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A Christian Work Ethic

Sermon - 11/14/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Continuing in the second letter to the Thessalonians, last week we looked at the second chapter, and so this week I want to look at the third chapter of second Thessalonians, verses 6 through 13:

Now 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.


I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that this possibly is not a good text to use in a time of a severe recession and high unemployment. You know what I'm saying? Doug Rose said it is a good text to use on reflection in that last drive last night in the Duck football game when they clung on to the ball for the last nine minutes of the game, you know, a real work ethic :) I knew there had to be a connection somewhere, so thanks to Doug for that.

On the surface, the principle given here makes perfect sense -- if you don't work, you don't eat. We call that 'natural consequences', and it's one of the basics of good parenting, to teach children to take responsibility for their actions. If you don't do your chores, you don't get your allowance. Right, parents? If you don't put your dirty clothes in the laundry basket, you don't get any clean clothes. Actually, I learned that one in my marriage. Took awhile, a few years of not having any clean underwear, but I eventually figured it out. Talk about natural consequences, we don't want to go there :).

At any rate, natural consequences -- you don't work, you don't eat. But doesn't that sound just a little cold? What if it's a farmer who has lost his land and is despondant? What if its someone who is disabled? What about seniors -- talk about idleness, right? No? :) That went over differently in the first service :).

Keep in mind there wasn't any Social Security back in those days. What if it's someone with a severe mental illness? Who is going to hire them? Actually, I have the same question about those politicians who just got voted out of office -- who is going to hire them?

Do circumstances make a difference, or do we set this one hard & fast rule that applies equally to everyone? That's fair, right? No exceptions -- don't work, don't eat. But before we go any further, I want to look a little deeper at the context. There are two possible scenarios here. The first is that expectation that Jesus was coming back soon, or maybe even the belief that he already had, which was part of the context of chapter 2 that we looked at last week (that the author is seeking to refute). But at any rate, if Jesus is coming, why work? We don't have long, why not concentrate on more important things?

And every few decades we hear about some delusional cult leader who convinces a small group of devout followers that they have a direct link to God, that they know something everyone else doesn't know, and they go off into the desert or do something bizarre. Remember Heaven's Gate, 15 or 20 years ago down in Southern California (why are these things always in Southern California?)? A cult leader had convinced them that there was a space ship that was waiting for them. All they had to do was drink this little potion, commit suicide together, and they would be taken up in a spaceship. And they did it. Crazy things happen. Of course, convincing our nation that we had to launch a war, pursuing weapons of mass destruction that did not exist, well, you know, maybe makes some of the other craziness not look so bizarre after all. But that's one possibility -- they are waiting, Jesus is coming, why work?

There is another possibility that I think is probably even more likely that explains this text. Think for a moment of all the stories about Jesus and food. Jesus feeding the crowds. The wedding feast at Cana. The parable of the great banquet, you know, bringing people off the street to eat at this banquet table. The accusation of Jesus, that he's a glutton, that he eats with tax collectors and sinners. The post-resurrection stories of Jesus breaking bread with the two he met on the road to Emmaus. And then there's Jesus cooking breakfast for the disciples, fishing on the Sea of Galilee. And of course, the Lord's supper -- the central meal, the central image for the kingdom of God for the church.

All the stories about Jesus, stories told by Jesus, about food suggests both the problem and a promise. The problem is, the relative scarcity of food in that time, and hence the reason for so much focus on food. And the promise is that uttered in our Lord's prayer, that we say every week: give us this day our daily bread. This is the kingdom of God, that place where we don't have to worry about where the next days food is going to come from.

And when Jesus says in John's gospel "I am the the bread of life", is that a metaphor, or is that a promise? That in true Christian community, nobody goes hungry. And in fact, recall twice in Acts we are told that those early Christian communities held all things in common, distributed to each according to their need. And then in the second letter to Corinthians, in chapter 8, Paul writes of those churches in Galatia, that during a severe ordeal, even in their extreme poverty, voluntarily gave beyond their means, overflowing in a wealth of generosity. And so he urges the Corinthians to do likewise, to excel in their generosity as evidence of the genuineness of their love, modeled after the love of Christ where, Paul writes, 'for your sake, he became poor, that by his poverty you might become rich' And then Paul goes on to say "I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need. So that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance".

John Dominic Crossan says for Paul, love meant to share. Only Crossan says "do not think of it as humanly extensive charity, a free giving of our stuff, but as divinely distributive justice, a necessary sharing of God's stuff". For Paul, Crossan continues, "a Christian assembly of sisters and brothers was one that had committed itself to sharing together, just as in an ordinary human family because it actually was a divine family -- the family of God".

So we might think, then, of those early Christian communities as a collection of share communities. Where all shared in the rewards and the responsibility of the household of God. And think about how attractive such a community would be, where there was no Social Security, no Medicare, no pension plans, no food stamps, no health insurance, no soup kitchens, no emergency shelters. A place where all were invited to come and to share equally in the bounty of God's 'stuff'. Where there was always something to eat.

Only here is the problem: when you offer a place where everyone gets something to eat, it's only a matter of time before everyone comes expecting something to eat. And you can just hear those who are working hard to put food on the table begin to complain about those who are not carrying their own weight. And hence Paul, or likely a disciple of Paul's, has to offer this correctlive. It makes sense to say -- if you don't work, you don't eat.

Only note 5 things. That first of all, this message is directed to those inside the community, inside the church. It's not a social commentary about those out on the street.

Secondly, in that ancient world, with no retirement, no Social Security, no pension plan, no Medicare, if you wanted to eat, you had to be prepared to work until the day you died. And it's no wonder that people did not live long, beyond 55 if that.

Third, to require someone to work, if they wanted to eat, assumes that work was available. And we know that's not always the case.

Fourth, accountability goes both ways -- Paul (or a disciple of his), may be hard on those who do not work, but Jesus is even harder on those who do not share. Remember that story of the rich person, who asked what he would have to do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus says "Go, sell all that you have, give it to the poor, come and follow me". But he went away sad, because why? He was exceedingly rich, could not share it.

Lastly, for small communities like those of the early church, it makes sense to use natural consequences. Tough love. But is such an adequate basis for social policy?

Consider some of the problems that affect our quality of life: crime and addiction, mental illness, infant mortality, life expectancy, obesity, teenage pregnancy, a burgeoning prison population, bankruptcy, foreclosure, divorce, and on and on and on.

What if I told you that there is one thing we can do which will improve all of those things? You know what that is? To lesson income inequality, and wealth inequality.

Two British social scientists, Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson, just recently published a book entitled "The Spirit Level", with a massive amount of data collected from 23 of the wealthiest nations, which shows that inequality of wealth is the number one indicator of almost every social problem you can name. The higher the inequality, the greater the problem.

They write that the effects of inequality are not confined just to the least well off, instead they effect the vast majority of the population. Even something like mental illness. Now how does income effect mental illness? Turns out that the incidences of mental illness are two-and-a-half times greater in this country (which has the highest income inequality) than it is in Japan (which has one of the lowest rates of inequality). Homicide, drug addiction, teenage pregnancy, obesity, infant mortality, all are higher, their data shows, in those most unequal societies, namely Britain, the United States, Portugal, and New Zealand, and lower in the more equal societies such as Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and Japan.

Likewise, life expectancy is as much as five years longer in the latter countries than they are in the former (and our own). Why? The authors postulate that consumerism, isolation, alienation, social estrangement, anxiety and stress increase as inequality increases. And hence make us sicker, more violent, and more dependent on drugs and alcohol. Contrary to conventional wisdom, then, we have more to gain by promoting equality and sharing of our wealth than we have by accumulating wealth.

On Wednesday, Oregon's son and now a columnist for the New York Times (Nicholas Kristof) compared the U.S. distribution of wealth to that of certain Banana Republics like Nicaragua and Venezuela. In that column he cited the work of three Economists from a recently published paper, and I was so intrigued by that paper that I looked it up on the Internet (if anyone is interested, the link is here), but in it were three graphs that I think said more about this than the data that Kristof cited in his column.

In the first graph, he shows the growth in wealth among all segments of the population. And this is data from the United States Census Bureau, from 1949 to 1979, a 30 year period, divided by each 20% grouping (the bottom 20% on the left, then the middle, and then the top 20% to the right -- the final column on the right is the top 5%):

That was the increase in wealth from 1949 to 1979, roughly 100%, give or take some, in each of those groups. Then when you look at the data from 1979 to 2003, we see a dramatic change, covering a 24 year period:

The top 5% have a 68% increase in wealth, as compared to the rest on down. And this, by the way, is before-tax income. When you factor after-tax income, look what happens:

The top 5% increased their wealth by 200% now. And then 68% for the top 20%, and on down from there. Someone said there's an editorial in today's paper, I haven't seen it yet, that has some of this same data, only more recent, in which the bottom three or four groups actually have seen a decrease in their real wealth while it has increased dramatically in that top group.

So these Economists have a essentially confirmed the hypothesis of Wilkinson and Picket, that wealth inequality increases social problems. They looked at three in particular, examining this data from the Census Bureau, and they found that those states with the highest inequality also had the lowest rate of personal savings and the highest rate of bankruptcy and divorce.

Why? Inequality damages the human psyche. Sometimes we call it the soul. We try to keep up with the Joneses. We measure success by those above us. We aspire to be and do more than we can afford. In sum, inequality in wealth increases all of the negative effects of materialism. The result is detrimental to our families, to our homes, to our health, and especially to our common well-being.

So is the problem we face in our time one of those unwilling to work more, or of those unwilling to share more?

The greatest lesson we may have to learn from imitating Paul, as this text suggests, is not our work ethic, but our share ethic.

Or maybe these are two sides of the same coin. Work that leads to sharing, and sharing that provides purpose to our work, is what that Christian work ethic (or we might say the work-share ethic) is all about.

So here is the message, I think, for us in times such as these: share the work, yes, of course, if you want to eat. And share what the work provides, if you want to be a part of God's great banquet, where there is plenty for all.

For ultimately, we cannot work our way into the kingdom of God.

But we can share our way.

May we so do.


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