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A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.

The Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Pentecost

II Thessalonians 3:6-13

November 17, 2013

Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 98; Luke 21:5-19

Do you know the difference between good and well? I do now, but it was a tough lesson to learn.

Daughter:  “Dad, how are you doing?”

Dad (happily):  “I’m doing good!”

Daughter:  “No, Dad, you’re doing well.”

Dad (smirking):  “What a waste of a good college education.”

Daughter:  “Yours or mine?”

Even the grammar checker on my soulless laptop knows the difference between good and well! All of you look like you’re doing well today, but I want to explore the idea of doing good on this good day we’ve gathered to worship together and lay hands on these four deacon candidates we’re setting aside to do some good in the world.

This reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica is an open window into the first-century church in the little Macedonian village of Thessaloniki. Clearly there’s a message of rebuke to those in the church who were idle, not working, not carrying their load, eating up the church’s groceries, and using the hopeful return of Jesus to cover for their laziness.

A new model is emerging in New Testament scholarship as we’re learning while some first-century churches met in homes others may have been organized around the model of a professional guild. If that’s so, these two letters from Paul to the Thessalonian church might be re-imagined as addressed to a group of artisans, skilled craftsmen, or perhaps manual laborers who likely met in a workshop. We can imagine in our minds’ eye the gathering of such a community of skilled artisans meeting in someone’s workshop to hear Paul’s letter read aloud. In a place marked by dust, scraps of lumber and wood shavings, hand tools, and the smell of honest labor, these men and their families may have gathered to learn how to live more closely in relationship with God and with one another.

But as is the nature of things, the ones not working became a problem and Paul had to step in. Never shy, he spoke right into the heart of the matter:  “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Before we go further, let’s unpack what this saying means and what it doesn’t mean.

This is not a biblical teaching for or against any modern social safety nets such as welfare, unemployment benefits, food stamps, and feeding programs such as SNAP. Put plainly, this is not a text about economic morality nor is it a rejection of welfare. To read it as such is simply to pervert what the Bible says.

In short, this command is not given to 21st century America, nor is it ammunition for a political agenda of any kind, Republican, Libertarian, or Democrat. Read the text, Paul did not come across a homeless man in Thessaloniki and tell him to go get a job.

Rather, Paul is addressing a group of Christians in the church who had stopped working because they thought Jesus was coming back, as in “right back.” These men felt that work and the labor given to support oneself, was “worldly” and no longer relevant. Instead, Paul told them to stay alert, expectant that the Lord would indeed come back but not to quit their jobs. In other words he said, “Stay alert … but stay busy!” Then he clarified himself:  “Do not grow weary of doing good.”

The Apostle Paul was clear when certain church members stopped working, they became a nuisance. Some were “busybodies,” others were gossips, and yet others were noisy critics of those who were busy working.

We must model belief from those who are not just living inwardly, but who are busy doing good where working for the common good is needed most.  Archbishop Hélder Câmara of Recife Brazil is just such a one. He spoke with a heavy accent and a broad smile and once said this to make his point: “Right hand, left hand – both belong to ze same body but ze heart is a little to ze left.”[1] God’s kingdom bends toward love and mercy and justice.

Poet Wendell Berry says succinctly, “Find something that needs doing, and do it.” You’ll make yourself useful in the world and you’ll find contentment in the most surprising kinds of ways.

Today we gather to ordain 4 persons to serve as deacons at Holmeswood. Notice I said “serve” and not “lead.” They are being ordained in the same manner as the NT church that ordained their first deacons to serve at the tables where the workload had grown to be overwhelming. Those first deacons accepted the call of the church and went faithfully to work. They weren’t better Christians than any of the others but they were willing to do as Jesus, who “knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself” (John 13:3-4, NRSV).

Deacon Ordinands:  You are being called to serve the needs of this church and also to serve the needs of our community and the world.  Trust me, serving the needs of the church and the community is messy work. Both will stretch your naïveté and give you pause to wonder about the world and the challenge of faith. But both remind us of the world Jesus came to serve and it’s along his path we follow.

[1] Quoted in William Sloane Coffin, “The Politics of Compassion,” The Heart is a Little to the Left, Essays on Social Morality, Hanover: University Press of New England, 1999, 9

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