Eat Your Veg!
1 Thessalonians 5:16-22
“Eat your veg.”
“Say please and thank you.”
“Look both ways before you cross the street.”
“Don’t hit your sister.”
“Always tell the truth.”
Or my favorite: “Sit up straight — like a Christian!”[i]
That’s what Rebecca’s grandfather said to her when she was a girl. She tells me that for the longest time she had the idea that Christians were especially noted for their good posture.
And then she met me!
Do any of these exhortations sound familiar to you? I bet they do. Your parents probably said things like this to you. If you’re a parent, you say such things. If you’re a child, you know your folks love to say things like these. And you ignore them. You hear them, of course, but these words go in one ear and out the other. “‘Look both ways’” – I think I got that one down, Dad!”
And why would you kids pay close attention? You can almost recite these sayings yourself. How many times have your parents said to you, “Be sure to say thank you” or “Call me when you get in. Doesn’t matter how late, just call. If you don’t call, we’ll be worried sick all night. Give us ring.”
They are exhortations which aren’t particularly original, but they are important. They teach us something about the way of life, or about life giving ways.
Life giving ways:
“Persevere and prevail.”
“It’s not whether you win or lose, but about how you play the game.”
Maybe these things can sound shallow at times, especially if they are removed from the context that gives them birth. Our text today could well be printed on a coffee mug. But I think to do so would rob it of its soulful context – which is really about the One who is for us as the way of life itself.
As people of faith, we’re not formed by bland admonishments: do this or don’t do that. That’s not it. Rather, through the body of the church, we are formed through loving relationships, in Christ, through Christ, by Christ, for Christ and, in mutual compassion for one another, we grow with a sense of concern for the whole person. A sense that if you’re not here, we are less because of your absence – there is an empty seat, a hand that we long to hold, a voice we ache to hear. We long for completion, together, and in Christ.
I can’t be complete without you; neither can you be complete without or apart from me.
That’s a theological assertion rather than a biological one. And that’s the larger burden of today’s letter. It conveys the way of Christ through life giving ways.
1 Thessalonians is the earliest known letter of Paul. Not likely his first letter, but the earliest letter in the historical record. It is also among his most personal. Paul wrote it around 50 CE. Estimates vary, but historians believe that Paul spent around 3 or 4 months forming this congregation. They were probably mostly Gentiles.
And Paul, it seems, loved them. If you go back a few chapters, to chapter two, Paul describes his affection for the church in Thessalonica using metaphors of a nursing mother, tenderly holding her infant child, giving nourishment from her very own body. And then, as if that metaphor wasn’t enough, he switches metaphors: “I feel for you the longing that an orphan feels for its parents.” That’s pathos, feeling. Paul writes as one who aches for the community which no doubt played a part in his own formation.
It is a deeply communal letter, including an abundance of first person plurals as well as intimate expressions of Paul’s affection for the community itself.
“We always give thanks to God for you. . . .”
“We were gentle among you.”
“You remember our labor.”
“So deeply do we care for you.”
“We wanted to come to you.”
“We could bear it no longer.”
“I could not bear it any longer.”
In other words, these blandishments are not hallmark card messages, detached from the heart, but words spoken with deep affection and close ties.
That community of care for the whole person supplies the context for this fairly commonplace triad of prayer sayings:
Pray without ceasing.
Give thanks in every circumstance.
Commonplace. You see language like this sprinkled throughout Paul’s writings, and, indeed, throughout the gospels.
And yet, something other than the commonplace intrudes into this heap of familiar exhortations: “For this,” Paul writes, “is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Thus, as God’s will for us, it is our duty as people of faith to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in every circumstance because God’s will for us makes this possible.
And yet it’s not always true of us, is it? We don’t rejoice at all times; we don’t pray without ceasing; and I know I’m not alone in not giving thanks for every circumstance. And I might even be guilty of not always eating my veg.
We can think of times when we did not rejoice, can’t we? Times when our prayers were less than enthusiastic? Circumstances for which we did not and would not give thanks.
Perhaps the community at Thessalonica was in such a place. They were grieving the loss of members of their community; they were waiting for a resurrection that did not seem to be arriving any time soon; they were perhaps experiencing some sort of persecution, which had created confusion or ambiguity in their life together. Paul speaks to this. But before Paul says farewell, he says, in effect, “Look both ways before you cross the street!” But Paul also speaks to those deeper issues, the kinds of things that form our soul stories.
Soul stories. We might go back to chapter four. This is a text which is often read at funerals and memorial services. Paul writes “that [we] do not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died” (4:14). And he concludes saying, “Encourage one another with these words.”
Paul doesn’t say we don’t grieve. He says we grieve with an accent, the accent of hope. Or we grieve in the conviction of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Or as those who, by God’s grace and will, are called to rejoice always.
And maybe that is the deeper wisdom in these exhortations – not that we ever actually do as we are supposed to do – eat our veg, or pray without ceasing – but that the one who leads us, Christ, always does so and will bring our lives to completion, and we are encouraged to rejoice in the strength of that promise.
Last week I was in Texas as part of an academic group, of which I’ve been a member for nearly twenty years. Each year, at the Saturday evening banquet, they remember those who have died. Most have lived full lives, but this year, one of our number died far too young. Shortly after our meeting the previous year, he had been diagnosed with cancer and he died six months later, in his early fifties.
The academy remembered him by giving him posthumously, the Life Time Achievement Award. We grieved. And those who knew him well shared stories. A group of students had gathered around him towards the end. “What,” they asked, “can we do to give you joy?”
“You give me joy,” he said. “Each and every one of you, my students, you give me joy.”
And I thought, I wish I had known him better. I wish I had, to use Paul’s language, “given thanks” more robustly for the gift of his presence than I did. You know, in the end, you can’t give enough thanks. You can’t but you keep trying.
Even hardship, loss – for these we may, by God’s powerful grace, give thanks. There are people here who grieve the death of loved ones, and they grieve, at this very moment, perhaps especially around the holidays, when those feelings of absence are sharpest. And if they could, they would bring their beloved back, right now. But they’ve told me, in almost in these exact words, “I’m thankful for the tears, because they remind of the love.”
Give thanks in every circumstance.
Maybe those tears direct us to the one who loves us all, with an everlasting love.
So perhaps we mourn in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear . . . and yet we are bold to sing, rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel, has come to thee, O Israel.
The song we will sing after this sermon is from the Taize community in France, where I met Rebecca. Rebecca, I remember. This song, from that time, I don’t. Instead, this song is what we often sing at our dinner table, as our grace before eating.
Sometimes, to be honest, it seems so commonplace, even a little bit chirpy: “In the Lord I’ll be ever thankful, in the Lord I will rejoice, look to God do not be afraid, lift up your voices the Lord is near, lift up your voices the Lord is near.”
Commonplace. We sing it around kitchen table. Ordinary space. We usually hold hands. When we get to the part that says, “lift up your voices” we lift up our hands. We know it by heart. The words and the moves that go with it. And yet, I know one day, we won’t all be at the same table, we won’t all sing together.
One will fly to a far shore.
Another will fall in love.
A third will follow a dream.
A fourth will go on an adventure.
And always, by God’s grace, I will give thanks at that very table, remembering the song we sang together. And yes, by God’s grace, I will give thanks for the longing; for the empty place at the table, for the voices I remember, and I will rejoice in the anticipation of fellowship renewed when Christ returns.
You know, you can’t give thanks enough. But you keep trying anyway.
So, remember, always eat your veg. Say please and thank you. Give us a call when you get home. Don’t worry, it’ll never be too late. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing; give thanks in all circumstances. Stay away from evil. Cling to the good.
And may the God of peace sanctify you completely, through and through, and may you become whole, through and through, body, mind, and spirit.
The one who exhorts us, Christ our Lord, is faithful and he will do this. Rejoice always. Pray constantly. Give thanks in all circumstances.
It’s about the way of life or
about life giving ways. Amen.
Rev. Robert P. Hoch, Ph.D.
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
Baltimore MD 21217
December 17, 2017
[i] Connection inspired by Carla Works, “Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24” in Working Preacher (December 17, 2017), accessed at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3500 on January 2, 2018.