Scripture for Sunday: 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22
But we appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; 13 esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. 15 See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.
Notes on the Text:
This letter was addressed to a small inner-city congregation of working-class people meeting in a home (the home of a Jewish convert named Jason according to Acts 17:5-9). Most of the group were Gentiles. Paul and his companions had founded the church six to eight months earlier. There were some questions that the Thessalonians wanted Paul to answer for them. So most likely he was writing this letter from Corinth in the summer of the year 50 or 51 CE. This makes the letter the oldest piece of literature in the New Testament.
Paul wrote to give the new converts both instruction and encouragement in their trials. There was a lot of pressure in that city on the church to conform to the norms of their society. This was a city that had a very dominant Imperial Cult where the worship and adoration of the emperor was very important. Thessalonica was the capital city in Macedonia, a bustling seaport.
The followers of Jesus in Thessalonica were trying to be faithful and one of the things that gave them great hope is the belief that the return of Jesus was imminent. They just needed to hold on a little longer and things as they knew them would end. Yet, when people among them started dying, they felt their hope in the second coming was slipping away. The way they understood the teachings of Paul was that Jesus was coming back literally before any of them had died. The delay in the physical return of Jesus was making them fearful. What if they got it all wrong? What if this second coming was not going to happen in their lifetime? These must have been tough questions for Paul to answer because the expectations of the people were getting in the way of their ability to appreciate their lives and the presence of Christ in them in the present moment. Paul brilliantly responds in a very caring way. He reminds them of the basics of following the way of Jesus and that doing those things is the only way to live with hope in times of uncertainty. One of the things he prescribed to them is to give thanks in all circumstances. Even though their expectations about the timeline of the return of Jesus were bringing them down, they needed to be reminded that the only proper response was to keep the faith, pray, fulfill their mission, and to give thanks.
If you are interested in reading more about the apocalyptic (end of time) metaphors in this letter, you may read the following article at http://ntwrightpage.com/2016/07/12/farewell-to-the-rapture/
We continue this week to journey through the “The Four Things That Matter Most” with a focus on the power of verbalizing gratitude. In his book The Four Things That Matter Most, Dr. Ira Byock emphasizes the importance of saying these phrases to our loved ones, especially at the time of death. People often assume that their loved know that how much they appreciate them without seeing the need to say the words out loud. This unfortunately misses the point of why we need to say thank you. Since our words matter and since words create worlds, saying that we are thankful has the power to deepen our relationships and our sense of life. Dr. Byock says that, “In the act of saying thank you we expand ourselves.” Our inner capacity for love expands when we are grateful and when we take the time to express that gratitude. Yet, there are many obstacles to taking the time to say thank you. We are often too busy, too focused on the pressing matters of life, or preoccupied by the negative parts of life. One of the biggest challenges for this practice of gratitude is our expectations. We take things for granted. We also expect things to go a certain way and when they don’t, we feel let down. Just take a moment now and revisit the many times you complain or feel frustrated each day. Examine the expectations behind your feelings. What are some of the expectations that get in the way of your joy?
The words of the Apostle Paul to the church in Thessalonica help us to remember to change our focus to live in the way of Christ so that we may stop taking life for granted. They challenge us to stop the frenzy of pursing more because we feel that we don’t have enough or that we are not enough. Paul’s words remind us to enjoy the ordinary and to see the sacred in the mundane. This means that we become more intentional about our Christian living, i.e., living in the way of Jesus.
The invitation is to let go of our expectations about the sensational and the marvelous in order to truly appreciate what already have. Don’t wait for God to give you a big sign in the sky or don’t waste your energy trying to figure out when the end of the world will come, or when the second coming will happen. Instead, focus your energy on God’s presence that is already within and around you. Don’t wait until someone does something fantastic before you say “Thank You.” Take the time to thank the people around you for showing up, for taking the time to be with you, for doing something small but important for your well-being, and especially for being part of your journey. Pay attention to all the things that are going well in our world and in our country. Give thanks for the people who are doing their jobs faithfully and without much fanfare. Practice expressing gratitude each day.
Here is a link to a quote from Dr. Byock’s book about the idea of creating a biography of joy: https://www.laughteronlineuniversity.com/create-biography-joy/
“With the morning birdsong,
My heart echoes thank you.
With the rustling sounds in the kitchen,
My heart echoes thank you.
With the early noise in the suburbs,
My heart echoes thank you.
With the awakening words of day,
I add my voice and say thank you.”
~Diana Butler Bass
God, there are days we do not feel grateful. When we are anxious or angry. When we feel alone. When we do not understand what is happening in the world or with our neighbors. When the news is bleak, confusing. God, we struggle to feel grateful.
But this Thanksgiving, we choose gratitude.
We choose to accept life as a gift from you, and as a gift from the unfolding work of all creation.
We choose to be grateful for the earth from which our food comes; for the water that gives life; and for the air we all breathe.
We choose to thank our ancestors, those who came before us, grateful for their stories and struggles, and we receive their wisdom as a continuing gift for today.
We choose to see our families and friends with new eyes, appreciating and accepting them for who they are. We are thankful for our homes, whether humble or grand.
We will be grateful for our neighbors, no matter how they voted, whatever our differences, or how much we feel hurt or misunderstood by them.
We choose to see the whole planet as our shared commons, the stage of the future of humankind and creation.
God, this Thanksgiving, we do not give thanks. We choose it. We will make this choice of thanks with courageous hearts, knowing that it is humbling to say “thank you.” We choose to see your sacred generosity, aware that we live in an infinite circle of gratitude. That we all are guests at a hospitable table around which gifts are passed and received. We will not let anything opposed to love take over this table. Instead, we choose grace, free and unmerited love, the giftedness of life everywhere. In this choosing, and in the making, we will pass gratitude onto the world.
Thus, with you, and with all those gathered at this table, we pledge to make thanks. We ask you to strengthen us in this resolve. Here, now, and into the future. Around our family table. Around the table of our nation. Around the table of the earth.
We choose thanks. Amen.