Sermon for November 17th, 2019
So I brought a little friend with me this morning. I don’t often preach with props, but today I just couldn’t resist.
This is the Apostle Paul. I had this doll special made for some classes that I am teaching for the Diocese. I had to have him custom made, because, and you may find this hard to believe, there isn’t a huge demand for Apostle Paul dolls. For some reason, when people think of cuddly Christian figures, the Apostle Paul is not someone that quickly comes to mind. I just don’t get it.
Maybe it is because this man said things like: anyone unwilling to work should not eat. Maybe it is because he said things like: 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 they received from us. Maybe it is lines like “some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.
Actually I totally get it. Paul can be hard for some people to take. He isn’t always burdened by a sensitivity to people’s feelings. I have a deep love for the Apostle Paul now, but it is a love that was hard won. Paul says some difficult things sometimes. He can be blunt, he can be gruff. He is kind of an equal opportunity offender. At some point, in one of his letters he is likely to say something to offend you. Stick with him though, because Paul very often will say things that we need to hear. Sometimes we need someone to call us out and remind us of things we have forgotten.
It is important to remember that Paul was a convert. Now all of the disciples were converts of a sort, but Paul came late to the game. Paul was a persecutor of the church before he was a member of it, so as a convert; he has a unique perspective and a missionary zeal that people that were raised in the church or people that have been longtime followers of Jesus don’t always share. When you have been working in the church for a long time, it is very easy to lose the enthusiasm you may have once had. Frustrations and setbacks and personalities, they can all wear you down, and you can forget what a treasure you have been given. It is easy to become weary in doing what is right. Sometimes you need someone to remind you of what this thing called church is all about, and converts, adult converts are usually the best ones to do that, because they haven’t learned to take anything for granted yet. For them Christianity isn’t just an old habit, for them it is an active choice.
That is one of the things that makes Paul so great; he is a convert to the church. And when he wrote letters to churches, he was usually writing to remind them of something vital they seemed to have forgotten. I have learned to love this man, because despite his flaws and his personality, so often when I read him, he reminds me of things that I am liable to forget. And sometimes, he can be very blunt about it.
In his epistle today Paul says: anyone unwilling to work should not eat. When I hear Paul say that there is part of me that rejoices and part of me that cringes. The part that rejoices is the part of me that is a workaholic. It is the part of me that appreciates how much we rely as a church on the labors of a core of dedicated people that are committed to this place and that this church could not survive without.
The part that cringes is the part of me that wants to be welcoming and gracious and understanding. Paul just sounds insensitive here. I wouldn’t stand up and say something like that at the potluck supper. Its tempting, but I wouldn’t do it. But even though Paul’s words might make us squirm a little, I think we need to hear them, because believe it or not, he isn’t just talking about some idle people in one parish centuries ago; he is addressing something that is an important part of who we are as Christians now.
Paul’s underlying point is this: Christians must be people that are oriented toward giving. Giving must be a fundamental part of who we are. If we don’t understand that in the small things; we won’t understand it in the big things. That is why Paul warns the church to stay away from people that are just looking for what they can get. Beware, he says, of people that only want to take from the community and don’t want to give back. Because that is not the example we have been given. Not by Paul, and not by Jesus.
We give, because of what we have been given. Salvation has been given to us; forgiveness has been given to us; communion with God and eternal life these things have been given to us, and we are here to share them with others. Giving must be a fundamental part of who we are as Christians. So giving is a spiritual act.
And it is important to remember that we aren’t giving just to keep the lights on or the altar richly adorned. Temples, all temples, serve a purpose. They are places where we gather, where we share, where we learn, and where we grow, but they are always a means to an end. They are tools to be used to proclaim the gospel, but they aren’t idols to be worshipped. There will come a day when temples will be no more. There will come a day when we will stand before the Lord and all that will matter will be our relationship with him.
We don’t need to be worried about that day or live in fear of it. It will come when it will come. But in the meantime, we have work to do. We have people that need to be encouraged and comforted. We have a world that needs to hear about forgiveness and grace. We have people living without hope, and we have people that have placed all their hope on the wrong things. Our faith reminds us about how much we have been given by God, and our work is to share that faith with others. It’s ok if we convert a few adults like Paul along the way. Sometimes we need the zeal and the insight of a convert to give us a good kick in the pants and to remind us of the importance of the work we are doing.