It’s that time of year again - the time leading up to Advent when the lectionary readings get darker and we lose sight of Jesus and his stories in favor of foreboding apocalyptic-sounding speeches, at the same time we start to hear someone singing Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer at the mall.
It’s that time of profound seasonal disconnect.
This week in Luke, Jesus starts talking almost incomprehensibly about wars and insurrections and false messiahs and the destruction of the temple, and how our relatives are going to betray us in some way, perhaps rounding us up to bring us before some authorities.
And over on the Epistle side, Paul announces what sounds like a mandate to close down all the soup kitchens and food pantries, making us wonder if he knew the story of the feeding of the 5,000 after all and if we should take our contributions back from the Rockdale County Food Pantry, not to mention cancel our harvest basket program.
Thank goodness for Isaiah, although our Bible study class can tell you that Isaiah can preach destruction as well as anybody.
So what’s going on in our readings today?
The gospel and epistle are actually related, in a way. You see, there was this young church in Thessalonika, a city in Greece, the Roman capital of Macedonia. It was a community Paul had planted and to whom he wrote the first letter we have in the whole New Testament, only twenty or so years after Jesus’ death. The folks in the community were particularly concerned about the second coming of Christ.
This was a great expectation of the Thessalonians, and probably all of the early Christian communities; in Paul’s first letter to them, he goes to some length to explain that their relatives and friends who have died will still be part of the great resurrection when Jesus returns. They apparently are very concerned, but Paul assures them that they don’t need to worry about that.
But they do need to worry about doing their work within the community and setting a good example. Paul himself set a good example, working night and day, he says. The Thessalonians don’t want to be considered some kind of odd sect, he suggests, but they do apparently keep to themselves, so that they do not depend on the outside world.
But it seems that at least some of the Thessalonians decided that since Jesus was going to come back any minute anyway, and they were all saved anyway, then they’d just sit back and wait in leisure, letting others take care of things.
Paul had told them in the first letter that no one knew when Jesus would come back - that it would be as a thief in the night - and so they’d better be ready. And so some of them were somewhat compulsively examining every possible clue to see - could this be a sign? How about that? Is Jesus back yet, is he, is he, is he?
And so Paul had to write a second letter, in which he reiterates several of his points from the first. Perhaps he overstated the issue about Jesus’ imminent return - time has passed and Jesus hasn’t come back. Paul tells them pretty much what Jesus says in Luke today - that the gathering of the faithful will not come before there are some big events that are cosmic in scope. They won’t be able to miss it.
And meanwhile, he gets on those who are continuing to sit back and wait for the big day without contributing to the community, warning them not to spend their time getting into everybody’s business. And so he calls down the slackers, which is where our passage today comes in.
We all are to work to build up the community, not to let everybody else do it while we wait in leisure for Jesus to come back.
So context, context, context. Paul is not saying that we should not feed the hungry unless they get jobs. That would go against the grain of everything the Old Testament and Jesus are about - caring for the most vulnerable among us - feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, showing hospitality to the resident alien and the traveler.
That would be like saying we only assist people who do not need help.
Paul is saying, do your work, don’t be a busybody, don’t sit around and let others take care of you, don’t neglect doing your part in building up the community, because you’re “busy” waiting for Jesus to come and save you.
For a variety of reasons, the early Christian communities did tend to keep to themselves rather than figure out how to live in the world of already but not yet; they lived somewhat separate from society and took care of their own.
Our world, however, is not very much like the world of first century Roman Macedonia. We do live in the world, and we are not separated or treated like a funny sect nor are we persecuted. We have long since come to the understanding that we really don’t have any idea when Jesus is going to come back and so meanwhile we are to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world while we wait.
We look to Jesus himself for how we are to do that - to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the most vulnerable in the community around us. Now that the church has become an institution, we have had to figure out how to be for the community outside, how to be for others, how to bring the good news into the world through our actions in the world.
We are not called to be self-contained and to only care for our own.
These last couple of days I, along with three delegates from the parish, attended our Diocesan Council, the annual gathering of clergy and lay delegates to attend to the business of the Diocese, to meet and greet our colleagues and co-workers in the larger Episcopal community, and to hear about what the church is doing about being for others, bringing the good news into the world through our actions in the world.
It is always good to go to Council and see how many wonderful people and ministries we are connected to, to see the ways in which we are able to participate in mission work all over the Diocese and even the world - to be part of things that are much bigger than ourselves, to be part of things we could not do on our own.
We saw wonderful videos and heard presentations about such ministries as Rainbow House, which works with women and their children who have been victims of domestic violence, addiction, and homelessness.
And The Church of the Holy Comforter, in East Atlanta just off I-20, a place close to my heart, where people who are mentally and physically disabled find a community, something that most mentally ill people simply do not have. Several churches in the Diocese take turns going to Holy Comforter on Wednesday nights to cook and serve dinner after the Wednesday night Eucharist, to provide not only a meal but friendship with those who are among the friendless and the needy.
We saw pictures of kids and teens at Camp Mikell and heard from some of the Kids for Peace who spend time there each summer making friends with Muslim and Jewish kids from Jerusalem.
We heard about the upcoming Christmas celebration at Emmaus House where 1500 children received gifts last year, and were invited to come to downtown Atlanta some Sunday afternoon to worship at the Church of the Common Ground, a church without walls serving the homeless people who live on the streets and parks downtown, not only through worship and Bible study but through a foot clinic. (Homeless people are on their feet a lot.)
We heard a report from our missionaries in Tanzania, who showed us pictures of the men and women who attend the new seminary there, the children who attend day school and the women who take classes there, too, including the pastor’s wives who often get left behind as their husbands get the education. We saw the library full of books that people from this Diocese sent by way of one of our own priests.
We were challenged to pony up a few dollars to provide a micro loan through Episcopal Relief and Development so that a woman making only a few dollars a day can start a business that will help her raise herself and her family out of poverty. In a matter of ten minutes, we raised enough to do that.
And we saw a stewardship video from one of our sister churches, in which an elderly woman explained that when she and her husband were new to town and looking for a church, they drove by one that had a thrift shop attached to it and immediately decided that this would be the right kind of church for them.
I was overwhelmed, as I am every year at our Diocesan Council, of the many relationships and connections we have with one another and all of the good work we are doing all over the Diocese and the world. It was awesome.
We are a long way from the early church’s tiny, self-contained, closed communities, and while we all know that institutions can spend a lot of their resources on self-maintenance and even become corrupt, it is also true that through institutions we can deliver many good things to many people in a more efficient manner. Together, we are stronger than we are alone; together, we can do so much to feed the hungry and clothe the naked.
The church has evolved, it has grown beyond tiny communities anxiously searching the heavens for signs of Jesus’ return and figuring that, hey, they’re saved, so why not sit back, relax, and wait for salvation?
Since Jesus is taking his time coming back, the church has over time discerned its call to be his hands and feet in the world, not just inside the church but for the whole community, as far as we can reach, and even beyond our own reach, which we are able to do through our being part of the larger community of The Episcopal Church.
There’s great hunger out there; people need to be fed in so many ways. Families trying to escape poverty, addiction, domestic violence, homelessness need not only food but classes to teach them how to be self-sufficient. There are mentally ill folks who need dinner on Wednesday nights and who also hunger for friendship and community. Homeless people need peanut butter sandwiches and also the human touch provided by those who wash their feet and give them clean socks. Kids hunger for relationships with other kids from all over the world so that they can learn how much they have in common with people of other faiths instead of learning to demonize them. Young seminarians hunger for theological education so that they can in turn care for their own flocks. Women in poverty hunger for the means to feed their families and become productive members of their communities.
Our context, unlike that of the Thessalonians, is this: There is hunger in our world, hunger of every kind. And Jesus says, whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.
Some of this hunger is up to us to work to satisfy.