"Loafing Around"

Sunday sermon from November 17, 2013
Texts: Isaiah 65:17-25; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

So I have to tell you that I am getting very excited because I love hosting Thanksgiving. Sarah and I hosted for years before I went to seminary, but, as you might expect, campus housing doesn't really lend itself much to large-scale hospitality, and my parents were living close by so there was really no excuse whatsoever for Thanksgiving at our place. But in the last year they've moved and we've moved and now we almost-sorta-kinda have enough room to host some family so we're doing it, which means that I get to plan Thanksgiving dinner and this brings me an unreasonable amount of joy. I do love having an excuse to plan a big meal - I love making the elaborate grocery lists; I love running to a dozen different stores looking for the right ingredients; I love the elaborate scheduling of oven time. And of course it all leads up to that one singular moment of presentation, and then, after we eat, then comes the best part of cooking up a Thanksgiving feast. It's my favorite moment of being the chef on Thanksgiving - sitting on the couch while everybody else cleans up.

Now, you and I both know that there are all kinds of unwritten rules about cleaning up after Thanksgiving, and the best thing about being the head chef is that I don't have to figure out what the unwritten rules are. I can just observe. Now, we don't have a large kitchen, so there are only so many people who can help at any one moment, and my hunch this year is that my father will take on the central role, the man who mans the sink and scrubs the dishes, and that Sarah and my mother will probably be the ones ferrying dirty dishes back to the sink and drying the big ones and putting them away. But we have a few other guests coming, too, and I admit to some anthropological curiosity about just how the clean-up dance will go. Will they muscle their way into the inner circle? Will they ferry things about in actual busyness? Or will they be the sort who just kind of scurry about looking busy, maybe having some important piece of stemware to grab from the living room, a task that takes a surprising amount of time before they can afford to return to the kitchen and then they can oh-so-innocently ask if there's anything they can do to help just as Dad is finishing wiping down the countertop. You know that routine, right? You might even be planning out the choreography of that routine for yourself this year. We've all done it at one point or another. Who wants to do the real work when we can just do the work around the work?

Now, as I said, the great joy of being chef is that I really don't have to be concerned about these work rules, but in this last chunk of Paul's letter to his church in Thessalonica, he is nothing if not concerned about the rules of work. "We command you to keep away from believers who are living in idleness," he says, and it seems likely, given the urgency in last week's text to address those who think that Jesus is set imminently to return, it seems likely that some of the congregation has just figured they don't really have to bother doing anything because it's about to be the rapture anyway. But Paul's not having it: "we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies," and of course there's not really a Greek word for busybody; what it literally says is the the people who "go around the work." You know, we have the people washing dishes, and then we have the people helping them wash dishes, and then we have the people who just look like they're helping wash dishes and that's where Paul draws the line. "Anyone unwilling to work should not eat," he says. Everyone "earn your own living," he says, or literally in the Greek: everyone eat your own bread. If you will pardon the pun, no more loafing around.

Now, in a country that loves work as much as our country does, in a country that values work as much as our country does, it is entirely tempting to take this verse - anyone unwilling to work should not eat - and carve it into stone on all our national monuments. Just scratch out the part on the Statue of Liberty that speaks about the huddled masses yearning to breathe free and carve in big letters "Anyone unwilling to work should not eat." But I think we have to be very careful. Paul is writing to a largely self-contained community, and even though his presenting concern is members who don't want to work it's clear that his vision is of a community where everyone participates equally. A community where everyone is given equal access to the jobs at hand, to be sure, but just as much a community where everyone is given equal access to the table. Let's be very clear: the problem Paul sees in Thessalonica, where everyone gets fed but some people aren't doing any work - that's a pretty good problem to have. How much worse would it be to not have room for everybody at the table in the first place?

And yet next Thursday, as my family and guests are jockeying over who actually has to work and who just gets to work around the work, after we will all have gorged ourselves beyond physical repair, across this state and across this country the huddled masses of 21st-century America will be getting into their cars to go turn on the lights at the Wal-Mart, at the K-Mart, at Target and Best Buy. It used to be that Black Friday started on Friday morning. And then it was Friday midnight. And now it's starting right after dinner. And I'm going to take it on faith that nobody really wants to work at Wal-Mart on Thanksgiving night. Nobody working at Wal-Mart on Thanksgiving night wouldn't rather be sitting around the Thanksgiving table, sharing equally in the harvest. And yet we have no room for that dream in the current American dreamscape. Instead, those lucky among us will sit at our table and say our prayers of thanks - Dear God, Heavenly Father, thank you for the opportunity to buy high-definition televisions at below-market prices - while across town, turning on the lights at the Best Buy, those whom we won't feed do the work we won't do to make possible dreams we don't really have. So you tell me who on that night is unwilling to work - and who among us deserves to eat.

That's the problem in this text - anyone unwilling to work should not eat - because at first it feels like Paul's given us a hook to go around snaring all the ne'er-do-wells, it feels like Paul's given us license to go around preaching "Gotcha" religion and judging anyone whose habits don't meet our expectations; but if we read with integrity, and if we confess ourselves with honesty, the only thing on the hook here is us. And not even just you and me as individuals, but the big "Us." If Paul's vision is really of some properly egalitarian community, of a table where everybody gets to work and everybody gets to eat, then the problem in this text isn't just you and I treating our neighbor in unequal measure but rather the systemic inequality that has become the lifeblood of the world in which we live. We could have so easily carved this verse into stone at the foot of the Statue of Liberty but if Paul showed up on the boat and read that verse and saw this country as it is and saw the great and growing gulf between those who sit at the table and those who cannot but make it happen anyway, I cannot imagine that he would do anything but weep.

Which means that, much as we are all convicted by this verse, and much as I would love it to therefore light a fire underneath each of us, the reality is that there is only so much any of us can do to right such a large ship gone so terribly awry. Case in point: a few years back the Panera restaurant chain launched a pilot program whereby several of its St. Louis stores became "pay-what-you-will" stores. That is, there was a particular meal combination that you could order at Panera, and the meal had a suggested donation price to go with it, but you could pay whatever you wanted. Now, Panera got some amazing press for doing this. Of course, they're giving away food for free, which doesn't sound a lot like "anyone unwilling to work should not eat," but if we're buying into Paul's larger vision then Panera was trying to say something righteous about mutual responsibility and mutual entanglement. The whole model was that customers who paid above the suggested amount would offset the losses from those who couldn't afford it. The problem was that, by and large, nobody showed up. Oh, they served something like 15,000 meals, which isn't nothing, but it's a drop in the bucket next to the traffic those locations did on a regular basis. And it's not like St. Louis didn't have need. The problem was that the city was already so economically divided that there simply weren't any Panera locations next to any of the neighborhoods where the hungriest people were living. You know how that goes: one part of town gets the Panera and the Starbucks, and the other part gets the McDonald's and the Popeye's, and the distance between them only gets longer. So think about that: Panera is a multi-million-dollar business and all it wants to do is to put its least-profitable foot forward and fling open its doors and give away its product and it can't even make a dent because the problem is too big.

So friends, if the problem is that big, the last thing we need is another rule about who gets to eat and who doesn't get to eat. What we need is a table big enough for everybody. What we need is the promise of a meal where anybody can cook and anybody can clean up and everybody gets to eat. What we need is the vision of Isaiah, in our other text from this morning, the vision of the new heaven and new earth where God's people do not labor in vain, where we plant vineyards with fruit enough for everyone, where we build houses with with room enough for everyone, where the wolf and the lamb feed together and even the lion feasts simply on the straw. What we need at this table is not just to know who does the work and who doesn't do the work; what we need is grace.

And don't think Paul doesn't know it. Say what you will about the man, he knows his scripture, and dollars to donuts he's got this exact passage from Isaiah in his mind as he's writing to the Thessalonians. He knows the truth of the Gospel: that God has promised for us a feast large enough for everybody, that we wait on that day when we will sit alongside our brothers and sisters of every time and place and no hunger shall go unfed and no thirst shall go unquenched and nobody will be across town opening up the Wal-Mart because everybody will be at the table. That's called grace. That's the Gospel, and Paul knows it. But he also knows that the Gospel is a double-edged sword, and even while it's painting the picture of what God will do in a day yet to come it's also reminding us of who God calls us to be on this day. Maybe the best table we can set still isn't really big enough for everybody. But while we wait on God's table, the least we can do is work on ours. That's why I'm so thankful for groups like Amherst Cares. That's why I'm so thankful for events like the 2-cents-a-meal offering that this Presbytery operates. That's why I'm so thankful for this congregation's historical commitment to combating hunger throughout Amherst county: because it lives out the conviction that even if our table can never be big enough, there's always room for one more.

Now, I told you earlier that my favorite moment as the chef on Thanksgiving is sitting on the couch while everybody else cleans up. What Paul would say to convict me I leave to your imagination. Suffice to say that it's certainly not the most important moment. Nor on Thanksgiving is the most important part when we first carve the turkey or when the first guest goes back for seconds or when we all fall asleep in front of the TV drugged out on tryptophan. No, the most important moment on Thanksgiving is when we say grace. Now, if your house is anything like mine, saying grace on Thanksgiving involves a whole inventory of things we're thankful for. It will be a laundry list of blessings and Lord knows we could do a lot worse in our prayers than simply listing the things we're thankful for. You can go a long way in the Christian life on gratitude.

But a prayer of thanksgiving isn't quite the same thing as saying grace. Saying grace isn't just saying what we love about what we have; saying grace is speaking the vision of God both in its promise and in its conviction. So say grace: the Lord is about to create new heavens and a new earth! Say grace: no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress! Say grace: like the days of a tree shall the days of God's people be, and they shall long enjoy the work of their hands. When you sit down at the table this year, when the work of cooking is done and the work of cleaning has just begun, before you begin, say grace. Say grace, because grace is the promise of that feast God has prepared for all of God's people. Say grace, because grace is the vision of what might be and so of the work God yet calls us to do. Say grace, because grace is the question that asks whether we are really doing all the work we can for God's kingdom, or whether we're just loafing around.