Sunday, November 11, 2007

Working for Peanuts

“Working for Peanuts”
© Copyright 2007, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
II Thessalonians 3:6-13
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, November 11, 2007

When Paul began detailing the ways in which some of the folks in that early church in the city of Thessalonica were not pulling their weight, I can imagine that many in that little fellowship cringed to hear the truth-telling, no matter how true it was. “For we hear, ” Paul wrote in his letter, which was surely read in the middle of the gathering of that little church, since New Testament letters were designed to edify the whole church, and few could read them on their own anyway, “that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.”

True as such things may be, we often create elaborate ways to avoid such truth, especially in church, because to face it means to have to do something about it. A study of any dysfunctional family will turn up many methods by which all the family members carry on their elaborate charades to avoid confrontation with truth. But not the apostle, not Paul. His hard words of truth remind me of a short modern parable I read several years ago, entitled, “The Day Rev. Henderson Bumped His Head.” [by William Willimon, in Leadership, Spring, 1998, pp. 39-41.] I can’t resist sharing a few excerpts with you:
Leaning down toward the bottom shelf to retrieve his trusty Strong’s Concordance to pursue “new moon” through both testaments, the Reverend Henry Henderson, pastor of Sword of Truth Presbyterian Church, bumped his head,

“Darn,” he exclaimed, grabbing his forehead.

This he followed immediately with [a stronger expletive] which was muttered with atypical candor. The rather non-ministerial ejaculation surprised Henderson. He could hardly believe he said it. [Then] he heard himself say [it] again. “This hurts.”

That, so far as the Reverend Henderson could tell, was how it all began—an accidental blow to the brain while reaching for a concordance.

Moments later, the phone rang.

“Pastor,” whined a nasal voice at the other end, “are you busy?”

“Not at all...” said Henderson out of habit. Then, from nowhere Henderson said, “I’m sitting here in my study just dying for someone like you to call and make my day! No, I am busy. I was working on my sermon for next Sunday. What is it?”

His words paralyzed him. They must also have stunned the whiny voice at the other end of the line, for there was a long, awkward silence followed by “Er, well, I’ll call you at home tonight after work, Pastor.”

“No,” said Henderson firmly, alien words forming in his mouth as if not by his own devising, “call me during office hours on any day other than Friday. Thank you. Good-bye.”

The receiver dropped from his hand and into the telephone cradle. He felt odd. Yes, quite odd. His head no longer throbbed. Yet he felt odd.

Emerging from his study, he encountered Jane Smith, come to church for her usual Friday duties for the altar guild. “As usual, just me,” she said to Henderson. “They all say they’ll be on the guild, that they don’t mind helping out the church. Yet, when it comes time for the work, where are they?”

“I think you know very well why they are not here,” said Henderson. “You gave them only a half-hearted invitation. Everyone knows you love playing the martyr. Their absence helps bolster your holier-than-thou attitude.”

Smith nearly dropped the offering plate she was holding, along with the polishing cloth and the Brasso™.

“Pastor! How dare you accuse me of being a complainer! You know how hard I’ve worked to get the altar guild going! If you gave us volunteers the kind of support we ought to...”
Henderson wasn’t listening. He staggered down the hall as Jane Smith continued her complaint. He was feeling dizzy, unsteady...

...He was a pastor in peril.

Henderson at the hospital that afternoon, Room 344: “So the doctor tells you your heart problems are congenital? That so? Are you sure the doctor didn’t mention anything about (by my reckoning) eighty pounds of excess fat?”

And in Room 204: “Really? So this is the strain of emphysema that is not caused by smoking? Give me a break! Two packs a day for thirty years, and you wonder why you’re sucking on an oxygen tank for dear life?”...

...That fateful Sunday service, after a pastoral prayer in which Henderson admitted to God that “Most of us didn’t really want to hear anything truthful you have to reveal to us,” an emergency meeting of the Pastor/Parish Committee was called...

You can probably fill in the end of the story.

It was Flannery O’Conner, I think, who once reworded a familiar Bible phrase by adding a new twist, saying, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” Paul never needed a blow to the head to inspire him to declare what was true, but I am certain that more than once his unwillingness to soften the truth of the gospel must have made him a bit odd to those on the receiving end of truth they had made a practice of hiding. I can imagine there were a few sluggards in the Thessalonian congregation who dreaded to see an envelope arrive at the church with a return address bearing Paul’s name.

Their error wasn’t mere sloth, a simple laziness that afflicted some of the believers in Thessalonica. The fact is, there were some in that congregation who had decided that Jesus was going to return very shortly, so soon, in fact, that they determined that they might as well stop work. Why work when Jesus would soon be there to set everything right? By believing as they did, they became a burden on the others in their fellowship. Who was supposed to keep these blissful non-workers and their families from starving?

We may find this a bit quaint, even odd, but I have to say, we have not yet begun to hear the end of the end-of-the-world prophets who seem to find ever more fascination with people who declare the end or beginning of all manner of things is just around the next corner. Just remember, this is nothing new, and don’t quit your day job. Around 200 A.D., in a region in what is now northern Turkey, a church leader reported to his followers that he had dreams that the final judgment was coming at the end of the year. Many Christian believers in the area abandoned their fields and sold their personal possessions in anticipation of a day which did not come by the end of the year, indeed, which has not yet come. It has been happening ever since. Remember all the dire end-of world predictions before the dawn of the new century? Where are those prognosticators now? So-called spiritual leaders have been taking the gullible for a ride for centuries. Just remember Paul’s word: “For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you...but with toil and labor we worked night and day...”

This is not to say that such a “Day of the Lord” is never coming. The Bible seems clearly to suggest that it is. It is to say that we have plenty of word from that same Bible about what we should be doing in anticipation, and none of it suggests we should simply stop doing the good work of God and sit by the side of the road to wait for the end. Paul said, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”

It is a truth, even though it is one that may be hard to hear. “Brothers and sisters,” Paul said, “Do not be weary in doing what is right.” This goes for the righteous, industrious ones who do more than their share as well as the idle ones who do little, if anything. The hard workers must not take the example of the slothful as their excuse to despair in their task, and the slothful ones must not be left to their sin, as if it doesn’t matter.

This passage seems like an appropriate reminder of the nobility of work, of committing ourselves to doing some small, useful work, even though we know that other great things may be underway in the world.

In his one of his Bible commentaries , 16th century reformer John Calvin said, “In vain do persons who are delighted with an easy, indolent life, and with exemption from the cross, undertake a profession of Christianity.” He went on: “The true self-denial which the Lord demands...does not consist so much in outward conduct as in the affections; so that every one must employ the time which is passing over him without allowing the objects which he directs by his hand to hold a place in his heart.”

Whether we work for peanuts or for millions, scripture is clear in its declaration that we are to work for the betterment of all until that time when the Best of all comes, lays our work aside, and says, “Well done, good and faithful servants.”