One Christmas when my sister Sarah was four years old, she received a Barbie Campin’ Out Tent Set.
This was realistic-looking but small-sized tent and fly that Barbie and Ken could use when they wanted to get away from it all, unwind, and relax together out in nature. It came in a bright pink box with long plastic poles, a piece of nylon fabric for the tent, and some assembly required.
My Dad gave it a shot, he worked and worked, he tried and tried, and finally… he gave up.
Sometime in February, when my sister’s friend Colin came over to play Barbies and this tent still was still just pieces in a box, Sarah asked Dad to try again. She wondered if he couldn’t please get the tent up so Barbie and Ken could camp out in their Campin’ Out Tent Set.
The girls sat and waited as patiently as four-year-olds can and after a while of Dad trying to put the tent together, and having no luck, Colin became exasperated.
She said, “I got one of these for Christmas and it didn’t MY Dad this long to put it together.”
Sarah, feeling protective responded defensively, “Well, some Dads are just smarter than others.”
When Dad finally looked at the assembly instructions included in the box, he realized the problem all along had been that some of the tent poles were about an inch longer than others and that made a difference.
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy write to the church in Thessalonica, the capital city of Macedonia, to encourage this little community in their faith, to assure them of their friendship, and to praise them for looking deep in the box, finding the assembly instructions, reading them, and using them – in this case: for using the example that Paul and his friends set for them of what it means to follow the Lord Jesus Christ.
This letter’s ink was being put to paper and being prepared to send to this brand-new community… In 50 AD, only twenty very-short years after the death and resurrection of Christ. There was no gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John yet. There was no New Testament yet. And the wider culture wouldn’t know what you meant if you said you were a “Christian” yet.
There was just an oral tradition, and stories about Jesus shared by a community that figured it didn’t need to write anything down because Jesus would return any day to establish the fullness of God’s Kingdom as he had promised.
The words of this letter are the very first words of what would become the New Testament to be written down.
The women and men to whom this letter was written were in unmapped territory, trying to figure out what it meant to look to Jesus and to remember his words and try to live them in a culture that didn’t understand their fledging community, and that was hostile to it because they threatened the status quo with their completely reoriented priorities.
And Paul, in his letter, commends the Thessalonians for this: for persevering in the midst of persecution: for staying the course with assembly instructions in hand, following the direction of the Lord by producing the work of faith, the labor of love, and a steadfast hope in Jesus.
So now, twenty centuries later, we still wait for the Lord to return. And we are still trying to figure out how to be faithful to God, use the gifts that he has given us, and share the gospel. And our world is changing so rapidly that we feel like WE are traveling in unmapped territory.
It can feel like we got the Barbie Campin’ Out Tent Set from Wal-Mart that by some error did not come with assembly instructions.
We wish we had better instructions as we wonder about how we are to make time in our harried lives for serious prayer.
We wonder about how to live in community that really bears with one another’s burdens and is willing to suffer with those who suffer.
We wonder, even as a healthy and growing congregation, how do we adapt to a changing culture to share the gospel in new ways to reach those who don’t know the life-changing news that although we fail and flail and fall short, God in Christ forgives us, finds us, and puts us together into a living tent that can shelter those in need of hearing this same good news.
We wonder about how to be the community that can succeeded in producing the work of faith, the labor of love, and a steadfastness of hope in Jesus in the midst of persecution.
Oh, we’re not persecuted as the Thessalonians were…in the sense that we will likely be attacked or injured for our faith. But our trust of God comes under attack by a culture that tells us at every turn there is not enough to go around.
We hear so often that we should worry, that we do begin to worry about whether there will be enough saving for retirement, enough money for our children’s education, or perhaps even if there will be enough in the bank account to pay the bills this month.
We are surrounded by a narrative that we have to take care of ourselves and that resources are scarce, so that our trust of God comes under persecution.
But God’s grace is sufficient to take care of us. Sisters and brother, we have all we need and more. God who created us in his image will preserve us in his image. He will provide for us in this life and the next. God claims us as his own in baptism. He sets us a feast for us at his table. Our cup isn’t half full or even all the way full, our cup is overflowing with blessing.
We learn to trust God’s promise and see God’s abundance living in intentional Christian community in the church. Like a child walking in her mother’s shoes we try it on and in time we grow into this life of looking to God for all things.
Paul says to the Thessalonians that they’ve not only grown into his shoes as a disciple and apostle of Jesus, but are leaving shoes for others to fill.
Paul says to them, “And you became imitators of US and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution, you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that YOU became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia, and beyond …and you were such a powerful example of what it means to follow Jesus that we now have no need to speak about you.
No need to even speak about it! It is that well known! Their reputation is that cemented!
The people of these regions of Macedonia and Achaia – in all the cities and towns and suburbs and neighborhoods – they KNEW about the Thessalonians: how they served the Living God, and how they wait with eager expectation for Jesus’ return, and what kind of welcome they extended.
Brighten Our Light is about making sure we extend welcome: to the neighbor, the refugee, the and alien in a foreign land.
It is about making sure we extend welcome to the college student, the young adult, and the clumsy Christians like Missy Hill and me and anyone who has been slow to catch onto how the church lives its life in light of the radical, undeserved grace of God.
It is about making sure we extend welcome to travelers, those who just moved to town, and those who are experiencing crisis and have come to a place where they might be able to hear good news and experience kindness and shelter from the storm.
Brighten Our Life is about making sure there are enough classrooms in our facility to offer biblical, theological, and spiritual education to people who are hungry for instruction.
It’s about making sure there is a place where new people to the community can gather and talk and be greeted.
It is about making more room for those people who are not here yet.
We are already a community known as a place of welcome.
Say to the pharmacist or the neighbor or fellow shopper, “I am a member of Epiphany Lutheran Church.”
And you may hear: “I love driving by your stained-glass window of Jesus that reminds me of God’s love.”
Or… “It’s not really Christmas until the nativity figures start their trek across the front lawn of 1400 Horsepen Road.”
But it’s not only our message about the gospel in word and sign, but also in power and with conviction, so that people know the kind of persons we are: how we serve Caritas each year, how we take traveling college students into our homes, how we get to know the guests who come to the HHOPE pantry so that they look forward to seeing us and we look forward to seeing them.
We have been chosen by God and given the gospel to share.
We are called to be an example of how to live life,
How to trust Christ,
How to suffer with joy,
And how to welcome those new people who come to our community.
Brighten Our Light is about *literally* making more room for those people who are not here yet…expanding the commons and narthex so that when people come in to this place as strangers and visitors for the first time, they are not so disoriented and overwhelmed that they are averse to coming back.
As an insider that can be a hard thing to understand. But for those who are new, welcome means more than words can express.
For me, and for my family, we will always remember that when we moved to Richmond, not knowing the city or the surrounding area, you gave us a place to live. You welcomed us.
And Grace House was such a wonderful place to live, I never wanted to leave. Great location in town, good neighbors, pretty close to the church. But when our second child came along, Sarah said, we have to make more room.
Because of the desire to grow our family, we need to make more room and trust God to fill it with good things.
This past week Grace House was full of Timothy Ministers planning for youth ministry, giving up our regular meeting space in the Star Lodge so that Project Bridge could have conversation and Bible study focused on Lutheran World Relief and our response to suffering in the world.
We as Epiphany Church are called to continued new life and to new growth. We are called to be a place of welcome so that those who are not yet here, can find a place here to try on this life in Jesus where we walk in the shoes of our parents and pass them down to our children, taking steps to grow in the work of faith, the labor of love, and steadfast hope in Jesus.
Our life will always include some assembly required. Thanks be to God we are in the Master’s hands.