Belong, Believe, Behave

DSC02285What a week!

Another star story! (Members of the Riverview congregation have been sharing stories of how their ‘star word’ from last year had an impact on their lives)

Presidential inauguration of someone whose statements put him in opposition to what Jesus said was important. Marches across and around the world…Millions of people coming together in solidarity and concern, including Halifax. Publicized as women’s marches, but included thousands and thousands of men and children. References to civil rights, climate change, health care and LGBTQ rights removed from the White House website. And we lay all that alongside last week’s scripture from Luke:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And this week’s scripture reading from Thessalonians:

13 But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters[f]beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits[g] for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14 For this purpose God called you through our proclamation of the good news, 15 So then, brothers and sisters,[i] stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.

Did any of you get a ‘Christmas letter’ this year? You know the kind that highlights all the good and wonderful things that have happened in a friend’s life and their children and spouse…The kind of letter that, depending on what is going on in your own life, can make you feel immensely inadequate? Or make you want to throw up? We all get those letters don’t we? Perhaps we have even written one.

Paul’s letters to the various communities and churches contain the earliest information about what the early church was like. They were written before the gospels, despite the fact that the gospels come first in the New, or Second Testament. And sometimes Paul sounds like one of those Christmas letters, full of how he is working for Christ and the rewards that are his. But this time, he is giving thanks to the church in Thessalonica for their belief in the truth and their proclamation of the good news! He is appealing them not to become discouraged.

In Paul’s time, Thessalonica was an important city because of its strategic location near the Aegean Sea. In the Roman Empire, it became the capital of the province of Macedonia and its largest city with 200,000 people. Thessalonica stood on the Via Egnatia, the Roman highway to the East, making it an important city of commerce. In Paul’s day it was a self-governing community with enough Jews in residence to warrant a synagogue.(

And let’s not forget that the first Jesus followers, ‘People of the Way,’ were Jewish.

Paul had left Thessalonica abruptly after a rather brief stay. Recent converts from paganism were thus left with little external support in the midst of persecution. Paul’s purpose in writing this letter was to encourage the new converts in their trials, to give instruction concerning godly living and to give assurance concerning the future of believers who die before Christ returns.

In those early days, I am not sure what, if any, instruction was required of people to become part of those early communities. In the time when Christianity became the church of the Empire, it was a three year process for adults, culminating in their baptism on Easter Sunday.

Today’s requirements for United Church membership are far less stringent, but they still exist… and there are still some committees and decisions that you can’t participate in if you are not a member, despite how long you may have been an integral part of the faith community. The Tuesday evening study group arose in part because several people had expressed interest in becoming members.

This follows an old model of integrating into a faith community:
1. You BEHAVE in certain prescribed ways
2. You express BELIEF
3. Then, and only then, can you BELONG.

Those folks who have come to church (worshipping and working), will profess their faith and then become members of the United Church, with ALL the rights and responsibilities that membership brings. And as a United Church minister, I have to uphold the principles, despite my personal feelings about them.

There is a growing body of thought that says that instead of behave, belief, belong, it should be belong, believe, behave. And in fact, as a way of addressing this, there is a proposal that is going to the next general council that would allow congregations to extent all the rights and responsibilities to adherents, those who attend worship and support the congregation in various ways.

We all want to belong to something… whether that is a family group, a club or organization, a political party, a church and so on. At the same time, official membership is becoming less and less important. Church is often referred to as a family and while that particular metaphor doesn’t speak to me strongly, I know it speaks to others, and it is helpful to illustrate what I am talking about here.

Babies are the most self-centred beings on earth. They come into this world demanding food, clothing and warmth. If they are lucky they get it. They belong without any requirement to behave in a certain way. And as we raise our nurture our children, they start to imitate the behaviors they see and are instructed in. And that instruction doesn’t stop for a long time. And when their environment is nurturing and healthy, they begin to believe in the goodness of those around them and have a sense of security. We certainly don’t ask a newborn baby to behave before they belong!

All of this is to say that families and communities where there is love and a sense of belonging, will nourish behaving and believing. Not the other way around. God and Jesus love us first… we have done nothing to secure that love. It simply is because of who God and Jesus are. And in that love, we belong to this vast community of people who seek to follow Jesus. And in belonging, we behave, or we try to behave, how Jesus did.

And how was that? Scripture over and over again tells us that whenever we turn from God, the moment we turn back, God is there. I am highlight two more passages that are foundational for me.

From Micah 6: What does the Lord require of you? To seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.

And from Luke 10: where a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.[j] “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 27 He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

Those are the words are written on my heart. Words of expansive kindness and inclusion… I like all of us, fall short of living our highest ideals, but I try. What kind of Christmas letter will we, as a faith community, write next year? I trust that it will be one in which we promote love and justice for all.

Thanks be to God for the challenge and the opportunity of following Jesus! Amen.

Christmas letter idea came from a Ted Talk by Laura Vanderkam; you can find it here.

January 22, 2017 – Elmsdale Pastoral Charge

Rev. Catherine MacDonald

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