2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

The leaves were swirling as I left the office on Thursday.  Brightly colored dancers caught in an upward spiral then scattering across the parking lot in many directions.

Some of us may feel as if we’ve had that kind of week – swept together by a common event only to be scattered by the outcome.  Some celebrating a new direction, while others feel concern over what that direction will be.

Those images may bring the recent election to mind, but it can be true of many things happening in our families, circle of friends, our faith community, and/or our community at large.

We may be caught up in the chaos or excitement of something which puts us into a swirl of emotions that can push us away from others or distract us from what is really important.

The Thessalonians passage this morning reflects this kind of situation.  Paul is writing to the Christians in Thessalonica.  Some of them have become so focused on the Second Coming of Jesus they have stopped doing anything else.  Their energy expended only on sitting and waiting for Jesus to appear in the sky.

This decision to become idle concerns Paul.  It is clear to him that no one knows when Christ will come again.  Jesus told his followers that no one knows the day or hour when these things will happen, not even the angels in heaven or the son, only the Father.[1]

In the chapter before this one, followers were afraid they had missed Christ’s return, quickly shaken in mind, and alarmed by rumors to that effect.  Paul urged them not to be deceived in any way regarding the Second Coming, encouraging them to continue to live according to the good news they had received, focusing on reflecting God’s love and grace through everything they said and did.

He called them out on accepting salvation through a relationship with Christ and then choosing not to reflect it in their everyday lives and occupations, not sharing it with others.

In essence, those who believed Christ was coming back any minute and had stopped doing anything else but watching the sky, had received the good news of God’s grace but were safeguarding it as if it was a fragile personalized gift that they were afraid to take out to use, to play with, or to share for fear something or someone would take it away or get more enjoyment out of it.  Their concern so consuming that they never fully understand the joy the gift can bring to them or to others.   Their focus on one small piece of the big picture keeping them from fully living.  Paul seeks to broaden their focus, to ground them in the example he had set.

He reminds them that he didn’t have to work, but did, and encourages them to do something good if they can do it; give something good if they can give it, even when they are required to even if they have a right not to.

Many have used this passage to defend social political systems.  Some to say we should eliminate social services because everyone needs to pull their own weight or do without.  Others to push for policies that limit the ability of wealthy individuals, who live off the profit made through the physical labor of others, to keep the resources they amass.

It seems either of those directions takes this passage out of context.  While Paul does talk about earning one’s own living, we know that scripture calls on us repeatedly to care for those in circumstances that make it difficult for them to care for themselves.  “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land,” we hear in Deuteronomy 15:11;  “Give to everyone who begs from you (asks, requests, pleads for, demands) and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you,” we hear Jesus urge in (Matthew 5:40-42).

If we look at verse 11, we see Paul raise as the major concern that they have stopped working, they are just sitting around protecting that unused gift.  He points out that if that wasn’t bad enough, they are using their time to talk about their brothers and sisters, not building them up, but being busybodies, finding fault with their actions and perceptions.  They aren’t pulling their own weight in the church and are pulling others down.

This group of followers are being disruptive, making others wonder if they should quit contributing their gifts and talents to the community, if they should stop telling others what Paul taught them.  Their understandings are incomplete.  They are focused on only one puzzle piece.  Paul calls them to get back to their main mission, to share God’s love with everyone in every way.  They can’t do that sitting down looking up at the sky, and the other followers can’t do that standing around the parking lot or the water cooler listening to them.

While working in the business center in New York Center on Friday while Ken was at a NYPA Board meeting, a young man at the computer next to me was having a difficult time getting the printer to work and asked if I had printed anything.  Working together we were able to get his pages to print.  Then he asked me if he could ask me a question.  I said sure and he asked me if it seems everything around us wants us to be defined by how much money we make, how many things, we have, what vacations we take, how successful we are.

That question led to a long conversation about spirituality and what is important to determining who we are.  He, like many in our world today, is searching for his identity and purpose separate from the material things our world is trying to push on us.  He has a more difficult task than some as he lost two mothers and a father to death by the time he was in his early 30’s.  He has no siblings, grandparents, or extended family.  He feels tentative about the friendships he has, fearing that if he doesn’t measure up to their expectations, they will push him out of the group.  He finds that the religious people he has known over the years are, judgmental and unforgiving.  He is searching for direction and on Friday afternoon, decided to welcome me into that search.  I shared some of the faith stories of people I know who have faced similar feelings.

One of the stories I shared was an image of a cracked clay pot that one of my seminary classmates shared when we were talking about God’s grace and how it addresses our brokenness.  A clay pot with cracks compromising its structural integrity will leak, its brokenness keeping it from being what the potter created it to be.  It will not hold water, but if immersed in water, the cracks will fill and equalize, and thenwater will remain inside.  God’s grace is like that body of water, flowing in and through us, filling in the cracks of our brokenness, helping us to hold water again.  The brokenness doesn’t go away, but God’s grace holds us together, allows us to be what God has called us to be.  It is not a perfect illustration, and likely I have left out some of the pieces my seminary friend included, but the image was one that this young man could see and he left saying that kind of relationship with God seemed pretty good.

This young man believed there was a reason the paper jammed on Friday, that it was more than coincidence that he felt comfortable talking to me even before he knew I was a pastor working on a message for Sunday.  I share his belief, and felt the Spirit lead me to stories which gave him examples of how God loves us in our brokenness, even before we recognize we are broken, how God wants us to know that no matter what is going on in our lives grace can hold us together.

We talked for nearly two hours before he apologized for taking up my time and excused himself to go check into the hotel.  Before he left I asked if I could keep him in prayer, an offer he seemed to welcome.  I don’t know where that conversation will lead.  While we exchanged first names and a little about our lives, we didn’t give each other contact information, and follow-up is in God’s hands.

He left very much still searching, of not being sure Christianity had the answers he seeks.  His experience with too many of us who identify ourselves as Christian similar to the one Friedrich Nietzsche, the son and grandson of Lutheran pastors who became a harsh critic of the Christian faith in the late nineteenth Century had.  That being that so few of us demonstrate the resurrection joy Christianity claims.

I think that how we demonstrate the resurrection joy to those we know, those with whom we work, as well as strangers who we meet, reflects how we hear these words from Paul regarding never tiring of doing what is right, of doing good,  of always lifting up those around us if we can, even if we don’t have to.

No matter what has scattered us across the parking lot.  No matter what left us feeling discouraged or focused on protecting one small piece of what we believe or how we think things should be.  God reminds us God knows the complete picture.  Remember the puzzle pieces from a couple of weeks ago.  The different shapes, colors, and designs?  They are all important.  All part of God’s kingdom now and into the future.

Neither the disappointments in our lives or the resounding successes define us.  Our willingness to hear the hopes and fears of others even if for a brief moment; our willingness to remember Jesus died for all and extends God’s grace to all through his life, death, and resurrection; our willingness to keep working quietly in every part of our daily lives to share that grace with others – Those are the things that set our identity.  These are the things in which we can be encouraged by Paul’s words, “do not be weary in doing what is right.”  These are the things that keep us grounded when the winds spiral us upward only to scatter us across the parking lot.

We can’t give up, we can’t tire of trying to walk in Jesus’ footsteps and making the world a more humane and loving place.  We must keep working.

Let us pray

Ever creating God, you have work fit for each us, work that rejoices our hearts.  There is work we simply must do.  And there is work that we hate to do, that even seems to demean us.

We ask that you refresh us that we may do all the work before us with grateful and generous hearts, expecting the Spirit to drive us to labor with boldness, power, and grace in all the places and all the ways, doing good to all the people among whom Jesus leads us.  Amen.[2]


[1] Matthew 24:36

[2] Board of Discipleship Lectionary resources

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