Saturday, October 15, 2011

Do as I do

Proper 24 Year A        1 Thess 1:1-10             The Rev. Benton Quest

I have a confession to make: The last time I preached on this Sunday’s scripture, I had the best AND the worst reviews that I have ever received from a congregation. When I meet with former congregants, often, the conversation will get back to this sermon. They either comment that they still remember the sermon or they comment that they still cannot believe that I would ever have done such a thing. So with that in mind, I have decided to give preaching on this scripture another go and see what happens!
Last time I preached on the epistle reading, I was trying to come up with a way for the people of the congregation to directly experience the hypocrisy of one’s words and one’s actions. I was trying to impress upon them what it looks like and feels like when someone’s actions are in direct violation to their words.  How I demonstrated this was to stand up at the pulpit, light up a cigarette, and proceed to tell people about the evils of smoking. Needless to say, it made quite an impression. Many people understood the point I was trying to make. As I said, I was told that it was one of the best sermons they heard, but there were some who where so upset that I would even think of smoking in the pulpit! What kind of example was I setting! “THINK OF THE CHILDREN!”  Some threatened to never come back.
But you know what? Even these people who got so upset about the whole incident demonstrated exactly the point I was trying to make: When our actions and our words are in conflict, people are far more likely to remember our actions rather than our words.
In our reading from First Thessalonians, Paul discusses what it means to model behavior for the people. He talks about how he and his companions went among the Thessalonians and how, now that they had been among them, the Thessalonians have begun to imitate the behavior they had seen. Paul and his companions went among the people of Thessalonica, acting in the name of Christ and showing the people what it meant to live as a Christian.
This reading represents one of the more difficult reading to preach: How do you preach about grace when the reading seems to be lifting up the wonder of works? Paul was telling the Thessalonians, and is telling us, that works are important. Works are what the world sees and what the world uses to judge us. Works are the fruit by which we will be known. As the song says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” Probably more accurately, “They will know we are Christians by the love they see us demonstrate.”
Now here lies the tension: We are told that we are saved by grace through faith, not works. So it is God’s good grace and pleasure to save us, not some form of repayment for the works we do. We don’t have to do anything to earn God’s love. There is nothing we COULD ever do to earn God’s love. However, how we act effects how others perceive God and how others respond to God’s good gift of grace.
Just like it would be hard to believe a lecture on the hazards of smoking given by a person puffing on a cigarette, it is also hard to believe that God is important to some people when you look at their lives. When we claim to be Christian, people begin to look at our lives to see what difference being a Christian actually makes. When we claim to be Christian, our children and our grandchildren look to see if we are being true to our word.  Would the people we encounter on the freeways or in the grocery line know we are Christian by our interactions with them? Are we practicing what we preach or are we doing the Christian equivalent of telling them to not smoke while waving around a lit cigarette? If, to the world, our lives appear indistinguishable from the lives of anyone else, why should anyone consider being a Christian? I personally think it does make a difference and I hope that difference is evident in my life.
How does your Christianity play out in your life? As a seminary classmate of mine used to say, “If being a Christian were illegal, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” When people look at your life, are they seeing God’s love as something that is important or are they seeing it as something to be used when necessary and forgotten when convenient?
For most of us, we learned our faith from those around us. We learned our faith by watching our parents, watching our grandparents, watching those who were close to us. It was through these people that we learned what it means to be people of faith and what it means to be Christians. It wasn’t through something that we read in a book. It wasn’t through some well thought out theological treatise; it was through the one-to-one interactions with other Christians that we came to faith and continue to grow in faith. And it is through interactions with US that others come to faith and grow in faith.
All of you who are parents and grandparents, the faith you leave to your children and grandchildren has so much more to do with what you do than what you say. Your children and grandchildren are watching WHERE you place God in your lives. They are watching the prominence or lack of prominence you give to your faith. Just as the Thessalonians watched Paul, our children and grandchildren are watching us. They notice if and when we go to church. They notice if and when we pray before meals. They observe how we handle our finances or what we say about people when those people are out of earshot.
Even if our children are long gone, we still continue to teach by example. I remember things older people in my church did as I grew. I remember which people seemed nice, and which to avoid. There were people who were just nice to be around and others who seemed to be constantly scowling. In this way, in the way these people conducted themselves during something as simple as coffee hour, these people also taught me about faith and about what it means to live one’s faith.
Are we committed to our faith? Do we live out this commitment in our lives? Do we hold our faith out proudly or do we hide it away? Do we say one thing in Church and something totally different on Monday morning? If Paul were writing to us today, to the Floradians, would we be commended on our risking persecution to live out our faith? Would we be commended for being a model for other people?  I would venture that these could be some tough questions to answer. But, I think that if we delved into why the questions are hard to answer, we might learn some things about our person faith.
I think the extent to which we are uncomfortable living our faith is the extent to which we have forgotten God’s love. We forget that our worth has already been established. We are free to model love because we have first been loved and we have been loved totally. When we forget this love, it is then, that we begin to model behaviors we would rather not have those around us copy.  When we forget that Christ loves us so much that he would die for us, it is then that our behavior can take some embarrassing turns.
We, as followers of Christ, are to pattern our lives after Christ, and that means we are to live a life of service. Although we don’t earn our salvation through our actions, our actions are a reflection of the salvation we have already received. We are role models to our children, our grandchildren, our families, our co-workers, and those around us. How we live out Christ’s love in our lives can greatly effect how those around us live out the love of Christ in their lives. As Paul explained, we look to Christ as an example, but others are looking to us.
Now this could weigh very heavily on us. We could walk away from this whole thing feeling like it is our fault if people don’t fully experience the love of God. We could feel like our ever action is under a microscope. But that kind of overly self-conscious existence is not what a loving God would want for us.
The life of example is really not that difficult. When we bring the love of Christ deeply into our lives, we can’t help but have that love show through. It is not some kind of show we have to put on, it is a way of living our lives as a celebration of extravagant love God has for us. It is a way to celebrate the gift of life we have been given. This gift of love is freely given to us; how we live this love is our gift back to God. How we live it is our gift to our family, friends, our congregation, and our world.
Our example is our legacy. How we live our lives is our gift to our children, our grandchildren, and those around us. The example we set will stay with the people we encounter, especially with our children, for the rest of their lives. But we are not alone. We also have our role models. We have Christ as our mode. We have the Bible to lead us! And we have each other to support us along the way.  We do not earn salvation through our actions, but our actions tell the world the story of Christ. 
As individuals, what story are you telling?  Are you telling the story of love and forgiveness?  Or are you telling the story of grudge and judgment?  As a congregation are you spreading the truth of Christ to those in the world?  Or are you maintaining a safe distance from those around?  I know you to be a very kind and considerate congregation.  I have been luck to experience your hospitality on many occasions.  I just pray that your kindness and caring is being released into a world that needs to experience Christ’s love!
Well, no cigarettes this time through, but I hope that we can see that we, when we call ourselves Christian, represent Christ to a world looking for truth.  And it is through our actions that the love of Christ is spread, throughout the community and from generation to generation.

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