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Nov 13, 2022

Our Work

Our Work

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Series: November 2022

 

Today's Sermon

 

"Our Work"

 

Isaiah 65:17-25
           17For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. 18But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. 19I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. 20No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed. 21They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. 22They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. 23They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD-and their descendants as well. 24Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. 25The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent-its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.

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.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.

Our Work

            On January 4, a massive winter storm hit the Eastern Seaboard.  I-95 was brought to a standstill, leaving people trapped inside their cars waiting for help, help that just didn’t seem to be coming. After 24 hours, including a cold night in a truck cab, two welders, Safwan Aziz and John Hildenbrand, a black guy and white guy if that matters, two blue color workers, couldn’t wait idly any longer.  They fired up the generator of their truck, brewed three pots of coffee and, with the help of someone else who fashioned makeshift mugs out of soda cans, offered it to others stuck in the jam.  Some were suspicious of the rough looking pair and wouldn’t lower their windows; others gladly took the gift.  It turned out to be just the fuel that was necessary.  Soon a determined cluster of folks gathered around the truck and decided to make a run at moving two giant trees that blocked the roadway.  Working together, they were successful and soon the lineup was on its way.  The waiting was over.  That wasn’t the only incident of neighborliness on I-95 that day.  A bread truck, also stranded, was identified, the company contacted, and the CEO authorized the driver to open the back and release the entire inventory.  In a real fishes and loaves moment, people walked up and down in the freezing cold distributing bread to all who were hungry.  Even when help is on the way, even when you know the storm will pass, there’s work to do, the work of neighborliness, of generosity, of indiscriminate looking out for one another.

            I’m not naïve enough to think everything can change for good just because of a moment such as that.  We’ve all seen initial neighborliness give way to more selfish behavior as long-term hardship sets in.  Lasting neighborliness would require a more sweeping transformation.  This is what is detailed in Isaiah’s prophetic vision.  Isaiah did not live in our world, but Isaiah’s still offers us a worthy vision for, if not a roadmap to, a divine way of being in community.  For Isaiah, God is not interested in tickering around the edges, which is what we’ve reduced the faith to; God is after a complete transformation:  “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17).

            Listen again for just how dramatic this vision is in contrast to what we see:

  • No more weeping – this is not about mere personal distress, but that of a people besieged and under threat.
  • No more shall infants live only a few days or people die short of great age.
  • People shall build homes and inhabit them, meaning the workers who make the houses can actually afford to live in them.
  • They shall have vineyards, gardens, and be able to eat their own food, rather than only laboring in the food system for others. They will not toil endlessly and hopelessly.
  • They can know their children and children’s children have a future and reason for hope.
  • The wolf and the lamb will live side by side and the lion will eat straw rather than praying upon others.
  • No one will hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain.

So, then, God’s vision is

  • Nonviolent
  • Safe/secure
  • Sustainable
  • Reverent
  • Healthy
  • Filled with opportunity for meaningful and sufficient work
  • Marked by relationships of companionship rather than enmity


When you dismiss a prophet’s vision as unrealistic, you’ve missed the point.  The point is to shift what we thought reality had to be.  Once someone dreams it, puts an image to it, then we can all start to move to it.  The map appears.

            There have always been those who have dreamed for us what God has in mind, that we might know the direction.  Even after Jesus was executed, perhaps because of their resurrection experiences of him, the earliest Christians were steadfast in their belief that God was going to make things right.  Many of them believed this would happen through the return, perhaps imminent return, of Jesus to usher in for once and for all this prophetic vision. There was never full agreement on that; thinking varied and evolved.  Jesus’ own words in the gospels are cryptic, leaving significant debate about their meaning. Still, it’s clear for some communities Jesus’ imminent return was a central belief.

            We know this in part because some of these followers were exhibiting a corrosive complacency.  Help was on the way, they thought, the world passing away.  Christ was coming back and thus there was no need to do anything. Why brush your teeth, much less steward the world, when we’re going to get a new heaven and earth.  You see remnants of this theology surviving in some pockets of Christianity today where tacit permission is given to use up the material world however we see fit because Christ will come back and evacuate us anyway.  This is a limited reading and fails to address what Jesus might say about how we’ve lived out his vision in the home we were given, but that’s for another day.

            It’s to this complacency that 2 Thessalonians is addressed.  There are believers “living in idleness,” which incidentally is noted as “not according to the tradition” (2 Thess. 3:6).  In other words, the intention of the prophets was never to give people an excuse not to do their part and simply wait for someone else to come and save them.  Perhaps our forebearers misunderstood the point of prophecy just as folks have throughout the ages.  As Casey Strine, biblical scholar, theologian, and historian at the University of Sheffield explains, we mistakenly treat prophecies as mere predictions of the future, but that’s not how they were intended.  “Prophecies,” he says, “are conditional statements. Predictive prophecies explain what is on offer, not what has already been decided.” He continues, “Prophecy does not simply seek to predict the future, but to change the present…Prophets want to activate certain behaviors in their audiences, not prognosticatefuture events.”[1]With Jesus’ return, as with Old Testament prophets, you see a promise of what could be, but the people have to do their part for the vision to be realized.

            The Thessalonians, some of them anyway, have done precisely the opposite, shirked their responsibility, and become an unnecessary burden to those around them, not because they were unable to do their part but because they thought there was no point.  Again, notice how contrary that behavior is to what Isaiah prophecies, that the people will have meaningful and sustaining work to provide for their family and community. Sadly, the reprimand that we find in 2 Thessalonians is misappropriated in contemporary culture to bash the poor or villainize the unemployed.  Notice the letter is addressed to the believers in the community using their religious beliefs as an excuse not to do their part; it’s not a general commentary on employment.  You cannot take the gospel of Jesus seriously and conclude other than he advocated for caring for the poor and vulnerable.  Accumulating wealth and worldly power did not impress him, quite the contrary.  When people pedal tired tropes about those being lazy and freeloading in Jesus’ name, it’s disingenuous, confused, or downright blasphemous.

            Less dramatically, but still pervasive, is allowing these passages to foster a persistent anxiety around production in our culture.  We are who we are based on what we can make, sell, and buy.  Do you know anyone who just can’t take a break, who has to be productive even in leisure time?  We even call it the Protestant work ethic, and we’re guilty if we’re enjoying ourselves, or we have to alter our states to enjoy ourselves to avoid feeling the guilt.  Yes, of course, we should all do our part, be responsible, but we don’t have to work incessantly to earn God’s favor or anyone else’s. 

           Over and over, what’s asked of the new Christians is simply this – keep alert, be awake, on the lookout (Eph. 6:18, 1 Cor. 16:13, Luke 21:34, Acts 20:29-31).  Have your eyes opened to the coming of the Lord, which may mean be on the lookout for Jesus, and may also mean be on the lookout for and be committed to bringing about the way of Jesus in the world.  That’s our real work.

           Today, we may have a different problem, people resigning themselves not because they think the bright future is automatic, but because they feel we’re hopelessly doomed.  I was talking with Floyd Thompkins, pastor at St. Andrew Presbyterian in Marin City the other day.  Thompkins also works with students at Stanford, and he talked about how so many of our young people have real despair about the future.  I’ve spoken with Jeff here about some of the similarly weighty questions and issues facing our young people.  It doesn’t help to dismiss them.  Thompkins hears them out, and only then offers them the challenge, “Well, don’t you at least want to try?”  With the moment that is before you, with what you are facing, what will you do?  How will you live?

           For Christians the answer is, to live in a way that creatively or resourcefully puts Christlike love into service for the world, in a way that fits your gifts and interests.  Molly Buhrans was a religious seeker who, while no church mouse, found her home in the Catholic church having been inspired by figures of the Catholic worker movement.  By 26, she was a cartographer and environmentalist working to document the global landholdings of the Catholic Church, which had never been done.  The Catholic Church is one of the largest property owners on the planet, yet had no way of coordinating or managing their properties in a way that could address climate change and other environmental challenges facing life on the planet.  She allowed God’s dream for a new creation live through her.[2]   Her faith didn’t make her idle, and it didn’t make her love her work; it made love her work.

           No matter what’s coming, the time is always right to live out God’s dream.  The day before he was crucified, he washed his student’s feat before sharing a feast. He ministered to those crucified beside him.  Aziz and Hildebrand had a choice that day, sit and wait or go out an offer what gift they could to the world, be it coffee, or camaraderie, or clearing the road. When interviewed, Aziz remarked that he always tries to be prepared for what the day might bring, so he had packed “Clif bars, party mix, 32 water bottles and his mother-in-law’s mother’s pecan pistachio bread” –hey we all have our gifts.  He said I never leave the house, “without my boots laced up.”

           Take comfort in God’s promise and keep alert. Rest in God’s grace freely given and be awake and on the lookout for the coming of the Lord.  Have faith and realize that when you leave the house, there are times when you need to have your boots laced.

Amen.

 

[1]C.A. Strine as appears in https://thebiblefornormalpeople.com/prophecies-arent-predictions-of-the-future/

[2]https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/02/08/how-a-young-activist-is-helping-pope-francis-battle-climate-change