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Congregations That Work
November 17, 2013
Isaiah, 65:17-25, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Let’s begin today where our text ends: “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” That statement is sure to ring bells in the minds of many of you. Consider our deacons. They did a beautiful funeral reception last week for Jane Marshall’s family, but barely had time to wash the table clothes and put away the serving dishes before being called on to do it all over again this afternoon. “Brothers and sisters, do not grow weary in doing what is right.” Over the past couple decades our congregation has built more than twenty homes in Mexico, but 20,000 wouldn’t solve the housing shortage there. “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” You may have sacked groceries at the food pantry this week or made cinnamon toast for the UPlift clients on Tuesday, but the need for this good work will extend into next week, the week following, and for many weeks to come. “Sisters and brothers, do not be weary in doing what is right.” Is that a command? Is it a plea? And friends, Is it even possible?
Well, in our reading today, Paul addresses a congregation that isn’t working as it should. Some members of the congregation have lost their incentive for doing good deeds. Such idleness in the congregation renders Paul almost apoplectic. He writes, “We hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.” Obviously, Paul wants to impress the congregation at Thessalonica with the ongoing importance of good deeds, of daily labor. But what about us today? Can we hear in today’s text an energizing word, an empowering word— one that enables us to persist in benevolent activity, and to do it without growing weary?
First, let’s be sure we understand what this passage is not about. Some people have yanked Paul’s words out of context and used them to justify a mean-spirited work ethic that rejects any aid to those who need help. They cite Paul’s comment: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Yet Paul is not issuing an indictment against those who are unable to work. He’s not offering a rationale for eliminating food stamps or closing down our Micah 6 food pantry and UpLift. As we well know, there are many people in our society who wish they could work, but who are disabled, or who cannot—despite much effort—find employment. There are others who work hard at minimum wage jobs, yet still can’t afford food, rent and other basic necessities. No, Paul is not in any way discouraging the practice of compassion, direct aid, or feeding the hungry. Quite the opposite. He’s concerned about the members of the congregation who are no longer pitching in, doing their part, and working on behalf of others.
And why was this happening? We can tell from the content of the two letters to the Thessalonians that the problem of idleness sprang largely from a theological miscue. These first-century Christians lived in eager anticipation of the return of Christ. They expected and believed that the Kingdom of God was about to break in upon them. Given that expectation, some in the congregation saw no point in working, in contributing to the needs of the congregation, in paying the bills, feeding their family, or any of the rest of it.
Their attitude might be similar to that of a high school student during the last few weeks of his senior year. With his grade point average already in the books and his college acceptance letter in hand, he wonders: Why study any more, why finish that book report or sweat over a final exam? Well, some of the Christians in Thessalonica were like that high school senior. With their eyes firmly fixed upon the world to come, they left the needs of this world for others.
Most of the ink Paul spilled in his two letters to the Thessalonians was designed to refute the inactivity, the inertia that had set in among the Thessalonians. Paul agreed that the new heaven and new earth–beautifully depicted in the prophet Isaiah’s Peaceable Kingdom that we read today–is indeed promised by God, and in Christ has even been inaugurated. But Paul vehemently disagreed that God’s Kingdom had come in full, or that Christians should stop working. Yes, the future is in God’s hand and it will surely come. But in the meantime, Paul urged his fellow Christians to keep working and not be weary in doing what is right.
Now, my sense is that our attitude today is almost the opposite of that of the Thessalonians. If this first-century congregation’s reluctance to work sprang from an overheated eschatology, our tendency to weariness today is more likely to come from an absence of eschatology. That is, in our time it’s become difficult to believe that the future is in God’s hands. With political turmoil in so many places, wars continuing unabated, the menace of global warming, the fear of nuclear conflagration. . . .as humanity faces all this, God’s peaceable and just kingdom seems remote. The old spiritual captures our modern weariness: “Sometimes I get discouraged, and think my work’s in vain…” It’s easy to grow weary if there is no vision of hope to inspire and sustain our actions.
But as the writer to the Hebrews admonished, “Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet…” When the promise that all will be resolved is joined to the good news that in Christ all is resolved, the result is a congregation vibrating with energy and good deeds. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God’s promised future has been planted in our souls as a seed is planted in the field, or as yeast is added to flour to make bread. God is creating a new heaven and a new earth. Our task is to make God’s Peaceable Kingdom visible now. And the way we do that is through good works.
So deacons, keep on ministering to the grieving, the infirm, and the homebound. Keep celebrating with new parents and upholding the newly married. Let’s continue to set a table on Tuesday morning for guests who come for help and hospitality. Carry on sacking groceries for the food pantry, praying for the needs of others, working quietly to benefit those around you. Contribute to the work of the church as you are able. Do justice and love kindness, trusting always that such work is not in vain.
Brothers and sisters, with Christ as our inspiration and hope, we will continue to work and not be weary.