Tuesday, October 25, 2011
Complaints and rejoicing over congregations...
If you were a fly in the wall at a meeting of Pastors, you might hear them complaining about their congregations. But you knew this. What might surprise you is how many times a Pastor rejoices in and gives thanks for his congregation. But then you hear St. Paul speak the same way about the congregations under his care. Sometimes he rejoices and sometimes he complains. Today we heard him rejoice about the congregation in Thessalonika. The very things that caused him joy, would bring joy to any Pastor – even to me! So lets take a look at what is his cause for rejoicing over this church.
He writes of the joy and thanksgiving he brings before God our Father as he recounts this congregations work of faith. The work of faith is not some good work which is done to impress God but the good works that flow directly from faith in God's unmerited mercy. As I have quoted to you before, one sainted Pastor said we need to get good works out of the church and into the world where they belong. This means we need to stop parading or pleading our good works before God and put them to work in the world testifying to the grace of God that has saved us. God works have no place within the Church but they need to be displayed before the world.
These good works do not replace faith or complete with faith, but flow from faith. St. Paul is describing a congregation so fully rooted in faith in Christ that good works naturally flow out into the world. Who would not rejoice at this kind of congregation? Is this not the kind of congregation that we need to become! Where our strength and power rest not earthly forms of power but in love, not in earthly size but in acts of mercy, and not in earthly wisdom but in our determination to know Jesus Christ and to proclaim Him faithfully.
St. Paul rejoices at a congregation where faith is living and active and every day giving birth to the good works. This is faith active in love! And that leads us to the second cause for St. Paul's joy. The church is a labor of love – the labor of Christ's love that results in our love – returned to Him and displayed to the world. Think about this kind of love. Imagine how it would be if we did not have to be talked into or tricked into doing the work of the Kingdom. Imagine how it would be if we did not have to cajoled into doing what we know is our privilege and our duty as the baptized children of God.
Love's duty is not a burden placed upon us but the very purpose for which we exist. Christ works in us not as the voice of guilt forcing us to do what we don't want to or shaming us into doing what is right. Christ's love changes our heart so that what is good and right is our goal and desire.
Our life together as the Church is born of Christ's love and manifested in the way in which we love as He has loved us. The neighbor in need, the homeless person hard to love, these are the very opportunities for us to show forth Christ's love. For we were that neighbor in need for whom Christ came and we were that homeless person marked for death until the love of Christ sought us out through the power of the cross and brought us home to our Father.
From faith, in love, and now St. Paul describes the Thessalonians as steadfast in hope. This is where the rubber hits the road. It is easy to be optimistic when things are going well. But hope is not dependent upon which way the wind is blowing. Our hope is as certain when all things are against us as when all things are going our way. St. Paul is not talking about being more positive or optimistic but living out the hope that is ours in Christ. Imagine how our lives might change if we were as steadfast in hope as St. Paul wrote about.
St. Paul lauds this congregation as being steadfast in hope. They are so confident of God's grace and presence that they act in hope as they live out their life together. Could that be us? Should that be us?
Are we people of hope who demonstrate that hope to those around us? Is our hope as real as the suffering of the cross that gave this hope birth in us? Do we see ourselves as people practicing this hope before the world? Do we find it easier to speak and act out of fear than from the vantage point of God’s steadfast and enduring grace and the hope born of this grace?
We as individuals and as a congregation are works of God, works of faith, the fruits of Christ's labor of love on the cross to be laborers for that love for the world, and the steadfast planting of the Lord in hope. That is who we are. Our calling is to live out who we are within the Church and in our life together as God's people and before the world as witnesses. But it is too darn easy for us to complain about this or that, to list reasons why we cannot do this or that, or holding on to the misery instead of grasping God's gift of hope.
As we recall the good work of the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League, perhaps the LWML and their mites are pretty good examples for us. Who would think that you could fund a mission with pocket change? We drop it on the ground and do not even bother to pick it up. Yet this pocket change has multiplied and magnified the work of witness and service in the hands of the women of the LWML. If they can do this much with their mites, what can we do with all the resources God has placed in our care?
You want to know what kind of congregation causes a Pastor to rejoice? A congregation in which faith is active in love, giving birth to the good works that show off Christ to the world... in which the labor of Christ's love for them has moved and shaped them to work and act in love toward the folks around them and the people next to them in the pews... so steadfast in hope that they do not give up on the Lord or the work that the Lord has given them to do...
If you want to know what I pray for, it is that I am the kind of Pastor who will help you as a congregation become all that God has called you to be. And what is that goal? Pews filled with folks who rejoice in the blessings of the faith in which they have been saved... loving people within the boundaries of this building, whose love spills over into the world to show forth the cross in acts of mercy and kindness... a hopeful people, more sure of God's hope than of their disappointment, more confident of God's resources than fearful of their future.
You know what.... I believe that this is what you pray for as well... That this is the kind of congregation you seek... Therefore, let us not only pray for these things, let us work them out among us as a people living their faith, active in love, steadfast in hope... examples of God's good work and examples of God's good workers, too! Amen.