Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Justice: A Word for Anxious Christians

Justice: A Word for Anxious Christians

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
November 10, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

2 Thessalonians 1-5, 13-15
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, 2not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. 3Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. 4He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. 5Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?
13But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.15So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.

What do you suppose is the biggest challenge the Christian church faces today?
Think about that for a minute.
How about the Presbyterian church? How about THIS church?

Here are some of the issues raised by some well-known church folk:
Thom Ranier, the CEO of Lifeway Christian publishing house did an informal survey of pastors. He asked them about challenges they face. They answered with twelve major problems – apathy, staff issues, finding and keeping volunteers, not enough time, getting buy-in from members, resistance from the older generation, the need for money, the insistence of church members to hold on to traditions at any cost, criticism, leadership needs, majoring in minors – I can’t resist sharing this detail on this issue: “We spent an hour in our last business conference discussing the fonts in our bulletins." And finally, for pastors, one of the biggest issues is the lack of true friends.

Another Christian speaker said the single biggest challenge facing the church today is “the insane busyness of Western culture.” He said, and I quote, “We load our schedules too much, and what happens is, we try to squeeze the mission of the church into what is already a too busy schedule.”[1]

If you spend just a few minutes on an internet search for the biggest challenges facing churches today, you’ll find a lot more stuff like this. There are Presbyterians who believe that our stance on abortion, or gay marriage, or the Middle East, or gun violence, or a few other issues, are the biggest issues facing us as a denomination. There are concerns among church folk about older people getting mad at parents of little kids who are noisy in worship, and the challenge of trying to introduce new music, and the extreme pain and agony of deficit budgets and church fights over what color the walls should be painted.

I confess to you that when I first asked myself this question, my answer was:
“Anxiety – the biggest issue facing the church is anxiety.”

I admit it – it has been an anxious week for me personally. We never thought we would lose Derry Beer, and it has hit us hard – a sad and shocking loss. When I am tired and grieving, I get anxious. I don’t mean a little bit, I mean my anxiety flops around all over the place like a fish pulled out of a stream. I get anxious about my calendar, about whether I have enough postage stamps, about conflicts I once had with people I haven’t seen for thirty years, about what to wear day-after-tomorrow, and where I put my black shoes – which, as you know, are never where they are supposed to be!

This week, particularly, my anxiety got really ramped up because the nominating committee had its second meeting, and not many people could come to the first meeting, or the second meeting, and we’re having a hard time hearing the word yes from people we think would be good leaders on the Session. Let me stop for just a minute here and say, to those people who have been asked and said “no,” this is not a brazen attempt to shame you into changing your mind.  I’m confident that God is calling people to lead our congregation, and we just haven’t figured out who they are yet, or we haven’t asked in the right way. Or we haven’t resorted to brazen attempts to shame you. 

But do you notice anything about these lists of issues facing the church?
Do you notice how self-oriented they sound?
Thom Rainier points out, “It appears that many of our churches in America are not effective conduits of the gospel because the members spend so much energy concerned about their own needs and preferences.”[2]

The people of the church in Thessalonica were anxious, to be sure. But they were not anxious about children’s sports or membership numbers or nominations or busy-ness or critics or money. They were anxious about two very serious issues. One was a concern that there was someone saying that the day of the Lord had already come – that somehow Christ had already returned, perhaps, and they had missed it. The other was a very genuine concern about the persecution of Christians.

I want to be crystal clear here that when I talk about persecution, I am not talking about a bad tempered atheist mocking them as they assembled for choir practice. I am not talking about the clerk at the local fruit market refusing to wish them a Merry Christmas (they didn’t celebrate Christmas in the first century, so that was a non-starter). I’m not even talking about a government edict prohibiting Christian prayers at the opening of a village meeting. I’m talking about torture, imprisonment, and death. Now that is a challenge to be worried about.

I heard recently that a pastor in a nearby town believes that Christians are being persecuted right here in Illinois, right here in Sterling and Rock Falls. I don’t want to minimize anyone’s discomfort – he feels what he feels, but really! persecution? There ARE, in fact, Christians being persecuted for their beliefs, in other parts of the world, even now. But I’d hardly say that we here at First Presbyterian Church, or anywhere in the United States, are being persecuted for our faith. But the Christians in first century Thessalonica apparently were, and they were in great distress.

This scripture is very challenging to read and understand, given that it is set in a milieu so long ago and far away from our experiences. It is particularly challenging because we know that these letters, letters to the church at Thessalonica, were written BEFORE the gospels were written down. In fact, if we were to put the books of the Bible in the order they were written, First Thessalonians would be the first book of the New Testament. There was no Christian Church; there was no centrally organized structure; there was no history or tradition to draw from. There was simply this amazing, compelling story of this man called Jesus, who had come from Galilee and spent three years teaching and healing  and calling people to new life, who had been turned over to the Roman authorities in Jerusalem, when everyone was gathered there for the Passover feast.

There was this amazing, compelling story of this man called Jesus, crucified on a garbage heap between two thieves, taken down and carried to a borrowed tomb. There was this amazing, compelling story of this man called Jesus, who rose again from the dead after three days, spoke to his disciples, ate with them, showed them his wounds, told them to love each other, told them to love their neighbors, told them to love their enemies, told them to love. He told them not to worry. Then, he promised to return, and ascended into heaven. That was it – that was what they had.

And they were willing to give their lives for that amazing compelling story.
And so, this letter has only that amazing compelling story to work from.
That, and the promise that God has given, over and over and over in the Hebrew scriptures, and in the words of Jesus, repeated by those who followed him: Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. It is in the Bible about sixty times – that four-word phrase.

And the reason we should not be afraid, even in the face of all the issues facing the Christian church, even in the face of all the issues we might face right here in this church, the reason we should not be afraid is the promise of God’s justice. The Day of the Lord is coming.

The promise of God’s justice is the promise of restoration – a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness prevails over evil. The promise of God’s justice is the promise that love wins. So stand firm, and hold fast. Stand firm in your faith which rests on God’s loving-kindness, on the promise of God’s justice-love
which lifts up the fallen,
binds up the broken hearted,
sets right the broken systems of this world,
and, at the last, triumphs over evil.

Hold fast to the truth of God’s justice-love and do not be afraid.
Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, hold fast to the word – the word written in Scripture, the word revealed in Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh, who stands with you, who rose from the dead, and who will come again in glory who set this table and bids each one of us to come.

This day of the Lord which has yet to be revealed will bring final justice and in the meantime, God asks but one thing from you – you. God asks you to give yourself over – not to be tortured, imprisoned or killed, but to give your heart and soul and strength and mind to God’s world -- for justice.

To give yourself and all that you are to this amazing compelling story, a story which is retold again and again and again at this table, where we remember, in the bread and the cup, the exquisite justice of God – the offering of self in eternal love, for those who have done nothing to deserve it.

Do not be afraid.
Stand firm and hold fast.
Christ is at work in the world.

Thanks be to God!

Benediction – 2 Thessalonians 3: 15-17
So then, brothers and sisters,
stand firm and hold fast to the traditions
that you were taught by us,
either by word of mouth or by our letter.
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father,
who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope,
comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.

[1] Paul Tripp interview, Austin Stone Counseling Center  http://vimeo.com/71760921
[2] Thom Ranier http://www.christianpost.com/news/12-biggest-challenges-pastors-and-church-staff-face-98841/

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