March 13, 2106 / IN EVERYTHING / Sara Wolbrecht / 1 Thessalonians 5:12-18
Friends, it is the fifth Sunday in Lent. Lent, six weeks that stretches between Ash Wednesday and Easter – six weeks, which means at week five, we’re almost in the homestretch! I will ask you again as I did last week: do you remember what the word “Lent” means? It means “spring” and we see these forty days as a time of spiritual spring cleaning, to pay attention to who we are, and who we are becoming. And to do that, we have been following Ed’s Story, watching a video each week about Ed who was a pastor for years, and was then diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. And though he was given 2-3 years to live, we enter the story at year ten. Ten years knowing his body is slowly dying. Ten years – when he could have given up, but instead chose to find meaning and purpose and distilled down to what matters most in life, when he knew he had little time left. And through Ed’s story we are wrestling with the kinds of things that matter most in life – the beautiful, difficult, tender, wholehearted ways we can live in this world.
To get us going where Ed will take us tonight, first we’re going to look at a passage of scripture from the New Testament, from 1 Thessalonians. This is a letter – the apostle Paul wrote this letter along with his Silas and Timothy, to the community of Jesus-followers, that was forming in Thessalonica, which is a seaport in northern Greece, about 200 miles north of Athens. The letter is written to encourage these new believers – they are just figuring things out. Paul had spent time with them, teaching, showing them this life of Jesus. And so writes this to continue their instruction, and to encourage them. To give guidance as this community, all who are new to their faith, lives into a whole new way of life.
And what we will read now is a passage from the fifth and final chapter of the book. It is a list of closing remarks, the bottom line, the “here is all the best, basic stuff to base your life in” before Paul does his mic drop at the end. Listen to the kinds of things Paul names as central to their life together. Granted, it was specific to their context, but notice it. And most of all, notice the final three verses. They are each but a few words. And I love that. So let’s soak up these words from Paul to the Christians in Thessalonica.
1 Thessalonians 5:12-18
12 Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. 13 Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. 14 And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15 Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.
16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
Notice with me these last verse. It is said a different way in other translations:
never stop praying;
in everything give thanks.
(Say it with me). I want to drill into this last verse: in everything give thanks. Say it with me: in everything give thanks. How does it feel to sit in those words? As people of faith, as people who are trying to live this life of Jesus, at the heart of, one of the central pieces of faith, is giving thanks. Gratitude. And that is not only Christians for whom this is true, right? At the heart of a true transformative spiritual vision of life is gratitude. That’s true for all the world religions – Christianity included, yes. Gratitude is part of the life-blood of faith.
And yet. Say it again with me: in everything give thanks. So. What about when it is hard to give thanks? Interestingly, also at the heart of a transformative spiritual vision of life is the embrace of suffering. The recognition that we all suffer. A life of faith is a life NOT where everything will go our way, we don’t actually believe that God will make things easy and smooth for us, we won’t be free from suffering. In fact it is almost the opposite. The spiritual life is one that believes suffering cannot be avoided. There is the embrace, therefore, of suffering as a part of life. This is again true for all world religions. And get this: that not only can we not avoid suffering, but suffering is the very thing that forms in us spiritual maturity, the very thing that actually – paradoxically – forms in us deeper gratitude and wider appreciation for life.
Which I know, I know – to say it out loud – it just sucks to hear. We will all suffer – it is part of a life of faith. And it seems to go against our intuition. It’s hard to sell someone on a life of faith when it has the tagline: “Yes, we will still suffer.” It is a part of life that we embrace. And so is gratitude, if we choose to embrace that, too.
Which means: gratitude and suffering are not mutually exclusive. That’s what the apostle Paul believed as he penned this letter to the folks in the town of Thessalonica. This list we have just read is full of joy. Did you hear that? Always celebrate, never stop praying; in everything give thanks. Those who read this letter, and all the early Christians, they knew a lot about suffering. Paul knew gratitude and suffering can exist, together – must exist together. Paul knew they were suffering, and he wanted them to learn how to celebrate in the midst of it.
And so today, in Ed’s Story we belly flop into the middle of this spiritual reality – that intersection of suffering and gratitude. What does giving thanks look like when we got nothing, when we are unemployed? When we are in sick, battling cancer, battling pain? In the midst of addiction, heart-break, betrayal? When we are overworked, underappreciated, exhausted? What does giving thanks look like when we are suffering? I would like to know how to do that.
We step again into Ed’s Story as he tenderly, powerfully, simply shows us what giving thanks look like when you’ve got ALS and your body is degenerating, when giving thanks and suffering meet.
ED’S STORY 6: GRATEFUL
(we don't have permission to post Ed's Story publicly)
God, we stand in a beautiful place now to name you have always been faithful. Morning by morning new mercies we see. And yes even in the midst of our own suffering, you have always been faithful to us. We name now that gratitude can be birthed out of suffering, out of the hard times. Not that we give thanks FOR all things, but we choose to do the tender work to make the room for giving thanks IN all things. Because yes, you have been faithful. Our lives will never be exactly what we expect, what we want, even what others expect for us – which is a hard reality to live. And so in those times of darkness, we name that you are the God who has always been faithful.
And so we come to this table again. Jesus’ table. A place that speaks to us of your faithfulness, of life poured out in love for all people. A table that was first set, in sacrifice and pain and injustice, a table that through the centuries has been a grounding place where suffering is redeemed, where pain is met with grace and peace. Where once again we grab hold of what we need for this day. And so we come, with our gratitude, with our pain, knowing that you meet us as we are today. May this meal and your grace strengthen us for the work you have called us to in the world – being people who Always celebrate, who never stop praying; who in everything give thanks. In Jesus’ name – Amen.
Friends, what was the first thing you thought or prayed this morning when you woke up? (With Daylight Saving, I can imagine a few choice words were uttered, especially if you have young children!). Can you imagine what a reset it would be to actually pray the words: God, thank you for waking me up today.
As we enter into Holy Communion, I invite you to sing and to dwell in this phrase. To meditate on it, repeat it. And to let something bubble up out of you to write down. What are you thankful for today? What got you out of bed this morning? And to write one thing down in big, bold, readable letters, something you are grateful for. And to take it and staple it anywhere on the wood up here in front. And together we’ll make this collage, this display of gratitude in everything. We also have candles out that you are welcome to light, as a sign of the light of Christ in whatever way it is needed in your life or that of someone you love or on behalf of our world.