October 22, 2023
Pentecost + 21
Eight days ago, Preston preached a homily at the time of the death of pastor and friend Paul Kett. It was one of the best funeral sermons I’ve ever heard. It was touching, grace-filled and just so right. As my kids would say —and I, of course, would never say— Preston “nailed it”. Now, Preston would never want me to say that sort of thing from the pulpit. Still, sometimes it’s good to hear what your colleagues are thinking where others can listen in.
Preston traded on the figure of the Good Shepherd —at once our friend, Paul, a pastor and at the same time, Jesus, whom we follow, “The Good Shepherd”, and after whom we seek, as best we can, and with the help of God, to pattern our lives, to conform our selves.
Today’s Second Reading is of the same fabric. It is of the same stuff. And it is a very, very important reading in the history of things.
We are reading from the first sentences of Paul’s Letter to the assembly of believers in the house church at Thessalonica. He is likely writing from Corinth, in the region of Aichai in southern Greece, to a Christian Community he had formed in the region of Macedonia at Thessalonica in Northern Greece. Corinth was not far from Athens along a land bridge while Athens was south of Thessalonica along the Aegean Sea. Phillipi was just a little further and if you continued your way around the Aegean you’d get to Ephesus across the water from Athens. So this was Paul’s stomping ground.
In today’s reading, Paul has received word of the blossoming Christian community whose seedlings Paul had gathered, lovingly, and, with great tenderness, had nurtured. But there is more to it. Scholars are pretty much agreed that this letter is the earliest Christian record we have in the Greek Scriptures. These are Paul’s first words to the church likely composed in the year 43 or thereabouts, some 27 years before Mark penned our first Gospel. The Crucifixion took place in the spring of 33, our first Christian witness from Paul in about 43, and the first Gospel record, likely around the year 70 (and the fall of the Second Temple at Jerusalem). So, today’s witness is from a time when the Thessalonian church was already flourishing within a single decade of Christian memory.
Most of us here, except for the very young, can remember 10 years ago. We can picture where we lived. We can picture the important people in our lives at the time… important events… at home… in the wider world… Ten-year-old memories are, at once, fresh but they also have the benefit of being in long-term storage unlike short-term memory which can be very fragile. Ten-year-old memories are durable and accessible.
This is today’s territory. This is the territory of Paul’s missionary pursuits. It’s likely the earliest written record we have, and maybe five or six years after Paul’s conversion. So, this is the witness of a young but astonishingly mature faith. These are Paul’s opening lines in response to a good report from Timothy who’d been visiting the house church which Paul had formed. His opening words are personal and wonderfully pastoral and only slightly theological. He’s not nearly in the same sort of all-stops-pulled rhetorical mode he adopts in Romans.
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians
in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.
We always give thanks to God for all of you
and mention you in our prayers,
constantly remembering before our God and Father
your work of faith
and labour of love
and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s a lovely greeting of a pastor-theologian to a community he has formed; to a community of which he is very, very fond. And friends, it’s the sort of stuff I expect from Preston and look for from you. Work of faith. Labour of love. Steadfastness of hope.
Isn’t that what we’re about here? Isn’t that why we’re not elsewhere in this moment? …why we’re here, right now, or tethered to this place and this moment via the live feed? (Looking into the camera.) Aren’t we supposed to be about the work of faith, the labour of love, in a steadfast hope?
Our leaders, at Saint John’s, have been repeatedly calling us into a journey of faith with the people who live hereabouts, in a labour of love born of a community which is nothing, if not steadfast in our hope.
Friends, a few days ago, our leadership here crammed the weekday community meals, next door, at St. John’s Kitchen, into a web of life which held the funeral of an esteemed pastor, our regular Sunday worship and a Choral Evensong which saw the angels weeping and dancing. And behind the scenes there were stewardship people about their business, choir members rehearsing and Altar Guild folks fussing and our caterer cooking and pastor and people about all manner of goodness demonstrating, for all the world to see, the work of faith, this labour of love all bound up in our steadfast hope. Not a bad witness!
Friends, our congregation is on the cusp of something beautiful. We call it, “the future”. It’s a realm constantly being renewed in its mission and ministry, in response to all who prevail upon us for succor, support, nurture, friendship, and whether they know it or not, for a fine example of Christians gathered for good.
Some months ago, Preston and I were in conversation, and I picked up a thread he’d commenced sometime before and a process was initiated whereby I might join the cadre of clergy licensed as honouraries at St John’s. That license was granted by Bishop Todd in a document which came in the mail the other day. It was in the same time frame as I heard Preston use the word “encourager” at the funeral of Pastor Paul Kett.
I thought that that was a wonderful word. Encourager. That’s the Apostle Paul in today’s reading. He’s an encourager. Encouragers give courage. (Fr: “Courage, mom brave.” Take courage/heart, my brave little one. You can do it.)
As I find my place in this congregation, I would like to think of myself as an encourager. In my brain, that’s a pastoral thing but it also has a very diaconal dimension of who I am. Deacons are encouragers. Their significant role is to bind the world in here to the world out there and to effect and nurture that “in here – out there” transaction such that there is no “us” and “them” but simply one humanity, one “us”. One, encouraged, “us”.
I looked up to Paul Kett. In many regards, I look up to the Apostle Paul. (I do wish he’d written in shorter sentences.) And I look up to our rector, to our minister of music and to many of you. The rest? Well, I’ll have to get to know you. All of these people, you people, give muscle, and sinew and texture to the work of faith, our labour of love, and our steadfast hope… in Jesus Christ. These are not the charisms of individuals, primarily, although I suppose they could be. They are the hallmarks of a community. So, for the Apostle. So, for us.
A word about hope. Paul –the Apostle Paul– lived in a world that he hunched was coming to some sort of terrible end, and sooner rather than later. And Matthew, our current Gospel writer, was also into that stuff in a big way. My hope, my faith, doesn’t permit me to go there. The world I encounter out there is not looking for confirmation that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. The world out there reaches out for love, and for grace, and that is the business of the church. And there will be a tomorrow in God’s time, and it is ours to determine what that tomorrow looks like. We live, we do, always on the cusp of something beautiful.
May the words of my lips and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in God’s sight. And may the church say “Amen.” R/ Amen.
André Lavergne CWA (The Rev.)
Church of St. John the Evangelist, Kitchener