Let us pray: Holy and living God, we thank you for the community of faith to which we belong. We thank you for the witness of the saints above, our forefathers and foremothers of the faith whose lives of faith inform our own lives today. We thank you for the saints below: those who live among us, who rejoice, weep, celebrate, mourn, and persevere in faith in order to provide a witness for us. Remind us that it is you alone who brings righteous judgment and salvation. Help us encourage and to build one another up as we strive to bring to fruition your kingdom here on earth. O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing and acceptable in your sight. For you are our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and producer of the smash Broadway play, “Hamilton,” writes, “Legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden no one gets to see.” On this first Sunday in the month of November, we celebrate the legacy of those saints who have touched the lives of this community of faith: through their faith, their music, their love for family, through all of those ways big and small which made each of these saints uniquely themselves. On this day, we also remember that along with our departed loved ones, we too, are a part of a much bigger legacy. We a part of a legacy that began with the birth of a baby in a cave somewhere in Bethlehem, a legacy that drew sinners, tax collectors, and disciples alike to follow the teachings of Jesus as he traveled throughout Galilee and eventually to Jerusalem. We are a part of a legacy in which Jesus, out of love for God and love for humanity, emptied himself to the point of death on a cross, and then rose three days later, letting the world know that the power of death and sin had been broken forever.
Some ten to twenty years after Christ’s death and resurrection, Paul and students of Paul began writing letters to churches in various communities who were beginning to wonder, beginning to question, and beginning to doubt whether or not the Risen Christ would indeed come again and bring everyone together to feast at that heavenly banquet. Long before the birth of Jesus, Habakkuk, a prophet, called out, “LORD, how long will I call for help and you not listen?” Yet, Habakkuk remained faithful to the LORD saying, “I will take my post; I will position myself on the fortress. I will keep watch to see what the Lord says to me and how the LORD will respond to my complaint.” Centuries later, as we heard Bill read this morning, the writer of 2 Thessalonians gives thanks for the church because their faithfulness continues to grow, and because the love that the church shares for one another is also increasing. The church at Thessalonica becomes an example of a church who endures in all the “harassments and trouble [they] have put up with… and so the author wants to continue to encourage the church.
I don’t know about you, but when I see that an editor has removed one-half of the verses of a lectionary reading, it makes me curious. What is it that this church is enduring? So, I invite you to receive again these words from the Second Letter to the Thessalonians as written in Eugene Peterson’s The Message.
I, Paul, together with Silas and Timothy, greet the church of the Thessalonian Christians in the name of God our Father and our Master, Jesus Christ. Our God gives you everything you need, makes you everything you’re to be.
You need to know, friends, that thanking God over and over for you is not only a pleasure; it’s a must. We have to do it. Your faith is growing phenomenally; your love for each other is developing wonderfully. Why, it’s only right that we give thanks. We’re so proud of you; you’re so steady and determined in your faith despite all the hard times that have come down on you. We tell everyone we meet in the churches all about you.
All this trouble is a clear sign that God has decided to make you fit for the kingdom. You’re suffering now, but justice is on the way. When the Master Jesus appears out of heaven in a blaze of fire with his strong angels, he’ll even up the score by settling accounts with those who gave you such a bad time. His coming will be the break we’ve been waiting for. Those who refuse to know God and refuse to obey the Message will pay for what they’ve done. Eternal exile from the presence of the Master and his splendid power is their sentence. But on that very same day when he comes, he will be exalted by his followers and celebrated by all who believe—and all because you believed what we told you.
Because we know that this extraordinary day is just ahead, we pray for you all the time—pray that our God will make you fit for what he’s called you to be, pray that he’ll fill your good ideas and acts of faith with his own energy so that it all amounts to something. If your life honors the name of Jesus, he will honor you. Grace is behind and through all of this, our God giving himself freely, the Master, Jesus Christ, giving himself freely.
It turns out that the church of Thessalonica was thriving and growing under some pretty difficult circumstances. Planted in a city in Macedonia, the church watched as the citizens of Thessalonica built their social status by joining local pagan cults. In fact, the city of Thessalonica was so enamored with the Roman Empire, they actually erected a statue of Augustus to show their loyalty. The church, however, was not filled with members who had any social clout in the community. In order to be a member of the church, one had to swear to serve Christ and Christ alone. That meant if you were a member of the church, you could not be a member of any other cult. It meant that even though Christ had not yet returned, and it had already been between 10-20 years, you held out for the hope that you were actually living in the presence of the risen Christ and that God’s kingdom would be the only kingdom standing at the end of time.
This is the legacy that the author of 2 Thessalonians is celebrating and for which he or she is constantly praying. In her book, Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans wrote of a pastor who held a conference called Epic Fail! This pastor was tired of attending events held in the Bible Belt where founding pastors told their stories of success, stories of multiple thousands of members and a sprawling main church campus. The pastor wanted to hear the stories of brokenness and failure. Within hours of dreaming about such an event on a blog, he had about 100 people saying they would go. The church at Thessalonica was not planted in the fertile soil of the Bible Belt, but in the drier lands of the Rust Belt. The church is celebrated because in spite of the loss of family, loss of social standing, and its waning hope, the community did not give up. Instead, they found peace where there was no peace. They allowed their hurts and their wounds to be the catalysts that united them in love. The church at Thessalonica endured, and they understood well the cost of discipleship.
There are seasons in the life of a church, and in the life of a person, when asking for peace feels a bit like attempting to put out a raging inferno with a child’s squirt gun toy. There are times when peace feels like just the tip of the ice berg in what is missing in our lives and in our community. Yet, if we look back to the legacy of the Israelites in Habakkuk and the church of Thessalonica, we find that the members of those communities stood firm and continued to pray for peace—not a temporary relief to a current situation, but these communities continued to call on God for a peace that surpasses our understanding, a peace that allows us to move forward in faith even when we are wounded and unsure of our next faithful steps.
Feeling wounded and hurt is not something that we as a people, as a culture are generally comfortable with—no pun intended. When we experience pain: whether physical or emotional, our first instinct is to shake it off, to keep moving and hope no one notices us wincing or moving a little slower. We keep our conversations to a superficial, “How are you?” “I’m fine,” for fear that if we gave the full answer the dam holding our emotions in would break and they might never be put back in place. Yet, the psalmists give us a rich legacy of having and needing to cry out to God in lament. Jesus, himself, as he hung on the cross cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is those places of hurt and pain that unite us and remind us that each one of us is a person in need, and it reminds us that the love of God which dwells in each one of us is more than sufficient for lifting one another up out of the pits of our lives. It is the experience of pain that helps us to remember there is a source of greater love available to each and every person.
A couple of months ago, one of my friends and her son completed a Classic Tough Mudder in Pittsburgh. For those unfamiliar, a Classic Tough Mudder is an 8-10 mile run with 25 obstacles that, as the name implies, will leave you covered in mud from head to toe. Right after they completed it, I started thinking about doing a Tough Mudder—not the classic, but the 3 mile run with 13 obstacles, so I did some research, and I found that the creators of the Tough Mudder have also created an exercise plan for one to build up endurance for the event. For the shorter event, the exercise plan is 4 days a week for one month prior to the event and includes: starting with an untimed walk, run, or jog, then moving to a timed jog which increases throughout the month, adding squats, push-ups, lunges, lateral pull-overs, sit ups, and burpees. As you can see as you increase the time and increase the repetitions, your body will ideally become stronger and you will be able to endure and complete the event. The author of 2 Thessalonians prays that “God will make you worthy of [God’s] calling and accomplish every good desire and faithful work by [God’s] power. Beloved, this takes endurance. We are all given the gift of God’s grace freely, but it takes effort and endurance in order to respond to that gift and to accomplish every good work. We are called as a church to study: to read the Bible and wrestle with the inconsistencies and questions that are raised within the text; we are called to pray and to meditate: if we want to be faithful to what God is calling us to do, we have to pray over and over and over and over again. We also have to listen: we have to allow time and space for God to speak to us and we have to be able to recognize God when God speaks through something we read, or through the words of another person. We are called to share communion. Our relationship with God is a marathon and not a sprint. We are called to encourage others on their journeys and to allow ourselves to be encouraged as well. This takes place when we join in the communion and fellowship of a community.
As Alexander Hamilton, in the musical “Hamilton” discerns whether to raise his pistol and look his long-time friend and enemy, Aaron Burr, in the eye to shoot or to raise his pistol in the sky to end the duel, Hamilton says:
Legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see. I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me. America, you great unfinished symphony you sing for me. You let me make a difference, a place where even orphan immigrants can leave their fingerprints and rise up…
As we celebrate the legacy of the saints who have gone before us, my prayer is that we will also move forward together in faith, encouraging one another and loving one another, in order that our faithfulness to the work God has called us to do may be a witness to the justice and mercy of God through Christ for the saints to come. I offer you this today in the name of God: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, mother of us all. Amen.