September 2, 2012

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC


II Thessalonians 3:6-13

We’ve seen those cardboard signs.  Maybe we didn’t see the people holding the signs.  It’s a little awkward making eye contact.  It’s easier to just keep looking straight ahead as if this person whose level of desperation has reached this point didn’t exist.

When the economy was booming we still saw these signs.  There always seem to be people who get left behind, even who fall through the safety nets the government has set up to catch them.  But in these last few years, the suffering has touched a lot more people.  It used to be college graduates were pretty much guaranteed a good job.  Now college graduates are among those holding these cardboard signs.  It used to be that if you had a good job and you did good work, you had fairly good assurance that you could keep that job and hopefully advance in that job until retirement.  Now lay-offs and plant closings and down-sizings have made unemployment and the resulting poverty reach levels we didn’t think could happen in this country.

Of course not everyone holding a cardboard sign is genuinely in need.  (Young woman on screen holding sign:  “Will work for 80K per year, 401K, 3 weeks vacation, and medical.”)   But there can be no doubt.  There is a lot of need.  And, as the message on the signs makes clear, there are a lot of people who aren’t just expecting hand-outs.  They aren’t just waiting for the government to take care of them.  They want to work.  They would gladly do even those jobs some would consider beneath their dignity.  But there just isn’t enough work to go around.

And so we’ve had an interesting political development in recent weeks.  Back in 1996 President Clinton signed into law the “Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act”.  It was better known as the “End of Welfare as We Know It”.  Welfare no longer came from the federal government directly to the recipients.  Blocks grants went to the states and the states were then required to document that a certain percentage of those receiving welfare were either working or being trained to find work.  No longer could you just do nothing and live on your welfare check indefinitely.

The recent development is that the Obama administration has allowed exceptions to this law.  Now of course in the politically charged atmosphere we’re living in, it’s hard to know who to believe.  A Romney ad on this subject got a “4 Pinocchio” rating from a fact checking group and Obama’s ad in response got “3 Pinocchios”.  It makes you wonder who fact checks the fact checkers.  My point is that with so many out of work and so few work opportunities, the welfare reform that worked so well in a booming economy is no longer working very well.  When there is plenty of work, that verse we read today, “If anyone will not work, let him not eat” (II Thes 3:10) almost sounds like common sense.  Today that same verse almost sounds obscene.

Here’s the situation when Paul wrote these words.  It wasn’t a bad economy that kept people from working.  It was something else entirely.  People had stopped working as an act of faith.  They stopped working because they were expecting Jesus to come back any day.  They had jobs, but they quit them.  Work no longer made sense.  All that mattered was preparing themselves spiritually and then waiting for Jesus.  The problem was, they were waiting, and waiting, and waiting.  And in the meantime they were expecting to live off the generosity of others.

One of my pastor friends had a friend in college who had become convinced that the world was about to be destroyed in a nuclear inferno.  He was so convinced, he started borrowing money. He borrowed money like there was no tomorrow, because that’s exactly what he believed.  He figured he would buy now and not pay later.  But when the world didn’t end it was bad news for him and good news for everyone else.

When you believe the world’s about to end, you can do some strange things.  That’s what was going on in the Thessalonian church.  And Paul had to set them straight.  Paul believed as much as anyone that Jesus was coming back soon.  That’s why he never married.  There wasn’t time for that.  But still he made sure he supported himself.  He was a tentmaker.  He had a job skill apart from his missionary work.  He never had to rely on the generosity of others and neither should the Thessalonians.  “If anyone will not work, let him not eat.”

That verse may not be the most helpful way to address the modern problem of poverty.  Paul is speaking to a specific situation.  People were refusing to work as a misguided expression of their faith.  In today’s world we don’t have much of that.  We do have an ongoing problem of able-bodied people who choose hand-outs over work.  But in the vast majority of the cases today, we have people who would love to work but can’t find jobs.  Or who are working and working very hard but their pay is so low they are still in desperate need.  The Bible verse to guide us as we respond to hunger in our midst is not, “If anyone will not work, let him not eat.”  It is I John 3:17.  “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”

Most of us here today, not all, but most, have our share and more of the world’s goods.  And God’s love abiding in us makes us want to do all we can to help those who don’t.

This is Labor Day Sunday.  It’s a good day to reflect on the meaning of our work.  It’s also a good day to reflect on the lack of meaningful work at a living wage for so many.

Three reflections for today.  First, human beings run rough in idle.  We’re like high performance race cars that sound awful, they sound like something’s wrong with them, while they sit at the starting line.  But then they start moving, moving fast, and they show themselves to be the finely tuned machines they really are.  We weren’t made for idleness.  We don’t do well with too much time on our hands.

That’s why parents are glad to have their kids back in school.  And I think most kids are glad to be back.  Having nothing to do gets old.

And retired people.  You’ve earned the right to pick and choose what you want to do and what you don’t want to do, but doing nothing at all is overrated.  Staying active is important at any age.

When Lewis and Clark crossed this continent they faced and conquered tremendous challenges.  Indians, wild animals, raging rivers, rugged mountains, disease, cold, hunger.  But it was when they set up winter camp that they had most of their problems.  Nothing jeopardized the success of their mission more than the trouble their men brought on themselves when they were idle.

We don’t run well in idle.  That’s not what we were made for.  We’re happiest and healthiest and functioning at our best when we’re going and not sitting still.

The second thing I have to say is that sometimes it takes tough love to get us out of idle and get our lives in gear.  “If anyone will not work, let him not eat.”  That’s tough.  It sounds cruel.  It sounds cold.  It sounds heartless.  But it just may be the form of love most needed by that person at that moment.  It may be the only way to break a cycle of dependency and to get that person moving toward a fuller and a better life.

When people come to me looking for help, I do my best to help them, using the resources you provide.  If that same person comes back for more help, again I respond as best I can.  But if that same person keeps coming back, eventually the question has to be asked:  “What can we do to help you help yourself?”

I remember teaching our children to ride a bicycle.  There’s no easy way.  Training wheels don’t really train you.  That moment they come off is still sheer terror.  Running along side and holding onto the back of the seat is a comfort to your child, but it will never teach them to ride.  The only way is to let go.  That’s tough.  Especially watching the inevitable crash.  The skinned knees and elbows.  I still have a scar from when I was learning!  But there’s no other way.  The more the parent tries to help, the less helpful you are.

Tough love.  That’s the second thing I have to say.  It’s also the third thing, but this time shifting the accent from “tough” to “love”.   There’s something immoral about rich people blaming poor people for being poor.  There’s something wrong with acting as if we’re better than someone else because we have more money.  There’s something sinful about treating people who are hurting with condescension and self-righteousness.

In these past five years it has not been unusual at all for people who thought they had their finances set to see it all collapse like a house of cards.  Going from comfortable to desperate.  Or from just barely holding on in the good economy to homeless and destitute now.  It can happen.  There’s that saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.”  And there’s that other saying, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.”  We must never forget to love.

“If anyone will not work, let him not eat,” is one of the two most misquoted scriptures in the Bible.  It’s not there to tell us it’s OK to forget about the poor.  It’s not there to excuse us when we fail to share of our abundance with those who have less.  It’s there to address a specific situation — people who refuse to work.  It’s not about people who can’t find work or who aren’t able to work or whose work does not provide enough for basic needs.  It’s not there to negate everything else the Bible says about our responsibility to the poor.

I said it was one of the two most misquoted verses.  The other is a saying of Jesus.  “The poor you will have with you always” (Jn 12:8).  People read that and think it lets us off the hook.  But Jesus was quoting a verse from the Old Testament that ends, “therefore you shall open wide your hand to your brother and your sister, to the needy and to the poor, in the land” (Deut 15:11).

Jesus told us to “give to those who beg from you” (Mt 5:42).  He said we’ll be asked on judgment day whether we fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the prisoner (Mt 25:31-46).

James puts it this way:  “If a brother or sister is naked and in lack of daily food, and you say, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?  Faith without works is dead” (2:15-17).

Love must be tough.  But love must also be love.

We have a new bishop as of yesterday!  Several of us got to meet Bishop Grant Hagiya last week.  One of the many jobs of a bishop is to speak prophetically.   I mean by that. to say what needs to be said even when no one wants to hear it.  Here is an example of speaking prophetically.  These are the words of Jack Meador,  a United Methodist bishop inMississippi.

A few days before Christmas, the Clarion-Ledger carried a story about the death of a child in Jackson.  That child’s name was LeRoi.  He was three years old.  LeRoi did not die of disease.  He was not killed in an accident.  LeRoi starved to death.  Why?  Neglect.  LeRoi was neglected by his mother.  She pleaded guilty to manslaughter.  LeRoi was neglected by the state.  The poor condition of the child was reported to the Department of Human Services.  The system was not in place to care for LeRoi.  LeRoi was neglected by the church.  There was no indication that LeRoi and his family were members of a congregation anywhere.  Nor that any church knew about LeRoi.  Every now and then, a church member or congregation writes to me about some bishop or other church official whose position on homosexuality differs from the position of the church.  Every now and then someone writes about the Confessing Movement, or Transforming Congregations, or Reconciling Congregations.  Nobody has written about LeRoi:  A citizen of Mississippi, where last year the gambling industry generated $146 million for the state coffers, and LeRoi starved to death.  A citizen of a state with more than 5,000 churches, synagogues, and  mosques, and LeRoi starved to death.  May God have mercy on our souls.  (United Methodist Reporter, April 11, 1997)

“Do not be weary in well-doing” (II Thes 3:13).  That’s how our passage ends.  That’s where we need to end up.  Work is good.  Laziness is bad.  An empty stomach is a pretty good incentive to get to work.  All that’s true.  But there’s more to say than that.  “Do not be weary in well-doing.”  Love must be tough.  But love must also be love.

Harold Bales was the pastor of theFirstUnitedMethodistChurchinCharlotte,North Carolina.  That town is going to be in the news these next few days.  This church found itself in a changing neighborhood.  All of a sudden they had poor people all around them.  He tried to organize the church’s ministry to respond to the poor.  In the process he locked horns with some of the church leadership.

One day he was approached by a long-time member who saw all these strangers wandering around the halls of her church.  She said, “Dr. Bales, what on earth are you doing?”  He said, “I am trying to save people from hell.”  She said, “Well, all right then, I think we ought to be saving them.”  He said, “That’s not what I mean.  I’m not trying to save them.  I’m trying to save us.”

 Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.  We have failed to be an obedient church.  We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy.  Forgive us, we pray.  Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord,  Amen