11/13/22 Sermon: Keep Up the Good Work (No, Really.)

Sunday, November 13, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 21:31; sermon starts around 27:25)
(another reprise, but I hope it still speaks)

If you’ve been following any of the news lately about what’s been happening with social media – with Facebook and Twitter in particular – you know that there has been a lot of drama. It kind of feels like we’re seeing what happens some of the worst and most petty impulses that humans have are given free rein to cause havoc online.

But, admittedly, I spend a lot of time on social media, especially on Facebook – I basically live on Facebook, haha – and because of that, I know that there are also a lot of good things that social media can make possible, like networking with other clergy folks, doing ministry, and keeping up connections with my friends and family who live all over the country/globe. 

And every once in a while, I get to see some really beautiful and awesome things happen on social media. During the height of the pandemic especially, there was (and continues to be) this whole informal network of people online who have found ways to help each other out in times of need. I think of it as a sort of “Facebook Underground Railroad.” A friend of someone’s friend reaches out asking for help, usually needing money, and this network of people in all different places, from all different backgrounds, mobilizes to respond. One time, we helped a single mom in Chicago who was struggling after her car was impounded over a ticket. A while back, I put the word out on facebook to help a friend of mine who was trying to escape an abusive partner. We raised over $6,000 for her in a matter of weeks. 

There’s no formal organization at work here, no mission statement or central command. It’s just a bunch of regular people who are connected by compassion, by the recognition that as humans we need each other and that none of us is in this alone. And the folks who volunteer their time and resources don’t ask a lot of questions about the requests that come through for help. People just trust that the need is there and they give if they can. And I often see the same people stepping up again and again to chip in and/or spread the word. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times the Facebook community gets called on or what else people have going on in their lives – someone is always ready to step up and help however they can.

I think of this community when I read verses like the exhortation at the end of our second reading for today. The author of 2 Thessalonians – Paul, or perhaps one of his students – writes these words of encouragement to the Thessalonian community: Do not be weary in doing what is right. 

Now, these were words that the Thessalonian community really needed to hear. In their case, they actually weren’t doing a lot of good work like the Facebook “underground railroad” does. In fact, from the sounds of things, some of them weren’t doing very much work at all. And the Thessalonian church was struggling. To the modern reader, it sounds like the author of this letter is chewing out the Thessalonians for being lazy and unwilling to work. But there is actually a deeper, more theological problem at work here. 

Just like us, first century Christians believed that Christ was coming back and that when he did, he would usher in the kingdom of God. However, there was a lot of confusion and misinformation flying around as to when this would actually take place. We can tell from Paul’s writings that some of these communities believed that Christ was coming like next Tuesday. But the Thessalonian community took this even further. In our second reading from last Sunday, the author of this letter writes:

“As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed… to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way…”

2 Thessalonians 2:1-3a

(also, oops, this was the 2nd reading the preceding Sunday in 2019, but actually not in 2022. Oh well.)

In other words, some members of the Thessalonian church didn’t just believe that Christ was coming back next Tuesday. They believed that his return was already happening, that the kingdom was already on its way in, like, now. 

Reading it in this light, their behavior kinda makes a lot of sense. Why keep going to your day job when you expect to see Christ at any minute? They believed the day of the Lord had come, or that it would be here very soon. So what did it matter if they worked or not? What did it matter if they did the work that Jesus had commanded his disciples to do – to feed the hungry and to care for the sick and the vulnerable and to see to the needs of strangers and sojourners? All bets were off – Jesus was back, baby! 

But Paul strongly discourages the Thessalonians from thinking this way. The day of the Lord has not yet arrived, he clarifies. There is still more to come, including some very difficult times for the believers. There will be struggle ahead. And so it is crucial that they continue to do the good work that Jesus has commanded, and to follow the path of discipleship. The work that they do matters – it matters too much to let them simply neglect it. And so, this letter urges them: Do not be weary in doing what is right. 

Jesus has a similar message for his followers in our gospel reading for this morning. They are marveling at the temple with its huge stones and all its beauty and riches. But Jesus warns them not to get too attached: “The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another,” he says, “All will be thrown down.” For us, this news doesn’t have a huge emotional impact – especially sitting here reading it in our own building – but it would have been utterly devastating to the people who heard him say it. 

To this community, the temple was much more than just a building. It was the absolute center of their life and religious practice, the place where they came to offer sacrifice and prayer and praise – literally God’s house on earth. It would have been hard for them to imagine their faith or life without it. And yet Jesus goes on to say that, not only will the temple be destroyed, there will be even worse things to come. He speaks of false prophets and wars and natural disasters, of famines and plagues, of betrayals and persecutions. He paints a terrible scene of violence and chaos and uncertainty that will be the path his followers will have to walk. 

And yet, strangely, it’s this very terror of the violence and destruction that Jesus foretells that is actually kind of at the heart of the hope in this gospel reading. Because the people for whom Luke was writing his gospel account did not have to imagine what this violence and chaos and uncertainty would look like. They were living it. Luke’s gospel was written within a decade or two after the temple had actually been destroyed. And the people reading his gospel would have already begun to experience some of the persecutions and betrayals and other struggles that Jesus named. They already knew he was speaking the truth – for they had seen it with their own eyes.

So these believers know that Jesus was already fully aware of exactly what kind of trouble and danger was coming for his people when he said to them: “When you hear of these things, do not be terrified. Even in this moment, which seems like the worst-case scenario you and your people could imagine, do not be afraid. You will be hated and handed over; some of you may even be killed – but not a hair of your head will perish.” Luke’s readers would have also known by this time that, with God, even death is not so much a permanent ending as it is more or less a temporary inconvenience. There is nothing in life or death which God cannot overcome.

Jesus knows the worst of what we will face, and he promises to be with us through it. He even tells his followers, “Look, you will be dragged out and asked to make a case for your faith. You will be put on the spot. Don’t stress yourself out trying to figure exactly what to say beforehand. Trust in me and I will give you words exactly when you need them. I will give you wisdom that will knock your opponents’ socks off.” 

Jesus is with us when we are plunged into times of chaos and uncertainty. He was with the earliest believers after the destruction of the temple, when they had to figure out a whole new way to live out their faith. And he is with us now, as we continue to find a new path forward in a post(ish)-pandemic world. And that means it isn’t up to us to try to have every step of the way ahead carefully planned out, or even to know exactly where it is we’re going (thanks be to God!). Instead, what we are called to do right now is to trust that God will give us the wisdom and the words in the moment we need them. God will show us the path, even if it’s only a step at a time. 

So we continue to do all the good we can, not neglecting the good work that we have been called to do, but continuing to witness and serve in the name of Christ. We continue to follow where he leads, even when we don’t know exactly where we’re going. We remember God’s unfailing love and faithfulness – and we don’t grow weary in doing what is right.

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