Sometimes I find myself "Monday Morning Quarterbacking" my Sunday Morning sermon. Actually, it is rarely a cognizant process; more often I can feel it in my body--my neck or shoulders, especially if I felt like it was a difficult sermon to deliver.
Yesterday was one of those days for me and today I feel pretty stiff and tight. It was, I think, Fred Craddock who said in his classic book on preaching, As One Without Authority, that sermons need to follow the same Biblical form as the texts being preached. "Let doxologies be shared doxologically, narratives narratively, polemics polemically, poems poetically, parables parabolically..."
It makes good sense to me. It also helps the preacher to stay open to the diverse voices and forms of Holy Scripture rather than finding one sermon to be preached over and over again.
But it's not easy!
So yesterday I preached on a text from II Thessalonians (3:6-13); an "admonishment from St. Paul to idlers and busybodies." And I realize today, on this Monday morning, that this is not my favorite kind of Biblical text. As a pastor, I am profoundly aware that most people - even those who seem to have it most together - still carry heavy burdens (and often secret burdens at that). I am also aware, as a rector, that part of my job is to be like a coach sometimes: it is not to be liked but to push, to challenge, to admonish. I also realize that one of my own shortcomings is that I like to be liked, which makes this "coaching" a bit of a chore, and somewhat exhausting.
I think that there are two further reasons I so dislike preaching admonishment. First of all, I think many people outside of the Church and some inside the Church equate "admonishment" as a near synonym for preaching anyway. We think of preaching as "finger wagging." Don't preach at me, we sometimes say. When we speak in this way, we are not saying "don't share the good news with me" or "don't speak doxologically." What we really mean is "I don't want to be scolded." And I get that; I don't like being scolded either.
The second reason I don't like admonishment very much is that I don't think it works very well. Most people I know simply don't respond well to criticism. Also, in a community, it is hard to admonish the people you mean to admonish, since often the more sensitive people who are already way too hard on themselves will think you are admonishing them! Why is it that the hardest working person in a church hears every word addressed to "idlers" and feels guilty about not doing more, but the idlers...well, they were thinking about something else during the sermon!
In part what I said yesterday was this:
The meaning of today’s Epistle reading is not immediately obvious. We begin to get a clearer picture, though, when we remember that it’s a misnomer to say that Paul wrote this letter “to the Thessalonians.” He didn’t write to the Thessalonica Daily News. He didn’t write to all Thessalonians. He wrote to the small house churches in Thessalonica — to the baptized community in what we know as modern-day Greece. He wrote these words just a couple of decades or so after the death and resurrection of Jesus. So let’s be clear: he’s not making a political argument to cut welfare and replace it with workfare. Nor is he suggesting that the Thessalonian congregation cut the church’s mission budget to the poor because the poor are lazy and undeserving. Rather, Paul is speaking to the Church in Thessalonica, and reminding the members of that congregation that they need to share the workload, that ministry is a team sport. He is wrestling here with what was apparently a persistent problem in that congregation, because this is not the first time he has raised it. In First Thessalonians, Paul writes: “We urge you, beloved; admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.” (I Thessalonians 5:14) Apparently these admonishments and encouragements didn’t work. Apparently there are still idlers and busybodies there.
You know those people: they are the ones who say things like, “it would be great if somebody in this church would do x…” Depending on how developed the person’s sense of humor is, I sometimes respond by saying, “hey, you’re somebody!” It’s an old problem in the Church, dating back to those early decades of the Church’s life in Thessalonica; and it hasn’t yet gone away. In the reading we heard today, basically Paul says: “look EVERYONE needs to pitch in and help. NO ONE should be expecting a free ride here. Let’s get to work!”
We first learn, for good and for ill, how to be members of a community in our families. Hopefully we learn that everyone has a role to play and a job to do. If you don’t learn this at home, then hopefully you have a choir director or a basketball coach or a teacher who helps you to learn it somewhere along the way. In my experience, idlers create resentment and hurt feelings which break down community. When people leave their dirty dishes in the living room or on the kitchen counter because the dishwasher is full (but they never think to empty it if the dishes are clean, or run it if they are not) then resentment builds. They think “somebody” will clean up after them.
It is no different in a congregation. I can tell you that I have witnessed, on occasion, that sometimes people leave their dirty dishes in the sink here at St. Francis or on the tables in Fellowship Hall or in the library. It happens. And let me be very clear: Jesus died for them too. They, too, are beloved of God. But it doesn’t mean they are easy to live with. Paul calls them idlers. My own experience as a pastor, however, tells me that these things don’t always happen because people are lazy. Sometimes they are just clueless. Sometimes they really just don’t know any better. The work of a congregation, whether in first-century Thessalonica or in twenty-first century Holden is to help people to grow into the full stature of Christ. If they don’t know any better, they can learn, with God’s help. If they are lazy, then they need to be admonished. If they are clueless then someone needs to take them aside and encourage them. But we need all hands on deck. I think that these words we heard in today’s epistle reading are really just the flip side of Paul’s image of the Church as the Body of Christ. We are living members of that Body, Paul says elsewhere. He is reminding us that there is plenty of work to do and so no one should try to come along for a “free ride.”
Now this is all, I think, true. And from time to time it needs to be said. It's true, but it isn't the whole truth, especially in congregations like the one I serve. There are so many people who do get it, so many who serve above and beyond the call of duty, so many who do quiet things that no one else even knows are being done, including me.
These texts must, of course, be preached sometimes. But I vastly prefer texts (and Paul has some of those too) that lead us to gratitude for the ways that faithfulness is being lived out. My mother taught me that "you get more bees with honey than vinegar." Deep down, I guess I really do believe that myself. And I think the next time Paul is admonishing a congregation,I'll opt for the gospel reading, or make sure the Associate is preaching!