Sermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday After Pentecost, November 17, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Malachi 4:1-2a+Psalm 98+2 Thessalonians 3:6-13+Luke 21:5-19

Jesus is in a mood this morning. This is not the Jesus who has a word of love and compassion, who heals the sick and plops a child on his lap. This is a Jesus who is running out of time. He’s in Jerusalem and will soon be arrested, and he has people with him marveling at the beauty of the temple. And he, in a sense, snaps.

Do you know what is about to happen here? And do you know what that means for you? You are going to be a target because you are with me.    

Jesus gives a list of things that are going to happen when the end times come. At the time this was written, those signs were taking place. The temple had been destroyed by Rome. There were persecutions. The Jesus followers were being put out of the synagogues, and their small communities were under threat. And he’s telling them not to worry, that they would know what to say and what to do when the time came.

We are almost at the end of another year in the church calendar, and these end-times readings are always a part of that. It seems a bit too real at the moment, though. Fires and flooding plague cities around the world. Coups and uprisings stretch from Gaza to Hong Kong to Bolivia. Our own nation is perilously divided over the impeachment hearings and the cases before the Supreme Court. What words do we have to say in the face of such turmoil? How is our enduring this going to gain our souls?

Teresa of Ávila was a 16th century Spanish mystic who oversaw a community of Carmelite nuns and who was made a Doctor of the Church in 1970, four centuries after her death. That is a designation given to only two women in the history of Roman Catholicism. As the leader of a community of women, enforcing discipline and maintaining order were daily challenges. As in any monastic community, there is a need for sharing of responsibilities, a rotation of chores, and a rule of life governing how members are to carry themselves and behave as part of a larger body.       

And, as in any domestic situation, there will always be the need for chores to be done, from cleaning out privies to washing dishes. Apparently, the matter of cleaning up after meals was a tiresome chore for some of the women under her charge, and at least one complaint was raised, probably many more, about the drudgery of washing dishes when they could be about the more important matter of prayer. Teresa is said to have responded:

So come on, my daughters, do not despair. If obedience demands of you to be employed in external things, then understand that if these are in the kitchen then the Lord walks among the pots and pans and … helps you there both externally and internally.

The early church communities to whom Paul writes in his epistles were similarly argumentative and unruly. Often, Paul’s letters come across as scolding when he has moved on to another place but gets word that people are not doing what he taught them to do or are causing conflict or upset among the faithful.

The second letter to the Thessalonians falls in this category. If you’re going to live in the empire as Christians, you’re going to have to stick together. Each person must hold up her end of things. This is especially true if the end times are near, which is exactly what 1st century Christians believed. In this letter, Paul has heard that there are those who are just sitting around waiting for Christ to return, just like he promised, and the rest of the community was getting a bit frustrated with them. It is in this context that he wrote, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (3:10), which has unfortunately been used as a screed against those who are unemployed or in need of public assistance. Even Vladimir Lenin used that line as part of Soviet doctrine. It is a terrible misuse of that phrase, because there was a very specific audience that Paul had in mind.

Paul doesn’t stop there, though. He encourages them to work, to contribute to common life, and to not “be weary in doing what is right” (3:13). These are words not specifically for the Thessalonians. I think we can all benefit from hearing them, especially when it seems that there is so much not right with the world. How much easier it would be to crawl into a hole or to lash out or to grow hardened against others. My patience wears thin with climate-change deniers and anti-vaxxers and anyone who thinks it’s okay to separate children from their parents because they showed up at our borders. I do grow weary of doing what is right. Of praying for those I’d rather not pray for, of trying to understand other perspectives.

And then I remember Jesus. Jesus who ate at a table with a man he knew would betray him.  Jesus kissed him on the cheek. Jesus did not say an unkind word to him.

For Teresa, God may have walked among the pots and pans, but today, perhaps God walks among those very people whose beliefs we abhor. Just as God walked with Judas.

“Do not be weary in doing what is right.” Reflect God’s love into the world. If you see someone who needs some help, offer it. In the brief amount of time I’ve spent moving around with this boot on my foot and using a knee-scooter, it has warmed my heart to have so many strangers offer help or words of encouragement. And if something so simple can mean so much, then how hard can it be for us to do these things that are right?

Well, when it seems hard and you’re not sure you can do it, here’s what I do. I pray. It’s really hard to judge someone or something harshly when you hold them before God in prayer. Gather with the community, just as you are doing today, and be encouraged that you are not alone. Receive the sacraments, be strengthened by the body and blood of Christ, given for you.

Yes, the world is a scary place right now. Who knows where things are headed? But one thing we do know is that God is in the midst of it with us, among all the pots and pans. Do not weary in doing what is right.

If you see someone being bullied, step in.

If you see a parent trying to manage groceries plus a couple of children, offer help.

If your racist uncle is raving at the Thanksgiving table, speak up.

If you have food or clothing or money that can be used by the Shelter or In Jesus’s Name or the Jubilee Center, offer it.

And know that, even if you do none of these things, God is with you. No matter what you do or don’t do, Jesus loves you. We are forgiven and made whole in spite of ourselves.

And that’s enough reason to never weary in doing what is right.

ASEPSermon for the Twenty-Third Sunday After Pentecost, November 17, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas