Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
In 1609, John Smith quoted part of our 2 Thessalonians reading to the early colonists of Jamestown, Virginia
…the greater part must be more industrious, or starve…
You must obey this now for a law, that he that will not work shall not eat (except by sickness he be disabled). For the labors of thirty or forty honest and industrious men shall not be consumed to maintain a hundred and fifty idle loiterers
In 1917, Russian Communist, Vladmir Lenin used this phrase about “Those who do not work shall not eat,” in his work “State and Revolution.” Lenin used this phrase to target bourgeois elites who exploit the poor and reap the fruits of their labors.
In 2013, Republican Congressman Stephen Fincher quoted this passage, “Anyone who is unwilling to work should not eat,” as justification for attempting to the cut the SNAP program by 4.1 billion dollars. His justification was that welfare recipients should not have to depend on outside assistance and should simply work harder to provide for their basic needs.
John Smith, Vladmir Lenin, and Stephen Fincher were wrong about this passage. They all removed it from their setting, the Church, and molded it to fit their own agendas.
John Smith used 2 Thessalonians to inspire his fellow colonists to work hard for survival. Not a bad purpose, but this passage is not about the work of colony building, but about the work of the Church.
Vladmir Lenin used 2 Thessalonians to attempt to hold upper class, bourgeois accountable for their inaction in contributing to the welfare of society as a whole. Again, this is not such a bad idea in theory but this passage is not about equalizing social structures, but about the work of the church.
Stephen Fincher used 2 Thessalonians to villainize the recipients of welfare benefits and falsely cast such folks as primarily lazy, conniving moochers. He ignores the fact that in 2012 nearly half of SNAP recipients were children and 10% were elderly. He also ignores the fact that many of the recipients of SNAP are working- often full-time, but wages are so low and costs are so high that a full-time employee earning minimum wage still earns an annual income almost a third below the poverty line. 2 Thessalonians is not a biblical admonition to vilify the poor and kick them when they are already down. It is also not about how a nation should or should not provide for its most vulnerable citizens, but it is about the work of the Church.
Imagine that you are one of the people living in Thessalonica in the early 50s CE. At church one Sunday, you all read the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus talks about his second coming and ends by saying, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” You may be thinking that the second coming of Jesus is coming very soon. You may wonder what that second coming will entail and then you remember the words the Apostle Paul wrote to your Thessalonian church in his first letter when he told your church that the dead will rise and we who are still alive “will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord forever.” (1 Thess. 3:16-18).
Given what you have heard in the words of Jesus and in the last letter of the Apostle you may very likely conclude that Jesus is coming back any day now and when he does we will leave everything on earth behind. Some people in the Thessalonian church put two and two together and realized that working hard was a wasted effort if they were just going to be leaving with Jesus on a cloud any day now. It reminds me of when the world ended on May 21, 2011… or it was supposed to according to Harold Camping and his followers. One man who believed that Jesus was going to bring about the end of the world on this date quit his job and liquidated his retirement so he could buy advertising warning others of the impending return of Jesus.
To the folks in Thessalonica who had quit their jobs, contributed nothing more to the church, and refused to work for the sake of others because they believed they wouldn’t be around much longer anyway, Paul tells them to get back to work. He tells those who have checked out from being the Church in this world to get to work and those who do not work do not deserve to eat. He urges them to not grow weary in doing what is right. He tells them that even if Jesus were to come back tomorrow morning, the Church still does its work. We still proclaim forgiveness of sin, we still clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, and we still work for justice and peace in all the world.
Even if the world were to end, the Church still proclaims the Good News.
After this election you may feel that the world has ended. If Donald Trump was your guy and you feel that the corruption and wrongdoing you have fought against has finally ended, you are wrong and you still have work to do. If Donald Trump was not your guy and you feel that the values he represents are going to end the good in the world as you know it and you should just completely give up, you are wrong and you still have work to do.
The Church still has work to do. Being a part of the Church has never been a spectator sport. The Church is called to get its hands dirty, take bold risks, and work hard. We need to stand on the side of those who are most vulnerable, testifying to the person of Jesus who walked among us and ate with sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, who touched lepers, who spoke kindness and welcome to foreigners, and who stood defiantly committed to his mission of unconditional love against religious opponents and his political adversaries.
Just this past week there have been reports all over the country of Trump and anti-Trump protesters coming to physical blows. A protester was shot in Portland by another. Swastikas have been spray painted on buildings in Philadelphia. A Trump supporter was attacked after getting into a fender-bender in Chicago. Children have been tormenting their peers, taunting their latino peers that they will be deported soon and trying to rip off the hijabs of their Muslim peers.
This election season seemed to go on forever and ever. At least 18 grueling months of nasty mudslinging, ostracization of whole groups of people, sifting fact from fiction, FBI investigations, sexual assault confessions, and more, we have finally reached the end of this season. It is so tempting to check out and retreat from politics and/or the world for a while. But that is not who we are as the Church and that is not who Christ calls us to be. Paul writes the Thessalonians to tell them to keep up the hard work and not grow weary in doing what is right even if Jesus were to come back very soon. Geez, we are not even talking about the return of Jesus, but the election of a new President of the United States. The world is not ending and we need to still get to work. We must not grow weary in doing what is right in proclaiming the Gospel in God’s fight against systemic racism, the villification of whole religions or races, and the exploitation of the poor. We are called to love our neighbors as Jesus loves us and in our political reality, that means we are called to hold our elected officials accountable to restrain unjust sin. We are called to pray, write letters, make phone calls, protest, applaud when appropriate, listen, walk with, feed, and protect. Martin Luther described Theology of the Cross of Jesus as what calls a thing what it is. It does not call good, evil and evil, good. The Church is called to call out evil for what it is and to call out good in our loving service and bold words.
Though it may seem that the world’s problems are truly overwhelming and we may be tempted to take an extended nap and let Jesus deal with it all when he comes back, we must not grow weary in doing what is right. Our strength comes from God who dwells among us even now. God the Father created us out of great love and care, Christ the Son came to this earth to suffer alongside us and die for our sake, and the Holy Spirit dwells within us giving us strength to heal, hope, serve, and believe. God has given us the gifts of the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper to strengthen us along the way- to wash us from sin and claim us forever in the water and to feed us with Christ’s very own presence. And finally, God has given us the gift of the Church that has been called to work for the sake of each other and for the sake of the world.
We do not grow weary in doing what is right, because God does not grow weary in doing what is right. God is our hope, strength, and salvation.