Bishop Mariann preached this sermon to Our Saviour, Brookland on October 18, 2020.
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of people we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place where your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead–Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Hear again the first two sentences from St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Biblical scholars have reason to believe that this is the earliest of Paul’s letters, and thus the earliest Christian document of the New Testament. These words take us back to the first Christian communities established in the Gentile world.
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul wants the people of Thessalonica to know that even from a distance he remembers them, in his mind’s eye he sees them, and he specifically thanks God for three things about them: their work of faith, their labor of love, and their steadfastness in hope.
Why would Paul begin his letter with those words? One reason would be that things were going really well in Thessalonica. But we know that’s not true: life was hard for the community–there was struggle, persecution, and uncertainty about the future. So it’s more likely that Paul writes these words because he had a sense that the people needed encouragement. And one of the first things we lose when we get discouraged is the value of what we’re doing. We stop believing that our efforts are making a difference. Paul is saying to them–your efforts matter. Your works of faith, your labors of love, your steadfastness in hope, even when you don’t feel particularly hopeful, matter.
Years ago when I was studying for the priesthood at Virginia Theological Seminary, I came to Washington National Cathedral to hear Archbishop Desmond Tutu preach.
This was during the height of the anti-aparthied movement. Our own bishop at the time, Bishop John Walker, was regularly getting arrested in front of the South African embassy on Massachusetts Avenue. There was a lot of controversy and conflict about the church’s public witness on behalf of the people of South Africa. In his sermon, Archbishop Tutu lavishly praised and thanked all of who in that packed Cathedral for what we were doing to help end the evil system of apartheid in his country. Truth be told, I wasn’t doing very much. I wasn’t that involved in the struggle. But when he thanked us, I felt part of the struggle. More importantly, I wanted to be the kind of person, the kind of Christian that would be worthy of Archbishop Tutu’s thanks and praise.
That’s how I hear St. Paul’s words to the Thessalonians. He knew that they were tired, that some were losing their faith and their hope. They were asking the question we often ask when we feel tired and discouraged: How long, O Lord?
Paul couldn’t spare them the hard things they were dealing with, anymore than we can spare those we love from what they’re going through or others can spare us. But what he said was this: I thank God for you, for your works of faith, your labors of love, and steadfastness of hope. They may not not feel like much to you right now, but they matter more than you know. You may feel like you’re at the end of your rope, but God will tie a knot at the end of it and won’t let you go. Keep on keeping on.
This is a word to all of us about the invisible virtue of perseverance. We rarely see what it costs someone to persevere in a given endeavor, what it takes, internally, to pick oneself up, time and again, after failures, disappointments, or simply fatigue. In the words of W.H. Auden, those who persevere “do what is hard as if it were easy.” But when we’re in that place, needing to persevere, needing to keep going, that’s when we often lose confidence in ourselves and our abilities, because it feels as if we’re stuck. At least that is how it can feel for me.
But in those moments, the fact that we’re holding on at all, that we allow ourselves to feel what we feel and yet keep going, is perhaps the most noble thing about us as human beings. Yes, we stumble, we fall, we fail–but we also manage to get back up.
It’s not on our power alone. There is a greater power, a greater source from which we draw our faith, hope, and love. In those moments when we feel our most discouraged, not only is that when we need to turn to that source, turn to God, turn to Jesus, and ask for help. That’s also when God leans most toward us, comes to us in our struggle, in our bodies, enabling us to start again.
A line from the Psalms that comes to mind here: weeping may endure a night, but joy comes in the morning. (30:5). It doesn’t mean that we weep every night or that every morning we wake with joy, but rather that there is a natural rhythm, and a God-given grace that gets us through the hardest times and allows us to experience joy again. Jesus knew that in his own life. He would sometimes say, “This is the hour when darkness reigns,” and by that he meant, I think, that in that moment there was nothing to be done but to let the trial and suffering take its course, but there is also a sense in his words, and certainly in the arc of his life, death, and resurrection, that the hour of darkness is never the end.
My hope this morning is, should you feel tired or discouraged or as though your efforts of faith and love and hope aren’t doing very much, that you hear St. Paul’s words as if written for you. I have no doubt that even in the long stretches when nothing seems to be happening or you feel that you aren’t accomplishing much, there is someone in the world, someone in your life that is thanking God for your works of faith, your labors of love, and your steadfastness in hope. I know that God sees you, and that God is working through you in ways that you may never know. Your acts of daily faithfulness are part of a larger arc of human resilience through which the grace of God is at work.
I’ll close with a story that speaks of the importance of perseverance and offers an image of what we can do each day, and especially the days we feel discouraged:
A five-year-old girl named Rachel lived with her parents in a small apartment in New York City in the 1940s. Her grandfather would often come to visit bearing gifts for her. One day he brought her a small paper cup.
She looked inside hoping to find something sweet to eat, but all the cup contained was dirt. Her grandfather smiled at her disappointed face, brought her into the kitchen, and put the paper cup on the window ledge. “If you promise to put a little bit of water in the cup every day, something special may happen.” It made no sense to her–remember she was only five–but she promised her grandfather that she would put a bit of water in the cup every day.
At first it was easy to remember this daily chore, and she was curious to see what would happen. But as days went by and nothing changed, it was harder for Rachel to remember. When her grandfather returned a week later, she asked if it was time to stop. He said no. The second week was even harder and she felt angry and frustrated. When her grandfather came to visit, she wanted to give the cup back. But he refused to take it. “Every day, Rachel, a bit of water.” By the third week, she began to forget about her cup until she was in bed at night. Out of respect for her grandfather, she would get up and put water in the cup.
One morning, there were two little green leaves sprouting up from the dirt that had not been there the day before. Having never seen plants grow before, she was astonished. Day by day the plants grew a bit bigger. She couldn’t wait to show her grandfather, whom she thought would be as astonished as she was. But of course he wasn’t. He explained to her that life is everywhere, blessings are everywhere hidden in the most ordinary and unlikely places. “And all it needs is water, Grandpa?” Rachel asked. “No,” he said, “All it needs is your faithfulness.”1
Rachel is now a well-known doctor and author. This is her first memory, her first lesson in the power of faithfulness. It was her grandfather’s way of teaching her perseverance. I leave it with you, and hold it in my own heart, as a way to remember that some days our works of faith, labors of love, and steadfastness of hope come down to getting up and putting a bit of water in our cup, that is, tending to the work before us, and waiting for a power, a mystery, a life force greater than ourselves to work through us.
Dare to believe that–that God is with you, and in the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete, God working through you. As you rise each day, remember that someone, somewhere is thanking God for your works of faith, your labor of love, and your steadfast hope. Tend to your cup and leave the rest in God’s hands.
1 Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather’s Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge, and Belonging (New York: Riverhead Books, 2000).