Sunday, October 22, 2023 – Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering […] your work of faith and [your] labor of love and [your] steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
How would you like to receive a letter that starts like that?
Honestly, I might be inclined to toss it in the recycle bin, because these days it would sound like the start of a chain letter, or an appeal from some organization that I would have real theological and political differences with and would in no way want to support.
But that’s largely because of the culture we live in. In Paul’s time…this was simply the way you started letters. It’s known as the exordium, and it’s one of the ways scholars narrow down which letters in the New Testament were really written by Paul, and which were not. The scholarly consensus is that Paul likely wrote seven of the fourteen letters that historically bear his name , and this (1 Thessalonians) is one…in fact it may be the earliest one.* Which I think is really cool, because it means not only is this the oldest document in the New Testament, it’s also puts us within 20 years of Jesus’ death.
Paul (almost) always begins letters with this extended portion of thanksgiving for all the good things the churches have done and are doing (the exception being the letter to the Galatians…and Paul has seriously had it with them….but that’s another sermon). And this got me wondering…If Paul wrote a letter to All Saints Brookline, how would it start? What would Paul say about us?
Would he praise our worship and the many ways people of all ages can connect to and experience God here: from kids on the rug, to the choir offering beautiful and inspiring music, to the acolytes and lay ministers, welcome ministers and ushers…all collaborating to make this a space where people can experience God’s grace?
Would he give thanks for how we strive to ensure that everyone—from infants to elders—can experience God’s love for them here, through this community’s love and care for them…and how we encourage—and provided resources for—everyone to always be growing in faith and love?
Would he extol the many ways in which we support—not only this community but many communities around us…music groups, and co-ops, a Korean church and recovery groups; but also the unhoused, the food insecure…Would he mention how we are reckoning with our history of colonialism and racism…how we try to raise up voices of underrepresented groups…how we are are looking at concrete steps we can take towards shrinking the racial wealth gap in the Boston area.
What would he say in his letter to us? What would you say, if you were to list of all of the things that you are grateful for at All Saints?
Some of what Paul would say would be surprising…because he would be bringing an outsider’s eye…he would see things that we don’t see. And that could be…enlightening.
But we have to remember that Paul wasn’t exactly an outsider to the Thessalonians. He knew them…and they knew him…He had lived and worked with them. And it’s one thing to hear praise from an outsider…it’s different when it’s from someone you know well…a leader in your own community.
So I want you to hear this again…from me…(once more, with feeling, as they say)
I always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in my prayers; constantly remembering…your work of faith (and your struggles with faith)… Your many labors of love and your steadfastness of hope […]
I know, that you are beloved by God…that God has chosen you…And that you are continually becoming imitators of Christ…You receive the word with joy…And you are inspired by the Holy Spirit…And you are an example to all […].
Did you hear that a little differently? Can you let that sink into your soul?
Because the real question is not what would Paul say to us? (as valuable as that question might be)…The real question that I invite you to ponder is: how would the world be different…if you lived every day…knowing…(in your heart…in your bones…in your soul)…that what I just said to you is absolutely true? That you are beloved of God…chosen by God…to work with faith, and in love, to bring hope, and light, and healing to a fractured world? What would the world be like, if we really believed that…and really lived that…every day?
And then, a follow-up question: what would we—as individuals and as a community—be doing…if everyone around us…everyone we know…and even people we don’t know…knew this as well…and could say this about us? Who are the people of All Saints? Oh, they are the people “who have turned to God…who serve the living God…and whose faith in God is known…it’s shown in the work they do…in how they gather…how they make decisions…how they bless one another…how they outdo one another in showing honor (Romans 12:10)…What a wonderful world that would be…
Beloved children of God…let us strive to live not simply “as if” all of this might be true…but let us strive to live our lives because all of this is true.
*Scholars debate whether 1 Thessalonians or Galatians is earliest. Both are dated to ca. 48-51 CE.