Sermon: All You’ve Got to Do is Be Worth Imitating

October 22, 2017
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

I can’t help but wonder whether I would have liked the Apostle Paul.

He was the champion for including the unincludeable. He was the guy who made the great turn-around. Though he’d once actively tried to squelch the spreading message of God’s Messiah in Jesus, he turned that same energy and intensity to spreading it to brand-new quarters of the world. While others wondered, can we include anybody but those descended from Abraham in the growing People of the Way – they weren’t called Christians yet – Paul had a clear, clarion answer:

“Yes!” he declared. The Gentiles are also God’s children, so they should hear the Good News of God’s grace in Jesus, and they should be fully welcomed into the community of faith without having to surmount the barriers traditionally imposed.

I’d like to think I’d have liked that a lot about Paul.

On the other hand, I probably would have been suspicious about his past acts against the Church. And I think I’d have found his single-mindedness upsetting. And I’m quite sure that I’d have found him obnoxiously self-righteous.

After all, here he in this letter he commended his friends in Thessalonica, which was certainly gracious of him. But what is it that he praised in them? “You became imitators of us and the Lord,” he wrote.

“Imitators of us and the Lord.” As if Paul and Christ were one and the same.

Paul was not one of those people you had to persuade to stand up and say something. He was probably one of those you never asked, because you knew he would.

To give him due credit, when Paul said “we” he included his companions Silas and Timothy, so it’s a little less egocentric than it sounds. But still. “Congratulations, Thessalonians, you’re just like me and Silas and Timothy, and that makes you just like Jesus!”

Oh, dear.

And yet…

He was also right to speak of imitation, and just how crucial it is to make a faithful life. Imitation first of the Christians who teach us what the faith means to them. Imitation, through their example, of Jesus who began it all.

All you’ve got to do, dear friends, is be worth imitating.

And now is when I really mean it when I say, “Oh, dear.”

Annette Weissenrieder writes (in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds.), “The concept of imitation in Paul must be understood in a radical way that does not imply following a moral example or being obedient to him but rather points to a radical desire to strive for perfection.”

“To strive for perfection.” That makes it even worse. And yet, I think that’s exactly right. Christian faith is, at one and the same time, a drive toward a perfect life, an acknowledgement that we do not achieve perfection, a readiness to confess our failures, and a renewed dedication to improve toward perfection. If Paul’s besetting failure was a tendency to self-righteousness, he wasn’t the first and he wasn’t the last. Elsewhere in his letters he admitted it, and you can see his struggle with it in nearly every one.

In other things, though, he was well worth imitating.

There is a curious feature to his letters, one I only recently learned. Paul followed the standard way of addressing a letter in the first century, which was different from what we do. If he were to write in our day, he’d open his letter by writing “Dear Thessalonians,” and close it with “Sincerely yours, Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy.” But that’s not how people wrote letters in those days. So Paul opened it with “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the Church of the Thessalonians.”

In most letters of the day, the next word would have been “chaire,” the Greek word for “Greetings.” Paul, however, played with the words, and played with the meaning. He wrote: “Charis kai eirene,” which we translate as “Grace and peace.”

He turned a simple opening greeting into a profound opening blessing. Let me say that again:

He turned a simple opening greeting into a profound opening blessing.

And that is something to imitate in Paul. Kathryn Matthews writes, “While Paul affirms the call of the people of Thessalonica and all Christians, it’s a call to share this free gift with the world that God loves, for (as she quotes in turn from John Dominic Crossan) it ‘is a free gift that God offers peace to everyone, everywhere.’”

All you’ve got to be is worth imitating. It’s still not any easier. But now we know what Paul meant by it.

He meant to be a blessing to those around us, and to be a bearer of peace.

When my kids were home, I learned to be a good cook. At least, I practiced it regularly and tried to learn: learn both successful cooking techniques, and also what I could cook exactly right that my children didn’t like anyway. I never did persuade them to eat mushrooms.

That was an ordinary, regular, simple (though not always easy) way to be a blessing to my family, and to end each day with a meal that fostered peace.

These days, I don’t cook all that much. I’ve never enjoyed cooking for one very much. So I tend to stand in line at the take-out counters of the shops down below here, and hope that they’re cooking so that I’ll be blessed and so that I’ll find a little peace.

Still, I do my part as well. I say please, and thank you, and I smile. I wish the servers a good day, and I mean it. I want their two minutes of me to make their day just a little bit better.

I hope I succeed.

Michael Joseph Brown writes: “The apostle reminds us indirectly that human beings can only experience the fullness of their humanity when they are in deep, trusting relationships with one another. Even more, this relationship has more depth when it is experienced along with God. In addition, imitation becomes an outgrowth of this strong relationship.”

That’s what Church is for. It’s so that we can make and deepen human relationships. It’s so that we can build these relationships in the presence of God. It’s so that we can experience the best of one another and imitate what is good.

That still doesn’t make it easy.

We don’t just bring the best of ourselves to Church, do we? We bring all the other things, too (and that includes me). We bring our fears, our reluctance to let go, our “me, first” attitudes, our pride. Just like the Apostle Paul did.

Out of all this, though, we can create blessings and peace.

We can ask how. Can you imagine a powerful question to ask someone than, “How can I bless you today?” Imagine being asked that by somebody who truly seems to care, who truly wants to bless you? What a wondrous moment that would be.

Asking the question, though, may not be enough, or even appropriate. I was listening to the radio yesterday and heard an interview with Nora McInerny, host of an audio program called, “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” She’s acquainted with grief from the inside, and one of the startling things she said was that the statement, “Let me know what I can do for you,” was terribly difficult for her in the midst of her loss. The people she most appreciated were the ones who swooped in with meals, and who came in uninvited and started to clear the house.

I’m so accustomed to the politeness of asking that I forget that people may not be able to think about what will help. In the midst of a crisis, they don’t have the resources to come up with assignments, with things for people to do.

It’s something to keep in mind for ourselves as helpers and ourselves when we’re in need, too.

It’s all very simple, really, just not easy. All you’ve got to do is be worth imitating. Be worth imitating so that you inspire your family to do the same. Be worth imitating so that you inspire your friends to do the same. Be worth imitating so that you inspire strangers to do the same.

Be worth imitating so that you bear blessing and foster peace.

Grace and peace to you.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

With apologies: the recording cut off the last few minutes of the recording.

Photo by Eric Anderson – and it is intended as a blessing.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , , | Posted on October 22, 2017

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