  They’d given up everything to stand behind him.  And he died.  That’s terrible!  But he was raised.  That’s amazing.  And he left, saying that he’d be back.  That is whatever superlative is higher than amazing.

Except now, two decades later, he hasn’t come back. My family is changing.  The old ones who remember him are dead, and the younger ones have never met him.  My friends – people who have been hoping to see him again – are dying.  These people looked to the promise.  They believed in this “kingdom” business and gave it all they had.  Where do they stand now?  How am I to live with the fact that they died, and I may be next?

Paul says that there is good news.  The first part of that is that these friends who have gone on before us – they are “asleep”.  That’s the word he uses.  Jesus died (apethenon), but we will fall asleep (koimithentas).

Think about that for just a moment.  What is sleep?  Isn’t sleep a surrender to the things that are beyond my control?  Isn’t it a sort of a mini-death – an experience that is as close to death as we’ll know before we actually die ourselves?

Every night, at some point, I give myself over into the darkness.  I lose myself and have no idea that anything is occurring at all, only to awaken and discover that the world has continued to turn in my absence.  I turn on the television and discover that the stock market in Asia has plummeted, for instance, or that the Pirates won on the West Coast.   When I sleep, I acknowledge that the world goes on without me.

Paul says that we can experience death as a kind of sleep.  Our absence from Jesus and from a relationship with him or with others is as temporary, as reversible, and perhaps as restorative as is sleep.  Don’t worry about the friends who have died, he says.  They’re sleeping.  They’ll be back, too.  And he ends chapter four with a word of hope: “therefore, Comfort one another with these words.”

Great!  I love good news.  I want to be comforted.

But we don’t get to rest in this comfort very long before it’s all blown out of the water. We’ve got trumpets sounding and angels and archangels descending…dead people rising, Jesus coming like a thief in the night…people crying out as if in childbirth… I don’t know about you, but that’s not very comforting.

thief01One of the worst things I ever did as a young man was watch A Thief In The Night.  This is the story of Patty Jo Myers, who thinks of herself as a Christian, but suddenly encounters a world gone crazy.  Her husband and Christian friends have all disappeared and there’s a massive world government building up and people have to have the “mark of the beast” tattooed on their bodies…It turns out that Jesus has taken all of his real friends to heaven and the others are left behind with the antichrist.  If you’re too young for that, maybe you know something of the Left Behind series of books and movies.  If you don’t know that, then think of I Am Legend or Outbreak  or The Day After Tomorrow or Fail-Safe…Just about every “end of the world” story that you know is written in one way or another to scare the living daylights out of you.

lbcollection_lgThe implication that I get from so many of the Christian “end times” movies is, “You better believe that Jesus is coming back, and let me tell you, he is ticked off!” 

Look at what Paul is saying here.  He doesn’t know how Jesus is coming back, and he doesn’t know when.  How could he?  But he knows what is going to happen: Jesus will establish his reign and rule for eternity.  And he knows why it is going to happen: because “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation”.  And most importantly, Paul knows that it is going to happen.

And, interestingly enough, when Paul is talking about all of this, he is not saying, “Look, do you see this stuff that’s coming down?  You better hurry up and shape up…”  He says, “You are children of light.”  He doesn’t say, “try to become children of light” or “convince your friends to be children of light”.  He says, “you are sons of the light and sons of the day…”  This is not a threat that if we don’t all of a sudden change who we are, the returning Jesus is going to get even crankier.  It’s a plea for us to live as who we are.  “You are children of the day”, he says, “So there’s no need to act like you can’t see.  Live into the life that God has given to you.”

The Second Coming Of Christ, Greek Icon, 1700

The Second Coming Of Christ, Greek Icon, 1700

And at this point, maybe you find yourself stretched to the point of incredulity.  You’ve been polite for fifteen minutes, but really, this is getting out of hand.  I mean, it sounds like I’m up here telling you a fairy tale, doesn’t it?  Trumpets?  People flying around the sky, wearing togas or something?  Clouds and angels?

Listen: Paul is not writing a documentary here.  The point of this passage is not to convince us of some sort of spectacular event, or cosmic fireworks, or heavenly reality show.

This is an outburst of praise and encouragement describing one way to see what Paul and the church believe to be about the most amazing and encouraging truths of all time:  Christ has died.  Christ has risen.  Christ will come again.

That is, the church has said for two thousand years, the mystery of faith: Christ has died.  Christ has risen. Christ will come again.

That is the lens through which everything in your life and in my life needs to be viewed: That Christ has died.  Christ has risen.  Christ will come again.

Because if that is true, thanks be to God, then my life can have meaning, direction, and purpose.

And if that is true, thanks be to God, then I can grieve my losses and nurse my wounds and confess my sins even as I trust for some sort of newness and wholeness.

On the day that my baby is born:  Christ has died.  Christ has risen.  Christ will come again.

On the day that my best friend dies: Christ has died.  Christ has risen.  Christ will come again.

Do you see?  It’s not a cartoon.  It’s not a fantasy.  It’s not a fable designed to scare me into some sort of fearful cringing.  Paul concludes this section by repeating the same words he used at the end of chapter 4: “Therefore comfort each other with these words…”

For you, for me, and for the Thessalonians – there will be challenges and pain.  There is brokenness and addiction and fear.  This is a reality in which many of our friends find themselves right now.  But this current pain does not define us.  No, you are “children of the day.”  Even when it’s dark outside, you are children of the day.  Thanks be to God for this indescribable mystery: Christ has died.  Christ has risen.  Christ will come again.  Amen.

An Amateur Marriage

935160_731771048438_238573042_nMy friends Angela and Tony asked me to officiate their wedding, which turned out to be on the same weekend as the Pittsburgh Marathon.  As I studied the scriptures (Romans 12:9-13I Corinthians 13:4-13, and Mark 10:6-9), it seemed as though there were some parallels at work.  I offer this to all my friends who run and who are married…with Angela & Tony’s blessing and permission to share.

Do you know what this is?

bottorffbib

You may recognize it as facsimile of what could be a genuine Runner’s Bib Number from the Pittsburgh Marathon.  Each runner has a distinct number that will be used to track her or his time and other participation in the event. This year, you can design your own bib to be worn in the race.   As you probably know, the Pittsburgh Marathon will take place this weekend.  It’s estimated that 30,000 people will participate in one of the races connected with this event – the full marathon, the half marathon, the 5k, or others.  And you may know that in an average week, there are 41,426 marriages in the USA.  Those numbers are close, and I’m sensing that most of us know someone who is running in the marathon this weekend, and most of us know someone who is getting married this weekend.  So it seemed appropriate for me to compare what we’re doing here with what will be happening downtown in a couple of days.  So as we prepare to share in the formation of your marriage, I need you two to identify yourselves.

Angela looked a little shocked when I whipped out these numbers, but they both played along and even kept their "bibs" on throughout the ceremony.

Angela looked a little shocked when I whipped out these numbers, but they both played along and even kept their “bibs” on throughout the ceremony.

There are a number of similarities between getting married and running a marathon.  One that I hope springs to mind is the importance of proper preparation.  I hope to God that nobody who intends to get out there the day after tomorrow and attempt to run 26.2 miles will be doing so without having engaged in significant training.  Effective runners know that a race is preceded by months of proper diet, exercise, and other regimens.  The day of the race itself, there will be stretching and warm-ups and carb monitoring, etc.  In the same way, there are things that you do to prepare for your marriage.  You heard a number of these exercises in Paul’s letter from Rome.  Honor each other.  Be joyful in hope.  Be patient in trouble.  Be faithful in prayer.  Share.  Be gracious.  These are not merely good ideas.  These are not things you ought to get around to once your schedule settles down a little bit.  These are essential practices in which you can and should engage every single day.  Anyone who attempts to run the course of a marriage without engaging in these training exercises every day is likely to be about as successful at marriage as I would be on the Marathon course come Sunday morning – that is to say, an abysmal failure.

Another similarity between the event on Sunday morning and that which we celebrate this evening may seem obvious: there is an official “start” and there is a course laid out.  At 7 a.m. on May 5, someone will fire a pistol on Liberty Avenue and the runners will begin the trek that will take them through the entire city, crossing five bridges before entering the finish area in Point State Park.  In Mark 10, we read that a marriage begins with a “leaving”. We recognize that relationships are being redefined today.  You are no longer primarily a son or a daughter; you are most essentially a husband or a wife.  And while there is an official beginning, there is also a journey at hand: we are told that you “become” one flesh.  That word, “become” is important because it does not imply that there is some instantaneous change that takes place this afternoon – the guy in the black dress and white scarf stands up here and does a little heavenly hocus pocus and all of a sudden you are there.  No, there is a becoming.  You start today.  But you’ve got a long road in front of you.

Of course, what is the thing that the runners in Sunday’s race will long to see as the day grinds on?  The finish line.  No matter where they are in the city, they will be envisioning themselves coming down the Boulevard of the Allies, ready to enjoy the celebration of a race well-run, a race survived.  This might sound strange, since for the past ten months, you’ve been meeting in my study telling me how deeply in love you are, but I’m here to say today that love is the finish line towards which you are striving in your marriage.  Did you hear the way it’s described in I Corinthians?  Patient.  Unselfish.  It never keeps a record of evil, it never is self-seeking, it always protects, always trusts, always hopes.  It never fails.  I know that you are “in love” – but would you say that your love has achieved that kind of status yet?  I doubt it.  That kind of love comes to us when we have engaged in the training and pounded the pavement for a number of years.

So I hope you can see that there are a number of similarities between the marathon that will begin on Sunday and the marriage that begins this afternoon.  I want to close my message with the observation that there are two essential differences between that event and this one.

When someone registers for a marathon – any marathon – that person has to fill out a lot of paperwork.  That, of course, is no different than a marriage.  There are licenses, fees, and so on in both places.  But did you know that there are two classifications of runners in a marathon?  You are either an “elite” runner, competing for the trophy, the prize money, and perhaps a shot at the Olympics or some other world-class event, or you are an “amateur” runner.

An “elite” runner has to be able to point to a record of success in previous races.  She or he has to prove that they’ve run the course in a certain time, for instance.  One guideline suggests that an “elite” marathoner (male) regularly finishes the 26.2 miles in two hours and forty minutes.  I could probably do that…on a bike…downhill…  “Elite” runners have shoe contracts, they are featured in runner’s magazines, and hope to be able to make lots of money by defeating the rest of the field.

Amateur runners, on the other hand, are in it for the event itself.  While I’m sure that everyone who enters the race on Sunday could use an extra $8,000, nobody I know has any expectation of winning it.  My friends are just hoping to finish.
Listen, Angela and Tony, because this is the truth: every marriage is an Amateur Marriage.  I have stood in front of a lot of couples who have made the same outlandish promises that you’re about to make, and never once have I met a couple of proven, seasoned professionals who could point with confidence to all the reasons that they just knew they would make it.  Once, I did a wedding with my friends Ruth and Gene, who had been married for 51 and 48 years before their spouses died, and even they, with their 99 years of marriage experience, began as amateurs.  Every marriage is an Amateur affair.  Every marriage is launched, not on the basis of incredible past success, but on the reality of a promise – a promise that needs to be lived into and grown into and hashed and rehashed every day for the rest of your lives.

Which leads me to the other key difference.marathonmedal

This is a medal that is given to the people who finish the marathon.  It’s on a decorative ribbon, and it’s sufficiently impressive so that it can be displayed at the office or in your den, and when people come by you can point to it and say, “Oh, that?  Yeah, I finished the marathon.  Yeah, I ran it.”  These medals are given to the people who complete the race.  You don’t finish?  You don’t get a medal.  This is for successful runners only.

You know that we don’t give medals in marriage.  I hope you’re not walking into this thinking that you’re going to leave with a ribbon to put on your desk saying that you’ve done something.  Nope, when you’re married, we give you one of these the instant that you start:

6036189468_b0f46ff163  You need to wear this, starting now, to remind yourself and everyone around you that you are still running this course.  There’s no room in a marriage for sitting back and thinking that you’ve already done something.  Instead, you need to remember that you were here, and that you are heading for the finish line, and that while the course may seem like a difficult one on some days, it’s a beautiful run.

So, my friends, stay the course.  Keep practicing those things that Paul wrote to his friends about in Romans.  Remember the grace of becoming that Jesus promises to you – that each day, you’ll be at a different place in the course than you were before.  And know that love lies ahead – that when you run with grace, with hospitality, with joy, with forgiveness, with hope, with patience – that there is love along the way and that love only intensifies as you near the finish line.

You are a couple of amateurs.  You know that, right?  So work hard.  Be gracious when you stumble.  And keep running. And know that you are not the only people who have made promises today. Your friends, your family, your God – we are here.  And we will be.  Cheering all the while.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.