Sunday, November 10, 2013
Susan K. Smith, Guest Lectionary Commentator
Clergy, mother, author and musician, residing in Columbus, OH
Lection – 1 Thessalonians 5:11 and Philippians 2:4 (New Revised Standard Version)
1 Thessalonians 5:11
Therefore, encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
I. Description of the Liturgical Moment
As baby boomers age, more and more of them find themselves taking care of ailing parents. It is not something people like to talk about. The work is hard both physically and emotionally, as it is difficult to see a parent who was once strong and lively slip into the ravages of illness. Sometimes the illness is physical and sometimes it is the scourge called Alzheimer's disease. Sometimes these parents cannot even recognize the child giving him or her care, and at other times, the now-dependent parent is one who was not good or kind to the child who is now helping him or her stay alive and as comfortable as possible. Resentment and fatigue can begin to fester, forcing the caregiver to now additionally deal with his or her guilt at those feelings.
While many caregivers are taking care of older parents, there are other caregivers, much younger, taking care of parents who may be physically ill or caught in a debilitating addiction. Young caregivers find themselves having to grow up too quickly. They are caught between wanting to have a life of their own but knowing that if they don't take care of the ailing parent—and perhaps siblings—then their family will not survive. These children show up at school physically tired and emotionally drained. They dare not complain; what kind of person would complain about taking care of his or her family? And yet, they are tired and sometimes very sad.
Caregivers are special people, too often ignored. They are doing "kingdom work" and living the words of our texts for today.
II. Biblical Interpretation for Preaching and Worship: 1 Thessalonians 5:11 and Philippians 2:4
Part One: The Contemporary Contexts of the Interpreter
The direction of most medical care today is to extend life. A Centers for Disease Control report says that "between 2007 and 2008, life expectancy increased by 0.4 years to 74.0 years for the black population, and by 0.1 years to 78.5 years for the white population."1 According to that same report, white women have the highest life expectancy followed by black women. From 1984–1989, black males, that report said, experienced a decline in life expectancy but showed a slight increase in years following.2 The importance of these statistics is that they show that people are in fact living longer, including our "Aunt Bessies" who sit in the pews. While it is admirable that people live longer, the burden and responsibility of caregiving for the aged comes along with church members every Sunday. The "Aunt Bessies" are often too old, really, to drive and/or live alone, and their children are often frustrated with trying to do what's best for them. Young children who are taking care of family members are there in the pews as well, with their often troubling feelings about what they are now forced to do.
And yet, the authors of the verses for today say explicitly that we are to "look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others," thereby imitating the Christ. We are to "encourage one another and build up each other" as, apparently, the people in Thessalonica were doing. That is a biblical mandate as difficult to swallow as is the mandate to love one's enemy. While people are fond of saying they want to hear "the Word," it is a fact that "the Word" is so often difficult to hear and harder to follow! The caregivers must hear this "Word" and then be persuaded that their role of being caregiver is a part of imitating the Christ. They are doing to and for "the least of these" as our Lord and Savior does for us. Jesus does take care of us!
Part Two: Biblical Commentary
The church in Thessalonica was a church under persecution. Paul had received a word from God to take the gospel to Macedonia (Acts 17:6-10), and he and his missionary team, which included Silas, Timothy, and Luke, were obedient. Both Thessalonica and Philippi were located in Macedonia, and Paul and his team were eager to do as God had directed them.
Thessalonica was a wealthy city; it had a booming economy and its population was estimated to be about 200,000. Paul knew that ministering there was a good move strategically; with so many people moving in and out, the likelihood of the Good News being received in Thessalonica and taken out "to all the world," as the Great Commission mandates, was good.
It was a new church in Thessalonica; the people were excited about God, and about Jesus. Although the city was large and wealthy, however, the majority of people in the city made their living by doing manual labor. The government of the city allowed its residents much political autonomy and it is safe to say that they did all they could to protect that privilege.
Paul saw the good and the troubling in Thessalonica. Yes, they had a good economy, but Paul saw the ways that the prosperity there led to evil, maintenance of the status quo, and lessened moral living. He preached to the Thessalonians about living as God would have them do. Although there were plenty of Jews in the city, and a synagogue as well, there were also plenty of non-believers. Paul chose to preach to the Jews first, and then to the Gentiles. Paul's message was electrifying, and he drew people away from Jewish synagogues, as well as many people from the working class who were more interested in what Paul preached than what they had heard preached and taught in the synagogues. This, of course, made the Jews angry, and Paul and his team were subjected to violence (which was not new to them, as they had experienced violence in Philippi, another city in Macedonia.) He and his team were deemed to have committed treason by and with their words. They were speaking of one whom they lifted as being greater than all others, including the political leaders of the country. Eventually they had to leave Thessalonica.
What Paul wanted the people in Thessalonica to know, however, was that "the Word" of God was clear: those who followed the Christ were to encourage and take care of each other. In our texts, taken from both 1 Thessalonians and Philippians, Paul makes the point clear: the relational aspect of being a Christ-follower made it absolutely necessary to care for others, no matter one's circumstances.
Not even one's own circumstances can erase or eliminate the need for Christians to take care of each other. As Paul preached the return of Jesus in 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, Paul reminds the Thessalonians that Jesus will come back abruptly, like a "thief in the night." He reminds them that, by virtue of their confession of Jesus as the Christ, they are "children of the light." Paul was being persecuted and lied upon, and yet he had the mandate to take care of these new Christians by delivering "the Word" to them; they, likewise, were to take care of each other in the same way, no matter their circumstances. Obery M. Hendricks Jr., in his book The Politics of Jesus, reminds readers that believers were taught by Jesus to "treat the needs of the people as holy."3 Paul seems to be reminding the Thessalonians of the same thing. Believers are to strengthen, take care of, and support each other, thinking of the needs of those who cannot care for themselves first. Doing that pleases God; it reflects an understanding of the gospel mandate, and it ultimately strengthens the Kingdom.
When people have been victimized (as have so many women) by society, by poverty, by illness and/or misfortune, it becomes a major challenge to look at someone else, even a loved one, and think of his or her needs first. The historical and sociological soil from which African Americans have come is one where elders are treasured and taken care of. Families took care of each other. The concept of family has changed in the United States over time. It may well be that the notion of family in the bustling city of Thessalonica was much like ours today. Why else would Paul have to mention the need for the people of Thessalonica to look after and encourage each other? In bustling economies, attention moves from "the least of these" to ourselves and our needs; we can clearly see how little is done for the disabled and seniors in American society today. African Americans are as much a part and product of American capitalism as is any other ethnic group, but that does not give us license to turn from the mandate we have as believers in Christ to take care of each other. It is a hard word, but it is the word of God and it upholds the best of the traditions of our ancestors.
What's in it for us if we take care of and encourage others? We get to see the beauty of God's holiness in action. We get to feel divine love; when one who is being cared for flashes a smile of appreciation toward us, it is the very smile of God coming through! And when we feel God's love, God's smile, remarkably we "feel like going on!" God's smile is our strength. God's smile is His/Her encouragement to and for us! God's smile reminds us that He/She is working it out, taking care of us even as we struggle to take care of others. We get to feel the warmth of amazing grace; we are fed the divine Holy Spirit and it strengthens us! When we lie down at night, we get to feel the "blessed assurance" that Jesus has seen our struggle and is helping us keep it all together. The greatest gift of "taking care of " someone else is that we are gifted with the realization that in the end, they are really giving us a taste of the presence and power of God! We bless God by taking care of others and God blesses us …by taking care of us! Caregivers are special…because they imitate the Christ …who always has and always will…take care of us!
The descriptive details include but are not limited to:
Sounds: The sounds of a busy, booming city such as Thessalonica; a new church in worship in Thessalonica or in Philippi; the sounds of a sick person coughing as they are cared for; the sounds of a person on the phone trying to manage the affairs of a loved one;
Sights: The Jews and Gentiles in Thessalonica; Paul sitting to write a letter to the church at Thessalonica and the church at Philippi; churches gathering to read Paul's letters; a person who is bedridden; multiple medicine bottles in a bedroom; a wheelchair; mashed food; the face of a tired caregiver; the face of a thankful person who is receiving care; and
Emotions: Excitement; angst; fear; fatigue; and joy.
III. Other Resources That Preachers and Others Can Use
||Hendricks. Obery M., Jr. The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus' Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted. New York, NY: Three Leaves Press, 2006.
||Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. New York, NY: Simon and Shuster, 1937.
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Online location: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr61/nvsr61_03.pdf.
3. Hendricks. Obery M., Jr. The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus' Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted. New York, NY: Three Leaves Press, 2006.