Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

When the Grand Old Party’s President Theodore Roosevelt was making a speech in Maine, a traditional Republican stronghold, he asked if there was a Democrat in the audience. An old whiskered man rose in the back of the room and said, “I am a Democrat.”  Astonished, Roosevelt then asked him why he was a Democrat. He answered: “I’ve always been a Democrat, my father was a Democrat, and my grandfather was a Democrat.” Roosevelt asked, “Then if your father had been a horse thief and your grandfather had been a horse thief, you would be a horse thief?” “Oh, no” the old man replied, “in that case I would be a Republican.” Many people are what they are politically, because that is what their parents were. The same is true of religion.

Wherever the Apostle Paul traveled, he always went to the Jewish community first with the Gospel of Jesus Christ and then to the Gentiles.  He would walk into the synagogue and be recognized by his dress as a teacher of the law, and he would take the seat of the rabbi and speak.  He expected there would be people there who would disagree with him, but he chose never to be disagreeable. He knew that voices would oppose him and be uncivil, but he chose to lift up his own voice with kindness, civility and respect. He recognized that all voices should be heard and that they could learn from one another. More importantly, Paul never denied that these opposing voices were his people, whom he loved, even when their behavior was unlovable. People, he observed, often remain what they were born, politically and religiously.

Paul’s critics in Thessalonica expected that the church he established would fold and quietly disappear without fanfare as soon Paul and Silas left town. The Apostle’s 1st Letter to the Thessalonians written perhaps only 6 months, however, must have come to them as a surprise. The church was alive and thriving.  The epistle reads, “Paul, Silas and Timothy, to the Church of the Thessalonians, grace to you and peace. We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.”  The church survived and was thriving because the followers dared to imitate the life and words and witness of Paul and of God.

My friends, as our nation prepares to celebrate its 248th birthday this Thursday on July 4th, we can drawn an important message from Paul and his time in Thessalonica. No, I don’t think we have to drive all our elected leaders out of town- and satisfying as that may be. What I do believe is that that the kinder, gentler nation that we all long for cannot be legislated from hallowed halls in distant places. No, I believe like the early church in Thessalonica that a kinder, gentler nation must begin in our homes, and in our own backyards.  You and I, together, bear the responsibility of building up what will last.  We must dare to imitate God.

Let us turn to the story of Paul in Thessalonica.  It must have been an excruciatingly painful journey after being beaten and held in the stocks in Philippi. Paul and Silas, and their young companion Timothy made the one-hundred-mile trip to Thessalonica along the Ignatian Way. This would have been a three- or four-day trip overnighting in Amphipolis and again and Apollonia on the way. Finally, arriving in Thessalonica, a city of 200,000, they were received by a large Jewish population unlike that of Philippi.  As was his custom, Paul went to the Synagogue on three consecutive Sabbaths, reasoning with them from the Scriptures, explaining and giving evidence that Christ had to suffer and rise again from the dead, saying, ‘This Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you is the Christ.’”

Paul was not surprised by the resistance of the Jews in the Synagogue- after all as a Jewish scholar of the law and a follower of the Way, he recognized that the Thessalonian Jews in the  Synagogue held the same core beliefs. They had been raised in the same tradition that he had. It was commanded of the Jews in the Book of Deuteronomy, “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”  If dutiful parents believed and follow the faith, then they needed to follow scriptures’ admonition to pass on these beliefs and to stand up against false interpretations of scripture and tradition.  Paul’s way, and the way of Christ was turning the world upside down.

The challenge before the Apostle in Thessalonica was great, but after Paul reasoned and argued with them in the Synagogue some Jews were persuaded and joined Paul, Silas, and Timothy. Not only Jews, but also a large number of God-fearing Greeks and a number of the leading women, and so we read that a small church was born and began to grow.  But we also read that with that success, an adamant faithful group of Jews who objected to Paul’s teaching gathered ruffians from the marketplace and turned the crowds into an angry mob disturbing the whole city. They attacked the house of Jason where they believed Paul and Silas were staying. When they did not find them, they seized Jason and brought him to the city authorities, who could not ignore the disturbance and violence.  Surprisingly, they forced Jason and the others brought with him to post bond that would be forfeited if they disrupted the peace again.  That very night, the new believers in Thessalonica smuggled the little missionary band out of the city on to Beroea.

Yet, in spite of the chaos and persecution, the congregation in Thessalonica survived and it grew, and perhaps just as amazing, the Apostle Paul sheltered no anger or resentment towards the Thessalonians. That is the true wonder and poignant message of this passage. Paul should have felt angry, estranged and bitter, but instead he entrusted the mission of the church to God and he placed it into his hands. Yes, God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, was greater than any force or any man that defy him.

My friends, Paul’s insight into human nature is timely and important, not simply for relating to those whom you disagree, but also for those with whom you are actually very close in opinion and desire. Even as Christians, born and raised in the faith, we do not agree on all things- and as church history reminds us. Many people are what they are politically, because that is what their parents were.

So how do we imitate the life of Paul and God?  I believe it begins by recognizing legitimate differences. I was delighted to read a one-sentence letter to the editor this week. “Dear Editor, there are many things I disagree with in your newspaper, keep it up.”  Disagreement and discussion is not a bad thing, but it can be when we become disagreeable.  Be an imitator of God and be open to listen to what people think and say. Don’t judge too sharply. Consider, some of your thoughts and prayers and meanderings with God in the middle of the night.

Be an imitator of God and be patient. Paul recognized that introducing takes time- if ever. He began discussing his beliefs in Thessalonica over three sabbaths. He then left the word in the hands of the Holy Spirit, to mold and encourage and change people. You don’t need to provide the whole truth of faith to convince your neighbor in a single conversation, nor do I have to preach the entirety of Christian faith in a single sermon. You may never know if it did its work. But you need to be respectful of friends and neighbors so that the truth you bear is the Lord’s and not simply yours. Imitate God. Be patient and do not hurry.

Be cautious of humor. God loves to laugh with you, but not at you. As an imitator of a loving God, we are called to reflect his loving heart. You can’t say mean and hurtful things, and then end by adding, “I was just kidding.”  The damage and insult is done. Your words are a witness to your thoughts, and the betray the love of God in you.  Faith is nurtured through attitude, convictions and humor.

Consider the different and important methods of building one’s faith. With children, and in confirmation, we often began with a process of indoctrination simply because there is much to know. The process of discipleship, however, which Paul practiced develops from that. But it is slow. It is not simply quoting verses at appropriate times.  Discipleship as Jesus taught is by living and working and walking with people through their trials and troubles, joys and wonders.

Beware of longing too much for the good, old days.  I can appreciate the 83- year old woman, who recently wrote, “They were good old days, because I was younger.”  At 65- I have three pairs of glasses, one for reading, one for distance, and one to find the other two.  I take 5 pills a day, one for my heart, one for my blood, one for my legs, one for the things I don’t eat, and one for the things I do, and then I take a children’s multi-vitamin every other day to keep the whole thing going.  But God has a way of entering the world in Jesus Christ and turning everything upside down. That is what happened in Thessalonica, he is the one we are to imitate.  If there is one lesson I would take from the good old days it is, “Say what you mean, mean what you say, and don’t say it mean.”

Paul understood that people are what they are religiously, and yes, politically, because that is what their parents were.  But he also grew to know and trust the movement of the Holy Spirit, and that the ways of Jesus could take hold. So at the end of his 1st Letter to the Thessalonians, he dared to write, ”Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”  My friends, do not be dismayed as events of our nation unfold.  With God, and in his time, and with men and women daring to imitate him, better day always lie just ahead.  Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.