Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’ve said before from this pulpit that the lectionary serves the important purpose of presenting us with texts which the preacher, given his or her druthers, would avoid, thus withholding important ideas from the congregation out of cowardice. That said, it is a trick which I cannot claim never to have availed myself of, to focus on a less difficult passage when given the option–say, when Jesus gives us a hard saying to choose to preach on the Old Testament or Epistle that day, and hope nobody noticed.

Well, this is one of those instances where I was tempted, but not for the reason you might think. The Old Testament and the Gospel present us with some rather harrowing visions of the apocalypse, which preachers often try to avoid. However, if you’ve been here a while you’ll know that I don’t typically shy away from that stuff. That Epistle, though… Yikes! “If any one will not work, let him not eat.” It seems so uncharitable, particularly when compared to Jesus’ overriding moral teaching, which consistently reminds us to give without precondition or suspicion, to not let the left hand know what the right is doing. This is one of those passages which leads people to set up a conflict between Paul and Jesus–a move which is both inaccurate and intellectually lazy, but taking this at face value one might be tempted to go that route. The truth, I think, is a lot more complicated and requires some “unpacking.”

But first, let me tell a story on myself. I don’t mean this to be one of those self-congratulatory anecdotes that preachers often tell, where they’re the hero of the story. The point is not that I had the right idea (though I do believe that) but rather that I lost my cool, and probably didn’t win anyone over to right-thinking.

A few weeks ago, I attended one of the community conversations hosted by the United Way about priorities for Findlay and Hancock County, meant to give ideas for how to move the community in the right direction on a whole host of issues. One of the wonderful things about our community, and I said this at the meeting, is that we have so many more resources and programs for people in need than communities of similar sizes; there is a lot of help out there. But (isn’t always a “but”) my experience trying to advocate for people and helping them navigate the programs and avail themselves of the resources out there is that some difficulties arise. Namely (and this is my opinion which I hope doesn’t come across as paternalistic)sometimes we expect people accustomed to living precariously–who generally don’t have particularly good upbringing or education or internal resources–to magically start behaving like responsible, upper-middle class professionals with a well-developed ability to plan ahead, navigate complex bureaucracies, and communicate effectively in both speech and writing the moment they walk into an office in need some practical or financial assistance. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t the case with every charitable organization in town by any means. But I’ve seen it enough to be troubled.

When I shared this concern, somebody sitting right next to me responded “well, Pastor, Jesus said ‘give a man a fish and you’ll feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.’” Now, setting aside the fact that navigating complicated bureaucracies may not be the most important thing in life to learn, and setting aside the fact that this bromide doesn’t assume a complex modern economy in which the equivalent of a fishing-pole might be outside one’s wherewithal to procure, I could not contain myself, and irritably blurted out the obvious, “Jesus said no such thing. Jesus might have said, ‘give a man a fish [full-stop], but he certainly never said that!” (In case you were wondering it was Victorian novelist Anna Ritchie, William Makepeace Thackeray’s daughter, who came up with the proverb about teaching a man to fish. While we’re at it, it was Benjamin Franklin, not Jesus, who said “God helps those who help themselves”, and the whole point of the phrase “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” is its irony, because that is a physically impossible maneuver.) Anyway, in response to my correction of her mis-attribution, she said “we’ll just have to agree to disagree.” I don’t know if that means we’ll have disagree on the merits of the point or if she meant that she had discovered an ancient papyrus with lost sayings of Jesus on some archaeological dig with Jordan Peterson and the ghost of Ayn Rand.

Later in this same meeting another participant said something which suggested that the real problem was people who can’t make their rent because of how much they spend on tobacco and alcohol, at which point I muttered an oath under my breath, which I meant not to be heard but probably was. I can only hope that those around me assumed I was calling on the intercession of our Lord and Savior rather than using his name in vain. In any event, I realize I did not cover myself in glory.

I hope I’m not alone in worrying about the sin of despising the poor in their poverty. In truth, it is because I so often catch myself, sinner that I am, getting dangerously close to doing the same thing. I’ve found, particularly with my “frequent fliers”–those who come into my office requesting financial assistance pretty regularly–trying to walk a very narrow line of being nonjudgmental and charitable on the one hand while also trying to set some expectations and encourage some personal responsibility on the other. I know I don’t manage that razor’s edge perfectly. I fall sometimes too far in one direction toward pollyanna-ish credulity and sometimes too far in the other toward punishing perceived irresponsibility. I hope I err more toward the former, because I think that’s better for the health of my soul, but I don’t know.

Anyway, it will surprise none of you, I hope, that I think our neutral position, all things being equal, should be to assume that those in need are not merely lazy, and it’s our Christian obligation to help. But how do we deal with this difficult reading from Second Thessalonians.

First, I think with all scripture, it is generally best to recognize that it is meant to convict us rather than to give us leave to judge others. Deal with the plank in your own eye before you worry about the splinter in your neighbor’s eye. Can one peer into the soul of his brother or sister? No! Perhaps somebody is simply, as Paul puts it, an idle busybody; or maybe that person’s life is far more complex and fraught than we know. We’ve got to put our own houses in order. We’ve got to stick to our own knitting. Jesus didn’t say the thing about teaching a man to fish, but he absolutely said “judge not lest ye be judged, [for] with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”

Second, I think it bears consideration that the presumably very small percentage of people who are uncomplicatedly lazy, that there is more to this reality than a defective character. That may be part of the story, certainly, but there is also present in these situations, I truly believe, a profound deficiency, a need which is not being met in those lives, perhaps because that need has not been taught for what it is, and perhaps as a result of generations of such deficiency. Namely, it is the lack of the dignity and satisfaction that comes from honest labor. I think it is significant that in the second chapter of Genesis, God places Adam in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. Meaningful work preceded the Fall, sin simply made it more grueling. One way of understanding the fact that we were made in the image of God is that we, like God, are creative. We can work for something and find some satisfaction in a job well-done, just as God, rightly satisfied with himself, looked over his world and said, “it is very good.” Those bereft of that satisfaction in this life we should regard not with scorn, but with pity, not shaming them, but encouraging through word and example the lesson that we can all find some way of contributing to the greater good.

Finally, we need as ever to look at the context in which Paul was writing. He wrote two letters to the Thessalonians, and both present a picture of a community whose chief problem was misunderstanding how to behave in relation to Christ’s second coming. In the first letterto this Church, Paul is concerned with those who were losing patience and despairing because it was taking so long. They had thought Jesus would come back and establish the Kingdom within the first generation of the Church, and the delay had made them lose heart. The second epistle, from which we read today, is addressing a situation in which the pendulum had swung too far the other way. To their credit, they’d stopped doubting that Jesus would come back. However, this led some to believe that they might as well stop striving, stop working for the sake of their daily bread and for the sake of the Kingdom, because “Jesus is coming back tomorrow, probably, so what’s the point!?”

Sadly, I have heard this line of reasoning from people in our own day. I’ve heard folks, for example, say that the new heaven and the new earth are on the way, so it doesn’t matter if we trash the environment. Yes, Jesus will return and establish the Kingdom, but Paul makes it clear that this is not an excuse to stop living responsibly and charitably in the meantime.

The point here is that the larger issue for us is not whether or not our neighbor is being a contributing member of society (as much as we’d like him to be) but whether or not each of us is contributing in one way or another–with our time, talent, and treasure; with our honest labor; with our prayers; with our witness to Christ’s Resurrection and his coming Kingdom–to God’s work both in the church and in the wider world. “Brethren, do not be weary in well-doing.” “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.