“Giving Thanks for All of You”
1 Thessalonians 1:1-3
November 18, 2012
Give thanks for God’s work in and through his people.
I. Giving thanks constantly (1 Thess 1:1-2)
II. Remembering … (1 Thess 1:3)
A. Your work of faith
B. Your labor of love
C. Your steadfastness of hope
The last couple of weeks have been an adventure in thanksgiving. Preparing for the twentieth anniversary celebration yesterday I looked at thousands of pictures of activities and events that have marked the life of Trinity Fellowship. Some few of those ended up in the history that I showed yesterday. But many of the pictures that didn’t make it in still evoked keen gratefulness for the people who have made this church a church for twenty years.
A while back I decided I’d preach a Thanksgiving passage today that would also allow me to express some of my own thanksgiving for the people who’ve given so much to me and my family and Trinity. The passage I’ve chosen is the beginning of 1st Thessalonians, where Paul models thanksgiving in a way that works for me and I hope for you as well. He shows that we should give thanks for God’s work in and through his people. That’s it; this week in your celebration, give thanks for God’s work in and through his people.
Let’s read the passage and then talk about giving thanks. 1st Thessalonians 1:1-3: Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace. 2We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, 3remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
I. Giving thanks constantly (1 Thessalonians 1:1-2)
Verse 1 sets the context. On his second missionary journey Paul planted a church in Thessalonica, a city in Greece. Luke records this event in Acts 17: “Now when they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. 2And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.” 4Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women.
That’s how the church was founded; the next verses tell us how the Jews who had not believed in Jesus raised a mob to attack Paul and his companions at the home of a man named Jason. Apparently the church had moved there. But Paul and the others weren’t at the house when it was attacked, and as soon as possible thereafter the church sent Paul, Silas and Timothy away to the town of Berea. Luke seems to imply that all this occurred over only a very short time, but we would be wrong to limit it to three weeks.
I suspect what happened was that by the end of three weeks the Jewish opposition to Paul’s teaching had solidified enough that they wouldn’t let him teach in the synagogue, but that some further weeks or even months elapsed before they rioted against the new church that had formed in Jason’s home. 1st Thessalonians and other scriptures seem to depict a church that has benefited from a more extensive ministry than a surface reading of Acts would imply.
After Paul left Thessalonica he went to Berea, where even the Jews welcomed him warmly for a while. Then he went to Athens, which turned out to be a hard place to do ministry, and then to Corinth, where we know he stayed for eighteen months. It is almost certain that 1st Thessalonians was written during this time in Corinth, probably in 50 AD. It’s one of the earliest of Paul’s letters. He writes to encourage this young church and to help them hold firm to the hope of Christ’s return even in the midst of opposition and suffering. The letter was written in conjunction with Silas and Timothy, and was based on reports Paul had received from them after they spent considerable time back in Thessalonica while he was in Corinth.
After the initial ‘to the church of the Thessalonians’ and ‘grace and peace to you’ Paul launches immediately into thanksgiving: “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers.” It is obvious from this verse, is it not, that Paul has a prayer list, maybe 3x5 cards, and he rotates through the various churches and ministries that he has promised to pray for and maybe once a week he says ‘thank you God for the Thessalonians, please bless them and keep them safe and healthy.’ You don’t believe me do you? You think I’m being a little sarcastic. Maybe I am.
But it’s easier than taking the verse seriously: ‘We give thanks always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers.’ How are you supposed to do that? A daily prayer list, or fifteen minutes squeezed in or even an hour set aside doesn’t seem to cover what Paul is describing. Not that those things are bad: they are immensely valuable and can be wonderful times with the Lord. But they still seem worlds apart from ‘always, all of you, constantly.’
How do we do that? I don’t have a complete answer, but I’ve been thinking about this a long time. Several years ago I read a book by Ben Patterson, that gave me a key word: it was called ‘deepening your conversation with God.’ I might be wrong, but I think most people have a conversation going on in their heads most of the time. You’re thinking about something; it may be something repetitive or nonsensical; it may be strictly business and practical; it may be music, a snatch of a lyric or a melody or both. And because the human brain is remarkable, it may be all of these in quick succession.
It is that inward conversation that has, for me, become partially re-oriented over the last several years into a conversation with God. This can be asking God’s help, or his thoughts regarding something purely technical or mundane, offering him a moment or several minutes of praise, or lifting up the person in front of me or the person on the other side of the world in prayer.
I quoted Thomas Horton a few weeks ago when we were in 1st Peter 4: “The life of our life consists in our communion with God, which we maintain not only by the set performances of prayer, morning and evening . . . But we maintain this communion more especially by a daily, and hourly, and frequent, and constant lifting up of our hearts to God in sighs and groans, and so follow him, as that we will not let him go, or be one moment out of our sights.”
The only way I see to intercede, praise or give thanks constantly is to so live in God’s presence that every thought becomes prayer. None of us is going to achieve this fully: I still chuckle at how far into wakefulness and at times even into work I get before I become conscious of God. But we can grow in this direction - to become like Jesus, or Paul, in constant awareness of God.
And in that awareness we can truly give thanks for others. I want to spend the rest of our time looking at verse 3, which says “remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul remembers what God has done through others and he’s grateful. That’s a plan for Thanksgiving this week that can’t go wrong.
II. Remembering . . . . (1 Thessalonians 1:3)
A. Your work of faith
B. Your labor of love
C. Your steadfastness of hope
Paul gives thanks for three kinds of things he has seen and heard about in the Thessalonian church: for their work which is motivated by faith, for their labor or sweat which is motivated by love and for their endurance which is motivated by hope. At this twentieth anniversary moment, I am grateful for each of these things as well; as I look back over twenty years the names and faces of people at Trinity and their words and actions come pouring into my mind, and I want to thank God for them. In fact I want to briefly tell a few of those stories under the headings ‘those who worked by faith’ ‘those who did labors of love’ and ‘those who endured through hope.’ I can only tell a tiny fraction of these stories, and mention only a few names. So I apologize in advance for how limited my words have to be; trust me there are so many of you I am so grateful for, but I can’t include you all or we’d be here all day.
So Paul says he gives thanks when he remembers their work of faith. We probably need to distinguish the word ‘work’ in this first phrase from the word ‘labor’ in the next one. It seems to me the distinction lies roughly along the lines of activity versus toil. The work of faith is the activity, the ministry, the involvement, and the commitment that come because we believe in Jesus.
The verse that comes to mind is Ephesians 2:10 - after saying that we are saved by faith Paul goes on to say we are God’s workmanship, God’s masterpiece, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which he prepared in advance for us to do. ‘Labor’ on the other hand is more focused on the intensity of the work; we could translate it ‘toil,’ ‘unceasing hardship.’ It has the odor of sweat about it, something you’re so invested in that you hardly take a break.
So Paul is thankful for the godly activity that real faith has inspired in the church of Thessalonica. And I’m thankful for the godly activity that real faith has inspired here at Trinity over the last twenty years. The first people that come to mind as examples are David and Debbie Emerson, who over the years have done good works which God seems to have prepared in advance for them to do. David and Debbie had been friends at Clear Lake Bible Church, but had been moved to Pennsylvania. Not long after Trinity started David was moved back to Texas, and though we should have been gracious enough to allow David to church hunt, we simply insisted that Trinity was his real home. By the time Debbie finished up school and moved down, David was fully invested as the contact person overseeing the build-out of our first facility, Brook Center. David was a servant; the work was needed; he did it.
In the same way David and Debbie were prepared by God to offer hospitality to many in their home over the years, more and more as their own kids moved out to their own lives. In 2002, at Christmas, the Mark Bauer family moved from Georgia to Texas and were living in a hotel, waiting for a house. The Buaers had already connected to Trinity, and David and Debbie, who had never met them, open their home so that the Bauer’s could stay with them and have a real Christmas. After that they offered their home to Mike and Shawn Bauer under a similar circumstance, and finally to Tim and Abbie Rask for two years as they prepared to go to Nepal. Those are works of faith.
Another example close to my heart is Mike Rice. I call Mike my clone. Mike phoned Trinity from New Jersey in 1997 to ask if there was a good evangelical seminary in Houston. He said his company was moving him this way, but he was seriously thinking about ministry. I ask what company; he says ‘Exxon,’ the company I worked for before seminary. I asked where he worked; he said Florham Park, New Jersey, where I worked before we moved to Texas. Even more remarkably, it turned out he’d gone to Stevens Institute of Technology; the same school I went to. He was heavily involved in the Stevens Christian Fellowship, as I was; and involved in one-on-one accountability with a guy named Varoujan Mazmanian, who has discipled students at Stevens for almost forty years.
Given all that it seemed inevitable Mike and Vanessa would come to Texas and get involved at Trinity. They served faithfully in LIFE, in worship and in ministry in general. Then Mike took the step of faith to go off to seminary, get a pastoral degree, and get involved with a new church in Minneapolis. He made all those decision by faith, and they led him to the work God had in mind for him, both here at Trinity and now in Minnesota.
A more recent example is Jim Dutton. He and Erin have truly allowed their lives to be shaped by their faith. Their most recent step of faith, of course, has been to leave this church home they truly loved and where they served effectively, to move to Colorado Springs to build into the lives of young men and women at the Air Force Academy. But they lived that faith here before they ever moved. I remember Jim and JP pulling up in front of my house with a lawnmower in their trunk to help me out in a busy week. I well remember Jim’s faithful desire to do the right thing as an elder, even when the right thing was the hard thing. And at a moment when Awana was threatened because we didn’t have a commander and had several other staff issues, Jim stepped up to provide faithful and inspiring leadership to the program.
There have been so many here at Trinity who have worked by faith, who faith has motivated them to give of time, money and energy to do work of the church and the kingdom and to personally bless me and others. Yet I’m reluctant to put people into that category because the same people often fall into the second category, ‘a labor of love.’ Trinity has been hard work for many, with the odor of sweat about it, with toil and at times tears. Paul, Timothy and Silas say ‘we are so thankful for those whose love has led them to toil.’
I agree. One such person I see every day is my administrative assistant, Iva Foster. We pay Iva a very modest salary, and she toils at what she does, which isn’t just an excellent job of preparing things for Sunday morning and organizing the church calendar and helping people make their event at church work. She also does countless hours of ministry, loving on and helping people, often by meeting needs no one else can or will meet, working tirelessly for people’s weddings and receptions and trips. It’s a labor of love Iva, and if we multiplied your salary by ten we couldn’t buy that kind of commitment.
Yet so many people toil as volunteers. This church exists because of that toil. The Garrisis were one of the key examples early on. Tom invested untold hours caring for the facility at Brook Center, interacting with our landlord, keeping watch on our finances, being the personal champion of my salary and endless other tasks. Wendy, along with Ruth Mohn and others shaped the Trinity Women’s ministry which is still touches lives. It’s a labor of love.
Joanna Rask has poured love into our church at every opportunity. In particular she blessed our first generations of children by providing good creative teachers with good creative materials that made for great Sunday School classes. But it has been her unique gift of being able to lovingly connect with anyone, and her passion to help everyone that has inspired so many acts of love at Trinity. In fact Joanna is one of those who labor to the point of exhaustion, to the point where her husband has to back her off for a little while.
Another one is Michelle Murray. While her drama ministry isn’t directly a ministry of Trinity, it has been a huge ministry for Trinity, reaching kids in ways that church programs cannot do. And the whole Slovakia English Camp ministry is the fruit of Michelle’s labor, and Darra’s. And that’s not even to mention the ministry at Awana and other places and in people’s lives that has been the fruit of Michelle’s labor. Yet she does this while living in near poverty, at times not knowing how the next meal was going to be paid for. A labor of love is exhausting, yet Michelle continues to pour herself out.
Her friend Hannah Gronseth has a similar story. Her passion for worship, her love of the Lord has led her to toil endlessly for Trinity. Whether preparing for Sunday morning, or for a Saturday afternoon, or for evenings of worship or Michelle’s musicals, or countless weddings and events, Hannah has poured out her giftedness in abundance. Yet most of you know she has done so with constant and varied pain that tries to lay her low every week, pain the doctors have not been able to address, pain God has not chosen to heal despite the fervent prayers of many. Paul says this is a labor of love, and as all women know, labor is painful. Hannah isn’t the only one who has labored for this church through pain. Thank you God for people willing to do that.
So the work of faith, the labor of love and the endurance inspired by hope. These three, faith, hope and love are sometimes called the three Christian graces, the God given essence of the Christian’s life. They are mentioned together often in the New Testament. Hebrews says that we draw near to God by faith, we hold on to hope, and we stir one another up to love. Peter told us that “through Jesus you are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God,” and then “love one another earnestly from a pure heart.” Paul uses the same triad in several places, including another greeting, Colossians 1, where he says “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, 5because of the hope laid up for you in heaven.” But the most famous of all is 1st Corinthians 13, where Paul says “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
So it is not surprising that Paul is thankful for those who endurance is inspired by hope. One of the people of Trinity who was most inspired by hope was Ed Lewis. Some of you will remember that he struggled to sustain a business that would make ends meet. He did a lot in real estate, he had a wonderful bar-b-que place for a while, but none of it was ever real reliable, and his family life was a struggle as well. But through it all he worked tirelessly for the church, not least when we bought this building, and for many years he taught Sunday School, with hours every week spent in preparation.
And all this endurance was inspired by hope. Ed passed away suddenly in 2004 and when we were getting ready to do his memorial service we found in his Bible an old list of hymns he wanted sung at his funeral, under the heading ‘glorious return to be with the Lord.’ His life was focused on that hope.
Many people have displayed incredible endurance in serving God’s people at Trinity with an eye on that same hope. Eugene Peterson calls this ‘a long obedience in the same direction.’ I think of Lee Norbraten who brilliantly organized Christian Education and Awana for many years. We didn’t know how much he did until he left. I think of Helen Shipaugh, who has done many things, but who has specifically exhibited endurance in coming in and cleaning out the kitchen for ten years, knowing that people will start messing it up again the moment she finishes or maybe sooner.
I think of Frank Kittle who has faithfully served so many ways, not least of which is the challenge of being my friend for the last thirty years. But think of the endurance associated with only one of his tasks, setting up and taking down the sound system, conservatively, 1000 times since Trinity began, probably closer to 2000. Ministry requires endurance. Hope inspires endurance.
I think of Novella Denny; she’s not a very public figure in the church at this point, though she has organized thousands of meals to help people in need. But at the same time she has raised three generations: children, grand-children, great-grandchildren; she may even be caring for great-greats at this point. She has poured herself into people with endurance and hope, because her hope isn’t placed in people but in the one who promised and who is faithful.
I could go on and on - I should, I hate to leave you out - but if I mentioned everyone who has work has been by faith, whose labor has been by love and whose endurance has lived on hope, I’d be here for a week and you’d all miss Thanksgiving dinner. In one sense my point today is very personal: I give thanks for all of you. But in another sense I want all of us to embrace this. Thanksgiving ought to be about giving thanks to God for all the people who have worked and labored and endured on our behalf.
When we give thanks for God’s material provision or the beauty of his creation we do well, but when we give thanks for people we do best. So I’d like to close today very personally, by giving thanks for my best friend, the love of my life, my Gail. Twenty five years ago when I started to move toward ministry, Gail’s comment was that she hadn’t signed up to be a pastor’s wife - she’d signed up to be the wife of an engineer; involved in ministry, certainly, but not at the center of ministry.
The hardest job in the world is to be a pastor’s wife - expected to do every kind of ministry well, and to offer every kind of counsel and hospitality, while raising a family, allowing her husband to work idiotic hours, supporting him fully and unconditionally and at the same time challenging him to be better and do better at the work God has called him to. It’s an impossible task, a labor of love, a triumph of hope, and there is no thank you public or private that can begin to touch the depths of what she has offered me.
But I do want to publicly say thank you today because just as I thank God for all those who have made this church work, much more do I always thank God for you, constantly mentioning you in my prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. Thank you.