Hard words in uncertain times


Annette James

I wonder if any phrase stood out for you from the readings?

I wondered why Paul had written this letter – what was happening in the church at Thessalonica?

When I was preparing for today the phrase that kept coming back to me again and again was “Anyone who is not willing to work does not eat”.

Taken out of context this can be a stick to beat those who for many reasons are unable to work and supposes that work is recognised and paid appropriately – and is beneficial and not demeaning or oppressive or exploitative…

The Department of work and pensions could consider this phrase as many of the people they assess are willing but unable to work… but this is not essentially a talk about work… rather I think it is about transformation – in the epistle it is the transformation of a community, and the church in Thessalonica must have been having a hard time if Paul is writing so plainly in this sort of language to them.

The church in Thessalonica would have been of mixed culture and will have responded to the Good News of the gospel. They were discovering a new way to live, a new way to be in a time of great uncertainty –

The uncertainty came from taking seriously an active relationship in love with the creator, through the person of Jesus, which caused a personal transformation. A new way of seeing, an emerging understanding of their changing selves in their local community whilst the wider culture around them continued, but not as they now knew it. The message was/is that God is love, and that Jesus would return soon, whist some of those who had lived with Jesus were still living. So they believed they were living in the end times and Jesus would return very soon.

But why were they not being active:

  • was it because they believed they were living in the end times?
  • had they given up their day jobs to preach the gospel?
  • Was there a deeper meaning – they were now living in community and believed that those who had little would be cared for by those that had much.

Paul makes a plea for them all to be responsible both for themselves and for others – they are all learning together and Paul chooses to use himself as an example:

We were not idle, we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it… being aware of not burdening each other. We worked so as not to burden you, we wanted to be a good example to you…

Paul speaks Truth to them – “We hear that some of you are not doing any work, you are mere busybodies, damaging rather than growing love” … Don’t hold back Paul… This must have been really hard to hear from their patron but he goes on to encourage them:

Do not be weary in doing what is right.

This week we had world kindness day – who knew? One of my favourite sayings is “Random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty” which I think is a way of saying just be kind – be kind to everyone all the time, just love each other…

The words Jane read to us from Luke both contrast and strengthen what Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica.

Jesus is speaking to those who were admiring the temple – the buildings and Jesus talks of the temporary nature of place – the building though beautiful is temporal…

But, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid” (I/we so need to hear this from Jesus every day) take courage because you are in time – and time passes, and structures are uncertain

Well we all know about uncertainty – the politics and politicians leading up to the general election in December this year are becoming increasingly silly and sometimes menacing, tactical voting, bullying, and there is a danger that people will be so sick of all the rhetoric they will not vote at all. What a tragedy that would be. We need to take responsibility. We all live with uncertainty – the only thing that is certain is that nothing in life is certain – and in this uncertain world - where do we recognise Jesus ….

What are the signs – well there are signs all around us and the list in our reading today could have been written at any time in recorded history – wars, insurrections, nation rising against nation, kingdom will rise against kingdom, earthquakes, famines plagues, great signs and portents from heaven.

This is life – as we know it and not as we know it…

Dr Jonathan Chaplin from the faculty of divinity at Cambridge University speaking at the A Rocha Climate Justice Summit said this:

“It is easy to get overwhelmed by the forces of the vested interests in the fossil fuel economy and the cowardice of our political institutions. The inner forces of weariness and doubt can plunge our spirits into hopelessness.”

So, what is our purpose – we believe the Kingdom of God is here, because the King, Jesus is here with us in a very real sense - as I see it our role is to recognise the love of Jesus in everything and everyone – to be a mirror image of that love – to raise awareness of the presence of God.

And in this uncertain, world with signs and portents all around us - Jesus has some advice for us – a warning – Jesus says:

“Do not be led astray: Do not be afraid” – have courage: “bear persecution – be self-disciplined”…

“Endure whatever happens and be persistent in sharing love, kindness, generosity”… etc.

How can we achieve this – Well I think this is where the first reading can help – I think this is where the essence of the first reading comes in – however but I had some issues with Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians –

The warning against idleness in verse 6 is well made – if we are to make a difference, we need to have courage, to take risks – the strength to do that comes from knowing our spiritual selves and having a deep sense of our purpose - that we are a reflection – not an imitation but in a very real sense we are a reflection a way that God’s love can be shared - or not, unwrapped - or not - Paul is with the Thessalonians and they have a relationship with him. Paul writes that he is an example to follow, he is not Jesus… but Paul’s words seem to indicate the church in Thessalonica was losing its way, he speaks of how they could be led astray – away from the passion and commitment they first made and Paul reminds them that they are responsible – both physically – to work for each other and the greater good, and economically to ensure they use their resources well and morally – not burdening each other.

Angus Ritchie writing in the church times says that Paul’s words in verse 6 – living in idleness are better rendered as ‘living in disorder’ so living quietly, rather than seeing them all knitting in front of the fire means that they are to live in an orderly way together.

Chris Rose from the Amos Trust at the A Rocha Climate Summit said: “Spirituality sits with a long tradition of social movements – It was vital to not only fuel and maintain advocacy work but to spark people into action – in the anti-apartheid, civil rights and suffrage movements. Without a personal spirituality, activists become burned out and may not sustain their involvement.”

And we are activists for the love of God because there are so many people in the community, in the country and in the world who have not understood that they are loved unconditionally.

Years ago, I read and have over the years re read the book by Schumacher ‘Small is Beautiful’ which exhorted everyone to do what they can, to make small changes for their own and the greater good. Everyone is called to share love – the pure love which is God … to start small and build from there.

Arguably the biggest issue in our world today is climate change – however I would argue that the biggest issue in our world today is selfishness, greed, apathy and a lack of shared values which takes us right back to Paul’s letter.

In the last few weeks climate change has had a major impact in the UK and people living on and near the River Don. Our thoughts recently are with the people of Fishlake and those in

the Welsh town of Fairborne, who know that the local council cannot help to keep their houses safe from flooding. This map – (visual aid) which Andy made using data from a map prepared for Nassau showing the greatest CO2 emissions across the world, for a local demonstration to let our council know that making more and bigger roads which would increase traffic is not wise because it is not in keeping with their/our climate emergency declaration. Climate change is not new, it has been impacting on communities and landscapes across the world where people have suffered extreme weather conditions for a long time, and many people have lost their home, their land, their animals and many people have died.

We are about to celebrate being a Gold Eco church – which has been for us a catalyst for further change, and a small step on our journey to care for ourselves, our families, our neighbours, our community, our environment, our planet. God created all there is in time and space in love. So maybe in the lead up to Advent we could re-read and review these passages as we think of our responsibility as individuals and as a community and as a church. We need courage and to be reminded of God’s love for all.