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Sometimes it just ain't right...

So... a couple of Sunday's ago I had sermon failure. The passage wasn't difficult. What I wanted to say wasn't difficult. But... nothing I tried worked. I wrote half a sermon. Got rid of it. Wrote a different half of a sermon. Got rid of it. With the clock ticking, I thought I would take an old sermon and rework it. Here it is... and I'll see you on the other side of it.

November 17, 2019

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

I don’t think there’s a whole lot of background information needed to understand the problem that Paul is addressing through our passage from 2 Thessalonians this morning. So I invite you to listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you.

READ the passage.

To begin this morning I want to take the words… “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat”… words that I’m sure you’ve heard before used in different contexts… I want begin by taking these words and I want us to keep them small in context… to keep these words focused on a particular community rather than using them as some kind of commentary or rule of thumb on society at large. What I mean is… I want you to think this morning about Paul writing this letter not only to the church in Thessalonica… but to the church in Winston Salem… and even more focused than that… to the church that is called Parkway. Keep that tight congregational focus as we work our way through this passage.

Now granted… there are a number of differences on the surface between the church in Thessalonica and the church that is called Parkway. For Paul to write about idlers and that those who don’t work don’t eat… this perhaps gives us some insight into the more communal nature of that fellowship of believers. It is possible that this community in Thessalonica was more like the faith community described at the beginning of Acts in chapter four… “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Now I can easily see how idlers would threaten the fragile balance of such a community… idlers who would only take from the community without giving in some way back to the good of all. One of the most basic ideas in the church… especially here at Parkway… is that we all have something to contribute. All of us together makes this church work. There are the gifts of the spirit that each of us possess. Talents and ability. Enthusiasms and interests. The giving of the self for the benefit of the community… whether that giving is skilled or unskilled. We all have something to give from the newest baby to the oldest among us. We each have something to contribute to make this faith community a reality. And that phrase… faith community… is important. Some are blessed materially and are able to give to that important aspect of being a church. Some are blessed spiritually and are able to give to that important aspect of being a church. We have workers and thinkers and dreamers and doers. The community benefits when we have the tension between those who see things through a more conservative lens and those who see things through a more liberal lens. The tension… while tiring or frustrating at times… in the long run make us a better church because we have to listen to the community that God has given us and not rely only on our own self or our own point of view. The danger of an idler is that they put themselves always first over the community. They see the community as being there to serve them… that that is the direction the responsibility flows. And there is a very loose responsibility to the rest of the community if any at all.

In Thessalonica cracks in their fellowship were developing because some people were beginning to feel that imbalance… that some were doing more than others… that some were becoming idlers and were not contributing their fair share for the benefit of the community as a whole.

The modern church is not a community like what is described in scripture… again… at least not on the surface. I don’t know what Paul would say about our institutions today especially in light of the example he was trying to set. Or what his commentary would be on the competitive and adversarial nature of churches in the same town as we compete with one another for our share of the market of believers. You know as well as I do… if we strip things down sometimes what we have is a church that is being driven by capitalism more than the guidance of the Holy Spirit. You can call it spiritual capitalism, but it is capitalism all the same. We make spiritual consumers… encouraging people to judge their experiences of community by how well they are being fed what they want… what they desire to receive from the church. It’s a weakness of the modern church. I’ve had it said to me numerous times over the years… often as a threat to let me know that this particular spiritual consumer is unhappy. I am just not being fed here and I’m thinking about going elsewhere… somewhere where my needs will be met and I will be fed. What are you going to do about it in order to retain my spiritual business?

Anyone not willing to work should not eat.

I am reminded of an old book and movie… good black and white movie from the 1940’s starring Gregory Peck called “The Keys of the Kingdom”. The story is about a Catholic missionary sent to China… and upon arriving at his new parish he quickly has to confront what the story calls “Rice Christians”. Those converts to the faith… those happy and hardworking converts to the faith and members of the parish… happy and hardworking as long as the rice flowed into their bowls… as long as they were being fed. And when the flow of rice is stopped… they threaten and then go off to the competitor mission where the rice flows and fills their belly. Spiritual capitalism at work.

Paul gives a command to the congregation… anyone not willing to work should not eat. Anyone not eating will not work. Is that the counter-command the congregation now makes back to Paul? Anyone not eating… will not work.

Earlier in the letter Paul tells this community… “But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth.” God chose you as the first fruits. God chose you to feed others… not to eat and consume yourself. Sanctification is feeding others. Salvation through sanctification is bringing… inviting… others to the table. Anyone not willing to feed should not eat. It’s giving your food to feed the hungry. It’s passing the cup to those who thirst. It’s giving your clothes to the naked and bringing the homeless poor into your own home. That’s the judgment that comes to both feeders and eaters in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel. “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and your gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” That’s the church Parkway can be. I think it’s the church that in our one heart and soul we want to be. That’s the church that already has good root here.

But Paul’s warning about idlers is always important for us to hear. Paul knows how dangerous idlers can be to a community… not just idlers who are not working for the good of the whole community… but idlers who distract the community with their own special set of individual needs. A consumer consumes… that’s what a consumer is… spiritual or not. Feeding a consumer… never brings satiation for the consumer. More always wants more. More doesn’t convert a consumer into a feeder of the hungry. There is a difference between discipleship and spiritual consumerism.

Of course… we need… I need to be careful here. Because the truth is… at times we do need to be eaters… we do need to be the one who is fed. At other times we need to be feeders… making sure the needs of others are met. It’s like so many other things… it’s a matter of finding that balance and not becoming solely the one or the other. Sometimes those coming to me demanding to be fed are there because they have burned themselves out as the one who has been doing all the feeding… and they are simply out of balance… the opposite of idlers… overdoers. Sometimes it’s a cry for help rather than a threat. Our practice of discipleship is the struggle towards balance. It’s our willingness and openness in struggling together that keeps our community of faith in balance. Feeding those who hunger, as well as being willing to admit our own needs without shame.

“Brothers and sisters,” Paul says, “do not be weary in doing what is right.” That’s not just a general admonition… although that’s not a bad idea for us to live by. But again… think small… think about this faith community we have been given. Paul knows us well. Paul knows that choosing to do good can be wearying. What is right isn’t always what is convenient for us at the time. Sometimes doing right doesn’t reward us in our doing. Doing right doesn’t always get us ahead or give us the advantage. More often than not doing right is simply just doing what is right… and that’s all that it is… and it can be wearying to often have to pay the cost for doing right. It can be wearying not to always be fed in return for doing right.

I am reminded of one more black and white movie from the 1940’s… a movie that starts getting shown around this time of year and one of my absolute favorites… “It’s a Wonderful Life”. In the scene I’m thinking of, George and Mary are just about to leave on their honeymoon when there is a run on the bank… and George can’t help but stop and check on what is happening at the old Bailey Building and Loan… the company that his father started and that he now runs in order to build decent homes for his community… doing right for others even though it hasn’t profited George by putting lots of money in his own pocket. As George unlocks the doors to the Bailey Building and Loan and the anxious and panicked community rushes into the offices behind him, George quickly learns that the bank has called their loan and there is no money. There is no money at the Bailey Building and Loan to feed the need… to fill the demand of the people filling the lobby. And when one of his customers starts pressing his demand… starts demanding the return of the money he has invested at the Bailey Building and Loan, George tells him how he’s thinking about this place all wrong. His money isn’t here back in some vault waiting for him… it’s in Joe’s house and in the Kennedy’s house and in Mrs. Maitland’s house and a hundred others. You’re lending them the money to build and they’re going to pay you back the best they can. But the answer doesn’t satisfy the anxious crowd. They need money now. And George continues to beg them to stick together… that they have to have faith in each other. That that’s what built this community… that that’s what made this community better… their ability to not only have faith in one another… but to live by that faith.

And that’s what makes me think about what Paul was facing in Thessalonica… urging that community to have faith in each other. He’s saying the same thing to the church called Parkway. You see your faith that you’ve invested in this community… it’s not sitting back in some vault. It’s in the faith of the people around you… it’s in the faith of the children who go down to Children’s church every Sunday… to the children who have been given love and care in the nursery… it’s in the faith of those who listen to you sing and praise God Sunday after Sunday… those whom you feed when a loved one dies… with those whom you gather around table to feed together on the Word and to hold up in prayer. When you give to a faith community with your financial gifts or your gifts of time and talent… when you share freely the gifts of the Spirit that have freely been given to you… that is where your investment is going… into one another. And when you stand idle in your faith the whole of the community suffers. When you take without giving in return… the whole of the community is made less.

Saints, do not be weary in doing what is right… because in doing what is right we come to know Christ better… and we are better as a whole at making Christ known. Amen.

So yeah... that one turned out not to be right. Because Saturday night I wrote this sermon trying to get closer to what I was supposed to say. And I'll see you again on the other side of that one...

November 17, 2019

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

I don’t think there’s a whole lot of background information needed to understand the problem that Paul is addressing through our passage from 2 Thessalonians this morning. So I invite you to listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you.

READ the scripture passage.

So… you need to know that sermon writing did go well this week. It wasn’t because of the passage. The passage isn’t that hard to understand. There were people in the church in Thessalonica who weren’t pulling their weight. It may have been because these idlers were so expectant of Jesus’ return and the imminent day of the Lord’s judgment that they thought, “What’s the point?” God’s doing a new thing right now… right here in our midst. There’s going to be a new heaven and a new earth… why even bother with the old. So… perhaps… these idlers went idle for that reason… and stopped doing the things one needs to live. Stopped working. Stopped worrying about their obligations. Relied on the others in the community to see to their basic needs.

This community of faith in Thessalonica was probably more communal in nature with people sharing more of what they had with one another. Like what is described at the beginning of Acts in chapter four… “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet and it was distributed to each as any had need.” But people are people, right? So the problem with such an idea is that there is an unwritten contract of fairness that is necessary to make this kind of community work. It’s not necessarily how much you are able to contribute… but a contribution of some kind needs to be made to the good of the community. There has to be a good faith effort. You’ve got to give of yourself… especially if you don’t have much to give materially… you’ve got to give of yourself in some way to keep things feeling fair. So a group that went idle… who stopped caring about this old world to the point of not contributing anything… but taking from the generosity of the others as they passed the time until the day of the Lord came… you can see how such a group would easily upset the balance.

So anyway… the first attempt at the sermon today followed this idea… and talked about how a community of faith requires everyone… that everyone has been gifted by the Spirit… everyone has something to offer. The importance of a sense of balance in a faith community. Nothing wrong with that message. I believe in that message. Still… somewhere around the halfway point it was clear in my gut that that wasn’t supposed to be the message for this morning’s sermon. That just wasn’t going to be it.

A rewrite of that attempt took a turn to the worse and started to turn into some kind of pulpit expose of those forms of Christianity that have most recently repeated the same theology and subsequent way of being… hoping and longing for the apocalypse to come… always declaring this to be the end of the world and the day of the Lord’s judgment without ever doing much to minister in a way that reflected Isaiah’s image of a new heaven and a new earth that our first reading gave to us. These apocalyptic loving leaders and those who followed them would set a date for the impending doom only to have to face a disbelieving world the day after nothing happened… to make some excuse about bad math or something another… and trying to declare a new day and begin the message of doom all over again where they had the truth and the rest of the world was just fooling itself. We will be rewarded while the rest of you burn kinda stuff.

Like I said… that sermon didn’t get too far either. The finger points back at the self-righteous idler who spends all of his time pointing out the foolishness of the faith of others… while trying to make himself look more correct. What was that sermon itself saying about the new heaven and the new earth as Isaiah described it? Not much. So that was the nail in the coffin for that sermon attempt.

Sometimes I wish I would hand write my sermons so I could at least have the satisfaction of filling a trashcan with crumpled papers of failed ideas. Tearing up a piece of paper is so much more satisfying than just erasing something on the old laptop. Click.

So… with nothing working and the clock ticking toward Sunday morning… it was time to look at an old sermon on the passage to see if that would work. The smell of desperation rising. Except… like so often happens… I read the old one and I hated it. Maybe… though… maybe if I put some work into I could make it not so bad. So that’s what I did. Deleting. Rewriting. Reworking. Hammered it into something that was ok and put it away to give it time to ferment a bit. I have to admit I liked the part where I was able to use a scene from It’s a Wonderful Life to make a big point. But… you know… not even Jimmy Stewart could save that sermon. The message was still wrong.

It wasn’t until yesterday late that I knew what the message for this morning needed to be. And it wasn’t a difficult message to understand. I think it had been trying to surface over the last few days, but I wouldn’t listen. I kept getting too lost in the context of what might have been happening at the faith community in Thessalonica. I was too worried about describing and condemning the idlers. The message that I need for this morning was right there at the end of the passage… “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” That’s not a message meant just for the idlers in Thessalonica. That’s a message intended for us all… especially now. Especially now when I keep having the vision of Pilate constantly coming into my imagination with his infernal question… “What is truth?” And he adds to that… looking me right in the eye… “What is right?” What is right? And the sad part is… the Pilate of my imagination asks the question not so I will seek out the answer. No. The Pilate of my imagination asks the question so the moral impetus of my faith will go idle. Are you noticing the same thing? There are so many answers to the question wherever you turn. There are so many answers to what is right that the waters are so muddy and murky and it’s so easy and tempting to throw my hands up in the air with a “who knows”… who knows anything anymore. What is right? I don’t know. Idleness fully engaged. Then come the other voices saying be careful. Make sure you know what is right because you don’t want to do something wrong thinking it was right.

Maybe I just need to see a doctor about all these voices in my head.

It is wearying. So wearying that you can’t help but embrace idleness in order to escape the pressure. Idleness puts you at a point so you don’t have to do anything… so you don’t have to engage… so you don’t have to worry about this old world or the next one or anything or anybody. Up is down. Dark is light. Who cares anymore? What is truth? What is right? Count me out.

Do not be weary in doing what is right. Turning the page back to the beginning of the letter, Paul greets this community of faith with grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace and peace… grace and peace is right. Not some easy peace or idle peace… but a peace defined by the grace of God. That’s something worth engaging in. That’s something worth pursuing to give our sanctification some integrity. Being idle… letting ourselves pass on doing what is right… that does have the effect of diminishing our integrity.

What else does Paul say in this letter? Paul gives thanks to God for this community. Giving thanks is right. And he is thankful for the love of one another is increasing. That is right. That is true. I mean, that’s the muscle that being a part of a faith community is supposed strengthen. Loving one another. Finding the right thing for one another. Making the choices that build up the whole of the body of Christ instead of the some or the one. That is right.

And Paul shows us so as he prays that God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. To have such thoughts fill our prayers for one another is good and right and true. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ… and Paul ends the letter with the blessing… Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in all ways.

The idle church. The church put into that neutral gear and sidelined. Revving the motor but going nowhere. Do not be weary of doing what is right. Going back to the Pilate in my head… standing there in judgment of Jesus. What is truth? What is right? Pilate chooses to make this rabbi idle through taking him out of the equation. Crucifixion will end his message. Pilate will define what is true and what is right. The results of another Pew survey came out this weekend… at least I think it was a Pew survey… saying that a majority feel that the church needs to get out of politics and be the church. Or at least that’s how I saw the results. It was time to stop letting Pilate make the decision about what is right. It was time to embrace without hesitation or embarrassment how the one standing across from Pilate would answer that question. Do not be weary of what is right as Christ tells us is right. Do not grow weary of embracing the message of Christ and be the church of grace and peace… of hope where lion and lamb will lie down together. Do not grow weary of doing what is right by the one who gave of himself as a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin… so that we could be free to make the choice… the big choices… the little choices that glorified God in all our words and deeds. Of that we do not need to be ashamed. Amen.

On Sunday morning, I bailed on that sermon as well. Did something I hate instead. Spoke from the hip. Rambled. Don't know if I ever did say anything... or what it was I suppose to say that day. Only God knows... and only God could make something out of the mess. Or so I have to trust.

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