Audio from my first sermon at First UMC in Colorado Springs. Forgive the shaky voice…and the stumbling over words…I am pretty sure “nervous” doesn’t cover it!
The text I started with, unedited, with all my spelling, grammar, and total confusion intact. (Not the actual text I preached…but sometimes its close!)
Let us pray…oh God open us up. Open our eyes that we might see, our ears that we might hear, open our hearts that we might feel, and then oh God open our hands that we might serve.
Years ago, Leanne Hadley took an evening to teach the Stephen Ministers in this congregation about her process of working with children. If you ever spent much time with her you know that she talked a lot about symbolism. Symbols are a teaching tool…if you look around this room you will see many symbols in the stain glass windows, on the altar…but symbols can be much more than a teaching tool: the symbols that individuals create often allow others a peak into their lives, their faith, and what is important to them. That evening, Leanne told us if you want to know about a person, ask them about the symbols that they surround themselves with…ask them about the jewelry they wear and the tattoos they have…you will be amazed by the answers you get! I have to tell you…GREAT advice!
Over the years, I have been allowed a look into people’s lives that I otherwise would not have had. More than once I have asked about a tattoo and heard about the personal struggles people fight…alcoholism, drug addiction. Sometimes I will hear about battles won…a woman choose to put a purple ribbon tattoo…a symbol of domestic violence awareness…on her right wrist because it was the hand that she raised in court to be sworn in…before testifying against her abuser. Another woman, Diana, from my hometown, has two tiny feet prints on her wrist. A memorial for her twin boys born way too early, surviving for only a few moments in her arms. Another tattoo on her arm is a memorial to another one of her sons, this one carried to full term, he survived only a few weeks. The symbols that people choose to tattoo onto their body, are so often deeply meaningful, a part of their story in words and in pictures.
One evening, I asked someone about a tattoo that was on her back, apparently it screamed New Orléans, to anyone local to that area. I asked about another of her tattoos on her arm…it was an interesting symbol…almost a heart shape with designs dancing around it…and when I asked about it, she told me it was the symbol for a goddess…the goddess of all things feminine…the knowledge and wisdom of this goddess passed down to her from her grandmother.
Out of all the tattoos I have asked about, she is the only one to say it was the symbol of a god or goddess. But as I thought about her answer, it occurred to me…it was not the first symbol representing a god that I had seen. …
I can’t tell you how many cross tattoos I have seen. Cross tattoos always tell me a little about a person, where they come from, and rituals they have participated in like baptisms and communion. It tells me a bit about their beliefs, and when they say a prayer, who they say that prayer to, it tells me that Jesus is or was at some point an important part of their life.
I started wondering about the images I see…are they symbols for gods, for objects of worship…even if we don’t call them that? When I see a dollar sign tattooed on an arm, is it there because they like money or because they worship it? And what about other places we find symbols? The jewelry we wear? The bumper stickers on our cars? Product logos on the technology we carry in our pockets? When does brand loyalty become brand idolatry? When does an object we use turn to an object we worship?
A Southern Baptist, Dave Miller blogged about his own idolatry, he talks about America’s love for sports…the coliseums…I mean stadiums that we have built to cheer on our team…the hundreds of dollars we will pay for tickets…and the overpriced fan gear we will buy so everyone knows which side we are on…the communities we build around our team…the dedication to showing up week after week…When does the love of a sport turn into idolatry?
“I am a sports fan,” he admits, “There is a certain 27-time World Series champion team from the Bronx that I like a little bit. My Durango has one sticker on it, a 2009 Yankees championship window sticker… My office at the church has a Yankee mouse pad, a Yankee light switch cover, various Yankee paraphernalia and wall hangings, and a shelf full of books about Yankees from the past. I’m a fan.That leads me to ask a question.When does a love of sports become idolatry? After 86 years of glorious frustration for the baseball team from Boston, they came back from a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees in the ALCS, then swept the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series to “reverse the curse.” I liked the curse!
I turned over to game 4 of the World Series and found the Red Sox comfortably ahead and ready to celebrate their championship. The camera was panning the crowd which was demonstrating a wild glee, the pent-up frustrations of over 8 decades of disappointment and frustration being released in that moment. And I fumed. I thought to myself, “I hate these people with the white-hot intensity of a thousand burning suns.”
We don’t live in a pagan culture, or I guess we don’t usually call it that. When we think of a pagan culture we often think of people that can say…oh that’s a goddess…but it is when we adjust our site just a little bit to understand the false gods of the American culture that we can better understand this letter that Paul wrote to the Thessalonians.
Thessalonica was a pagan city. There were many gods that the people of that city worshiped. And this is where Paul decided to start a Christian community.
The people of Thessalonica would probably have been more than willing to accept Jesus as yet another God among many, to hang a cross on the wall next to cupids bow and arrow…but of course to follow Jesus is to deny all the other gods. Paul was asking the people that joined this early Christian community to turn their back on everything they were used to, comfortable rituals, prayers they had spoken their entire lives, probably loosing friends…maybe even family in the process. He was telling them they had to deny the goddess passed down to them by their grandmother…
In this pagan city, Paul set up shop downtown. It wasn’t like our downtown, where owners put their best items in the window to draw people in…it was more like a farmers market. A social place, where people mingled and talked. It is in this setting, in a downtown shop, in a place where people went to socialize and meet new people that Paul talked about Jesus. While in the process of daily living and running a business, with his words and his deeds, he started sharing his faith. It was here that he started gathering people together for a new Christian community.
Eventually, Paul brought together a community that dedicated their lives to Jesus and then he moved on. He went to another city, to start another church.
Although, he wanted to return to visit, he didn’t have time for travel so he sent Timothy. We know little of Timothy’s visit, except for what we find in this letter, which Paul wrote to the community after Timothy’s return.
Church, Paul tells them…you are amazing! Other churches look to you as an example of God’s love…you are our pride and joy! You are living exactly as we taught you to live. And we are grateful to you. Because of how you live, because of your words and your deeds, people are learning about Jesus.
It is a few verses before today’s text that the tone changes. The Thessalonians had put much of their faith in the idea Jesus would return in their life time but then some in their community had died: shaking their faith, leading them to doubt and question, they started longing for the security and peace of their old gods…the rituals, and prayers they were used to.
And Paul tells them to have faith, he assures them that Jesus will come, even those that have already died will meet him when the time comes. Don’t return to your old ways, don’t get drawn back into the false promises of the culture, stay in the light…stay awake. Church, you are a community set apart to be an example of Christ’s love…don’t turn away from your faith.
And then there is my favorite line in the entire letter…put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. Church, when your faith is shaken, when you long for the security and peace the culture and its false gods offer…choose the work of faith, the labor of love, and the steadfastness of hope.
A few years ago, there was a high school basketball game in Texas that made the news. Both teams were from Christian high schools, one a large school, and the other a tiny one: there were 20 girls total in the small school, 8 of them on the team. There was no doubt that the large school was going to win. But it was obvious within minutes of the first quarter that they could win big. At half time the score was 59-0 and the team pressed on, never letting up. Some of the parents said it looked more like a lay-up drill than a game. In a culture that says loosing is for losers, go big or go home, in a culture that says winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing… that is what this team did. The game ended with a score of 100 to nothing.
Another game, a Friday night football game was very different. Again, it was a large Christian School against a small team that had no chance of winning. The small team was a group high school boys from a detention facility. They would have no one in the stands cheering for them outside of the correctional officers, they would have no parents, no friends. In fact, the boys talked about being treated like aliens, like animals in a cage, hopeless and unredeemable. But the coach from Grapevine Faith High School had a plan. Before the game, the coach emailed the parents of the school and asked half of them to sit on the other side of the field and cheer for the other team. For the first time, Gainesville State entered the field running through a banner, hundreds of people cheering them on…they had cheerleaders, and parents on their side. And when it became obvious that they could not win…the coach of the large high school put in…not his first…or his second…but his third string players. For the first time the young inmates from the detention facility scored a touchdown. Even though they lost, they gave their coach a Gatorade shower after the game. For the first time in a long time someone was in their corner. Loving on them as if they were their own. Grapevine Faith High school choose the work of faith, the labor of love, and the steadfastness of hope…and everybody won.