Martha M. Shiverick
October 23rd, 2011

Lectionary: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8 and Matthew 22: 34-40

1Thessalonians 2:1-8

You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully treated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

Matthew 22:34-40

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” he said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Something that ministers don’t like to talk about very much is that the month of October is a very sad month. I don’t know if it is the natural order of life that as the leaves fall off trees and the summer flowers wilt, dry out, and die, and the wind begins to bring a chilly feel, but what we experience within the church family is a greater amount of deaths. People die in October. It is a very sad month.

And this year has not been any different. We will have more members of our congregation die this month than any other month of the year. And it affects us. We who minister to one another in this family we call Fairmount Church, feel the impact of every death. And we, the Fairmount community feel the pain of our fellow members in their losses and their grief. We reach out to them by sending cards, by taking casseroles, and by offering a hug and support at coffee hour after church. We are a caring group. I thought about that as I wrote an email to six of our Deacons who ministered over the years to an individual who died this week. As I wrote them, thanking them for their ministry and the way they represented Christ’s hands and God’s love to their homebound member, I knew that they would experience loss and grief for a friend they had gotten to know and who had become dear to them. And I thought about that as I studied the epistle lesson from 1 Thessalonians which is a lectionary reading for today. Hear now Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians 2: 1-8. (read epistle lesson)

What is happening here? Paul starts out in this defensive mode. He begins by denying assertions that the apostles are guilty of deceit, of trickery, of flattery, and of greed. It seems as though Paul and his apostles has been insulted and mistreated by the Philippians and Paul wanted to clear his name with the Thessalonians in case they had heard any of this. He appears to be making a case for his leadership and role in these verses and wants the Thessalonians to know that his motives and his ministry are pure.

Paul denies that his motivation stems from self-interest or self-aggrandizement. He knows he has been called by God to his ministry of telling others of God’s good news and that his work is pleasing to God. Since God has entrusted this ministry to him, he is prepared to endure the scorn of others to tell the truth. We cannot begin to know what prompted this defensive mode in his beginning statements, but it is the next few verses which really struck me as a message for us today. In them, Paul discusses what the role of an apostle is like.

First, he believed that an apostle is not JUST Jesus’s 12, but that an apostle is a person commissioned by God for the particular task of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And although we could say that this task is daunting, that none of us could possibly be apostles, we all know that the Good News Jesus taught us is all about God’s love. Jesus did not come with a message that we could not understand or that we would have a hard time explaining to others. It is all about loving God and loving each other. In fact the Gospel lesson for today is Jesus answering the Pharisees’ question of which is God’s greatest commandment. Jesus’s answer which is found in Matthew, Mark and Luke is so simple. Listen now for the word of God as it is written in Matthew 22:34-40: (read text)

So that is Jesus’s good news. It is that simple statement that God loves us and only requires that we love God back and each other as ourselves. And, if we are apostles, we are supposed to tell others about this love and are supposed to act on this love. And this isn’t news to us. We don’t come to church out of fear of a God of fire, damnation, and brimstone. We don’t come to church out of a sense of guilt or shame. We come because we know we are loved by God for no reason of our own and that we are welcomed into this loving community called Fairmount. We come because we want to share that love with others and we want to take it out into the world. And Paul would think that we are God’s apostles.

Which makes the last part of the passage in Thessalonians so important. It is where Paul describes the love apostles feel for others. Paul, describes apostles as being like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. Wet nurses were very common in the Grecco-Roman world. They were not just for the wealthy, but a common role for common people too. Nurses in the society were cherished for the affection they showed to children. A wet –nurse would evoke an image of loving concern. So, when Paul describes the love apostles have for others as being like that of a nurse caring for her own children, imagine the intensity of the love he is trying to describe. Paul is saying that the apostle’s regard the Thessalonians so dear that they share with them their very selves. And according with Paul’s mission of forming, shaping, and nurturing communities, Paul wants us to know that they reached out to others as if they were their own children.

Beverly Gaventa, professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary points out in her exegesis on this text how remarkable it is that Paul applies this image of the wet nurse to him self and his co-workers. That is because Paul is not known for being in touch with his female side. So his choice of imagery is important. He wants the reader to understand the intensity of the love he feels for his communities of faith. He loves them with the force that a nursing mother loves her child.

Which is why we pray for one another when we come to church. It is why we make announcements about births of children, why we celebrate passages in people’s lives such as graduations, marriages, and in the case of one of our candidates for the ministry, why we are all, the ENTIRE congregation, invited to celebrate Logan Skelly’s ordination to the ministry of the word and sacrament in three weeks. We list anniversaries and big birthdays in our church newsletter. And our love for others extends outside the walls of our church. And this is why we became partners with North Presbyterian Church and keep them on our prayer list every Sunday. That is why we are involved in our other mission programs which share love, compassion, and concern for others. Other aspects of your life might have part of the community aspect I am discussing, but at a church, we admit to being a family. What ever your age, what ever your occupation, what ever political party and family income; you are loved here. You are one of us. You are God’s child and we love you as we love ourselves. And we care about each member of our church from our youngest member to our oldest throughout their lives, from cradle to grave. Each person here and those who are not able to be here are SO VERY DEAR TO US!

This afternoon and on Wednesday evening we will hold New Member or Inquirer Classes for people considering joining our church. They will be invited to join on November 14th. My hope is that they know when they join that they are loved. My other hope is that in joining the church they will enter into this Fairmount family and find a way that they can live out Christ’s commandment to love God and others.

This morning we are going to dedicate the beautiful Prayer Shawls on the table. These very tactile representations of God’s presence and the care and concern we have for the recipient have been given out to HUNDREDS of people in the past few years. They have been given to children at their baptism, to people recovering from illness and surgeries, to those who grieve and those who celebrate. We have even given them to our members who move away from Cleveland and our congregation to be visible signs of our connection to each other. The people who have knitted and crocheted the prayer shawls know that their ministry is important and shows how dear the recipient is to us. And in the same way does the member working in the nursery caring for the youngest of our church family knows they are expressing God’s love , as does the office volunteer helping the church run smoothly, and the youth on a mission trip working in a batey in the Dominican Republic.

It is October…. We have had a lot of deaths of members and members have lost extended family members. There is a great sense of loss and grief. Just this past week, two members have died, and two church families have lost relatives dear to them. Their sadness and grief is ours as well. Dorothee Soelle, in her book “Against the Wind: Memoir of a Radical Christian” describes this connection in her personal experience with her mother dieing. She said as her mother died she sang to her and had “a feeling of being connected to her. It did not seem as if I were doing something for her, but as if we were walking toward something greater than we are. An old theological conviction of mine was strengthened during those nights at her deathbed, namely that without mutuality, without giving and taking on both sides, there can be no love. God cannot “give” us anything if we do not become the bearers and givers of God’s love.” Just as Paul described the love we share with one another as a nursing mother’s love for her child, we love and care for our members in their pain and grief. Their grief is our grief. Their pain is ours as well. And out of our concern and love, we pray for them and we hold them. And in that care and love, God is present, as God is in our love. So, dear Fairmounters, you are so very dear to us. You are so very dear to us in every time of your life. And you are so very, very dear to God. Amen.