by Kari Baumann1 Thessalonians 5.9-15 (NRSV)
If you have ever worked in a school, you probably know about the 4-1 ratio. We school staff are supposed to give students four positive comments to every one redirection. This is a great goal for interacting with students, but as you can imagine, there are times when this is particularly difficult, whether because of the dynamic between the adult and the child, the overall school dynamic, or maybe just because someone is having a bad day.
In my own house, as a parent, I absolutely struggle with this ratio sometimes. At one particularly fraught point in the past year, Atticus said that he just wanted to go to his Grammy’s house (my mom’s house) because she tells him good things about himself instead of his parents who are always telling him what he did wrong. Yeah, that was a gut punch. I apologized and have definitely tried to course-correct since then, to remember that I need to tell him all the ways that I think he is amazing and how strong and resilient he has been this year. He should know how much I have enjoyed the time that we were able to spend together. Our children have had to absorb a lot of change and uncertainty and loneliness over the past year without much notice at all. Certainly, they didn’t have a lot of guidance from the adults around them, who were also feeling those exact same emotions. With that in mind, I could probably be a little bit less intense about the saltine crumbs that he left on the couch.
Atticus is right, though, that it’s beneficial to be a little bit more like my mom when we are talking to each other. If only we could all put on our “Grammy glasses” and see each other with the love that my mom has for her grandchildren. If only we could take the time to see others for who they are, to delight in one another, and to bless the gifts and talents we find in their lives.
It has been a year since we have been able to gather together in our church building. This weekend marks the anniversary of our first Sunday in lockdown. It has been a long year. A review of the prayer request list over the past year unsurprisingly reveals a lot of loss and a lot of concern for our friends and families during this long hard year. There’s been a lot of talk this week about the last “normal” day that we had before the pandemic, and I keep remembering the hug that Marcus gave me in Tessera the last Sunday we were all together. The last people I hugged outside of my family were in this congregation.
1 Thessalonians is probably the oldest New Testament book and may have been written as early as 41 CE. In it, we see apocalyptic themes. It’s very focused on the second coming of Christ, which many believed could happen at any time. Paul was addressing the despair that the Thessalonians felt. They were grieved by the death of their brothers and sisters in Christ who died before the expected return of Christ. Paul encouraged them that no, their loved ones were not lost. Christ does not forsake anyone who belongs in the family of God. After living through our own apocalyptic year, where so much grief and pain and inequity were revealed, we can surely relate to their despair and questions.
This is a contrast to the idea of the conquering hero people would be expecting. Jesus, Paul says, might arrive unexpectedly. The community has to prepare their hearts to be ready for it. And he gives instructions for how the community is to care for one another. He gives pretty good advice to be patient with each other, not to be gullible (as a librarian, I appreciate this reminder to check your sources), and look for the best in each other. And our allelon passage today, he says, “So speak encouraging words to one another. Build up hope so you’ll all be together in this, no one left out, no one left behind. I know you’re already doing this; just keep on doing it.”
Crucially, Paul doesn’t redirect the congregation here. He encourages them to keep encouraging one another. He highlights what they are already doing and tells them to keep at it. It’s like when I tell a class, “I appreciate how you are using walking feet in the library,” or, “I like how you raised your hand so I could call on you.” He’s giving that positive praise and he’s telling them that, like hope and love, encouragement is an important part of a Christian community. It’s a little bit like Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation telling the women in her life that they are noble land-mermaids and powerful musk oxen and a little bit like Beyonce making sure everyone in the audience knows that they are flawless. And it’s hard not to read that scripture and think of the movie Little Miss Sunshine. NO ONE GETS LEFT BEHIND.
If I had to guess, I would say that you all already know this about community. And I would say that because I often see it in your behavior. Not a week goes by that my family doesn’t receive encouragement from a College Park member. I’m thinking of the cards that Bill Ingold has sent to Atticus when Atticus has spoken in church, letting him know that he is an important member of our congregation even when he gets silly during a church presentation. There are of course faithful messages by Penny and Darcy to remember our birthdays and anniversaries.
I hear you on Sunday mornings during coffee time asking after each other and saying, essentially, “I remember what you were going through. How are you doing?” I have seen glimpses of you at the drive-up concert, or when we have had materials pickup for Advent and Sunday School, or when I got to administer ashes on Ash Wednesday. And every time I see you, especially when I get to observe you interacting, I see you checking up on one another. These small acts let others in the community know how they are seen and valued. They build up the people around us so that we know we matter. This is not a law that Paul is commanding. This is the life-giving nourishment of the Holy Spirit that is overflowing in a community that is full of life. This sustaining work overflows from the Holy Spirit in each of us, causing us to bless and encourage.
No one gets left behind probably also means there’s some healthy discomfort. It means looking after people who are probably not the same as you. It means listening. It means standing with hurting communities. Right now I am thinking of my Asian and Asian-American friends whose communities have experienced so much racism and violence over the past year, especially in recent weeks. It has been undercovered by many mainstream media sources, making people feel invisible in the face of violent attacks, especially of elders in the community. What can we do to stand with and for this community in this moment of crisis?
Over the past couple of weeks, I listened to the Floodlines podcast from The Atlantic, which traces some individual stories during Hurricane Katrina, corrects some misconceptions and falsehoods, and outlines what some of the failures were before, during, and after the storm. One of the stories highlighted is that of Le-Ann Williams, a young Black woman who was 14 at the time of Katrina. She was looking forward to high school, she had been an honor student, and there was a boy she had a crush on. During Katrina, her family ended up at the convention center, and, as a 14-year-old girl, Le-Ann genuinely thought she was going to die. Since Katrina, her life has not gone as she had hoped, probably in large part because of the trauma she experienced during the storm and the displacement her family experienced in its aftermath. Later in the podcast, the host, Vann Newkirk, has an interview with Michael Brown, he of “Heck of a job, Brownie” fame, which was, to me, incredibly compelling. Brown is honest and emotional about what happened in New Orleans, what he tried to do to prevent it, and how he failed. He is also hesitant to apologize but does eventually say, specifically to the story of Lee-Ann, that he is sorry that she felt she was going to die and that they didn’t do what they could have done to take away that fear.
I have to pause here and be honest and say that listening to his apology was frustrating. It was not the full-throated apology that I wish a grown man could have given to a 14-year-old girl who lived through trauma and genuinely believed no one was going to help her family survive. The host, Vann Newkirk, a Rocky Mount native with a Master’s in Public Health from UNC, also wrestled with this, and when he played the apology for Le-Ann, she had some conflicting emotions as well. She asked what Michael Brown is doing now and said she hoped he’s not in charge of any more disaster responses, which I think is totally fair. At first, she said that she didn’t care about hearing an apology from him. But then, after she heard his apology, she also said something surprising. “For him to acknowledge me and say ‘Sorry, Le-Ann Williams. I’m sorry.’ Like the part when he was saying my name when talking to me made me feel like I matter.”
Vann Newkirk points out that Michael Brown was blamed for a lot of things that weren’t his fault, and that when he dies, his obituary will be about his Katrina failures. But at least people know who he is. Le-Ann didn’t feel that anyone saw her or her family, or that they mattered to anyone.
I was struck by the idea that apologizing can be an important way to build someone up because of how it validates the humanity of a person who feels they were wronged. Even in disagreement, if we bother to correct and apologize to one another, that is saying you are important and you matter enough for me to try to work out what is wrong between us. Being in a community where someone says, “I don’t know if I agree with what you said,” is important. Sermon talkback is a valuable time in our community for that reason (but please don’t say anything super disagreeable today – save that for Michael, ok?).
This is also the gift that community can give us, that we can see that we matter to one another.
In my favorite of Barbara Brown Taylor’s books, An Altar in the World, she outlines spiritual practices that are easily located in our lives that help serve as a spiritual map or guide, that help us answer the question “what is saving your life right now”. The final chapter, the one that has stayed with me since I first read it (and that I asked her to sign when I saw her speak) is the practice of pronouncing blessings. Pronouncing blessings on the things and the people around you, she says, causes you to receive the blessings they have already given you. We can start small, with our pets or our loved ones, and move beyond that to the wider world, and even to people we don’t particularly like. And here’s the trick, that it starts to open itself back over to you. If you can bless a stinking dump, she says, surely someone can bless you.
To me, building up one another is so closely tied to the idea of pronouncing blessings. This is what happens when Hayatt’s new house gets flocked, or Jerry Elkins faithfully provides candy for our kids (and the young at heart), or when Crystal Taylor sends Diet Coke to my house after I complain on Facebook about a tough day. It’s the people in our congregation saying to one another, “You matter to me.” When we say that, as the people of God, we are reminding one another of our belovedness before God. And that has not stopped during COVID. We have missed each other, and we have had to be creative, but that care has not stopped. In some ways it has caused us to pay even more attention, to be more thoughtful. It’s not what I would have wanted, because I would rather be hugging you all, but I see the blessing in it. I see the work of God in the zoom meetings and the drive-by parades and the creativity and the thoughtfulness. That’s not to say that we do this perfectly or that everyone feels included. There is always an opportunity to pull up another chair, to extend another hand, or to listen to another person with whom you have differences. We should always keep an eye out for who else needs to hear that they matter, and be open to new and creative ways to express that love and care.
Here are a few more blessings I want to note. It has been a blessing this past year to see Seth Harrison in zoom VBS and Sunday School. It has been a blessing that we could have Kelli and Janna and Keith preach for us, even from far away. It has been a blessing to get to know the Ellers and have Sam and Karah in Sunday School with us. It has been a blessing to be in coffee hour with people I didn’t know very well beforehand, but to get to make new friends. It was a blessing to get to know Christian Burkhead better in the Young Adult group, and to spend more time with Hayatt and Blair and Sarah. It was a blessing to have to get creative with how we distributed the Lovefeast, and I will always remember the Christmas Eve service.
It was not particularly a blessing that time we tried to sing Happy Birthday to Phyllis Calvert on Zoom while we were unmuted, but the memory of how hard I laughed does qualify as a blessing.
We don’t always take the time to say these things to one another, and, for me, the creativity and intentionality of this community have been blessings to me over the past year, and that has helped shape how I will see this year of never-ending Lent when I look back on it in years to come. The work of God did not stop. It changed its form – online or through the post office or the Target delivery person. But the love of God expressed in community does not stop.
Last year, one of my favorite picture book illustrators, Christian Robinson, put out a book called You Matter. In it, he repeats the refrain, “You matter.” If you fall down / If you have to start all over again / Even if you’re really gassy you matter / Sometimes home is far away / Sometimes someone you love says goodbye / Sometimes you feel lost and alone / Old and young / The first to go and the last / The small stuff too small to see / You matter. This is what Paul says we need to remember to tell each other, as well as to keep an eye out for those who want to join us. I think he would say, I know you’re already doing this. Just keep on doing it. Receive the blessings you have already been given. No one left out, no one left behind.