“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
These words were a mantra to me during my childhood. For those who might not recognize them, they come from the opening credits of the TV show Star Trek. And every Saturday night at seven, I could be found in the living room with our family television set tuned to channel 12. And for the next hour, I would be transported (“beamed up”, if you will) into the 24th century and onto the bridge of the USS Enterprise, where Captain Picard would be my guide as we faced crises of galactic importance (but none so complicated that they couldn’t be resolved by the end of the hour). This weekly ritual was like a Sabbath to me. Star Trek gave me comfort and it gave me hope. It restored my faith in the power of the human spirit.
One of my favorite things about Star Trek is its constant theme of exploration. The crew of the starship Enterprise spent a lot of time in distant and uncharted regions of the galaxy. They existed on the growing edge of human experience that led to new discoveries and new insights. Something about that spoke to me. At ten years old, I knew that was how I wanted to live my life.
Initially, my hunger to explore was directed outward to the stars. I wanted to travel into outer space. To be honest, I still do. Whenever humans get around to colonizing Mars, I figure they’ll eventually need pastors up there. And you know what? I’d put in for that call! I’m just sayin’…
In the meantime, I’ve turned my attention to exploring the “inner space” of spirituality. The territory is different, but that drive to explore is the same. I still want to “boldly go where no one has gone before.” That’s what motivates me to keep going and keep growing as a human being. I can’t say that I’ve ever explored completely new ground for humanity, but I’m constantly discovering plenty of territory out there that’s new to me. It’s exciting and I love it.
Some of us explore because we want to. Others explore because they have to. One of my hardest moments as a pastor came last year when my wife and I co-officiated at a funeral for a baby. In that moment, every bit of conventional wisdom, biblical scholarship, and theological understanding went right out the window. We were forced to explore completely new territory. It wasn’t fun or exciting but we had to go there because the parents of that little girl were depending on us. We had no answers for them. There is no bumper sticker slogan in the world that will make that kind of pain easier to deal with. So, we were forced to explore new territory.
As hard as it was for us, it was a million times harder for the parents. They said it felt like they had been initiated into a club that no one wants to be a member of. They would have given anything to be anywhere else in that moment. That kind of exploration is nothing but torture.
That’s the kind of exploration the Thessalonian Christians were forced into in today’s scripture reading. We’ve been learning a lot about the Thessalonian church during these past few weeks. They were a dynamic, loving, and spiritually vibrant church. When the apostle Paul came through town as a missionary, these folks were particularly and remarkably open to what he had to say. Their reputation as people of faith had spread all over the region. But they also had some hard questions that they were struggling with.
You see, a big part of Paul’s message had to do with the return of Christ. When he preached, he made it sound like Jesus might be coming back as soon as next Thursday, certainly within the lifetimes of his audience members! From what we can tell, it seems like Paul himself truly believed that was the case. He wasn’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes.
The problem came as time went by. Jesus was nowhere to be seen. What happened? Did they miss it? Was Paul wrong? The point when they got really REALLY nervous is when people in their community started dying. What would happen to them? If they weren’t here when Jesus got back, would they be lost forever? The Christian church never had to ask these kinds of questions before. They didn’t have any answers to fit the mold. What were they supposed to do now?
It was a moment of necessary spiritual exploration. They were asking questions that no one had thought to ask before. What will happen to our deceased Christian friends? What will happen to us if Jesus doesn’t return during our lifetime?
It must have been a difficult moment for Paul as a pastor. He had taught his flock in the best way he knew how. Had all of that ministry been in vain? Was there any hope left? Paul was forced into some pretty heavy-duty spiritual exploration.
He begins with the assumption that there is hope. He may not know much else, but he believes that God in Christ can be trusted. That’s number one. Next, he thought about what he already knew he believed. In verse 14, he talked about how they already believed that “Jesus died and rose again”. To him, this meant that the dead are not beyond God’s care. Inspired by further reflection and a powerful visionary experience, Paul presented the Thessalonian Christians with an image of “meet[ing] the Lord in the air.” In other words, Paul was saying that there is a place (i.e. “in the air”) where heaven and earth come together. In this place, we have communion with Christ, each other, and all of those who have died before us. They are not gone. We will be together again.
Paul gives the Thessalonians this inspirational exploration as a source of strength and encouragement. It’s something to hold onto in dark and uncertain times so that they might also hold onto hope. It’s a mental image that arises out of questions they’ve never had to ask before. In one sense, it represented a shift away from what they had initially been taught. Jesus might not physically return within their chronological lifetime. On the other hand, it points to much deeper truths that do not change. Hope does not change. God’s faithfulness does not change. God’s love, which is stronger than death itself, does not change.
In the same way, we who live in the 21st century are forced into constant exploration. Society around us is changing on a scale and at a rate that is heretofore unknown in the history of our species. We are asking questions that have never been asked before. What are appropriate Christian responses to evolution, human cloning, or same-sex marriage? There are many people of faith who claim to know the answers already, but the reality is that those are questions that Jesus and Paul never had to ask in the time and place in which they lived. It is left to us to faithfully explore these questions and try to answer them in a way that affirms those things that don’t change: God is faithful. There is hope. God loves you.
We’re probably going to disagree with one another in the answers we come up with. That’s okay. It’s all part of the process of exploration. It’s a lot of trial and error. In fact, I think we’re more likely to get at the (capital T) Truth if we go ahead and assume that each of us is probably going to get the answers wrong somewhere along the line. Remembering that will keep us humble.
There is a wonderful hymn that is not in our hymnal. It was written in the 1850s by a man named George Rawson who based the words off of the last sermon preached to the Plymouth Rock pilgrims before they left Europe for the New World. It goes like this:
“We limit not the truth of God to our poor reach of mind —
By notions of our day and sect — crude partial and confined
No, let a new and better hope within our hearts be stirred
For God hath yet more light and truth to break forth from the Word.”
So, go out from this place today and back into the final frontier. Remember your continuing mission: to explore this strange new world, to seek out new light and new revelations, to boldly go where no one has gone before! Remember, above all else, those truths that don’t change: God is faithful. There is hope. God loves you.
Back when I was in high school and college, the churches I went to made a particularly big deal about certain little things that weren’t such a big deal to other people. These churches were really concerned about what Christians were wearing, what they were drinking, the places where they would hang out, the people they were friends with, the TV shows and movies they were watching, and the music they were listening to. They spent a lot of time thinking and talking about this stuff because they figured that if Christians participated in any of these so-called “forbidden” activities, then people who saw them and weren’t Christians might somehow think less of Jesus (and therefore not want to become Christians themselves, thus condemning their souls to hell for all eternity… or so the argument goes). They called this process “protecting your witness.”
“Good Christians shouldn’t go out dancing,” they’d say, “because it might ruin your witness!”
Now, to their credit, there’s certain logic to this idea. Our actions, as Christians, certainly do reflect upon the God we claim to believe in. However, I think these churches focus on the wrong kinds of actions. When I talk to people who aren’t Christians and ask them why they’re not interested in Christianity, I’ve never once heard someone say, “Because I once saw a Christian dancing in a nightclub.” However, I’ve heard lots of people say, “I don’t want to be a Christian because most Christians I know are judgmental hypocrites and I don’t want to be like them.”
Sometimes, these folks will point to the headline-making scandals involving high-profile Christians. One favorite example that people mention is the infamous PTL scandal from the mid-1980s involving Jim and Tammy-Faye Bakker. For those who might not remember the story, Jim and Tammy-Faye built a huge faith-based media empire that combined evangelism with entertainment. They loudly proclaimed the power of the so-called “prosperity gospel”: that God would bless people with material wealth so long as they “planted seeds of faith” (which typically meant donating a certain sum of money to the organization in question).
After years of successful growth, the bottom fell out of Jim and Tammy-Faye’s empire when severe allegations of marital infidelity and financial malfeasance began rising to the surface. Jim Bakker went to prison for a number of years and the PTL organization went bankrupt. It’s stories like this that tend to put people off of Christianity in the long-term.
The Apostle Paul was aware of this kind of danger in his own day. In fact, people accused him of doing something very similar to Jim and Tammy-Faye Bakker. Paul’s apostolic ministry kept him on the road a lot, which was a bigger deal in those days than it is now. He came through the city of Thessalonica at one point and started some very meaningful relationships there. As we heard in last week’s reading, the Thessalonian Christians became known for their deep and open-hearted spirituality. But the Spirit moved and needs were pressing in other churches, so Paul eventually had to say goodbye.
After his departure, things continued to go (mostly) well for the new Thessalonian church. Their faith was strong, but doubts eventually began to arise about Paul himself. Was he just some fly-by-night preacher? Did he just blow out of town as soon as he had their money in the collection plate?
Word of these rumors reached Paul himself and he decided it was important enough to respond with this letter. He wasn’t just concerned about defending his own reputation. Paul knew that the life he lived would reflect upon the faith he preached. So he wanted to make darn sure that people were left with the right impression.
Paul wrote to the Thessalonians saying, “you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.” The others he mentioned were Silvanus (a.k.a. Silas) and Timothy, his associates in the mission field. Paul drew the Thessalonians’ attention, not just to the content of the message, but to the character of the messengers. He goes into detail, saying “our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery”. He continues, “As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed”. We’ll have to forgive Paul for tooting his own horn here, but he seems that he had a pretty clear sense of what he was trying to do in his ministry. He appeals to the collective conscience of those who knew him personally and saw him in action. We know from other parts of the New Testament that Paul had a side-job making tents. He used this trade to support himself while he traveled and preached. This, by the way, is why some pastors (like me) who support themselves with jobs outside the church are called “tentmakers” to this day. My “tent” just happens to be my classroom at Utica College. It’s not always easy, but it helps to know that I’m following in the footsteps of those who have gone before me. In our case, tentmaking allows this church to have a regular pastor. In Paul’s case, tentmaking protected his credibility as a minister of the gospel. In fact, the only time we have any record of Paul taking up a collection anywhere is for the relief of famine victims in Judea.
As we already said, Paul knew that the life he lived would reflect upon the faith he preached. So, what kind of message about God did Paul’s lifestyle send? Paul writes, “we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. 8So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.” The message that Paul was trying to send through his life was that God is gentle with us, “like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” God gives life, love, care, affection, nourishment, guidance, and protection. Isn’t that what a nursing mother does? That’s the message about God that Paul wanted the Thessalonians to absorb.
More than that, Paul said, “So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves”. Isn’t that also a statement about God? God shared God’s own self with us in the person of Jesus Christ. The Incarnation, which we celebrate each Christmas, is the remembrance of the time when “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” To paraphrase the same idea in Paul’s words, “So deeply does God care for us that God is determined to share with us… God’s own self, because we are very dear to God.” Paul meant for his actions to be a reflection of God’s love for all people.
There can be no doubt that the lives we live reflect upon the faith we profess. Regardless of the words we use, we should pay attention to the messages our actions send to others about God. Churches like the ones I used to go to send the message that God is demanding, uptight, and watching your every move to make sure you don’t have any fun. People like Jim and Tammy-Faye Bakker reinforced the idea that God is judgmental and hypocritical. Isn’t there a better message for Christians to send about God? I think there is.
Does anyone remember that Jim and Tammy-Faye Bakker had a son named Jamie? He was still very young when scandal brought the PTL organization down. Whatever happened to him? Well, you probably wouldn’t recognize him today. He goes by “Jay” now. He looks nothing like the clean-cut little boy in a sweater-vest on his parents’ TV show. These days, he’s completely covered in tattoos and piercings. As it turns out, Jay has followed in his father’s footsteps as a minister, but of a very different kind than his dad. Jay Bakker is the pastor of an unconventional church in New York City called ‘Revolution’. It meets in a bar and attracts all kinds of misfits who would never feel comfortable in a more conventional church. The Sundance Channel did a documentary on Jay’s life in 2006 called One Punk, Under God. It’s worth watching, if you get the chance.
What kind of message do you think people absorb about God from Jay Bakker’s life? I imagine they see God as unconventional, creative, and inclusive. I think they see God as someone who will travel outside the bounds of traditional religion in order to bring good news to outcasts and misfits. Doesn’t that sound like a God worth believing in?
When people look at your life, what kinds of conclusions do they draw about God? How does the life you live reflect upon the faith you profess? Through your actions, do people see God as uptight and hypocritical? Or do they see God as creative and nurturing? What do you think people see? What do you want them to see?
May God bless us all and continually guide our lives to be more and more like Jesus, whose life perfectly reflected the love of God in every way.
Has anyone here read or seen the Harry Potter books or movies? I imagine that many of you have. Personally, I’ve seen the movies but not read the books. If you’ve not experienced them yourself, I’m sure you’re at least aware of their existence. Just about everybody in our culture has.
Certain groups of Christians have made quite a name for themselves by claiming that the Harry Potter phenomenon is part of a satanic conspiracy to promote the practice of witchcraft among children. Here’s one juicy tidbit taken from the website exposingsatanism.org (a very serious title):
Many think it is just harmless fantasy. True it is fantasy, but it is laced with witchcraft and demonology as are most books like it…
There are many books out about Witchcraft but none so cleverly packaged like the latest. Satan is up to his old tricks again and the main focus is the children of the world. The latestcraze is a series of books by author J. K. Rowling, known as Harry Potter…
The whole purpose of these books is to desensitize readers and introduce them to the occult. What a better way to introduce tolerance and acceptance of what God calls an abomination, then in children’s books? If you can get them when they are young, then you have them for life. It’s the oldest marketing scheme there is…
Keep these books and their teachings from your child… Some teachers are reading these books to their classes. They are pagans using the school system to spread their agenda. Your tax dollars are being used to promote Witchcraft and no one is coming against it.
Even the current Pope has got in on the fun. Back when he was still a cardinal and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Inquisition), he said that the Harry Potter books’ “subtle seductions, which act unnoticed … deeply distort Christianity in the soul before it can grow properly.”
Wow. Pardon the pun, but this sure sounds like a witch-hunt to me!
So, what’s the real story? Well, as it turns out the author of the Harry Potter series (J.K. Rowling), far from being a practitioner of the dark arts, is actually a Christian. And, while I’m not one to toot our church’s horn too loudly, it also turns out that this famous author is one of our own: she’s a Presbyterian and an active member in the Church of Scotland. She says of herself, “yes, I believe. And yes, I go to the church.” But she also says, “I don’t take any responsibility for the lunatic fringes of my own religion.” Nor should she.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the plot of the Harry Potter novels, it follows the story of the title character and his friends as they pursue their magical education at the prestigious Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Along the way, their lives are continually threatened by the evil Lord Voldemort, who will stop at nothing to cheat death for himself.
Besides Harry and Voldemort, there are several other heroes and villains who come and go throughout the books. There’s one of these minor characters who everybody just loves to hate. Her name is Dolores Umbridge. Ms. Umbridge is a person who thrives on order. She likes neatness, punctuality, and good manners above all else. But underneath the surface, she is sadistic and evil. She takes a wicked delight in doling out cruel and unusual punishments on the students of Hogwart’s.
The thing about Dolores Umbridge that makes her so scary (scarier than Voldemort himself, if you ask me) is how she maintains her perfectly pressed image while being so horrible. That image of neatness, order, and propriety is nothing more than an empty shell with no substance. She reminds me of a poem by the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu:
When the Way is lost there is virtue
When virtue is lost there is humaneness
When humaneness is lost there is rightness
And when rightness is lost there is propriety.
The “Way” that Lao-Tzu mentions is more than just a path that one follows. For him, the “Way” is the supreme mystery that exists at the very heart of reality, from which all things are born. For us in the Christian tradition, we could easily say, “God”. In this poem, Lao-Tzu is describing the movement from depth to shallowness, from that which is meaningful to that which is meaningless. In the Harry Potter novels, Dolores Umbridge is a person who has completed that journey in its entirety.
Have you ever felt that way: like you’re going through the motions, being all pleasant and polite, but you wonder if there’s anything deeper than that? Do you ever wonder if there might be more to life than that? Do you ever hunger for real relationship and connection with yourself, with other people, or maybe even with something more? Do you ever wish you could find that “Way” again, as Lao-Tzu was saying, that supreme mystery at the heart of reality?
The apostle Paul, in today’s scripture reading, seems to think there is a way. If we look at it closely, we can see the drift from deep to shallow working in reverse. Paul begins with the polite and then takes it deep. The reading is taken from the very beginning of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, which is probably the oldest Christian document that we have on record. In it, Paul follows the typical format that one would find in a polite letter from the first century. When writing an important letter in that time, you wouldn’t just start right in with what you have to say. There were certain proprieties that had to be observed. First, the authors identify themselves, “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy”. Then they address their audience, “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ”. Then the author offers a greeting. Paul’s greeting, “Grace to you and peace” draws from Greek tradition, “Grace”, combined with a traditional Jewish greeting, “Peace”. So the opening of the letter goes like this: “Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.”
Already, Paul is taking polite custom and transcending it in order to make a theological point. He’s trying to get his readers to look deeper into his words, past the niceties and into the truth. He identifies his addressees with God and Jesus and then uses his typical greeting to remind them of what God is doing in their lives through Christ. “Grace” is the unmerited favor (or unconditional love) of God and “peace” (harmony, wholeness, well-being) comes as a result of having grace in your life. So, on one level, Paul is simply and politely saying, “Hi there!” But on a deeper level he’s making a statement about who God is and how God works in peoples’ lives. God is the one who brings harmony and well-being through unconditional love.
The next item you usually find in any nicely written letter from the first century is some kind of thanksgiving. This isn’t usually offered to the letter’s recipients, but to the gods on behalf of the recipients. For example, it might be something as simple as, “I give thanks to the gods for your good health.” Most of the time, it was just that short. But one unique characteristic of Paul’s letters is that he takes these thanksgivings quite seriously and spends time on them in order to make a point. Once again, Paul is taking one of those little moments that people hardly notice in life and slowing it down in order to force them to pay attention to it and see the deeper spiritual meaning hidden within it.
Paul gives thanks to God for the Thessalonians themselves and recounts the story of how he brought his message to them “not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit”. In, with, and under his human words, Paul tells them, there was a divine voice, the voice of the Holy Spirit, which was also speaking to them. In the same way, Paul continues, that same Spirit was also present in them as they listened. Paul reminds them of how they “received the word with joy in the Holy Spirit”. So there they were, in the midst of a human conversation, but it wasn’t just a religious sales pitch. It was also a moment of divine encounter as the Spirit of God was present and working in those who spoke and those who listened. Once again the ordinary became extraordinary as it was infused with spiritual depth and meaning.
What was the result of this divine encounter? Paul points to the Thessalonians’ transformed lives. He talks about their “work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope”. He says they “became imitators of us and of the Lord”, they “became an example to all the believers”, and they welcomed traveling strangers as they came through town. Here too, the Spirit of God was present and speaking through them. Paul observes how “the word of the Lord has sounded forth” so powerfully in the silent message of their lives that there is “no need to speak about it”. The Holy Spirit transforming peoples’ lives toward greater harmony and wholeness through the unconditional love of God is a powerful sermon unto itself, without a single word ever being spoken. This reminds me of that catchphrase which is often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel always, use words when necessary.” Eugene Peterson says it well in his paraphrase of this passage: “The word has gotten around. Your lives are echoing the Master’s Word, not only in the provinces but all over the place. The news of your faith in God is out. We don’t even have to say anything anymore—you’re the message!” Leonard Peltier says the same thing in today’s second reading: “Let who you are ring out & resonate in every word & every deed… You are the message.”
Beneath the surface of our polite, boring, and everyday lives there runs a deep current of spiritual meaning. In the midst of this ordinary day a mysterious and divine presence is working extraordinary miracles of transformation. The unconditional love of God is present in your life and guiding you toward greater harmony and wholeness. It’s there and it’s free for all whether we choose to acknowledge it as such or not.
The question I have for you today is this: Are you content to be someone like Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter, who lives life on the surface, breezing by each moment with a polite perfection that is really nothing more than an empty shell? Or are you open to the kind of deep and meaningful reality that Paul and Lao-Tzu were talking about? Are you willing to be mindful of the moment that you’re in, no matter how mundane, and recognize it as the dwelling place and workshop of the Holy Spirit? If any part of you can answer “Yes” to that last question (or even wants to say “Yes”), then you’ve already begun the journey. All that’s left to do is continually come back to that momentary awareness as often as possible during the rest of your day. Keep coming back to it, as often as you think of it, every day for the rest of your life. If you forget, don’t worry, just take that instant in which you remember that you are forgetting and momentarily bring your attention back to the moment itself. Look deeper. Pay attention. The 17th century monk Brother Lawrence called this “Practicing the Presence of God”. Jean-Pierre de Caussade called it “the Sacrament of the Present Moment”. Whatever you choose to call this exercise, however you undertake it, it’s the means to reconnecting with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with that deep, mysterious presence at the heart of all existence that we call God.