Okay…here’s Paul at his best…confusing us as only Paul can. As I read this passage, I know Paul can’t be condemning those who aren’t able to work or find work. I suspect, no, I know, there were poor people in Paul’s day just as there are today. After all, Jesus did say, “the poor will always be with you.” So, Paul can’t be condemning the poor simply because they are poor. And, I wouldn’t think he would suggest that their poverty is self-made and they choose to be idle when they could work. We know there are many in our country who want jobs; who want to work; who graduate from college with prestigious degrees and can’t find work. And yes, there will always be those who would rather milk the system than put a hand to a plow but I don’t think Paul is talking about these misguided souls. No, there is something else here. When it comes to reading the Bible, it’s important we make a best effort to ferret out an understanding of these words. What do they say to us in this day, our day? There wouldn’t be much reason to read words we hold as holy if they have no meaning to us.
So, a little background. Paul started this church in Thessalonica. It was one of his babies and like all his church starts, he had a stake in the success of the church; they were to spread the good news of Christ Jesus risen and living. He points out to any among them who will listen how he, Paul, had set an example for them. While with them, Paul readily took up his share of the work though, as he reminds them, he could just as easily have done nothing more than sit and eat food he had not helped to put on the table. It was his right as founding leader. But he didn’t do that. Instead, along with them, he pulled a fair share of what needed doing.
On Wednesday night at our annual Church Conference, Heidi Chamberland, our District Superintendent showed a video of Bishop Devadhar’s recent summer pilgrimage to the Taize Community in France. Traveling with him, and the reason for the trip, were the 18 youth who the Bishop hoped might experience a true awakening or reawakening of faith. Heidi told us that each person in the Taize community including the guests, were expected to work side by side to meet the needs of the whole. The Bishop’s job was to wash dishes. In this way, the Taize community lives out the message in Paul’s words to the Thessalonians. Everyone, if able, must work together to meet the needs of all. That’s the first message we can take away from this passage. How different our world might be if everyone worked together for the whole? Imagine the changes we would experience, positive changes we would experience as a world! We would be fulfilling the vision God has for us all.
Societies function in specific ways. These practices or disciplines are formed and transmitted to those in the present by those from the past. In other words, we learn from our ancestors the way in which we should behave just as a child will learn from a parent how he or she should behave. Paul reminds the Thessalonica church of his instruction. He reminds them that they were his students and he their mentor, guide and teacher. What we are reading this morning is what Paul has seen in this community he loves. Some, among them, have failed to live up to his expectations and have fallen far from the vision Christ had for his followers. They’ve heard the words of faith but, sadly, some have fallen far the practices of faith. Their behavior has given them away.
I was shopping the other day in the Enfield Costco. Like all big box stores, Costco has a method for checking out its customers. The lines to the cash registers are usually long but they move fairly quickly. So, I checked out and with my register slip in hand moved to the exit. At least, I tried to move to the exit. Long before I reached the way out and blocking my passage, was a man with a cart. He had stopped to answer his cell phone and now, with the cell phone pressed to his ear, he was totally unaware that he was holding up not only me but three other customers all with shopping carts and all trying to reach the exit so they could unload their purchases into their cars and get on with their day.
My first thought was, “How rude and impolite we’ve become as a society.” As a child, I’d been taught to live out certain proper behavior around others. This, as far as I could see, was a breach in social etiquette. Yes, how rude, but almost before I could, silently to myself, of course, admonish this man for breaking one of our societal practices of behavior, I remembered that earlier, while I had been in the cereal aisle in this very store, my cell phone rang and, yes, I stopped to answer it. Oops! Three days later I read this quote from Brother Lawrence as he made reference to his misbehavior and the need he had for God to guide him; “And thus, thus I shall always do, whenever You leave me to myself.” 
Brother Lawrence was a lay brother in a Carmelite monastery in Paris who wrote the classic text, The Practice of the Presence of God, a deeply intimate recording of Lawrence’s relationship with God. The quote reminded me not to be so quick to point fingers at the behavior of others; likely without the presence of God, we would all fail to live our lives, as we should.
As in Paul’s day, practices for proper behavior in our society are certainly being strained. We are self-involved and we do live lives in which rapid changes – technologically and otherwise – make it more and more difficult to discern what we should practice and what we should pass on as good teaching to those who follow us. Paul spoke to his church in Thessalonica as a parent might speak to a child judging some among them as inconsiderate and undisciplined. Like the man blocking the aisle in the store or earlier me, picking up my cell phone to hold a private conversation open to the ears of any around me, we tend to think only of what matters to us. How can such behavior be helpful to the community around us? Well, of course, it isn’t helpful. The message we send out is “it’s okay to be self-involved”, when clearly it isn’t.
But here’s what Paul wanted the church to understand, and we still have trouble with this one: “It is not enough to have an individual commitment to Christ. That commitment must be lived out in the context of a community of faith.” A living faith and a faith that is well-lived has to be more than our personal relationship to God, more than a faith that is unspoken and unshared. It must be lived in community, with others, just as we come to realize in the midst of disasters how much we need one another. In those times when our natural world and our common existences are threatened, then we know we must turn to one another to survive. Then is when we know we must turn to God to endure. There is so much in this passage about living well and living right and though centuries have passed, the words move us to see the deeper reality of a life in Christ. As God’s creation and hope, we grow in faith when we walk the journey together. Amen.