A Sermon for the 26th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 28 – Year C – 17 November 2013
Eleanor Lee Wellford, Associate Rector
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right. (2 Thessalonians 3:6-13)
When I was growing up, one of the things that really bothered my father was seeing me sitting around and doing nothing. He was never one for doing that himself and wasn’t going to let me do that either. I remember that he was constantly working on projects and always looking for some help with them. My older siblings learned early on how to appear busy whether they were or not, but somehow I never caught on to that trick. My Dad told me more than once that he didn’t want me to grow up to be lazy.
Well, I didn’t because if I don’t fall into bed exhausted each night then I feel as if I must not have done enough for either my family or for work. Now that my children are grown and I have some free time, it feels too much like work trying to figure out what to do with it!
The passage that we heard from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians was about work – the work of building a community which in many ways is like a family. In the middle of the first century, it wasn’t easy being a member of a community that followed Jesus. The city ofThessalonicawas fiercely loyal toRomeand enjoyed its religious cults. So viewing Jesus as “king” was dangerous and believing in only one god was difficult.
Paul knew how hard it was for the recent converts to Christianity to live under imperial rule. By his writings, he tried to encourage the Thessalonians to take responsibility for the health of their community. And he advised them to do that by living an orderly life and following the traditions that he modeled when he visited them. His vision for them was a community rooted in the love of Christ Jesus. “Now we command you” he wrote, “to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition (you) received from us… For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you” (2 Thessalonians 3:6-7). And Paul certainly didn’t expect them to be idle, either.
The situation that Paul was warning against is not unusual at all. I think we see evidence of it in any community – even the community we call church – at least any of which I have been a part. There’s always a nucleus of really committed volunteers – and thank goodness there is. They are fully engaged but they have to be protected from burnout. Then there are those members who aren’t exactly proactive in volunteering their services but who will usually say “Yes” when asked to help with special projects. They are only partially engaged. And then there are those who are happy to let other people do the work either because they are already too busy, or don’t really get any fulfillment from volunteering, aren’t expected to so, or simply haven’t been asked. They are unengaged. And it’s interesting how pledging and degree of engagement are closely correlated.
So, it seems as if Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians could have been a letter to a church community in our day and time. It always amazes me how timeless the Bible is. Change the names and places of the events described there, and who would really know when they took place? I suppose that has a lot to do with the fact that the Bible is a story about human nature and relationships – the relationships we have with each other and with God which can be messy at times, going through cycles of health and dysfunction.
In a book titled Messy Church (Colorado Springs,Colorado: David C. Cook, publisher, 2012) the author, Ross Parsley, states that church “can’t be a place where we feel like visitors…it’s got to feel like home.” He believes that “becoming part of a church family is a lot more like realizing you’ve come home and less like joining an organization. …It’s incredible” he wrote, “to be part of a church where you know you belong and you know it’s not perfect, but it’s your family” (pp.30, 34-35).
He laments that it seems as if people belonging to mainline churches today are struggling with what the community of church means to them. He writes that some people are looking for church to be a social club, while others are looking at church the same way they look at being a consumer of goods and services – keeping their options open and believing as any consumer would that church owes them something (pp. 36-37). And that, he says, eats away at the fabric of commitment.
Parsley writes that many of us fear commitment in the same way we fear conflict. Commitment means becoming emotionally involved in something – in something that feeds a person’s passions and moves that person along the path of faith and provides opportunities for others to be brought along as well.
So, what does any of this have to do with Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians or with those of us who make up the community we call St. Mary’s church? Paul’s letter addresses a particular type of community that was struggling to evolve just decades after Jesus had died. It was a community that was being pulled apart by political, social and religious issues. Paul believed that if it had any chance at all of surviving, its members needed to be encouraged to come together as a family would and take responsibility for the health of that family. That meant being mindful of traditions to give structure to their community and sharing the work equally and being equally committed to each other.
It’s hard to tell sometimes when that doesn’t happen because relationships can look great on the outside; but without commitment, there’s little foundation or reason to stay in any relationship when the going gets tough- as it always does.
So, how is the health of our church community of St. Mary’s? Are we a “messy church” in that we are able to be real with each other like family members are to one another? Are we able to share our hopes and dreams as easily as we are able to admit our failures and allow people to glimpse what is behind our Sunday best faces and clothes? Are we able to draw people into our community and build it up in love and in service to one another and make it feel like home?
That’s the tradition that I think Paul was writing about – the tradition that was Jesus’ life and practiced by the apostles. Upholding that tradition can’t fall on the shoulders of only a few committed people if a community is going to thrive. It has to be borne and nourished and cherished equally by all of us. As our Senior Warden, Chris Spencer pointed out in his stewardship announcement a few weeks ago, not all of us here are committed and contributing equally- and, he said, it’s hard to keep our boat afloat and on course if not everyone in it is helping to row it.
So what can we do to encourage those who are not often seen here to fully engage and support this community to which they say they are members? How can we help them become involved in a way that builds up their faith? How can we evangelize and energize the message that St. Mary’s really does change people’s lives – inside and outside of our community? The work we do here together has changed many lives, especially mine.
There’s more work to do, however. As Ross Parsley writes: “the church is first and foremost a spiritual family and not a corporation or a nonprofit organization.” It needs structure as the apostle Paul pointed out to the Thessalonians, but that structure needs life and “it’s a lot easier to add structure to life than to add life to structure” (p 38).
Giving life to our community and keeping our boat afloat means making our spiritual and financial commitment to St. Mary’s a priority. It’s the right thing to do. And as we heard this morning, Paul wrote that we should never become weary of “doing what is right” (2 Thessalonians 3:13). And to that I say: Amen.