Comfort and Strength

November 10, 2019
2 Thessalonians 2: 1-5; 13-17
Rev. Alice Fleming Townley

Some in Thessalonia worried that times had gotten so bad, maybe they had they missed out on the coming of Jesus and being gathered to him.  Paul reminded them, as he had before, sure there would be ‘a lawless one,’ but even the ‘lawless one’ would not be able to stop the redeeming work of God.

New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine reflects that the ‘lawless one’ could have been a specific person that readers would have remembered.  Perhaps Paul was referring to one of the foreign emperors who invaded Israel and oppressed the Jews.  The ‘lawless one’ could have been the Roman general Pompey of the first century BCE, or perhaps Emporer Caligula who in the year 40 CE demanded he himself be worshipped in the Temple in Jerusalem. Both of them desecrated the beloved people and their holy place.   The phrase ‘the lawless one’ evoked all these memories and became a name used to describe any such leader.[i]  Hannah Arendt says that ‘radical evil’ is when the powerful use and discard people [and places] for their own gain. As if they possessed no value at all.[ii]

Paul wrote to the people struggling with a ‘lawless one,’ “Do not be quickly shaken or alarmed. . . Let no one deceive you. . . Remember what I told you.  How we give thanks to God for you, beloved of the Lord.” You are already claimed, gathered, and precious.   “God chose you as first fruits for salvation through sanctification.”  As fruits you are nurtured and watered and tended.  You are growing and becoming –you are ripening into fruit for salvation—fruit for the healing of the world.  Abide in Christ as Christ abides in you.[iii]

On Friday Philip Mimbini, son of Roberta Glaser Carlsen, stood here for her memorial service and said something like this, “The events are so heavy, it’s hard to know what to do.”  He kept saying, “Thank you, thank you, for being here, for being in our lives, even now, especially now. . .  He continued, “I want you all to leave this place with a blessing . . . and with your chins held high. . . that’s what my Mother would have wanted.”   Dear Roberta, after her death we learned more about her.  She was orphaned at a young age and raised by her grandmother, a Peace Corps volunteer and a bride and new mother in Cameroon in the late 1960s, single mother and school principal in Michigan, and a caregiver for two husbands. She who struggled was also one to give a blessing—in her smile, her encouragement, in her desire to learn about and love people from different backgrounds of class, race and religion.

Paul was giving a blessing in the midst of heaviness and loss.  And it was a blessing not only to comfort their hearts, but also to strengthen them in work and word.

Hear this blessing, The Blessing of Sanctuary by theologian and artist Jan Richardson,

You hardly knew

How hungry you were

To be gathered in,

To receive the welcome

That invited you to enter entirely—

Nothing of you

Found foreign or strange,

Nothing of your life

That you were asked

To leave behind

Or to carry in silence

Or in shame.

 

Leaning into the blessing

That enfolded you,

Taking your place

in the circle

that stunned you

with its unimagined grace.

 

You began to breathe again,

To move without fear,

To speak with abandon

The words you carried

In your bones,

That echoed in your being.

 

You learned to sing.

 

But the deal with this blessing

is that it will not leave you alone,

will not let you linger

in safety,

in stasis.

 

The time will come when this blessing will ask you . . .

To become the sanctuary

That you have found—

To speak your word

Into the world,

To tell what you have heard

With your own ears,

Seen with your own eyes,

Known in your own heart:

That you are beloved,

Precious child of God,

Beautiful to behold,’ . . . [iv]

 

Sister Helen Prejean became a nun before Vatican II.  During that era, she remembers that that faithfulness emphasized passive obedience to authority, and separation from the world, even family.   Vatican II had huge implications, and this was especially experienced by the women in holy orders.  Sister Helen remembers hearing another Sister preach about Jesus honoring the humanity of all people, even the poor and marginalized.  And if the poor were human, then it was right for them to name and seek basic human needs.  Sister Helen says that God’s spirit awakened her that day.  Up until then she had cared primarily for the poor’s spiritual needs and focused on the next life in heaven.  That sermon got her wondering and actively engaging.  She realized that love needs to be not just universal but also specific.  Love is relational and incarnational.  Sister Helen moved into a housing project, and she signed up to be a pen pal for Patrick Sonnier, someone on death row.  Even though she didn’t know Patrick, she had been an English major and figured she could come up with some letters and poems. When she learned that Patrick had no visitors, not even his Mother, she offered.  She never dreamed he would be executed because the state hadn’t used the death penalty in decades.  And little did she know when she got started writing letters that she would be the only one in the room.  “I will be the face of love for you when you die.” She said to Patrick.  And she was.  Their story was documented in the movie, Dead Man Walking, and Sister Helen has recently written River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey.

Sister Helen explains that God’s invitations come gently, like a flower unfolding, one petal at a time.  We need only to give tiny ‘yeses’ to the Holy Spirit’s nudges, and then another, and another.  She reflects, God’s grace grows in us, and comes underneath us to give us the comfort and strength we need in the moment.  It doesn’t go ahead of us, and so we worry about how we will ever be able to handle what might be coming in the future.  Grace meets us in the present moment, giving us comfort and strength for the words and work.[v]

Recently an East Lansing Info reporter interviewed The Rev. Dr. Kit Carlsen and I.  We told her about the mutual support our friendship gives each other in navigating ministry, and the activities our churches have done in the community over the last few years, like the celebration of diversity festival when Richard Spencer came to town, and the ongoing interfaith dialogues and support for refugees.  “Can others, who aren’t part of faith groups, join in on these activities?”  she asked curiously.  “Oh yes.”  We said.  “Is it hard to do your work now?”  Pause. . . Kit—”Our church welcomes everyone.  We actively reach out to people who may not find that elsewhere, we fight racism and affirm the LGBT community.”    “And this welcome to holy space is the good news we share.” I added.   “People come hungry and tired, and we offer sanctuary, and the bread of life, week after week.”

We struggle in a time of the lawless one, when people and places are discarded for the gain of the powerful.  We need this letter from Paul.  “Do you not remember what I told you?” he says. Perhaps our act of greatest resistance is to remember this blessing.  We are seen and heard and valued.  Who we really is chosen, beloved and precious in God’s eyes.  We are sanctified, that is God is actively working in us and through us. Seeing this in ourselves, we can see it in another, especially those cast aside, dehumanized.   We have good news to share, love to embody, and oppressive structures to dismantle.  The invitations to do this come gently, one petal at a time.  And grace grows in us and comes underneath us to give us the strength we need.  May our hearts be strengthened for every good work and word.  Knowing we are seen, may we see.  Loved, may we love.  Blessed, may we bless.   Amen.


[i] 429, Amy-Jill Levine, “The Man of Lawlessness and the Restrainer (2 Thess 2.3-4),” The Jewish Annotated New Testament.”

[ii] Chris Hedges, “The Age of Radical Evil,”  https://www.truthdig.com/articles/the-age-of-radical-evil/

[iii] 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17

[iv] 55-57, “The Blessing of Sanctuary,” Jan Richardson, Circle of Grace.

[v] Sister Helen Prejean: The Face of Love, Everything Happens/ A Podcast with Kate Bowler, https://katebowler.com/podcasts/sister-helen-prejean-the-face-of-love/