Monday, November 15, 2010

A Sermon on Responsibility

In some ways, I am surprised those who pick the lessons for churches to read on Sunday actually included our second lesson this morning. Usually, they try to shy from controversial texts or texts that advocate something that is not within their particular point of view. In ten years of preaching and teaching off the Revised Common Lectionary, I have come to see this very clearly. Ask me about it sometime, and I’ll be happy to show you.

But today’s second lesson is a deviation from the path usually chosen. As I’ve read and preached off the Revised Common Lectionary, I believe very strongly that those who pick out the Bible texts for churches have a very strong heart and desire to see the church help those who are poor and in need. They do not hesitate to pick scripture that talks about the Christian responsibility to take care of one’s neighbor. When it comes to the Old Testament lessons, I have seen them pick the teachings of the prophets over and over again which talk about God’s judgment being pronounced upon those who fail to care for the orphan, the widow, and the poor. Curiously omitted are the prophets’ teachings on morality and a failure to follow the first commandment of loving God alone, but who’s keeping track?

So it is somewhat surprising that our second lesson this morning was actually picked to be read in our congregations this morning. Usually, it would be glossed over or ignored altogether. They would pick the chapter before it or the verses after it. They would put the text out there, but omit several verses that did not meet their world-view so that someone wouldn’t get the idea that a Christian should never feed the hungry.
But here we have it right before us this morning. St. Paul admonishes the church in Thessalonica, "10For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right. 14 Take note of those who do not obey what we say in this letter; have nothing to do with them, so that they may be ashamed. 15Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as believers."

Yes, you heard this text correctly. If anyone does not work, they should not eat. If anyone does not work and chooses to remain idle, they should be kept at arm’s length by the community of faith and shamed. Paul says they should not be treated as enemies, but the act of shaming them should be a warning, an exhortation to turn from their idleness and actually do something.

Can you see how quickly this text can be abused? Can you see how quickly we in the church could use this text to justify, say, cutting all of our support to the Sealy Christian Pantry? We could easily say to the pantry, "Folks, we know you believe you are doing the right thing, but we have read the Bible, and it says that if folks aren’t working, they shouldn’t eat. We know the vast majority of folks who come to the pantry are not working, so as commanded by scripture, we believe they shouldn’t eat. You should stop feeding them, and by-the-way, we are removing our financial support from you." How many of you think that argument is bunk, by the way? Good, I am glad to see so many hands go up in the air. Because the argument is bunk. There is a reason Paul is saying what he is saying, and if you will permit me, I will try to explain it.

First, let’s turn in our Bibles this morning to Galatians chapter 6. There is a wonderful little snippet from scripture that is awful confusing, but very pertinent to our discussion this morning. We come to verses two through five which read, "2Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. 3For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. 4All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor’s work, will become a cause for pride. 5For all must carry their own loads."

Now, I know this text might sound confusing because in exactly three verses, St. Paul seems to be making two contradictory statements. First, he writes that Christians are called to bear one another’s burdens, and in doing so, we fulfill the law of Christ. Then, in verse five, Paul says that each person must carry his or her own load. How can Paul seem to reverse himself in just one verse? How can Paul go from "Bear one another’s burdens" to "carry your own load" in such a quick fashion?

Here’s where a little bit of understanding of the Greek helps tremendously. Translating word for word sometimes presents a problem, and if you understand the Greek nuances of a couple of words, you will understand this text much better. First, we need to know that the Greek word for burden carries the nuance of a boulder. Bear one another’s boulder’s, Paul indicates. This fulfills the law of Christ. Indeed when we see our neighbor struggling with something that is too big for him or her, we should help them out without question. I’m not sure anyone would argue with this.

Second word that needs a little clarification is the word load. In Greek, this word carries the connotation of a knapsack. It’s a burden that can be carried without much trouble, and Paul tells us that we are responsible for carrying our own knapsacks. Bear one another’s boulders, but carry your own knapsack. When something is too big for your neighbor or for yourself, we have a responsibility to help or seek help. However, there are some things that we must take responsibility for on our own. We should not seek help for them if they are our responsibility.

Therefore, a Christian is called to be responsible for one’s self and the things one is able to do, and at the same time has the responsibility to help others when a load becomes too much to bear. A corollary to Paul’s thinking here is that we are called to bear one another’s boulders, not each other’s knapsacks. Let me say that again. We are called to bear one another’s boulders, not each other’s knapsacks.
This brings us back to this morning’s lesson from 2 Thessalonians. If we read through the entirety of this book, we see that the church in Thessalonica is worried about when Jesus is returning. They are wondering what that day is going to be like. They are wondering if they need to be afraid or if they should be rejoicing. They are wondering what they should be doing as they wait for Jesus’ return.

St. Paul takes some time to address all of these issues with this letter to the church, and he also takes time to deal with a group of folks who are refusing to take responsibility for their knapsacks. There were a group of Christians in Thessalonica who were not working because they believed Jesus would return immediately. They refused to work or do anything because they wanted Jesus to find them praying or worshiping or what have you. Because they were so focused on this, they remained idle all day long. And, believe it or not, they expected the rest of the church to feed and care for them. They expected the church to provide for their daily existence as they waited for Jesus to come back.

Paul says, "I don’t think so. The church is not responsible for carrying another person’s knapsack. You who are idle need to get up off your tail ends, get to work, earn a living and feed yourselves. Don’t expect the church to take care of you while you do nothing. If you don’t even attempt to carry your knapsack, you don’t need to eat."

Do you see how this teaching does not mean the church isn’t supposed to feed the hungry? After all, there are people who lose their jobs, who cannot work, who for one circumstance or another have tremendous boulders to carry. It is our job to help them–to feed them–to care for them and bear their boulders until they reach their destination. However, if someone is not even attempting to carry their knapsack, then the church has a very different responsibility. We don’t need to feel guilty about supporting those who are not even trying. Please do not abuse this text from 2 Thessalonians 3. Bear one another’s burdens, but carry your own knapsack. Amen.

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