You’ve seen the sign, or some variation of it. You step into an establishment, and a placard greets you, “We aim to please.” It is customer service at its best; a way to retain and build upon a customer base. At a fast-food restaurant where I once worked, we were taught to say as a way of greeting, “Welcome to Roy Rogers. How may I help you?” Our role was precisely defined; we knew we were the first impression of the restaurant; defined by our personal service and readiness to respond to the customer’s needs. In many places, if a customer isn’t absolutely pleased with the service, they may receive a full refund of whatever they have invested.
Now imagine a church that operates in this way. “Hello, welcome to Bethesda United Church of Christ. We aim to please you. If you are not clearly satisfied with our service, its ministers, or your relationship with God, we will issue you a full refund of whatever investment you have made. To receive your refund, simply bring your Sunday bulletin to the church office within 30 days of your visit.” Uninspired by the Holy Spirit, uninspired by the great promises of God, the worshipers ask for a refund not only of their offering, but of their prayers, their singing, their praise, their time, and their proclamation.
This is humorous, sad, or a little scary to contemplate, but this might be how we, as a Church, may be tempted to operate. And yet, in today’s scripture, we are reminded that as a body of believers, as the body of Christ in the world, we do not seek to please human beings, but we seek to please God. All of our Christian life, including our own worship, aims to please God.
Paul and his fellow workers, Silas and Timothy, are the senders of today’s letter to the church in Thessalonica and by extension, to our church. Generations of Christians have seen these words as instructive to their faith communities. When Paul writes this letter (and his voice seems the strongest), he writes to encourage these brothers and sisters who have become imitators of the Lord through Paul and his companions.
Now, maybe the word “imitator” is distasteful to you. Maybe it turns you off or reminds you of cheap plastic leather, fake fur, or simulated diamonds such as cubic zirconium, or the bedroom slippers that my husband got me the first year we were married: I had wanted L.L. Bean slippers with a plush lining and he had enthusiastically gotten me half-sneaker flip-flops and tried to tell me they were actually slippers to be worn indoors. I knew the difference, but thought to keep my thoughts to myself seeing how pleased he was with the gift. (He totally redeemed himself the following Christmas.)
The point is, we think of imitation as not the real thing. So we may frown upon imitators of any sort as being not their own person. But Paul’s use of “imitator” is different. He tells the believers that they became imitators of Christ and himself, not as cheap substitutes, but so that they could become examples of faith, examples of folks who are joyfully inspired by the Holy Spirit and who serve a living God.
Now, at that time, in Greco-Roman society, there were traveling philosophers and so-called teachers who were more interested in their self-interest, rather than concern for their listeners or the common good. These were charlatans who were out to make a buck with their special treatises on how to live and get along in the world. We have some of the same then as now, but they go by a different name. Then, just as today, there were folks who were more concerned with approval ratings and pleasing the crowd, than speaking truth as they understood it. In the first century, a Stoic philosopher, Dio Chrysostom, complains about how hard it is to find someone who can actually endure the displeasure of the crowd. He writes:
“to find a man who in plain terms and without guile speaks his mind with frankness, and neither for the sake of reputation nor for gain makes false pretensions, but out of good will and concern for his fellow-men stands ready, if need be, to submit to ridicule and to the disorder and the uproar of the mob—to find such a man as that is not easy.”
Paul makes his appeal to the church at Thessalonica by saying that he and his workers are not preaching the gospel out of deceit or impure motives or trickery. They have not sugar-coated their message with flattery or sought praise from the crowd in order to increase profits or to pass the hat out of greed. Though they could have made demands, they were, in Paul’s words, more like a mother tenderly breast-feeding her young. The maternal image is important because it points to close relationship, a relationship that is anchored in God’s own unconditional love for us.
On this Reformation Sunday, we honor those ideas and understandings of our faith that helped to reform, correct, and nurture the church’s relationship with God, and our own personal relationship with God. One of those understandings is the idea that we, as a church, are part of a “priesthood of all believers.” This means, in essence, that each of us is called into ministry by virtue of our baptism. When Martin Luther wrote about this, he cited a text in the New Testament, from 1 Peter 2:9. It goes like this:
“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”
We are called to be set apart as God’s people in order that we might proclaim and give testimony about how God pulled us out of darkness and into the light. There is little to do about customer service, or satisfying the majority of investors, or pleasing only ourselves without regard for the community at large. But there is mention of God’s mighty acts; there is mention of community: once we were not a people, now we are God’s people.
Do you remember how God pulled you out of the shadows and into the light? Maybe, like me, you feel that God is still pulling, cajoling, and nudging you into the light, even when you’d rather that the light not intrude in the dark shadows to which you return from time to time. Being a priesthood of all believers means also that we are all the called to be imitators—not of the cheap, flashy, consumer-pleasing commodities that anyone can find on the Home Spirituality Network, but of Jesus who taught us how to be in actual, living, and real relationship with one another, shadows and all. The idea is not to provide better and better service for ourselves, but to learn to love and to care ultimately about the people and things that God loves and for whom he sent his Son, our brother Jesus. Fred Craddock who is a minister in the Disciples of Christ tradition has said:
“I know that there are a lot of churches these days, very popular churches, some of them just humongous churches, whose primary concern is to be consumer conscious, consumer oriented, consumer driven. So many of these churches have quite a variety of talent on display in worship, and the crowds are much, much, bigger than any of us could ever imagine. But if you think that this is finally and deeply and ultimately what people find interesting, you’re wrong. What is interesting is that which touches my life at the deepest point—whether I’m six or ninety-six.”
Sometimes, my friends, being in church will challenge you because it is painful to come. It happens. Maybe your life has met with some sadness or loss or frustration. Maybe you’ve seen some kind wickedness or been the victim of some kind of betrayal. You think that you are ready to come to church and then the choir sings a hymn or the pastor says a few words, or you read a certain verse in the bulletin. Your heart unexpectedly jumps and a giant lump forms in your throat, and you can’t move or breathe because if you do, you find that you will simply melt in the pew. You’re embarrassed and self-conscious, but you’ve been touched by something, and you can’t explain it without sounding strange to yourself. You find your eyes welling-up and you’ve forgotten tissues, and then you think, “Well, I don’t think I’m going to do this again.” Or you get lost in the service and realize you’ve lost track of time, and now you’re going to be late for whatever Sunday plans you had made before church got in the way of your afternoon. It happens.
We can not commodify or command the Holy Spirit. It tends to disappear when we try to. Instead we share that which has touched us at the deepest point of our being, that which has tested our hearts. We worship that which we have suckled like a newborn being fed into life. We share these things not because we are expecting anything in return, but because we can do no less for the God who moves among us, a God who knows our thirst for love, belonging, and our hunger for mercy.
Our scripture teaches us that we can be gentle with our neighbors and gentle in the world. This may seem terribly impractical, but Jesus didn’t seem too interested in practicality or approval ratings for that matter. Winnie Varghese, an Episcopal Chaplain at Columbia University, NYC, reminds us that “what God desires for us is much greater than what we can imagine amongst ourselves…the limits of what government we can imagine imposing, or the security we can create in our own homes, or the love we can create in our families…God’s desire for us is much, much more grand than that. The gift of [thinking about God] is that it can give us a freedom to hope for much more than seems practical. It should make us seem a bit foolish, I think… what we dream of as justice, what we dream of for our families, what we dream of for our nation and our world…Because we are trying to view the world with God’s vision and not just with what we can imagine.”
Friends, let us pray that we have a big enough vision. Let us pray that the church will please God and not the people. Amen.
 Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Interpretation: First and Second Thessalonians, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1998) 25.
 Fred Craddock, The Cherry Log Sermons, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 46.
 From Living the Questions2, 2008.