Sermon 11/13/2022 – A Mutual Responsibility

2 Thessalonians 3: 6-13

Now we command you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from every brother or sister living irresponsibly and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not irresponsible when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living irresponsibly, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

Sermon Text

A “Rorschach Test,” refers to a particular psychological test created by Hermann Rorschach in 1921. Rorschach, besides being unnecessarily handsome, saw the test as an opportunity to draw from a person’s initial reactions to the images some deeper understanding of their unconscious thoughts. By looking at the inkblots a person might feel strong emotions or see figures, that could be helpful to understanding something within themselves. The inkblots are not used much in modern psychological practice, but do provide the basis for certain kinds of art therapy used today.

Hermann Rorschach being unreasonably attractive.

The text we just read is similar to these inkblot tests. Depending on a person’s political and social standing, the text can mean wildly different things. For years in American politics the injunction that “Those who are unwilling to work, should not eat,” has been a foundation of anti-welfare stances and the general Conservative ethos around any government program. Meanwhile, the same text was immortalized by Vladimir Lenin as a core tenant of his brand of communism, and enshrined within the Soviet Constitution.[1] For one group the target of vitriol was the imagined “Welfare Queens,” dreamt up in the political campaigns of the 70s and 80s, for the other the very present reality of the rich making money off of the poor without lifting a finger to help society except in moving money from one rich person to another.

Reactions to this text go in either direction – either we must attack the rich for their unwillingness to work alongside everyone else in society, or the poor for any number of things they may or may not be doing. As with anything in American culture, the words of Paul in this text become a weapon, and we just need to find who we want to hit with it. We are a combative people, and we want to know who is going to get it at the end of the day.

I would submit, however, that this lesson is not meant to be the foundation of an economic system as we presently imagine them to exist. At the time of 2 Thessalonians writing, Capitalism would not emerge for another sixteen hundred years, and Communism another seventeen hundred. To force Paul to support one side or the other of the Cold War is to on one hand apply modern standards to the ancient world and on the other to force Paul to only be relevant in the here and now. Two hundred years from now, when new economic systems are the norm that we do not yet have names for, will people look at this text as we read it today and decide it no longer matters? Only if we lock it in as an argument about something as transient as economic theory.

There is a deeper reality to the words of the Apostle, and they reflect the need for a society, and on a smaller scale a community, to see themselves as being responsible to and for one another. When I come in this room, I am not just someone doing a job, although I am a “Religious Professional,” I am someone covenanting to be a part of this community. I am responsible to help everyone here be well. While all clergy in the Methodist Church belong to the annual conference rather than to any one church, the church we serve is a community we swear to lead with authority and to be a part of in all ways we can. In the same way, every one of us who attends this church, who has taken membership vows to it, or who simply helps when we can, all of us have taken an oath to be with one another and uphold one another.

I have rained praise of this congregation time and time again for its ability to love one another, and the community around us, so I do not feel like I have to start from square one on what mutuality looks like. However, I do want to go through Paul’s command here to show us just how broad the issues of a mutual society go. Firstly, by establishing what “mutual responsibility,” looks like. When I say, “Mutual,” What comes to mind? Working together, a single-mindedness of will? A car insurance company that really needs to stop with the emu mascot?

Mutualism, mutuality, mutual responsibility, however we term it, is fundamentally an act of regarding other people as equal to ourselves and treating them as such. If I want to help you, I do not do it as if I am better than you. If I seek help from you, I do not see myself as beneath you for needing that help. If we are fighting, I treat you like someone with equally valid emotions and thoughts as me. In all things, we are equal, except perhaps expertise and circumstance. Whether I am well off a the moment or particularly good at something does not make me better than you, nor would the inverse make you better than me.

That is hard for human beings to accept. We want the world to be hierarchical because it makes it easier to categorize the things around us. In the era of instantly sorted entries on any website we want, we are even more primed than ever to say one thing stands above another. For Thai food and movie musicals that is a fair way to sort our priorities, but it cannot be the same for people. The value of a human life cannot be determined by any measure except equality. The person who lives off the money left to them by their parents is just as valid as the person who works 40 hours a week and just scrapes by, at least in terms of their dignity.

However, if those two people are living together, the reality of their life cannot remain the same while still acknowledging that dignity. The person with all the money in the work, and no need to work, cannot look at the person struggling to get by and say something as blasé as “they should just get another job,” or “they are not my problem.” Something is broken if someone exists who can live without working and another person must work themselves to the bone just to get by.

This teaching affects the comfortable much more than the poor, it is simply a reality of scripture that equality demands more of the well-off than the struggling. We as a culture are primed, by those in power and with money, to distrust one another. Jeremiah talks about this when he searches the streets of Jerusalem, where the rich live for righteous people. Having been primarily out in the farms around the city, he thought that among the well to do he might see something different. Jeremiah instead lays out the reality of the situation. The poor have turned on one another, stealing and cheating to get ahead, and the rich have pretended they do not exist, pushing them far away from view and feasting while they starve outside their gates.[2]

This acknowledges the reality that scarcity can cause people to become unpleasant. When you do not know where food is coming from, you are more comfortable lying, or cheating, or stealing. Survival trumps ethical concerns, our brains are wired that way. More despicable is the mindset that many of us here, more comfortable in our lives than those pushed to that brink, still hold onto. We look to those desperate to make it by, both those who do so through acceptable and unacceptable means, and we see an existential threat that simply is not there. We see in the pilfering of a blessing box that is set up with no strings attached, a violation rather than a fulfillment of purpose.

We see in the occasional theft of items from our porch, some grand sign of human evil, rather than a sign of the societal decay we have facilitated. We see in the faces of the needy, people to regard with suspicion, rather than people just like us, simply trying to get by. All the while, those better off than us pull the strings to keep us all pushed down, to make sure that we do not trust one another. The bread and circuses laid before us are not like they were in Rome, of gladiators and literal bread. They are in the cries to destroy homeless encampments, the entertainment we get from “People of Walmart,” and similar meme pages, the desire to set us on edge against one another rather than work together toward our mutual good.

Younger people are less enthusiastic to join the workforce. Why do we think that is? Many would talk about entitlement or general laziness, but we know that cannot be the truth if we consider young people equally dignified. The answer comes in a knowledge that work does not always contribute to something meaningful in life. We all need to live, we all want to work to help other people, but busing tables at 3 different restaurants just to make enough money to pay rent is not going to do it for anyone. Mutuality would dictate that, in the name of allowing young people a chance at a half decent life, those who run businesses must be willing to take a hit to profits, consumers must be willing to pay a little bit more, and, yes, worker must come to the shift they signed on for.

This bleeds beyond the economic into all aspects of life. Do you have someone who did you wrong, you forgave them and tried to make things right, but they won’t change what caused the problem? Mutuality would dictate they must make as much an effort as you did. If they won’t do that, wash your hands of it. This community in this room stands or falls based on our willingness to regard each other as equals and work for the good of one another. We can sit and pray and wish and dream all we want, action is required to really keep things going. Paul looked at the Thessalonians long ago and saw that there were people not willing to play the game, not willing to be in community with one another, and his words to them were straightforward and harsh – if they will not contribute, they will have no part in this.

We can see that as a weapon, a threat to menace people with. However, that is not what scripture is for. It is “God breathed and good for instruction.” When we hear that we must do our part in our community, we should feel something stirred up within us. For some of us, it may actually lead to laying down a few responsibilities and giving them to the other people who are enabled by this teaching. For others, it will encourage us to seek a new way to contribute to those around us, to see in our neighbor a reflection of our own humanity and dignity and goodness. We can see this as a chance to grow, or as a chance to feel worse about ourselves than we already do.

For my part, I choose growth. I want to be more involved in God’s kingdom, and that means being willing to say yes to helping others, seeing no work as beneath me. I live one the charity of others, though I work 40ish hours in a week, I am paid out of the giving of this congregation. My existence can become exactly what Paul warns against, someone who “Works around,” but never “works with.”[3] I do not want that to be the case. So, this teaching sits in my heart as a challenge.

Again though, this is not just about money, though money is a big part of life. In our lives, we have a mutual responsibility to each other. We must serve with the mindset we are all equal. I cannot rant and rave about something someone did without acknowledging they probably had a reason to do it. I cannot destroy my self-image at the altar of another person either, because I must acknowledge that even the person I have everything in the world to learn from, is just as human as I am. Mutuality, “philios,” in Greek, is simply loving one another as a family, and in Christ, all the world is our family. Rich, poor, Socialist, and Capitalist. In coming together we all must mortify some aspect of ourselves and elevate others, may we do so in the name of the common Good, the pursuit of the Gospel, and the realization of the Kingdom. – Amen.

[1] Vladimir Ilyieh Lenin, The State and Revolution (New York: International Publishers, 1943)

[2] Luke 16:19-31

[3] 2 Thessalonians contrasts the people who “work” (ἐργάζεσθαι,) with those who “work around,”
(περι-εργαζομένους,) By adding, “peri,” to the verb he is making clear that his criticism is of the kind of people who, hearing there is a dinner to be prepared, choose to go hang shelves in the garage. Occupying time, but to the help of no one.

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