From Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian church, it seems evident that they had to deal with the same sorts of things that we have to deal with. For it is as if Paul wants to set the record straight. He wants to let people know what the church should be in a world of bad religion, alternative facts, and oppressive politics.
So, this morning, let us follow Paul’s lead and set the record straight.
In a world such as ours, the first thing that Paul mentions is the importance of having the courage to truthfully proclaim the gospel in spite of great opposition.
Sometimes, I think we forget that Paul’s message that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female” challenged the entire culture. Paul did not face opposition for proclaiming a personal, private gospel to help people make it through the week. He would not be thrown in prison and put to death for preaching a little “chicken soup for the soul.” No, Paul was opposed by the religious and political authorities for having the audacity to preach truth to power and an inclusive love that has the power to change the world.
Because they lack the courage, I am afraid many churches today are only preaching the gospel in a manner that is culturally acceptable. They are preaching an “alternative gospel” that is popular with their base and keeps the people and the offerings coming.
It’s a gospel of personal piety and one that creates division, defends prejudice and emboldens bigotry.
Unlike this “alternative gospel,” the “authentic gospel” calls for radical repentance and cultural change. It calls for a revolutionary restructuring of the status quo. And because of this, because it commands the tearing down of the walls of division, because it demands a dismantling of the systems of injustice, because it refuses to bow down to the powers-that-be,
because it is extravagant with grace and inclusive with love, because it has the power to change everything, the authenticity of this gospel inherently and inevitably brings opposition.
So, first and foremost, we need to proclaim the gospel with authenticity and courage. And notice that Paul says that this courage we need does not come from our own resources or discipline. It comes from God.
The second thing that Paul wants to set straight is the importance of proclaiming the gospel without tricks or treats—words of flattery that bait and switch and deceive.
Like in Paul’s day, today there are churches who say all are welcome and all means all. However, when some show up they quickly discover that the grace they first experienced as a treat was only a trick.
Churches say “come just as you are,” but after you come just as you are, you soon learn you are expected to become just like they are.
Many churches host events like the one we are having today. Stores do it too. They entice people in the community with bouncy houses, hotdogs, popcorn and candy. However, they soon make it clear that if you’re not buying what they’re selling, you are not welcome.
There is a video that went viral last year of a homeless man who came into a Chick-fil-a in Tennessee asking if they had any extra food. The manager meets the beggar and says: “I will give you a hot meal, if you will pray with me.” The man agrees. The manager lays his hands on him and prays. And then gives him a sandwich.
Christians loved this video and shared it all over social media. [i]
But it is important for us to remember that Jesus never said: “Feed the hungry, if they will pray with you” or “Welcome the stranger, if they will believe like you” or “Give drink to the thirsty, if they will dress like you” or “Free the oppressed, if they will contribute to your budget.”
No, Jesus said: “love your neighbor as yourself”—period! No “if’s,” no “but’s,” no strings, no tricks. Paul says we are to love others “as a nurse tenderly cares for her own children.” Care for others because they are God’s children who need care, not for any other reason.
When we love our neighbors, we don’t do it to please the finance committee or the membership committee. We love our neighbors to please God and only God.
And Paul says we please God by sharing not only the good news of the gospel, we please God by caring for others so deeply that we share our very selves.
So, today, when we leave this place to greet members from our community, let us not go looking to make some new converts or to get a new donation. Let us go out today to give our very selves. Let us go and make some new friends. Let us love the ones we meet this day honestly, courageously, unconditionally. And let’s not be afraid to make a Jewish friend, make a Muslim friend, make an agnostic or atheist friend.
So today, we are not about “tricks” or “treats.” We are about having the courage to be about “truth.” We are about honesty and integrity and authenticity. We are about sharing the good news of God’s grace and love and sharing ourselves simply because that is what we are called to do.
Now, because we are being truthful and because we truly care, let’s always make it clear to those who may be interested in becoming a part of our church, that although they are invited to come “just as they are,” and although they are never expected to become “just as we are,” if they come, we really do hope that they don’t stay “just as they are.”
Let us set the record straight that the reason we are a part of this church, including the pastor, is because we are all hoping to change, to transform into the people God is calling us to be.
But it’s never our job to judge or change anyone. That’s always God’s job. And we pray God is currently judging and changing all of us. We are praying for a radical repentance that takes away all of our prejudices, while filling us with more kindness, mercy, forgiveness and love.
We pray that if others choose to join our mission, God will bring us together in love, unite us by grace, change us with the truth, and give us the courage to change the world. Amen.
Invitation to Communion
Now, as we sing our communion hymn, let us prepare our hearts to be united by the love that is revealed in the sharing of this bread and cup. And as always, we only exclude those Christ excluded from this table, and that is no one.