Thank God for All of You
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Belmont UMC—October 19, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching
Paul usually begins his letters to the churches with gratitude for the people, even in those letters where he proceeds to take them to task for something they’ve done wrong. But he had a deep love for the people of Thessalonica and he prayed for them and longed for them, especially in their struggles and persecution.
And as I read this passage again, and as we looked at this passage and others from the Pastoral Letters a few weeks ago in Covenant Bible Study, I was touched by the phrase, “Thank God for all of you.” As I look out at all of you this morning that phrase goes through my mind, “I do thank God for all of you.”
On Monday and Tuesday of last week, I was at gatherings of clergy from the Memphis Conference (West Tennessee) and then the Tennessee Conference (middle Tennessee) and I received such warm greetings from so many friends gathered over the course of several decades of ministry. I even received some warm hugs. As I looked out over that group, people so different in so many ways and yet bound to the same call to serve, I thought, “I thank God for all of you.”
I was telling a young clergy friend recently that I still get anxious before preaching. He asked, “What do you about that?” My answer, “I look at the people and the anxiety is dispelled.” That seems counterintuitive to some folks but looking at the people who I have come to know and love, helps calm any fears I have about what I am about to do. “I thank God for all of you.”
I like the theme for our operating campaign, “Joy in Giving” but it’s in this shared community, this community of people who love one another and serve alongside one another, that we find that real joy, that deep gladness in giving.
Community, church, and family have always been important to me. It’s how I was raised, surrounded by family, church and the simple traditions that accompany them. I knew every acre of our farm when I was a kid, but I knew every acre of all my cousins farms as well. We worked on all those farms and shared meals in all those farm houses. We were surrounded by family and friends. Holidays meant being around lots of those folks and eating some delicious food.
We were in California in September, visiting our son and daughter-in-law in Berkeley. We had a conversation about Thanksgiving and holidays away from family. I knew that Lars and Laura would not be coming home for Thanksgiving so I asked about their plans. They have a group of friends, friends who also live far from their families, and they share holidays with them with pot luck dinners. These are the people who give them rides to the airport or take care of their pets and plants when they are away. These are the people who step in and do the things that families normally do.
In our mobile world we see the development of makeshift families. The church often has a role in these new communities of friends.
In The Shelter of Each Other, Mary Pipher writes, “When I speak of families, I usually mean biological families. There is a power in blood ties that cannot be denied. But in our fragmented, chaotic culture, many people don’t have biological families nearby. For many people, friends become family. Family is a collection of people who pool resources and help each other over the long haul. Families love one another even when that requires sacrifice. Family means that if you disagree, you still stay together.
Families are the people for whom it matters if you have a cold, are feuding with your mate or training a new puppy. Family members used magnets to fasten the newspaper clipping about your bowling team on the refrigerator door. They save your drawings and homemade pottery. They like to hear stories about when you were young. They’ll help you can tomatoes or change the oil in your car. They’re the people who will come visit you in the hospital, will talk to you when you call with a dark night of the soul and will loan you money to pay the rent if you lose your job. Whether or not they are biologically related to each other, the people who do these things are family.” (pp. 21-22)
Friends become like family in some of these settings. They become communities that support and care for one another. I recently spoke to a group of United Methodist young adults who meet in the Nashville area on Tuesday nights. They are called Anchor and they agreed that their lives reflect that quote from Mary Pipher.
And we also agreed that there are two ingredients to building that kind of community. One is food. There is an old saying that “A friend is someone who has eaten a peck of salt with you.” That’s a lot of salt but it means you’ve eaten a lot of meals together. I still believe that something wonderful and sacred happens when we sit down at a table and share a meal together. Something happens in that setting that doesn’t happen anywhere else. We recently shared a meal together with some clergy friends. We’d each brought something to add to the meal. Our conversations were light-hearted but our time in each other’s presence was beautiful and holy. I looked around the table and thought, “I give thanks for all of you.”
The other ingredient to build community is our stories. We learn each other’s stories, where we were born, how we were raised. We learn about struggles and successes. We share our faith stories. We talk about our children or our siblings and our crazy old Uncle Harold. To really know someone we must know their story.
Is it no wonder that the center of our faith is this table, where we share the food that Jesus gave us to share and to remember him by. And when we come to this table we retell our story and God’s story. And we look around and think to ourselves, “Thank God for all of you.”
I believe we need these communities of friends. We were created to live in community. Yes, we need private space and solitude, but even the introvert among us needs to know that there are people who care about them, love them and will be there for them.
I like social media and find it to be an efficient way of connecting with lots of people. I like having Facebook friends, even if the definition of friend there is very loose. But we need personal, face to face, encounters, like sitting at Fidos over a cup of coffee in the late afternoon, sharing stories and laughing until your face hurts. It doesn’t get any better than that.
The church is one of those special communities and I’m not sure I know how to live without it. We are not perfect but we can do some amazing things together as a community. We believe that it’s in the presence of community, where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus that we experience something holy, something beyond ourselves.
Bishop Ken Carder used to tell a story of his seminary days. He was an excellent student but he had gotten a paper back and he’d been given a “C” and he thought he deserved a better grade. He wanted to talk to the professor but he couldn’t find the words. One day he saw the professor walking across campus. The professor spoke to him but Ken ignored him. The professor stopped him and asked, ‘What’s wrong?” Ken told him and the professor could see that Ken was tearful and hurt. The professor literally put his arms around Ken and held him and said, “I gave you that grade because you can do so much better.” Ken Carder said, “He held me and he held me accountable.” For Ken Carder that was a metaphor for the church.
This is the place where we hold each other. We love each other. We express this love in many ways. Our doorbell rang one afternoon and there were several men and women standing at my door with covered dishes in their hands. They were at the wrong house but the food in their dishes smelled wonderful. The house on the cul de sac up from our house has a similar address and we often get their mail and deliveries by mistake. The woman who lived there had cancer and these folks were members of her Sunday School Class bringing food to support the family.
We hold each other accountable. We need people who will tell us the truth in love and help us be better people. We need to hang out with folks who are better at keeping their spiritual disciplines, who understand the joy in giving, and who pray for us. There are people in this church who will cause you to be a better disciple just because you hang out with them. And in this place we grow to understand the words of Paul, “I give thanks for all of you.”
Look around this morning. Look into the faces of these dear friends. Remember their stories. And give thanks.