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Each of us is on a unique spiritual journey.
Here, through study and prayer, worship and service,
we discover more fully who God intends for us to be,
in Christ.

December 2, 2018

I Thessalonians 3:9-13

A hope-full workout

Happy New Year!  Yep, today is the first Sunday of the Christian Year, the first Sunday of Advent, which you can tell because of how beautifully the church is decorated! (Thank you!)  Given this is the first Sunday of Advent, today’s scripture lesson seems an odd choice – It comes from the very first letter the apostle Paul wrote to any church, and it’s addressed to a congregation who just, JUST started gathering.

Now Paul visited Thessalonica with the good news of Jesus, only he irritated the officials, and ended up having to sneak out of town under cover of night.  He didn’t get a chance to really teach them everything he wanted.  Thessalonica was a town built into a hillside, above a port, with a view of Mt. Olympus – the tallest mountain around, and considered the home of all the Roman gods, most importantly, the god everyone referred to as “All-Father,” Zeus.  So these folk were surrounded by images of Roman power, both in the government and in the gods and temples built for them.  

So Paul has had to flee to Berea, and he’s wondering how the new believers are faring.  He sends his friend Timothy to check on them, and finds out they are going strong – Their commitment to God’s love in Christ has withstood the pressures of the city officials, the Temple Leaders, and the ostracism of the strict faith traditionalists.  So he writes them this outburst of a letter, full of joy and thanksgiving.  Listen for a word from God:

How can we (meaning Paul, Silas, and Timothy) thank God enough for you, in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 

Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

Now may our god and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you.

And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.  

And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.”

May God bless our hearing and our understanding these joy-filled words.

When Paul (my husband) and I returned from the highlight of my sabbatical – Our two and a half week camping trip to the Canadian Rockies and the Pacific Rim, folk were naturally interested to hear how it went, and we were excited to tell them.  But the strangest thing happened as we hit the highlights of our adventure:  Down to a person, the response was, “This does not sound like a fun vacation to me.  Are you sure you had a good time?”

When Paul and I compared notes, we were surprised this was the response we were getting, because yes, it was a grand vacation and we had an amazing time.  But we could understand folks’ reluctance to believe us.

One of the most memorable days of our trip started with waking up to cold, and wet, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and tent floor.  The tent had leaked in the night’s rainfall, and the next day we were heading up into even higher elevation with the potential for even colder, wetter, worse weather.  Something had to be done.  

Paul likes to joke that if our marriage is still going strong after 25 years, which most days, it seems to be – not every day, but most days – Then why did the tent we got as a wedding gift fail after 25 years?  Regardless, fail it did, and we weren’t quite sure what to do next – we were at least an hour from the nearest town, and who knows how far we were from a camp store.  So we headed to the Visitors’ Center.

National Park Visitor Centers and the folk who work there are miracle workers.  Seriously.  The woman there got on her handy dandy computer with wifi connectivity – What a concept!  And found a Laundromat to dry our sleeping bags and a store that had one tent left the size we wanted – And it was on sale!  Both an hour away in the town of Banff.   So we got back into the Black Jeep – our rental car – And headed East to the town of Banff.  In the pouring rain.  And we parked, turned the car off, but realized, what good would it do to to park 6 blocks away from the Laundromat to dry our sleeping bags only to lug them through the pouring rain.  Let’s see if we can find a closer spot.

Except, when Paul turned the key, the car did … nothing.  No click.  No rrrrrr-rrrrrr-rrrrrr.  No lights came on.  Nothing.  In the pouring rain.  In Banff.  So we called Enterprise.  No car available in Banff.  No car available in Canmore.  No car available in Golden.  The closest car?   Three hours away.  But they will bring it to us!  Ummm okay?  I put a sign on the dash pleading “Do not tow this car away.  Won’t start.  Waiting for a tow truck.”  

All righty then.  Let’s go buy that tent!  And we find the store, and pop in, and say - we really could use a bathroom, and … are you kidding me?   No bathroom?  Even for customers?  The nearest one is down the block and across the street?  In the pouring rain?  Well, yes.  

We buy the tent – Ooo and aaahhh over the advancements in tent technology in the last 25 years.  Then we get lunch, haul our wet stuff to the Laundromat, buy garbage bags to haul it all back to the car, get back to the car, and realize:  We have been living out of this jeep for 4 days at this point and now we have to transfer everything into a new car.  Everything includes the firewood we’ve been hoarding and drying – because, you know, pouring rain.  But the tow truck driver pulls up with our very fancy luxury new SUV mini-van Ford – with seat heaters and a sky roof!  And he helps us move all the gear, and we go set up our new home.

Curiously, folk hear this story, and don’t think, “Wow!  What a great trip!”  Because, as you may remember, rain, and ice, and snow, followed us pretty much everywhere we went.  Don’t you wish you had been on this camping vacation with us?  Aren’t you jealous?

I think we all have had equivalent days- weeks – maybe even months or years - in our real life experience, where nothing goes easily, what can go wrong will, what you never dreamed could go wrong does.  Days of parenting troubled kids, and medical bills piling up, and cancer treatments, and job deadlines, a crabby boss, and family conflicts, and maybe a leaky roof or a dying heat pump tossed in there.  You know the kind of days I mean.  Maybe it’s gotten to the point where it’s not just a rare day here or there, but that has become the norm for your life.  What in the world is fun about that?  Isn’t all that what we go on vacation to try and leave behind?  Doesn’t all that just ruin a vacation?

I’ve given this a lot of thought – A lot.  Because it was such a strange experience for me that I had a good time that day.  I had a good time every day.  Rain and ice and sleet and snow and all.  But why?  And how?  Aren’t “good days” those days when the stars line up and everything goes smoothly and well and easily and there’s nothing bad in the news?  

Well, days like that are few and far between.  But my camping experience – and that day in particular - gives me hope that hope and joy and gratitude are available to us no matter our circumstances. 

Paul the apostle is running and hiding from the authorities who will eventually throw him in prison.  That sure doesn’t sound like fun.  The Thessalonians are being berated and persecuted and shunned for adding following Jesus into their traditional worship and faith.  That doesn’t sound like a walk in the park.  

Anyone here a fan of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton music?  Know the line that gets repeated in several songs throughout?  “How lucky we are to be alive right now.”  Hmmm.  How lucky they were to be alive right then?  The revolutionary war, fighting in the streets, nothing is settled, everything is turned upside down – Their world, turned upside down.  And that’s how the Thessalonians felt – Like Paul had come in and turned everything they knew upside down.  And now they were facing persecution.  How can any of this be good?  How can Paul be so excited about the Thessalonians faith – Faith that is barely formed – He says he can’t wait to come back and fill in the gaps.  How can Paul be so happy when he longs and prays to see them again, but knows that’s just not happening any time soon?

This first Sunday of Advent we are being asked to hold onto hope.  How in the world, how, in this world, how, in our world, right now, can we have hope?  How can we be filled with joy and thanksgiving right now?  You might be thinking, “Amy, have you turned on the news lately?  Have I told you about the cancer treatments?  What about the grief I’m carrying, the burdens of parenting, the worries about the future, my future?  Amy, are you paying attention?”

How was it that a day that by anyone’s standards could not have been great was a pretty fun day for me and Paul?  Because I want to carry that sense of adventure and fun back with me as best I can into my daily life.  How can I be open to the joy, the gratitude, the hope, that I say I believe is present in each day, even the bad ones, by God’s grace?  Because honestly, whining comes more naturally to me than enthusiastic joy-filed faith.   But somehow, sabbatical helped me see all that was right, and good, and hopeful, and fun, and funny in this world, even in the cold pouring rain with a leaky tent and a broken down car.

I don’t have a clear answer.  I think plenty of sleep helped.  I think lots and lots and lots of fresh air and activity and hiking helped.  I think having my day narrow down to a dry sleeping bag and how to get a fire started helped.  I think being with someone I love helped.  I think disconnecting from all screens, all electronics, even from books helped.  I think the sense that there was plenty of time – plenty of time – helped.  I think quiet prayer, plenty of quiet, helped.

All of this is under our control.  Yes.  I know.  Easy for me to say – I just had a sabbatical.  But that sabbatical made me realize just how much this is under our control.  And how very, very little of it is valued by our culture.  And how our day to day lives are so overwhelming, our brains have trouble seeing and believing and trusting the good news.  But it is there.   

Just like the good news the apostle Paul brought the Thessalonians, he’s offering us that same good news:  Just like there was a life-giving, humane, God-of-love-worshipping alternative to the Roman culture, there is a life-giving, humane, God-of-love worshipping alternative to our culture.  We’re being offered that this Advent, too.  But if we just sit there waiting for it to arrive, we might be waiting awhile, and we might only catch the teensiest glimpse.  Instead, God invites us to use what we’ve been given, to reveal the hope, joy and thanksgiving of watching for Jesus.

My friend Kim told me about how one woman did exactly that this holiday season – She saw it on facebook – A woman showed up at her very crowded Starbucks, bought a $25 gift card, and told the cashier to pay for everyone’s drink until the gift card ran out, and tell the customers that the person who bought their drink was in the coffee shop, but don’t reveal her identity.  Then she sat back and watched.

With $25 she created joy, and hope, and gratitude for herself.  Because she got to witness the responses, the confusion, the astonishment.  And we know that emotions are contagious – But just as fear and worry can spread, so can joy and hope and gratitude.  Just imagine what it would have felt like to be her.  It’s hard to imagine a better gift to herself for $25.  Drop off Dunkin Donut gift cards to your doctor’s office.  Hand out $5 Starbucks gift cards to every cashier you see this week.  Buy a big bouquet of flowers and hand them out one by one to everyone you interact with.  

God has given us what we need.  We are a people of faith, we are deeply, steadfastly, eternally, unconditionally loved.  This world we live in – I’m reminded of how the darker it is, the brighter the stars shine.  Maybe we are lucky, as Christians, to be alive right now.  Maybe this holiday season, you can take 10 – or 5 – or even 2 minutes a day to ask God to show you how you can uncover the joy, hope, and gratitude that is lurking, right there.  Right here. Right now.  By faith.  Because even here, even this dreary drizzly day, it can be found.  And as people of faith, this is what we do:  Pass along the love of Christ that’s lurking just below the surface.