So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing.
-1 Thessalonians 5:11
(Preached on Sunday, November 19, 2017)
Scientists are certain that Mount Rainier in Washington state will erupt again someday, causing enormous damage. It will perhaps equal Mount Rainier’s explosion of 5,000 years ago when 2,000 square miles of land were covered to a depth of 25 feet in ash. It will likely cause more damage than a volcano about 30 miles from Armero, Colombia did in 1985 when it erupted and killed 23,000 people. It will likely cause about 25 times as much damage as did Mount St. Helens in 1980. Since it has erupted frequently in the past, as recently as 150 years ago, geologists warn that there is no way of knowing when the mountain will blow again – it could go off in ten years or not for 10,000 – but blow it will, eventually.
Whether you live in the shadow of Mount Rainier, or on the coast of hurricane prone South Florida, or anywhere else, for that matter, we live in uncertain times. It is not just volcanoes that threaten to blow today. In October it was a gunman in a hotel room 20 floors up who rained death upon those attending a Country Music concert. And just two weeks ago a gunman walked into the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas on Sunday morning and killed 26 people. Nowhere in our world seems safe – concerts, schools, shopping malls, movie theaters, and now church.
The Apostle Paul addresses fear and anxiety in the letter to the Thessalonians. He reminds them that there is no real security in this world, but they need not fear the future because they are children of the day and children of the light. For Paul and the Thessalonian Christians, the day of Jesus’ coming return was as sure as the child’s coming to a woman in labor, and as unexpected as a thief in the night. This suggests that the reason for our hope is the knowledge we possess that Jesus is coming back, that God is in control, for God is there at both the beginning and at the end of history. So this world is not a chaotic mess, spinning out of control into a future oblivion. Nor is it a jungle where the survival of the fittest is all that brings meaning to life. It is a world where God is at work; the light has broken in and is shining, through us. We are to live that love, that faith, that hope, which is found in God through Jesus.
Now I realize many of you do not give much thought to the idea of Jesus returning to earth. But biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan sheds some light on this ancient belief and helps us understand that it has a strong component about living “now” and not just in some far off future. He gains this understanding by looking more deeply at the Greek word parousia – the word used in the Christian scriptures to speak about the return of Jesus. Crossan discovered: “The parousia of the Lord was not about destruction of earth and relocation to heaven, but about a world in which violence and injustice are transformed into purity and holiness.” In days when every week seems to unveil another mass shooting and where in recent months women have been speaking out in such huge numbers as to truly shock us with the widespread reality of harassment, abuse and violence against them, we yearn for a day when violence is transformed and we can hardly bear the wait, any more than our first-century ancestors in faith could.
So what are we to do? How are we to live in just uncertain times? How are we to bear the wait for that day when violence is transformed and peace, justice, equality abide for all? Paul tells us that while we don’t know the what or when about the future, we do know who holds that future and who will be there to greet us and welcome us home. Since we are alive in Jesus, and therefore children of the light and the day, we are to “encourage one another and build up each other.” One theologian suggests that “upbuilding … involves the general need for Christians to understand themselves as profoundly connected with one another, so that the needs of others within the community are understood to be one’s own needs as well.”
“Encouraging and building up” are more active engagements than just offering “thoughts and prayers.” Sending “thoughts and prayers” has become the default response to the traumas of our day. As a result a backlash has developed. This response to gun violence has become so routine that the phrase “thoughts and prayers” has its own Wikipedia entry, which explains that “thoughts and prayers” are frequently offered in lieu of taking meaningful action. And when spouted by politicians as the immediate response to tragedy and as a buffer to any serious discussion about possibly rethinking gun laws to possibly prevent the next tragedy, then there is real truth to that definition.
But for people of faith, “thoughts and prayers” should not be viewed as a “do nothing” response. In fact, they should be a powerful and active component of the tools and the actions which we employ. In the third century church leader and theologian, Origen of Alexandria responded to those of his day who thought prayer was worthless. For Origen prayer is not usless but rather a mark of our freedom as rational beings alive in the world. For Origen, prayer does not immobilize us; it activates us. God uses our freedom, Origen insists, for the benefit of others. When we pray, we participate in God’s work.
Closer to our day, 20th century theologian and philosopher of the civil rights movement, Howard Thurman, also believes in the power of prayer to align us with God’s work. He believed that prayer opens our life to another’s need and helps us see what that need has to do with us. When we pray for others, God’s vast creative energies wind through the lives of the one who prays and the one who is prayed for, filling the space between us with a growing understanding of what we owe one another and a growing desire to be of use to one another.
Jewish-Christian mystic Simone Weil describes prayer with a similar view. She speaks of it as focusing our attention, turning our gaze. Turning our attention to God and to our suffering neighbor – each requires a willingness to be present to them, It is to be fully present even to what is invisible to us, to remain turned toward love even in the midst of our neighbor’s affliction and our own.
Another way to think of this is by praying for someone or some situation we are choosing not to look away. By our prayers for others we are keeping our focus on the needs of the world. So while sending out thoughts and prayers has become shorthand for inaction, instead our thoughts and our prayers can keep us turned toward others and focused and continually aware of their needs. The more we do this; the more focused our attention; the more likely is their concern to become our own concern. And our encounter in our prayers with God’s vast creative energy will set us free to change.
In that way thoughts and prayers can become active means for encouraging and building up. More than anything else, the church needs to be a place where we can find encouragement and support. It needs to be a place where we can be built up to do God’s work in the world, investing our lives to bring love and hope to an uncertain and fearful people. When the expectations become burdensome, when the world becomes chaotic, when the worries pile up, this should be the place where we can come and be nourished and strengthened and uplifted. This should be the place where we are reminded what is truly important: people and love and God. But this will only be that place if we are there for one another, accepting and caring for each other, and praying for each other. That is the only way we will be able to live in these uncertain times – if we do it together.