Texts: Malachi 4:1-2; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19
Only, as they waited, they were also stoking people’s fears and anxieties. Perhaps they were standing on street corners holding signs reading things like “Repent! The End is Near!” or maybe they were making snide remarks about who they expected to get their comeuppance when Jesus showed up. Whatever they were doing, it wasn’t out of malice or an intent to cause trouble: they genuinely believed that the end had come and there was no use in going about business as usual.
Of course, the flip side of this is that we are encouraged to live every day as if it is the last one before Jesus’ return. That means taking every opportunity to live as we have been taught, loving our neighbors and acting with justice and mercy: to “never weary of doing what is right.”
Although our context is not the same—for nobody here has sold all their goods and quit their job in the expectation of Jesus’ imminent arrival—we still read this letter because we find in it wisdom for our own times. The letter writer says that these “idle” people have got it wrong, that they are not living as they ought to be. “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat,” he writes. While many people throughout history have found in this half-verse the justification for withholding assistance to the poor, that’s not quite what the letter is saying.
“Idleness” or “laziness” doesn’t quite capture the meaning of the Greek word. The word used really speaks more of a disorder, or breakdown of the community. These people were being “idle” in the sense that they weren’t working, but they weren’t just being “lazy;” instead they are being “busybodies,” or “meddlesome.” In other words, they are working just as hard as they ever were, but their work is not building up the community.
So rather than an exhortation to let lazy people starve, it is more of a warning not to associate with people who are stirring up trouble. And that is still good advice. If you were here last week, you may remember the storybook we read about the Terrible Plop, and the scared rabbits who, in their fear, stirred up panic throughout the forest. In times of uncertainty, when the way forward is unclear and we face trouble and resistance, it is easy to become anxious. Anxiety is contagious; it spreads just like a yawn or a disease. The anxiety of some in the Thessalonian community, manifest as “idleness” or disorder, stirred up the anxiety of the rest of the community, just like the rabbits in the story. We can all take reassurance from these words in the Thessalonian letter. In uncertain times, the best thing we can do is to keep on doing what we’ve been doing: to hold fast to the traditions handed onto us, and to never weary of doing what is right.
I find a wonderful lesson for us in this letter as we celebrate our congregation’s 40th birthday and gather for our biannual congregational meeting. In some ways, Agnus Dei is in an uncertain time. First of all, we’re now “over the hill!” But we are just coming out of a period of transition, which has made us anxious, and we are also running a budget deficit—another anxiety producing situation. If we aren’t careful, it’s far too easy for us to get stuck in that anxiety and give way to fear and panic.
But last night’s celebration was anything but anxious. Celebration gives us some perspective. We are celebrating 40 years of ministry among this congregation; 40 years of God continuing to give gifts and spread blessing to and through the people of Agnus Dei. We are where we are because of the call of God to be the Church in this place and the work, the energy, and the enthusiasm of a strong and joyful community gathered around that call. Each year at our November meeting, we have the opportunity to look back at what God has accomplished through us over the last 12 months and marvel—and then to let our imaginations run wild with where God will lead us next. With all that God has done with us so far, what might God be up to next?
Of course, it isn’t just our congregation, but the whole Church that is going through a time of transition now as religious membership and engagement is declining across the country. That also causes us anxiety, as we wonder when that trend will catch up with us. We see ourselves not only in the Thessalonians’ story, but also in Luke’s story, standing with the disciples, admiring the great temple as Jesus tells them that it will all be thrown down until not one stone is left on another. Sometimes it feels like that’s what’s happening to the Church: the institution that has been built and maintained by generations of faithful people is crumbling, and one day not one stone will be left on another.
And yet, Jesus says, all this is an opportunity: it is a chance for us to endure, to speak the truth, and to proclaim the gospel. It is an opportunity to never grow weary of doing what is right. Even these most terrifying of circumstances, Jesus says, cannot harm us. To quote the old hymn, “Built on a rock, the Church shall stand, even when steeples are falling.”
For while the Church seems to be dying, it is also being resurrected. Every stone of the temple was thrown down, and yet both the Christian and Jewish communities survived. The Church will come through this time of transition as it has all others before it—though it will come through changed. Even now the global Church is growing by leaps and bounds as new people daily hear the good news and flock to follow Christ. The era of a Church dominated by Western culture and supported by Western colonialism is over, but a new era for the Church is just beginning.
The story of Agnus Dei is only one small part of that much larger story, but Agnus Dei’s story mirrors the larger one; and the story of our entire Church is found in Christ, who was crucified, died and resurrected. He is the past, present and future of the Church: we are a people who have been washed in his death, but we are also a people who feast on his life.
That’s why we can hold fast to the traditions handed on to us. It’s why we can disregard those whose anxieties threaten to stir us up and tear us apart, and why we can comfort the “busybodies” with the hope of what is coming next. The day of the Lord is not here quite yet; but whether it comes tomorrow or in ten thousand years, we will keep doing God’s work here, never growing weary because Christ will continue to feed us at this table until he comes again.