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A Pastoral Word

October 17, 2011

“A Pastoral Word” 1 Thessalonians 1:1-2:8 Ordinary 29A © 10/16/11 by Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

1 Thessalonians is the earliest of Paul’s letters, and in fact, it’s the earliest document in the New Testament. It was written long before even Mark, the first gospel, was put down on parchment. Penned about 50 AD from Corinth, the epistle was sent by Paul to a church that he had founded after leaving the town of Philippi to the east, where he and his colleague Silas had a very bad experience with the local authorities.

But if 1 Thessalonians is the earliest of Paul’s letters, it’s also one of the friendliest. There’s none of the hurt and conflict so obvious in the epistles to the Corinthians. He doesn’t call them names, like he does the Galatians. And he actually knows them, unlike the Romans, whom he wrote without ever having met. It’s obvious he loves the people in Thessalonica and yearns to be with them to give them personal attention. He had tried to return to them after a separation so painful he compared it to being orphaned (2:17). Unable to do so, he had sent Timothy, a co-worker, to check on and encourage them. At the time of this letter, Timothy has just returned with news of the church (3:6).

Fortunately, Timothy had brought a glowing report of their faith and love. Neither was easy to keep alive in the face of some rather difficult challenges. One of them was simply living where they lived. Thessalonica was both a port city and a transportation hub, located on an east/west trade route. It was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. So there were all kinds of cultural influences, all sorts of issues having to do with politics and power, all manner of religious practices flourishing in the town. References in the letter show also that the believers were being persecuted or at least facing tremendous social pressure to abandon their particular approach to faith. It could be also that some other teachers had in some way tried to scam them or take their money. Paul wants to assure them, as we heard, that everything he does is on the up and up. Finally, because Christianity was still relatively new, there were questions that were still in the process of being addressed, like what happens to people who die before Jesus comes back. You may know that the earliest Christians, including Paul, expected our Lord to return during their lifetimes. That had not happened, 17 years after Jesus’ resurrection, and some of the believers were starting to wonder about how to understand and deal with the delay.

All this touches Paul’s heart, and makes his separation from the Thessalonians hurt even more. But if he cannot be there to help them, he can write, and so we have this epistle.

I found a great deal in this letter that struck a chord in me as I was reflecting on the little over two years we have had together, my upcoming 34th ordination anniversary, and what tomorrow may hold. My predominant thought was and is that like Paul for the Thessalonians, I thank God for you.

I thank God for your persistence in this place over the years and even now. Paul called that “steadfastness of hope.” It’s not easy being a small membership church. There’s always the worry about who will do what, can we find a minister, who will serve on the session, how will we pay the bills, what if there’s some capital need, like a major repair to a building or damage to the organ. I’ve had many a conversation with folks from the Grenada church about such things, and I know you have had your share of those concerns.

Add to those headaches the difficulty of being Presbyterian in the Deep South. By the way, being a small church and being Presbyterian are related. We’re fortunate if we have 1% of the population of a town in our churches. That same figure even works with campus ministries and universities. Some counties in Mississippi have no Presbyterian churches of our stripe at all. It’s hard staking out that middle ground, respecting people’s consciences, not being pushy or overly dogmatic, having a different form of government that’s not exactly hierarchical but not exactly congregational either. We tend to be people who are quiet and thoughtful about our faith, and that approach doesn’t always translate to clarity with the public about who we are or what we believe. How many of your neighbors could even spell “Presbyterian”?

Plus, these days you’re countercultural if you maintain a traditional, historically-informed style of worship. No screens or bands or movie clips or preachers in knit shirts on stools, though I’ve done all that in appropriate contexts, like campus ministry. And no overly-showy vestments or elaborate rituals, either. Simple, dignified, substantive worship. I’ve almost wanted to put something on the sign out front that says “Your traditional alternative.”

I don’t know if you know it, but simply existing as a small Presbyterian (USA) congregation these days ought to be a source of great pride. I say that to you as I would say it to Wren or Dixon or Grenada or Aberdeen or Nettleton or a host of others. The presbytery just closed, at their request, the Tunica church. Before that it was the Ackerman church. I’m sure there are others I don’t recall. But here you are, almost 108 years later, in the same place, not just surviving, but doing great things, drawing in new people, being the church in every way that’s important. I thank God for your steadfastness in hope.

I thank God for you not only for your persistence, but for your example. You are particularly an example of hospitality. From the first time I preached here, and Danny put that glass of water on the pulpit, I knew you were different. Something so simple, but so profound. Cold water, refreshment, says “welcome. We’re interested in your comfort.” But your hospitality isn’t just extended to preachers. It’s to anyone who comes through these doors. You greet them and get to know them and ask about them. You don’t turn anyone away. They come in and experience the joy and openness of this community of faith.

But your hospitality is also expressed not just in a warm handshake and smile, but in your care for the hungry. The seed planted in this church’s garage back in the 1980s has now borne such fruit that the Food Pantry has expanded into two buildings, serving 80-100 families every Tuesday. And a number of you are right there every week, picking groceries from the shelves and the fridge and the freezer, taking them to cars, ministering in person. Others bring loads of bags to church. The folks you help probably don’t know you’re from First Presbyterian, but you do, and your ministry is not only your personal work, but also an extension of our presence in this community.

This church is also an example of mission giving. The Thessalonians were no doubt among the Macedonians Paul cited as an example of giving even in tough times. Like them, no matter what your financial difficulties, you have given consistently 10% of receipts to and through the presbytery for the work of the church beyond these walls and these city limits. You don’t play extortion games like other churches; you don’t make the presbytery beg the session for money; you don’t threaten to withhold funds if you don’t get your way. Instead, you give way over and above your fair share. And you give to Two Cents a Meal and to special offerings, like the youth Souper Bowl offering and One Great Hour of Sharing ($245 this past Easter). This congregation is at or near the top of its size class in giving to Two Cents a Meal. And perhaps you noticed and did the math about how much is budgeted for mission. Yes, we’ll be spending 80% of the budget next year on salaries and daily operations, but the mission figure is 18.5% of that, almost a double tithe. You are an example of how to be a Presbyterian church connected financially to the larger body.

And not only that, you are an example of caring, for each other, for friends, and neighbors. You help people in other lands see through Project 20/20. You embrace all God’s creatures through Blessing of the Animals. And look at the length of our prayer list, each name lifted up by you before God regularly. Think of the meals after surgery Linda and the Congregational Care Committee provide or the flowers and cards and visits to cheer folks in the hospital or sick and shut-in at home. Remember how the choir has sung and will sing in nursing homes. Or how the church was opened to the family of Billy Caldwell just this past Sunday for his memorial. You care for and stand by each other in sickness and in health, in joy and in sorrow, building community, supporting each other and your families and friends in prayer, helping however you can with the embracing arms and the gentle voice of Christ, as his body.

What will tomorrow hold? No one knows, but I would like briefly to share a vision with you this morning. It seems to me that if we simply continue on the exciting course we have now set, we will do well. Keep putting a priority on children’s ministries and making sure that the children and their parents and grandparents have ample and adequate educational and community-building opportunities. Focus on worship as the experience of equipping, encouraging, and enabling for mission. We are already using the gifts of some of you weekly in the choir and in greeting. What are some other ways the congregation might have the benefit of your gifts and talents? I want to find out what each of you has to offer and discover a way to use your gifts and talents in some way in the ministry of the church.

Of course, we should continue to reach out in various ways to this community and area. We work with the Food Pantry, plus Meals on Wheels. PW supports a young girl at Palmer Home and other causes. Blessing of the Animals is now an annual event. What are some other ways we can make ourselves known, show our care, be creative? We have a tremendous and unique resource in the Meditation Garden. Listen in 2012 for how the garden will be used more in our outreach. We have been creative very recently in joining with the Wren congregation in Holy Communion. Could there be other ways we work together? How could we meet our neighbors across the street and next door? And how might we provide financial resources for all this? What might God be calling you to give, not so much to fund a budget as to do mission, express our values, and keep an exciting vision alive?

I love you folks. Or as Paul put it, you have become very dear to me. You’re a great church. And I believe with God’s help, we will do even greater things together. Just keep before you, and live out, four words: energy, intelligence, imagination, and most of all, love, and you will be amazed what God can accomplish through First Presbyterian Church.

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