Our Body Of Work
I Thessalonians 4:9-12
First Baptist Church Laurens
September 2, 2018
Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as America and the world became more and more driven by large industries, mass production and eventually the assembly line mentality, one of the reactions to our changing world came in the form of an interesting group in Upstate New York called the Roycrofters. The Roycrofters were started by a man named Elbert Hubbard. Hubbard wanted to honor true craftspeople, emphasize the uniqueness of their work and the idea that the quality of our work says a lot about the type of people we are. In turn, the Roycrofters, which were made up of bookbinders, metal-smiths and furniture makers, established an artist colony near Buffalo where they not only worked together but where they also lived together. They shared meals, lodging and the love of making things with their hands. Nothing in the Roycroft colony was made by a machine and everything made was an extension of the maker as expressed by their slogan – “head, heart and hand”. (As Sighted in I & II Thessalonians, Linda McKinnish Bridges, Smyth & Helwys, pg. 106).
In many ways, I and II Thessalonians make a similar point – our work is an extension of who we are as a person and as people of faith. As a result, how we carry out our labors illustrates vividly to others our values in ways we sometimes don’t fully understand or appreciate.
Why was this an issue that Paul raised specifically with the church in Thessalonica which was one of the congregations that he had helped to found? It seems pretty clear that there were those in the Thessalonian church who were not working as they should. But, what we don’t know for sure is what the exact context or situation was that lead to their being viewed as not being hard workers and thus to Paul’s words. As you might imagine, several strong possibilities have been suggested.
One is that the Thessalonians may have lived very similarly to the Roycrofters that I mentioned a few moments ago. It could very well be that many of the people in the Thessalonian church worked together in some type of common trade as well as worshipped together. In turn, when some of them were not pulling their weight in their daily work and friction developed there, those frustrations ultimately and naturally carried over into the community’s life together as they sought to worship with one another and challenges developed.
Another possibility and the most popular one is that this issue of some members in the Thessalonian church not working was directly related to their beliefs about Christ’s return. Like all other early congregations of the period, the Thessalonians believed Jesus would return in their lifetime and this belief in the immediacy of Christ’s return is echoed throughout these two letters. In turn, the idea is that some in the Thessalonian church had quit working while they waited for Jesus to come back. To use an old phrase, “they had donned their white robes and were just sitting around watching and waiting”. They had thus become a burden for the rest of the congregation who now had to support them and their need for food and other things while they did nothing.
A final possibility is in many ways the most sinister. It could be that some in the Thessalonian church were just abusing a good situation. They knew that one of the primary teachings of the early church was the need to care for one another and to help fellow believers meet their basic needs when they could not. Thus, perhaps some among the Thessalonian believers had started wondering why they should work if others would simply care for them and provide for their needs. Perhaps, in these two letters, we have the first mention of what we today would call “freeloaders”.
Again, we don’t know the exact or full story behind Paul’s words but we do know that whatever had happened it wasn’t a good situation. And, we do know that Paul chose to address it while offering clear thoughts about how all of us as followers of Jesus should carry ourselves in the workplace.
With this being Labor Day Weekend and a natural time when we think about the value of work these are important words for us to consider. Likewise, it is important to see these as helpful words even if our working days from a career perspective are behind us or still years in front of us. For, the truth is that all of us do work, whether for pay or as volunteers and Paul’s thoughts remain equally valuable to us. So, let me remind us of two important things that Paul says.
First, Paul reminds us that our work, whatever type of work it is, is an extension of our faith and a clear sign of our values. So often, we want to separate our spiritual lives from our other lives – our social lives, our recreational lives, our family lives or our working lives. But, while this is something we would like to do, it is not a freedom that God grants to us. We carry our faith with us 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In turn, in all areas of our lives, we are bearing witness with our behavior to what we believe about God and to the ethics we affirm as children of God.
Therefore, when we do less than quality work, when we fudge on our time card, when we leave early or come in late hoping no one is looking, when we take something from the office that is not ours to take, when we are less than honest with our boss or coworker, when we lie on our resumes or when we use language, tell stories or participate in gossip in the office that we know is not in keeping with our value as believers, we reveal the real character of our hearts and we provide a witness. Knowing all of this, we must ask the question, is our working life, the witness we want to offer? Is our reputation in our work in alignment with our faith?
Since it would be easy to offer an example here from a negative perspective, I want to offer something from the opposite end. Over my time here, I have known many of you who have invited others to our church whom you have gotten to know at work. Sometimes they have been your coworkers, at other times they have been your boss and at others your employee. I have no doubt, that there are also others of you who are longtime members of our church who are here because of the very same types of relationships – a coworker in some form or fashion invited you. What inspires me about those types of stories is not only that people are sharing faith and inviting others to church at work, but also, it speaks to me from the perspective that when coworkers come with us to church part of the reason is that they respect both us and the life we have lived out before them in our occupations. Your example caught their eye and it spoke to them. If you were not trustworthy, a hard worker, a good friend at the office, someone they know they can count on, they would not be here. You see, the two work hand in hand together either for the good or for the bad.
Second, Paul reminds us that when it comes to work, we are always to carry our weight. The real issue in Thessalonians was that there were some who were simply not doing their part. It doesn’t matter which of the three scenarios we subscribe to as to what was exactly happening in Thessalonica, it all comes back to the same root issue – some were doing the work of all.
We deal with this same issue in all sorts of working environments – in our occupations, in our volunteer work and in our church work. One of the biggest frustrations we feel is when we sense that someone or some group is not carrying their end of the load. We hate the sense that we are doing all of the work even as others reap all of the benefits while doing very little or nothing at all.
One of the things I really like about the book that Martha Frank’s wrote about her life is the title. If you remember it is called One Link in God’s Chain. I think Martha Franks was making two significant points with that title. First, I think she was making the point that other’s had gone before her and that others with follow after her. It was not all up to her. She was simply one link. Second, I think she was being clear that her life and her work was a link in the chain which meant that those before her and those after her were depending on her. Thus, she was going to do everything she could do to keep the chain strong – she was not going to be the weak link.
This morning, I say to all of us, whether it is the work we do for our career and for financial reward, the work we do in the community or the work we do in church, let us make sure that we are not the weak link. Let us make sure that in our own little part – no matter how insignificant we may think it is – that we are keeping the chain strong.
Did you realize that we spend roughly one-third of our entire lives at work? As a result, it is so critically important that we honor God in this major element of life. So today, let us not only celebrate that work done in our community and country, but, let us commit ourselves to doing our work in a way that honors God, the values of God and those around us as we do our job, whatever it is, to the very best of our ability. Amen.