David's Last Sermon - November 17, 2019
Old Testament Scripture: Isaiah 65:17-25
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD-and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent-its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.
New Testament Scripture: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle 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 in idleness, 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: “Busybody Lazybones” Rev. David Hawkins
You know, not all scripture makes it into our sort of daily bucket of what to do, how to live advice. We pick and choose. Maybe there’s too much in this amazing book to hold in our heads, or maybe we forget parts of it, or maybe we’ve never heard parts of it, or maybe, just maybe, we find ourselves agreeing more with some parts of the Bible than we do with other parts.
Now, there are ways to increase our knowledge of scripture. We can read more, we can study more, we can go to Sunday School, learn more. But when it comes to the fact that we tend to agree with some parts more than others, and it’s those parts that make it into our bucket of helpful scripture, well, that’s a little harder to change.
For us to deal with this problem, we have to admit that it is a problem. We have to admit that there are some parts of the Bible we agree with more than others, and these justify our world-view, and there are some things that we disagree with, and therefore, we don’t listen to them. Or we go to extraordinary lengths to reconcile them to what we already think
I remember when I was in seminary, we were required to read theological texts written by southern Presbyterian theologians in support of slavery before the Civil War. Now, the seminary wasn’t trying to convince us that these texts were legitimate, nor were they trying to convince us that slavery, in fact, is part of God’s will for his children.
No, the reason for us to read these awful texts was for us to realize how the Bible can be used, by members of our own Reformed Faith, to prop up systems of injustice, cruelty, inhumanity, all in the name of God, footnoted by scripture. In fact, to our great shame, we discovered that in terms of pure literal textual support, these theologians had better citations than the abolitionists did.
Unless, of course, you believe that God did not, in fact, desire those who are made in his image to be bought and sold like cattle.
It was this experience that convinced me that the mere fact of someone reciting scripture did not make what they said true or good. Just because someone says the Bible says this or that does not mean anything to me, unless that word from the Bible is the Gospel. And by the Gospel, I don’t mean that it’s from John, or Mark, or Matthew, or Luke. I mean that it is the Good News, not just for me, but for you, and for them.
If I hear someone using the Bible to spread hate or fear, then I know that the word is not from God, but the Devil, and I react in a way commensurate with that belief.
Now, the reason I’m sharing this about myself is because until I realized how subjective our reading of the Bible really is, I didn’t know how much my own mindset, my own privately held beliefs, my upbringing, my cultural cues, my social context informed my interpretation of scripture. I just assumed that because I was a reasonably educated person, who considered myself rational and even-minded, that my interpretation would be invariably fair and impartial. That my interpretation would be, in fact, should be, normative.
And it was during my studies at seminary that I realized that that nothing could be further from the truth. When it comes to the Bible, in fact, when it comes to reality, all of us have wildly different interpretations that are based on parts of ourselves that we really don’t pay much attention to. Parts that maybe aren’t as impartial and rational as we would like them to be.
And this leads us to make assumptions about scripture that fit our own needs, whether we want them to, or not. This leads us to think things about scripture that reflect our own desires and world-views, whether we want them to, or not. And unless we are willing to admit this truth about ourselves, we will mistake our own private understanding of God, with God, and we will do and say things that, while seemingly quite in line with the Bible, are hardly in line with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Let me offer a few ways that we tend to seize upon the parts of the Bible that appeal to us, while pushing away the parts that don’t.
For instance, we are sure that the Bible says that if you spare the rod you spoil the child (actually, it doesn’t say that, but most people think it does), but we sort of gloss over that part where it says if your son belittles you, if he curses your name, you should have him killed.
Or we remember with extraordinary clarity the laws on sexual purity of the 18th Chapter of Leviticus, and we sort of skip over the parts of Chapter 19 where it says ‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.’
Or we remember that part of the scripture where Judas is complaining that Mary spent money on Jesus instead of the poor, and Jesus defends her, and then we use that scripture to justify not helping the poor, because they will be with us always, and we skip over the other thousand times that the Bible addresses poverty, and our obligation to help those who need our help.
We gravitate toward those scriptures that reinforce our own viewpoint, and we poo-poo those that don’t, or, we bend ourselves into pretzels trying to make them fit.
And we do that because it’s actually easier and more comfortable to do that than to confront the possibility that it is our own desires and wants that we are satisfying, rather than the expectations of scripture. That when we read scripture, we are looking for those parts that support what we already know to be true, rather than looking for those scriptures that challenge our assumptions, our fears, our worst ideas about other people and their sins.
And nobody wants to face that kind of internal scrutiny. It’s painful, and it calls into question too many things that we hold sacred: our childhood, or parents, our communities, our friends, even our churches. These parts of our lives are important, and they have made us who we are, both for good and for bad, and we are loathe to admit that there might be some bad mixed in with the good.
Today’s scripture is one of those that invites us to consider this truth within us. On the surface, it plainly says, that if you don’t work, you don’t eat. And it says that gossips are bad. But mainly it says that if you don’t work, you don’t eat.
And this scripture has been the backbone of some really quite cruel social policy. It strengthens the private believe that many of us hold that we are not responsible for other people, that each of us needs to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that those who are poor deserve it, I could go on and on.
And those who believe these things to be true have here a perfect scripture to back them up. It is kind of a mirror, and we what see in it is our own reflection. I invite us to look deeply into this mirror and ask our ourselves, is this what I want to see? Is this who I really am?
But it is also a mirror that can reflect God’s grace, if we want it to.
It might take some work to see Paul’s words in a different light. It might take some study, some reflection, some discussion, some experience in a different context.
But first, it will take a conviction that maybe, just maybe we read what we want to read in the Bible. That sometimes, we read what we agree with, or what agrees with us.
And this hard to admit. It is painful. It is unsettling. Reconsidering how we interpret the Bible makes us consider deeply held beliefs that have been passed down through generations, beliefs that neither we, nor our parents, nor our grandparents ever questioned.
The scripture today is hard, and has been used in terrible ways. But it can be read in other ways, through a different lens, if you choose.
We assume that when Paul talks about those who are not working, he is talking about poor people, and who are begging for food. Well, he says, if they are not willing to work, they should not eat.
But what if the people that are not working are not poor? What if they are well off, and are simply not participating in the work of the church? This letter is, after all a letter to a church, not a town, and it is addressing church concerns, not government policy. What if Paul is reprimanding the wealthy of the congregation for not pulling their own weight in the ministry?
What if this scripture has nothing to do with poverty, food, charity, hunger, etc., but rather is a reminder that all of us have a part to play in the work of the church, and he goes even farther to say that if you are not doing your part of the work for the church, you are not welcome at the table?
Well that would change everything, wouldn’t it?
And that’s what I’m talking about.
So, I invite you to read this scripture again. Not from the point of view that it is talking about other people, people that you might even be able to name, those busybodies that get into other people’s business, those lazy people that are feeding off the public charity trough, but rather, read it from the point of view that it is addressing our own tendency to get into other people’s business, that we aren’t always pulling our weight in this community, whether the church or Plainview.
Read it from the point of view that Paul may not be intending to give us ammunition to use against those who we don’t like or disapprove of, but is encouraging all of us to consider what we bring to the table.
Most of all, I invite you to read scripture from a generous point of view. There is plenty of grace. We don’t need to ration it, as though we were in danger of running out. There are plenty of people in the world who are mean, cruel, selfish, and miserly, and we don’t need to give them the tools they need to advance a small and uncharitable understanding of God.
We have a choice, you know. We have a choice in how we read the Bible. It may not feel like it, it may not look like it. It may not seem like it, when you hear some folks talk about out it. But we do. We can decide.
That doesn’t mean that we ignore the parts we don’t like. It doesn’t mean that we pick and choose what to believe.
But it does mean that we can read the Bible in such a way that it gives life and hope, rather than fear and hate. We can read the Bible in such a way that it encourages a wide orthodoxy, or a narrow one. We can read the Bible in such a way as to invite rather than command, to persuade, rather than condemn. We have a choice.
Let’s choose grace.