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Letters of Hope

A sermon delivered by Kathy Pickett, Pastor of Congregational Life, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on December 2, 2012.

1 Thessalonians 3: 9-13

My good friend Jennifer Harris Dault says,

 “I love, Love, love advent. I find something incredibly beautiful in the anticipation. During Advent we talk about hope, joy, love, and peace. I am always glad to be reminded that God has and is and will continue to work in the world. During the first half of Advent when we anticipate Christ’s return, I am glad of the ways that God continues to be incarnate in the world around us. As we shift into the focus on the birth, I rejoice in the anticipation and can’t help but be wrapped up in the story as Mary and Joseph process and wait.”

“Who doesn’t need hope?”

The Thessalonian’s in today’s passage are in need of hope while they are faithfully waiting in anticipation of Christ’s immediate return, while longing to see their friend Paul. Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, servants of the Lord, have been busy sharing the gospel of God, and forming Christian communities of faith, we call church. Planting a church in Thessalonica was a bold move. The city was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, devoted to the imperial cult and idol worship. Soon after Paul and crew had established the church they were faced with great opposition and forced to leave the city.

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, provides a good summary of Paul’s first letter to the anxious and worried church,

“How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” (NRSV)

Letter writing seems to be somewhat of a dying art with email, tweeting, Facebook making communication almost immediate. Words of thanksgiving, praise, and encouragement, are always needed in whatever form they arrive.

Several years ago, on an extremely difficult day, I was seeking the counsel of our previous worship pastor, Darryl Prater. He opened up a drawer in his desk and pulled out a big file filled with cards and letters of encouragement. He encouraged me to create a file of my own. Whenever I am having a bad day, or feeling like I shouldn’t be in ministry at all, I pull out the file and read some of the notes. Cynthia Hartwell, a former youth group member and now Senior at William Jewell College wrote this wonderful note three or four years ago – it hasn’t gone in the file yet because it’s posted on my bulletin board as daily encouragement:

“Kathy, before I even became a teenager, I joined the youth group and found myself in the midst of an incredible support system. Having you at the helm of that really had an influence on me as I grew. Though it has begun to seem distant in my past, I can still see the fruits of the blessing you’ve been in my life. You’re goofy, but so full of the love of God. Thank you for the role model and friend that you are. I truly appreciate it and deeply love you, your sister in Him, Cynthia.”

I do not share that to boast about me, but instead to demonstrate how meaningful a note or letter of gratitude can be. Cynthia’s note will sustain me for days and her words reflect how the community of faith and love of God she experienced growing up at Holmeswood allowed her to see and experience Christ working in the midst of us all.

Several years ago I heard Bill Hybels, founder of Willow Creek church in Chicago say, “There is nothing like the local church, when the local church is getting it right.”

Concerned about the newly formed Christian community, Paul sends Timothy back to the Thessalonians to check on their wellbeing. Timothy reports the Thessalonian church is getting it right. However, in the midst of their steadfastness of faith and love, he also reports their growing anxiety and anticipation of Paul’s return.

I wonder if churches today, who are anxious and worried, trying to figure out how to be and do church in the twenty-first century, might need a letter of encouragement and thanksgiving. Perhaps we need a boost of hope as well.

Another letter I keep in my file was written in 1944 during World War II. It’s written by a man who was a pastor at Roanoke Baptist church here in Kansas City, and a Central Seminary grad. His son sent it to me after I sent him a letter thanking him for supporting a scholarship I received. The son shared his father’s letter wanting me to know why it was important to him to share his father’s faith and love for church with seminary students headed towards church ministry.

Reading this letter and hopeful vision for communities of faith grounds me in a timeless reminder of what we have been called to do and be:

“I would like to see a church whose discerning mind knows the times in which it lives. And I mean by “Times” social, economic, cultural, religious and all. I would also like to see the church possess a discerning soul which knows Divine power, Divine resources, Divine understanding. A church that is not held captive by it’s time, but which through faith and that inner obedience arises beyond the times and looks squarely into the face of God seeking creative, genius, wisdom, power, and love perfectly blended, which came down and lived among us.

I would like to see a church which has a discerning soul that knows the faintest sound of the human voice, the whisper of a little babe, the cry of old age, and the immediate sounds of sorrow, of suffering, of want or of tribulation. Who knows it in such a way that there is not any race or nationality or type of people who will escape the understanding of this kind of church.

The church whose discerning strength and spiritual self brings all of its powers and its understanding to the place where it can serve by giving a cup of cold water creatively. It knows how to take the towel and wash the feet of all, and through the creative power of the cross, which is symbolic of one giving himself for another, it brings the reign of God into human hearts.”

Jan Richardson, author of Through the Advent Door, summarizes Paul’s letter this way, “Offering a blessing is an act of profound hope. In blessing one another, we recognize and ally ourselves with the presence of God who is ever working to bring about the healing of the world…. It is clear that these Thessalonian friends have been a tremendous source of blessing for Paul because of their faithfulness and their care for him and for his companions in ministry. He offers these words — and this whole letter — as a blessing to them in return. And that’s how blessings work: we offer them in recognition of the gifts we have received, and in hope of passing these gifts along, that others may flourish.” 

Unfortunately we don’t always get letters thanking us or blessing us for our faith and steadfast love in return. Occasionally we do. This last letter tucked in my file was written to one friend to another. The receiver shared a copy with me, not out of boasting, but overwhelmed by the blessing,

“I am thankful to you for how patient you have always been toward me and how supportive that you have been of me over the years. Not only have you been supportive, you have been honest in your support, you have always been able to see what I have been put through, you have always been fair toward me and you have never wavered in making time for me, even when, I know, I have interrupted your work.

As much as those things have meant to me, what has meant more, particularly when I look back, has been your sharing of faith with me and you not only espousing your faith but demonstrating what faith is and how some people talk of faith and some live it.

I have watched you endure financial difficulties with class and character and dignity. I have never seen you compromise your integrity for financial gain, reputational gain or from fear. I have never seen you cheat anybody, I have never seen you treat anyone unfairly, and I have never seen you fail to act, not talk, but act in faith.”

Every time we come together as church we have the Divine opportunity to be a community of blessing creating a synergy of Advent hope spilling “love, Love, love” out for all.

Indeed,   “Who doesn’t need hope?”