Keith Dean Myers
Last week, a Facebook friend shared a post that about a Christian minister in Uganda who felt he was so holy that he would not let himself be contaminated by the church floor. He demanded his parishioners to lie on that floor so he could walk into the church on their backs. The story was accompanied by a picture of a man in a suit being balanced by men on either side of him as he made his way across a sea of human backs. Probably a lot of like how it feels to lumberjacks when they traverse logs floating on water, rolling a few, I suspect along the way.
Was this story real news or fake news? Anymore, who knows? But my immediate reaction, as a retired minister, was, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Then I caught myself, and thought, “How awful; I never did that, or anything like it.”
And then I caught myself again: “Or did I?”
Real news or fake, the story is an example of the old saw, “It’s true, whether it happened or not.”
Pastors can, and sometimes do, walk all over the backs of the people they are called to serve. Though not at Christ Church, of course!
Clearly, that African pastor was unfamiliar with 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, as well as with a whole slew of similar texts in the New Testament.
Paul, the author of this morning’s epistle reading, was not officially the pastor or priest of the church in Thessalonica, of course. There were no such formalized clerical offices in the very beginning. But he was the first century church’s premier evangelist, and apostle to the world. He was certainly an authority figure to many of the churches around the Mediterranean Sea. And Paul, who could have employed the power he had received from Christ in all kinds of negative and dehumanizing ways, reminds the church at Thessalonica that he came to them with one purpose on his heart: to declare the good news of God in Jesus Christ. That is, he came to preach the news of God’s unconditional love and acceptance of each of person, of the church as a body, and of the world itself.
Paul articulates the personal implications of this news in his behavior and in his relationship with that church. He did not come out of deceit or impure motives or trickery; he did not speak to please folks with flattery or pretext for greed; he did not seek their praise. He may have made some demands, he confesses, but there’s no evidence that walking on their backs was one of them. No, Paul and his companions, Silvanus, and Timothy, “were gentle (literally, infants) among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.” (Mixed metaphor there!) He writes that they shared not only the gospel, but also themselves. The Thessalonicans had become very dear to them. They’d never abuse their mutual relationship.
Why was it so important to Paul to make a big deal about how modestly and humbly he had worked in Thessalonica? In the opening of this letter, which we heard read last Sunday, he celebrates the power of example as crucial to Christian witness. First, Paul followed the example set by Jesus himself. Then, the Thessalonicans followed his good example, and thus they became a good example to the entire Greek peninsula. If Christians not only believe in Christ, but act like him, their actions will speak in ways their verbal professions of faith do not. And, who knows, the world itself beyond the church might take notice and change the way it acts.
The good news does not allow anyone, even Paul, to walk on anyone else’s back, either literally or figuratively. We are all equally and wholly loved just as we are, and just as we shall always be. So, before God we stand together as brothers and sisters, clergy, lay, all of us. The good news is as true for today as it was in the first Christian century. And living by that good news is desperately needed today, perhaps as never before in our lifetimes.
There was a time, a time I somewhat remember, when people joined churches to improve their social status. In order to be respected in a community, you had better be a church member. It would help your business or profession. Moreover, it mattered which church you were associated with. Some churches had more important members than did others, perhaps people who were potential business contacts, who belonged to the economic status to which you aspired, who were members of the right country club.
Fortunately, that time is mostly gone. Church members may feel that certain churches have more or less status than theirs does, but to the world outside the church itself, that hardly matters. Few outsiders know or care about the differences between denominations, or much at all about individual congregations. You do not need church membership to shore up your business or career goals, or to have status in a community. While members of a congregation may enjoy relationships that lead to some kind of gain on the part of one or the other of them, seeking material benefit is no longer a common reason for being part of a church. In fact, many think they do better in the world without the baggage of being known as a church-goer.
I am quite sure this change is the work of the Holy Spirit. The search for personal gain was never a good reason for being a church member or leader, and it certainly is not a good reason for being a disciple of Jesus Christ. Getting ahead materially or socially in this world has nothing to do with living out the good news.
We can easily cite examples of the worst excesses of using the church for personal gain. USA Today last week reported that a Mississippi minister stole some $330,000 from the church he was serving. The horrifying scandal of child abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic Church still has repercussions, even though the church has tried to address the problem. Not to mention walking on others’ backs! These and other less spectacular stories involving both clergy and laypeople happen too easily and too often in churches in part because churches are regarded as places of trust and safety, and no one wants to break an unwritten code of silence: it’s not polite to question another church person’s actions or motives.
Then there are the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” churches and preachers. Such ministries thrive in places such as Africa where poverty and need are rampant. But they also have found a home in this country. People who have perhaps unsuccessfully tried all other avenues of material success hear their gospel as one more chance to make it in this world.
Unfortunately for this distortion of the gospel, there are too many people of strong and vital faith who never really “get ahead” in this life, often for reasons far beyond their control. Such people are often the most-compelling examples of real faith at work. As to totally-unfaithful and unethical people amassing large fortunes…well, it happens. I think the only folks who generally prosper from the Prosperity Gospel are those who proclaim it. And they seem to prosper very well indeed. Paul would be horrified!
In the “day-to-dayness” of ordinary church life, we are most tempted to play the kind of one-upmanship games that ultimately do harm. These games can be played in terms of faith, knowledge, giving, attendance, participation, leadership. They are often unconsciously contrived as proof of our high rank, or of our low place on the congregational totem pole. My faith is stronger than Joe’s. We give more than the Smith’s give. The Jones family’s kids always act up in church. I’m not as smart as Sally, so you don’t expect me to lead that discussion, do you?
Appropriate to this most wonderful season of stewardship, we may let ourselves off the hook with something like, “My gift can’t make any difference, so it doesn’t matter.”
It does matter . . . to the church, and to you. It matters to you because you matter to God, and yourself.
Most churches employ some ordering of people for purposes of providing leadership. It is for carrying out responsibilities, not for bestowing privilege, nor for proving that God loves some of us more than others. Pope Francis has captured the world’s attention within the context of the enormous power and prestige of the Papacy because he has retained the humanity that is common among us all. We may not agree with him on everything, but he comes across a serving in the very way Paul sought to serve the early church.
Believing and living as a follower of Jesus can help us order life in productive ways, and focus on important habits that may lead to financial or other material gain. But no earthly guarantees may be attached to the effort. The most important hard and fast promise God consistently makes in Scripture is to be “with us” in all our times. It is the promise fulfilled completely in Emanuel – that is, in “God-with-us,” in Jesus Christ.
This morning, we gave Bibles to our first-graders. It is always a happy time. Even though we know few of them are now able to read and understand it, we trust that this gift will begin a relationship between them and Scripture that will last a lifetime and lead to faithful understanding and discipleship. The gift of a Bible to ones so young is a testimony to scripture’s place in nurturing faith.
Scripture’s centrality to the Christian life was one of the main themes of the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe. Today, many Protestants are celebrating what we call “Reformation Sunday.” The Sunday before October 30, All Saints’ Eve, is celebrated annually. On All Saints’ Eve in 1517 (exactly 500 years ago tomorrow), Martin Luther struck the spark that triggered the Reformation. The whole history of the church, Europe, and ultimately of the world, took a sharp turn from which it never turned back.
Luther translated the Bible into German, the language of his people, because he believed that without a personal knowledge of the Bible, believers could be led into all sorts of mistakes and abuse. They could be fooled and used by people who could take advantage of their ignorance to line their own pockets, to promote their own interests, or just to make themselves feel good at their expense.
Luther wanted people to read for themselves the words of Paul in Romans that finally brought him peace and hope, “Those who are righteous are righteous by faith.” By faith in our faithful Savior, we are liberated to live the lives God gave us. It’s the good news Paul preached and lived, that your pastors preach and live, and that I hope you have heard today.
I trust that those children, and we ourselves, are moved to living faith by all the words of grace in the Good Book. Then, none of us will ever need to walk over anyone else to know our worth in Jesus’s saving love. All of us will stand together in the bright light of his grace. And perhaps the world will take note of us and our example, and give God the praise.