"Encourage one another"-Sermon for In-Gathering Sunday, I Thessalonians 5:1-11
Professor of Social Work at the University of Houston, shame researcher, leadership guru and fellow Episcopalian, Dr. Brene Brown, in her best-selling book “Daring Greatly”, uses the image of an arena to speak of those moments in life when we make the courageous and vulnerable choice to show up, to stand up, to be brave, to be vulnerable, to speak our truth, to live-life for what matters…not only what matters for me personally but what matters for the well-being of others…what matters for the life of the world. And an arena, of course, has a stage…a center…a focal point…that faces an audience…a crowd…a congregation…both critics and fans that look on at the person or persons living out the drama at the center of it all. And, surely, over the course of a lifetime we will find ourselves both sitting in the audience and standing on the stage, with what can feel like, the world watching us…with so much on the line.
And, though the opportunity to be brave, to take a risk, to even be beaten up and bloodied, for what is right and good and Godly…can, indeed, be huge and public, make headlines and win Nobel Peace Prizes. But…in my experience…more often than not taking center stage in the arena of life looks like something perhaps less dramatic, if still very important…something like genuinely apologizing for a mistake made that hurt a loved one and then living with them differently moving forward; like walking with a friend through a world-altering loss all the way till the grief, that never really ends, is something they can make peace with; like taking a risk in some creative pursuit that you have always wanted to try but always were afraid of failing at; like a quiet word shared with a manager or boss on behalf of a colleague who is not being treated with respect or being listened to in the office; like not letting that racist remark just slide by but, instead, engaging with words like, “that’s not my experience”; like naming and asking for help with some addiction or compulsion that has your life all twisted up; like asking for what you need even from a spouse or a loved one; like verbalizing our anxieties and fears and shame to a trusted person rather than letting them eat you alive and make you bitter and even mean; like leaving your comfort zone by saying yes to that opportunity to lead, or preach, or teach. And my point is that our arena moments come in all shapes and sizes…sometimes we enter the arena with great intention and sometime we just find ourselves there utterly unaware of what led us to that moment. And, I also want to say, that whether the moment in the arena is perceived by ourselves or others as great or small…they do all matter…how we respond and who we choose to be in those moments…matters…greatly…in the building of God’s kingdom of love on earth as it is in heaven…for ourselves…for the others involved…and even those beyond…like the ever expanding concentric circles following a stone falling in water.
And here’s the thing about the arena…the focus is almost always on what is happening on the stage…on the person or persons directly engaged in the struggle, the conflict, the connection or disconnection that’s unfolding before us. And when it is you in that moment…authentically you at the center of the crisis or challenge…and you are courageously, vulnerably fighting the good fight…you are an inspiration…and as one in your audience…you are helping me consider who I really am and who I would really be if facing a similar challenge. When at the center of the arena, I pray you find your faith, in the God of love’s presence with you, as a profound source of hope and wisdom and even supernatural support to overcome. You deserve our attention. You deserve my attention. So, what I really want to think about today…on In-Gathering Sunday…is the audience…the people in attendance…the gathered congregation…the people surrounding the drama unfolding right in front of us. As I said, over the course of a lifetime, we will all find ourselves in our own arena moments…but maybe even more frequently we will find ourselves in each other’s arena as a member of the audience. For there is just one of us…one of me…but there are countless others all around us…all of whom will have their very own moments at center stage…so who are we to them. If not on stage ourselves, do we still have a role to play? And what then is it?
In our New Testament lesson from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul is responding to an arena sort of moment happening in the budding church he has planted in the Greek city of Thessalonica. You see, and perhaps this sounds familiar, there is great fear in the community about the times of great uncertainty in which they are living. They feel a foreboding fear of an impending destruction that seems to be looming before them like a thief who comes in the night. They are profoundly worried about their loved ones who have died before Jesus’ return to set this world to rights, as they believed his return would happen within their own lifetimes…but it hadn’t and people they loved were dying. So, were these people just lost forever or, worse, would they suffer forever? Their expectations where not being realized…and like in all of us…when our hopeful expectations are not realized…we begin to find ourselves discomforted, out of sorts…fear begins to creep in and desperation soon follows.
And, Paul, who though planted their church, is now very much a part of their audience…working far away…planting new churches…and he says to them two things to encourage them that I hope we will take to heart. The first is that they, and we, are children of the light…of the day. And so, he exhorts them to lean into faith, hope and love…to never give up…to be brave and courageous in the arena…for Jesus died and rose again…that we all might live with him…in light perpetual…that no darkness can ever overcome…even the darkness of the grave…this is good news for the living and for the dead. Jesus came among us and will do so again in the fullness of time, whenever that might be, not to condemn or destroy, but that life and love might rule endlessly. That is a word of encouragement that they and we need to hear when in the arena. And, second, he says to them, “[E]ncourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” And here Paul defines quite clearly our role as one another’s audience, which is not to be mere spectators of one another’s lives but to be engaged participants…actively, endlessly encouraging one another…building each other up.
Brene Brown writes, “Courage is a heart word. The root of the word courage is cor - the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage meant "To speak one's mind by telling all one's heart." Over time, this definition has changed, and today, we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But in my opinion, this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak honestly and openly about who we are and about our experiences.” Thus, I, Miles, think to en-courage is to use our words and expressions of affection and unwavering support to empower other’s, when they find themselves at center stage, to tell their stories, to speak their truth with authenticity and vulnerability; to remind them of their, God-given, inner strength; to remind them what a beautiful heart beats within them; to remind them of their inspiring commitment to stand on the side of love when facing each challenge that besets them. And, in doing so, they are built up to meet the present darkness in the name of Love.
And, if this sounds like an odd In-Gathering Sunday Sermon…believe it or not…it was In-Gathering that inspired me. For I see the commitments made today, that we are gathering in together today, as expression of encouragement with the express intent of building people up, especially, in these arena-like times we are living through individually and together. In the midst of this pandemic, I have prayed and spoken with people in our community who have lost loved ones, in times when gathering family and friends to honor their lives and grieve, was simply not possible…only exacerbating their loss. I have prayed and spoken with people in our community who have lost jobs or experienced a cut in pay or hours. I have prayed and spoken with teachers and parents in our community making gut-wrenching choices around returning to school. I have prayed and spoken with business leaders and managers in our community wringing their hands over the choice to let employees go knowing the consequences for those families. I have prayed and spoken with school administrators in our community that are constantly being told from one side or the other that they are not doing enough or are overreacting in their COVID response. I have prayed, spoken, and worked alongside people in our community who have made heroic efforts to stand with those fighting for racial justice in our nation even at a risk to their own health and families. I have prayed and spoken with people in our community who have had to weather these last many months in almost complete isolation. I have worked alongside people in our community who have struggled to overcome great obstacles to be sure people could exercise their right to vote. And moving beyond our immediate family of faith, I have received many calls from people in the broader community who have lost homes or are unable to pay the next mortgage or rent payment due to jobless or pay cuts. And, we have heard of the desperation experienced by our outreach partners locally in Austin and in Navajoland.
And because of the generosity of this community…praying…sharing from their time and expertise, and continuing to give financially to this church…we have been able to not just be a passive audience…but respond and participate in intentional ways to all these arena-like moments bravely faced by our beloved ones…those God has entrusted into our hands. Sometimes this encouragement looks like collecting food, shoes, or home goods, like direct financial assistance, like countless phone calls and texts, like praying with people, like creating support groups, like forming instant task forces, like google forms and surveys, like successfully moving the entire worship, fellowship and program life of a church fully online. We have not been a passive or critical audience one to another as we have each and all had our moments in the arena; instead, we have encouraged, we have built each other up. Courage is a heart word, and we have tended and cared for each other’s hearts.
As an unapologetic optimist, I look forward to 2021 as a year for healing and growth. But, I imagine still many arena moments lie ahead for us as individuals and as a community, and I believe our encouragement for each other through it all…not a passive audience but active participants…begins in the commitments we make here…together…today. Amen.