Brothers & sisters don’t get discouraged in doing what is right. 2 Thessalonians 3:13
It's been twenty-six weeks of "ordinary time" since the last church feast day on Pentecost Sunday — an entire half-year. Next week we celebrate Christ the King on the last Sunday of the liturgical year. The week after that we start all over again with the first Sunday in Advent.
But for this one last week we're still stuck in the uneventful. And right on cue, to keep us going for this long haul of liturgical time, Paul this week encourages us: Don’t get discouraged in doing what is right. Or as the NASB translation puts it, do not grow weary of doing good.
Paul himself had founded the church at Thessalonica (see Acts 17:1-8). His ministry there started in the local synagogue, then expanded to include a larger number of Greek God-worshippers & quite a few prominent women.
But then detractors claimed that the new believers did what is contrary to Caesar's decrees by saying that someone else is king: Jesus. Thessalonica erupted in riots, & the church there faced opposition & persecution. They needed encouragement.
The Thessalonians were also confused about the second coming of Christ. In Paul's first letter to them, they understood him to say that the end of all things was imminent. Consequently, some people threw in the towel, quit their jobs, & led undisciplined lives.
Paul corrected this misunderstanding in a second letter to them. "No," he said in effect, "don't give up; live life for the long haul. Don't grow tired of doing what is right."
Doing what is right was part of the paradosis or traditions that Paul passed on to all the churches he visited. In our reading today he even uses himself as an example: When we were with you, we didn’t eat anyone’s food without paying for it. We worked night & day with effort & hard work so that we would not impose on you. So now follow our example, Paul says, don't get discouraged, & keep doing what is right.
I have just purchased a book about ordinary people doing good in difficult circumstances. It is Your Fatwa Does Not Belong Here, by the Algerian law professor Karima Bennoune of UC Davis collects the untold stories of Muslims who are speaking out against the violence & terror propagated in the name of Islam.
People often ask, "Why don't Muslims speak out against the violence perpetrated by their religion?" After all, the overwhelming majority of victims of Muslim violence are fellow Muslims. Bennoune's oral history collects the stories of Muslims who are repudiating violence, almost always at great risk to their personal safety. Her book is based upon interviews with 286 Muslims from 26 countries.
The book includes a liberal mullah in Herat who supports women's rights. School girls performing in an arts festival in Lahore. Artists & journalists of all sorts. A "cultural cafe" in Karachi. School teachers in the West Bank. A cleric resisting the recruitment efforts of Al Shabab among Somali refugees in Minneapolis.
Bennoune writes: "Finding a principled position in this political universe is not easy." Some people work within Islam to reinvigorate its history as a life-affirming religion. Others appeal to universal human rights that transcend all religions. They often find themselves stuck between two bad alternatives — secular autocracy with dictators like Recep Erdogan in Turkey, or political theocracy with violent extremists like the Taliban.
These brave Muslims have resisted the temptation to give up. They have not stopped speaking & doing what is right.
A few years ago, Sheryl & I attended a Real Ideas conference in FL, & one of the presenters was Jorge Acevedo, senior pastor of Grace Church, a multi-campus UMC in the Tampa area. The church was begun in 1978 & Jorge was appointed pastor in 1996. Upon his arrival, worship attendance was 96 & there was $29.16 in the checking account. He took the appointment with a prayer: “God, help us to welcome the people no one else sees.” He knew this was a dangerous prayer, especially if God answered it.
And God did. Grace is filled with former & active addicts, alcoholics, ex-cons, & their families. The membership has grown to 1690, with an average worship attendance of over 2000 on its main campus.
Grace Church is many things to many people. But it's especially about its name - doing good. Lots of good, to the people who need it most. In 2008, Grace Community Center was opened. It is a former supermarket located across the street from the main campus. Here they have a food pantry & offer a free monthly meal to the community. They teach GED classes, have a high school afterschool program, plant a community garden, give away bicycles that police have recovered, & have a pet food giveaway for the poor.
In addition, the church goes “off campus” to give blankets to the homeless, regularly volunteer at the downtown soup kitchen, & minister at Juniper Village, an assisted living facility near the church.
In 2004 they expanded to the Fort Myers Shores campus, adopting a closing UMC. Average attendance is now over 200. In 2010, Grace adopted another closing UMC to form the Fort Myers Central campus, where average attendance is over 325.
Whatever else you might say about Grace Church, they don't weary in doing what is right. In that regard they embody the Pauline "tradition."
Well what about Shiloh? Glad you asked! We have a great ramp-building ministry here under the leadership of Odell Miller. They go all over Davidson County (& beyond) putting in & taking down ramps for disabled people. We cook a meal for Crisis Ministries in downtown Lexington at least once a month, we are major supporters of West Davidson Food Pantry, & we support Family Services of Davidson County & Davidson County Community Action.
Paul's words to the Thessalonians remind me of a benediction that is in our UM Worship & Song book. I think of it as an expanded version of Paul's admonition to never tire of doing good.
"Go forth into the world in peace. Be of good courage. Hold fast to that which is good. Render to no one evil for evil. Strengthen the fainthearted. Support the weak. Comfort the afflicted. Be patient with all but make no peace with oppression. Love & serve the Lord, rejoicing in the power of the Holy Spirit. And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, & the Holy Spirit be among you & remain with you always."
Brothers & sisters, I trust you have heard God speaking to you today. We are about to begin new ministries to minister to the substance users & their families in our community. We are still accepting responses to volunteer. The basket is here to receive your response. Last week we received 12 responses (apostles?) for which I am very thankful. However, it will take many more to make a dent in this crisis in our community. My response: minster at a sober-living house; lead a prescription drug collection drive; encourage Shiloh to have Naloxone available. May the HS move you to respond & not grow discouraged.