2 Thessalonians 3: 5-13


For a short time on television, there was a show called “The Weakest Link,” where, on the public stage of humiliation, contestants were sent home because they did not measure up. The world does not do that in such a public way, but it happens all the time in our unorganized and organized lives. The most ineffective football players can keep a team from winning because of their lack of blocking, lack of clean receiving, lack of kicking ability, or lack of clean passing. In a Scout troop, the boy that slacks off at a campout by refusing to focus on the jobs at hand, such as pitching the tent, preparing the food, clearing the land, or remembering to bring all the parts of his uniform, can build resentment in the troop and cause morale to drop and grumbling to start. In the workplace, persons who make continued mistakes, or show up late, or who demonstrate continued lack of caring about the job, build the resentment of others and may soon be out of work. And all of those examples are with organized groups in the world. Perhaps the most vivid example of what happens when one person doesn’t pull his weight is with a rowing team; with strong men on each side, if one lets up, the team not only will not win, they may indeed go in circles! In unorganized situations, the person who arrives late and tries to break into the front of a long line may be met with shouts, pushes, or security. In traffic, the person who sees the sign “lane closed” a mile back but stays in the lane to try to nose his way into traffic with drivers who have complied with the signs and moved over early may create a highway of angry drivers.


As we have completed one of the costliest and ugliest campaign seasons in history, we see that the world teaches some horrible values: values like the corruption of the Golden Rule: “Do unto others before the do unto you.” Other sayings like “Hit first, ask questions later,” or “Take justice into your own hands, it is the only way to do it right,” and other revenge, top-of-the –heap, survival of the most cunning actions that make the world a jungle. A jungle! I know many men who love nature shows just to watch the work of the “kill before you are killed” natural world. And the underworld of dog fighting and other forms of gambling move human beings below the line of human civility. That’s what the world offers.


By contrast, congregations through the ages have made continuous attempts, failing at times, to provide the alternate universe of Christianity. From the second chapter of Acts on, we read in the Bible of the plan Jesus’ follower’s devised based on his teachings: Christians sharing their food with one another, sharing their prayers for one another, and even sharing their money with others. Christians are called to live life in the closest way possible to the way Jesus lived. The early convents and monasteries were even attempts to wall out the destructive and often godless ways of the world and live a pure and holy life. Such a model only partly works, because human beings are involved. Author Kathleen Norris, in her popular account of monastic life called THE CLOISTER WALK, said that one day she invited a monk friend over to her apartment for breakfast. “How do you like your eggs?” she asked. She found her friend looking dazed, but pleased that someone asked him. “To eat in a monastery refectory is an exercise in humility; daily, one is reminded to put communal necessity before individual preference. While consumer culture speaks only to preferences, treating even whims as needs to be granted (and the sooner the better), [monks] sense that this pandering to delusions of self-importance weakens the true self, and diminishes our ability to distinguish between desires and needs.” [Riverhead Books, 1996, pp. 14-15] I see the influence of culture in every corner of human life. “Me first!” “I’m worth it!” and other cotton candy belief systems begin to make the western world dangerously like the extravagance that finally brought the self-serving Roman Empire to its knees. All the while, the Son of God taught servanthood, others first, and listening to God. He still teaches that. Humans who want to evolve into Godly humans have to work on their focus of transcendent living: that is, living on earth closer to the way we expect to live in heaven; doing more of what Jesus what do and less of what Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra would do.


 For real Christian living, the benefits are great, but the degree of difficulty can be challenging. Let us be honest here and say that sometimes the Church gets a magnifying glass turned on her when sins of the flesh, or of power, or of means, are committed. Those crimes make the judging wrath of God, and of other human beings, burn bright. But where can we start to create a place of light, a training ground for good living, hard work, fair play, and honoring others if not in the church? Church members should lead the way in changing the world with these values. But sometimes church members carry their share of responsibility with less than stellar results. This was the problem that Paul addressed with his second letter to the Thessalonian Christians. Some were carrying their weight of the congregation’s work, some weren’t; some were pitching in their share of money to carry out ministry and to pay bills, some weren’t. Some were exhibiting a good example of Christian living, some weren’t. Even in the letter, perhaps the second oldest in the Bible after First Thessalonians, human nature had crept in. Remember verse six: “Keep away from believers who are living in idleness.” Children and youth especially can be influenced by people who do very little of the work and still get the benefits. So they start to act the same way. But it is the wise person and the mature Christian who realizes if one person doesn’t do the work, someone else has to double up on their work load; if one person doesn’t contribute for the general work and expenses of ministry, the burden may fall on someone else. Those were the lessons Paul was teaching. Certainly other parts of the Bible have Paul giving permission for Christian believers to admonish and correct others who were off track. But in this fledgling congregation, the call was to pull together in work, in means, in prayer, and in worship; to truly make the church the bride of Christ. Paul exhorted the others “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, to do their work quietly and earn their own living.” And to those who did not respond, Paul had an answer: “Have nothing to do with them but just do not treat them as enemies.” This dynamic could apply to other organizations as well. Guidelines are needed for families, condo associations, civic groups, and businesses just as in congregations. The truth is, work is either done by people pitching in to do it and to pay the bills, or businesses, clubs, and even families will grow corrupt, grow complacent, or grow in their arguments. Paul’s work ethic wisdom for the church was to show them a more excellent way to live: to teach others by example. In verse seven he says: “You know how you ought to do things: the way we showed you to do them We were not just sitting around or goofing off while we were with you, were we? We didn’t take advantage of your hospitality; we earned our keep in terms of food and lodging so that we would not burden any of you.”


Paul was always about showing Christians “a more excellent way” to live instead of succumbing to the world’s self-centered philosophies. Paul’s lesson spans the ages to our day. What household doesn’t exhibit more harmony when everyone pitches in with chores and watching costs? And what household breaks down when one or more family members simply don’t do their fair share? It happens also, as I mentioned, in the workplace, in clubs, in associations, and, or course, in churches. It happened in the first century, it can happen in the twenty-first century.  But hear this: I know of no better hope for the world than the shining example that the one solitary life had on the world, when the man from Galilee spent three years showing his corner of the world how to live. It might have ended there, but in spite of secular wisdom of ages past, of national leaders, and all the prophets of other religions, this one solitary life has the power of God to change the world more than any other. Is there any group anywhere who should know Christ, exhibit Christ, and live like Christ any better than the Church, the group that Jesus himself called his bride? He bought our salvation at such a price. Part of a relationship is about receiving thoughtful support from the one you love; but part is also about giving support to the one you love as well. Jesus Christ has given us his all; in return, instead of slacking, or letting other people do the work or carry the load, we can show our love for him by letting our Christian community continue to be a force strong enough to change the world, rather than conform to the broken and destructive ways the world peddles. If I am going to pour my time, my money, and  my prayers into something that can influence my precious family, influence society, and teach people a better way to live than “Me first!” it is through my church. Paul invites you to do your part in Christian community as well.


Jeffrey A. Sumner November 14, 2010




I Thessalonians 4: 13-18


Now more than 12 years ago, a man named Bill Holton told this story:

“I couldn’t have been more than seven years old the night I climbed out of my bed and tiptoed downstairs to look for my grandmother. Gramma liked to sit up watching Marcus Welby, M.D., and sometimes I’d sneak down in my pajamas, stand quietly behind the chair where she couldn’t see me, and watch the show with her. Only tonight, Gramma wasn’t watching TV. Nor was she in her room when I returned upstairs to look for her. ‘Gramma?’ I called, my young heart pounding with alarm. I couldn’t even remember wanting my grandmother when she wasn’t there to answer the call. Then I remembered that Gramma had gone on an overnight trip with some friends. That made me feel better, but there were still tears in my eyes. I dashed back to my room and burrowed beneath the afghan Gramma had crocheted, as snug and warm as one of her hugs. Gramma will be home tomorrow, I comforted myself. She wouldn’t ever go away and not come back.” [Excerpted from Women’s World]

Of course there was a time when his gramma did not come back. When he was seventeen, his gramma had a heart attack from which she could not recover. But Bill Holton never forgot his grandmother and what she meant to him. He was sad that she had missed his graduation and his marriage to his wife, Carla. Later as they had their first child, they had a son, and named him “Christian.”  One afternoon when the new family was home from the hospital, a package arrived. Inside was a box. In his grandmother’s handwriting, the card read, “To a very special grandbaby.” Bill couldn’t believe his eyes as they filled with tears of disbelief. They opened the wrapping paper and found inside a hand crocheted baby-blanket and a pair of booties. There was also a card: in her handwriting, Bill read the words to his new son: “I knew I wouldn’t be here for the grand day of your birth. I made arrangements to get this blanket to you.” And it was signed “Great-grandma.”


Who are the grammas in your life? Who are the ones who are so special to you, yet they have gone before you? They represent many ages and relationships. Some of you might have had a special note or gift left for you to find or receive after a loved one has died. Some of you have told me of hearing the words of your grandparent or parent, of you husband or wife, of your dear friend or even your dear child. Some of you have even felt their touch on your arm, or their warmth near you. Your senses of touch, smell, sight, hearing, and taste go on high alert when it seems your loved one is near again. Many say they would give anything to see him; they say they long to see her one more time.


There is good news in God’s Word today. We can see our loved ones again! There are believers and non-believers, and people with different faith systems who don’t hold out hope that such is the case. But today, we have an extraordinary account in the pages of the New Testament. If we were putting the books and letters of the New Testament in chronological order, First Thessalonians would have been at the beginning instead of Matthew. Written most certainly by Paul himself around 51 A.D., the letter is short, like a modern sound bite, it is as current as today, and it addresses questions that continue to be on people’s minds. “We do not want you to uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Verse 13; take it as if Paul, like Bill’s grandmother from the dead, addresses your exact concerns today. From the other side of the curtain, image these words being written to you. Certainly in Paul’s day they were written because people were sure Christ would return in their lifetime, and what would happen if their loved one died before he came back? To us, the context is different, but the comfort is the same. Paul’s letter from the other side continues “Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again [Do you believe that? If so, then what follows is true], even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” The heart of Paul’s message to us is in verses 16 and 17: “The Lord himself will descend from heaven and the dead in Christ will rise first.” Your loved ones who were believers will rise first. They will not be left out of the grand gathering that is to come. In fact, the reunion is still ahead of us! “We who are alive,” Paul continues, “who are left, will be taken up in the clouds with our loved ones and will meet the Lord in the air; we will be with him forever.” The descriptions is highly imaginative, not meant literally, and it has comforted people for ages.


There is a grand reunion that is to come. It is recorded in this earliest piece of New Testament Scripture. And it is there to encourage them, and us.

Who knows when that reunion will be? Who knows when Christ will return? Who knows how long we have on this earth? Sometimes those who have gone before us give us, by the way they lived and died, the living reassurance about what lies ahead. But many times those of us in ministry find people unprepared for death. Then funerals can be some of the most trying and tension filled times for families who have put off planning for sickness or death. Families get into fights over medical care, over how long to prolong life, over funeral and burial plans, and, of course, over money. Last week, we received from our chaplain daughter Jenny and her husband Brian, their Advanced Directives: they wrote out what they want done if they cannot speak for themselves in a medical emergency; they wrote out who they give the power to make choices for them at the end of their lives. They are only 26! What a reminder that, truly, all of us are better served by preparing. How should we get ready? This week, nudged by our daughter’s actions, Mary Ann and I filled out our Advanced Directive Instructions in a document called Five Wishes. And our Body, Mind, and Soul seminar November 17th is on End of Life Issues. Why not plan to come if you can? Ministers watch the bickering that can go on by family members who have no clear instructions from their dying loved one. Jenny said she doesn’t ever want to put us through that. Well done, Rev. Carswell. Well done, Apostle Paul. Well done, Gramma. And well done, precious Lord, for telling your disciples, including us, that you have gone to prepare a place for us, and that in all certainty, you will come again, and take us unto yourself. Thanks be to God. What will you now do to prepare for the day when Jesus returns for you?


Jeffrey A. Sumner November 7, 2010