Sermon 26 October 2014 St Mary’s Whitby.Rev Felicity O’Brien
1 Thess 2:1-8, Matt 22:34-46
Paul was a man who didn’t hesitate to go the hard yard. He was shipwrecked, beaten, arrested, and in many other ways his life was not easy.But his greatest driving force was to share the gospel with everyone, no matter what the reception.In today’s epistle reading, we hear how Paul has been shamefully treated at Phillipi, but has come on to Thessalonica anyway. He didn’t retreat to lick his wounds, or to take a course and change his career path!
Sometimes we are treated badly, even as we struggle to live out our Christian witness. Do we let it put us off? Some people do. I have spoken to many people who used to go to church, but something happened, there was an offence, and they walked out, hurt, and never came back. They didn’t keep on trying to worship God in fellowship with others, because of some past injury. Now, I am in no way belittling the hurts than can happen in a church community. I know they are very real, because real people both hurt and heal each other. I have often pondered about this – to take an analogy , if you had a mechanic who treated you badly, who was rude, would you stop going to mechanics? Many years ago, when I was a single mum, my Honda shuttle was not very well. I took it to the local mechanic, who told me that it needed a lot of work on it, and I said, bother! I was hoping to go to the tip this afternoon. He said, were you going to leave it there? Now, it does seem funny, especially when the car, let’s face it, was probably heading to the wreckers’ yard, but I relied on that car, it was my sole means of getting to work and all the other things. I felt offended and vulnerable at his comments.But did I stop trying to fix the car? No, I didn’t. I just found another mechanic, and made it clear how important the car was to me. I guarded my heart against its vulnerability, and tried again.
Why is church any different? Why do people leave one church and not try and find another? Many , of course, do, and I would imagine that most of us here have been to several, if not lots, of different worship places, even in different denominations, before we decided to come here today.I think this is one of those instances where the enemy, let’s name him, Satan, steals away our persistence. He doesn’t want us to try again. He wants us to fall away from the fellowship, like a coal falling out of the fireplace, and instead of setting our world on fire, to grow cold and useless.
Paul gives us the encouragement however. He carries on with his journey from Phillipi to Thessalonica, which is another town in what is now southern Greece. The distance between the two is not large – less than 200ks. Those distances were harder to travel then than they are now, but he was risking his reputation going ahead of him. It’s not as if he got in a boat and sailed a long way away. He carried on with his missionary journey to the next town on the list. It’s a bit like a touring music group, doing a gig in Wellington, then Paraparaumu, then Levin, risking a bad reception from one place following them to the next.
Maybe Paul changed his way of talking to the people? Let’s look again at the reading.No, Paul re-examined his motives. “For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery,4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts”. He checks that he is not trying to bring something that is not of God. No deceit – Paul never promises that life following Jesus will be easy. No impure motives – Paul is not concerned about his reputation. He doesn’t want to be popular and liked, it’s bringing the Gospel that matters. Then he says, ‘not to please mortals. ‘ Pleasing people is a huge part of our culture. We look for approval from everyone we encounter – from our parents, to our teachers, then to the all-important peer group. If we don’t find that approval, we can struggle to feel that we fit in to our society.Paul encourages us here, that it’s pleasing God that matters. If we set out to please people, we must surely fail. We cannot know what is in their hearts.
Have you ever done a kindness for someone, only to find that it was interpreted quite differently, and it all blew back in your face? People are tricky.Paul didn’t come with words of flattery, or with a pretext for greed. He didn’t expect to be showered with gifts. He kept working as a tent-maker whenever he could, so as not to be a burden to those he lived amongst.
Maybe we can see an outworking of this idea in the large numbers of clergy in our diocese who are non-stipendiary, myself included. That means that only 20% of our ordained people receive a full-time salary. The others are self-supporting – they work a day-job, or have other means of income, so that a parish which cannot support a salary still has people ministering among them.
How did Paul keep going, in the midst of hardship and struggle?He knew the words of Jesus that we heard in our Gospel reading today – you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”Paul certainly loved God. Eventually. You may remember that in his early days he was one of those Pharisees, the same group that Jesus sparred with. He never met Jesus himself – but he had a revelation of who Jesus was and is. He had no doubt of the power of God, and of Jesus as both part of God and son of God.Let’s have a look at that first commandment. To love the Lord our God with all our heart – that’s our emotions. with all our soul – that’s our deepest beliefs, with all our mind – that’s our intelligence. We do not have to put our brains aside to believe in God! We can question, we can look at evidence for God’s creative power. We can listen to arguments form people with other ideas.
In my letterbox the other day was this pamphlet from the Hope project. Have you got one yet? Have a look at it – your neighbours will be seeing it too. People will be talking about what’s in it. The Wednesday exercise ladies were asking about it this week. This is a good tool to help you in those areas where some of our churches have been reluctant to engage.
How about the other part of the greatest commandment? We are to love our neighbours as ourself.My little theologian Nathan , when he was five, heard this commandment, and said, quick as a flash, what if you hate yourself?He’s quick, that one.But it’s a good question. It presupposes that we love ourselves in a healthy way. Many of us do – we eat well, sleep well, do things that are good for us, and nurture ourselves. But there are times in everyone’s life when we don’t love ourselves very well. The crucial thing is to remember how much God loves us. And that guides us as to how much to love our neighbour. Not just the grumpy old man over the fence, but the alcoholic over the road, the lads with the annoying noisy car. The people who voted differently from us in the last election…
There is no one we are not called to love. And it’s this love that drove Paul on, to so many places around the near east and the Mediterranean. A driving desire to share the gospel.It’s so easy today – if I want to talk to someone anywhere around the world, I just write something on my blog. I can press Publish, and people in well over a hundred countries so far have read what I write. But this isn’t very risky for me. Maybe I might get the odd comment that is critical. But I’m not in physical danger from a backlash.What Paul was determined to share with the people at Thessalonica was his very own self, as he wrote to them. Why? because they had become very dear to him. He didn’t have a problem with being used up.
Can you see a bit of a clash of ideas here, between loving ourselves, and letting ourselves be used up?There is a fine balance.
When I was at school, we had a really scary French teacher, called Miss Scannell. When she was on locker duty she would run a hockey stick along the top, and throw anything that wasn’t put away properly on the floor, then yell that it was messy.I got to know her during my time studying French, and was surprised to hear that she was 60 years old! She looked the same as other teachers who we knew were in their forties. She put this down to never having been married, and never having children.
Ahh, that’s where I’ve gone wrong. Maybe my hair wouldn’t be re-colouring itself a fetching shade of silver if I had stayed single!I have also read statistics that married women don’t live as long as single ones. Apparently married men live longer than single ones – now why is that?
Life comes at a cost. I am glad that my path has included marriage and children. Some of the things I have gone through I could have done without, but even though I may not stay as young as my French teacher, being used up has been worth it.Can you risk being used up? Many of you already do. Can I encourage you today, that if you need to decide whether to engage with someone God has placed in your path, or not, to take Paul’s example, and let God’s love flow through you.