December 2, 2012

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Today I would like to take a moment to pause and give thanks for the people in my life that bring me encouragement. For my husband, who expresses his love for me both in words and in caring support. For the women in the prayer group and on the prayer chain, and for other members of the congregation who pray for me regularly. For the people who say, “Well done,” when it is true, and who offer a hug no matter what. For a Presbyterian lay preacher in a Saskatchewan town who reads my sermons online and sends me an encouraging email every few months or so.

But this isn’t just about me. I want to invite you to consider this morning… Who are the people in your life who offer you support and encouragement? Who encourages you? And how to they do it? Maybe it is a colleague who makes a point of thanking you for your valuable contributions. Maybe it is a friend or a relative who calls you, or who listens to you when you call, or who just remembers to tell you sometimes that you are loved. Maybe it is someone who tells you, “You can do it!” when you’re doubting yourself. Maybe it is someone who loves you anyway when you mess up.

I hope you don’t have to think very hard or very long to bring to mind the sources of encouragement and hope in your life. I hope that they are numerous. But if they’re not, please do not despair, because encouraging one another is one of the reasons why we have gathered here this morning. It’s one of the reasons that we gather here Sunday by Sunday, week by week… because we, as a Christian community want to do what Paul was encouraging the Christians of Thessalonica to do – to increase and abound in love for one another and for all.

Now, Paul didn’t just instruct the Thessalonians to encourage one another. Instead, he demonstrated how to do it. He wrote them a letter. Does anyone still write letters? Do you get out some nice stationery, and choose a good pen, and sit down to write to someone that you care about? If you do… well done! I imagine that the recipients of such letters must be quite encouraged by the time and attention and care that you put into writing to them.

Well, letters were the way to go in Paul’s time. Sometimes they took a while to get delivered, but Paul wrote some amazing ones to the Thessalonians and to other early Christian communities. Of course, Paul had a relationship with the church in Thessalonica. He and Silas had gone to that city on his second long journey to teach about Jesus. They preached in the Jewish synagogue, and some Jews and many Gentiles believed in Jesus. And although Paul couldn’t stay in Thessalonica, he longed to see his friends there again. He prayed for them every day. And because Paul couldn’t be with them in person, he sent his co-worker Timothy to see how they were doing. Timothy returned and brought a good report, but he hinted that they needed some hope, some encouragement.

Here’s a paraphrase of part of Paul’s letter to them: “How can we thank God for you? You have brought us so much joy before God. Each day I pray that I will see you again and help you to continue to grow in faith. I hope that God will send us back to you. Meanwhile, may God make your number grow and your love for one another be as full as our love for you. May God make your hearts strong and you holy until Jesus returns.”

What do you think? Would those words have given the Christians in Thessalonica some hope and encouragement?

As I think about the letter to the Thessalonians, it seems to me that Christian leaders should consider writing letters of encouragement a little more often than we do. Sometimes there’s a good, encouraging letter from the Moderator in the Presbyterian Record, so that’s a start. But how often do our leaders write to individual congregations? How often do we hear a letter of encouragement read aloud from the pulpit?

And it’s really only once a year, when I prepare a minister’s report for our annual program meeting, that I write what often feels like a letter of encouragement to the congregation. I pause to reflect on the year that has past, and I remember and give thanks for the blessings of being engaged in ministry with this congregation.

Well, it’s not time for the program meeting yet. And some would say that it’s not the beginning of a New Year. It’s neither January, nor September when it really does feel like a New Year. But it is the first Sunday of Advent, and in the Church, Advent is the beginning of a New Year. So here is my letter to you… the people of St. Andrew’s (not an email dashed off to the St. Andrew’s list serve to remind you of an upcoming event, but a real letter):

To the congregation of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian in Saskatoon,
From your minister, Amanda,
Grace to you, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

If I haven’t told you in a while how special you are, let me do so today. I thank God every day for all of you, and for the nine years of ministry that we have been able to share together so far. Whenever people ask me about my congregation, I am always proud to tell them about you and the good ministry that we are doing together, that you have been doing in this place for many generations.

For one thing, you do quite well at living up to the sign on the side of the church. It invites people in the neighbourhood to “Come and Worship with Friendly Presbyterians,” and you often do offer a warm welcome to visitors and newcomers in our church.

I must commend you also on your attention to caring for each other. Many of you take the time to visit one another, to phone one another, and to encourage each other, especially when someone is going through a difficult time. Over the years, you’ve always created structures and systems to co-ordinate pastoral care. And although these have changed somewhat over time, what hasn’t changed is the dedication of St. Andrew’s people to care for one another, and pray for one another through all the ups and downs of life.

This is one time of year when I am always reminded of your generosity. The Advent Appeal seems to inspire you to give more and more each year, and you seem to have such fun doing it! I don’t know if making your regular financial offerings to the ministry and mission of St. Andrew’s is quite as much fun, but you are amazingly generous with your offerings as well.  One of your previous ministers used to say, “If there is a need, and you tell St. Andrew’s about that need, they will fill it. There’s no question!”

I want to thank you today for your stewardship – not only for the financial support that you give to this congregation and to the Church’s ministry and mission through Presbyterians Sharing and Presbyterian World Service and Development – but I want to thank you for the time and talent that you share in this community. You serve on the session, the board, and the committees of the church. You offer your gifts in music, in hospitality, in maintenance of the building, in leadership, in photography, in computers, in writing, in teaching, in child care, in prayer, and in so many other things!

And you don’t just keep your ministry work here in the church. Many of you find ways to share your faith in your families and communities. You read bible stories to your children and grandchildren, and do your best to teach them about God and God’s love. You put your faith into action by volunteering in the community, and by bringing your values of love, forgiveness, justice, and kindness into your workplaces and schools and community organizations.

You take your faith seriously. You serve God diligently. You worship God faithfully. I give thanks to God for you every day. And I also pray every day that the Lord will make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all.

In other words, you’re not perfect yet. We’re not perfect yet. Sometimes we can be pretty hard on each other. Sometimes we can be pretty impatient with each other. Sometimes we can forget that we’re all working towards the same goals with the best of intentions. And sometimes we can get discouraged because ministry can be difficult, and the circumstances of life can be challenging, and the world we live in today can be confusing and disappointing. Sometimes we can forget that we need to encourage each other.

But today I hope that you will hear and receive, not only the encouragement of your minister who loves you and who is proud of you, but that you will hear and receive the encouragement of God who loves you and who is proud of you.

On this first Sunday in the Season of Advent, the scriptures remind us that we are preparing (not just for Christmas and a celebration of the birth of Jesus the Christ) but for Christ’s coming again and for the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God.

We wait and pray for that day together with hope and expectation. And today, as we gather together with Christ at the table of the Lord, may we be strengthened and encouraged by our God as we experience a foretaste of the great banquet that awaits us with all the saints in the Kingdom of God. May God’s kingdom come. Amen.