Sermon For Sunday, September 1, 2013

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

“A Good Day’s Labor”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

Pastor Allen’s Blog: – Twitter: @FranklinCircle

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???????????????????????????????????????????????????This weekend marks the “traditional” end of summer, even though there are several weeks left before the “official” start of fall.  In large part that is due to the end of summer holiday called Labor Day.  Labor Day began in this country in the 1880’s and 1890’s based on a similar holiday in Canada, both designed to celebrate the labor of working citizens and show support for unions and the importance of collective bargaining.  Following the deaths of a number of workers at the hands of the U.S. military and U.S. Marshals during the Pullman Strike in 1894, the United States Congress unanimously voted to approve rush legislation that made Labor Day a national holiday.  President Grover Cleveland signed it into law a mere six days after the end of the strike. (1)

tech-indI celebrate Labor Day by honoring the hard work of individuals who make this world a better place by their labor.  In my own family I can lift up the work of nurses and teachers, military personnel and retailers, oil field hands and farmers, cooks and HVAC repairpersons… and a few preachers thrown in for good measure!  I give thanks for those who have fought for the rights and dignity of laborers, including the creation of a minimum wage, the standardized 40 hour work week and 8 hour day, weekends as time off, vacation time and sick leave, laws preventing child labor and laws allowing mothers and fathers leave to give birth to and get settled in as a family after a newborn arrives, and all the laws that seek to prevent workplace harassment and increase workplace safety.  While not perfect, and while they do not extend to every worker and every job, they make work safer, more equitable, and bring dignity and decency to the lives of people who make our modern lives possible. (2)

But this holiday was meant not simply to celebrate the workforce of our nation and world, but to give them one more day off to rest from their labors.  Set at the end of summer it marks the last chance for many for an extra day of rest to catch up on sleep, play, and family until Thanksgiving rolls around months away.

It is this ebb and flow between labor and rest that I want to focus on today.  It is this balance of work and play that I struggle with, and have struggled with most especially this summer.  I will confess that this summer, like no other in recent memory, I have clung to unscheduled/non-programmed time like it was a lifeboat in the middle of a stormy ocean.  I am painfully aware of class dynamics at work and that I have the kind of job that allows me flexibility in scheduling my hours and benefits that allow for quality days off, ample vacation time, good quality health care to keep me well so I can enjoy my time off, and even an occasional sabbatical every seven years for deeper rest, renewal, and revitalization.

Part of my struggle comes from the patterns formed in my childhood as I gradually and unconsciously worked harder and harder at home and school to please my mother and family as a way to counteract my brother’s attention-getting techniques, which usually involved taking great risks and getting into much trouble.  I was the “good little boy” who decided that the harder I worked the more I would be loved.  Once those patterns were set, they have been almost impossible to change and will always haunt me in the back of my mind.

Cat Staring at GoldfishPart of my struggle also comes from the nature of life in parish ministry where the “fishbowl” of being a known personage in the community means at any given point someone may be evaluating me in terms of my ministry and whether or not what I am doing fits their particular understanding of what a minister should be like.  And it would be ridiculous for me to mention “fishbowl” without also pointing to the effects of social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and FourSquare, to which I have taken like a fish to water.  For good or for ill my every action – not to mention my every meal – is writ larger than life on the screen of community.  At any given moment dozens if not hundreds of people may be evaluating exactly how much time I’m giving to things they determine are “ministerial” and how much time I am giving to “having a blast.” (I’d like to think at times they are the same thing!) 😉

So I struggle with finding the balance.  And while I know that not everyone here grew up with the family dynamics I had, not everyone here is a minister, and not everyone here lives and breaths social media as do I, I suspect we all struggle with balance in life.  If we are students in school we struggle with time spent in the classroom, at after-school events and commitments, with homework, and finding time to develop those all-important friendships.  If we are unemployed or underemployed we struggle with finding the energy to do the “work” – and I call it that intentionally because I know it is like having a full-time job – to balance the “work” of looking for a job with the energy to survive on limited and diminished incomes.  If we are retired or living on disability we may struggle with keeping our volunteer activities in balance lest they become a drudgery and a burden or we may struggle with finding enough meaningful activity to fill our long hours of so-called “retirement bliss.”  There is a lot of effort to finding balance to our lives.

Judge Shaking FingerAnd into this wrestling match we get the very heavy handed advice from the Apostle Paul the book of 2 Thessalonians: “but with labor and toil we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you.”  And Paul and his ministry companions did this “in order to give you an example to imitate.”  And then, as if to show he was really serious, Paul decrees: “anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”  As with so many texts in the Bible, taken at face value, this seems pretty clear and pretty strict.  If I weren’t laboring with being a workaholic before, this text might very well make me one for life!

It is especially hard to hear knowing there are so many other places in scripture where a generosity of spirit and liberality of sharing is honored: “Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again,” Jesus says in Luke 6:30.  The new church held sharing – without clear requirements for equal work – as a standard: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” Acts 4:32.  Jesus even seems to imply that working too hard might put one’s salvation in jeopardy when he preaches. “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the [commonwealth] of God[l] and [God’s] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matt. 6:31-33)

Now, to be fair to Paul, he was addressing criticisms that were very particular to his era and his circumstances.  In part, he was dealing with the excitement he caused from his very own preaching, where he had implied (as we see in the book of 1 Thessalonians) that Jesus’ return was immanent.  Many folks heard him and came to the conclusion that if Jesus was coming back so soon, why waste your time at work when you should be preparing your heart, mind, and very life for living with Christ in paradise?!  Paul was also dealing with the impression that, even though he had made his living as a tentmaker, the work of being an evangelist and church-planter was taking up more and more of his time.  In order to do this he and his coworkers had to rely completely upon the generosity and hospitality of the communities he was serving.  In a lot of people’s minds this wasn’t “real work,” and they were really being freeloaders on the good people to whom they were preaching.  This impression is, by the way, something we preachers struggle with even to this day.  We only work one day a week, you know!

What’s the answer?  Well, obviously it’s not obvious because this question of balance is one of the biggest struggles our world undergoes and it is the conversation our nation has in sometimes public but often quite private ways.  Are we strict in requiring hard work or are we tolerant in our sharing?  Words and phrases like “entitlement,” “welfare,” “welfare to work,” “corporate welfare,” “executive pay vs. worker pay,” “part time/full-time/contactual,” “less than 30 hours a week,” “day laborers,” “temporary laborers,” all are bandied about prolifically but all revolve around the question of balance in our working lives.

bigstockphoto_Balance_Justice_Libra_89581-724825I will not offer the answer here, because I do not have it.  I would be rich and famous if I did!  But I do know that this is the place we should be talking about balance in life.  This is the place where we need to honor the work that you all do – whether it be part-time, full-time, volunteer, in the household or in the factory, office, or school – and celebrate the ministry of labor that each of us has in the world.  Work is good and all work can be seen as ministry!

And, whatever reasons Paul may have had in offering his stern advice, he does end on a note that I think all of us can find redeeming: “Brothers and sisters,[d] do not be weary in doing what is right.”  Whatever we do, whether it be work or play or rest or just surviving, let us do the right thing, praising God for the gift of this life and the opportunity to seek balance in God’s good creation.  Amen.


(2) For a sobering/sad reflection on the slow erosion of these very benefits labor has worked so hard to attain, go to: