I Thessalonians 2:9-13 – The 21st Sunday of Ordinary Time – for Sunday, November 2, 2014
“We preached God’s good news to you, while we worked night and day so we wouldn’t be a burden to you . . .” (I Thessalonians 2:9)
Seminary professors taught me that I Thessalonians represented the New Testament’s earliest writing. Paul’s letters to Thessalonica occurred years before the four Gospels were even started. Revelation wasn’t a glimmer in John’s feverish dreams when Paul conveyed his thoughts to the city by the Thermaïkos Gulf. Though Romans is the first of Paul’s New Testament letters, I recall learning (thanks again, long-ago seminary professors) that the murky decisions creating the Christian canon positioned Paul’s writings on length: from longest to shortest. The Greek community read Paul’s sparse notes as much as a decade before the Romans received their wordy epistle.
But I could be wrong. What do I know?
In the years since seminary, I’ve preached and taught and baptized babies and octogenarians and complained about district superintendents and took leaves of absences and married hundreds of men and women and buried hundreds more and attended 2,437 meetings and stumbled into a campus ministry position and started a new church and held hands in countless hospitals and had 5,692 people tell me they appreciated my swell offer to serve on a committee but no-thanks-not-this-year and became a hospice chaplain and sat by rented beds in living rooms as tearful sons bathed dying fathers and weary wives dribbled morphine into their husband’s open, parched lips and led youth through confirmation classes and hiked with kids as young as 7 and adults as old as 70 and all of them—wise and foolish, giddy and afraid—experienced mountains for the first time.
So, while being preoccupied with the minutia of my modest ministry, maybe a passel of professors have discerned that the Book of Hebrews or John’s Gospel was actually written prior to I Thessalonians. Perhaps Romans was first in the batting order of Paul’s letters because it’s been discovered—since I survived seminary—that a drunk monk in 400 CE rearranged a dusty scroll and moved Romans from last to first.
After all, I’ve been busy working an hour on Sunday.
Doesn’t every minister love (er, hate) that line?
“What do you do for a living?” a barkeep* asks.
I’m her only customer. The barkeep is just being friendly. Though someone as snarky as me might mutter, I breathe for a living, I’m polite and reply, “I’m a pastor.”
“Hey, cushy job!” she responds, “I guess you only work an hour on Sunday.”
The barkeeper smiles; she likes her little joke. An hour on Sunday! Har-har-har-har!
*Or would it be more proper to have my pretend chat be with a librarian or stockbroker?
Of course, it’s probably not a bartender. It’s more likely the church’s Trustees chair, nudging you with his elbow and flashing a toothy grin when chuckling about your one-hour weeks. Or it’s the crusty pillar of the congregation who gives the most money to the church and constantly reminds everyone he’s the guy giving the most money. Or it’s the president of the women’s group, sharing the joke while introducing you before your prayer to encourage the ladies selling Christmas knickknacks to raise funds for African missionaries (who are all engaged in really important ministry compared to, well, you).
I’ll betcha Paul heard a variation of the one-hour-of-work-a-week line. When I study a passage like I Thessalonians 2:9-13, I hear it with one cynical and one humble ear.
Paul declared, “We preached God’s good news to you, while we worked night and day so we wouldn’t be a burden to you…” (I Thessalonians 2:9)
My humble ear hears Paul reluctantly recalling his good works, gently reminding the Thessalonica community about his heartfelt sacrifices. Not only did he preach there, but he also put in a long day’s work to make sure he wasn’t a “burden.”
My cynical ear hears Paul shouting (as much as one can shout in a letter) at those irksome semi-believers, who frequently chided the former Pharisee on his easy-as-falling-off-a-log preaching gig. While the Thessalonians toiled dawn to dusk with blood, sweat, and tears, Paul spent a few moments prattling on about God’s glory.
Hey, I’m confident my humble interpretation is more accurate for Paul’s situation!
And yet I’m also confident Paul had someone like a Trustees chair, with a sharp elbow and toothy grin who joked how easy it was preach the good news. How easy it was to follow Jesus, serve God, and stand before two or two thousand people while sharing a few verbal nuggets about being a nice Christian.
Easy like a Sunday morning, Lionel Richie once sang! Yeah, I’ll betcha Paul heard the easy jokes. They were old when Paul was young.
Years ago a colleague told a tale about a rural parish he once served. Someone in the church—let’s say a Trustees chair since I’m picking on ‘em—bluntly said he thought the pastor had a light load in the work department. My friend and colleague, just humble enough, asked Mr. Trustee if he’d shadow him during a typical week of ministry . . . Sure, why not?
Thus, Mr. Trustee visited the nursing homes, ate cold chicken at the Rotary Club luncheon, went to youth group, and met with three (or five) evening committees. He and the pastor opened the church early for the meals-on-wheels team and late for the AA gathering. I believe my friend only called Mr. Trustee when preparing his sermon (not forcing Mr. Trustee to witness notes jotted on paper or the faraway gazes while pondering scriptural mysteries). Mr. Trustee rose before dawn to join the men’s Bible breakfast, assisted in fixing a broken toilet, and overheard a long, dull phone call with the district superintendent about an upcoming Habitat for Humanity project. There was other stuff, too.
But the kicker, the event where Mr. Trustee finally saw the light (or “came to Jesus,” if you will), was when my colleague phoned and told him to go to the hospital . . . now! A church member had been taken to the emergency room. Her husband had contacted the pastor. His wife—and also the frightened husband—needed prayer and comfort . . . now! Nothing like a 2:00am drive in the dark to a hectic, messy ER to remind you that ministry is more than an hour a week.
And so Paul the apostle wrote, “We appealed to you, encouraged you, and pleaded with you to live lives worthy of the God who is calling you into his own kingdom and glory.”
How humble Paul was! And I’m sure, never once cynical!
Here’s to working an hour a week times sixty or eighty! Cheers to my overwhelmed colleagues in ministry! (But please, don’t forget to play with your kids, snuggle with your spouse, and stretch your legs on a nice walk with the dog. In other words, take a break! And don’t call Mr. Trustee back until tomorrow because today is your one day off! He’ll survive.)
I no longer serve a church. Nowadays, I’m part-time with a hospice. My calling from God still beckons me to write. Thus, compared to many, I am taking it easy like a Sunday morning! But in my journey as a pastor—starting out or now—I’ve tried to spend each hour, day, week and month seeking to “live lives worthy of God.”
God knows I’ve often failed to be worthy. We all do. Maybe I’ve failed to stay current with Biblical scholarship and I Thessalonians is no longer deemed Paul’s earliest epistle. Regardless of the letter’s calendar date or word count, humble (and cynical) Paul seemed to be writing to me as I continue to strive to proclaim God’s message.