Fellow Passengers: This week’s Pastoral Passage* (I Thessalonians 5:1-11) transports me to the childhood game of cops and robbers that I used to play with neighborhood kids. It’s funny how even though we were all church kids raised to respect law and order, everybody wanted to be the robbers. The bad guy part was always more fun to play. If you think about it, a lot of the stories we get from literature and the silver screen reinforce the notion that thieving is a noble enterprise. Robin Hood is the prime example. I also remember one of my favorite television shows as kid being It Takes a Thief, starring a young Robert Wagner as a crafty cat burglar hired to work for the secret intelligence agency of the government. His recurring line was “what – you want me to steal?” His father, also a gentleman thief, was played by Fred Astaire. Then there are some of my favorite movies that also generate endearing sympathy for the crooks, like The Thomas Crown Affair with Pierce Brosnan, or The Score with Robert Dinero and Edward Norton, or Entrapment (how could you pull for the cops when you’ve got a grandfatherly Sean Connery and the every graceful Catherine Zeta-Jones as the robbers?).
The Apostle Paul must have had an affinity for robbers in his growing up years, too. For when he needed to come up with a literary device to create the suspense of Jesus’ imminent return, he cast Jesus as a cat burglar, a thief in the night, stealing under stealth of darkness. In the caper of all capers, the day of the Lord comes to a sleeping and unprepared world. So Paul tells the anxiously awaiting community of believers, avoid the darkness; don’t go to sleep. I hear Paul telling the community of faith to have their infrared goggles ready, so when the thief approaches, they will have eyes to see him and will be ready to join him in the heist, as the day of the Lord, the in-breaking day of love and grace and mercy and peace, comes and plunders the powers that be of their treasured power. Like all good thieves, the faithful followers are to suit up; their uniform is woven from faith, hope, and love. But even though Paul is counseling them to stay awake and alert, at the end he tells the anxious Thessalonians that this graceful grand larcenist is destined to come for everybody, the sleeping as well as the awake, so that both will live with him.
Wallace Willis, a slave in the Choctaw territory of the antebellum South, must have also shared an affinity for thieves. He composed a great number of spirituals, some of which were used as code-language for slaves escaping to freedom on the Underground Railroad. One of the best-known of these is Steal Away. The lyrics, having that double meaning of spiritual and practical, encourages the enslaved believer to steal away to Jesus. In our world where the treasure of freedom is held captive, where the prized possession of peace is held under lock and key by a world of violence, where both the law and the order of our world is set up to preserve and protect greed and highly concentrated power, it’s high time the community of faith reclaimed our affinity for robbery, and start singing this coded language song again. Let’s put on our goggles and look for the coming day, ready to join the band of thieves as we sing out, steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus.
How about you? Where does this Pastoral Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.