Malachi 4:1-2a Psalm 98 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13 Luke 21:5-19
A mother was making pancakes for her daughters, Barbara, five and Sam, three. The girls began to argue over who would get the first pancake. Their mother saw the opportunity for a moral lesson. “If Jesus were sitting here, he would say, ‘Let my sister have the first pancake. I can wait.’” Barbara turned to her younger sister and said, “Sam, you be Jesus.”
On a casual reading of this passage from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, it sounds like the polar opposite of a church’s mission statement. “Anyone unwilling to work, should not eat.” It prompts us to think about closing all the soup kitchens across the country. Its jarring message contrasts the generous invitation we heard from Jesus in the feeding of the five thousand. When the disciples wanted to dismiss the crowd to fend for themselves, Jesus insisted on hospitality and compassion, by saying, “Give them something to eat.” How are we to understand these messages of grace with the stern command of Paul?
We begin by looking at the difference between the disciplined life in a community of faith and the ancient command of the people of God to offer hospitality to strangers. Hospitality to strangers is an important part of both Jewish and Christian traditions. Hospitality customs are concerned with two distinct classes of people – the resident alien and the traveler. In most cases, the two are not distinguished. The word used to define these people means, “one who does not belong to a community or group.”
Survival in ancient times required that travelers or strangers be offered food, water and protection. There were no Days Inns or fast food restaurants to provide for them. This strict code of offering hospitality applied to everyone, even their enemies. In the 23rd Psalm, we can hear a powerful reference to this life-giving hospitality code; “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” (Psalm 23:5). There is no expected fee for this service, and the one receiving such mercy was not in debt. It was offered out of compassion and an understanding that all humanity is vulnerable.
While vulnerability of the resident alien and the stranger creates the codes of hospitality, providing hospitality requires that anyone in the community who is able to work should work. The situation in the church at Thessalonica had grown out of the expectation that Jesus was coming soon. This idea must have led some folks to assume that there is no longer a reason to tend the fields or the shops, since all would be gathered in the Lord any day now. The community may have fallen into the pattern of some members becoming lazy and unmotivated.
From the time of the first disciples gathered into a community and decided how to live together in peace, rules and regulations were needed to balance the workload. The most well known is the Rule of St. Benedict, which dates back to the sixth century. Hoping to relieve some of the tension among Christians sharing a common life that included cooking, eating, working, living, and praying together, Benedict created his Rule. In it, he acknowledges differences in abilities and accommodates for every person’s skill. In a modern translation, “No one is excused from rendering personal service to others. No one is exempted from performing the mundane tasks of very day life. Rendering service to others is necessary to our own fitness. Exempting someone from commonplace chores endangers them to vanity.”
The Rule requires the kind of humility that does not make anyone subject to the whims of the rest of us. To a world where people work for money, the Rule of Benedict requires that we work to continue the will of God for all of creation. To a world where leisure has been reduced to aimlessness, the Rule of Benedict provides a sense of contemplation, the fruits of which enable us to see the world as God sees the world.
Life in community requires that everyone be enabled and encouraged to work. This is essential for the development of both dignity and humility. Leaving someone out of the work life of the community can be demeaning. Just ask the stroke victim or the ailing senior citizen who wish they could do more to engage in the life of the community. Allowing someone who is able to work to be dismissed from work creates disparity in the community.
Modern Monastic communities know this too well. Pilgrims to the Iona Community in Scotland and the Taize Community in France are given the opportunity to serve in the working life of the community. Simple jobs, such as preparing meals or tending a common garden not only deepen the pilgrim’s appreciation of the ministry of the place, but these jobs allow the participants to join in communion with folks they might not otherwise meet. Not to work would make one a “tourist” instead of a “pilgrim.”
How do we participate in the life of the community? How are we called to live into our gifts that will benefit the faith community? The question reminds me of Mary Anne’s story. A priest was getting to know the lay of the land in his new parish. He asked about getting information out to folks who may not have the internet. He was told over and over again to talk with Mary Anne. He did that several times on the phone, before he could get to visit with her. On his visit, he found Mary Anne confined to bed, where she had been for a number of years. Spread out on the bed were several folders marked with different church committees, pens, paper and the phone. Mary Anne shared her story with the priest. She had been active in the ECW and the Altar Guild before she had her medical problems. She said that she loved the church and wanted to do all that she could do for as long as she could. John Wesley said, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” Mary Anne understood life in community!! Do we understand? I think sometimes I focus on myself. I go along with my own agenda, pleasing myself and ignoring God. Life in community calls us to follow God, to please God by offering our gifts, to be present for God’s plans. For me to open up to God’s plans…for us to open up to God’s plans!
In Luke, Jesus speaks of the destruction of the Temple, prompting the disciples to ask two questions: When? What will be the sign? Every generation, at some time or another, has thought the end was coming. We saw it with the fears about Y2K. People prepared supplies and cash in case the banks and computers crashed. Jesus goes on to describe three things that will happen in the future – imposters will come and try to trick the faithful, war and conflict will rage on, and natural disasters will be prevalent. Jesus assures the disciples that the end times are in the future and that they will not happen all at once. Then Jesus says something rather strange, “This will give you an opportunity to testify.”
An opportunity to testify....an opportunity to tell your story… about what God has done in your life. He goes on to tell the disciples that their testimony must not be rehearsed, but will flow from experience. We all have heard stories of folks expressing their faith during difficult times. It is easy to see these stories as far away from our lives, our experiences. Suffering provides an opportunity for those who have been changed to tell of their hope. For some, the change brought about by suffering is tangible, literal, physical. Howard Thurman, brilliant African American theologian, has seen suffering change people: “Into their faces comes a subtle radiance and a settled serenity; into their relationships a vital generosity that opens the sealed doors of the heart in all who are encountered along the way.”
What does your face, my face say about who is guiding us, who is in charge of our lives? Are my motives self serving or God serving? Jesus says that the reward for their testimony and their endurance of these catastrophic times will be the gaining of their very souls – the gaining of our very souls….the gaining of our very souls!
How can we know God, know who and what God can do in our lives, if we don’t open ourselves to the presence and possibilities of God. Jesus and the apostle Paul, both want us to see, to know, to experience our gifts in community so that our stories may be enriched and shared with others. We need to respect the integrity of our gifts. We need to be mission ready. Our lives, our hearts, our faces need to reflect the incarnational presence of Christ. Can we see Christ in others? Can they can Christ in us? I pray so…Amen.