November 18, 2007

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Joan Cho, whose words are found on the back of our Sunday bulletins this morning, begins her reflection with a verse from one of this morning” scripture readings: “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” According to Joan, this was an oft-quoted verse of scripture in her home as her children were growing up. It was directed most often, by parent or sibling, towards whichever child was reluctant about taking a turn at doing the dishes. The application was clear: work cheerfully now if you plan to show up for the next meal. Families work together.

Although I don’t remember my own parents quoting scripture when I or my siblings grumbled about helping out around the house, I do recall the expectation that everyone in the family participate in the work involved in being a family together. Perhaps you are thinking right now about how the work was shared in your family of origin, or maybe about how the work is shared in your household today.

Modern families have changed quite a bit from 50 or 60 years ago. Back then, tasks were often divided based on gender — women took care of the home front, while men went out to “bring home the bacon.” If anything, things have become more fluid and more complicated in most families today in terms of expectations for who does what work to contribute to the household. Couples embarking on new relationships are encouraged to communicate their expectations and to be patient with each other as they work out roles and responsibilities that suit family needs and individual gifts. Though family sizes and shapes are varied, most families do share that one overall expectation: Everyone should contribute. According to age and ability, everyone does their part of the work.

But the authors of 2 Thessalonians weren’t talking about the nuclear family when they wrote that “anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” They were talking about the Christian community — about the church. 2 Thessalonians, according to the opening of the letter, was written by Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, to the church of the Thessalonians. They wrote as apostles who had brought the good news about Jesus Christ to the new Christians in Thessalonica. And now, in their absence, Paul and his friends were encouraging and advising the Thessalonians in their faith and church life.

What soon becomes clear in the letter is that the Thessalonian Christians are having the same kind of problem in their church community that many people have in their family life. Some people are not doing their part to contribute to the work of the church. Now we’re talking here, not about a church community that gets together once a week for Sunday worship and otherwise lives separate lives. We’re talking about an early Christian community like the one described in the book of Acts, in which the people eat together, worship together, and have all things in common, sharing their resources as any have need. Compared to our modern churches, the early Christian communities were a lot more like extended families in which everyone’s work contributed to the common good.

Paul and his friends wrote to them, saying, “anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” And I’ve heard people quote that verse as a way of saying that we shouldn’t have social assistance, or to argue against giving to the poor in our communities. But I really don’t think that that’s what Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy meant by the statement.

First of all, they encouraged the Thessalonians to remember the way the apostles acted when they were with them in Thessalonica. They wrote: “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 labour we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you.” As apostles, Paul and his friends might have expected the people of the church to take care of their needs. Some might have argued that they had more important things to do with their time than working for food. But they were able to work, so they did their part.

Now, in their letter, they are asking the Thessalonians to follow their example. They’re not saying that the church should not feed the sick or the disabled, or the young or the old who may not be able to do as much work. Rather, they are saying that everyone should do their part, according to their ability. To those within the community who thought they were too good to work, who thought that others should serve them, Paul and his friends point to a new way of being together in Christian community in which everyone is equal. Race and class and socio-economic level no longer provide distinctions between the members of the community. All are children of God, and all take responsibility for the well-being of the community. Those who have more resources share with those who have less, and everyone offers their work for the common good.

Here at St. Andrew’s, in our church community, we do not pool all our resources and have everything in common like some of the churches in the first century. But we do come together as a church family. We do give our gifts and offerings towards a shared ministry. And we do try to care for one another when someone is in need.

There is a lot of work to do around here at St. Andrew’s, and your gifts fund a minister and other staff to do some of that work. But there’s still a lot of work to be done by other members of the community. Through the Session, the Board, and the committees and groups of this church, a great deal of work is carried out. It is work that both proclaims the Gospel in our church and reaches out beyond our doors to share with people in need in our community and further afield.

Programs are developed and carried out. Worship is planned and music is prepared. Children are educated in the faith. The sick in hospital or at home are visited. Caring phone calls are made. Faith is shared. Prayers are offered. The church building is cared for. Financial statements and budgets are prepared. Visitors and newcomers are welcomed. The Good News is proclaimed in word and action.

But I remember reading somewhere that in most churches, 20% of the people do 80% of the work. And I imagine that’s probably true at St. Andrew’s as much as it is at any church. There are probably some within our church who need to hear that message that Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy directed at a few within the Thessalonian church: “Do your work. Do your part. Families work together.”

But there are others within our church at St. Andrew’s who simply need to be encouraged in their work. Perhaps it has been a while since you heard anyone say “thank you” for the things that you do. Thank you for singing in the choir, for reading scripture, for serving on a committee or the Board, for making the coffee or running the sound system. Thank you for driving someone to church, for cutting the grass, for shovelling the snow, for baking pies, or teaching a church school class. Thank you for caring about your neighbour in the pew, for welcoming a newcomer, or inviting someone to church. Thank you for all the work you do that contributes to our community. Thank you for all the things you do both here and at home, at work, at school, and in the community that shares the good news and builds the reign of God on earth. Thank you for contributing to the work of the church.

This morning, I draw your attention to the words of encouragement from Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy: “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”

I do hope that we have more than 20% of the people doing 80% of the work of St. Andrew’s. But no matter how many or how few are doing the work, we are still called to offer our whole lives for God’s work, trusting that God has called us, and equipped us, and that God empowers us to do the work of ministry in and through St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. I know that’s a message that I need to hear when I am feeling tired.

May all our work bring glory to God. And may all our work serve to share the Gospel in word and action in our church and in our community. Amen.