Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Ora et Labora

Sandwich line volunteers and clients
A sermon on 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

“Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” Who knew that was in the Bible? When we think of the great teachings of the Christian faith, we’re more likely to think of “Love God and your neighbor” or “Blessed are the poor in spirit” or “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.” Sometimes we mistakenly think that all the harsh, punitive, and legalistic texts of the Bible are found in the Old Testament, and that the New Testament speaks only and always of a God of grace, mercy, and niceness. But tucked away in the dusty and neglected corners of the New Testament, we find teachings that appear just as troubling as the difficult texts of the Hebrew scriptures. There it is in black and white: “anyone unwilling to work should not eat.” 

This passage comes from Second Thessalonians, a letter which may or may not be by the apostle Paul. Although the author identifies himself as Paul, in the ancient world, it was common for people to write under the name of the great thinkers whom they admired and hoped to emulate. For a Christian to write a letter that appears to be by Paul would not have been seen as dishonest or unethical – it would have been the moral equivalent of playing in a Beatles tribute band. Second Thessalonians is the most heavily disputed of the epistles which claim to be by Paul – there are solid scholarly arguments to be made either way. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll just refer to the author as Paul today. But ultimately, whether it is by Paul or by one of his followers, it is there in our Bible. It would be a mistake to try to write it off as non-Pauline and therefore unimportant just because it makes us uncomfortable. In some ways, the scriptures we struggle to make sense of are the most important to wrestle with, because they can be so easily misused. 

This very passage was being misused in the news this past May. In debates about cutting the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (more commonly known as food stamps) Representative Stephen Fincher pointed to this verse from Second Thessalonians as justification for cutting the program’s budget by $4 billion. Of course, the congressman was arguing based on the false assumption that food stamps recipients are primarily people who could be working but are not. In fact, 41% of households receiving food stamps have at least one working adult – but fulltime work at minimum wage still leaves people in poverty, and so many turn to food stamps to help stretch their paycheck. Furthermore, 76% of households receiving food stamps include at least one child, elderly person, or handicapped person. Hardly a good application for a scripture verse about those “unwilling to work”! 

But more importantly, using this verse to argue about poverty relief legislation misses the context of the verse entirely. Second Thessalonians is a short letter addressed to the Christian community in Thessalonica, which is located in modern-day Greece, a community which was founded by the Apostle Paul. Paul and the Thessalonian church believed that the second coming of Christ was imminent – they assumed that it would certainly occur during their lifetimes, and they awaited it anxiously and with great anticipation. The entirety of the letter is crafted in response to this assumption, and to the things that were happening in the community because of it. 

Given that most of the rest of the epistle deals with concerns about the return of Christ, some commentators suggest that this section about work and idleness flows from those concerns as well. Some of the Thessalonian Christians, they suggest, were so certain that Jesus was returning imminently that they stopped working – after all, what need is there to work if the world as we know is going to end and the Reign of God will begin within weeks? They wouldn’t be the last – many sects and cults in the centuries since then have asked believers to leave their lives, jobs, and families to make final preparations for the end of days. 

But, of course, Jesus did not descend from the clouds in glory, and as the weeks and months and years stretched on, commentators suggest that perhaps those early Christians turned to the church to support their material needs as they continued to watch and wait, and that the passage addresses these people. Perhaps they even saw their imposition on the community as a sign of spiritual superiority – that they were truly devoting themselves to the life of faith, rather than spending time on the mundane matters of daily life. In response to this, the epistle points back to Paul’s ministry: Paul worked as a tentmaker to support himself, even though he also declared that those who devote their lives to spreading the Gospel should receive financial support from the Christian community. If even Paul worked to support himself, the letter argues, why shouldn’t these believers? 

This passage is not addressing the question of whether nations or churches should support programs that relieve poverty – although I would argue that both Paul and Jesus believe in feeding the hungry. The passage does not address at all the question of people who are unable to work. It focuses on the internal workings of the Christian community, calling for a community where everyone cares for their own needs and contributes to the needs of the community as they are able. Our seminary intern Stephen noted in our conversation this week that the word “work” need not refer specifically to employment as we understand it – “work” could refer also to the work of the community, the work of parenting, the work of ministering to the wider world. 

In the sixth century, a great saint of the church named Benedict fleshed out a vision of a community of faith working together in a text which we now know as the Rule of St. Benedict. Christianity was taking a new turn, as some people began to form monasteries, organized Christian communities separate from the rest of the secular world, to live out their faith. Benedict founded several such monasteries, and crafted the Rule to guide those communities. The Rule calls all members of the community to “ora et labora,” or prayer and work. Benedict offers guidelines for balancing work and prayer: at certain hours of the day, the entire community is to engage in the work that keeps the monastery going, tending gardens, working in the kitchens, and so forth. Those with special skills can be set to specialized tasks, but only if it does not lead them to feel superior and haughty toward those without special skills. And those who are ill, infirm, very old or very young should be given work that neither leaves them idle nor wearied by the strain of hard labor. I like to think that, although the language of Second Thessalonians is shockingly harsh, its intention is to point toward this kind of vision of a community living and working and praying together. 

For many years, our church has offered a sandwich line for hungry people, a ministry that we cosponsor with our Catholic brothers and sisters from the Franciscan Community Center. For years, the sandwich line took place outdoors: dozens of people, many of them elderly and physically impaired, would line up outside the church, waiting for waiting for almost an hour in the cold or the heat or the rain for a bag lunch. About a year ago, we made a big change: we opened our doors, set up chairs in the basement, brewed an enormous urn of coffee, and moved our sandwich line inside. We weren’t sure we would be able to manage it, because we knew it would be a lot more work. But something amazing happened: when there was good work to be done, people were excited to do it. Our team of volunteers grew and is growing, and more importantly, the sandwich line clients themselves help out as they are able. Some of the able-bodied folks help us to put the chairs away. People bring cups of coffee to the frailest, like Felicia, who will turn 92 this Wednesday. When there’s an announcement to be made, one of our bilingual clients helps us by translating into Spanish. When the elevator broke, one woman took it upon herself to care for the people who couldn’t make it down the stairs, carrying pastries and sandwiches up the stairs to them, making sure they felt included. 

When I hear a congressman justify cutting food stamps with the words “anyone unwilling to work should not eat,” I wish I could show him our sandwich line: the sense of community, the willing hands, the people caring for another; the very people he dismisses as lazy, working together to create an oasis of grace and mutuality in an unjust world. 

So I don’t mean to make excuses for Paul. But the more I think about it, the more I think I understand where he was coming from: frustrated at the failings of human communities, he admonishes them in the hope of motivating them to move toward a vision of a different way of living. A way where willing hands offer what they have to strengthen the church. A way where holy purpose shapes the community and its members in their living and their giving. A way where those who know the grace and love of God pour that grace out into the world. 

Thanks be to God.