2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
6Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 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.
As I was walking through Auschwitz this past summer, I was blown away and horrified by the vastness of it all, especially Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau. We heard stories of how the Nazis forced prisoners to use this 400 acres of land to build the largest concentration and death camp in the world- how they slaved away building the crematoriums, the gas chambers, buildings where the prisoners slept- how they worked to maintain the grounds and the railroad- how all of that time and energy went into this horrible place where mass death and destruction of life was an everyday occurrence. As our group walked beside Eva Kor, who survived it all, one of my fellow travelers said, “It’s unbelievable how much time and energy went into so much hatred. Just imagine what they could have done if that time and energy had been spent on something good and wonderful instead.”
That thought remained with me because although it is an example of the extreme, it also translates into every life and how we use our time and energy. I really started to pay attention and ask myself, “How am I using my time and energy? Is it for good or for evil? Is it time well spent on something that will benefit someone else? Is this work and energy good for the coming kingdom of God?” Just imagine what we could do in this world if our time and energy was spent on making the world a better place rather than using our energy to stir up drama or chaos, to hurt or destroy.
The people of Thessalonica whom Paul was addressing were struggling with the true meaning of hard work. There were unfortunately those whose definition of hard work meant either sitting and waiting for Jesus to come back, or worse, working to stir up chaos in the church or meddling in places where they did not belong. He is pointing out “the slackers”- those who are not doing their part to better the church. “The slackers” are the ones who are either completely inactive or stirring up trouble. This was a community who had seen better days- Paul is writing to comfort them during a time of persecution, oppression, and heartache. He is writing to encourage them in their faith and to address the importance of Jesus’ return as a source of hope for the community and motivation to live holy lives and to remind them that this is not a time to sit and wait, but a call to action- a call to be about building the kingdom of God here and now instead of simply waiting for the future. But some are anxious, bitter, and tired of waiting- so many withdraw or act out in less than respectable ways. Instead of binding together, they turn on each other and they fail to be the church.
One of my favorite TV shows is The Wonder Years, where we watch a boy named Kevin grow up in the suburbs. Watching the show, we get insight into his adventures through junior high school, his first romance, and his relationships with his family and his best friends. At the age of 14, Kevin and his dad find themselves on a road trip to get Kevin a suit at a store that is having a big sale. Both father and son are not happy about this trip, as Kevin shares with his audience that at the age of 14, the last thing he wants to be doing is spending a day with his father, who is not connecting with him. But at the insistence of his mother, there they are, stuck together all day in the car. Through a series events that include getting lost, fighting over what music to listen to, and an incident at a diner with an attractive waitress, they finally end up at the suit store as they are closing up for the night. That’s when they hear the hiss of a flat tire on the car. Then Kevin and his dad lose it- all of the anger and frustration built up throughout the day come flying out- all of that time and energy filled with negativity only got them to a closed suit store in the dark with a flat tire and no way home. But all of their yelling and fighting was not going to fix that tire. Finally, Kevin decides he is going to muster up all of his strength to budge the jammed lug nut on the flat tire in order to change it- and miraculously it moves. Later, as Kevin and his dad finally pull up back to the house with a working tire, but no suit, they decide they better go to a diner instead to “get their story straight” so they know what to tell his mom- father and son back on the same page once again- time and energy being spent on building a relationship rather than destroying one.
If Kevin had never decided to use his strength and energy to go about fixing that flat tire, he and his dad might have been there all night angry at each other with nowhere to go and no way to get there. They would have been stuck. Paul wants to say to the Thessalonians that if they do not use their time and energy for good, they will only remain angry, bitter, scared, and stuck. I think this still speaks to each of us as individuals and as a church today. As a pastor, I hear far too many stories from my colleagues about people in churches who are only out to do harm to the church, its people, and sometimes the pastor. I had to attend a seminar a few weeks ago entitled, “Clergy Killers and How to Handle Them.” As I sat there, I found it very sad that we were even having that conversation- that we as pastors need to know how to identify and handle people that want to destroy the church and its pastor. Yes, there are clergy killers out there, but there are also church killers- those who use their time and energy in the church to tear down others, to gossip, to use church as something that condemns rather than uplifts. Church killers turn people away from the open door. Sometimes they attend but sit idly by and do nothing. Sometimes they leave over petty differences. Sometimes they refuse to see change as necessary for progress. Sometimes they think that church is only meant for an exclusive group of people. Sometimes they treat church as a club or an elite group rather than a safe haven of grace or a place to build a relationship with God.
So how can we as a church make sure that we are not housing “church killers” or “slackers”? How can we make sure that we are busying ourselves with the coming Kingdom of God instead of busying ourselves by doing harm to it? We can do this by lending our energy to these things:
-Listening to one another.
-Talking to one another- lift one another up in prayer, engage in respectful conversation
-By not holding grudges- forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you. Never let anyone get in the way of you experiencing our grace-filled God.
-Seeing church as a safe haven for all rather than a place to talk about one another or to gossip.
-Maintaining a sense of equality and unity among us while embracing diversity- doing away with self-entitlement, recognizing the unique gifts and talents of each person.
-Speaking joyfully about our church in the community
-Welcoming all who enter (practice radical hospitality)
-Engaging in mission and outreach to our neighbors and those in need.
Yes, a reality is that there are people in this world who set out to do harm, even to and within the church. One of the most important lessons that my dad taught me as I was growing up that many points in our lives, we will come into contact with toxic people-people whose personalities lend themselves to harm, manipulation, narcissism, abuse, and selfishness. Toxic people are not team players, but are those who only want for themselves and will do whatever it takes to get it or to move ahead. His words have never failed me- so it is up to all of us to be able to identify toxic people, especially in the church, and find a way to first, extend grace, and second, to respectfully find a way to work with them so that they might find a way to use energy to work for good in the church. And when we get frustrated, have faith that God makes a way when sometimes we feel there is no way.
The suggestions that Paul gives the Thessalonians are still practical and relevant for us in the church today. To his recipients, he says we are to follow the example of others who are working diligently for good in the church and community. We are to be aware of the negative consequences of idleness- that famous phrase, “Idle hands are the devil’s playground” has some truth to it- so we are to put our hands to good use and not let them wander off and do something they should not do. And finally, we are to recognize the importance of team work. It takes all of us to make the church function- we are one body of Christ and together the members of it- one part cannot function without the other. The danger that we might find ourselves in is when we act like those in Thessalonica who are doing nothing but sitting there staring up at the sky waiting for Jesus to appear or something to happen. The Kingdom of God does not come on its own! God is relying upon us, upon the church to make transformation happen on this earth, in this life, in this time. We will get nowhere just sitting and staring. We will get nowhere using our energy for anything other than extending love and grace.
In this I am reminded of the mission of the United Methodist Church: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This is an active statement, not a passive one. The world is not going to transform itself! To make disciples and to transform takes time and energy working for good- it’s putting every effort forward to make something happen, one person at a time, one day at a time. We work for this transformation when we follow our 3 simple rules: Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God- these 3 statements alone remind us that our hands are not to be idle, but are to be constantly working for the good of the church and the kingdom. Our lives should not be idle in offering ourselves up to God in Christ Jesus who calls us into discipleship to love and serve. As a church, we should be in the business of loving and serving people. Not sitting and waiting. Not being inactive. Not spending our time tearing down the church or its people. We are to be in the business of re-building and shaping lives, of reaching out to the poor and outcast, and going beyond ourselves to practice radical hospitality, extravagant generosity, and risk taking mission. We can do none of these things if we sit and watch the world go by.
Paul leaves us with a challenge. He says, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” In the midst of our busy lives, I think it would be quite accurate to say that many of us are weary. In the midst of our work days, taking care of our families, going to doctors’ appointments, checking in on friends and loved ones, running errands, making sure we are mentally and physically healthy ourselves, seeing that our finances are in order, we pause for a moment and confess, yes, we are weary, worn out, strung out, frustrated, and worn down. Be encouraged though, with these words- “do not be weary in doing what is right.” With whatever or however much energy we might have, we must be giving it over to doing what is right- to doing what gives life, to doing what encourages, brings hope, builds up, uplifts- we are to use that energy on those things.
As I stood in Auschwitz those few months ago, I couldn’t help but wonder- what would have happened if all of this time, energy, and work went to building up something good, something fruitful, something that would give life to millions of people instead of hating them, destroying them, and taking their innocent lives. What would have happened if the so-called brilliant and creative minds of the Nazis were put to use for something that created life rather than taking it away?
What if each one of us today imagined that the hands of Christ were our hands? Would we stop destroying each other then? What if the hands of Christ were our hands? What could we do that might change the world for the good and not for evil? Amen.